Sunday, October 7, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 27
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

Trust in Jehovah, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on his faithfulness.

I like to watch the television show starring Tony Shaloub called, “Monk.” Tony’s character, ex-cop turned private investigator Adrian Monk, has obsessive compulsive disorder. His disorder comes with a host of phobias – fears of ordinary things – and a need for perfect order in all things. He can’t have nine ice cubes, it must be ten. Picture frames must be perfectly straight. He wears the exact same style of clothes with the exact same style of shoes and does exactly the same thing every day. His home is so tidy that even the dust lines up at attention.

His disorder is a burden to all who know him. He has an assistant who has to answer all the phone calls because there might be germs on the receiver. She has to carry tissues and hand wipes wherever they go. She has to play defense when someone threatens his perfect world. He is also a burden to the police department. Though his disorder has made it impossible for him to be a policeman, he still helps the department solve the most puzzling crimes. Adrian often makes it difficult for them to do their work, calling at odd hours and demanding bizarre conditions. They give in to his needs because they need him. It is his compulsively obsessive desire for order and perfection that makes him see what others can not see. He has an amazing ability to solve crime. He sees the insignificant details that most people miss, and it is those details that bring the criminal to justice. His disorder is a burden, but it is also a gift.

Adrian Monk did not want to be like he is. As a matter of fact, we often see him seeking professional help for his problems. He is constantly hopeful that he will get over his phobias and lead a normal life. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live like him. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be a prophet in the days of ancient Israel. Habakkuk had his own gift – he knew God and God spoke through him to the people of Israel. This gift was an incredible burden because he could see how the people were not living up to the expectations of God. They were wicked people in need of discipline, sinners who need God to bring them to repentance.

Habakkuk could see what was happening all around and he thought God was slow in answering his prayers. “How long?” he cried out to God. 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 seemingly have no concern for His people. Habakkuk knows that the people have sinned against God, but he also knows that God can make them turn back. He asks, “How long?” He wants to know how long it will be until God brings His people to repentance.

Habakkuk was shocked by the answer to his cry. The Babylonians would provide the discipline. The Babylonians were even more wicked than the Israelites. They were ungodly, pagans who worshipped other gods. They were Israel’s enemies. How could God’s kingdom benefit from giving power and purpose to those who stand against God’s people?

The burden that Habakkuk suffered was 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. It was shocking and disturbing to think that God would use wickedness against His own people. But God assures Habakkuk that this is 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 about change. God answers our cry with a promise, “Though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come.” Babylon would bring Israel to her knees, but God had not forgotten His people. Babylon would also see God’s justice and Israel would be restored. God knows what He is doing and He knows the time. Our faithful and faith filled response to God’s grace is trusting that He will do what is right when it is right.

Habakkuk cried out “How long?” fretting over the wickedness of Israel and the world in which he lived. He fretted about the wickedness of the enemies whom God planned to use to bring Israel to repentance. He could not see the work God was doing in the world. He even considered taking justice into his own hands.

The word “fret” comes from an old English root word that means “to eat or devour.” Fretting, or worrying, often seems like a very passive thing. Nothing is accomplished; there is no visible evidence of our worry. But it is really a very active word – we eat at and devour our problems, making them a part of our entire being. Doctors will tell you that worry can cause major physical problems including stomach and heart problems, muscular tension and headaches. A little bit of worry can lead to serious health complications. Worry never helps the problem and often creates even bigger ones.

The Psalmist says, “Do not fret about evil-doers.” Fretting over the problem will do nothing. When we fret, we eat at it and devour it, making so much a part of our life that we lose control over our response. Instead of trusting in God, we take control. Unfortunately, we do not always know the whole story. We do not know what God has already accomplished toward His purpose in the situation. When we fret, we do not trust that God is at work and that He will be true to His promises.

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 our solutions to our problems, but by trusting in God.

We are human and we do not always understand the problems that exist around us. Monk sees everything that is out of order as a danger to his existence. By taking extraordinary measures to control his environment, he thinks that he will protect himself from the dangers that exist in his world. His assistant and the police with whom he works would never allow him to be hurt, but he still has to have that control. Unfortunately, it is sometimes the very control he desires that brings him into greater danger.

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.

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.

Our Gospel lesson for today is preceded by one of the most difficult things Jesus asks us to do. He tells us that if someone sins against us and repents, that we should forgive them. Forgiving them for the first offense is not so difficult to do – although some offenses take more time and strength to get over. We might even manage the second or third offense. Eventually, however, we stop trusting the person who has repented over and over again. How can we forgive if we can’t trust them? Jesus says, “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.”

The disciples were shocked and disheartened by Jesus’ comments. How could they live up to such expectations? It is hard enough to forgive someone once or twice, but Jesus expects His disciples to keep on forgiving. So, the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith. They wanted Jesus to help them to accomplish this great feat. They wanted him to increase the faith they had in people – but people will never be trustworthy. All it really takes to move mountains is to have a little bit of faith in the only one who is trustworthy – God.

So, Jesus reminds the disciples of their position in this relationship. He tells us that we are no better than slaves; we have done only as much as is expected of us. We aren’t of more value because we do good things. We aren’t better because we can forgive someone seven times and seven times again. We aren’t more righteous. We aren’t better Christians. We are only doing that which is expected of us. It is a burden for us to carry because we can see what is going to happen.

We may not have the gift of prophecy like Habakkuk or the gift to solve crime like Adrian Monk, but we have seen how people are capable of great wickedness. Like Habakkuk we ask, “How long?” When the answer to our cries is, “Forgive,” we do not know how we could possibly forgive time after time after time. We want God to give us the strength to forgive, to give us the courage to continue in the relationship. We want Him to give us the faith we need to trust other people.

Jesus answered, “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.” What is the object of faith in this verse? Is it the sycamine 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. So, too, 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! 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.

Note that the first few verses of this chapter 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 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 seven times, 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.

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