[Sermon] How to be an Angry Prophet

Good morning. Thank you again for having me come to teach. I was very excited to get invited by Barb to preach not just this week but next week as well. An excitement that was only dimmed slightly when Pastor Alan sent me the preaching schedule and I realized I, a student who focuses on the New Testament, would be preaching to you-all again from the Old Testament. Actually, my recent studies have had me reading through the Prophets. So, when asked which characters from the Old Testament I would like to teach, I was quick to decide upon Habakkuk for this week and Jeremiah for next week.

Habakkuk is a prophet normally placed in the category of the Minor Prophets. It is understandable why. It’s a small book. You won’t likely flip to it by accident. In fact, it is even hard to flip to it on purpose because it sneaks by as you search those last few pages of the Old Testament. It only takes about ten minutes to read through, and there might be only two or three verses in all three chapters worth using in a devotional or painting on a wall, one of which is usually attributed to Paul in Romans 1, even though he is quoting Habakkuk.

Even still, I chose Habakkuk because I believe the character of this prophet is something worth imitating. I do not mean in some general sense either. I believe Habakkuk is a person, a leader of the people of God, that Christians who find themselves in America in our present day need to learn from. The message of Habakkuk is reflecting on political turmoil many in Jerusalem and the surrounding southern land of Judah did not believe possible. Babylon, the great and powerful empire, had swept down from the north and overwhelmed her defending armies. By the time Habakkuk had written down this text Babylon would have come and enslaved many of the ruling class of Jerusalem. Maybe even twice! Habakkuk reflects the people of God’s surprise and dismay that God had not saved them from the violence of the Babylonians. What could this mean?

It is here I believe Habakkuk’s connection to our own time is apparent. A land filled with political upheaval and chaos. If you are more on the Democrat side of the aisle, no doubt it seems like America has been invaded and conquered, at least for now, by Republican nationalists who seek to destroy every bit of progress achieved over the decades. If you are more on the Republican side of the aisle, it seems the victory to regain power only happened just in time as the Democrats were seeking to deform America into a nation unrecognizable, and they must be held at bay lest they renew their diabolical march into ruin. Then again, you may be as some others are, taken aback by the invasion of foolish rhetoric and self-righteous indignation that will lead America to no good end. In such political unease, Habakkuk provides for us a character to imitate as we interact with God in our discontented state.

You see, Habakkuk is a book that documents a prophet who is angry with God. Angry that God would ever allow such terrible suffering and evil to devastate Jerusalem. If Israel’s god was the Creator god, as the texts of Genesis teach, then he should be all-powerful over his creation. How could such suffering and evil exist in this world, especially against his own people, if Israel’s god rules and reigns?

Read 1:2-4. The first characteristic of Habakkuk that is worth imitating and learning from is that he is a man marked by a dedication to justice. His understanding of justice is defined by the Law, the way of life that God has given to the people of God through Moses. Habakkuk cannot understand how God, the Creator, can allow violence and sin to run rampant in his creation and expect his Law to be followed. If justice is to be done in this world, God must address the sufferings and evils within it so his people might obey him.

Implicit in this complaint by Habakkuk is the assumption that Israel’s god might not be powerful enough to address these issues. Maybe the gods of Babylon are simply too strong for God to overcome. Maybe he is not the Creator in such a way as to be ruler over all the other gods and their nations.

God responds by saying, … (Read 1:5-11). God’s response is that Habakkuk will not like the answer to his accusation. God is Creator and therefore he is indeed powerful enough to stop Babylon, but that would overlook the fact that God created Babylon and allowed them to march against the nations. It is God who has empowered Babylon, by their creation, to take Jerusalem’s king, aristocrats, and children captive. It was Israel’s god who is responsible for making them. But God ends by pointing out that though he has created them they have turned and worshiped the power he gave them as their god.

Habakkuk sees a glimmer of hope in God’s response, no matter if he doesn’t like it. Read 1:12. The first characteristic we learn from Habakkuk is a deep demand for justice in this world, but he tempers his expectations when God reveals what he is doing with the Babylonians. Habakkuk realizes justice is defined by how God enacts life in his creation, it is not based on his limited perspective only from Jerusalem. His concept of justice in this world can never be so self-assured as to say, “Our God would never do such a thing!”

This first characteristic of humble justice actually creates the second characteristic we should learn from Habakkuk, hope. Habakkuk, as we will see, doesn’t like that God would form the Babylonians in such a way as to enslave the people of God, but even still, he sees hope in God’s authority and power as the Creator. Since God is the one who has ordained them then God has the power to stop them from wiping Israel off the earth. Habakkuk has hope because God is just, so this suffering is discipline and purification, and not simply annihilation by other gods or nations. Another way to put this is that Habakkuk trusts God will enact his justice according to his law of discipline.

While Habakkuk struggles to align such events into his understanding of justice he submits to God’s will for his people and trusts in the Creator’s power to sustain Israel through this suffering process. This hope we learn is not a dream for the future or a creative idea of a possible outcome. This hope is a trustful hope based on God’s past actions where he has shown himself to be more dedicated to justice than anyone else.

But there is one nagging issue for Habakkuk. He wants to believe God is dedicated to justice in the world and he wants to have hope that God will sustain his people, but both of these truths must rest upon God’s goodness. Maybe God’s justice is not good for the world. Maybe God is not able to be trusted so there is no hope for the people after all. What is the point of worshipping an all-powerful Creator god, especially as an enslaved people, if he does not care enough to use his power for the good of his people and creation?

Read 1:13-2:1. Habakkuk presses God to see if he is good. If the Creator is good how can he remain passive when a part of his creation, such as Babylon, creates such suffering in his creation? Like the fisherman who worships his nets and tools as a god because by them he gains all he desires, so too Babylon worships their own power and might by which they conquer the whole world. How is it that the Creator god allows this, especially when he knows idolatry is the outcome (as shown in 1:11)?! It seems to Habakkuk that God is unhappy with idolatry, but his passivity actually encourages the nations to worship wrongfully. And now, the people of God are being punished for doing something the Creator permits to corrupt his own creation.

Let me connect this to us here to press Habakkuk’s point a little stronger. Is this not the same doubt we struggle with continually? Let’s just take one example in our world close to us, our bodies. Our God, the Creator of all things and sustainer of life for all creation into eternity, gave us these bodies and still yet we suffer sickness and pain in them. What good is it for us to worship our God if he does not have the desire to make his creation good when he makes it? Why does he give us a body that will come to the End of death, inevitably after a life of hardships and suffering moments? Habakkuk’s reservation is beautiful because it gives a voice to our own discontentment when we think of God’s justice in the midst of a world full of suffering and death, which includes our own sufferings and will culminate in our own death.

God’s response to Habakkuk’s challenge to his goodness is to examine the outcome of Babylon’s way of life. He begins by this examination by assuring Habakkuk that the revealed End of Babylon will come. No matter what it seems like in the present the End will surely come. Read 2:2-4. In fact, the reason Babylon will come to its End is because its life in this world is bent and broken. God reveals to Habakkuk the ones who live faithfully towards him will not find an End like Babylon, but in their faithfulness, they will find the sustaining life of the Creator.

Read 2:5-11. God explains his eschatology of nations as the sin of the nation rebounding and destroying itself. The sufferings and evils done to other nations through violence and bloodshed will lead to Babylon’s demise. And in this explanation God shows Habakkuk his justice as Creator. While, yes, he created Babylon and gave it power to act in this world only Babylon has chosen to use that power for the violence it has done. It will face the consequences of their choice.

God goes on to say… (Read 2:12-14). While Babylon, and the nations who choose her way of life, shape themselves toward and prepare for themselves an End that is destruction and nothing, the Creator is able to work through these empty Ends. God tells Habakkuk that the creation, growth, expansion, and fall of the nations have an eschatological purpose. While he doesn’t desire their actions in his creation he will use their self-destruction as a means to fill his creation with worship.

So, God can be seen as intimately involved in the rise and fall of nations. He is sure to enforce the inevitable consequences of Babylon’s evil way of life in this world. Read 2:15-17.

If only Babylon would have worshipped their Creator instead of the power in their hands! Read 2:18-20. God proclaims to Habakkuk his desire to lead and guide the nations. As Creator he desires to show all the nations how to live rightly in his creation. The world’s self-destructive End comes because it worships things other than the one true God, their own Creator. The gods of the nations, these empty idols, are just leading the nations back into the Nothing out of which creation was called.

The rest of the text of Habakkuk is the prophet’s response to learning about the Creator’s work among the nations in his days (looking back to 1:5). Read 3:2. In the place of arrogant justice or demand for his own people, Habakkuk is filled with fear. His only request of his God, the Creator, is to remember mercy in the midst of his wrath against the nations, including Israel.

Then, for half a chapter, the prophet then depicts the creative work of God among the nations in some of the most beautiful and powerful apocalyptic language. Habakkuk realizes that the rise and fall of nations, the destruction and glory involved, are the continuing work of God to shape and form his creation for the good End he intends for it. Creation is the Temple of God by his own making, and the nations will conform to his presence or come to an End in which they cease to exist. Either way, creation will be brought to obey the justice of its good Creator.

The book ends with Habakkuk’s last reflection on what God has shown him. Read 3:16-19. Again, Habakkuk is filled with fear and astonishment at the justice of God. He also learns to quiet his discontent with the sufferings and evils Jerusalem is suffering because he can hope in Israel’s God because he is a just Creator who will bring an End to Babylon at the right time.

But the last characteristic we must learn from Habakkuk is the most crucial, both for those suffering from the fall of Jerusalem and for us now in our own lives’ chaos. Habakkuk dedicates himself to worshiping God and faithful obedience no matter the circumstances around him. The third characteristic we learn from Habakkuk is faithful obedience.

How powerful it is that the prophet rejoices in Israel’s God even in the midst of suffering? That he declares God to be the bringer of salvation even in the midst of God’s judgment on Jerusalem? That God is the strength of the people of God even if the Creator does not alleviate the pain of the moment? Habakkuk has learned that the presence of God in the midst of suffering and death actually testifies that the Creator is still at creating—bringing his good End to creation for his people!

As Christians, we are able to celebrate the teaching of Habakkuk all the more, even if they are no easier to apply to our lives. On account of God’s work through King Jesus we have seen the justice of God reshaping the nations into a worshipping creation. Particularly, King Jesus’ resurrection gives us a hope that is not a dream that we might survive death, but rather, we can fully trust God’s presence in the Spirit to empower the people of God to survive through every kind of suffering or evil End found in this world. Before King Jesus living faithfully in obedience simply looked forward to an End for Israel of life without suffering and death. Now we have hope in God’s justice because his presence in the midst of our inevitable sufferings and death actually bring the Resurrection Life into creation. Together we enjoy the justice, hope, and faithfulness this prophet looked forward to experiencing with the people of God.

May we hear the teaching of the prophet Habakkuk. His call for us to be a people marked by tempered justice according to the teachings of our God, the all-powerful Creator. May we be a people with an unshakable hope rooted in the trust that the Creator has always brought justice and he will continue to do so until his creation worships him alone. And lastly, may we be a people who faithfully obeys our God’s way of life in this creation, no matter the circumstance, because this is the good End all creation is being formed towards.

(Sermon) Paul’s Theology of the Body in 2 Corinthians

What if being a new creation in King Jesus isn’t about going to heaven? What in the world is salvation for Paul if isn’t dying so we can somewhere better?

The Sunday after the Fourth of July I had been asked to speak at a small church in rural Illinois. They did not have anything in particular they wanted me to preach about or a specific text so I took the opportunity to reflect on the impact of Rebecca and I’s impressions from the Pauline Trip we were a part of in June. The sermon focuses on Paul’s theology of the body as expressed in 2 Corinthians 4-6.