Sunday, March 20, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Cloud Piercer"

Habakkuk 3:13-19

You go out to save your people. For the salvation of your anointed you smashed the head of the house of wickedness, laying bare the foundation up to the neck. Selah 14 You pierce the head of his warrior with his own spear. His warriors are driven off, those who take delight in oppressing us, those who take pleasure in secretly devouring the poor. 15 You make your horses tread on the sea; turbulent waters foam. 16 I hear and my insides tremble. My lips quiver at the sound. Rottenness enters my bones. I tremble while I stand, while I wait for the day of distress to come against the people who attack us. 

17 Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom, and there’s no produce on the vine; though the olive crop withers, and the fields don’t provide food; though the sheep are cut off from the pen, and there are no cattle in the stalls; 18 I will rejoice in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance. 19 The Lord God is my strength. He will set my feet like the deer. He will let me walk upon the heights.  To the director, with stringed instruments.  (Common English Bible)

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

The slopes of Aoraki/Mount Cook jut upward among the New Zealand alps on the south island of the faraway country.  It served as a home base for Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first two people to summit Mount Everest, to train for that historic 1953 climb, and it continues to serve as a public and popular park for hikers and mountain climbers alike.

At the very start of the climb, though, there is, at the end of a short but steep offshoot of the main trail, a monument in the shape of the mountain itself—a broad stone base sharpening up to a pointed peak—that bears a mess of plaques on nearly every side of it.  These plaques bear the names of each person who has died on Aoraki/Mount Cook, and there are dozens of them, with an array of diverse names reflecting the diversity of the people themselves: people from all over the world, but who were brought together by one common finality: where they died.

This monument stands as a tribute to a mountain whose Anglo name of course comes from the explorer Captain Cook, but whose indigenous Maori name, Aoraki, was traditionally rendered into English as “the Cloud Piercer,” for its unparalleled height on the island: it could, and does, pierce the clouds that surround it, and those who stand on its summit are treading on great heights indeed.

And they do so—and Carrie and I were able to do so, not on the summit, but on Aoraki’s slopes—even though there is such a strong symbol of lamentation at the beginning of their path, a symbol that serves as a reminder of our most urgent limitation, our deepest inhibition, and our most inescapable reality: that we are all mortal.

Yet still, we tread upon Aoraki’s heights.  Just as Habakkuk did, as he finishes his book, by recognizing the genuinely lethal harm that lays before him and his people, and that not even that will ever prevent him from exulting in the God of his salvation.

This is the last installment of a sermon series for the now rapidly-ending 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 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.  We began by going through the prophet’s first back-and-forth with God, about the injustice the prophet sees around him and God’s response that the Babylonians are being roused to attack Judah.  Then we heard the prophet’s clearly anguished reply to this plan of God’s—he didn’t like it at all, and he still had difficulty grasping God’s greater intent in everything that was happening.

So God replied once more, and in that reply—a harangue, really— and God does not let up, tearing into Jerusalem for its excesses—drinking its fill of dishonor while also making one’s people drunk—and for its idolatry, but in truth, excess and idolatry go hand in hand.

Last week, we finally arrived at Habakkuk’s ending reply to this condemnation from God, and it fills the entire third and final chapter of the prophet’s book.  It also contains the pivot point in which the prophet finally moves from lamentation to reassurance and rejoicing in God, and that rejoicing culminates in this final song of praise that the prophet sings, and that we read, here today.

It is a song that I have preached on a few different times now, most memorably for me on the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, which fell on a Sunday—the Sunday, in fact, before I officially began my ministry here in 2011.  I try not to preach so frequently on any given text out of fear of consigning myself to my “canon with the canon,” those collection of texts and stories that tend to speak to each person the most, that they know the best, and that they may spend the most time with at the expense of the entirety of Scripture.

But I must confess, it is awfully hard to resist.  Here we have spent the past five weeks reading in fine detail a genuinely anguished and profound back-and-forth between God and one of God’s servants, and that sort of pushback to God really is unique among the Hebrew Bible prophets.  Habakkuk helps humanize them for me.  He helps me see something of their own relationship with God even as they push me—sometimes extremely hard—to be a better believer and pastor.

In other words, Habakkuk helps me to see a bit of the person behind the name, in the same manner that I wished were the case when I ran my hands along the plaques of the monument upon Aoraki.  Because what Habakkuk is describing is really a very similar thing: even if the trees and fields produce no harvest, even if there are no more animals left in the flocks, even if I am so weak that I feel rotten on the inside and I tremble as I stand, even when that manner of calamity strikes, yet still, Habakkuk says, I shall rejoice in the Lord.

Even when I am faced with the very evidence of the death that has been wrought upon the people who have come before me on this paths, yet still I am meant to rejoice in the Lord, and to exult in the God of my deliverance.  It is a simple message, a simple truth, but a difficult one to always remember, and an especially difficult one to always live out.

Because really, fair-weather faith, like fair-weather friendship, is easy.  It takes little to be grateful to God when things are going well—although sometimes, sadly, we manage to mess up even that—but to be grateful to God when things are looking the worst they have ever been?  That takes real faith.  That takes a real connection, a real relationship, with the divine.

In the face of your own limitations, or the limitations of your own circumstances, to which are you most liable to reach for first?  The madness and hatred of Satan, the adversary, or the exultation and rejoicing in our God?  Are we able to still see where God is in our lives when our lives have been brought low, or do we even bother trying to do see?  And do we succumb to the temptations of giving up on ourselves, on our world, or on our God rather than resist those destructive allures?

Put another way, are we able to focus on celebration rather than limitation, on celebrating God rather than giving up to our own mortal limitations?

These choices take place amid a backdrop of faith—faith in the life God gives to us, and in the renewal of that life that was incarnated in the resurrected Christ whose empty tomb we celebrate exactly one week from today.

So rather than the death that our limitations lead us to, Habakkuk instead recalls the renewal God leads us to, and he celebrates it, as well he should, as well he ought.

Which means that the metamorphosis of the prophet is complete.  He recognizes the evil in the world, but he does not forget the good.  He recognizes that the evil is not what God would have wanted, or wished for, but that in spite of our own evils, God still created us to be good.

That’s an incredible thing to remember, and really, an incredible thing to ever forget.  But I know I have on occasion.  You may have too at some point your life.  I know that looking at the memorials of people who have been taken, from Aoraki to the World War I memorial in my hometown of Kansas City, to Yad Vashem in Israel, or any number of memorials to those we lose violently and unjustly, I can very, very easily forget that God made me, and us, for good.

I would imagine that Habakkuk had probably forgotten that singular truth as well.  But he has since recovered it.  And with that one great truth in hand, he is once again able to celebrate the God who is so good in the first place.  No matter the scarcity, no matter the extremity, no matter the manner and form of death that may be put in his place, Habakkuk rejoices in God and exults in the deliverance that God has promised him, and, by extension, has promised to each and every one of us.

I do not know if I will ever always be so profound, so poignant, so deep, in my praises to God as Habakkuk is here.  I hope I am.  But in truth, I myself have not faced down the sorts of evil that Habakkuk is presently facing down.  Maybe you have.  But I have not had the quaking, demoralizing experience of looking into my own crystal ball and foreseeing only exile and death for me and for mine.

I hope I never have to.  I hope you never have to, and that if you have, you never have to again.  But I also hope that your faith is such that it could deliver you even through an experience such as that.

It was so for Habakkuk, one of the great wrestlers with God of all the Bible.  Because he, like us, is a child of God, and that is no empty title.

And so may it be so for you as well.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 20, 2016

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