Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
My soul rests in God alone. My salvation is from him.
I make prayer beads. One type of beads is called the “Wreath of Christ” that was developed in 1995 by Swedish Evangelical Lutheran bishop emeritus Martin Lönnebo. These beads have eighteen beads, each set identical and each bead with a specific meaning. The beads follow our relationship with God our Father, from Creation and baptism, through temptation and hope, the love we receive and the love we share, confession and the promise of forgiveness. There are six beads that are called the beads of silence, which are meant to be moments when we stop to listen to what God has to say.
After all, prayer is a conversation with God, although most of our neighbors would probably call us crazy if we started talking as if we’d heard the audible voice of God. We think about these conversations being one way, or strictly spiritual. We “hear” God in the scriptures. We “hear” God through His creation. We “hear” God in our worship and fellowship with other Christians. We don’t usually “hear” God with our voices. I have had an experience or two that I believe I heard God’s voice, and perhaps you have too, but we rarely “hear” Him speak during our daily prayers. We must remember, however, we don’t hear Him if we don’t take the time to listen.
It seems that the people in the Old Testament were much more likely to hear His voice. Adam and Eve had a personal relationship with God, who walked and talked with them in the Garden. God spoke to Abraham and invited him to move out of UR toward the Promised Land. He spoke to Noah and his sons, Job and his friends. Moses heard God’s voice on Mount Sinai. Jacob, David, and Solomon as well as so many of the prophets had personal encounters with God.
As a matter of fact, the book of Habakkuk is a conversation between God and the prophet which serves as an oracle for the people of Israel. The oracle was a burden for any one person. Habakkuk’s response is whiny, he cries out to God about His slow response to the injustice in Israel. “How long?” he begged. Habakkuk was speaking for all the righteous in Israel who had waited so long to hear God’s answer to the wickedness in His people. Habakkuk simply could not understand why God was allowing evil to rule in the world. He did not understand why God was not disciplining His people so that they would turn back to Him.
Sound familiar? How many of us have cried out with the same sense of wonder at the delay of God’s justice? We are frustrated by the suffering we see in the world, uncertain how God could seem to have no concern for His people. Habakkuk knew that the people had sinned against God, but he also knew that God could cause them to repent. He asked, “How long?” because he wanted to know how long it would be until God brought His people to repentance. We wonder the same thing sometimes. We are impatient for God to make things right.
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. Josiah’s story is not well known, but can be found in 2 Kings 22. “He [Josiah] did that which was right in Yahweh’s eyes, and walked in all the way of David his father, and didn’t turn away to the right hand or to the left.” Josiah rebuilt the Temple and restored the 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 so that he would not suffer the consequences of their sin.
Habakkuk is not mentioned in this story, but he was likely one of those who went to pray to God. The book records that private conversation between God and the prophet. Habakkuk lamented over the wickedness of God’s people. “Why don’t you do something?” God answered, “I’m already working on this problem.”
The solution, however, was not a very pleasant one; as a matter of fact, it was shocking. God was preparing the Babylonians to discipline the people of Israel. Habakkuk was upset by this answer because he could not understand how God could use an even more ungodly nation to do such important work. Here is the burden that Habakkuk suffered: to see the future of His people, a future that would include pain, exile and more injustice. This is not pleasant for anyone to hear, but prophets are often burdened with visions of things they would rather not see. God’s answer was not what Habakkuk wanted to hear, but God assured Habakkuk that this was just the beginning of the story.
God works in His own time. We look around us and see a world that is full of injustice and suffering and we wonder when God will bring change. God answers our cry with a promise, “Though it takes time, wait for it; because it will surely come.” God had not forgotten His people, and though Babylon would bring Israel to her knees, that nation would also see God’s justice. Israel would be restored. God knows what He is doing and He knows the time. We only know a see a small part of God’s plan and we are called to trust that God does know what He is doing. We do not want to wait, but that is why we live by faith. Our faithful and faith-filled response to God’s grace is trusting that He will do what is right when it is right.
Things weren’t much better in the early days of the Church. Today’s Epistle lesson was written during a time of great persecution of the Church, not only from the Romans, but also the Jews. It was written from prison; Paul was arrested a second time. This imprisonment was far more difficult. Instead of being confined to house arrest, he was 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, because it tries to meld together ideas from other religions to make them more acceptable to the non-believers. Those who claim to be believers will conform to the ways of the world around them as a way to avoid suffering; they justify and excuse these ideas to keep believers from risk.
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 uphold 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 even though they 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 be less risky and seem better than the sound teaching given to us by our forefathers. But this can bring us to destruction; heresy leads us away from God’s grace, away from the treasure which we have been given. There is no need to fear the persecution that might come because God’s grace gives us a spirit of power and love and self-discipline.
The Gospel lesson begins with one of the most difficult commands of Jesus. Jesus said, “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.
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.” What is the object of faith in this verse? Is it the sycamore tree? Is it the person having faith? No, the object of our faith is God. If we have faith in God the size of a mustard seed, we will see amazing things happen. With faith in God we will trust that He knows what is happening and then we can continue to forgive. Faith means giving God control. It means even giving God control over those things that have harmed us.
Talk about moving mountains! 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. All too many are quick to assume that if we can’t make a mulberry tree leap into the ocean that we do not have enough faith. However, faith is not something that can be measured. Nothing we do is enough.
The Bible tells us 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 we live in faith or we don’t. Either we trust in God or we trust in ourselves. God used the Babylonians to get His people’s attention. They should have been blessed for their obedience to God’s will, but they didn’t trust in God. They trusted in their own strength and in the end their power was taken away.
Note that in this Gospel lesson, Jesus begins by addressing the disciples, but that it is the apostles who ask for greater faith. It is not hard to imagine that the apostles thought of themselves as men of power and authority. They had been with Jesus for some time; they had experienced His power and seen His forgiveness in action. They had 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 it that God has called us to do? We are called to forgive. Forgiveness is not dependent on whether or not we trust that our brother will not hurt us again. Jesus says, “If he comes to you and repents over and over again, forgive him every time.” We can’t put our faith in people, they will always fail. Only God is worthy to be the object of our faith. We can trust that He will make it right no matter how wrong it seems. Lord, increase our faith!
Henry Melchior Muhlenberg died on October 7, 1787. He had been born in Germany in 1711, became a pastor by the time he was thirty and was sent to the New World to help several struggling German Lutheran congregations in Pennsylvania. Henry came to America in 1742 and he immediately set to work. The work was difficult because the congregations were unorganized and confused. Henry worked with his congregations, established a solid constitutional model and reached out to other Lutherans. His impact reached as far south as Georgia and as far north as the Hudson. He asked for more pastors to be sent and he organized the first Lutheran Synod in America. He reached beyond his own little corner of the world, communicating with other Lutherans and other religious bodies. He spoke several languages, so was often invited to preach and speak to fellow Christians.
He impacted the world in which he lived and the church which he loved but his legacy went beyond his own lifetime. Most of his eleven children made names for themselves in the Church, politics, the military and education. He is remembered in the Lutheran church on October 7th. His life was not easy. He traveled extensively to preach and to assist his colleagues with disputes. He had to fight heresy and stubbornness, ignorance and persecution. He stayed neutral during the American Revolution, which did not sit well with either side of the battle.
Henry Melchior Muhlenberg is known as the father of American Lutheranism because it was he who established the organization that brought together the German Lutherans who were struggling to survive in the New World. Though Lutherans aren’t necessarily known for missionary work or church planting, Henry Muhlenberg did exactly that; he was a missionary and church planter. By the time he died he had helped establish dozens of congregations and helped bring many trained pastors to lead the congregations. He also helped train colonists to be strong and informed leaders in their congregations.
Throughout his time in America, he never lost touch with his home and the people who had trained him in Germany. They supported his career and helped him with funds and with people. He fought the good fight and God made great things happen through him. Our passages this week have faithful men crying out to God, “How long, O Lord?” and “Increase our faith!” I wonder how many times Henry Melchior doubted his ability to accomplish the work God had sent him to the New World to accomplish. We are reminded in this week’s lessons that we do not know the whole story. We can not see what God has in store for us or for the world. We can only go forth in trust and hope knowing that God is faithful. When we cry out “How long?” or “Increase our faith” we do so from the humble position of being a servant.
The psalm begins 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.
The Psalm ends, “Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done.” This sounds like great news until we begin to think about what we have done. Have we earned our place at the Master’s table? Have we done more than the work He has called us to do? Have we shared His Gospel message of forgiveness with the world? If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is “No.” We don’t deserve that place at the table. The Good News is this: we don’t have to earn it, Jesus has. He has not only made us a guest in His house, but He has made us brothers and sisters. We are no longer strangers or foreigners, but children of God.
Habakkuk needed encouragement. It didn’t 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 psalmist sought encouragement for God’s people suffering under the hands of their oppressors. Paul wrote Timothy to remind him to stay on course and do what he’d been taught to do. The disciples needed Jesus to increase their faith. God provides us all we need, if only we are willing to listen to what He has to say.
We may face persecution, heresy and other problems that will take perseverance and trust. We may have to forgive over and over and over again. Our strength is in God’s grace, not in our abilities. As we take on the work of Jesus, sharing God’s love and mercy with all, we won’t always understand what God is doing. But He is faithful and He knows the purpose for which we have been sent.
We are called to holy service, sharing the love and forgiveness of Christ with the world. The news we have may not sell, but it is Good News. Most people don’t want to hear that they should forgive others. We would rather know that our enemies will suffer for their sin. We forget that we are sinners, too, in need of the love and mercy of God. But we are given God’s grace through Jesus Christ so that we will experience that grace and then boldly proclaim that God will make everything right, even when it seems impossible.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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