Sunday, March 13, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "God Comes From Teman"

Habakkuk 3:1-4

The prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth:

2 Lord, I have heard your reputation. I have seen your work. Over time, revive it. Over time, make it known. Though angry, remember compassion.

3 God comes from Teman and the holy one from the mountain of Paran. Selah His majesty covers the heavens and his praise fills the earth.

4 His radiance is like the sunlight, with rays flashing from his hand. That is the hiding place of his power.  (Common English Bible)

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

The Cloud Gate bends up towards the sky from the ground from two separate directions, forming an abstract arch that dwarfs the people who walk beneath it in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

The Arcelor Mittal Orbit ascends towards the sky above Stratford in London as a permanent reminder of the glory of the city hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics.

And Sky Mirror is a ten-ton, nearly twenty-foot-wide concave steel disc that is so brilliant that it reflects the sky, hence its name.

The artist behind these statues, artworks, and precipes, Sir Anish Kapoor, is a Jewish-Hindu Indian-British man, his Jewish mother having fled to India with her family as an infant to escape the 1920 Iraqi revolt that killed thousands of people and subsequently marrying his father, a Punjabi Hindu.

When the images that we tend to conjure to our minds of refugees are of meager camps and inhumane poverty, we would do well to adjust our expectations.  Each such refugee, each such involuntary traveler, has a story and an experience of such great depth that it is a pity we do not hear them.  But through Kapoor’s artwork, I think we may have.  For he said about his art:

I'm thinking about the mythical wonders of the world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Tower of Babel.  It's as if the collective will comes up with something that has resonance on an individual level and so becomes mythic.

Something that has resonance on an individual level and so becomes mythic.  Think about that for a minute.  That is what God can be for us—God resonates to us on an individual level, and so God takes on mythic proportions in our lives.

But where does God show up on the individual level for the refugee, for the invisible person?  What if the majestic wonder and splendor of God appears out of the refugee and the invisible person, the invisible land, even?  Because that is exactly what Habakkuk has realized here in his third chapter.

This is a 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.  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.

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, as we discussed last week.

Today, we arrive, then, 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, beginning here.

And it really is a remarkable turnaround by the prophet—remember, his first words in this book were, “O Lord, how long do I cry out for help and you do not listen, I cry out “Violence!” and you do not save?”  For Habakkuk to go from that great a spiritual crisis to “His majesty covers the heavens, and his praise covers the earth” is nothing short of a complete and total change in outlook.

But you can still see hints of Habakkuk’s need to still entreaty God, even as he is now praising his creator: “though angry, remember compassion,” he begs to God, recognizing that he is not going to change God’s mind or God’s wrath, but that he now humbly, rather than plaintively or naively before, pleads for God to remember compassion.

Habakkuk’s praise of God is noteworthy for still another reason: how he describes God’s origins, that God “comes from Teman, and the holy one from the mountain of Paran.”  Teman was part of the lands southeast of Jerusalem, inhabited by the Edomites, a historical enemy of Judah and Israel who are defeated successively by kings Saul and David back in 1 and 2 Samuel, who then fall away from the story but arise again and actually take part in the plundering of Jerusalem when it is sacked by Babylon’s king Nebuchadnezzar II, for which the Edomites are furiously condemned by another Hebrew Bible prophet, Obadiah.

Similarly, Mount Paran is generally considered to have been somewhere east of Jerusalem, with some saying in the Arabian deserts, some say closer to the Transjordan.  I cannot say I know for sure except for its general location of eastward, or southeastward.

So why put God’s appearing to him in this way?  The prophet may simply be describing God as arising from the east like the sun—especially since he describes God’s radiance in terms of sunlight just one verse later—but I’m not entirely sure that’s what is happening here, because it would be a far simpler matter, even in the verse in which Habakkuk writes, to simply say that God rises from the east.  And geographically, Edom was as much to the south of Jerusalem as it was to the east.

No, to me, what this sounds like is God rising from the unexpected, from a place and a people ranging in status in the Hebrew Bible from the invisible to the forgotten to the hated.  God is rising from the valley, from the colonial remnants, from the people we pay no heed to or despise because they are not us.

Yet other times it is us who are the invisible people, the people who are made homeless because of the uncaring nature of the world, just like Habakkuk.  Other times it is us from whom, as unknowns, God's majesty and radiance arises into the world like sunlight.

It is God’s divine majesty, rising from invisible places and out of invisible people, that Habakkuk is singing praises to here.

And it is a majesty that takes on mythic dimensions, the dimensions of the sort that, say, Anish Kapoor speaks of.

A forgotten family, a family likely hated by others in a 20th century filled with sectarian violence, flees for the east.  But it is from there that a genuine and authentic understanding of majesty then comes.

Because God comes from Teman.  God comes from the other land.  God comes from the outside, from the margins, from the valleys, from the depths.  And out of those wildernesses, God’s majesty and light shines anew as a beacon for our paths, as a source of sight for our eyes, and as our greatest and best hope against the darkness that might otherwise cover our lives and our souls.

Habakkuk, even in the midst of the wreckage and pain and violence that has resulted from an end to any hope of a righteous king finally, at long last, understands that reality.

And he doesn’t end at understanding.  He celebrates it.  He rejoices in it.

May we do as the prophet does.  May we celebrate and rejoice in God’s greatness, because that greatness comes to us from unexpected places, in unexpected ways, and at unexpected times.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 13, 2016

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