Sunday, February 14, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Rousing the Chaldeans"

Habakkuk 1:1-11

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. 2 Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us. 3 Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me? There is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 The Instruction is ineffective. Justice does not endure because the wicked surround the righteous. Justice becomes warped.

5 Look among the nations and watch! Be astonished and stare because something is happening in your days that you wouldn’t believe even if told. 6 I am about to rouse the Chaldeans, that bitter and impetuous nation, which travels throughout the earth to possess dwelling places it does not own. 7 The Chaldean is dreadful and fearful. He makes his own justice and dignity. 8 His horses are faster than leopards; they are quicker than wolves of the evening. His horsemen charge forward; his horsemen come from far away. They fly in to devour, swiftly, like an eagle. 9 They come for violence, the horde with all their faces set toward the desert. He takes captives like sand. 10 He makes fun of kings; rulers are ridiculous to him. He laughs at every fortress, then he piles up dirt and takes it. 11 He passes through like the wind and invades; but he will be held guilty, the one whose strength is his god.  (Common English Bible)

“Treading on the Heights: A Lent Alongside Habakkuk,” Week One

The year is 452—I know some of y’all think you were around back then, but I promise you that you weren’t—and the barbarian warlord Attila the Hun has just invaded Italy despite being defeated soundly by the Western Roman Empire under Flavius Aetius the previous year, 451, at the battle of the Catalaunian Fields.

A man named Leo is the Pope—he would become Leo I after a subsequent pope also named Leo—and when news came to Rome that Attila had sacked the northern Italian city of Aquileia, the Western Roman Emperor dispatched Leo along with two other emissaries to extract peace from the bloodthirsty Hunnic leader.

The Western Roman Empire was by this point a mere shell, a husk, of its former glory under the Caesars, and under the Republic before the Caesars.  This was a Rome that had been thoroughly rotted, but one that for Leo was still very much worth saving, and incredibly, save it he did, through his parlay with Attila.

To this day, nobody knows what Leo said to the Hunnic king that caused Attila to turn back to the Danube River from whence he came, but Leo’s great act of heroism through his diplomacy earned him the moniker Leo the Great.

Rome, though, was spared only three more short years, because in 455, it would finally be sacked by another tribe of barbarians, the Vandals, and imagine putting yourself in Leo’s proverbial shoes: you had gone to such great lengths to save the Eternal City, your city, only to see it fall just a few short years later in spite of you.

That is the sort of demoralization, sheer unadulterated demoralization, that we find the prophet Habakkuk in as we begin his book, and a new series, here today, and God seeks to address it.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Lent, which commemorates the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness and being tempted by Satan, and the season takes us all the way up to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and then Easter Sunday.

Traditionally, Lent is a penitential, even penal season: it is when we are supposed to give something up, but in more orthodox settings, those fasts are much more extensive—daylong entire fasts, or fasting from multiple different foods for the entirety of Lent, not just beer and chocolate.

In that wrestling with penitence and punishment, then, Habakkuk serves as a vivid and sympathetic guide.  We know very little about him personally except that he served as a prophet during the twilight of the kingdom of Judah, after the capable and righteous king Josiah dies in 609 BCE, it is less than twenty-five years to the catastrophic sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, and in between those two events is likely when Habakkuk is prophesying.

Habakkuk, though, is really more conversing with God—arguing with God, really—rather than prophesying to us, which is what makes him such a compelling character, at least, to me.

The book of Habakkuk opens with the prophet’s plaintive plea to God, “Lord, how long will I call for help and you will not listen?  I cry out to you “Violence!” but you do not deliver us.  Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me?”

Habakkuk launches from there into a descriptive take on all of the profound ills that surround him, but his point-blank questioning of God is really quite amazing, that a prophet would do that, and that the compilers of Scripture would actually want to include that in the final form of the Bible.

The prophet is being honest—brutally so—with God about his own absence of faith in God’s providence, because it feels as though God isn’t upholding God’s end of the bargain in the covenant that was made with the Israelite people stretching all the way back to Moses and still further to Abraham.  If the Israelites are God’s people, then why is God allowing so much ruin to be heaped upon them?  Why isn’t God doing anything to stop it?

What God says to Habakkuk is hardly reassuring—far from not doing anything to prevent it, God is in fact actively sparking it.  God is rousing the Chaldeans, Scripture says—the Chaldeans being another term for the Babylonians—to attack Israel, and God’s doing so is so dramatically out of character, God says, that we wouldn’t believe it even if we were told it was going to happen.

So really, it isn’t just that this book is out of character for the Bible in questioning God, it’s that God is out of character for God by doing what is about to take place—rousing the Babylonians to invade.

In that respect, Habakkuk probably feels an awful lot like Leo I—a religious leader, called by God to teach to and preserve the people, and who has already done so at great length, but who sees his beloved yet decayed, dessicated, and depraved kingdom rapidly falling into the hands of a people so brutal, so beyond the pale, that words could scarcely do justice to the sheer harm they would bring.

And what makes this even more unnerving is that God completely cops to that as well: “the Chaldeans, that bitter and impetuous nation, which travels throughout the earth to possess dwelling places it does not own.”

The Babylonians are an unjust people, and delivering the Israelites into their bloodstained hands is how God responds to Habakkuk’s initial complaint.  It’s Leo, Flavius Aetius, and the Western Roman Empire, except it’s all taking place about a thousand years beforehand: an empire has forgotten the people whose welfare it is meant to guard, and as a result, it rots, it corrupts, and eventually, it falls to a people even more brutal and ruthless than they.

It isn’t justice, no, not in the way that we would think of it.  But it is the end consequence of the root cause of the many sins that were eating away at Jerusalem from the inside: greed, selfishness, pride, and above all else, an abandonment of the way of walking humbly with God.

In the face of such decline, God does the unthinkable because Israel and Judah have done the unthinkable, and have spent most of the past 400 years or so under the kings continuing to do the unthinkable.  It is not a moment of pique from God, it is not as though God suddenly switched into punishment mode like a parent who has just caught their kid crayoning all over the walls.

No, God has shown Israel and Judah almost infinite patience for hundreds of years.

It is the sort of patience that you or I have scarcely the capacity to imagine.

And so God’s anger in this passage, when put into chronological context, feels a lot less like anger and a lot more like desperation, a lot less like that parent of the crayoning kid and a lot more like the parent of the kid who has just gotten arrested yet again and is quite simply at the end of their rope.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so the trite axiom goes, but there is a modicum of truth to it despite the triteness, and this is why.  God knows just how morally bankrupt the Babylonians are—so does Habakkuk, in fact, because his rejoinder to God, which we will get to next week, is, basically, “why are you using an even more evil people to punish us?”

It’s like the fall of the Roman Empire, but writ a millennium earlier: why let Rome fall to an even more depraved and horrific people?  Because that is the only route left open for change after four hundred-plus years of ignoring the people in favor of caring only about the throne.

Yet a man like Leo I can move heaven and earth for his people, but he is, in the end, simply a man.

Habakkuk could long to protect his people as well, the way he wishes his king would, but he too is simply one person.

It is a terrible feeling, to feel so helpless as a person; it’s that same feeling of helplessness that you may have (or probably have) felt as a friend or loved one of someone who has descended down the same path of self-destructiveness that the kings of Israel and Judah have, of alienating themselves from their people and their God through their pride and greed and selfishness and short-sightedness.

It’s incredibly painful to see that happen to a person, as a person.

Now imagine feeling that helpless as God, as the God of a people you have watched over and protected and loved for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Only then can we possibly begin to grasp why the Chaldeans have finally been roused.

But even then, it is not Babylon who will have the final word, no.

In the face of our sins and our depravities, our selfishness and violence upon each other, we can never be the ones trusted with the final word.

That right, that tremendous power, will forever reside with God.

And long may it be where that word resides.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 14, 2016

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