Pastor Chris Matthis
Epiphany Lutheran Church, Castle Rock, Colorado
Pentecost 20 (Proper 22), Series C
Saturday, October 5, 2013
Sunday, October 6, 2013
Sermon: “How Long?”
Text: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Focus: God’s Word gives us faith to endure the violence of a broken world.
Function: That they would take hope in God’s promised justice.
Structure: Story-Interrupted
Locus: “He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil…” (SC, 1st Article of Apostles’ Creed).
“O LORD, how long…?” (Hab. 1:2, ESV).1 That is Habakkuk’s complaint in our Old Testament lesson. “How long?” It’s also the plaintive cry of God’s people whenever evil overwhelms us and the wicked are on the rise. The psalmist cries, “How long, O LORD?” (Ps. 13:1). The saints under the altar in heaven cry out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). And as we look out on a world full of death and ruin, violence and oppression, we too wonder, “How long, O Lord?” How long until you do something?
“O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted” (Hab. 1:2-4).
How long, O Lord?
1 All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
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Habakkuk lived at a turbulent time for the nation of Judah. It’s difficult to date him precisely because he doesn’t mention the kings during whose reigns he prophesied, but he probably lived in the 7th century B.C. The northern kingdom of Israel was already destroyed by Assyria as God’s punishment for her idolatry and injustice. Now the southern kingdom was “headed south.” Violence and injustice filled the streets. The decadent kings and hypocritical priests took advantage of the people. False prophets spoke of peace where there was no peace (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). Merchants did business with false scales, and the rich sold the poor into slavery for the price of a pair of sandals (Amos 8:5-6). The Temple was in disrepair, and people turned away from the Lord to follow the desires of their own hearts and to worship the work of their own hands. No wonder that Habakkuk complained about “violence” (1:2), “iniquity” (v. 3), “destruction” (v. 3), “strife and contention” (v. 3), and perverted “justice” (v. 4)!
“O LORD, how long…?” (1:2). Much of what was true in Judah is true in our world today. “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). The more things change, the more they stay the same. We, too, are confronted by a violent and wicked world full of injustice and oppression. Child abuse, drug dealing, and gangland killings are not just problems of the inner city. They happen in the suburbs and rural areas too. (Perhaps they are even better hidden in the less populated areas, where people can put picket fences between them and their neighbors and claim ignorance when their neighbor is in need.)
We murder unborn babies in the name of “choice” and give it a clinical name to make ourselves feel better about it. Since the Supreme Court legalized abortion 40 years ago, we as a nation have murdered more than 50 million babies. America makes Hitler and Stalin look like small potatoes. We reel in horror when we hear of school shootings and mass killings in movie theatres and military bases—as we should—but what are we going to do about it?
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At supper we dine before a full spread or stuff our faces with fast food, and then scrape our leftovers off our plates into the trash while millions of children around the world starve to death for want of bread or rice. We shake our heads when we turn on the TV and hear reports of war in Syria, genocide in Darfur, and persecution of Christians in Egypt, but do we phone or write our president and congressmen to ask them to intervene? No, instead we just shake our heads and ask, “What is the world coming to?”
It’s a miracle that we can sleep at night! But we don’t know what to do about it. Maybe we pray. But God doesn’t seem to answer. Nothing seems to change. It only gets worse.
“O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?” (Hab. 1:2).
How long, O Lord? How long indeed!
In the verses left out from our Old Testament reading, God gives an answer to the prophet. He tells Habakkuk that he has heard his complaint and the people’s cry for justice, and he plans to do something about it. He will raise up the brutal Babylonians, also known as the Chaldeans, whom God describes as a “bitter and hasty nation” (1:6), to punish Judah’s injustice and put her violence to an end. The Lord will fight fire with fire. He will destroy a violent nation with an even more violent and wicked nation that levels cities like sand castles. “At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it” (1:10). In other words, “Don’t worry, Habakkuk! I got it covered. I’m going to wipe your country off the face of the map, and that will take care of those evildoers you’re complaining about!”
But that is too much for Habakkuk to take! It’s overkill! So he brings another complaint against the Lord (1:12-17) and wonders how a holy and righteous God can “remain silent when
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the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he” (1:13). How can a holy God use the pagan, godless, heathen Babylon to punish the chosen people of God? Habakkuk cannot compute! It doesn’t add up. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t seem right or fair. What kind of God are we dealing with?
But despite the divine silence, Habakkuk remains confident that God will answer:
“I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what [God] will say to me,
and what I will answer concerning my complaint” (Hab. 2:1).
And the Lord does answer, because he always answers prayer. We may wait a long time for the answer, for he will not answer before we are ready to hear and receive it. Yet God always answers prayer offered in Jesus’ name because of what Christ did for us on the cross.
“And the Lord answered [Habakkuk]:
‘Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay…’” (Hab. 2:2-4a).
In other words, “Be patient, Habakkuk! Wait a while longer.” You see: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). The reason the Lord doesn’t just snap his fingers and spontaneously combust the wicked is because God is patient towards you! When we complain that world is going to hell in a hand basket, God wants us to make sure that we’re not in the hand basket! He wants “all people to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4). God wants to save violent Jews and brutal Babylonians and wicked Americans. He wants to save everyone!
And then comes the most famous declaration of all in the Book of Habakkuk:
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“But the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4b). The righteous shall live by faith. What sweet Gospel! Now that’s good news! This powerful statement is quoted three times in the New Testament (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38). “The righteous shall live by faith.” Now for the Lutheran question: “What does this mean?” (Small Catechism). Is he righteous because of his faith, or does he live by faith because he is righteous? And now for the Lutheran answer: Yes! Both at the same time!
But who is righteous? The apostle Paul quotes the psalmist when he writes in Romans 3: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:11-12). According to Scripture, none of us are righteous because we are all stained with sin. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
None of us can stand before God and claim innocence. We are all guilty of sin and condemned by God’s just and holy Law. Unlike human rules and regulations, God’s Law is never perverse or unjust. So we must admit that, even as we turn away in horror from the violence of the world around us, we ourselves are vile and wicked men and women, murderers every one of us.
We may not have plunged a knife into someone’s gut, but we have stabbed them in the back by our wicked words. The Bible says, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer…” (1 John 3:15). And Christ himself declares that angry, insulting words are the same as murder in God’s eyes (Matt. 5:21-22). We are all of us full of violence. We gossip, slander, tell lies, and wield words as weapons against one another. Who of us can say our tongues are innocent, our hands are clean?
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“The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4b). But there is none righteous, no, not even one. Certainly not any of us.
Actually, there is One. His name is Jesus. In Judaism, the Righteous One of Habakkuk is tzaddik, a messianic figure. The tzaddik, the Righteous One will save his people. And he did. “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). Jesus is the Righteous One, the tzaddik, the only righteous man who ever lived. Fully God and fully human, Jesus died as the perfect sacrifice for our sins so we could be forgiven. If you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as your Savior and Lord, then the Lord will declare you righteous and make you righteous (justification) when he forgives your sins so that you too can live by faith—not just today, but forever in eternity!
This is the Good News: The righteous shall live by faith (Hab. 2:4). We live because Jesus the Righteous One died and lives again. That is our faith. That is the only reason we can live and stand before God. Because of God’s grace in Jesus, we can boldly and confidently stand before the Lord our God. We can stand at the watchpost and station ourselves on the tower and to wait and see what God will say, and how he will give answer to our complaint (cp. 2:1).
And the Lord does answer! Right after our Old Testament lesson, the Lord promises Habakkuk that Babylon will not escape God’s punishment. Even though God can wield a wicked nation as a blunt instrument of his wrath to discipline his people, the wicked never go unpunished. They will be judged. And so will Babylon (2:6-19). “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (2:20).
The Book of Habakkuk ends with a prayer and a confession of faith (3:1-19).
“O LORD, I have heard the report of you,
and your work, O LORD, do I fear.
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In the midst of the years revive it;
In the midst of the years make it known;
in wrath remember mercy” (3:2).
Wow! What a prayer! “In wrath remember mercy” (v. 2). In wrath remember mercy. God is patient, but he is not impotent. Mercy and justice go together.
The Book of Habakkuk ends, if not on a happy note, then at least with a hopeful chord:
“I will wait quietly for the day of trouble
to come upon people who invade us.
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places…” (Hab. 3:16-19).
Even when it seems as if the entire world is upside and inside-out, even when nothing seems to go right, even when the wicked seem to be winning and hope seems lost, yet we will not give in to despair or give up our faith. God is good! He is with us! And he is our salvation! His very name is Jesus, which means “The Lord saves” (cp. Matt. 1:21).
So together we pray the prayer of Jesus’ disciples: “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). He will. And he does—through his holy Word and his body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar. He gives us faith and strengthens our faith and helps us to believe even in the face of death and destruction. He promises that justice will come. We have hope that Christ will return to set things right, to judge the earth, to raise our bodies from the dead, and to renew the whole creation. Until that Day we need only to hope and wait and pray. In Jesus’ name. Amen.