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For Such a Time as This: Be Astonished! Be Amazed!

November 25, 2018 Sermon
For Such a Time as This:
Be Astonished! Be Amazed!


First Scripture Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-7
1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
   and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
   and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
   and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
   strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
   and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
   therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
5 Look at the nations, and see!
   Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
   that you would not believe if you were told.
6 For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
   that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
   to seize dwellings not their own.
7 Dread and fearsome are they;
   their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.

Second Scripture Reading:  Habakkuk 2:1-4, 3:17-19

 I will stand at my watchpost,
   and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
   and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
2 Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
   make it plain on tablets,
   so that a runner may read it.
3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
   it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
   it will surely come, it will not delay.
4 Look at the proud!
   Their spirit is not right in them,
   but the righteous live by their faith.

17 Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
   and there is no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights.


For Such a Time as This: Be Astonished! Be Amazed!

Advent is coming!

These words are so strange for me to hear, even stranger for me to say…because Advent is a time of preparing, a time of anticipating, a time of saying “Christmas is coming”; yet, here I am anticipating Advent.  It’s like I’m saying, “Let’s get ready for the time to get ready; let’s anticipate the time of anticipation.”

Well, today is the last Sunday of the Christian year.  That’s right, the Christian liturgical calendar doesn’t end on December 31 but on the day before Advent.   And, typically, we would celebrate today something called “Christ the King Sunday.” It’s a day that’s all about pointing to the future time when all the world, indeed all the universe, will truly be the Kingdom of God, the kingdom over which Christ rules.

We could have some fun with that.  In some future year, maybe even next year, we will have some fun with that.  But this year, as we follow the Narrative Lectionary toward Jesus’ birth, we will begin a week early – today – an Advent sermon series entitled, “For Such a Time as This.”  The series will consider dual meanings for “this time”; we will look at the “this time” God was foretelling through the prophets about the coming of God’s Messiah, and we’ll look at this present time to consider anew what it means that God’s Messiah, Jesus, has come.

We begin today with God’s words through the prophet Habakkuk, words that may not have been SPECIFICALLY about God’s Messiah, but words that help us prepare for and understand what God was doing through Jesus, nonetheless.

Let me set the scene.

  • Last week, we read from God’s prophet Isaiah.  We read about the time shortly after the Assyrian Empire had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel; the Assyrian Army was camped outside Jerusalem and ready to complete its conquering of Judah.  But God gave the Judeans a chance to survive…if only they would trust in God instead of anything else. The Judeans chose God, and the Assyrian threat disappeared.
  • After Judah’s demonstration of faith and trust, God allowed Judah to survive and even thrive again.

Unfortunately, after a little more than a century, God’s people had reverted to their old ways of trusting in something other than God and breaking their covenant with God.

The prophet Habakkuk describes the situation in the opening verses of chapter 1:

  • The Judeans are characterized by violence, contention, and strife.
  • The Judeans no longer follow God’s commandments.
  • Justice never prevails, which means powerful people are lying, cheating, and stealing, taking what they can from people who have very little to begin with in order to prop themselves up even higher.
  • “The wicked surround the righteous, therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”  In other words, the people who have the power to get their way don’t give a darn about what God says is right.

Not good.  Not good at all.  So God’s prophet, a man who wants justice and righteousness, complains.  Habakkuk complains because the people have turned against God, BUT God seemingly isn’t doing anything about it.

Sound familiar?  It should.

It should sound familiar because it’s the situation God’s Messiah, Jesus, was born into.  It’s the situation Jesus fought against throughout his life and ministry. It’s the reason – from a human standpoint, anyway – that Jesus died; people who wanted what THEY wanted and didn’t give a darn about what God wanted had completely overtaken the ruling council of God’s people.  Justice and righteousness were nowhere to be found. And when it came time to choose between God’s Messiah and their own selfish desires…they chose themselves.

It should ALSO sound familiar because it’s not too far a stretch to look around at our world today and have the same complaint.  The rich-poor gap widens. Multi-billionaires act like they should make all the rules…rules to benefit THEM, by the way…not because their rules are good and right and just but just because they feel like they DESERVE to make the rules.  Even people who aren’t multi-billionaires but who are part of a government ruling class use their power to take well-being from the rest of us, to pass laws that pad their own pockets; they even exempt themselves from the rules they demand the rest of us follow.  In other words, justice and righteousness are nowhere to be found.

Which might lead us to cry out like Habakkuk before us:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
   and you will not listen?
…Why do you make me see wrongdoing
   and look at trouble?

Don’t you start to wonder sometimes, “God, where are you?  God, what are you doing? God, you want me trust you, so when are you gonna fix this mess?”

If you do, have I got a message for you!  (Actually, God has a message for all of us that God started delivering a LONG time ago.)

The first part of the message is this: if you don’t think God is acting; if you don’t think God is doing something about this mess; if you think God is sleeping up there; the problem isn’t God, it’s you.

I know, that’s pretty harsh. But it’s essentially what God told Habakkuk:

“For a work IS being done in your days
   that you would NOT believe if you were told.”

You know what that means, right?  It means that all the while Habakkuk was complaining that God wasn’t doing anything, God was ALREADY working to fix the problem…but Habakkuk couldn’t see it.  Even if Habakkuk was looking right at it, Habakkuk wouldn’t see it because Habakkuk was looking for God to do what Habakkuk would do if Habakkuk was God, what Habakkuk WANTED God to do and HOW Habakkuk wanted God to do it.  But, guess what? Habakkuk was NOT God. Come to think of it, neither are you…or me! So, if we don’t think God is working to fix what ails this world, we better start trying to see things a little differently; we better start looking in places we’re not looking; we better start looking at the world the way God looks at the world.

And oh, by the way, if you think whatever God was doing was maybe TOO SMALL for Habakkuk to see, if you think maybe the reason you can’t see what God is up to today is because God is working too small or too slow or in some other way too insignificantly, look at how God described what God was up to:

Look at the nations, and see!
   Be astonished! Be astounded!

Y’all, when you have to look to the nations to see what’s going on, it’s because whatever is happening is GIGANTIC, not because it’s too small.  When whatever God is doing will ASTONISH and ASTOUND, that means what God is working is IMPOSSIBLE to miss…if you’re eyes are open.

Indeed, in the time of Habakkuk, God was working through the largest empire in the world, the Babylonians, to get rid of the injustices taking place among God’s people.  That’s BIG. If we can’t see what God is up to today, it’s not because God is working too small; rather, it’s more likely because we’re not looking BIG ENOUGH. Maybe we’re so focused on our own individual lives, even our own individual nation, that we’re missing some massive, global, earth-shattering thing that God is up to.  In fact, even as we lament a certain degree of decline in Christianity as a percentage of population in North America, Christianity is growing rapidly as a percentage of population in Africa and Asia. Do we SEE the big picture?

OK, the first part of our message is that God IS working, and if you can’t see what God is doing, the issue is most likely to be found in your not seeing rather than in God’s not doing.  In order to find the second part of our message, let’s get back to Habakkuk a minute.

I told you that what God was doing in Habakkuk’s time was using a nation, an empire, no God-person would have thought God would use: Babylon.  It was obvious to the people of the time that the Babylonians were NOT going to turn to God…ever. Therefore, if God was working through the Babylonians, God must have had some future plan in place beyond hoping the Babylonians would turn to God.  And God did.

As bad as the Babylonians sounded to God’s people, God knew what God was doing.  For the unrighteous and unjust, the Babylonians meant destruction. But for the just and upright, in other words for the truly, deeply God-focused people, God had something WONDERFUL in store: “a vision for the appointed time”, something that “speaks of the end (of an era), and does not lie”, something wonderful that “will surely come.”  Maybe what God had in mind wouldn’t be so great for all the righteous people of Habakkuk’s time, but what God had in mind would most definitely be for the good of all the righteous people in the future. As I read these words, I can’t help but think they are at least a hint of God’s plan of Messiah. Sure, they were partly about a plan for God’s people to return to Judah, but they also included at least a hint of God’s plan of ushering in a period of Advent, a time of God’s people waiting in great anticipation for God sending Jesus who would end the era of injustice and usher in God’s kingdom on earth where justice and righteousness prevail.  And so that’s the second message of God’s words through Habakkuk: God is acting now, somehow, somewhere, but God will ALSO act in the future, and God will act in such an amazing way that we can and SHOULD have hopeful anticipation NOW.

This sentiment that dominates the final two chapters of the book of Habakkuk provided hope and assurance for God’s people, people like Habakkuk, in the 6th century BC.  

Well, that was great for people in Habakkuk’s time, but what about us?  The thing those ancient people could look forward to, God’s sending of a Messiah, it has ALREADY happened for us.  God sent Jesus to the world 2,000 years ago and yet we still share Habakkuk’s complaint. Where’s the hope for us? If Jesus was the biggest and best thing God could ever do, and still Jesus wasn’t enough to bring justice and righteousness the world over, how can there be anything astonishing and amazing NOW?  If Jesus didn’t make the needed changes, what’s the point of celebrating Christmas?

Y’all, it’s in seeking the answers to these questions that we can find the third message for today, a message that is truly “for such a time as this.”

Remember what I said at the beginning of this sermon about what this day in the liturgical calendar is TRADITIONALLY about?  Traditionally, this day is called “Christ the King Sunday.” Traditionally, this day is about pointing to a future time when all the world will truly be the Kingdom of God, a place in which EVERYBODY does what is good and right and just.

Today is a day on which we can proclaim with the prophet Habakkuk that even though God’s way is not fully practiced on this earth:

YET I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.

How and why can we make this proclamation?

Because just like in Habakkuk’s time God would not allow injustice to continue forever, the same is true today.  And even though all people do not presently follow God’s Messiah, eventually…THEY…WILL. God won’t have it any other way.  And so, while we might feel today more like we’re living in the time of Habakkuk than in the day of the Messiah, we God-focused people can and should have hope that one day Christ will be king…everywhere.  God DOES hear our cry, and God WILL find a way. Amen.