Sermon Manuscript – 13 January 2008

INTRODUCTION

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.

MARK RESTORED

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

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.

STILL CONFUSED

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.

CONCLUSION

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

Sermon Manuscript – 1 April 2007

When my wife and I found out that she was pregnant, we were faced with a big decision. Having a child makes you face many decisions, actually – what car seat to buy, what furniture to buy used and what to buy new, whether to find out if it’s a boy or girl, and so on. But perhaps the most enduring decision that parents make is what to name their little boy or girl.

I say the name, because practically every other decision we make will undergo a change over the course of a baby’s life. You’ll get more than one car seat – we did – and eventually he’ll not need it anymore. The baby furniture eventually gets replaced with a twin-size bed and the change table with a real dresser. I know that in our twisted age parents can make a so-called “choice” not to have the child at all, but ours is a God who knows all things and raises the dead, and judges sins like that; and so even that decision doesn’t endure past the frontier of this life.

And while people can get a legal name change and so on, the person never fully leaves their birth name behind – it still exists in government documents, on vital statistics, and so forth.

What’s more, the Bible shows God interacting with people using the names that their parents gave them, with only a few exceptions.

How significant that decision becomes when you look at it that way! My wife and I agonized over the decision. We eventually settled on Caden, which is a Celtic name that means “fighter,” at least partly because we nearly lost him in the third month of pregnancy. Names often represent the hopes and dreams of the parents, reflecting the qualities that they value and hope the child will have.

In the Bible, names have deep significance – far more than we attach to them today. For example, the name “Jesus” is actually, in Greek and in Hebrew, the same name as “Joshua,” which means “he who saves.” Jesus’ very name described His mission on this earth, a mission of salvation – to live a perfect life that we could not do ourselves and to give His own life as a substitute for those of His people as punishment for their sins.

Other names are also meaningful. Peter means “rock.” Abraham “father of a multitude,” Isaac means “he laughs” – because his mother laughed at God’s promise that she would be pregnant.

So when the Bible gives a name, one of the first things a Bible student does is to check what the meaning of that name is – if, in fact, it is known to us. Some we don’t – Ruth is a good example, because we’re not sure what it means. It seems, though, that the name Boaz means “strength,” “man of strength” or something similar. It’s an apt description of the man we read about in these pages.

Names are important in the Bible, because they were important to the ancient people whose lives are recorded in it. So when someone’s name is conspicuously absent, left out, we should notice. When the Bible fails to name someone when everyone else’s names are given, it means something.

Every significant character in the book of Ruth is named. We have Boaz, Ruth, Naomi. We even have Naomi’s husband Elimilech and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, who die in the first five verses. There’s a genealogy at the end of the book full of names. Every important character in Ruth has a name recorded by the author.

With one very glaring exception.

Who is it that Boaz is negotiating with at the gate? What is his name? The author doesn’t tell us.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, he doesn’t name the foreman in Boaz’s field, either, or the elders at the gate, or the other townspeople.” No, he doesn’t. But they didn’t play important roles in the story.

And this isn’t a simple matter of forgetting or overlooking the name. The author deliberately leaves it out. Our English Bibles have Boaz address the other man in verse 1 like this: “Turn aside, friend.” The English doesn’t translate the Hebrew well here. Boaz doesn’t say “friend.” The author literally records it like this in Hebrew: “Boaz said, Turn aside, Mr. So-and-so.”

The author of Ruth deliberately and conspicuously and obviously addresses this man not by his real name, but by a vague, indefinite word. Boaz knew the man’s name, obviously. No doubt he actually said the real name during this transaction. But the author, and the Holy Spirit who inspired him, chose to leave out this name.

Why?

Mr. So-and-so was a redeemer. That’s a person with the responsibility to help out a family member in financial or legal trouble. A kinsman-redeemer had a legal and moral duty to buy relatives out of slavery – with his own money, to buy back family land that was sold outside the clan in times of financial trouble, to defend a relative in court, and to see that justice was done on behalf of relatives. Mr. So-and-so had a big responsibility.

And in our passage, Boaz confronts him and reminds him that his relative, Naomi, was in trouble and was disposing of family land because she needed money. Boaz reminds Mr. So-and-so that he was first in line to take on the responsibility of getting the land back for the family.

At this point, Mr. So-and-so thinks, “Well, okay. Elimilech, the original owner, is gone now. Both his sons are dead. He has no descendants. If I buy the land, there aren’t any heirs to it. I can add this land to my own estate. It will pay for itself over the next few years. Not a bad deal at all – spend a little now, but get a great investment property! I’ll take it!”

And so he says, “I will redeem it.”

Poor Ruth. If she was standing there, her heart must have just sunk. Boaz had already said that he would respect Mr. So-and-so’s decision. The hope of marrying this caring, gentle, generous man was gone.

But Boaz wasn’t done. He brings another matter into the picture. “If you redeem the land, you also take the responsibility of Ruth.”

She’s the widow of the dead man’s son. She’s young enough to have children. And now Mr. So-and-so realizes what he’s getting into. Jewish custom demanded that a widow be provided with an heir – that she be married in order to have a child who would legally count as the dead man’s heir.

But if that happens, the investment becomes a liability. Not only is Mr. So-and-so buying land, but he’ll be paying to support two new family members – Ruth and Naomi. He’ll be required to take Ruth as his wife. He’ll be expected to have a kid with her. And that child will inherit the land he bought – the land he redeemed.

In short, he’ll pay out of his own pocket to buy land and support two, eventually three, people who will inherit that land without ever paying him back for it. His inheritance – his estate – will be badly hurt. This is a potentially huge financial loss.

What should he do? The Law required that these women be redeemed, and the property of Mr. So-and-so’s dead relative with it. Why was this so important? Because without an heir for Naomi, the NAME of her husband Elimilech will disappear forever. He will have no descendants. He will have no posterity. He will have no grandchildren and great-grandchildren to live on his land and keep his memory alive. His family will be blotted out of history.

For an ancient Jew, there could be no greater loss, no greater catastrophe than the loss of one’s name from history. That was the whole point of the law of redemption – to save a family and its name, its history, its memories, its accomplishments from extinction.

The fate of his relative’s family name rested in Mr. So-and-so’s hands. His moral and legal duty was to keep it alive, even though it would cost him dearly.

But Boaz had already said he was willing. That’s a load off Mr. So-and-so’s shoulders! Let Boaz deal with it! Let Boaz take on the financial burden – he’s got money. He can handle it.

And that’s what he does. The community accepts the decision. Ruth and Naomi are redeemed and taken care of. Boaz gets a wife of noble character. And Mr. So-and-so’s inheritance is intact. Everyone’s happy, right?

This was all God’s plan from the beginning. God raised up Ruth and Boaz in order to put them together. Their descendants would include David and Jesus Christ himself. And yet the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writing of this book, still chose to call this other man Mr. So-and-so, rather than use his real name.

How ironic. The man who had the responsibility to rescue his brother’s family name, who was so concerned with guarding his own inheritance and keeping his own name intact, is now known to all generations as Mr. So-and-so. A man with no name.

He may have had the legal right to hand his responsibility off to Boaz. But that doesn’t change his moral obligation to Ruth and Naomi. It was his responsibility. His duty. And by leaving this man’s name out of the book, God expresses his displeasure at a man who put worldly concerns about inheritance and wealth above his spiritual responsibility to look after his relatives.

In verse 6, Mr. So-and-so refuses to redeem because his concern is with his own inheritance. In verse 10, Boaz tells us he’s redeeming because his concern is with the inheritance of his relatives. Mr. So-and-so was selfish. Boaz was selfless. Mr. So-and-so’s action cost him nothing in worldly terms, but earned him an eternal rebuke. Boaz’s action cost him a great deal in worldly wealth. But it gave him a place in the family line of Jesus Christ, and a role in the salvation of the world.

Boaz gave up a lot to redeem his bride. It must have cost a great deal. A thousand years later, his descendant, Jesus, was faced with a very similar choice. It would cost Jesus his very life, the suffering of an agonizing death, three days in a cold grave, to redeem His bride. Christ did not have to go to the Cross. Jesus never sinned. He didn’t deserve to die. Only sinners do. Jesus may have had the legal right to pass on this responsibility. Yet He did not. He told His disciples, “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, even as He prayed that God might provide another way, He humbly submitted to His call of redemption: “Your will be done.”

Out of love – love for God, love for God’s law, love for his family, love for Ruth – Boaz cheerfully paid the price and bought his bride out of poverty. Boaz did God’s will. And out of love of His Father, love for His holiness, love for His Creation, and especially love for His people – His Church – Jesus Christ cheerfully paid the price and bought us, His bride, out of the poverty and slavery of sin and death.

We don’t know Mr. So-and-so’s name today, because he wasn’t concerned about his relatives and their name. We know the name of Boaz, because he put saving his relatives’ family name ahead of his own wealth and comfort.

And through that act of faithfulness, God raised up Him whose name is above all other names, Jesus Christ, who made Himself nothing in order to save us all.

What will you be remembered for? Will you be like Mr. So-and-so, putting worldly concerns and worries about money and security and wealth ahead of your duties to God?

There’s nothing down that road. Jesus warns everyone who would be called by His name, saying this: Many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your NAME, and cast out demons in your NAME, and do many mighty works in your NAME?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me.” You have no name!

Or will you be like Boaz, remembered for giving so much for others expecting nothing in return? Who understood that God gave him so much so that he could be a blessing to others? Who realized that the only reason God gave him money and fields and servants and influence and wealth in the first place was so that he might give it away to rescue two helpless women?

Jesus Christ is calling us to deny ourselves. To take up our crosses. The Gospel is NOT a promise of easy living. It is not an offer of worldly comfort. No! The Gospel is a promise of suffering and pain and self-denial! We are not saved from hell for our own sake – we are saved for Christ’s sake! To be a people zealous for good works! TO be sold out for God and for others!

Boaz was the type of person that Jesus later would be in His life, an Old Testament picture of selflessness and sacrifice and love. Here we stand – here on the other side of the Cross, called to be the type of person that Jesus already was and still is. Called to be pictures in this world of selflessness and sacrifice and love. If it cost Jesus everything to save us, how can we do any less but give it all for him?

– Jeff Jones