February 4, 2008
Sermon Manuscript – 3 February 2008
During my Army days, I was on this infantry training course learning to do what are called “section attacks.” That’s taking a group of eight soldiers and attacking trenches and machine-gun posts, essentially. Now this course took place over the summer, and this one day we were doing these attacks – one after the other – as the thermometer climbed. The temperature got up around 35 degrees Celsius by around lunchtime, and suddenly I began to stumble as we marched. I knew that I was in trouble, and finally, my instructor ordered me to sit down in the shade, and they called a truck to drive me to the clinic, because they were worried about heatstroke.
It was a long drive. The Gagetown training area is huge, and it took about twenty-five minutes of hard driving to get to the camp. Once there, the medics were worried. They stripped me right down to my boxers (yes, this is a rather humiliating story), shoved a mug of water in my hands, poured more water all over me, and hooked me to an IV bag full of saline solution. And over the next three hours, I watched no less than thirty other soldiers dragged into that clinic suffering the same symptoms. It got so bad that 60% of our company were heat stress casualties that day, and they had to call off the exercise. As for me, after no less than five 1-liter bags of IV solution were put in me, they trucked me back to the barracks and told me to rest for a full day before returning to duty.
That was a close call. I didn’t get heatstroke, but it was a really bad case of heat exhaustion. And I thought about that as I read this passage. See, I was twenty-two years old, in the prime of my life, the best physical condition I’d ever been in. I wasn’t irresponsible – I had drunk several canteens full of water that morning, had kept my head covering on. I had all the right equipment. I did everything right. I was surrounded by a group of tough, well-trained, experienced instructors and a group of good fellow students. Yet there, in the middle of the sticks, the middle of the wilderness, far from civilization, I suddenly developed a life-threatening condition. Despite everything I did. Despite everything I could do. I was helpless, and my life at that point depended not on anything I did but on help from outside.
The wilderness is a dangerous place. Even when we’ve done everything humanly possible to keep it under control, it can still kill you.
AN ODD START
God really doesn’t do things in ways we would expect, does he? Look at where the good news of Jesus Christ begins. It doesn’t start in a fancy temple, covered in gold and silver. It doesn’t start in a soaring cathedral with stained glass windows and carved statues and million-dollar paintings. It doesn’t start on a national TV network with blinding lights and a huge stage in a 50,000-seat football stadium.
The good news of Jesus Christ begins in the wilderness. It begins in a desert. The good news of Jesus begins in a hot, dusty, barren, empty, seemingly endless wasteland. Doesn’t that seem strange? The God of the universe takes on human flesh, and the good news of His coming begins not in a dazzling display of His wealth and glory but in a place of utter abandonment and emptiness.
Mark starts his Gospel with the words, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” What is the beginning here? Mark starts his Gospel with the story of John the Baptist. That’s unusual. Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy, for instance. John begins with the Word being with God in eternity past. Why does Mark start with John the Baptist?
Because Mark’s point is this: God is calling his people back to the wilderness. Mark uses the word “wilderness” four times in the first thirteen verses, twice in our passage. This part of Mark, these first eight verses, explain how we get there. That’s what we’re going to look at today.
WHY THE WILDERNESS?
But first, we have to see why the wilderness is so important, and what it means to us.
What is this wilderness? In our story, it is the desert on the far side of the Jordan River. Across the Jordan, on its eastern side, the opposite side from Judea and Jerusalem and Jericho and the whole promised land – this is where the Good News begins. The Gospel, the story of Jesus Christ, begins in a place so inhospitable that it is famous today for only one thing: the Dead Sea. A rocky, barren hell of a place.
But to a Jew, this wilderness meant a great deal. This wasteland is where God led His people in wandering for forty years. This wilderness is where God fed them, watered them, guided them, gave them His Law. This desert is where God appeared in a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day to be with His people. This desert is really where the people of God were formed. Where they were given their identity. Where God made a covenant with them, binding Himself to them, making them His own, declaring them His people and Himself their God. The wilderness is, to a Jew, a place of beginnings. And in the Old Testament, we see prophets like Elijah retreating into this wilderness to commune with God. The wilderness is a place where God meets with His people.
Why does God like the wilderness? Because there, His people understand that they need Him. When you’re in a desert, you’re in trouble. In a wasteland, there isn’t much food and water. The day can kill you by heatstroke. The night can kill you by hypothermia. In the wilderness, you’re helpless. Without help, you’ll die. To survive, you need supplies. You need help. Israel found this out the hard way. The only reason Israel survived in the wilderness was because God gave them food, because God gave them water, because God organized them, because God led them day and night, because God protected them from raiders and marauders. God provided. God gave. In the wilderness, the people of Israel had nothing to give back. They couldn’t put God in their debt. They couldn’t buy Him off or earn anything with Him or do Him any favours. All they could do was look to Him and trust Him and receive the gifts of His hand.
So John appeared in the wilderness and called the people to the wilderness – to a place of emptiness and need. He called them to a place where they didn’t have it all under control. He called them to a place where they couldn’t do it on their own, where their smarts and their strength were not enough to let them survive, where they needed God to live. The wilderness is where God is! That is the beginning of the Gospel! That is the start of the good news, coming to the wilderness. Salvation begins in the wasteland, recognizing that we can’t do it, that we’re not good enough, that we need everything given to us from God’s hand. The Christian life is life in the wilderness, a constant dependence on God for everything. The Christian life is not a life of comfort and plenty, but one of sacrifice and struggle and dependence on God to guide and provide. There’s an old saying: Jesus came to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. It’s true.
God’s calling each and every one of us into the wasteland. He’s calling His people to a place where they know they need Him. He’s calling us to recognize and live in light of the truth that every breath we take, every beat of our hearts, is a gift from His hand. He’s calling us to acknowledge that we absolutely, desperately, need Him to survive. If you’re grieving, or scared, or ashamed, and you don’t know how you can go on by yourself, this is where God is calling you. He’s calling you into that scary and harsh place because there is where we learn to lean on Him. If you’re in a wasteland or wilderness right now, don’t waste your opportunity. God is a provider and a protector.
That’s the wilderness. That’s our first lesson: God’s calling us to live in the wasteland. And now we see how to get there.
PASSING THROUGH THE WATER
When Israel left Egypt, they headed for the wilderness. Anyone remember how they got there? They had to pass through water. They went through the Red Sea, right? The way to the wilderness is through water. That was true for the physical wilderness. And you know what? The way to the spiritual wilderness is the same. It goes through water.
Here is John, crying out in the wilderness, and all the people are flocking to him. From Jerusalem. From Judea. All those places were separated from the wilderness by water. What lay between the Promised Land, the land of comfort and plenty, and the wilderness where John preached? The river Jordan. To get to John, just to get near him to hear him, they had to get wet. They had to cross the Jordan.
But that wasn’t all. John had this curious habit. He wasn’t just content with getting them over the river. He called them to respond to his message by being dunked in that river. He was baptizing them as they came in the Jordan River.
What did that mean? What was the significance of this baptism? As he baptized, what were the people doing? Confessing their sins. They laid out the things in their lives that fell short of God. They admitted their failings, their shortcomings, their rebellion, their wickedness. As they confessed, they shed themselves of the burden of sin, bringing it all out of the darkness of their souls into the light, giving it up to God. They confessed – they acknowledged that they were unworthy. They freely admitted that they were not good enough – that they were actually evil. This is our second lesson: To get to the wilderness, we must confess our sins to God.
John would have had no time at all for a “self-esteem” gospel or a “positive confession” message. Real confession is negative – it lays out our faults and expresses our grief for our sins. Real confession does not enhance our self-esteem – it tears down our pride, humiliates us, makes us lowly and needy in the presence of God. This is the message John preached. This is how he prepared the way of the Lord.
Have you done this? Have you ever laid out your life before God, dredged up the bad stuff from the depths of your soul? Have you ever admitted your sins and wrongdoing to God and grieved for them? See, no one comes to Christ unless they come needy. We don’t do Jesus a favour when we come to Him – He has mercy on us, gives grace to us. We’re the needy ones. We’re the ones who need help. And until we recognize that, until we accept that, we’re basically saying to God that He’s unnecessary, that He’s optional. Until we come to that point, we haven’t gone to the wilderness yet. God wants us in that wasteland, but to get there, we have to leave an awful lot of stuff behind. We have to face some pretty ugly stuff before we get there.
Not just confession, either. John was preaching a baptism of repentance. What is repentance? To repent – that’s a word that people love to make fun of. There’s a popular video series out there that makes fun of a guy with a bullhorn crying for people to repent. Even Christians make fun of this. So what would they say about John the Baptist? I wonder, if we lived back then, some cool and up-to-date pastor would be making plays ridiculing the guy in the camel hair crying for repentance.
The word “repent” literally means “change of mind.” That’s not just a change of opinion. It means a whole new way of thinking, a whole new perspective on life and the world. It means a whole new way of living. To Jews and Christians in the ancient world, and to us today, it meant a 180-degree turn away from your old life and the start of another. See, it’s not enough just to confess your sin. Confession without repentance is just a pity-party. Confessing sin without doing anything about it, without turning away from it, says that you really don’t think it’s actually a bad thing. No, true confession – real, grieving, penitent, self-denying, humiliating confession of need and failure – leads to repentance. It leads to a determination to put the sin behind you and draw nearer to God, a commitment to get as far away from that old life as possible.
When we say, “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved,” we don’t mean simply accepting that the facts about him are true. The book of James tells us that even the demons do that. Saving faith is not just a head thing. It’s not just facts. Real faith is a desperate thing, a recognition that without Jesus we are lost and going to hell, and a trust that Jesus is enough and is all we need to be saved. Real faith is treasuring Jesus, loving Him and valuing Him, and no one can love God and sin at the same time. Faith without repentance, without a commitment to live for Him and stay away from sin, is no faith at all. That’s our third lesson: The way to the wilderness is through not just confession, but repentance for sin.
Do you believe in Jesus? If you do, ask yourself: Does my life show it? Have I had a change of mind, a change of heart? Am I really heading in a new direction, on a different road, drawing nearer to God?
OUR REAL NEED
Confess your sins. Turn your life around. But – why? Why bother with all those unpleasant things? Why put yourself through all that pain and anguish? Because confession and repentance – faith, in other words! – these things lead to what we really need. John’s baptism was of repentance into the forgiveness of sins.
Look at the people who came to John. They come in droves, and what do they see? They see what they truly need. And what was their need? It wasn’t money. John had none. They had plenty, living in the Promised Land. Their need wasn’t comfort, for they had houses and apartments and palaces and halls and lush pastures and swimming pools. John had a few bare rocks, and the Dead Sea – what comfort could he offer them? Their need wasn’t food and water – they all had pastures and flocks and fishing nets and shops and springs and wells. John had locusts and a bunch of very angry bees guarding his dessert. Their need wasn’t self-esteem – Jesus’ ministry later shows us that the Jews were quite proud of their lineasge, quite happy with who and what they were, so happy, in fact, that they would rather crucify Him than change.
No, John’s message was simple: confess. Repent. Be baptized. In other words, “You people suck!” Why such a harsh message? Why so confrontational, so judgmental? What so many people today think is old-fashioned or traditional or confrontational or “fire-and-brimstone” or offensive is, in fact, what Mark calls “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Think about that! The harshness and judgment in John’s words paled in comparison to the judgment that would come when the Mighty One he talked about arrived. John’s assignment was to prepare the way of the Lord, to ready the people to meet Him. They weren’t ready yet. They weren’t acceptable. That’s why he came. John’s message was one about their real need – forgiveness. The journey into the wilderness leads to forgiveness of sins. That’s our fourth lesson.
See, John was a forerunner. He was clearing the way for Jesus Christ. God became a man, lived a perfect life, died as a substitute for sinners who deserved to go to hell, and rose again to show that he had conquered death and bought salvation for anyone who believes in Him. John called for confession and repentance, so that people would understand that God cannot tolerate our sin. John then baptized them, to show that God’s grace washes away sin and makes us clean. John pointed to Christ. He called the people into the wilderness, into a place of desperate need, and there showed them the One who would meet that need.
WHERE ARE YOU NOW?
This is the message today. God is calling you into the wilderness, calling us to the place of forgiveness of sins. We get there by faith, which means confession of sins and repentance. So – where are you now? Are you in Judea and Jerusalem, deep in a busy and comfortable life, leaning on your job and possessions and your own effort and works to get you through life? Are you self-sufficient, safe, sorted out? Then you’ve got a journey ahead of you. God’s calling you into the wilderness. That doesn’t mean literally leaving this world and retreating out into a desert, like a monk. That would be missing the point. A wilderness is a place of need. You’re not there until you face that need, realize that you need God. Examine your life. Use God’s Word as your standard. Confess your sins to Him. Repent – turn away from your old ways and lean on Jesus.
And if you’re a Christian, and think you have most of this stuff already under control, this applies to you, too. Confession, repentance, faith – they aren’t one-time acts. They are a lifestyle. If you aren’t regularly faced by your need, regularly reminded that you depend absolutely on God, regularly convicted of sin and the beauty of forgiveness, then chances are you’ve left the wilderness and settled comfortably on the other side of the Jordan again. God calls us to live a life of faith. That’s a wilderness life.
Some of you may be struggling with assurance. That is, some of you may believe, and yet you are overwhelmed by how bad you’ve been, or how many times you’ve failed. If that’s you, listen to me: You’re already in that wilderness! You’re already there! This is a good thing. God does not bring His people into the wilderness to destroy them. He brings them into the wasteland so that He can feed them, and clothe them, and make a mighty and healthy nation out of them, and teach them to honour and praise Him. That takes some unpleasant discipline at times. Yes, we all fall short. God wants us to recognize that. But we recognize that so that we can see just how good God is. So that we can appreciate just how generous and loving He is. If you struggle with assurance, and don’t know how God can accept you, remember that it doesn’t depend on you! Jesus did the work! Jesus was the acceptable one! Lean on Him. Cling fast to Him. Trust in Jesus to keep you safe and wipe those tears from your eyes. Remind yourself, “I was bought at a price.” Remind yourself: “He who began a good work in you will surely complete it.” Remind yourself: “It is the Father’s will that none of those He gave to Christ will perish.” Keep believing. Keep going. Don’t try to escape the wilderness. Accept your neediness and count on God – He will pull you through.
– Jeff Jones
February 3, 2008
Sermon Manuscript – 13 January 2008
When I was in basic training, there was a girl in my platoon who really struggled. She struggled with the tasks and skills they taught, but not nearly as much as she did with the physical work. The poor girl was very overweight, and every time there was a run or a forced march she struggled to keep up and eventually fell out. I remember walking beside her once on a five-kilometre march and she was so exhausted she had trouble controlling the rifle she was holding. Her muzzle kept smacking my own rifle, and once or twice she nailed my knuckles so hard she drew blood.
Because she had do much trouble physically, she didn’t do well on the tasks we were assigned. Since they were team tasks, and because the military is a very performance-oriented culture, the other people in the platoon were hard on her. One time, I had twisted my ankle and was at the clinic getting it wrapped, and I heard crying next door. It was this girl – I recognized the voice – and she was pouring out her frustration to one of the staff there. She said that she found it really hard, that she couldn’t do anything right, and that it especially bothered her that the others were starting to resent her. She felt like she was letting down the team.
It was just training, so there wasn’t anything vital on the line, but to be honest she was letting us down. The platoon needed everyone to contribute, or the performance of the whole would suffer. She was a really nice person – it was nothing personal, but there was a job that had to be done and she simply wasn’t up to it yet. I’ll never forget that day in the clinic, though. She knew she was disappointing others, and she was crushed.
I can identify with that. I’ve had people counting on me and let them down. I think we all have. We’re sinners – we’re not perfect. It seems sometimes that, in our Christian walk, we can’t do anything right. We sin. We neglect prayer and Bible reading. We hurt others intentionally or by accident. What then? How do we get back on our feet, be a faithful and productive member of the team again?
Today we’re going to do something different. This sermon is not off just one text. It is a biography, a sketch of a Biblical figure who let the team down. We can learn from him. His name is Mark.
MEET JOHN MARK
First, let’s read Acts 12, verses 11-13: When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer.
I want you to notice a few things. This is the first mention of John Mark by name in the Bible. His given name is John, which means “the grace of God.” Like a lot of early Christians, he has a second name, which is how we know him today: Mark. John Mark.
Second, Mary, Mark’s mother, is mentioned, but not her husband. He must have died and she must have been a widow. And she’s got a big house – big enough to hold “many gathered” there. At that time, most houses were tiny three or four-room structures of only a few hundred square feet. We see here that the family has a servant, as well. Big house, at least one servant – Mark must have grown up in a wealthy family.
Not just wealthy, either. Mark’s family is deeply involved in the church. Peter is miraculously released from prison, and where does he go? He must have known the Christians would be meeting at Mary’s, which suggests that this was a regular meeting place. There are some early church traditions that say Mary’s house was the place of the Last Supper. We can’t know that for sure, but it’s possible – it was certainly big enough.
Let’s review what we know about Mark so far, and we’ll move on down to verse 25. He’s Jewish, and he was born “John.” He’s picked up another name, a Latin name: Mark. His father is probably dead. His mother is a wealthy woman with a big house and at least one servant. And Mark’s family is Christian and involved in the Jerusalem church.
Let’s move on to Acts 12:25: And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark. This is interesting. Mary is not the only relative of Mark we know about. Colossians 4 tells us that Barnabas is actually Mark’s cousin. Barnabas and Saul – that’s Paul – had come down from Antioch to visit Jerusalem with money to help the church there deal with a famine. Their mission was finished, and they’re going home to Antioch. And they pick up Mark and bring them with him. This was probably Barnabas’ idea.
Next chapter: 1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.
Mark comes with them back to Antioch, and there Paul and Barnabas are sent on a mission trip to Cyprus. They bring Mark with them as their “assistant.” The Greek word there is used elsewhere of a person who helps with writing or administration, so there’s a good chance that Mark was acting kind of like a secretary. He might have been taking notes of the preaching and using them to do follow-up instruction with new Christians after the preaching was finished. Regardless, here he is on the mission field, and he’s assisting Barnabas, his cousin, and Saul.
So we know these things: Mark left Jerusalem and went on a mission trip with Paul and Barnabas. We know he was their assistant, maybe in a writing or administrative role.
MARK LETS THEM DOWN
Now we come to a crisis in Mark’s life, and in Paul and Barnabas’ ministry. Look down to verse 13: Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem. They leave Cyprus and sail north, landing in what is now Turkey. For some reason, Mark leaves. He goes home. All the way back to Jerusalem.
Why did he leave? We don’t know for sure. Scholars have had a field day trying to speculate on reasons. Maybe Mark was discouraged by how hard the mission was getting. That part of Turkey – Asia Minor – is very mountainous. Maybe the idea of doing all that travel, by foot, in the mountains was a little too much to take – kind of like walking from Kananaskis to Canmore to Banff to Lake Louise. Not easy.
I have a professor who thinks differently. Galatians tells us that Barnabas fell under the influence of false teachers, just like Peter did, and that Paul had to correct the situation. Those false teachers taught that Gentiles had to obey the Jewish law to become Christians. Obviously, Barnabas was a good Jew, and struggled with the freedom and grace that came with Christ. Did Mark think the same way? Notice that when they left Antioch, verse two and seven, it says “Barnabas and Saul.” By this point, though, in verse 13, it says “Paul and his companions.” Had Paul assumed the leadership from Barnabas? Did Mark struggle with this? That’s one possible idea. But in the end, we can’t know for sure. We do know that Mark left them in the middle of the mission and went home.
This action had consequences later. Turn with me to Acts 15, verses 36 to 41. And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Paul felt so strongly that Mark should not come on the mission that he separated from Barnabas. Barnabas, for his part, just as stubbornly thought Mark should come, so he took Mark on his own back to Cyprus. There’s a few lessons we can learn from this, and we’ll get to those in a minute. For now, I want you to notice the tone here: Mark let them down. Mark wasn’t reliable. Mark failed them.
But that’s not the end of the story. Turn with me to Colossians 4, verses 10 and 11: Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me.
Paul is writing Colossians from Rome, and he is in prison awaiting trial. Mark is with him. Now this is probably ten to twelve years after Mark’s departure in Perga. And look what Paul says about him. Two things. First, he specifically instructs the Colossians to welcome Mark if he visits. Now, Colossae is not all that far away from Perga, where Mark first left Paul and Barnabas. Did they know what happened? Did Mark have a black mark on his record among some Christians? The fact the Paul makes these explicit commands seems to suggest that. Second, Paul says about the three Jews he just mentioned, including Mark, that “they have been a comfort to me.”
What a change! Once Mark disappointed Paul. Now he comforts him. Once he failed Paul. Now he’s building him up. Once Mark caused division and grief in Paul’s life. Now he’s held up as a source of friendship and companionship. In Philemon verse 24, Paul calls him a “fellow-worker,” a fellow-slave of the Master.
One of the saddest comparisons in the Bible can be found between this passage and the end of 2 Timothy. In verse ten, Paul relays Mark’s greetings and talks about what a comfort he is – we’ve already seen that. Well, just a few verses later, verse 14, he sends greetings from another man, a guy named Demas. These men – Mark and Demas – were Paul’s coworkers and partners in Rome. Now turn to 2 Timothy. These are Paul’s last written words. He is in prison again, in Rome, and now he knows he is going to die. And Paul is almost alone, except for Luke. Where did all the others go? Read verses 10 and 11: For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.
Titus and Crescens are gone on missions. Luke’s there with him. And here is Demas again – but he’s gone. In love with the present world, he has deserted Paul and left. Paul has been abandoned again.
I think it’s one of the most poignant moments in the whole New Testament that, when deserted yet again, when grieved and disappointed yet again, Paul asks Timothy to bring none other than Mark back to Rome. Demas abandoned the mission, just like Mark had. Mark won’t. He won’t make that mistake twice. And Paul wants him by his side again. He is “very useful for ministry” – from Paul, that is high praise indeed.
And Paul’s not the only one to think so highly of Mark. Turn with me to 1 Peter 5, verse 13: She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. Now, when Peter talks about “she who is at Babylon,” he’s writing in code, so to speak. Babylon is a symbol for the seat or headquarters of evil and oppression. In the early church, who oppressed and persecuted the church? The Roman government. “She who is at Babylon” is almost certainly code for “the church at Rome.” Mark not only served with Paul in Rome, he also served with Peter there. And Peter is very warm towards him: “my son,” he says. Peter loved him.
What a turnaround! Once he let down Paul and Barnabas – now he’s a comfort to Paul. Once he couldn’t wait to get back home to Jerusalem, leaving others in the lurch to do it. Now he’s even farther away, in Rome of all places, helping the apostles build that church. Mark’s grown up. He’s made things right.
What can we learn from this? Let’s find out.
A DISCIPLE NEEDS MENTORS
Remember that the last time I preached, I talked about the boy Jesus. I pointed out that he had good examples in his life. What about Mark? Who were the important influences for him? I count four.
First, we have his mother, Mary. She’s wealthy, but she freely shares what she has. At the risk of being condemned or arrested by the Jewish authorities, at the risk of losing all that wealth and comfort, she hosts Christian meetings in her home. Remember the servant Rhoda, how she wouldn’t let Peter in? They were afraid. They were threatened. Yet Mary put all her possessions, her own home on the line for the church. Mark had a courageous and faithful mother. Courage and faithfulness. We need people like that in our lives. And we need to be courageous and faithful, as an example to others.
Next, we have Barnabas. Like Mark, this name is actually a second name. His real name is Joseph. He’s from Cyprus – no wonder he took Mark there. This second name of his, Barnabas, means “Son of Encouragement.” Don’t you think that’s a fitting name? It was Barnabas who took Paul under his wing after his conversion, who introduced Paul to the early Christians and the apostles when everyone was still afraid of him. It was Barnabas who encouraged and mentored Paul. And it was probably Barnabas’ idea to bring Mark along on the first trip. Barnabas fought to give Mark a second chance after he screwed up. He was willing to separate from Paul in order to give Mark that chance. Barnabas didn’t give up on him. He encouraged Mark, gave him another opportunity.
Sometimes, we need that. We all screw up. We all let people down, we all fail the cause of Christ. We all fall short of the glory of God in many ways. Barnabas is a picture of grace. God is the God of second chances. He uses people like Barnabas to show that restoration is possible. Christians need examples and leaders and mentors like Barnabas, who stick with them when they screw up, who offer grace when it isn’t deserved.
Third, there’s Paul. A lot different from Barnabas. He’s a former Pharisee, and he’s a very precise, logical, exact, demanding person. Mark let them down? The mission is hard, and we can’t afford risks. He feared what would happen to the mission if Mark came along again. He had to choose between his call to missions and the chance to set Mark straight, and he chose the former. Paul set a high standard for those with him. He didn’t lower it. He didn’t bend it or adjust it to make it easier for Mark.
It may seem harsh, what Paul did. Yet Mark needed that. Mark needed to learn, the hard way, that Christian service and the Christian life is not for the faint of heart. Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow him – that is a picture of suffering and death. If you think the Christian life is meant to make you comfortable and safe in this life, you’ve misunderstood the Gospel. Christians have to be prepared to give everything – even their lives – for Christ. Mark didn’t understand that at first. But I think that, when he saw Paul’s reaction to his coming a second time, when he saw Paul so concerned that he separated from Barnabas over it – I think Mark got it. Paul’s refusal to bend his standards for Mark, Paul’s stress that Mark’s earlier behaviour betrayed a poor understanding of the cost of discipleship, made Mark re-examine his priorities. I think Mark worked extra hard after that to prove to Paul, to himself, and to God that he meant to be a good disciple. Mark needed a swift and painful kick in the pants from somebody, and so do we all. We need uncompromising, blunt people like Paul.
And finally, we have Peter. Mark probably came back home to Jerusalem after his mission trip to Cyprus. He probably walked in the door of his mom’s big and comfortable house, and found out it didn’t feel so comfortable anymore. He was probably haunted by memories of how Paul had reacted to him. Mark was probably down, feeling the magnitude of his failure, finally grasping the seriousness of his mistake. And somehow, coming home wasn’t making it feel any better.
But there in the home, with the other Christians meeting there, was Peter. The apostle Peter. Think about Peter for a second. Here is a guy who accompanied his mentor on a teaching mission. Here is a guy who, when the going got tough, when things started looking bad, bailed out. Sound familiar? Peter had gone so far as to deny he even knew Jesus that fateful night he was arrested. How must have Peter felt after the Resurrection, standing there before Jesus on the seashore, wondering if he would ever be trusted again? Wondering if he could ever do anything useful? Wondering if God would ever be pleased or happy with him again?
I think Peter saw Mark and knew what was going on. He saw a man who had made a serious mistake. He saw a man who had let other people down. He saw a man questioning his own place in the Kingdom. He saw Mark that day – and in that man, he saw himself, twenty years before. And Peter did the same thing with Mark that Jesus did with Peter that day on the seashore: he invited the young man over and asked him to help him feed the sheep.
The early church tells us that Mark became Peter’s interpreter, recording and arranging Peter’s teaching and sermons for others, making them understandable. Somewhere along the way, Peter and Mark wound up in Rome together, working to strengthen the church in the Empire’s capital. This was hard work. This was very dangerous work – it would eventually cost both Paul and Peter their lives. This time, Mark didn’t run.
If you want evidence of just how complete Mark’s turnaround was, go to the book of Mark. He wrote that. Mark took what he learned from Peter and others, and he wrote what was probably the first-ever Gospel of Jesus Christ. Mark’s was the first, and it was so well respected that Matthew and Luke used it as a reference when writing their own.
IF YOU THINK YOU SUCK
We’re all disciples. We’re all learning to follow Christ, every one of us. We’re all on a mission, to glorify God by making disciples for Christ. And we’re all sinful. We all make mistakes. Every one of us has, or will, drop the ball in a crisis. Every one of you can probably think of a time when someone trusted you, someone was counting on you to get something done or to be there. And you let them down.
Maybe it isn’t public, like this was. Maybe it’s just between you and God. Maybe you’ve sinned, and bigtime. Maybe you feel like you’re just a horrible person, and that there’s no way God will accept you now.
Where do we go from there? Where do we go from that point where we’ve failed? How can things be set right?
There’s two things we have to remember. First, if you feel like you suck and you’re not good enough, well, that’s because you aren’t. You do suck. Listen! We’re sinners. God’s standard is perfection – none of us has got there yet. It’s a journey. It’s growth in holiness, getting better and stronger over time. God doesn’t lower the bar. He expects and demands perfection. But Jesus is our perfection – God looks at us, who are saved, who believe in Jesus as our Saviour, and He sees the perfection of Jesus, not our sins. And in daily life, we have the Spirit who is constantly pushing us forward, ever closer to perfection. The reason you feel bad is because you are supposed to. When we sin, the Spirit convicts us – not to send us to hell, not to punish us, but so that we know what needs to change and so that we are motivated to deal with it. God wants us to move on, to stand up and try again. He’s not here just to make us feel better. He’s here to make us better. Sometimes that takes making us feel bad about our sins.
DON’T TRY THIS ON YOUR OWN
And He doesn’t want us to do it alone. That’s the second thing. That’s what God gave the church to do. God has given us a body of believers to walk beside us. And what a body of believers. Different people who can help in different ways.
There are Christians like Mary, who are generous and kind, who open up their homes and make you part of the family, whose faith is firm and a great example to others, whose courage inspires us to sacrifice for Christ.
There are Christians like Barnabas, sons and daughters of encouragement, who will lift you up in the midst of the pain, who will give you something to do so you can begin putting the pieces back together, who will work to strengthen those weaknesses.
There are Christians like Paul, seeing things as black and white, who will let you know what God’s expectations are, who love God and you too much to let you get away with thinking sin’s not that serious, who will give you the proverbial kick in the pants and ask you, “What were you thinking?”
There are Christians like Peter, who have been there, who have let others down, who can put an arm around you and say, “Yeah, me too,” and who will turn your eyes back to Jesus Christ and tell you, “Look at that cross. You know what that means? It means it doesn’t depend on you. It means God loves you so much that there’s grace no matter how far you’ve fallen. It means Jesus came to lift you up and make you better than that, and He will surely do it.”
So hear this message from the story of Mark. If you’ve screwed up, if you’ve sinned, if you feel bad for something you’ve done, don’t stop there. You don’t have to stay there. God has given you the opportunity to get back on your feet again. He’s given the opportunity to become better, to become more like Him. He’s given this community of believers, and in our midst are Marys and Barnabases and Peters and, yes, Pauls. You need them. He’s given His Holy Spirit. Call out and confess those sins, and ask for forgiveness, and ask for the strength to do better. Don’t try to restore yourself – self-help doesn’t work, because it depends on the same dummy who screwed it up the first time to make it better. God’s our Helper. If you need help, don’t leave here today without finding it. There’s a whole room of people here who can work with you, and on you. Don’t be afraid to come to Jesse or Gerry or myself after the service and talk.
God’s purpose is to restore us, to make us like Christ. If you want to be like Christ, He’ll make it happen. Let’s pray.
– Jeff Jones
December 31, 2007
Sermon Manuscript – December 30, 2007
One of the most wonderful things about being a parent is watching your child grow. The excitement you feel when they stand up on their own for the first time, or point to something and say its name without being prompted, or when they come home from school with a report card full of A’s – it’s great. Growth is a beautiful thing. Sometimes it’s a little frustrating – Caden said his first “no” yesterday – but it is so beautiful.
But it doesn’t just happen. Kids grow up, and some fly straight while others go bad. Some are brilliant while others just scrape by. Some of that, I’m sure, is what they’re born with, what they inherit. But a lot of it is things outside themselves.
There’s just a bewildering array of products out there for parents with young kids. There’s learning toys that teach shapes, computers that coach vocabulary. One of Caden’s favorite things is these Disney videos called “Baby Einstein,” that are basically a string of colourful video clips and puppet acts put to classical music. It’s disturbing, really, how addictive it is. Caden will turn the TV on and then fetch us and point at it, as if to say, “Put it on!” One time, Erin was getting ready to change his diaper and put him in bed, and I happened to turn on his “Discovering Water” DVD in the other room. When the music came on, he recognized it immediately – I realized it when I heard, “JEFF!!” in the baby’s room as Caden started squirming out of her grip, still naked and dirty, to try to get to his video. He missed his nap that day. We have friends in Nova Scotia whose boy will have a screaming fit when the video comes to an end. It’s like drugs. It’s creepy.
Babies like those videos, because of the colours, because of the music, because they stimulate their senses and show them interesting things. They grow that way. They grow other ways, too. Parents need to encourage their children’s growth in different ways – food, exercise, socializing, reading, housework, and so on. We, as children of God, are expected to grow, too. Peter tells us to crave pure spiritual milk, so that we grow up in our salvation. The Christian life is growth. And our text today shows us our example for growth. It shows us how we can grow. Let’s read.
Before we get into our passage in detail, I’d like you all to notice something about our passage. Luke has placed “brackets” around it, beginning and ending it with almost the same statement. In verse 40, he tells us that the child Jesus grew and became strong, and that God’s favor was on him. In verse 52, again, he tells us that Jesus grew in stature and wisdom, and that he increased in favour with God and man.
It’s so easy to think of Jesus as superhuman. After all, he is God! Yet we must remember that this God became a real man. Jesus was born as a little baby, just like us, with dirty diapers, just like us. “The little boy Jesus, no crying he makes” – so the song goes, but that can’t be right. He was a real human baby, and real babies cry! That’s how they communicate, how they grow.
And this little baby grew. Luke tells us about four kinds of growth. He grew in stature – the Greek word can mean in years or age or maturity as well, and the point is that he grew up and developed physically, just like all of us. He grew in wisdom – his little brain got bigger, and day by day his understanding increased. God doesn’t change or increase in knowledge, but the human being Jesus did – because that’s what God made human beings to do. He grew socially. His wisdom impressed others, as we will see in our passage. Jesus never sinned – and so he must have been just a pleasure to be around. Later, people would flock to him. Jesus grew socially. And he grew spiritually – as he became older, as his body and intellect developed, the human Jesus became more and more aware of his divine nature, grew closer and closer to God. And God’s favour toward him – his grace, his love for His Son – increased as Jesus perfectly grew up.
How can it be that Jesus can be God, never changing, always perfect and complete, and yet can be human – growing up, increasing in understanding and experience, growing in his relationship with His heavenly Father? I really don’t know. I don’t think that’s something we can fully understand how those two things relate. As Gerry’s been talking about recently, this is a tension that we have to hold. Our human minds can’t fully comprehend it – it is one of God’s mysteries. But we do know these things for certain: Jesus was fully God. Jesus was fully man. Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with the Lord.
And while we can’t understand the way these fit together in Jesus’ life, we can learn one thing. This passage teaches us how Jesus, the man, grew. It shows us how he grew in wisdom and in favour with God. That’s the point. That’s why Luke puts these brackets around the story. He’s saying, “Jesus grew! Here’s an example! Here’s how! We can learn from this!” So now we’ll get into it in detail.
GOD GAVE HIM ROLE MODELS
What a beautiful thing. Jesus has been growing up in the home of his mother, Mary, and his adoptive father, Joseph. The home of a carpenter. He must have been a strong man – imagine this man: carrying the beams, swinging the ax, sawing the boards, hammering the nails, these all make for a hard, physical job. He’s a precise man. You get the measurements wrong, and you screw up the whole job. You have to get it right. You have to get it just so, have to be precise. Joseph’s also a dedicated man – there’s a lot of people counting on him to build them their tools, to help build their homes. There’s a lot of work to do. No time for distractions. This is the kind of man Jesus grew up with.
Jesus, his eldest son, was Dad’s apprentice. He was right there in the shop, every day, learning these things. There he is, sawing the line Dad drew. There he is, measuring the length of the beam. Joseph checks it, to make sure it’s right. And Jesus learns. He’s growing. He’s young, and his hands are still learning coordination. I’m sure that Joseph had to walk him through it, had to guide those little hands, had to smooth out the rough parts, round off the corners when a little too much wood was left over. This is how Jesus grew. This is how he learned – at his father’s workbench.
Strong. Hard. Precise. Dedicated. That’s Joseph. And yet the Bible tells us more about him. We know he’s a gentle man. We know he’s caring. When he found out Mary was pregnant, before he knew the truth, he must have been devastated. He must have been crushed, badly hurt. Yet even in the pain, when a lesser man would have sought to get even, to hurt her back, Joseph resolves to divorce her quietly. Keep it out of sight. Keep it private. Don’t humiliate her. Don’t make a scene. The Bible says that he was honorable – here’s the evidence. He was a gentle and caring man.
And – he’s a spiritual man. Joseph – hard, strong, precise, dedicated, gentle Joseph – he walks with the Lord. Yes, Mary got a visit from an angel to announce Jesus’ birth. Joseph gets three messages, visits from God in dreams. One to tell him it was okay to take Mary as his wife. One to tell him to leave for Egypt to escape Herod. And a third to tell him to go back. What an honour to have such access to God! What a privilege, what a responsibility to be the main role model, the primary male figure, for the Messiah! Joseph was close to God.
And here we see that closeness, that piety. Every year, it’s his practice to go up to Jerusalem for the Passover. The law required this, and he obeyed. That’s not a small thing. Nazareth is about three day’s journey from Jerusalem – that’s six days on the road, there and back, plus the time spent in Jerusalem. And he doesn’t do the bare minimum, either. The text tells us that they left Jerusalem when the feast was complete. That’s seven whole days. The requirement for those out of town was only two. Joseph does more than the minimum. He thinks it’s important to do the whole thing. Seven days. Plus six on the road. Two weeks out of every year, it is his practice, his habit to travel to Jerusalem. Like I said, he’s a dedicated man.
That’s Jesus’ earthly father. The text isn’t afraid to call him that. Though Joseph isn’t his physical father, that’s what Mary and Jesus call him. The Jews had a saying – it’s not him who begets, but him who brings up, that’s the father. Joseph is a strong, precise, dedicated, gentle, and spiritual man. What a father he must have been!
What of his wife? Mary is held up in the Bible as an example of faith. When the angel tells her she will bear the Christ, she says, Luke 1:38: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be according to your word.” Yes, Lord. I am your servant. Even though she knows what people will think. Even though the shame for her, in that culture, would be extreme. Even though it meant humiliation and shunning and people talking behind their backs, she accepts.
Here we see her going up to the festival. It was her habit, too. Every year. That’s remarkable – the law only required the men to go. The women could, too, but it was optional – the rabbis considered it an act of mercy not to require such a physical hardship of women. If they went once, that was considered plenty. Mary, too, like her husband, does more. She goes above and beyond the call of duty. She’s a dedicated, pious woman. A woman of faith.
These are Jesus’ parents. His human role models. God the Father gave him good ones. How does Jesus grow? In what practical ways? Here’s the first. He’s got good examples. He’s got great, godly role models. Do you want to grow in wisdom, in favour with God? Find strong, precise, dedicated, gentle, loving, God-centred, Spirit-filled role models and friends. Surround yourself with them. The first way growth happens is by imitating godly examples.
So they go up to Jerusalem. “Up” – Jerusalem’s in the mountains. Not an easy journey. Dangerous, and certainly a hard walk. Especially for women like Mary and children like Jesus.
They spend the whole festival in the city. All seven days – seven days of excitement, seeing the sights, like the huge, gleaming, golden Temple, of smelling the aromas of anointing oil on the clothes of the priests and the smoke of the daily sacrifices, hearing the trumpets of the Levites worshiping on the mountain, tasting the bitter herbs and unleavened bread and roast lamb of the Passover meal. What an experience.
And when it’s all over, Mary and Joseph pack their bags and leave. Without Jesus. How does that happen? Remember, the trip to and from Jerusalem, in the mountains, isn’t easy. It’s downright dangerous – later in life, Jesus would tell a parable about a man beaten by robbers and left for dead on a road from Jerusalem, and it was a story with too much resemblance to reality for people to ignore. So, they traveled in caravans, large groups, to and from the feast. Traditionally, Jewish women would walk ahead of the men. So in a large group, Mary was probably walking with the other women up ahead, while Joseph hung out with the men at the rear of the caravan. They each probably assumed Jesus was with the other – at least until they stopped for the night, and came back together, and realized that they assumed wrong.
Now they’re scared to death. And so they head right back to Jerusalem – a long day’s trip. Imagine what was going through their minds– not far from there, Jesus had been born, and King Herod had sent soldiers to kill every boy under the age of two – because he feared their son. Even though Herod was long dead, I’m sure that memory was running through their mind, how the authorities had tried to have Jesus killed less than twelve years before. As they hurried back to Jerusalem, as they searched the dusty streets and knocked on the doors of the houses they had stayed in, that deep fear surfaces again – “What if someone tries to kill him again?”
AN ASTONISHING SIGHT
Desperately, they climb the steep, winding city streets up to the Temple Mount. They enter through the gates into the wide-open space of the Temple Courts. As they search the huge complex, they happen on a large room off to the side of the temple – a classroom, or a courtroom. There’s a lot of people in this room. A group of older men, all wearing little boxes on their foreheads and hands and tassels on their robes, sitting in the middle of the room. There’s two or three rows of them, seated in a semicircle. And they hear everyone murmuring and buzzing, talking to one another. They’ve got expressions of amazement and astonishment. And sitting in their midst is their son, Jesus.
These men are the teachers, the doctors of the law. And Jesus has been invited to sit with them! As Mary and Joseph watched, the rabbis asked Jesus a question. His answer caused another buzz. Then it was Jesus’ turn to ask a question. Some of them shrug, and raise their hands – they’ve been stumped by a twelve-year-old. Others start to answer, but are cut off by their neighbors, who have a different view. Everyone’s soon discussing this insightful question, and what the Law might mean about this. And this goes on – back and forth, question and answer, Jesus and the rabbis. That’s how the rabbis taught – they would invite a promising pupil or scholar into their midst, and then they would ask them questions. And they would invite questions back. And here’s twelve-year-old Jesus, holding his own in a deep theological discussion with men who have studied the Law for decades. Everyone is astonished.
Only twelve, and Jesus has a deep interest in God. Not even a teenager – and he knows His Bible. He loves God’s Word. Why had he stayed in Jerusalem? For this! Jesus is growing. He’s growing in wisdom. He’s growing spiritually. How does he do it? Here’s the second way. He immerses himself in God’s Word. He studies God’s Law. He wrestles with it, struggles to understand it, to make it his. He saturates himself with the Bible. All at just twelve years old! Do you want to grow in wisdom? Do you want to draw nearer to God, to grow in favour with Him? Read His Word. Know your Bible. Do you have questions? Go to the Temple! God gives His people pastors and elders, whose task is to understand and teach the Bible, and they sit in His Temple – in the body of His church – to help us as we struggle to learn and apply God’s Word. Jesus wasn’t too proud to ask questions. He valued God’s Word. That’s the second way he grew.
Mary takes Jesus aside. She hugs him fiercely, tears in her eyes. Imagine the relief! The king didn’t kill him, after all. No wild beast has hurt him. He’s safe and sound. And then the frustration comes out. “What is this you have done to us?” she asks. “Your father and I have been so worried! We’ve looked everywhere for you – for three days!” She’s chiding him. Jesus was the perfect child – she probably wasn’t used to doing this! She’s probably quite confused, too. For Jesus to put them through this kind of stress is just so out of character for him.
His answer is even more confusing. Jesus seems to be gently chiding her back, actually. “Why did you search for me?” he asks, innocently. I can see genuine surprise in his eyes. “Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?”
His Father’s house. His heavenly father – not his earthly father. Jesus is here in the house of God, and he needed to be here. It was necessary. Why? Because Jesus, though a human being, is on a divine mission. He answers to God before anyone else. Even including his parents. He’s not being disobedient to them. He’s not questioning their authority – later, Luke goes out of his way to stress that Jesus was submissive to them. Jesus loved his parents. He obeyed his parents. He’s not disrespecting them here. But his stay at the Temple makes a vitally important point. That point is the third way that he grew. And it is the most important, most fundamental reason why Jesus grew in wisdom and in favour with God. The third, and most important, way to grow is this: He put God first.
God comes first! Everything Jesus says and does is related to His Heavenly Father. In all things, the first and most important thing to Jesus was to do His Father’s will. That is so important. John 6 tells us that the reason we are eternally secure, the reason that a true believer cannot lose their salvation, is because it is the will of the Father that Jesus lose none of those He has given him. Luke 22 shows Jesus later in the Garden, agonizing about the Cross – and it is because it was His Father’s will that he go there, because, as Isaiah 51 tells us, it was the will of the Lord to crush Him, Jesus went to the Cross and died for our sins. Jesus lived to do God’s will. His whole life was lived first and foremost for God. His whole life, from the beginning we see here to its terrible end at Calvary, and after that at the resurrection and even now sitting at the Father’s right hand in heaven, has always been and forever will be all about the will of His Father. That’s the third way we see him grow. And it is the most important.
Do you want to grow in wisdom? Do you want to increase in favour with the Lord? Do everything to the glory of God. Live every moment for God. Put God first and foremost – even more than that, actually. Make God everything. Absolutely everything you do should have reference to God, should be service to God, should give glory to God, should reflect God. There is no division between the sacred and the secular, between “spiritual” and “other” stuff. It’s all got to connect to God. God has to be first. It was necessary that Jesus be in the Temple, putting God first. We must do the same.
Jesus is fine. His parents are relieved. And so they hit the road – back down the winding, descending mountain roads, north to Galilee. Then Luke tells us an important thing here. Jesus was “submissive” to them. He continued in submission to them. There is a noteworthy picture – Jesus, Creator of heaven and earth, the Saviour of the world – submissive to an imperfect, sinful man and his imperfect, sinful wife.
The idea of submission is an unpopular one these days. The media, music, TV, our culture at large encourages independence and freedom and liberty. The idea of submission seems so passé. Many people, Christians among them, look at the idea of submission as violating their dignity. Yet submission to authority is a biblical teaching. Every one of us is expected to submit to one authority or another. As Christians, as the church, we all submit to Christ. Children are commanded to submit to their parents. Paul, in Romans 13, tells Christians to submit to the government and obey the law. Wives are directed to be submissive to their husbands. Church members are to submit to the elders and pastors placed over them. Each of us is expected to submit to the Word of God and to correction by fellow believers when we sin.
The Bible is full of submission. Submission isn’t demeaning! To be subject to authority, to respect those given responsibility over us, doesn’t infringe our freedom or insult our dignity! If Christ, who is God, deserving all glory and honour, thought it fitting to submit to the earthly parents given Him by the Father – imperfect, sinful though they were – then who are we to say that submission is beneath us? Are we better than our Lord? Luke presents this example of Christ’s submission not just to show that his staying in the Temple was not disrespectful. No, it is yet another way Jesus grew in wisdom and favour with God and men. The fourth way a person can grow in wisdom and their relationship to God is to submit joyfully to those authorities God has placed in their life. Do you want to grow in wisdom? Do you want to have a closer walk with God? Examine your life. Are you being submissive? Are you obeying God’s Word in everything, holding nothing back? Are you listening to people when they point out things that you’re doing wrong? Do you respect your boss? Your husband? Your parents? Do you obey the laws of the nation? Be submissive! This is God’s will, and this is how we grow!
We’ve seen four practical things that helped the boy Jesus grow in wisdom and in favour with God and man. He had great role models – imperfect, sinful role models, but still very good ones. He loves the Word of God, and he hides it in His heart, he learns and studies it. As we’ve just seen, he submitted to the authorities in His life. And most importantly of all – Jesus put God first. He did His Father’s will, above all other things.
The other three things are just practical ways to demonstrate that God has first place in our lives, that God is everything to us. A person who puts God first in everything will seek good, godly role models and friends. Not to cut ourselves off from people who aren’t – Jesus hung out with adulterers and tax collectors! – but, if God is really everything to us, the people who we choose to take our lead from, whom we choose to imitate, whom we admire, must be people of upright character, people of godliness. A person who loves God more than anything will love His Word and struggle to understand it. Even when they don’t understand it, like Mary didn’t understand Jesus’ words in verse 50, a person who puts God first will still treasure what they can’t understand, will hide it in their heart, and trust that God will reveal the meaning to them. A person who cherishes God cherishes His Word. And a person who desires to see God exalted and lifted up in everything will demonstrate that by submitting joyfully to the authorities, and to the leaders of the church, and to correction by fellow believers, and to parents, and to husbands, and to governing authorities. Submission shows a spirit of humility and a respect for God and His ways – and these are beautiful things to God. Godly role models, love for God’s Word, submission to authority – these all point to God. These all show that God is everything to us.
That’s Luke’s message. Jesus grew, like all of us. But He grew perfectly. And the most fundamental reason Jesus grew up so well is that to him, His Father is everything. God and His glory came first. If we would be like Christ, if we want to get closer to the standard of perfection that God desires us to strive for, then we must put God first – we must make Him our everything, above all. God must be in all, and above all. Let’s pray.
– Jeff Jones
December 17, 2007
Sermon Manuscript – December 16, 2007
When I was in college, I went on a trip to Washington, DC, with the school band. I remember walking the streets of that nation’s capital, seeing the sights, visiting the museums, taking lots of pictures. I was with a couple of buddies, walking away from the U.S. Capitol, and we began seeing police all over the place. There were patrol cars parked at every intersection along the street. And as we walked, suddenly they all turned their lights on, and the policemen got out and closed all the cross streets. We turned to look back, and we saw a motorcade leaving Capitol Hill – two or three long, shiny, black limousines, with little flags fluttering from their bumpers and antennas, driving really fast away from the Hill. They drove right by us. We looked and tried to see who was in the cars, but the glass was all tinted and we couldn’t make them out – which, I suppose, is the point! To this day, in those moments when I’ve been really bored or nostalgic, I’ve wondered idly who that was. Was it some high official – a cabinet secretary, even the President or the Vice President? Who knows. The point is, though, that for that moment, everyone along that street stopped and watched this impressive convoy go past. Wondering, most of them, who they were. Wondering what was going on. Why the hurry. What’s the big deal?
This passage from Matthew 2 is really the same scene, in many ways. I want you all to look at this story with me, before we dismiss. Here we are, in another national capital, with another group of locals watching another fancy procession, wondering: what’s going on? Who are these guys? Here’s a group of foreign dignitaries, who have traveled for months from the east – probably around Babylon in Iraq, but maybe even further – and they’ve come to visit someone.
The one “born king of the Jews.” That causes an uproar. The whole city is unsettled, disturbed. Along with the current King, a guy named Herod. See, this idea, of a child born King of the Jews, really bothers Herod. He’s the King of the Jews. But – he wasn’t born that way. Herod’s family had basically bought the throne from the Romans – he hadn’t been born to it. He couldn’t have been – Herod wasn’t even Jewish! And so the idea of a rightful king terrifies him.
Long ago, God promised a Jewish king named David that one of his descendants would sit on the throne of Israel forever. God always keeps his promises – Jesus was that king, God Himself become a man, coming to earth to live a real earthly life. As a man, as the son of David, Jesus was the rightful king of the Jews. As God, as the creator of all things, Jesus was – and is – the rightful king of everything. And so this little boy born two thousand years ago in a Roman backwater isn’t just a nice story. He’s the most important thing in the world, and every single one of us owes him our allegiance. That’s our first point. Jesus is a king. Jesus is our king.
The wise men may not have known all this. But they knew he was a king, and that he deserved honor. So they brought him their best – the treasures of their land. Gold. Frankincense. And myrrh. Myrrh was used to embalm dead bodies and prepare people for burial.
Burial spices – what kind of a present is that? I think the Magi brought it because it was precious, because it was something their land was famous for. But even though they probably didn’t mean anything deeper than that, the gift itself has a really important message for us – for all humanity. There are no coincidences in the Bible – God wrote all of history, and in His story this gift of burial spices means something. That meaning is our second point: Jesus came to die.
Jesus came to suffer. God became a man in order to die. Jesus Christ’s mission was to be killed on the cross – that’s what we remember at Easter, but already, here in the Christmas story, in the gifts of the wise men, we see the foreshadowing of what was to come. Jesus’ birth is good news because his death was good news. The Father sent His Son, Jesus, into the world to die in the place of sinners, to take the punishment that every one of us deserves. See, we’ve all sinned. Every one of us, through the things we’ve done wrong, have rebelled against our rightful King. We are all guilty. And yet our King came to earth to die, a perfect man for imperfect men, giving his perfect life so we could be counted as perfect by God, taking our sin on himself and receiving the punishment it deserves. And just as He was raised from the dead, and just as He now lives forever, we too will be raised and given eternal life – if we believe.
If we believe – and, you know, that’s the point. See, this particular story is actually about how people responded to Jesus. Matthew’s actually calling for a response. When the good news came, when it was announced, how did people respond? What did they do when they heard?
This is really a story about two groups of people. We see here the wise men. Foreigners – not Jews. They are not part of the chosen people. They are outside the camp, unclean. And even worse than that – they are Magi. They’re not kings, though a lot of songs say that. They’re actually astrologers – like the guys who write the astrology column in the newspaper, with the Cancers and the Leos and the Geminis and all that, these wise men made a living reading the stars, looking for signs, trying to tell the future.
There is the irony. The ones who come from thousands of miles away to worship the king of the Jews – they’re not Jews! In fact, their lifestyle is an abomination to the Jews! The Law of Moses said to stone sorcerers to death, and yet that’s exactly what these guys were!
Foreigners. Outsiders. Sinners! And yet here they are to worship the King. And look at them. They arrive, and they see the child, and they are overjoyed. Literally, it says, “they exceedingly rejoiced great joy.” When was the last time you felt like that? Indescribable happiness? I can only think of a couple times in my life – the moment I saw my wife-to-be walking up the aisle in that white dress, or the first moment I heard my son cry. Have you ever had a moment like that? That’s how these men felt. Their eyes had seen the King, the Lord of Glory. They fall all over themselves to worship him, opening their treasure boxes, giving him gifts, weeping with happiness. It didn’t matter who they were. It didn’t matter how bad they had been, how sinful they were – they came to Christ, and they were not turned away. They were held up as an example to follow here! That’s how we should respond!
On the other hand, there’s another group of people in this story. The people of the land – the ones who had been awaiting this promised King, who had been looking for a Messiah – where were they? We see the religious leaders – the priests, the scribes of the people – telling Herod and the Magi where Jesus was. They explained where to find him. They told them who He was – that He was from God, that he came as a ruler, that he came to shepherd His people – to care for them, to love them, to feed them, to protect them.
And yet – the Magi – the foreigners – travel alone. None of those priests come to see what the Scriptures promised. There are no Jewish leaders here to see the King of the Jews. Jesus came to be King of Israel – and Israel yawned. The people of Jerusalem could hardly have missed the news – their King was born! – and yet, when it came down to who would actually go take a look, who goes? Not them. Only seven miles away – but they were too busy. They were too distracted. They were looking for something a little more flashy than a kid born in a trough. They were looking for a conquering hero, not a baby in stinky diapers.
That’s the contrast here. That’s the choice here. Here we are, at Christmas. The good news is in every carol, every tree, every string of coloured lights. Jesus is born. We saw the play this morning – Jesus is born. How will you respond? Like the foreigners and sinners we are, who despite their faults threw themselves before the Lord with joy? Or will you carry on this busy season like the people of Jerusalem, thinking you’re all right, maybe getting around to it later? Will you believe in Christ, and trust Him to save you from your sins and the punishment that they deserve? Or will you look for something more flashy, more impressive, more popular instead, putting him off till later?
– Jeff Jones
November 26, 2007
Sermon Manuscript – November 25, 2007
HABAKKUK HAS A VISION
There’s a story in 2 Chronicles 6 about the prophet Elisha. The Syrian army has surrounded his hometown and they’re looking to kill him, because he’s been passing information about Syrian troop movements to the Israelite army. And Elisha is standing on the city wall with his servant, looking over the hundreds of tents and fluttering banners, watching the hot sun glinting and flashing and reflecting off the polished steel weapons and armour of thousands of enemy soldiers. His servant is in bad shape – he panics. “What are we going to do?”And Elisha just prays to God that his servant’s eyes will be opened. And suddenly, the servant sees thousands of fiery chariots and horses surrounding the enemy troops. He had a vision of God’s awesome power.
I think Habakkuk must have had something similar. Earlier in the book, in Chapter 2, verse 1, Habakkuk declares that he’s going to take his stand at his post. Like a sentry, he’s going to climb the stairs up to the top of the city wall, he’s going to take a position with a clear field of view, and he’s going to watch. Patiently. Passing the hours, staring across the plains below to the distant mountains, expecting at any moment to receive a vision. Habakkuk had been waiting patiently for an answer, and we read part of that answer last time – the five woes that God pronounced against the Babylonians. Well, Habakkuk responded with the psalm of praise we’re reading today, and I think that this song is itself a revelation from God.
Verse 3 – maybe he was looking to the southeast, toward Sinai, where the Israelites had received the Law, the direction that they had come from to conquer the promised land. And Habakkuk sees something awesome. From Teman, and Mount Paran – in the kingdom of Edom, down in the southeast – he sees a great light. Look at verse 4 – dazzling rays of light, so bright that God is veiling them so that they don’t destroy everything they touch. They’re veiled because no man can look upon God’s face and live – Exodus 33:20 – because God is that glorious.
THE POWER OF THE MOST HIGH
And as the light approaches, something even more terrifying happens. There’s a terrible earthquake – verse 6. The city walls are cracking and crumbling under his feet, bricks and rocks are falling from the buildings into the streets, and everyone in the city is screaming and shouting. And Habakkuk looks across the plains and sees an incredible sight. The mighty mountains to the east, that towered over the city, that year after year, age after age, never moved or changed – verse 10: those great mountains are writhing. Like a ball of snakes, the mountain ranges themselves are twisting and rolling as if in excruciating pain. And as the great light of the Lord passes through them, they are actually leaping out of His way, scattering every which way like antelope fleeing before a hungry lion. And as the light draws closer, the foothills that surrounded those mountains are sinking. Like balloons losing air, or a pile of sand collapsing, the hills are wasting away as God approaches, making the way clear and flat before Him.
And as the ground shakes, it begins to crack, and water from seas and lakes and oceans pours in. Verse 9 – raging rivers divide the land, sweeping aside houses and animals and people, splitting the landscape like a spiderweb of cracks spreading across a windshield. Off to the west, Habakkuk hears a growing roar, the crashing of waves and the thunder of surf. Verse 10 – the great Mediterranean Sea is frothing and boiling, great waves of water stretching out toward the light of the Lord as he approaches.
This is our God. This is the One we’re here to worship today, the God who made the entire universe with just a word, who personally shaped and molded each one of us, forming us tenderly and lovingly in the womb. This is a God of unimaginable power. This is a God of unthinkable might and strength. Nothing man has devised can even begin to measure up against the awesome power of Israel’s God. Who can scatter whole mountain ranges? Who can stop rivers with a word, dry up seas with a gesture, flatten hills with a thought? Our God is a God of staggering power. That’s our first point today. “Our God Is An Awesome God” –you know, that’s an understatement. I want you to keep that in mind as we go on. Ours is a God of power.
GOD OF JUDGMENT
Habakkuk’s still in this vision, clinging for his very life to the crumbling walls. And as the light approaches, he sees an even more terrifying sight. The golden fields and the green orchards below begin to turn brown. The leaves curl up and dry out; the animals fall to the ground and die; men and women and children cry out in pain and sickness. Verse 5: a plague is coming, driving in front of God as He approaches. And way off in the distance, beyond the great light, Habakkuk sees pestilence – disease and suffering and death, all following hard on God’s heels. Plague and pestilence – we’re not used to that in our world of healthcare and vaccines and disinfectant. But in Habakkuk’s day, even something as mild as the flu could wipe out whole villages. Think of the pictures you’ve seen on TV about Ebola in the Congo, or of the AIDS pandemic in South Africa – that’s plague and pestilence. And it’s coming Habakkuk’s way.
And another sound comes to his ears, growing and getting louder. It’s a pounding noise, like distant drums. The thudding gets louder and faster, and in the light Habakkuk can see shapes. Horses – great, big, powerful horses. And as those figures become clearer, there’s another sound – a rumbling and clattering sound. And Habakkuk sees the horses are pulling something – verse 8: a great big chariot, with huge wheels and a figure of blinding light driving it. More horses appear – hundreds, thousands of them. An army, a horde of huge beasts carrying a fierce and angry host of warriors on their backs.
Verse 11: at that sight – thousands of glinting swords and polished helmets – the sun, which had been sinking down to the horizon, suddenly freezes. The moon, which had been rising in the evening sky, stops cold. Like in the days of Joshua, the sun and the moon stand still in the presence of their maker. Like they did for Joshua, they will hold their place so that the army of God can do their dreadful work.
For this heavenly host has come for war. Look at verse 12. Their Lord is angry. No, actually, not just angry. He’s furious. His people have ignored Him and despised Him and rejected Him long enough. His people have killed His messengers, crushed the poor, abused the orphans, stolen from the widows for far too long. The nation that bore His name had chased after other gods, very literally prostituting themselves with the idols of the nations. They have chosen their path. They’ve had their chance.
And that’s not all. Israel isn’t God’s only target. The Babylonians, that “bitter and hasty nation” spoken of in chapter one, have also drawn God’s wrath. They’ve swept across the earth like a swarm of locusts, devouring everything in their path. They’ve crushed every nation that arose to oppose them – including the people of God. They’ve raped and pillaged and slaughtered, committed unspeakable crimes, unthinkable atrocities. And the Lord of Hosts has come in judgment – come to set things right.
Suddenly the figure in the chariot roars – verse 9. The voice is like thunder – it splits the ground and shakes the stars: “Arrows! Bring me my arrows!” In His hand appears a great bow – so huge, its ends stretch out like the wings of an airplane, the string so thick it could tie a ship to shore. And the Lord lets fly His arrows – flashing like lightning bolts, smashing towers, striking down giants, piercing city walls like paper. The armies of the nations, soldiers beyond number, chariots and horses and kings fall before the Lord. Look at verse 12: the nations are threshed like wheat at the harvest, beaten and tossed in the air for the wind to carry away the chaff. Nothing stands in His way. Nothing stops Him. In His fury, He marches through the nations. In His wrath, all who dare to rise against Him are destroyed.
This is our God. This is the Lord who we’re here to worship today, the God who wrote His Law on stone tablets, who made His will known to shepherds and fishermen, whose legions of angels cry, “Holy! Holy! Holy! is the Lord Almighty!” This is a God of unimaginable perfection. This is a God of unthinkable purity and beauty. And he sees the sin of the nations – His own people of Israel, and all the others who have taken His love for granted, who have forgotten His ways, who have rebelled against His authority and done things their own way. This is a God who is enraged with sin. He sees the moral decay of humanity and it makes Him angry. He hears of the crimes of men and women and He rises up in anger. This is a God who can’t stand His law being broken, who cannot bear His perfect image being tarnished by the bad things that His creation has done. Now He’s coming in judgment.
That’s the second point today. Our God is not just a God of unspeakable might, who can make mountains scatter and oceans boil. No – all that terrifying power and immeasurable might and strength is being directed in anger at the sinfulness of human beings. All that power is being channelled and pointed in wrath at living, breathing people on the street. Ours is a God who is marching through the nations bringing terrible judgment on sin. Ours is a God who brings calamity, who takes life, who judges and sentences to hell. Ours is a God furious with sin, because it is opposed to everything that He is. Ours is a God of judgment. That’s our second point.
That’s just terrifying. That’s what Habakkuk has seen.
Listen to our prophet’s response – verse 16. He shakes like a leaf. Have you ever been so scared, that you couldn’t stop shaking? Habakkuk sees the power and the wrath of God, and his lips quiver, his teeth chatter with fear. Rottenness enters his bones – a cold and empty feeling fills his body, the blood rushes from his arms and legs and his skin goes pale. His legs go weak –he leans against the wall, trying to keep his composure.
He fears the Lord. And you know, that’s not a bad thing. A little fear is often a very healthy thing. We fear electricity, for instance. We know that it can hurt us or even kill us. So we fear it – not a terror kind of fear, not a paralysing or depressing kind of fear, but a respectful, careful, wary kind of fear. A fear that keeps us from touching bare wires or setting appliances next to the bathtub. Now, my son Caden doesn’t have that fear. He doesn’t fear electricity. I see him trying to put knives and screwdrivers into electric sockets now. I’ve had to cover them all up. Why? Because Caden doesn’t fear electricity. He doesn’t know what it is! If he knew it – he would fear it, right? Fear is a good thing in this case. It’s a mark of maturity, right?
When I was a kid, we were living in Elkford, in the Crowsnest Pass, in an apartment building. One night I was in bed, and I was sleeping, when there was this tremendous BANG. The whole room flashed with this blue light – the flash was just huge. I remember literally jumping out of bed. That scared me – I remember my heart racing and my muscles tensing and that cold, trembling feeling you get after a sudden surprise. What had happened was this: there was a thunderstorm, and a lightning flash hit an electrical box or transformer and blew it out. It was so powerful that the blast ripped a hole in the side of the building, broken glass everywhere. I think the telephone pole was thrown into it. That’s what electricity can do if you’re not careful.
God is like that. Just like you don’t mess around with electricity or take chances with it, don’t mess around with God. Ours is a big God. Ours is a dangerous God. He is holy and powerful, and He takes His purity and His justice very seriously. To really know God for who and what He is, to actually understand Him, is to fear Him. Habakkuk saw what happens when people stop doing that, what happens when people get careless with God. And his healthy, respectful fear turned to terror, just like it did for me that moment I was scared out of bed.
HE COMES TO SAVE
Is it any wonder that Habakkuk cries out, “In wrath, remember mercy!”? If God gave us what we deserved, who could stand? If God was “fair,” what would we get? Which of us has done nothing wrong? Which of us hasn’t at one time or another taken something that wasn’t ours, or looked at a woman in a lustful and dishonourable way, or hidden the truth with lies, or built up bitterness and hate in our hearts for another person? We have all sinned. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God – all have turned away, done what is wrong, earned God’s wrath.
This is a vision, yes. A picture, a verbal painting. But its message is true – this mighty God will one day come in judgment. It’s terrifying. But – it’s not the whole story. That’s not the whole vision.
Look at verse 8. That great chariot, that terrifying war machine, what is it named? What does the prophet call it? “Your chariot of salvation.” Salvation!
God is angry, but it’s not an uncontrolled rage. He has a purpose. In the midst of all these fearful things, the prophet sees a promise: God is salvation. That’s our third point. God comes to save. He comes to protect and defend and to set free.
Who is He coming to save? Look at verse 13: God goes out for the salvation of His people. That sounds strange, actually. The whole book of Habakkuk is about God’s plan to destroy the kingdom of Judah – His people! – and have them dragged off into exile. Habakkuk has bad news. Babylonians are coming. When they get here, it’s all over.
How is God coming to save His people, then? Has He changed His mind? No. In verse 2, Habakkuk asks that God remember mercy in His wrath. The wrath is coming for sure. It’s certain. Habakkuk doesn’t ask that the wrath be cancelled – only that God temper and moderate it with mercy. But it’s still coming. In verse 16, the prophet says that he will wait patiently for the day of trouble to come on the invaders – he assumes, he takes for granted, the fact that the invasion is still on. Judah will be destroyed. So whatever this salvation is, it’s not that Judah will be saved from the Babylonians.
What is it, then? The answer is in verse 13: God is coming for the salvation of His anointed. The Hebrew is singular – it means “anointed one.” For a Hebrew, this would have two possible meanings. First, it might be the king of Judah. The king was God’s “anointed,” set apart by God to rule His people. As a descendant of King David, the king of Judah was special – because God promised David that one of His descendants would rule forever. The second possible meaning was that promised ruler himself – the Messiah, the Son of David.
God is coming to save His people, and to save His anointed one. That is, even though Judah will be conquered and the Jews sent into exile, God will keep His promise. The Jews will not be stamped out of existence – God will protect a remnant, a faithful few, and He will preserve them and save them. And the line of David will not be destroyed – it will be preserved. There will still be a king from David’s house. God will save His anointed one – He will preserve Him and protect Him.
What does that mean for us? We know who that Anointed One is. The Son of David, the promised King, was Jesus Christ. God became a man and came to earth to bring salvation for anyone who believes in Him. Jesus Christ came to save us from the terrifying vision Habakkuk saw. He came to save us from the wrath of God, from the punishment we all deserve for our sins. And He did so by allowing Himself to be nailed to a cross and left to die – the only good man died for sinful human beings, the innocent dying in the place of the guilty. On that cross, Christ absorbed the wrath of God that Habakkuk describes so graphically for us. Christ received the punishment that was meant for us. He died in our place. And God kept His promise that we find here in our passage – on the third day He saved His Anointed One, by raising Him from the dead. By going out for the salvation of His Anointed One, God saved His people.
So the question, then, is: who are His people? Our passage is clear: some are saved, others are not. God saves His people. Who are they? Habakkuk 2:4 – everyone who lives by his faith. God’s people are everyone who believes in Jesus and trusts in Him for their salvation. Are you one of God’s people? You are if you believe. You are if you, like Habakkuk, cry out to God for mercy, and, like Habakkuk, trust in God’s promises. If you do not yet believe, if you haven’t trusted in Christ for your salvation, read this passage again. The wrath of God is coming – God will judge the earth, and no one will survive unless they believe in Jesus Christ. Don’t wait. Cry out to God, like Habakkuk. Ask for mercy and trust in the Anointed One, Jesus Christ, to save you.
REJOICE IN THE LORD!
In light of all the bad stuff, it seems strange to read the last three verses. In spite of it all, Habakkuk rejoices. The fig trees don’t blossom, there’s no fruit on the vines, the olive crop’s failed, no sheep can be found – for an agricultural society like Judah, this was a disaster! There’s no food! There’s no clothing! So why does Habakkuk rejoice?
Because of the awesome power of God. We’ve already seen how incredibly powerful God is. We’ve seen what He can do. See, Habakkuk believes in God. He has faith. He knows that he is one of God’s people. And he rejoices, because all of the awesome power of God is being employed to save him and to keep him from harm. It doesn’t matter how bad things get! Habakkuk has God on his side! What more does he need? What could be better? For what more could he ask?
Now, that doesn’t mean that life won’t get uncomfortable. Habakkuk’s nation is about to be conquered and its people dragged away to a faraway land. Even the faithful will feel the pain. They’ll suffer alongside everyone else. We don’t know what happened to Habakkuk after this. Maybe he died before it came true. Maybe he died in the invasion, or was dragged off into exile like Ezekiel was. We don’t know. And Habakkuk knew that hard times would come – he describes them here. See, being a Christian does not insulate you from hard times. Jesus Himself said that those who follow Him would be persecuted and killed for His name’s sake. Paul reminds Christians that they will suffer in this life.
But God is on our side! As Jesus said, do not fear those who can destroy the body. The worst that can happen to a believer is death. With the promise of eternal life, what is that? Compared to endless ages without pain or suffering or disease or tears, what is death? It’s not the end! It wasn’t the end for the Anointed One – God raised Him from the dead! And so He will raise us too! In the face of trouble and suffering, we rejoice, because God has already won the battle, because God has already saved us, and the worst that the world can do is to open the door to eternity a little bit sooner!
But it’s more than eternal life. We rejoice now, because God is with us now. The whole book of Habakkuk is a conversation. God talks with a mere human being. God explains Himself to a mere man, indulges him and gives him the answers he was looking for. God cared enough to listen and to answer. And Habakkuk learned not only that by believing, he was safe. He also learned that, no matter what, but that God was with him – and that God is still fully in control.
Maybe you wonder why I chose to preach through this book. Let me tell you why. In February of 2006, Erin was three months pregnant with Caden, and I was studying the Minor Prophets in Old Testament class. I’d decided to do a research paper on Habakkuk. Well, all of a sudden, Erin began having complications with the pregnancy. We took her to the hospital, and they tested her hormone levels and found out they were very low. A second test found that the levels were dropping. They tried to detect a heartbeat, but they couldn’t hear one. The doctor told us it was almost certain we had lost the baby – that the dropping levels meant the baby was dead, and her body was ending the pregnancy.
We felt horrible. We cried, and we prayed that God would save the baby. They scheduled an ultrasound, but it was a few days away. Those were the longest days of my life. So for those long days, we prayed and hoped. To get my mind off all that, I tried to get to work on my school project, and so I remember reading Habakkuk during that time. In that book I found one thing that kept me going, one lesson from Habakkuk that sustained me during those hard days, and that was this: even when the fig trees do not blossom, even when there is no food on the table and everything is going wrong, rejoice – because God is in control. That kept me going – God was in control, and no matter what happened, no matter how things turned out, I knew that God had a purpose in it and that He loved us and was working for our good. I knew that our baby – and we, too – were in the strong hands of this mighty God, and that no matter what happened and how hard it was we would be okay in the end, because God was with us and He was in control.
God was merciful to us. He saved our baby. Our doctor was totally confused, but God is more powerful than doctors. He can answer prayers. Now, he won’t always say yes, but he can say yes, and that’s why we pray. He has all power and might and strength, and that is our hope.
That’s why I chose this book. Because it teaches a lesson that we all need to hear, so badly, and especially when the worst happens. That lesson is this: we can find joy in any situation, any circumstance, because God is in control. He can’t be defeated. He can’t be frustrated. He can’t be thwarted. Ours is a sovereign God! That’s why we rejoice. Even through tears, through suffering, through the worst pain, we can rejoice, because God is completely in control. This awesome and powerful God cares for us personally and has promised to save us. This mighty and unstoppable God has promised that all things will work together for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28). Take joy in that. It’s the most beautiful truth in the world.
– Jeff Jones
November 11, 2007
Sermon Manuscript – November 11, 2007
This is a “fire and brimstone” section of the Bible. There are five “woes,” which are pronouncements of destruction and punishment by God upon the Babylonians. There’s a woe on those who pile up what isn’t theirs. There’s a woe on those who set their nest on high to glorify themselves. There’s a woe on those who delight in shedding others’ blood. There’s a woe on those who cause others to drink from the bitter cup of suffering. And there’s a woe on those who fashion and worship idols. God is very angry about these things, and He’s going to deal with it.
This passage is bad news for a lot of people. And there’s no sense denying that. This is the side of God that many people don’t like to think about. This is the God who comes in wrath. This is the God who is angry, who punishes, who destroys, who takes life. This is the stern God who sits in judgment, taking vengeance upon the wicked.
So, right at the start, we face an undeniable truth about our God. This is no teddy bear God; the Lion of Judah is not a tame lion. He is love, yes, but he is also just. To emphasize one aspect of God to the exclusion of another is irresponsible. In fact, to paint God as being simply positive, warm, soft, and safe while downplaying the sterner stuff of his character is perilously close to creating a god of our own liking. And look at verses 18-20, where God pronounces woe upon those who do just that.
I want everyone to notice this. This is God’s plan. God isn’t just saying that this is bad karma or something – he’s not saying that bad stuff will just happen of its own accord. Verse 16: the cup is in the LORD’s hand, and it is God who will force the Babylonians to drink it. What does that mean? The image of a cup is fairly common in the Bible. And very often, like in this case, it is a cup being served to human beings by the Lord. So what’s in the cup? In the words of Revelation 16, it’s “the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath.” I think Psalm 11 sums up the idea quite well: “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.” The consequences of sin don’t just happen on their own. God “dishes it out.” God will take a very personal role in punishing the wicked.
Listen. God doesn’t need to be “let off the hook.” God’s not trying to hide anything! He is the Righteous Judge of the whole universe, and He’s proud of it! He’s looking for glory in His punishment of the wicked – who wants to rob God of His glory? The whole Bible – not just the Old Testament – makes clear that God values His character and His justice as being matchless treasures. God will not compromise His principles, like we so often do. That means He’s got some unpleasant stuff that He has to do. Ezekiel reminds us that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked – but God certainly does take pleasure in goodness and righteousness and justice.
That is good news. Not for those who oppose God, for sure. But for those who love justice as God defines it – that is, those who long for the day when all things will be conformed to the image of Christ, those who long for everything and everyone to be in submission to God and practicing His ways – for those people, God’s love of justice and willingness to punish evil is good news. If you’ve ever been cheated or robbed by someone else – read verses 6-8, and take comfort in the fact that God will deal with those sins the way he dealt with the Babylonians’. If you’ve ever been walked over by someone else on their way up the ladder, read verses 9-11, and see what God thought of the Babylonians doing the same thing. God’s going to judge the world, and every wrong thing will be punished and set right.
If you believe in Jesus Christ, that’s good news, because we will inherit a world where God’s justice reigns. Where life is like it was supposed to be – free of fear and pain and suffering. Where, finally, love and truth and peace and joy can actually flourish. Have you ever thought about how all these good things are possible? It’s all because God’s not just a cuddly, teddy bear kind of God. It’s all because He’s willing to be tough. Because He’s willing to deal with evil. Because He won’t compromise. Because He is a just God. And He will do what He says. He’s got a plan to punish the wicked, and it will happen.
That’s why we can afford to turn the other cheek. Yes, bad things happen, but God will take care of it. We don’t have to. In fact, as Christians we are commanded to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to forgive the brother who hurts us. It’s not an option! If someone hurt you recently, if they did something wrong, bring it to God. Ask Him to help you forgive. And ask Him to help you leave the settling of scores and getting even in His hands. That’s His plan. He’s going to make things right.
That’s our first point. God has a plan. He plans to punish the wicked. He plans to bring justice to the world. And He will bring it to pass.
THE UGLINESS OF PRIDE
Why is God so angry? Why does He hate evil so much that He’s willing to suffer the death of His own Son rather than just sweep sin under the rug?
Look at verses 6-14. The Babylonians were sweeping across the Middle East. They defeated every army in their path. The superpowers of the day, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, tried to stop them but were crushed. Walled cities were no defence. The first chapter of our book said that the Babylonians just piled up earth and took those cities, and there are pictures and sculptures from the time that show them doing exactly that.
They pile up what isn’t theirs – verse 6. They plundered the nations – verse 8. Back then, warfare was very profitable. You capture a city and you get to loot it. This included people, as well – warfare resulted in prisoners, and quite often these prisoners were sold as slaves – for a tidy profit. The soldiers would quite often get a cut of what the army took, and this was a way to maintain discipline and keep morale up.
They shed a lot of blood – look at verse 12. Why? Killing people was, and is, a means of control. An invading army might kill a large number of people simply as an example, to encourage obedience and dissuade anyone who might resist the new order. Blood was the price paid to build the empire – to found a city of iniquity. To create this kingdom of man and to maintain it against opposition required killing a lot of people.
For what end? Look to verse 9. They seek to build a nest on high, the prophet writes. Why do birds build nests on high? Erin once told me a story about a hawk that built a nest on a telephone pole in her hometown in New Brunswick. Hawks are beautiful birds, but like these Babylonians, they are ruthless. One day, this hawk went hunting. And the townspeople learned very quickly what that hawk had caught. Up in that nest, high above the road, where no one could reach, no one could interfere, that hawk had brought a little puppy. And Erin told me how horrible it was to listen to that puppy cry, and how the people of the town tried to rescue it. That’s why birds build nests up high, though. They keep their young – and their food – up there so others can’t get at them. So others can’t interfere in what they were doing. Those people couldn’t save that puppy, because that hawk had build its nest on high. And like that hawk, the Babylonians lifted themselves above other men, building a great empire that was too strong and too high for others to interfere or to tell them what to do.
In the Bible, the image of lifting up high means to make oneself great. The Babylonians craved greatness. They were proud. They exalted themselves. And they crushed everyone else to make it possible. Their high perch was build with other people’s stones, their nest lined with the soft, cushy things they robbed from others. All to make themselves great. All to become the highest and the most important. How often do we seek the same thing? Let’s examine our hearts – which of us want to be famous, want to be important, want to be above the rest, want to be better than everyone else?
It’s so easy to do. Some of us try to dress better than everyone else. Some of us want to build something that makes us special – a nice house, a big personal library, the fastest computer, the most powerful sound system in your car – you name it. We gossip about others who stumble or fall or do something wrong, even though we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s expectations. We look down at other people because of their behaviour or values or social status, when it is only the grace of God that makes our position any better than theirs. We all have this tendency to try to be better than other people.
God hates human pride. He hates it because, in its essence, pride is the declaration that we don’t need God. That God is irrelevant, useless, that we are His equals or even better. Pride is replacing God with self.
THAT THE WORLD WILL KNOW HIS GLORY
We live in a world dedicated to exalting itself. And it’s all pointless. It’s all so silly. Why? Why is it so absurd? After all, many of these people succeed. They get the bigger house, the fatter wallet, the faster car.
It’s pointless because it won’t last. Eventually, every one of those proud people will die. And then they’ll come face to face with the One whose glory they tried to take.
The prophet writes, “is it not from the LORD of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing?” What’s so ironic is that this frenzied rush by so many people to raise themselves high is itself “from the Lord.” Why? It’s judgment. God has given them over to a wild-goose chase. He has sentenced them to a life of chasing something they can never have. The ancient Greeks had this story of a man who was sentenced by the gods to roll a stone up a hill, and then when he got there, watch it roll down the other side and have to start over again, for all eternity. That’s kind of what the True God does here – he gives these sinful men (and women!) over to their evil desires, and they spend the rest of their earthly lives pushing the stone of worldly fame and fortune up the hill of life, only to watch it roll down the other side – whether during their lives or at the end when they meet the Living God.
It goes on: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” This is the aim of creation. This is the purpose for which God created the world – that it might be filled with people who know who God is and recognize Him for just how valuable He is. This is our second point. God has a purpose. That purpose is that all creation will know His glory. That all the earth will acknowledge His greatness and worth.
The rat race is pointless because all of its participants are losers. They lost the moment they entered the game. Only God will get the glory. Only God will be exalted and lifted high and worshiped – forever and ever. What is a world empire compared to that? What is a business monopoly or the world’s fastest car or the possession of a few million dollars compared to that? What are a few short years – as comfortable as they may seem – compared to the riches of everlasting life with God… or never-ending years of suffering under God’s punishment in hell?
God’s aim is that the knowledge of His glory will fill the earth. Not just the glory itself – His aim is that it be acknowledged and recognized. That’s the real purpose of evangelism and missions, you know. Worship. We evangelize because there are people out there who don’t worship Him, and to bring them to do that. The only life that matters, the only life that will ultimately make any difference, is one lived to the glory of God. Do you want to matter? Do you want to live a life that’s not a waste, that means something? Live your life in service to God, every moment as worship to Him.
One day, every human being will know God’s glory. Some will do so joyfully and willingly. The rest will do so grudgingly and angrily, not wanting to admit it, but unable to deny that God is indeed the most precious and valuable thing – Person – there is. That’s our second point this morning – God’s purpose, that the knowledge of God’s beauty and goodness will one day fill the whole earth. That’s His purpose. That should be ours as well.
SHALL THE MAKER SERVE WHAT IS MADE?
Now, some of the most biting sarcasm we find in the Bible is reserved for those who make idols. Our passage is a classic example. Look at verses 18-20, and see how God ridicules them.
It’s quite a contrast being made here, and it revolves around one quality – the ability to speak. See, idols can’t speak. They’re rocks. They’re blocks of wood, hunks of metal. They are speechless. And yet human beings, who have the gift of speech, who can communicate, for some reason will carve an image out of some material and put their trust in it. They will cry out to these gods, who cannot cry back. Their prayers go unanswered because their gods cannot answer. We have the power of speech – God gave it to us. Yet we try to serve things that cannot speak – things like money, like ideas, like possessions – while ignoring the One whose words created the universe from nothing. It’s the height of foolishness.
It’s also exactly backwards. There’s a good definition of idolatry in verse 18: “its maker trusts in his own creation.” The way things should be has been turned around. Creation is supposed to serve the maker. Yet idolatry is an attempt by the maker to serve the creation. Could God be pointing out something about sin here? We already saw that God is fighting human pride here – the human urge to exalt himself, to be his own god. Could it be that it’s even worse than that? Could it be that idolatry expresses one of sinful, fallen humanity’s most perverse desires – that its True Maker be subjected and made to serve the creation?
How many times do we as believers try to make God serve us? We pray for things we should not have. We substitute faith in God for faith in our own faith, or believe in what we think God will do for us instead of believing in God Himself. We demand and we claim things from God as if we are somehow entitled to His service. We turn prayer, which is supposed to be an act of worship and submission, into an attempt to dominate and manipulate.
That’s a lot of noise that God has to put up with from us. You know, we talk an awful lot, we human beings.
THE VALUE OF SILENCE
Ever notice how much we like to immerse ourselves in noise? Erin can’t sleep without “white noise,” a fan or something making noise to soothe her to sleep. And for my part, I can’t seem to drive anywhere without the radio on, listening to music or talk shows. People in our culture leave their TVs on just for background noise – without even paying attention. I did it as I wrote this sermon! We even put soundtracks to speeches and sermons these days, even. It’s even a technical term now: “surround sound.”
We’re afraid of silence. I don’t know why that is. But silence makes us uncomfortable. If I was to stand here and stop talking, and just let the silence hang there, everyone’s skin would be crawling after just a few moments. Am I right? Ever been there with a person, trying to think of something to talk about, desperately uncomfortable in the silence?
Silence can carry a message all its own. When a person goes silent in a conversation, something is wrong. When you see something so beautiful you can’t find words, and you just stand there speechless, it means something.
Our inclination is to make speechless things to serve and devote our lives to. In contrast, look how our prophet wraps up his message: “Let all the earth keep silence before him.” Just – don’t say anything. The gods of the nations are silent before their worshippers, but with the True God, it’s the other way around.
Job, when his life fell apart, presumed to question how God ran His world. God responded, essentially asking, “Who are you to question God?” And Job’s answer? “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.”
Paul, in Romans 9, is describing God’s choice of some people over others. And he describes an objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” Paul’s answer? “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’”
God knows every word before we even say it. He knows the very thoughts of our hearts. So really, isn’t there a sense in which we really don’t actually have anything to say to God at all? This passage reminds us that sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all. Sometimes, God just wants us to be quiet before Him. I wonder sometimes if we don’t spend enough time in silence before God – time spent not talking to him, not even praying silently, but just silent before Him.
Let all the earth keep silence before him! And so, to close today, we are going to do something different. We’re going to have another moment of silence. We do this for men on Remembrance Day; I think it’s fitting that, today of all days, we take another moment and spend it in silence in honour of God. This one is going to be an offering of worship to Him. Instead of a song of praise – us talking again – we’re going to praise Him with our silence.
– Jeff Jones
November 7, 2007
Sermon Manuscript – November 4, 2007
It’s been a while since we looked at Habakkuk. We’ve actually already made it halfway through! Today, our passage is Habakkuk 2:2-5. Before we get into it, we should spend just a bit of time recapping where we’ve been so far.
Habakkuk is a dialogue, a conversation between God and a man about the problem of evil in God’s world. We started way back in September with Habakkuk’s first complaint to God. He lived in Judah, the land of God’s own people, and yet everywhere he looked he saw injustice – cheating, theft, lying, murder, all being done by a people called by God’s name. It was like being in a church whose people acted pious on Sunday and then went out and robbed and swindled and assaulted one another during the week. Habakkuk was disgusted and cried out to God – “Where are you? Why do you do nothing?”
God’s answer was, in a way, an even bigger problem. Yes, God would deal with the sin of his people. The congregation would be punished for profaning His name and reputation. It was how God would do this that confused Habakkuk. A powerful pagan nation would conquer and destroy the nation of God. Worshippers of idols would be the instruments of the true God. The sins of Judah would be dealt with by means of the even greater sins of Babylon.
And here is the problem. We mentioned it last time we looked at this book. The problem is this: How can God use wicked Babylonians to punish His own people? If the Jews are to pay for their crimes, what about the Babylonians, who destroy whole nations, who kill thousands of people, who steal lands and homes not their own? Will justice be done in God’s world? Will God set things right?
And what about God’s promises? What about his promise to Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, that his descendants would outnumber the stars? How can God destroy his own people? Is there any hope?
This raises a practical question. How is a person supposed to live, in light of this problem? What are we to do, since we just don’t know all the answers?
OUR KIND OF PROBLEM
Our passage today speaks of a “vision.” This is a vision God gave to Habakkuk. We’re going to see the details next week – it’s a vision of judgment. God will punish the Babylonians. God will make things right. The whole book of Habakkuk is, really, the “vision” that verse 2 talks about. God will punish Israel for its sins using the Babylonians, and when they are done, God will punish them for their sins. You can sum up the vision like this: God sees evil, and He will deal with it.
Fast forward to today. We are Christian believers – we now know what Habakkuk could only hope for. We understand how God deals with the problem of evil – He does it through His Son, Jesus Christ, who paid for human sin with His own life and is now, through the Holy Spirit, drawing all His people together into the Church. And at the end of this age, Jesus will come back and separate those who believe in Him from those who are still in their sins, and He will punish all the sins of those who are opposed to Him by sending them to hell. God sets things right. God sees evil, and He deals with it. Just like in Habakkuk’s vision.
Okay – but we’ve still got the same problem that Habakkuk did. It’s not hard to relate to our prophet in his confusion. You look around our world and what do you see? On the news Thursday, I saw a story: two kids speeding in a Quebec neighborhood collided at a stop sign. The cars were carried by the momentum into the front yard of a house, where a three-year-old girl was playing with her babysitter. One of those cars ran right over that little girl, and she died.
Why, when we turn on the news, morning after morning, do we have to watch stories like that? Why aren’t things getting any better? Where’s the justice in this world?
And for Christians, it can seem even harder. We know God is real. We know He’s fully in control of the world. And He’s promised to set things right. Why, then, are three-year-olds getting run over? Why are wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, why did a hurricane just kill hundreds in Haiti and the Dominican?
Yes, justice will be done. That’s a promise. But it can be awful hard sometimes to hear that in the midst of a crisis or tragedy. What if that were your three-year-old daughter? Even for a Christian, the promise of God finally setting it all right sometime in the undefined future can seem a bit hollow when you’re in the midst of a fight with cancer, or when that terrible telephone call comes, or when you get a pink slip at work just when the rent goes up.
This vision – of justice, of right finally overcoming wrong – where is it? The Bible was written thousands of years ago. When’s it going to come? What’s taking so long? Why does God delay? And – what are we to do until then?
A MAN OF THE WORLD
Let’s get into our passage. Looking at these three verses as a whole, you see a contrast being made here. There is a puffed-up, arrogant man, and there is a righteous man. Two men. Two kinds of men. Two types of people. Righteous and unrighteous. Good and bad.
Let’s look at the bad guy first. Verse 4: “Behold, his soul is puffed up.” Look at this man. He’s full of himself. “Puffed up” – he’s got an inflated ego. He’s proud. Haughty. He’s done Hollywood. He’s got all the self-help books. He watches Oprah faithfully. He hears the siren song of the world – “Believe in yourself!” “Have faith in yourself, and you can do anything!” He’s self-sufficient – he doesn’t need anyone else. That’s pride. And that’s not a good thing, because “his soul is not upright within him.”
You go to this city in Italy, and there’s a tower there. A very famous tower, in the city of Pisa. Why is that tower famous? It’s not because it’s very tall, or because it’s spectacular in its design. No – the tower is famous because it’s leaning. Why would the fact that it’s leaning make it famous? Because that’s weird. Towers aren’t supposed to lean. They’re supposed to be straight. Even though this tower’s a tourist attraction, they’ve had to restrict access to it from time to time. The leaning renders the tower unsuitable, even useless at times. They worry that it will fall over – now, there’s a safety hazard. The tower’s not upright. It’s crooked. It’s off. It should be straight, but it leans. It should be even, but it’s off.
So is the soul of this man. He thinks very highly of himself, but he’s bent. He has a lofty and exalted opinion of his character and worth, but he’s crooked. His soul is not upright. Its usefulness is gone. In fact, its imperfection means it’s unsafe. He’s useless, really, except as a spectacle and as an object lesson for others.
Jump to verse five: “Wine is a traitor.” Now, I don’t think Habakkuk is condemning wine in general here. Remember who the bad guys in Habakkuk are. The Babylonians were legendary for their alcoholism. The ancient writer Curtius, for example, describes the Babylonians as not only excessively addicted to wine but also to the consequences of inebriation – they enjoyed the loss of control and lack of inhibition that comes with drunkenness. The Bible itself tells the story of how Babylon would finally itself be conquered – the book of Daniel describes its leaders carousing at a drunken feast as the Persians take the city. Our passage here in Habakkuk may be a hint at the Babylonians’ downfall – their addiction, like a “traitor,” will paralyze them at a critical moment.
This man is “arrogant.” He treats others with disdain. He is the centre of the universe, and everyone else knows it. Disagree with him – you’ll regret it. Even worse – he’s greedy. We already saw that he’s given to addiction – he likes his wine. Well, he likes other things in excess, too. It doesn’t matter, really, what it is – money or cars or books or shoes or employees or friends. All good things in themselves, but when they become the object of greed they lose their value and are corrupted. He craves more and more – looking for the rush or the thrill that these things, once, long ago, gave him, a feeling long since gone – and no matter what he gets, no matter how much or how many or how expensive it’s never enough. Just like death is never satisfied, says the Lord, just like the yawning mouth of Sheol, the realm of the dead, this man is never filled.
Let’s sum this man up. What is this man’s highest value – what is most important to him? Himself. And what is his hope? Stuff. The things of the world. His faith is in himself, his hope is worldly. If he dies with the most toys – he wins.
Our text here is using the Babylonians as a representative, as an example. Really, there are only two types of people in the world – people of the world, and people of faith. And even people of faith all start off as people of the world. This Babylonian here is just a face God uses for anyone with these values.
Listen – this is everyone. Every human being falls, or once fell, into this category. Every person has or had the same disease – the same values. We’ve all been there – looking for that new thing or new relationship or new position or job or a few more bucks that will make all the difference, that will make you happy. We’ve all been there, where the most important thing in the universe is ME! Now, it’s expressed in different ways by different people. Maybe instead of being puffed up, they hate what they are – their appearance, social status, gender, skin colour – and, because they too value themselves above all else, are consumed with a desire to change themselves, to make themselves better. Because then – only then – might the world agree with them that they are the most important thing in the universe. Maybe then will their conscience agree with them that they are the most important thing in the universe – and that annoying little voice will go away.
See? It’s the same sinful heart – it values itself above all else. We’ve all been there – or, even worse, maybe you’re still there. And every time we disobey God, every time we hurt another person out of indifference or spite, every time we turn a blind eye to pain and suffering, every time we choose to chase something of the world like money or fame or power or sex or intelligence instead of seeking the glory of God, that heart of selfishness comes out. This is the mark of people of the world: the self is the most valuable thing, and their hope is the stuff of the world. When you believe in yourself, you become your own god. And God is a jealous God. This is the kind of person that God can’t tolerate, the kind of person who will not live.
THE RIGHTEOUS MAN
We see this in contrast to the other guy. God is painting a picture in our passage. There is the selfish, arrogant man of the world. But – the righteous will live by his faith.
Just one short phrase. Look at all that is said about the wicked man – he’s proud, he’s arrogant, he’s addicted, he’s like death, he’s not upright, he’s not at rest. Compare that to the other man. Only one thing is mentioned. And that’s his faith.
First, everything said about the wicked man is about himself. About his character, his lifestyle, his works, his behaviour – it’s all centred on him. But look at what is not said about the man of faith. God doesn’t describe him in that kind of detail. He doesn’t say that he is upright, or that he is self-controlled, or that he is humble, or that he is meek. The man of faith doesn’t trust in himself. He can’t – because he’s just like the other guy. He is greedy, too. He gets puffed up. He hurts other people. He is a sinner, and he has brought the threat of God’s judgment on himself, just like the wicked man. But there’s something different.
The only thing said about him – that he is faithful – really says as much, or more, about whatever it is that is outside himself that he has faith in as is might say about the man himself. The one attribute mentioned about the man of faith points away from himself. This person of faith has their values in order. The most important thing to this man is not himself. He can’t rely on himself. No, he has faith – trust, belief- in something else, something outside of himself. And there is the key difference.
HE LIVES BY FAITH
There’s two lessons we can draw from this. First of all, while the wicked man believes in himself and hopes for the things of the world, the man of faith believes and hopes in – what? Look back to verse 2. God begins our passage by telling Habakkuk to write. Write what? The vision. Habakkuk is to write what God has shown him. God has promised judgment. God has promised that everything would be made right. This is the God who answers – look at verse 2 again! – the God who hears His people cry and answers them. The man of faith looks to this God and he believes. His faith is not in himself – it’s in the Lord! The man of faith looks to what God has revealed, to what God has spoken – to what is written! – and his hope is in the promises and the character of God. His hope is not the world! His hope is what God has said, what God has promised, what God has done!
And this is a steadfast hope. Look at the contrast again. The wicked man “does not rest.” He flits from one object of hope to another. The new house doesn’t make him happy anymore, so he buys another one. It takes more and more wine to get that buzz now, so let’s try scotch instead. And when that doesn’t do it? Drugs, maybe? Or something else – maybe a fourth or fifth husband? Or dispense with marriage altogether – live with whoever you like until that excitement wears off, then find a new person who can give it to you.
That’s the man of the world. Not the man of faith. The Hebrew word translated “faith” here also means “faithfulness.” It comes from a root with a connotation of steadfastness and firmness. The man of faith trusts in God and His promise, and there he remains. He is not moved. Now, that hope may be strong, or it may be weak; it may shine brightly, or be clouded in darkness. We’ve all been there, in our own walks of faith. That hope can feel close, or it can feel distant. BUT IT DOES NOT MOVE. It does not change. That hope, however dim or confusing, no matter how bright and clear, stays the same. And that hope is what God has promised. That hope is in who GOD is.
See, God knows what we’re going through. Life gets rough. Cancer, or betrayal, or unemployment, or disaster make it hard to hold on. But God has a plan. Everything that happens – even sin and disaster, as we saw a few weeks ago – is completely under God’s control and is a part of His plan. And God’s timetable is carved in stone. Where is the justice God has promised? When will He appear and set things right? When will every tear be wiped from our eyes? God tells the prophet, “It will surely come.” God has an appointed time for everything. But He will make things right. The vision is coming. Our text says “it hastens to the end.” The Hebrew is literally “it pants for the end” – it is straining at the leash, it is champing at the bit. It is not slowing down. When the time arrives, it will hit like a ton of bricks. There is no slowing down or stopping God’s plan – He is never frustrated, He is never defeated. God said it. That is enough! The man of faith believes that, no matter how long or hard the wait may be, and he is faithful.
That’s the first lesson. The righteous man is the man who lives by faith – that is, he trusts in God’s promise, he rests on God’s word, he believes in God’s character and he clings to it no matter what.
The second lesson is this: The righteous man lives by faith alone! God mentions nothing other than faith here as the reason for this man’s living. With the wicked man, he talks about arrogance, and drunkenness, and crookedness, and greed, and addiction. See, what you do, the kind of character you have, the things you own – they’re enough to damn you, to condemn you, but nothing of that sort can save you.
God mentions only faith here. Not works. Not faith plus works – it’s not like Joseph Smith once said, that grace saves us after all that we can do. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing! Faith and faith alone, in Christ and Christ alone, is what saves.
This verse, verse 4, is quoted three times in the New Testament, and in two of those – in Romans and Galatians – Paul is making the point that the Law of Moses cannot save a person. There were a lot of people back in Paul’s day who thought that they could earn their salvation. Just like our day. They think they can buy it, qualify for it, by something they did or owned. If I’m a good person, they think, then surely God would be a good sport and let me into heaven!
It’s never been that way! Paul’s whole point in using this verse was that the Law can only condemn – it can never save! The Jews of the Old Testament, before Jesus came, were not saved by works or obedience, any more than we are today! What I as a pastor want you as Christians to understand about your Bible, about your Old Testament, is this: The God of the Old Testament is the same God as in the New Testament! We are saved the same way as they were before Christ, and here in our Old Testament passage is the verse that makes it clear: it’s by faith, and faith alone! Not works or obedience or by being a good person, or anything we do! Not even a prayer for salvation can save you – it can only express the thing that actually saves, which is faith in God, faith in Jesus Christ as the saviour of the world!
Don’t trust in what you do or did – not even a prayer for salvation. Don’t put your faith in the kind of guy you are. Don’t think that because you’re not as bad as the other guy, you’ll make the cut – Jesus forgave the thief on the cross, not the religious leaders of his day, because of his faith!
How are we to live in a world filled with disaster and evil? And – even more important – how are we to live through the wrath of God for all the bad things we have done in our lives?
In World War Two, Germany conquered all of Continental Europe. The Luftwaffe ruled the skies. The Wehrmacht rumbled through every street. The Gestapo ran every town. Thousands of people were killed as examples and warnings to the public. Radios were taken away. Informers lurked in every community. Saying the wrong thing would make you disappear. Life was terrible. And yet a movement began in the occupied countries – men and women who resisted. They hid Allied airmen. They blew up railway trestles. They sheltered Jews. They were surrounded by one of the most formidable war machines man has ever created, a few thousand scattered civilians against legions of professional soldiers. And yet they fought. They resisted. They kept going. Why? Because they thought they could beat the Nazis? Not a chance. They didn’t think they could do it. But they knew that, one day, a day they did not know, the Allies were going to land on the coast and start pushing the Germans back. They looked toward the day that the Germans would receive their punishment. They trusted in something that seemed far away, something that in the cobblestone alleys of France or the polders of Holland must have seemed like just an abstract idea, a pie-in-the-sky dream compared to the harsh reality of German jackboots crunching through the streets. That belief, that hope kept them going despite the impossible odds.
That’s the Christian life. In the world but not of it. Living for the Kingdom – fighting for the Kingdom – even when the world seems to overwhelm us. Why? Faith – and faith alone. How can we live? By faith. Don’t believe in yourself. You were born, you’ll live, and you’ll die in a few short years, just like everyone else, and the world will be the same. Don’t believe in yourself – you’ll be a pretty pitiful god. No. Believe in the God of the ages, and in Jesus Christ. Believe God’s promise – that He will set things right and wipe every tear from your eyes. Trust God’s timing – wait for it, because it is coming. Believe God’s words, for He had them written so that you might be saved. Trust God’s character, for He never changes and is never defeated or frustrated. Believe God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, who became a man and lived the perfect life we could never live, and suffered the punishment that we could never endure, so that we might be called “righteous” before God for His sake and for His glory.
The most important thing isn’t me. It’s Him. That’s faith.
– Jeff Jones
October 1, 2007
Sermon Manuscript – September 30, 2007
For the last couple weeks, we’ve been looking at the prophet Habakkuk and his dialogue with God. We’ve seen him grapple with an issue that any Christian faces when he or she sees something go wrong: how can there be evil in God’s world? Last week, we looked at God’s shocking response to Habakkuk’s complaint. God knows about the evil among His people, and He’s decided to deal with it by sending Babylonians to destroy the land and carry its people into exile. We saw that God took responsibility for raising up this “bitter and hasty” nation – that He saw to it that they rose to power for the express purpose of punishing the people of Judah. And as difficult as it is for us to understand how a holy and good God can use evil people and actions to bring about good, we remembered that this is actually very good news – because it shows us that God really is in control. And we were reminded that God has used human sin and evil to punish human sin and evil elsewhere – he did it at the Cross, where He planned for His innocent Son to be wrongfully put to death by wicked men as a way to pay for human sin.
You could sum up Habakkuk so far like this: God may not make sense sometimes. There’s bad stuff going on in the world. But – God knows it. And God’s still in control.
And today, we’re going to see a change in Habakkuk. We’re going to see his faith grow. We’re going to see him stand a little stronger, trust God a little more. We’re going to see how an ordinary person can be shaped and strengthened and grown by God through tough times.
Let’s read verse 12 of chapter 1, through the first verse of chapter two. This is Habakkuk’s response to what we saw God say last week.
Imagine your neighbourhood is full of crime. Kids do drugs in your bushes, questionable women loiter at the end of your driveway. Bullies beat up your child, someone shoots your dog with a BB gun, and your neighbour sneaks into your garage and steals your weedwhacker.
So you call the police and ask if they’re planning on doing something. And they say, “Yes.” “What’s that?” you ask. “Here’s the plan,” says the constable. And he explains what they’re going to do. See, the cops have arranged for the mob to come in. An Italian crime family, or the Russian mafia, or an Asian triad, or an American biker gang – it doesn’t matter, it’s going to be a big, organized, and very bad group of people. Some godfather’s going to send his thugs into the neighbourhood and take over. They’re going to kick people out of their homes. They’re going to make many of the residents disappear. And they’re going to turn the neighbourhood into their own playground, where all the crime is going to make money for them.
What’s your first reaction to that? “How does that solve the problem?”
That’s what Habakkuk’s probably thinking. See, he complained about the sins of his people. He saw the Jews oppressing each other and disobeying God, and asked God to deal with it. And so God’s doing that. But instead of sending plagues, or a natural disaster, or raising up a good king to punish the wicked, God is fighting fire with fire. Sin will punish sin. Evil will destroy evil.
What is God doing? Punishing the wickedness of Judah. The thing Habakkuk was worried about – the sins of his people – is being dealt with. That’s not the problem. Notice that Habakkuk accepts the judgment. There’s no saying that the Jews didn’t deserve it, that they are being treated too harshly. Look at verse 12. Habakkuk accepts the punishment – “you have ordained them for a judgment. You have established them for reproof.” “Yes, God. You answered my prayer. Judah’s sins will be punished. They deserve what the Babylonians do to them.”
So why does he still cry out? It’s not because Judah will be punished – he knows they deserve it. So what’s the problem now? This is it: sin’s being punished by more sin. It’s not good defeating evil – it’s evil defeating evil. Bad people are going to be paid back not by the good guys, but by more bad guys. Yes, the mob will clean up the neighbourhood. But in the big picture, does that solve anything? Haven’t the cops just replaced one set of bad people with another set of bad people? Hasn’t God just promised to replace wicked Hebrews with wicked Babylonians? How has justice prevailed? Where’s the good news in this?
You could sum it up like this. Judah’s sin is being punished by Babylon’s sin. So – what about Babylon’s sin? Will it be punished? Is God going to deal with it the way he deals with Judah’s sin? Or will they continue to sin with impunity? Is this going to go on and on?
Verse 13 has the prophet asking, “How can God use someone so evil to punish someone more righteous?” Habakkuk’s not justifying Judah here. He’s simply saying that the cure is worse than the disease. The mob is being used to clean out the petty thieves. God has raised up something so powerful that, compared to Babylon, the whole world is as helpless as the fish of the sea. Habakkuk is worried that there’s no other big nation in the neighbourhood to take a stand against them, no ruler for the crawling things of this sea. Little Judah had its big Babylonian punishment – who’s going to be the Babylonians to the Babylonians? They’re going to run around unopposed, sweeping everything up with the nets of their armies. And as Habakkuk puts it, will they keep on emptying their nets and mercilessly killing nations forever?
It’s a problem. There’s still evil. There’s still wickedness, at the end of the day. It still needs to be punished. In a sense, God has only pushed the problem back a step. The job’s not done. God’s goodness still needs to be vindicated; his purity still needs to be justified.
WATCH HABAKKUK GROW
It’s fascinating to look at how Habakkuk acts here. He’s facing a really tough problem. God is still making very little sense. The problem he thought he was facing has been replaced by an even bigger one. So what does that mean for him? How does he respond?
Let me ask you this. How do we grow? How do we build a skill, or develop a muscle, or gain wisdom? We are exposed to bigger challenges. We are faced with more and more difficult problems.
Watching Caden grow up is just fascinating. At first, he’s utterly helpless. He can’t even move around by himself. Then he learns to coordinate his muscles and time his actions so that he’s able to roll over. He can go from lying on his back to lying on his belly.
That was a tough challenge for him. It wasn’t easy – it took him weeks. Now, with that done, is he done growing? No. What’s the next thing? At first, he tries getting places by rolling to them. But that’s slow, and it’s hard. Eventually, over a few more weeks and months, he starts to pull himself with his hands. It’s a challenge – and it’s harder than the task of rolling over. It’s more complicated. And it takes him a few more weeks to get up on his knees and crawl properly, instead of doing an army crawl or swimming across the floor. Coordinating four limbs is a lot harder than just two.
But now he’s crawling. Is he done? No. There’s yet another challenge. Next thing is standing. And when he figures that out, then the challenge is walking. Now that he’s walking, Erin and I are watching him try to run. That’s hard. He can’t do it without falling on his face. It will take time. But – he’ll get there. And when he does – there will be something else. Potty training. Talking. Spelling. Arithmetic. Cursive writing. Long division. Geometry. Algebra. Trigonometry. Calculus. There’s always another step. Always another hill to climb.
When you’ve stopped growing, you’ve stopped living. That applies to faith, too. If it isn’t growing, if it isn’t facing new challenges and overcoming them and moving on to bigger things, then you’re not spiritually healthy. Habakkuk may be facing a bigger challenge to his faith now – but his faith has grown. Look how he’s facing trouble now. And let’s learn from it. Let’s take a few lessons. We all face challenges to our faith. We all struggle to know we are saved, or to be sure that God has our best interests at heart, or to understand why God does the things He does, or to be able to trust Him more fully. We see Habakkuk grow in faith in several ways.
REMEMBER WHO GOD IS
What is the first thing Habakkuk says in response to God’s answer? Verse 12: “Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One?” The first thing Habakkuk does – and the first thing we must do if we are to grow in faith – is this: he remembers who God is. He reminds himself of who God is.
I wear a wedding band as a reminder, as a remembrance. Yes, it tells other people I’m married. But it says something vitally important to me. It reminds me of my wife. It reminds me of the promises that I have made to her. It reminds me that she loves me, and that I love her. It reminds me that God is watching my conduct with other women to make sure I honor Him and honor my wife. These reminders – these remembrances – strengthen that bond I have with Erin. They strengthen our marriage as I dwell on them. And just like that, Habakkuk grows in faith as reminds himself of who God is.
Let’s break down this sentence. “Are you not from everlasting?” God always is, always has been, and always will be. He’s timeless. He stands outside the ebb and flow of history. He knows what has happened and why; he knows what will happen and how. We have a God who knows all things and sees all things, who shall never grow old and die, who never began – and, therefore, never changes. A God who has always been there, and who will always be there, no matter what. Don’t forget that God is everlasting.
“O LORD my God.” Where our Bibles say “LORD” the Hebrew is Yahweh. That’s God’s personal name, which He uses with His special people. When Habakkuk says Yahweh, he is reminding himself and God of the special relationship he has with God as one of God’s people. It means closeness and intimacy. God cares about Habakkuk personally. God cares about each of us personally, as we are joined to Him by faith. Remember that God loves us personally.
“My Holy One.” God is holy – pure and perfect. Totally set apart and spotless from any hint of wrongdoing or evil. He is the very definition of goodness and righteousness and justice. Habakkuk reminds himself – and we as Christians need to remind ourselves! – that God is perfect, and so He expects perfection. The reason God saves a person is so that they can be made perfect like Christ. We need to remember that – to remember that God is holy.
That’s all just the first sentence. Habakkuk then expresses trust in God. “We shall not die.” Habakkuk knows that the nation will be destroyed – but he also remembers God’s promises. Promises to Abraham, that his descendants would be like the number of the stars. Promises to David, that a king from his line would reign forever on the throne of Israel. And so Habakkuk remembers, and we must remember, that God is faithful. God keeps his promises. God will not annihilate Judah – he will make sure that a few are left over to start again. God always keeps a faithful few through times of evil and judgment. God doesn’t punish to destroy his people – it is to correct his people. Because, remember – God keeps His promises.
Just like a marriage is strengthened as a husband and wife reflect on and remember whom they love and what they promised to them, faith grows, and is strengthened, as we remind ourselves who God is. Faith grows as we read the stories of the Bible and remember what God did and what kind of God He is. Do you want your faith to grow? Remember who God is. Remind yourself who God is.
GIVE THE PROBLEM TO GOD – AND LEAVE IT!
Now look at our passage as a whole. What is Habakkuk doing? He’s pouring his heart out to God. He has a problem, and he’s taking it to the Lord. That’s the second thing he does as he grows in faith. That’s something all of us can do to grow in faith. He gives his problems to God in prayer. And – he leaves them with God, in faith and in trust.
Our prophet is open and honest with the Lord. He is struggling to understand God’s ways. He is horrified by the evil that he sees the Babylonians will do. But he doesn’t take all this into a closet and brood over it. He doesn’t dwell on it, doesn’t let it sink into the depths of his soul or poison his mood or drag his spirit into depression and anxiety. Some of us have a tendency to cope with problems by bottling them up and mulling over them. That can weigh a person down, and it is sinful. We are not to be anxious about anything, Jesus told us, for our Father in heaven cares for us. We are to give our cares to God!
Habakkuk trusts God, even though he doesn’t fully understand Him. He shares his problems with God and leaves them with him. He says it and then he leaves the ball in God’s court. Do you want your faith to grow? Do you want to deepen your walk with God? Are problems weighing you down? Take them to the Lord in prayer. Speak to God and tell Him where you stand, and what you need. If you struggle in your relationship with God, you have to understand that He is trustworthy. He loves, and He cares, and He is fair and just, and He always keeps His promises. We can take our problems to Him – and we can leave them with Him! That’s the second thing Habakkuk did. He trusted God, so he took his problems to God. We can as well.
TAKE YOUR POST
At the end of our passage is an inspiring statement: “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower.” This is the third thing Habakkuk does. He takes his post. He assumes his station. See, God’s prophets in the Old Testament are compared to watchkeepers. Like sentries on a city wall, their mission, their call, was to watch for God’s word and God’s activity and bring warnings to the people. Their job was to alert the people to God’s will. And so Habakkuk is saying that he will do his job. He will take his post and watch for God’s answer, and deliver it to the people.
When I was training to be a soldier, one of the basic things they taught you was to stand watch. I remember standing watch in the night with a partner, lying on my belly behind a machine gun. I had two sticks stuck in the ground in front of me, one to each side. These sticks were boundary markers – they represented the “arc” for which I was responsible. Anything within that arc, between those sticks, I was responsible for dealing with. And a good officer or sergeant would ensure that the entire perimeter of the position would be covered by these arcs, and that the arcs would overlap. My mission was to make sure that no enemy got into the camp in my arc, and to alert the rest of the troops if someone tried.
It wasn’t easy. It could be two o’clock in the morning, right at the time when the human body hits its lowest rhythm and it is hardest to stay awake. Sleeping on watch is a very serious offence – because it puts everyone in danger. The sentry keeps the enemy out. The sentry challenges people who approach and alerts the unit to visitors and new developments. The sentry who does not keep watch is a failure, and so one of his biggest responsibilities is simply staying awake. And it was cold. Nights are not usually warm, especially at two o’clock. Lying on the ground, in the prone position, is even worse because the ground sucks the heat right out of your body. Standing watch is a physical and mental challenge. It’s hard.
Habakkuk took his watch on the walls. He went to his post and waited. That’s the third thing he did, the third way we see his faith grow. Despite confusion and fear, he went and did the job God gave him. He was responsible and dependable. Where has God placed you? What is your watch? What are your arcs of responsibility? Where is your post? It could be your job – doing it as well as you can to the glory of God. Sharing the Gospel when you spot an opportunity. It could be your family. Is the enemy creeping into your home? Are there problems that you as a parent need to deal with? Are you doing your duty to God by loving and caring for your wife or husband? It could be here in church, or on the soccer field with the kids. Wherever God has placed you, and no matter how hard it is, He has a purpose and you have a responsibility to be like Christ in that situation. That’s the third way our faith grows – obedience. Habakkuk took his post and did his job – even when he was confused. Even when he didn’t feel like it. Even when it was really, really hard. Do you want your faith to grow, your relationship with God to deepen? Be obedient! Stand your watch! Take your post!
EXPECT AN ANSWER
Finally, Habakkuk waited to see how God would answer, and what he would say in response to God. Habakkuk’s faith has grown, because he saw God answer the first time. He saw what God was doing, and that God was dealing with the evil in his nation. That answer may have left him with more questions. But Habakkuk has been encouraged, because God answered him. And so the final thing Habakkuk does here is expect a response. He watches for God’s answer.
God always hears our prayers. When we cry out, He notices. He cares. God will never ignore us. He will always answer.
Now, that answer will often be a “no.” God knows our needs far better than we do. And no amount of prayer will convince God to give us something that He knows we don’t need or shouldn’t have – just like no amount of kicking or screaming will convince Erin to give back the steak knife that Caden snatched off the table. God is sovereign – He’s the boss. He can say no.
And sometimes God’s answer will be “not yet.” How many young people spend hours on their knees asking for a wife or husband, years in prayer with seemingly no answer – only to have it granted much later? God not only has a plan, He’s got a timetable. He’s been working from all eternity to bring this plan about, and he’ll be working for all eternity to come as well. The Bible alone describes at least two to three thousand years of God’s activity in the world, and probably much more than that. God is an extraordinarily patient God. And so when you pray, expect an answer – but don’t expect a specific timeframe for it. You may never see the answer, if God decides not to answer in your time. That’s God’s call to make.
And that answer may often be totally different than we expect. Remember that Garth Brooks song – “Unanswered Prayers”? He prayed that God would make this other woman his wife – and it didn’t happen; he married someone else. He called that an unanswered prayer. But – that’s wrong, in two ways. First, God did answer! He said, “no!” Not that woman! And second, God did answer – but much later, in a different woman. So God did say “yes,” but in a different way than expected. God’s answers to prayer can be much different than we think. They can be virtually unrecognizable – God may answer, and we simply are unable to see it. We might get to heaven and only then understand what God was doing. So – don’t restrict your faith to the kinds of things you understand. When you pray, expect an answer – but don’t count on it taking a certain shape.
Those aren’t caveats. Those are guidelines for recognizing the work of God in answering prayer. God always answers. And so, like Habakkuk, take your post and watch! As you go about your daily business, as you fulfill the responsibilities He gave you, as you honour and worship Him in daily life, expect and watch for God’s answer. Look out – Habakkuk is using his eyes, not his ears, and there’s a reason. God often answers us in the arrangement of events. God’s responses are often built into how the circumstances of life come together. Watch how things turn out. Consider the times and the seasons. God is shaping all of history and all things that come to pass in a way that conforms to His plan. And if we have wisdom – which God will give us if we ask! – if we have wisdom, we can see Him answer our prayers.
As we read this book together, don’t forget this. Habakkuk was a man just like us. Yes, he lived in a faraway land, in a faraway time. He spoke a different language. But he was a sinner, just like us. He struggled to understand God, just like us. He faced problems and was frustrated by life, just like us. And so when we see him grow in faith here, when we see his faith and trust in God deepen and strengthen, we are seeing something that can happen in our own lives.
You have to have faith, though, for it to grow. And you have to know God personally to have a relationship to deepen. For Habakkuk’s example to mean anything, you have to be a believer. To learn anything from him, you must believe in the God whose promises he trusted. You have to believe that God is pure and can’t stand sin. You have to realize that you, like the Jews and the Babylonians in Habakkuk, are a sinner, and that like it was for them, judgment is coming because of your sin. You have to repent of your sin – turning away from it and turning to Jesus Christ, who died on the cross in the place of sinners, who lived a perfect life in our place. And you have to believe in Jesus, and trust not in your own goodness but in His work to save you. If you haven’t yet believed, time is short. Death, like Babylon’s army, is approaching. God’s wrath and anger are coming. But if you believe, God will protect you and care for you.
And once you do believe, how do you grow? How does one grow closer to God? How does one’s faith mature and grow strong? And – how can this happen in the face of the pains and struggles of ordinary life? Habakkuk wrestled these issues as well. In his life, shown here in this book, we see him grow. It can happen. It does happen – it happens us when we remind ourselves constantly who God is. It happens when we take our problems and give them to God. It happens when we take our spot on the wall, assume our place and obey Him. And it happens when we wait patiently and expectantly for God’s response to us. Let’s trust Him that He will answer, and let’s seek the wisdom He can only provide so that we may see these answers when they come, and praise Him as He deserves.
– Jeff Jones
September 24, 2007
Sermon Manuscript – September 23, 2007
Last week, we started a walk through God’s conversation with Habakkuk. We read the first words of the exchange. Habakkuk complains to God that all he sees is evil wherever he looks. Pain and suffering are everywhere. Wicked men go unpunished. Where is God in the midst of this, the prophet wonders? Why don’t you do something?
We saw that Habakkuk’s problem is a very real, very current human problem. We wondered, with him, how there can be evil in the world of an all-powerful and loving God. We saw that you don’t have to be Christian to struggle with this – that some unbelievers take this as evidence against God’s existence.
And we saw that the Bible is a realistic book. It doesn’t hide from the problem of evil. It doesn’t paint pretty pictures that don’t match reality. It faces this problem head-on in Habakkuk – we saw that the whole book is really a Biblical answer to the problem, and that Habakkuk’s first question is what raises the issue in the first place.
And we were reminded that, while evil is a hard thing for even Bible-believing Christians to understand and reconcile with our God, that the Bible gives us the ultimate answer to the problem of evil. That answer is a person – Jesus Christ. God became a man and lived in the midst of all that evil, rose above it with a perfect life, and was brutally murdered as a result. And was raised on the third day, to give us hope, to remind us that the problem of evil is only temporary. God’s goodness and grace are forever.
So today we continue our study. Habakkuk has boldly called on God to act. And our God is not deaf. Our God responded. And he gave him a totally unexpected answer.
GOD ANSWERS PRAYER!
This whole passage is, in a way, good news. God didn’t ignore Habakkuk. He heard the prophet’s prayers. He listened. He took note, and did something remarkable. He acknowledged the problem, and promises to act. Think about that. God sees evil, and He acts. God does not tolerate evil. It will be punished, as we are about to see. But for us, here’s a reminder, and an encouragement. God answers prayer! God hears us when we call! Your prayers are never wasted. Habakkuk approached God boldly, reminded Him of God’s own standards of right and wrong, and God rewarded this faith with an answer.
But there’s another lesson about prayer here. God always hears prayer. He always answers prayer. But sometimes He does so in mysterious ways. And sometimes they’re so mysterious, we can hardly make any sense of them.
A TOTALLY UNEXPECTED RESPONSE
Try to put yourselves in the shoes of the people who heard this. God’s not just addressing Habakkuk here – the Hebrew pronouns here are plural, and so when it says “you,” it means “you all.” God tells them He’s raising up the Chaldeans – also called the Babylonians. And if you read Kings and Chronicles, you know what happens next. The Babylonians would eventually destroy Jerusalem, tear down the Temple, and carry off most of the Hebrew people into exile far, far away. That is what God is promising here. It is absolutely terrifying.
Who are these Babylonians? They were a warlike people, very skilled in battle, from what is now Iraq. Up until just a few years before this book, the world superpower had been the dreaded Assyrians, who ruled most of the known world from the city of Nineveh. Ever wonder what happened to Nineveh after Jonah went to them? They returned to their old ways after a while. Nineveh was such a strong and powerful city that it seemed unlikely that it would ever fall – but it did. The Babylonian army surrounded the city, and finding no way in, they dammed up the river that flowed through the city. The city walls had been built to allow the river to flow under them, but when the Babylonian engineers stopped the river, the riverbed became a gate into the city – and the Babylonians walked right in and destroyed it.
The mighty Assyrians, that terrible enemy that had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel – gone. In just a few short years. It was like the fall of the Berlin Wall in our time. In the space of just a few years, Assyria – the Soviet Union of Habakkuk’s day – went from being a superpower that could destroy the earth to a shattered collection of weak states. But in its place rose an even greater threat – the Babylonians.
Look at how God describes them. “A bitter and hasty nation,” he says. Angry and thoughtless. They shoot first and ask questions later. “They march through the breadth of the earth,” leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, seizing dwellings not their own. They take people from their homes and families from their lands, carrying them far away and scattering them abroad, and give them to their own people instead. “Dreaded and fearsome” – the nations tremble as they approach. The sadistic Assyrians, the proud Egyptians, the superpowers of the time, had met them in battle and lost. No one could stop them. And distance was no protection. Although Babylon was months of travel from Israel, their horses are “swifter than leopards,” and their armies “fly like eagles, swift to devour” their foes. Judah is like a small mouse or rabbit, helpless as the bird of prey falls like lightning from the sky to snatch it. There is no hiding. There is no escape.
And what kind of people are they? They “come for violence.” They enjoy war. They relish the fight. Violence is fun for them. Warfare is like sport – entertainment for their kings. They are “proud,” and their “justice and dignity go forth from themselves.” Unlike Habakkuk, who looked to God for justice, who found his dignity in his relationship with the Almighty, the Babylonians look to themselves. They are their own highest authority. They decide for themselves what is right and wrong, with no reference to God. Much like people today, they do what is right in their own eyes, and they are their own moral standard. And what do people like this worship? “Their own might.” They don’t love God, and they don’t trust in Him. They love and honour their own strength. They put their trust and hope in their armies. Their swords and chariots are their idols. They are self-sufficient – they are full of themselves. An evil and self-centred people.
So Habakkuk and the Jewish people have a problem that they did not even anticipate. Habakkuk had been crying out because he saw evil everywhere in his land, because the Jewish nation was corrupt. And God heard – He’s going to act. But in His own way. God will punish the wickedness of the Hebrews by using the wickedness of the Babylonians as His instrument.
The text, in a nutshell, says this: God’s going to deal with the evil Habakkuk’s worried about – but in an unexpected way. Instead of fixing the problems of the Jewish nation, God has had enough. He’s going to destroy it.
EVIL AND GOD’S PLAN
Why now? Why are the Babylonians coming? It’s ironic. The Babylonians worship themselves, trust in their own accomplishments, and yet their rise to power was not their doing. God takes the credit. God is responsible. “I am raising up the Chaldeans,” he tells the Jews. I did this.
Remember the problem of evil from last week? How can there be a God who is both all-powerful and good if there is evil in the world? Here is an unexpected answer. God is saying that more evil is on the way, and that it’s all His plan. He’s going to make use of evil people and their evil actions.
My wife has a friend back in New Brunswick. This girl is married, is a Christian, and has two beautiful kids. One of them is a little over two, I think, and the other is still just a baby – not even a year old. Well, the parents recently received some of the worst news a parent could ever hear. Their two-year-old has cancer.
It’s a rare form of cancer. I don’t know what kind, and I don’t know enough about these things to say what the poor child’s chances are. When we found out, having a little guy who’s getting closer and closer to that age, it was impossible not to wonder and to fear for Caden, to put ourselves in their shoes. How would we feel, if Caden had leukemia or something? What kind of effect might that have on us?
Why do two-year-olds get cancer? The Bible says God is all-powerful. He saw this coming. He could have prevented it. He could heal this boy, but he hasn’t yet. Why?
Why does evil happen in God’s world? Why doesn’t He just wipe it all away and not allow anyone to suffer?
And at first glance, our passage seems to make our problem worse. Here God is, and He’s taking responsibility for something bad that’s going to happen. Babylonians are coming to pillage and slaughter – and it’s God raising them up. Elsewhere in the Bible, we see the same picture. Jesus meets a blind man, and says that he was born this way so that the glory of God might be shown. Satan questions the motivation for Job’s faith, and so God allows all Job’s children and all his possessions to be destroyed as a test.
OUR MYSTERIOUS GOD
We Christians have a tendency to try to distance God from evil and suffering. But look at Jesus’ ministry, or read the Book of Job, or glance over the Ten Plagues of Egypt, or God’s instructions to the Hebrews to destroy everything in the land of Canaan – all these stories tell us something: the Bible doesn’t distance God from these things.
There’s two lessons we can draw from this.
First, God’s ways are mysterious. We simply don’t understand what he’s doing much of the time. A two-year-old child gets cancer. A Christian pastor and his wife are shot to death in Pakistan. A job is lost and a family must leave their home. The sins of God’s people are punished by the sins of a nation that doesn’t know God at all. Why does God let these things happen?
He is God. We are not. “The secret things belong to the Lord,” Deuteronomy tells us. God told Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” If we had all the answers we wanted, we’d be God, and we wouldn’t have any problems. And if we really knew everything God was doing, He wouldn’t be God. He’d be like us, small and simple and limited.
Yes, He’s mysterious. Sometimes He’s just impossible to understand. But that’s because He’s God, and because He’s so much more than we could ever grasp or imagine. This is hope for us! Nothing that we can do can confuse or thwart or defeat Him. It’s because he’s so far above and beyond us and what we can do that we can pray to Him in the first place – and hope for help and encouragement. Because He’s mysterious, we know he’s not a little god, that needs our help and service and protection. He’s a big God. Yes, a mysterious God. But He’s OUR mysterious God – and what is not mysterious is that He loves us and works everything for our good.
And that is no small or abstract promise. We have a God who knows what it is to suffer. Who is personally acquainted with our struggles. Who doesn’t ask us to go through anything, through any suffering, that He has not already suffered Himself. Remember – this is the same God who decided to become flesh, to become a human being, and instead of asserting His rights let himself be mocked and spat upon. Instead of taking the privileges of a king, He let himself be insulted and abused. Rather than conquer his enemies with legions of angels, He let Himself be nailed to a wooden cross and left to die from exposure while His enemies laughed at Him. What kind of sense does that make?
No one ever suffered so much, and yet no one ever deserved it less. The only person in history who did not deserve pain and suffering, suffered most. Why would He choose to do things that way? But He did. And even more – after Jesus Christ was abused and tortured and killed by wicked men – He was raised from the dead. Death wasn’t the end, and it isn’t the end. And now everyone who believes in Him has the hope – the certain hope – of an everlasting life of pure joy, without any pain or suffering at all. We have the certain hope that every evil and every act of abuse and every thoughtless word and every violent deed will be dealt with, and set right, by God. God may be mysterious, but this isn’t: Romans 8:18 – Paul tells us “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” God will set things right. Everything will be all right in the end.
GOD IS IN CONTROL
Second, God is fully in control. Of everything. Including evil. Here is one of the hardest and most controversial truths of the Bible, right here in this passage. God is raising up the Babylonians to punish Judah, in full knowledge of the Babylonians’ evil ways. God is taking, not avoiding, responsibility here for raising up a people that He Himself says, right here, will commit evil acts! How does that work? How can a holy God do such a thing?
There are a lot of people out there who see good and evil as two equal and opposite forces, fighting for all eternity. Yin and yang, light and darkness ever fighting, neither ever winning. The cosmic struggle. Evil is seen as something that cannot ever be truly defeated.
Well, that’s not the way it is. Evil is indeed God’s enemy, but it is not His equal. It is not a fair fight. It really isn’t even a fight at all. Satan thinks he is opposing God, but in reality Satan, and evil, are turned against themselves and wind up accomplishing God’s purpose. The Bible is very clear that evil never defeats God, and that God is always in control. The Book of Job shows us that Satan has to go to God for permission to touch any of God’s people. Satan could do nothing until God let him. And Satan could do no more than what God allowed Him to do – he could send disease, but he could not kill Job. Why did evil happen to Job? Because God had decided to test, and to grow, Job’s character. God put Job through a trial in order to make Job a better person, and he used Satan as merely His way to carry it out.
There’s one other place in the Bible where God’s plan required that something evil happen, that an atrocity take place, that the innocent be tortured and killed by the wicked, that justice be perverted. One other place where, like in our passage, human sin and evil was used to punish human sin and evil. That place was the Cross. God sent His only Son to be whipped and beaten and nailed to a Cross, to die, an innocent victim of wicked men. And God accepted that death as payment for sin for anyone who believes in Jesus Christ for salvation. Human evil was used to punish human evil in Christ. And this was not an accident – God planned this. “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’– for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:26-28) “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23)
Yes, sin is God’s enemy. Pain, evil, wickedness, suffering – they are all ultimately the work of Satan. He is a rabid dog that seeks to infect and destroy anything and anyone it can sink its teeth into. And yet he is a dog on a leash – God’s leash. Evil is so utterly defeated and so completely under God’s control that Satan suffers the humiliation of seeing all his rebellion and all of his attacks on God and His people turned around and used for their good and for God’s glory.
And there is the hope. Evil is real. It hurts. We hurt one another. We see, and do, terrible things in this world, and they are done to us. And God lets it happen – but He does so according to His plan. He does so, the Bible tells us, for His glory.
The glory of God… See, I don’t know why two-year-olds get cancer. I don’t know how that glorifies God. I can’t understand what possible glory there might be in some of the awful things we see in the news or in our own lives every day. Some of you here today are probably suffering at home, or in the workplace, or at school, or in the depths of your own heart. And if you were to ask me, “Why? What reason could God have in this? How does this give God glory?” I really couldn’t give you any hard or specific answers. I don’t really know why. But I do know this: God knows why. God has a reason. There is no senseless or purposeless evil in this world – for everything happens according to God’s purpose and plan. And that plan is good.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) That purpose is to grow us, to make us better people, to make us more and more like His Son Jesus Christ, who is perfect and beautiful. More like Christ, who loves nothing more than to give glory to the Father. And there it is. More like Christ, who is joyful. Imagine how happy Christ is! To have God Himself as His Father, to be sinless, to be immortal, to have all the pleasures and joys of being in God’s house and in God’s arms! How happy He is, as He sees His Father exalted and glorified in everything! God’s plan is to make us like Christ – and that includes like Christ in His joy, in His happiness! That plan is to, ultimately, give us greater joy and peace than we could ever imagine! No matter how discouraged or grieved you are today, if you believe in Christ, He will restore your joy. He will give you happiness again. And now, right now, there is hope. If you look to Him, He will give you peace and strength in your struggles.
A couple weeks ago I had to take Caden for his shots. And I held him as the nurse put those needles in his arm. He screamed and cried, burying his face in my shoulder, his tears all over my shirt, doing the only thing he knew to do in the midst of his fear and pain – clinging to Daddy, his little arms wrapped tightly around me. He’s too little to understand why that had to happen. All he knew was that it hurt, and he just isn’t capable of comprehending any reason why Daddy would let that strange lady hurt him. But it had to be done, and for his own good. I had a reason for what I did. There was a purpose in letting Caden be hurt, and someday he’ll be big enough to know these things. And until then, he’ll just have to cling to me, and until then, I’ll just make crystal clear that I love him and that I’m always looking out for his good.
Our good and our growth and our joy and our happiness sometimes require pain. And compared to God, we’re just too little to understand why that is. But God loves us! He intends our good, and the God who controls ALL things and who is never, EVER defeated will certainly, definitely, accomplish our good!
So, as Paul asked: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31,32)
“He who calls you is faithful. He will surely do it.” (1 Thes. 5:24)
– Jeff Jones
September 18, 2007
Sermon Manuscript – September 16, 2007
BACKGROUND OF HABAKKUK
I want to lay out a bit of the background before we read the passage. This whole sermon, in fact, is an introduction to the book. When was this prophecy written? It was probably a little more than six hundred years before the birth of Christ. It was a time of strife and turmoil, obviously. There was violence and wickedness in the land. And we meet Habakkuk.
Habakkuk lives in Judah – that’s the southern part of the land of Israel. He grew up under a good king, a man named Josiah. If you ever want to read a Biblical story about a revival, go to Kings and Chronicles and find the story of Josiah. This young man became king at just eight years old, picking up the pieces from his wicked father and grandfather. His grandfather Manasseh, in particular, had been really bad. He had worshiped idols. He had brought pagan images into God’s temple. He persecuted and killed the followers of God. A Jewish legend says the prophet Isaiah was killed by being sawn in two under this king. And his reign was very long – over fifty years. A half-century of unmitigated wickedness.
His son only lived a couple of years before he died, doing much the same things, and then Josiah took the throne. Here’s an eight-year-old boy, king of the whole land. Eight-year-olds can be pretty smart, but they don’t usually do big things like running nations by themselves, and so Josiah had a mentor – a very wise, godly man named Hilkiah, the high priest of God. And Josiah listened to Hilkiah, learned the ways of God from him. Even at a very young age, Josiah began making changes. I’ll read what the Bible says about this young man, from 2 Chronicles 34. Remember, this is what Habakkuk had grown up with:
Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, and walked in the ways of David his father; and he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet a boy, he began to seek the God of David his father, and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the Asherim, and the carved and the metal images. And they chopped down the altars of the Baals in his presence, and he cut down the incense altars that stood above them. And he broke in pieces the Asherim and the carved and the metal images, and he made dust of them and scattered it over the graves of those who had sacrificed to them. He also burned the bones of the priests on their altars and cleansed Judah and Jerusalem. And in the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, and as far as Naphtali, in their ruins all around, he broke down the altars and beat the Asherim and the images into powder and cut down all the incense altars throughout all the land of Israel.
At sixteen he starts systematically dismantling the idol worship that his father and grandfather had built. And then his mentor finds a scroll of the law that had been lost in the Temple, and this scroll just fuelled the fire. Revival – it starts with men of God and is powered and sustained by the word of God. The people recognize their sin and renew their covenant and promises to God. Everything’s looking up, for the first time in a century. And Habakkuk lived through it all.
And then, suddenly, Josiah is killed in battle with the Egyptians. And for all the godliness Josiah had cultivated in Judah’s society, he had failed to do so in his own home. Josiah had more than one wife, and several sons, and after his death these sons served as king one after another. And they were all bad, just as bad as Josiah’s father and grandfather had been.
Without Josiah, the revival fizzles. It was a top-down thing, I think. The government was pushing it, the priests were behind it, but the hearts of the people just weren’t in it. And when a new king came to the throne, who rather liked the old days and the idols that Josiah had broken, Habakkuk saw the whole land revert to its wicked ways.
That’s the land Habakkuk had grown up in. That’s the story of the culture and community of Habakkuk’s youth. And here he is. Let’s read what he has to say:
The very first phrase of our text is very interesting. My translation says, “The oracle that Habakkuk” saw. The King James renders it far more literally: the burden that he saw. The Hebrew word has the sense of a heavy load, a great weight on Habakkuk’s shoulders. To be given a message from God is always a serious thing. And all Christians, not just prophets or pastors, carry this load. We are all witnesses for Christ. We all know the Gospel and are bound to share it with others. This is not a light or casual responsibility. We must all handle God’s Word with the greatest care.
But Habakkuk’s burden isn’t just heavy because of the nature of the message as God’s Word. It’s a particularly heavy burden because of the content of the message. Habakkuk has come bearing very, very bad news. And while we’re not going to get into it today, Habakkuk has the responsibility of telling his people that their nation and society are about to be viciously destroyed. The enemy is coming, by God’s design, to punish and destroy the land for its wickedness. And I’m sure Habakkuk woke up the next morning just dreading his duty to give the people the message.
See, even we, as Christians, have bad news to bring. The bad news we bring to the world is this: God hates your sin, and He is prepared to punish you for all eternity in hell unless you turn from your sin, cry for mercy to God, and believe in Jesus Christ as your Saviour. It’s good news only if you believe it – it’s the worst possible news if you don’t. And we as believers have a burden, just like Habakkuk did. We must preach the whole Gospel, not just the pleasant parts.
This whole book is a burden – a great weight – that Habakkuk was given for his people. We shouldn’t take that lightly. We should never take the Word of God lightly.
Let’s go on, then, into our passage. Habakkuk faces a big problem in our text.
THERE’S EVIL EVERYWHERE
The problem is this: Habakkuk sees evil everywhere. All around him there is crime and injustice. Habakkuk mentions “violence” twice – he sees people being beaten and killed, husbands abusing their wives, parents abusing their children, masters beating their slaves. He sees the poor being shaken down in the streets for mere pennies by thugs hired by the rich and powerful. He sees the servants and prophets of God being sneered at and assaulted for their faith, persecuted for not bowing the knee to idols like Baal and Asherah. Every day, he hears of another rape, another murder.
Strife and contention abound. Like children, everyone picks petty fights and hurt one another just for kicks. People sue one another at the drop of a hat. And where can they go for justice? The torah, the law, seems paralyzed. The Hebrew word has the sense of numbness – it’s as if the law has been rendered insensitive and without any feeling at all, no longer able to move or act. People go to the courts for justice, but there’s none to be found. Justice has been perverted – twisted and bent out of shape by wicked men so that even the courts become a means of evil gain. Judges are taking bribes from the wicked and punishing the innocent.
What a horrible sight to behold. A terrible world to wake up to, again and again, day after day. That’s Habakkuk’s first problem, and it’s a big one. Habakkuk sees violence everywhere – violence against others, violence against the community, violence against common decency, violence against the law, violence against God.
One could look around our world today and be forgiven for feeling the same way. Let me read just a few news clippings from the last couple years:
“Over 110,000 abortions are performed in Canada every year. That represents a ratio of about 30 abortions to every 100 live births.”
“Four Canadian soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber on a bicycle in southern Afghanistan on Monday while the troops were conducting a security patrol, according to the Canadian military. The bombing injured 27 civilians, including children. The Taliban has claimed responsibility. In the opening session of the House of Commons today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the soldiers were handing out candy to children when the bomb exploded.”
“Fifteen-year-old Jehan Mina became pregnant after being raped by her uncle and cousin. Her family filed a complaint of rape but since there were no witnesses, the alleged rapists were acquitted. (Pakistani law will not accept the testimony of a female rape victim, but requires a minimum of four male witnesses to prove an attack took place). Yet her pregnancy was proof that extra-marital sexual intercourse had taken place and she was sentenced to 100 lashes in public. The punishment was later converted to 3 years imprisonment and 10 lashes.”
Our world is a wicked place. It is full of pain and suffering. And that’s a problem. It’s a problem we all face. Personally. When that drunk driver takes the life of a relative, when someone vandalizes your car, when your child is bullied at school, when a politician uses your tax dollars to buy votes or refinish his basement – sin affects us all. Look at this world we live in from the perspective of Habakkuk – through God-colored glasses. Measure this land, this community by God’s standard. It’s not hard to see all this and, with Habakkuk, cry out to God, “How long, O Lord? Why do you make me see evil?”
Now, the state of his society is bad enough, but this isn’t just any society we’re talking about. This is the land of Judah. This is the people of Israel. The covenant people, the chosen nation. This isn’t just any community. This is God’s people.
There are few men and women of integrity left to be found. Habakkuk looks around, but people who serve God are few and far between. They are surrounded by the wicked – hemmed in, besieged by evil, unable to escape the press of corruption that boxes them in. They are outnumbered, and there is no relief in sight. Blood runs in the streets, in the courthouses, in the places of worship, in private homes.
These people who rape and murder are called by God’s name. The law that has been paralyzed, the torah that is numb and insensitive, is the Law of God. The justice that is twisted and perverted in the service of evil is the justice that God appointed.
We in the church are prone to thinking that we’re insulated from the evil in the world. It’s hard to believe that Christians could do such things, but I’ve got some more clippings to read:
“Two-thirds of pastors reported that their congregation experienced a conflict during the past two years; more than 20 percent of those were significant enough that members left the congregation.”
“A church bishop and two top aides have been indicted by federal prosecutors on charges they bilked banks out of nearly $2-million to finance the clergyman’s “lavish and expensive lifestyle.” …The indictment also alleged Lewis forged signatures of other ministers and pastors in churches he associated with to obtain loans in those churches’ names without the pastors’ knowledge.”
“33 percent of pastors confess ‘inappropriate’ sexual behavior with someone in the church.”
“While [in the US] abortion in general decreased… the percentage of those who are evangelicals has increased from 16.7 percent to 18 percent [of total abortions] — in other words, in a given year, 234,000 evangelical [American] women abort.” I don’t expect the ratios are any different here in Canada.
Habakkuk was horrified by what he saw among God’s people. Would he feel much different about God’s people today? When we gossip about one another, when we are harsh or cruel or impatient with one another, when we assume fellow believers have wrong motives or attitudes toward us, when we ignore the teaching of the Word of God and blindly imitate the culture in how we do church or treat one another – all these things are the kinds of practices that so upset our prophet.
So we can draw an application right away – God’s people are to be better than this! The very reason Habakkuk was so upset reminds us that the people of God are to be different from the world! We’re not supposed to fight among ourselves, to hurt one another. We’re supposed to uphold the torah, uphold the Word of God, not paralyze or numb it through indifference or ignorance! Let’s not dishonour him in how we live as a community.
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
So this is the problem so far: Habakkuk sees evil everywhere, and he sees evil among God’s own people. That’s bad enough, but for Habakkuk, it’s even worse because he wonders – where is God in all of this?
There was once a Greek philosopher named Epicurus. He lived in the third century before Christ. He had this idea that happiness should be defined as the absence of pain, and that life should be devoted to avoiding pain as the key to happiness. And he looked at the world around him, like Habakkuk did three hundred years earlier, like people do today, and he saw pain. He saw suffering everywhere.
And for Epicurus, this meant one thing. There could be no all-powerful, loving God. Epicurus was the first person to articulate what we now call the “problem of evil.” He challenged those who believed in an all-powerful, loving deity, asking them this question: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not all-powerful. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent – evil. Is he both able and willing? Then how can there be evil?”
If you hang around atheists for any length of time, you’ll hear this argument. Really, it is aimed right at Christians, right at the teachings of the Bible. See, the Bible tells us that God is all-powerful. “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”” The Bible tells us that God is loving. “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” So – why is there evil? If He exists, where is He? Why doesn’t He do something?
And when the world sees the same kinds of evil, the same violence and sin, among us who claim to believe in God, they pose a similar question. “If God is real, why are His followers the same as everyone else? What’s the point, if faith doesn’t make a difference in one’s life? How can God be real, when His people are so fake?”
That’s really the whole problem. Habakkuk’s problem is the “problem of evil.” The whole book of Habakkuk addresses the problem of evil in God’s world. It’s the same problem of evil that we face today. How do we deal with the presence of evil and pain and suffering in this world? What does that mean for our faith?
One way is to adjust your picture of God, to agree with Epicurus that God can’t be all-powerful and loving and permit evil at the same time. The solution, then? Make God smaller. He’s still loving, don’t worry. But He’s not really all-powerful, you see. He can’t stop all evil. A good example of this approach happened just a few weeks ago. Just after that bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, killing thirteen people, Rabbi Harold Kushner gave an interview on Minnesota Public Radio explaining where God was in the midst of the collapse. God wasn’t responsible for the collapse, Kushner said, because God isn’t really “all-powerful.” No – God actually doesn’t control the laws of nature, he explained. The collapse of the bridge was just random, senseless. God couldn’t have been responsible, much less intended anything good or bad by the collapse, because He couldn’t control it.
But how does that help? If God’s so small that He can’t prevent evil from happening, then how can He be expected to help us or keep us safe? See, Habakkuk faced this problem of evil, too. But look at how he deals with it.
GOD’S WORD FACES THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
The very reason Habakkuk has a problem in the first place is because he is convinced God is all-powerful and loving. If Habakkuk believed in Rabbi Kushner’s god, he wouldn’t have wasted his breath praying for relief. Why pray to such a little god? How can he help? But Habakkuk believes in the God of the Bible – the God who has all power, who Himself is love, and yet whose creation is teeming with wickedness.
Yes, evil isn’t easy to explain in the universe of a sovereign God. But in the day of evil, when sin comes to hurt and destroy, when pain and suffering fall, only a sovereign God can help. The very attributes which seem to create the problem of evil – omnipotence and love – are the very ones we trust in most when we come to God in prayer.
The problem of evil is a blessing, in a way. It calls attention to just those aspects of God that we need the most. It calls us to God’s promises and asks us to believe. Habakkuk believed. We know this, because he prayed. And he kept praying when every earthly indication was that his faith was futile.
Yes, there’s evil in the world. And it’s hard to explain against what the Word of God tells us about Him. And there’s the choice. That’s the two ways. Do we believe the Word of God? When it says, God is all powerful; when it says, God is loving and merciful; when it says, God is just and right – do we take God at His Word and trust Him? Do we believe it? Or do we form a god in our own image, one that doesn’t offend us or make us uncomfortable?
Why believe the Bible? That’s really the question here. And we have an answer here. Look – these are the words of a prophet who lived three hundred years before Epicurus even came up with the problem of evil! Here in the pages of this Bible is not some fluffy, pie-in-the-sky, utopian idea, avoiding reality. No, here we find a godly man, a believer, wrestling with the same problem that some people use to try to deny the faith!
What some think is an argument against God is actually evidence that He lives! The Bible doesn’t avoid the hard questions. It doesn’t cover over the nasty reality of life in an evil world. It doesn’t pretend things are better than they are. The Bible is an honest book. It is a book that matches our experience, and explains it. It is a book that deals with reality – it faces the real questions. That shows it’s for real. That shows it’s the truth.
THE BIBLE ANSWERS THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
And even more than that – the Bible gives us the ultimate answer to the problem of evil. Only in the Bible do we find the Gospel. Only in the pages of God’s Word do we find the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Habakkuk didn’t know what we do now. He had not yet seen his Saviour. But he trusted in God’s promise to set things right, to deal with sin.
For the prophet, this was still in the future. All he had was a promise. And when he saw nothing but evil, that promise looked dim, and that’s what drove him to prayer. “God – where are you? You promised to punish evil! You promised to save the righteous!” He cried out because he could not see salvation.
What a blessing we have, then, in God’s Word! What was still future for Habakkuk has been done and finished for us! God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to deal with the problem of evil. He lived a perfect life, to show that we can honour God in the midst of a sinful world. He died a sinner’s death, so that if we believe in him and trust in His work for our salvation, all of our sins – from first to last – are cleared away. And he was raised from the dead, to show that death can’t hold us! No matter how terrible life may get, no matter even if the wicked take our lives, we have the promise of being raised again!
And, finally, as the ultimate answer to Habakkuk’s question, we have the promise of a final reckoning. The Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus Christ “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty – from there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” God won’t leave this world the way it is forever. Judgment is coming – and all that evil and wickedness will be punished. And on that day, every tear will be wiped from our eyes. We shall not know fear or pain or war or grief anymore.
And that’s the hope we can take from this passage. God knows what we’re facing. He knows about the “problem of evil.” He knows we struggle to understand. And he gave us a Bible that proves it! Here He gives us a picture of a man, a believer, an inspired prophet, who also struggled. Remember, the book starts with a cry of anguish – and yet it ends with a hymn of praise! Here he shows us hope – that by approaching God boldly, and persistently, like Habakkuk did, we – who know far more about God’s plan than Habakkuk ever did! – can also be lifted out of despair and see the glory of God.
– Jeff Jones