Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Trust in him at all times, you people. Pour out your heart before him. God is a refuge for us.
I saw an article on a satirical Christian site yesterday that had a list of ten super helpful tips for Bible reading. It was satire, so the list was ridiculous. The article was sadly based on many ways people do actually read the Bible, often without realizing it. They author took those to an extreme, but if we are honest with ourselves, we might realize that we are actually selecting our Bibles based on what it looks like, asking God to give us texts that justify our lives, and disregarding the things we don’t like.
I think this was my favorite, “Make every effort to apply the difficult texts to everyone in the world except yourself. The Word is most effective when we apply it to the lives of those around us, as long as we manage to avoid letting the text speak to and convict our own hearts. When reading a text, ask yourself: how does this practically apply to all these filthy sinners in the world around me?” I think we have all, at some point in our lives, used the Bible to pass judgment on our neighbors without noticing our own sinfulness that is reflected in the text. We use the Bible as a window into the souls of others but it is really a mirror.
Habakkuk may have had good reason to go to God in desperation over the people of Judah. They were truly unfaithful, declining in morals and spirituality rapidly. They were violent and disobedient. He was probably a contemporary of King Josiah, so he saw the same degradation of God’s people.
In 2 Kings 22 we see, “[Josiah] did that which was right in Yahweh’s eyes, and walked in all the way of David his father, and didn’t turn aside to the right hand or to the left.” He rebuilt the Temple and restored right worship of God. During the restoration, the High Priest Hilkiah found the Book of the Law and they realized just how far God’s people had fallen. During the reading of the book, Josiah tore his clothes and sent men to ask God about the words in the book. He knew that the wickedness of Judah would bring the wrath of God. For his faithfulness, Josiah died before Judah fell.
Habakkuk is not mentioned in this story, and is relatively unknown. The book is unusual in that Habakkuk does not address the people: it is a private conversation between God and the prophet. Habakkuk laments over the wickedness of God’s people. “Why don’t you do something?” We don’t hear the whole conversation in our text today, but God answers, “I’m already working on this problem.” The solution, however, is not a very pleasant one. God was building up the Babylonians to punish the Israelites.
Habakkuk was shocked by God’s answer. Sure, it was good to punish Israel, but would He really use an even more wicked people to do so? He reminds God of His faithfulness to His people. “Aren’t you from everlasting, Yahweh my God, my Holy One? We will not die.” Habakkuk understands that God has chosen Babylon, but he laments that God would allow the Babylonians to continue to wreak havoc on God’s people. Where is the justice?
Our passage for today continues with Habakkuk waiting for an answer. God answers, “Keep a record of this conversation. The time will come when the wicked will be destroyed.” God was using the Babylonians for a moment, but they would suffer the consequences of their own violence and idolatry. “Woe to them,” God says, but it will take awhile. Habakkuk prays for God to demonstrate His wrath and mercy and then confesses his faith. He rejoices in the God of his salvation. He could have confidence in this God who has done great things for His people, trusting that God would be faithful.
Habakkuk needed encouragement. It didn’t necessarily come as he expected or hoped, but by the end of the conversation with God, he knew that God was at work among his people. In the end everything would be made right.
The psalm also seeks encouragement for God’s people suffering under the hands of their oppressors. The psalmist begins this song with a confession of faith, “My soul rests in God alone. My salvation is from him.” It may seem as if God is not answering our prayers, and we lament in what we see around us. “How long, O Lord?” we ask. Yet faith means trusting that God is already at work, answering our prayers even before we cry out to Him.
In a sermon on today’s Gospel lesson, St. Augustine said, “We must believe, then, in order to pray; and we must ask God that the faith enabling us to pray may not fail. Faith gives rise to prayer, and this prayer obtains an increase of faith. Faith, I say, gives rise to prayer, and is in turn strengthened by prayer... Mark the apostles: they would never have left everything they possessed and spurned worldly ambition to follow the Lord unless their faith had been great; and yet that faith of theirs could not have been perfect, otherwise they would not have asked the Lord to increase it.”
Jesus said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you would tell this sycamore tree, ‘Be uprooted, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” He said this in response to the request from the disciples that He increase their faith. The point of this passage is not that you only need a little faith to do the miraculous: it is that faith can’t be measured. Two weeks ago we learned that we can’t serve God and mammon at the same time. We also can’t trust in ourselves and God at the same time. Either you live in faith or you don’t. Either you trust in God or you trust in yourself. God used the Babylonians to get His people’s attention, and they should have been blessed for their obedience to God’s Will. However, they didn’t trust in God, they trusted in their own strength and in the end their power was taken away.
It is interesting that verse immediately follows a lesson in temptation and forgiveness. Jesus told His disciples, “If your brother sins against you, tell him and if he repents, forgive him. Do this over and over and over again, as necessary.” I can imagine how they must have responded to this statement. “No way, Jesus, how can I do this?” We can find a way to forgive once, but how can we forgive seven times? Or seventy times seven times? The perpetrator has obviously not learned their lesson. Then they asked, “Increase our faith.” Jesus answered their request with the impossible idea that a tiny bit of faith could do the miraculous. He answered their appeal with the command to do what they are called to do, to be His servants.
It might not seem like God is doing much, but He is always in control. It might not seem like His Will is winning, but He has the power to overcome all our difficulties. We need not be afraid, even if we face pain and suffering, because the righteous that live in faith will see the promise fulfilled. We can trust that even when it seems like nothing is happening, God is at work. We often miss it, like Habakkuk, because God does things His way. We don’t recognize the Babylonian invasion as a blessing. We even ask how He could allow such a thing to happen. It doesn’t seem to be just or right. Yet, God promises that in the end, everything will be made right. We just have to have faith.
We are called to His servants, and in the end, when we’ve done the work, we are to remember that we have nothing about which we can boast. We’ve done our duty. We might think that because we have faith and because we have done good things in His name, then we deserve to receive nothing but good things. When things don’t seem to go our way we cry, “Why?” God says, “I’m working. You’ll see.” God is at work and He is faithful. Instead of fretting over our problems, we are to feed on His faithfulness. Instead of devouring our worries, we are to dwell in God’s heart. As we delight in God’s grace, we will receive all that we need. We may not receive answers to our cries today or tomorrow, and we may not receive the answer we are expecting, but God has promised peace to His people. That peace is not found in solutions to our problems, but in trusting God.
The second letter of Paul to his friend Timothy was written during a time when there was great persecution to the Church, most likely under the emperor Nero. Paul had been arrested again, but this time he faced worse suffering and pain. Instead of living in a borrowed place under house arrest, Paul was being kept in a damp, dark dungeon. He was near the end of his life and he knew it. He was concerned for his friend and for the Church. Heresy grows more quickly under persecution as people find justification and excuse for new ideas to spare believers of risk. Heresy often tries to meld together ideas from other religions to make them more acceptable to the non-believers. Like the people of Israel, Christians can be slowly led astray.
Timothy learned about faith from his mother and grandmother. They brought him up in a Christian home, but the lessons learned as a child are often difficult to keep as we get older. This is especially true in a time of persecution. The life of faith can dwindle under a burden of fear and when we are vulnerable we can fall for the heresies that sound good to our ears but that do not stand up to God’s word.
This is why Paul encouraged Timothy and reminded him of the faith which he was given, a faith built on Christ. Following other teachings might sound good; they might even seem to be less risky and better than the sound teaching given to us by our forefathers. But heresy is taking the word of God under our own control, making it mean what we want it to mean. Heresy leads to destruction. It leads us away from God’s grace, away from the treasure which we have been given. There is no need to fear the circumstances beyond our control because God’s grace gives us a spirit of power and love and self-discipline and He will bring us through it.
It is interesting that the book of Habakkuk is about a very personal interaction between God and the prophet. It must have been frightening for him to be a prophet at a time when there was so much wrong in the world. His laments were genuinely desperate. “Why aren’t you doing anything? I certainly can’t!” Do we ever feel the same way? Do we ever feel as though nothing we do will make a difference? We forgive, at first, because we want to help others be everything God has created them to be. We forgive again because we want to be a good example of what it means to be forgiven. By the third time we begin to feel like forgiveness is pointless. We withdraw into ourselves. We separate from those who hurt us. We hide in our closets with our God because we don’t know how to forgive again. “Increase my faith.”
Let us remember, though, that Jesus doesn’t say that we must forgive an unrepentant person. He says, “Rebuke sin and if the sinner repents, forgive them.” It is up to us to help our brothers and sisters overcome those sins that have become habitual. That’s what happened in Judah. The people didn’t start worshipping the other gods. They were tempted and slowly gave in to the world around them. They slowly accepted the other gods. King after king who did what was evil in God’s eyes led them down a dangerous path that ended in the degradation of God’s people. God’s answer to Habakkuk’s plea was to bring His people to their knees so that they would repent and turn to Him. He was ready to have mercy and forgive.
He calls us to do the same. God’s people have repeatedly turned away from Him, chasing after other gods, being disobedient to God’s word. Despite our unfaithfulness, God is always faithful. We are quick to see the sins of others that we miss our own. Even Habakkuk was so busy worrying over the unfaithfulness of Israel that he doubted God’s work among his people. The apostles did not know how they would be able to be as forgiving as the God they believed. They wanted Jesus to increase their faith, but Jesus reminded them that faith is not something that can be measured. You believe and trust God or you don’t.
Ultimately Habakkuk believed God; he prayed for God to demonstrate His wrath and mercy and then confessed his faith. He rejoiced in the God of his salvation. We can join the psalmist in our cries for God’s encouragement as we face the difficulties of the world, but we are called to always remember that God is already at work and He is faithful. We have faith leads us to prayer and prayer strengthens our faith. Our faith will never be perfect, but God has promised that He’s already at work establishing justice with mercy and forgiveness. He will make all things right despite the smallness of our faith, despite our doubts and fears and frustrations. He alone is our rock and our salvation. He is the rock of our strength. He is our refuge and He is faithful.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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