Gathered

 

Scripture: Jeremiah 23:1-6

Ghost of Thanksgiving Past

This past week, I found myself in a conversation or two that was focused on how celebrating Thanksgiving has changed through my lifetime. When I was a child, all major holidays required a major family gathering at my great-aunt’s house—her name was Virginia, but her diminutive size earned her the nickname “Squirt” far before I came onto the scene.

My great-aunt Squirt would begin baking pies in September. These would be frozen in a chest freezer that was specifically emptied out so it could hold all the Thanksgiving goodies. When Thanksgiving actually arrived, three eight-foot tables stretched through the combination dining-room and kitchen space—not for sitting, but to support the acres and acres of food. The forty or more family members who gathered each holiday had to find somewhere else to sit and actually eat. 

And of course: eat we did. If memory serves, we started eating around eleven and didn’t stop until well into the evening. There would be football on tv, Skip-Bo games in the breakfast nook, and a lot of napping. When the family gathered together, it wasn’t a place free of conflict, but it was somewhere you had a place. 

Overall, these are happy memories for me. There was abundance, and acceptance, and freedom—and in ways that I’m not sure I experienced anywhere else.

 

But I know that this Hallmark image of the holiday has not been universally experienced. There have been times of very real lack in my own life that made any Thanksgiving challenging, and I am aware that others‘ experiences of need make even these dry times seem like plenty. I am aware (too) that not all of us have had a similar experience of gathering and the peace that being gathered can bring.

Jeremiah’s World

All that can make it difficult for some of us to identify with these images in Jeremiah—even though his world is disturbingly familiar. The world Jeremiah addresses is one of great inequality, one where the few manipulate the many, one where some profit off others, one where the leadership—even and especially the so-called “religious” leaders—do more harm than good, scattering and destroying those most vulnerable by their greedy policies and violent actions.

These “shepherds” have lead the people away from God’s priorities; they have abandoned the poor and the widow and the outcast (as other passages explain in more detail). They have created lack and need, and have taught that profiting off of people is in our best interests—that it is perhaps even God-ordained. They have wielded fear and despair in order to subjugate those whom they can, strengthening their own positions of power and authority.

And thus the word of hope through Jeremiah is simple and clear:

God “will attend to them for their evil doings” (v.2).

God will gather those who remain, bring them back to their home in God, and ensure their provision and ability to thrive (v.3).

And God will also raise up leaders with hearts like God’s own, who will “shepherd” them justly, who will not manipulate them with fear or despair, and who will ensure that no one falls through the cracks again (v.4).

A Biblical Perspective on Capital

Even though it may not be immediately apparent, a significant factor in this manipulation by the ancient Israelites leaders is simple economics: the poor are easier to take advantage of because they have the least agency in society. This is as true today as it was back then. 

And yet there is a distinctly and consistently biblical perspective on these things. We can call it Christian—because it was clearly embodied by Jesus—and yet it pervades the Old Testament texts as well. 

Following the example of Jesus, the words of God through the prophets, and the illustration of God’s priorities throughout the scriptures, we people of faith in the One True God recognize that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” [Psalm 24:1]—that everything in creation belongs first and foremost to God Almighty. Therefore, those things and resources in our possession are not really ours—they are instead part of the resources held common by God for the good of all. 

This is why (for instance) the author of 1John suggests that a Christian who has the resources to help another and yet refuses to do so cannot possibly have God’s love abiding in them [1John 3:17]. 

It is why God in Isaiah will declare that sharing with the hungry, the poor, the homeless (and so on) is more important than any religious rituals the people of God might perform [Isaiah 58:6-7a]. 

It is why God through Amos will say nothing about the religious practices of ancient Israel while condemning them for “selling the righteous for silver… the needy for a pair of sandals… [and] trampling the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” [Amos 2:6b-7a].

And it is why Jesus will tell the story of the sheep and the goats (the subject of last week’s children’s sermon), declaring: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to the one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” [Matthew 25:45b].

This responsibility to share and to care for those down-and-out, however, does not just lie with the billionaires and ultra-millionaires of the world. In the eyes of the bible, their sort of wealth is morally problematic, but the rest of us are not let off the hook.

In the late sixth century, St. Gregory the Great penned these words:

“Those who neither crave what belongs to others, nor give away what they have…”

In other words, these are people who are not jealously ambitious or cheating others in order to profit off of them…… yet these are people who are not generous, who believe they worked hard for what they have and it is theirs and theirs alone to enjoy. Far more of us than we’d like to admit probably fit this category.

St. Gregory says that these people “are to be admonished to consider seriously that the earth, out of which they were taken, is common to all men, and therefore, too, brings forth nourishment for all in common. In vain, therefore, do those think themselves guiltless, who arrogate to themselves alone the common gift of God, and who, in not giving what they have received, walk about amidst the carnage of their neighbors, because they almost daily destroy as many persons as are dying in poverty, the means for whose substance they retain hidden away in their own keeping……”

These people, says St. Gregory, are not as guiltless as they’d like to believe in the predicament of their fellow human beings. They “almost daily” destroy many others, because they have hidden away for themselves the resources needed by others to survive. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once similarly proclaimed: “We have taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” 

St. Gregory concludes his comments by adding: “For when we administer necessities to the needy, we give them what is their own, not what is ours; we pay a debt of justice, rather than do a work of mercy.” (Ancient Christian Writers, Pastoral Care, 158-59)

A truly Christian attitude towards money and resources recognizes that when we hold on to what God intends for another—especially to what another needs to survive—then we have effectively stolen from them…… because in God’s eyes it was theirs and not ours to have.

Today?

These destructive shepherds in Jeremiah’s day were violating these priorities and purposes of God. 

I wonder what the shepherds of our world—of our nation—are telling us?……

I wonder whether they are in the business of scattering or gathering?……

I wonder whether they are destroying or tending?…… 

whether they are wielding fear or practicing peacemaking?…… 

whether they are widening the cracks through which the vulnerable fall or plugging the holes in their sinking ships?……

These things are knowable to us. 

Our politicians and celebrities and self-proclaimed religious leaders do not try to keep them secret. They feel no compulsion to hide, because we feel no need to look.

But none of us escape the watchful gaze of God. And God proclaims that the days are coming: 

when these shepherds will be known for what they are…… 

when they will be punished for what they have done…… 

when new and right shepherds will stand for God’s priorities of justice and mercy and the value of each human being. 

Jeremiah is inspired to see a day when God will gather those who have been driven astray, those who were lost, and will bring them together. God promises a different kind of leader:

one who is just (instead of corrupt)……

who reigns with wisdom (instead of selfishness)……

who brings safety (instead of fear and terror)……

A good shepherd, who will so successfully demonstrate the ways of God that the people will never be led astray again.

Parable of the Banquet

I believe…… that Jesus is that Good Shepherd, though I wonder how well we are following his leading. 

Jesus tells a story in Luke 14 (vv.15-24) about the Kingdom of God. In the story, someone is throwing a great big party—a huge Thanksgiving feast, we might imagine. Everybody that should be is invited—all the family, and maybe even the local pastor or some others of importance. Everyone says they’ll come. 

Thanksgiving arrives, and there’s three eight-foot tables struggling to support the weight of the feast: turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green-bean casserole and marshmallowed sweet potatoes, corn and cranberry sauce and casseroles galore, at least five kinds of pie (to say nothing of the cake on the counter and the cherry tarts that wait at the ready). It is an indulgent feast that represents the abundant love of the host, an expression of relationship and care.

And no one shows up. No one.

The host even sends someone around to remind them that today’s the day, and they all make excuses. It’s not a priority to them. They’ve got other things to do.

According to Jesus’ story, the host of this feast gets angry—because of course, right? All that time, all that expense, all that love—shunned?

So the host compels others to be brought in to the feast…… to be gathered. These are not the folks you’d expect to show up at Thanksgiving…… in fact, they’re the ones that generally get overlooked on purpose: the homeless, the socially-awkward, the poor, the widow. Yet Jesus says it is they—and not the ones first invited—who will experience the host’s lavish love.

Back to Us

Where are we in Jesus’ story?
Where are we in Jeremiah’s tale?
Where do our priorities lie?
What other things do we focus on more than the things that are of priority to God? 

What have we gathered?
And maybe even more important: Where does what we have gathered belong? Who does it belong to, and how do we get it to them?

 

If we are as careless with God’s priorities and God’s resources as were the invitees with the love of the host in Jesus’ parable, then we may find ourselves on the outside of God’s gathering…… with someone we would have excluded taking our own place at the table. 

To reference another of Jesus’ stories [Matthew 25:14-30], if we are as careless with God’s priorities and God’s resources as the servant who was only entrusted with one talent–and kept and hid that talent instead of using it to advance the work of the Master–then we may find our talent taken away and given to someone the Master can trust to use it in the fulfillment of his eternal and compassionate purposes.

 

Recently, I heard someone comment that it seems as though generosity and kindness have become recreational activities limited to the holiday season. We collect canned goods, donate to charities, and work at soup kitchens around Thanksgiving (and only around Thanksgiving, and maybe Christmas) much in the way we might go see a movie at some other time of year. Sharing and demonstrating kindness has become a seasonal hobby, we might say.

But as followers of Jesus, however, treating others as we’d want to be treated is not a means of holiday recreation, but rather a central and guiding rule of life. 

As God has given to us, we are to give just as generously. 

As God has offered us grace and mercy, so we offer grace and mercy. 

As God freely has forgiven us, so we are to forgive. 

As Jesus loves us more than he loved his life…… well, you get the picture.

If we are going to actually be Christian, our whole lives (far beyond the holiday season) will be marked by being gathered in God’s love, by gathering those we can to the table of God’s care, and by dispensing the resources we have gathered in demonstration of God’s love and in protestation of the world’s destructive values.

If we are going to actually be Christian, we will live as though the coming days of Christ’s reign are already here, embodying the kingdom priorities of grace and love and care.

According to Jesus, what benefits us the most is when others profit. Amen.

Persistent Hope

Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25

Persistent Hope

This passage from the oracle of Isaiah has become so familiar to some of us that we fail to realize its significance. Here, God through Isaiah pulls back the curtain of time and enables us to peek into eternity. What we see looks strange and phantasmagorical to us—a bizarre, dream like glimpse into a reality where things just don’t work the way we expect. And yet it also depicts the direction—if not the destination—of God’s redemptive work in us and throughout all of creation.

My friend Mindi sums it up like this: 

Isaiah 65:17-25 contains the prophet’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where the ways of this world no longer have a hold on us. The prophet envisions a time when everyone enjoys what they have worked for, where the struggle of this world disappears and untimely death is no more. This vision is of peace and prosperity, of hope for all, where there is no domination, despair, and exile.

This vision is often too much for us to hope for, and yet it remains the persistent hope and activity of our transforming God. 

Part the First

Unlike Isaiah’s vision [Isaiah 65:17], we are all too aware of “the former things”—those systems and processes that have influenced and frequently impeded progress. In churches as in life, we are often stymied by claims that “we’ve never done it that way before” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work” or “Such-and-such did it that way.” In life as in churches, we often carry our past wounds into the present and the future, often stunted by the pain of grudges and the impossibility of reconciliation and forgiveness in past relationships.

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
(Isaiah 65:17 NRSV)

Part the Second

Similarly [Isaiah 65:18], the idea of newness and change generally creates not gladness or joy, but fear and trepidation. We face a future—and even a present!—that feels uncertain to us. The world doesn’t work the way it used to. The old rules of life no longer produce predictable results. And so most of us struggle to sort out how to live a good life or embody our faith in this new reality. 

Yet God speaks through Isaiah:

“But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.” (Isaiah 65:18 NRSV)

Part the Third

Our world is filled with grief and sorrow [Isaiah 65:19b]; with lives tragically cut short [Isaiah 65:20a]; with people working their whole lives only to have nothing to show for it, or working hour after unending hour at a series of jobs and still not earning enough for their family to eat and survive [Isaiah 65:22a]. We are afraid for the world our children are inheriting [Isaiah 65:23a].

And to all these things, God says “no more!”

“No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:19b NRSV)

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” (Isaiah 65:20a NRSV)

“They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat.” (Isaiah 65:22a NRSV)

“They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity.”
(Isaiah 65:23a NRSV)

The Reversal of Fortunes

The gladness and joy of this vision comes about because in it we catch a glimpse of God’s future when these injustices and fears and pains will be eradicated from the human experience.

Where there are now those who die before living a full life, Isaiah imagines a day when someone even 100 years old is considered an adolescent. [Isaiah 65:20]

Where now far too many do not receive fair compensation for the labors they perform, Isaiah imagines a day when everyone gets what they have worked for. [Isaiah 65:21, 22b]

Where now we fear for the world of our children’s future, Isaiah imagines a day of blessing and wholeness and security that will permeate not just their experience, but the experience of generations to come. [Isaiah 65:23]

Hard Work

What Isaiah anticipates 2500 years ago continues to be the impossible dream of today. 

But what stands out to me is not the content—it is not a matter of what Isaiah describes God doing. What stands out to me is that nowhere in the scriptures is it suggested that these transformations of ourselves and of the created order will be easy. 

If anything, we should expect they be hard. In last week’s reading from Haggai, this transformation was described in earthquake-like terms:

“For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations” (Haggai 2:6–7a NRSV)

The book of Revelation—in peeking behind the curtain some years later—envisions the Lord God of Hosts (or more literally, “Yahweh, commander of armies”) waging war on the forces of darkness as God brings about the imagined world Isaiah suggests. Jesus—our front-line general in this conflict—is depicted as a military leader through whom God will achieve victory. In chapter 19 of Revelation we read:

“Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.

And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”” (Revelation 19:11–16 NRSV)

Nowhere in the bible is it suggested that these changes will come about with a snap of God’s fingers. Everywhere we look, we see difficult language describing how God will make these things so—throughout history, and through those among us who partner with God.

It will not be a simple matter for all of creation to be transformed according to God’s desires. ……Just as it is not easy for our individual hearts to be transformed into Christ-likeness. 

Where Are We?

Which brings us to another point…… Isaiah describes what God is doing. But where are we in all this? If we imagine that cosmic battle illustrated in Revelation, whose side are we on? What are we doing to advance the cause of Christ? 

If we want to be on God’s side, then we will be working towards the fulfillment of God’s priorities. We will be working to achieve God’s vision of peace and wholeness.

This is not, of course, something we can do on our own. Author Dallas Willard has written that “The greatest temptation to evil that humanity ever suffers is the temptation to make a ‘Jerusalem’ happen by human means” (The Divine Conspiracy, p.380). What he means is that we try to use our own power and ability to bring about the reign of Christ in the world. But doing this—whether through our attempts to legislate morality, to establish a “Christian nation,” or whatever—it always winds up “eliminating truth, or mercy, or both.” 

This is not God’s way. These are not God’s weapons. 

God’s way and weapon is love. It is relationship. It is invitation. 

It is impossible to advance the cause of Christ while utilizing the powers of this world. Only the power of the Kingdom of God as known and expressed through Jesus will bring about the vision of Isaiah, and John, and even of you and I today. 

This hope of transformation has persisted throughout the centuries and millennia because God has written it on our hearts. Because it is an intrinsic part of God’s redemptive plan—not just in this life, but for all of eternity. Because ultimately, this life here and now is a training ground for our eternal work and existence with God. No matter our biological age, we are now children and adolescents whom our Divine Parent wishes to train, and in whom our Divine Parent wants to instill certain priorities and values and lessons. This is boot camp, preparing for the day when we can be set loose in God’s universe and empowered to “reign with him,” as the scriptures imagine.

This future reality is what gives meaning and purpose to it all. 

And for those of us who place our trust in the One True God, we realize that there is nothing that will prevent God’s purposes from being fulfilled. There is no way that the enemy can derail this vision of life as God intends it to be lived. There are no obstacles that keep us from the love of Christ, and the fullness of Kingdom life that begins now with our “rebirth”, and continues, unabated by death, into the eternal future with our loving God.

There is a reason for this persistent hope. And that reason is God. The very God who loves you, who has committed an eternity of resources to develop you into who you are created to be, and who will never—NEVER!—give up. As Eugene Peterson was said to sum up the gospel message:

God loves you.
God is on your side.
God is coming after you.
And God is relentless.

The Good Old Days

Scripture: Haggai 1:15b-2:9

The Good Old Days

You can go most anywhere in the public sphere, sit down, quiet yourself, and listen. It’s a great practice if you want to pray for strangers, because you will hear all sorts of things. You will hear people talk about their health, the weather; about what’s happening around town; about politics local and national; and of course—about “the good old days.”

That might be the most ubiquitous part of overhearing conversations between friends.

Seniors will reminisce about life thirty, forty, fifty, or more years ago. 

Thirty and forty-year olds will cast their minds back to their twenties.

Those in their twenties will talk about the freedom they had before bills and jobs intervened.

And believe it or not, even high-schoolers will talk about the great things from a few years back.

I even overheard my own kindergartner (this week), pining for the laissez-faire days before he started school. 

There seems to be something in our DNA that looks backward and glorifies the time before the present…… that mentally gilts a part of the past into a supposed golden age of life. 

Haggai

Just as today, there was an instinct in Haggai’s day to look back on a supposed golden age of religion or politics or life. Haggai is among the Judeans who have returned from exile. In conquering the Babylonians, Cyrus of Persia issued an edict that all the conquered peoples should return to their homeland—and of course, that they should also remember his generosity and pay substantial taxes in appreciation. 

According to the book of Ezra, Cyrus authorized the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, though that project was plagued by external opposition and insufficient resources. By “the second year of King Darius”—where today’s scripture reading commences—over a decade has passed, and not a lot has been accomplished. In fact, the earlier part of the first chapter of Haggai tells us that the Temple remains in ruins [Haggai 1:4].

How easy it must have been for them to lapse into “good old day” reflections! In opening this conversation, Haggai acknowledges that there are some among them who were alive to see the old Temple, and he even invites its comparison to their gilded memories:

“Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” (Haggai 2:3 NRSV)

Remember the good old days?
Remember the big old church?
Remember when the church was full?
Remember when the church was important?
Remember when being Christian brought respect?
Remember when……

“How does it look to you now?”, Haggai asks.

In speaking to the governor of Judah and to the high priest, Haggai laments alongside them that the good old days are gone. They may or may not have been as good as their memory of it—we do tend to spit-polish the past and soften its harsh edges. And yet acknowledging the reality of its end should not lead them—or us—to despair.

In the speech of God recorded in this passage, we find encouragement and hope.

Take courage (v.4a—King Zerubbabel)
Take courage (v.4b—High Priest Joshua)
Take courage (v.4c—all you people)
Do not fear (v.4d-5)

Do not fear because God is with them.
Do not fear because God keeps promises.
Do not fear because God’s spirit is with them.

But even more: do not fear, because God is still at work. Verse 6 reads:

“For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations.” (Haggai 2:6–7a NRSV)

I love this image…… the more you sit with it the more it keeps giving:

I imagine the shaking out a dirty rug, with dust and debris flying every which way, as God works to restore creation and humanity to our intended potential. 

I imagine the shaking out of a sheet, ridding it of wrinkles and creases as it is spread out and made useful. 

I imagine the snapping of a shirt or pair of pants, shaken out so it might be folded, ordered, prepared for use.

I even imagine the more violent and seemingly-destructive shaking of an earthquake, which reorders creation itself—sort of like Isaiah imagines in his oracle [40:4].

But this divinely-initiated shaking is not the cause for fear but for hope. The result is expressed in v.9:

“The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.” (Haggai 2:9 NRSV)

There is hope. God will restore the temple—not to its former glory—but even greater. God is still keeping the promise made to the people when God brought them out of Egypt, and God is still leading them.

The good old days are ahead of us.

Contemporized

This is a word the Church needs to hear today. 

Within the lifetime of some who are present today, nearly everything about “church” has changed. 

Our buildings are different. 

Our budgets are different.

Our membership is different.

Our worship is different.

Our denominations are different.

Our authority is different.

The way others view us is different.

Our ministry is different.

Someone has moved the goalposts. The rules have changed. And most of us don’t know how to be the church in this new reality. So we cloister ourselves in our own little cultural bubble and pine for the good old days—you know:

for when the church was full

for when we were meaningfully engaged in a small group

for when that one pastor was here

for when life and faith were more simple

for when following Jesus didn’t make us “weird”

Take courage, church. Take courage, siblings together in Christ. Do not fear.

The good old days are ahead of us. God is still in the promise-keeping business. God’s purposes of redemption and transformation will not be thwarted. It may be that this shaking-up that feels so destructive to us is really the leveling of ground for new construction. So:

Take courage: God is with us. 

Take courage: God remains faithful to God’s purposes and priorities. 

Take courage: the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand. 

Take courage: God’s Holy Spirit abides with us, and in us, and among us. 

Take courage: Do not fear.

For the latter splendor of the church of Jesus Christ will be greater than the former. We need only to trust in God and embody the divine priorities of love in our lives, and we too will live to see things that astound us. 

The good old days are ahead of us, if we have the courage to adapt with our ever-transforming God. To God be the praise forevermore! Amen.

There Is Still Hope

Scripture: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Too Soon?

Once again, we find ourselves presented with a portion of the scriptures that sounds frighteningly contemporary. 

Habakkuk does what many of us struggle to do every day: he looks with open eyes at the world around him. As a human being made in the image of God, Habakkuk possesses the power of reasoning—the power to wield the capabilities of that big brain we all have in the observation and assessment of the world around us. It may be that Habakkuk’s vision is aided by that divine insight that we often call “inspiration,” though what he discovers around him in his world is not anything terribly different or even more insightful than what we see looking at our world today.

His world is riddled with violence and hardship… [1:3-4]

conflict and wrongdoing…

perversion of the law and lack of enforcement of laws that protect people…

He sees those people who use wicked and unjust means coming out on top,
and injustice being perpetuated by the very people that should provide justice.

Woe(s)!

To this bleak (and all too familiar) picture, we can add further information from later in Habakkuk’s book. The portion of the second chapter beyond our scripture reading today lists five “woes” that offer a warning to those who participate in more specific sins of injustice.

Woe to you!…… “Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!” (Habakkuk 2:6 NRSV). In simple terms, these are people who take what does not belong to them. Biblically, this sin is about much more than mere theft. The following verses hint at injustices around loans and debt collection, the hoarding of resources that others need to survive, and even physical violence or harm being done against those in debt.

These words of woe should shock us and our nation, where the average single credit card balance is over $6,000, where the average student loan debt is over $35,000, and where 12 million Americans per year take out payday loans at an average of 391% interest—and they do it overwhelmingly to pay for rent, food, and credit card debt. These are not made up numbers or guesses—they are studied facts, and I’m happy to share sources with anyone who wants to check for themselves.

“Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!”

 

The second warning offered in Habakkuk is in 2:9: “Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm” (Habakkuk 2:9 NRSV). Most commentators seem to agree that this offense is as much national as it is personal. God through Habakkuk here speaks of national gain that is accomplished through injustice. They are willing to use evil means against others to ensure personal security for themselves. And the destruction that awaits them will be so severe that even the inanimate building materials of their houses will cry for mercy.

 

Next is: “Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!” (Habakkuk 2:12 NRSV). As with the last “woe,” this one is aimed at national policies and practices. The condemnation is against those who do violence (even committing murder!) in order to secure or advance their territorial influence. As one biblical commentator offers:

“Those who still engage in nationalistic self–aggrandizement and ‘ethnic cleansing’ must be reminded of God’s unchanging abhorrence of this behaviour (cf. Am. 1:13). Seeking additional territory or resources such as oil or other strategic minerals without care for human life or territorial rights will ultimately prove futile when divine justice rights nationalistic wrongs.” (David W. Baker, New Bible Commentary)

How can we hear these words of God and not think of wars over oil in the Middle East, or the destruction of Palestinian settlements, or the Turkish advance against the Kurds, or pretty much anything done in the name of “America First”?

“Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!”

 

The fourth and penultimate “woe” begins in v.15 of chapter 2: “Alas for you who make your neighbors drink, pouring out your wrath—[or this could mean “your poison”]—until they are drunk, in order to gaze on their nakedness!” (Habakkuk 2:15 NRSV). On the surface, this seems to depict those who would profit by placing others in compromising and potentially addicting circumstances. One can hardly avoid considering our world’s epidemics of drug abuse, sex trafficking, gambling, and pornography—all of which seek to profit through the exploitation of others. 

And while I hope we could all agree (at least in principle) that these things need to be rooted out of our world, there are ways that we each profit regularly from such exploitation: sweatshops where virtual slaves make our clothes, migrants paid pennies to harvest our berries, and so on.

 

Once again, this “woe” flows naturally into the next and final “woe,” found in v.19: “Alas for you who say to the wood, ‘Wake up!’ to silent stone, ‘Rouse yourself!'” (Habakkuk 2:19 NRSV). While obviously a reference to idol worship, that really should be no comfort to us. Idolatry is a big word that references anything we trust in or value more than God. In the previous verse, there is even the statement that “its maker trusts in what has been made” (2:18 NRSV).

Where do we place our trust? 

Do we as individuals trust the work of our hands more than God? 

Is it your bank account or 401k that gives you a sense of security about the future?

Do we believe our future lies in our own abilities, or in God’s ability to work things for good? 

Do we believe as a nation that we are secure from threats because our nation will spend almost $700 billion this year in the name of “defense,” or are we simply following the well-worn rut of ignoring God’s role—to our detriment? 

You see, these aren’t just ancient words about a bygone nation. This is the past, today—all over again. 

Yet we can take heart—just as Habakkuk urged his hearers. Why? Because “the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (Habakkuk 2:20 NRSV).

How Long?!?

It is within this all-too-familiar world-context that the book of Habakkuk begins. And it begins with a familiar sentiment—even if we today are not so brave in expressing it—”How long are you going to let this go on, God?”

As Central Seminary President Molly Marshall has written:

“Habakkuk does not mince words with the Holy One of Israel. Rather than [submissive] protest, he just puts it out there. ‘Can you not do better than this?’ ‘Why should we continue to trust you?’

“[Habakkuk] believes that rampant injustice will ultimately implode, yet he wonders why God permits it to linger. He struggles to maintain belief in God’s just rule when all he can see is the real-world politics, full of corruption and arrogant power… The prophet ponders whether he could continue to trust in God when all seems chaotic and the forces of evil seem to have the upper hand.”

So while the prophet wonders, he watches and waits [Habakkuk 2:1]. At least metaphorically, he climbs to the highest place he can, and he scans the horizon for God’s response and intervention. And it is there—in this posture of wondering, watching, waiting, expecting—that God answers.

I love the way my friend and colleague Mindi Welton-Mitchell has summed this up:

“God speaks a vision of hope through the prophet. Write the vision: make it plain so that a runner may read it. There is still time. There is still hope. Don’t give up, even if all we see in front of us is hopelessness. Beyond what we can see is where God’s vision is taking us.” (link)

“The righteous live by faith, and trust that God will fulfill the vision.” (link)

Is there anything we need to hear more today than the assurance that God’s vision for us and the world has not been derailed?…… that God’s ancient purposes for your and our wellbeing continue—unabated—by the apparent setbacks we see?

Outro: the Proverbial Poem

Of course, this faithful response is not mere self-delusion—it is the opposite, really. We cannot deny what we see with our eyes and experience with our lives. But we can confess and believe that there are forces in play that we do not always see and experience…… forces whose power will ultimately win not just the day, but all of eternity. 

There’s a line by one of my favorite poets (Wendell Berry) that goes like this: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” Berry knows that in life, the facts do not always paint a hopeful or joyful picture. To reference back again to Molly Marshall, she writes (paraphrased in places):

Like Habakkuk, Berry knows that neither personally embodied faith nor corporate worship alone can fix things, but together they can move the faithful to work toward the ‘vision that awaits its time.’ The righteous—those who long and work for justice—will receive strength to go on. They are the ones who possess a larger vision of the way things should be. Indeed, the final verse of the lesson, the just shall live by faith, (Habakkuk 2:4) prompted the Protestant Reformation. And as we know: the church is ever reforming.

“There is still time. There is still hope. Don’t give up, even if all we see in front of us is hopelessness. Beyond what we can see is where God’s vision is taking us.”