Sunday, October 3, 2004

Eighteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-10
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

Even so ye also, when ye shall have done all the things that are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which it was our duty to do.

Habakkuk was a prophet that was probably a contemporary of Jeremiah. The book bearing his name is a conversation between God and the prophet, seemingly private with no specific words meant for Israel. In this conversation, Habakkuk simply cannot understand why God is allowing evil to rule in the world. He does not understand why God is not disciplining His people so that they might turn back to Him.

We don’t hear the whole story in today’s passage. After Habakkuk makes his first complaint, God answers that He will send the Babylonians to discipline His children. The answer upsets Habakkuk because he just can not understand how God could use an even more ungodly nation to do such an important work. In the second half of our passage, Habakkuk says he will wait for an answer, like a soldier waits for an answer to a challenge.

The LORD answers, “Write the vision, and make it plain upon tablets, that he may run that readeth it. For the vision is yet for the appointed time, and it hasteth toward the end, and shall not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not delay.” The LORD tells Habakkuk to be patient. What he sees today is not the entire story. The LORD knows that Babylon and its king are not righteous, but He tells His people to trust in Him. All will be made right in His time and in His way.

This vision of what will be is not pleasant for anyone to hear. Prophets are often burdened with visions of things they would rather not see. God’s answer was definitely not the answer Habakkuk expected or wanted to hear. I’m sure he had his own ideas of how to make Israel repent. It was shocking and disturbing to think that God would use the wicked against His chosen. As the book unfolds, God promises that justice will prevail. Babylon will be destroyed and Israel will be restored. In the end, Habakkuk prays and confesses his trust in God. He will wait in faith.

We are very quick to take justice into our own hands. We are ready to fight the minute someone goes against us. We know our faith is real, so when we passionately believe something about God, we are sure that we must be right. If we are wrong, then our faith must not be real. We end up putting too much trust in our faith – so much so that we think it is better to take the matters into our own hands rather than wait for the Lord to finish His work.

We forget that sometimes we are wrong. We are not perfect human beings. We make mistakes. We follow our hearts. We are so biased that we can’t see the point of view of another person. We can not see the world from God’s perspective. We do not see the whole picture with our own eyes. This is why we need one another, for each believer has a unique perspective that should be heard. Instead of showing mercy and forgiveness, we respond to disagreement with wrath and division.

The psalmist writes, “Fret not thyself because of evil-doers, Neither be thou envious against them that work unrighteousness.” Later he adds, “Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: Fret not thyself, it tendeth only to evil-doing.” The word ‘fret’ appears three times in this passage. According to our modern definition, this word means something like worry or concern. Literally it means “to eat into something.” Our fretting gnaws into our hearts and into our minds. It becomes our focus.

A more accurate translation of this word might be “contend with.” The psalmist cautions the listener not to contend with the wicked. Isn’t that what Habakkuk wanted to do? He wanted to take care of the problem himself. However, we learn that it is best to trust in God, to wait for Him to take care of the problem. “Rest in Jehovah, and wait patiently for him: Fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, Because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass.” Evil takes care of itself.

The benefits of this trust are great, according to the psalmist. “Trust in Jehovah, and do good; Dwell in the land, and feed on his faithfulness. Delight thyself also in Jehovah; And he will give thee the desires of thy heart. Commit thy way unto Jehovah; Trust also in him, and he will bring it to pass. And he will make thy righteousness to go forth as the light, And thy justice as the noon-day.” And yet, we are not called to trust in God because of what we will gain, but rather we are called to live in faith so that He might be glorified.

This week’s Gospel lesson seems incomplete without the first few verses of the chapter. Though these passages are somewhat independent of one another, they fit together to teach an important lesson. In verse 5, the apostles ask Jesus to “increase our faith!” Why would they need Jesus to do such a thing? In the previous verses, Jesus warns the disciples that sin will come and that they ought to watch themselves because the one who causes another to sin deserves the wrath of God. Then Jesus told the disciples that no matter how many times that someone sins against them, they are to forgive. “And if he sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.”

Talk about moving mountains! The problem we have with forgiving is that we connect it to trust. We want to have faith in that person, to believe that they will never do it again. This is easy the first time. The second time, well we think perhaps they might have learned their lesson. It gets a little harder after the third time, but by the fourth we know there is no way they are changing, repenting or overcoming whatever it is that they are doing wrong. We can no longer trust them. We don’t have faith.

So, the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith, as if having more faith will make it easier to forgive. However, Jesus answers this request with a rebuke, “If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye would say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou rooted up, and be thou planted in the sea; and it would obey you.”

We are quick to assume that if we can’t make a mulberry tree jump into the ocean, then we must not have enough faith. This is certainly true among many churches where healing, forgiveness and good deeds are connected to faith. How many have rejected the church because they have suffered the scorn of haughty believers who think they have more faith, better faith. However, Jesus is not making faith something that can be measured.

Jesus goes on to tell the story of a slave. “But who is there of you, having a servant plowing or keeping sheep, that will say unto him, when he is come in from the field, Come straightway and sit down to meat; and will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?”

Of course, Jesus’ audience would realize that the idea of a slave being served by a master is ridiculous. Even if the slave had worked hard all day, it is his duty to serve the master no matter what the task. The listeners might have even shaken their heads as Jesus told this story, thinking this is a lesson of putting people in their right place. At the end, however, Jesus turns it around. “Even so ye also, when ye shall have done all the things that are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which it was our duty to do.” Nothing we do is enough. It is only as much as was expected.

Notice that the first verses are addressed to the disciples, but it is the apostles who ask for greater faith. It is not hard to imagine the apostles thinking of themselves in a place of power and authority. They had been with Jesus for some time, had experienced His power and seen His forgiveness in action. They have even done the work themselves. Yet, they lacked the confidence they needed to continue His work. They were putting much, too much, trust in their faith and they were looking for some sort of glory. In this passage, Jesus teaches us that we are neither to measure our faith or our good works. We are simply to do as the Master has called us to do and trust that God will take care of the rest.

What is our duty? It seems to me, according to those earlier verses, our duty is to forgive. Forgiveness is not dependent on whether or not we trust that our brother will hurt us again. Jesus says, “If he comes to you and repents seven times, forgive him every time.” We can’t put our faith in people, they will always fail. Only God is worthy of our faith, we can trust that He will make everything right no matter how wrong it seems.

Imagine what it must have been like for Timothy. He was a very young pastor – his age is a point of contention with the other leaders in the church. He was looked down upon, and because of this he lacked the confidence to carry out his ministry or to speak the Gospel boldly. Paul wrote to encourage him, to remind him that his work is not his own but comes from God. “For God gave us not a spirit of fearfulness; but of power and love and discipline.” Yet, Timothy was living in fear and not using the gifts that God had given to him through Paul.

Paul reminds Timothy to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you.” God not only saves us, but He calls us to a life of servanthood. We are not given gifts to use for our own glory, but to use for the glory of God. We are to boldly step forth in faith to use our gifts to share the Gospel of grace with the world. Our gifts can’t remain stagnant. If we do not use them they will die away. And while we can’t increase our faith, we can develop the gifts we have been given.

When God spoke to Habakkuk, He said, “Write the vision, and make it plain upon tablets, that he may run that readeth it.” Certainly the vision that Habakkuk received is not one which would make me jump up and run to share the message with the world. Prophets were killed for less! We have been given a much greater message, but in some ways it is even harder. We do not have the faith to forgive. We don’t have faith the size of a mustard seed because we put our faith in the wrong things. We are not called to have faith in our brother. We are called to forgive him. When we do, we should not expect to be rewarded for our actions. Forgiveness is dirty work. It is hard. However, it is the least we can do.

Paul writes, “Be not ashamed therefore of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but suffer hardship with the gospel according to the power of God; who saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before times eternal, but hath now been manifested by the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, whereunto I was appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher. For which cause I suffer also these things: yet I am not ashamed; for I know him whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to guard that which I have committed unto him against that day.”

This is true faith, trusting in God alone for only He is worthy and able. Thanks be to God.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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