How long, O Lord? - Habakkuk 1
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
How do you feel about the world we live in & the state of God's people the church?
We live in a nation that seems content to run away from the enormous benefits gained by 1000 years of Christian belief & moral influence, a nation driven by materialism, hedonism & pragmatism a nation we're told this week with a huge drug dependency problem most of us know little about, a nation where over the last 10 years almost 2 million (mainly healthy) unborn babies have been killed in their mothers' womb because society is unprepared to provide for them.
When you look at the church in our part of the world the situation seems to be one of general decline. The Gallup International Millennium Survey consulted 50,000 people across 60 countries. It discovered, as one headline put it, "Europe 'leads the world in godlessness'."
The 1999 English Church Attendance Survey from Christian Research showed we in England are as bad as anywhere.
The Survey showed that only 7.5 percent of the population of England was in church on an average Sunday. 20 years before (using the same measurements) it was 12 percent. And the Survey suggested that the rate of decline is increasing.
And of course as we all know our own region & City is famed for having the lowest rate for church attendance in the country.
Then there's church leaders publicly denying central Christian truths & failing to speak out God's word, there's news of scandals & child abuse & all this makes no mention our own personal inadequacies, failings & sins.
Given all this we can easily empathise with the concerns of Habakkuk the prophet as we begin to learn from the OT book that bears his name. p940.
Let's remind ourselves of the background to this short but powerful prophetic book; Here are God's people some 600 years before Jesus a lot of water has gone under the bridge of the Bible's historical story since human beings were 1st made as recorded in Genesis. We have learnt of the human race turning away from God thinking we could do a better job without him, but tragically making a gigantic hash of running the world, society, families & ourselves & making ourselves worthy of God's judgement in the process.
We have also learnt (before the book of Habakkuk) that God promised a man called Abraham that he would have descendants who'd become a nation (Israel) & they would have their own land, and through them people from all nations would be blessed & would know God's generous love instead of getting his judgement.
God's promise was to rescue human beings from sin and the consequences of sin. (Genesis 12.1-3.) And God kept his promise. They became a nation and got their land.
But they were still the same sinful people on the inside. They still had the same human nature as us - which naturally wants to live without God. They spent 100s of years expressing that rebellious nature & yet often through a more or less faithful few (Prophets like Elisha as we saw before Easter, & Kings, like David) God sought to point them back to his love again & again.
By Habakkuk's time, about 600BC, things among the so-called people of God were dire. They were nowhere near that promised blessing of being saved from sin and the consequences of sin. But God had not given up he still had his faithful people people like the prophet Habakkuk.
What we have in this book is not a prophecy he was given to deliver to others directly (like most of the OT prophecy we have in the Bible) but a response to his own questioning of God. He complains to God & asks God questions, & God replies.
We have these words because in God's providence Hab or someone else saw they were important for others to read & we know as God's people today in 2002AD that these things are, as Apostle Paul says in Rom 15:4 "written to teach us".
So, Habakkuk engages in a dialogue with God even dare I say it, an argument with God. We see this eve that in ch 1 he asks 2 Questions & gets a surprising reply. (Sermon notes)
1) Lord, Why don't you stop the rot amongst your people? 1:2-5
1: 2"How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, "Violence!" but you do not save?
3Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds."
Hab. is desperately upset about the decline of his own people & culture.
We might think things are bad with us but the situation with God's people then, was extremely depressing. God, the LORD, the faithful covenant God had called his special nation to be different to live for him in his world in a way which honoured him & was a light to those around them. But they were being grossly unfaithful to their side of the covenant.
There was injustice, blatant wrongdoing, there was violence & conflict. God had made known his ways he had revealed his commands in his Law for the good of the people & to the glory of his name & yet the situation was one of spiritual & social decline. V4 "the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails."
The godly Hab pleads; v2 "How long, O Lord?" "How long must I keep praying before you seem to listen? How much longer do I need to keep bringing the situation before you, until you do something? You are the LORD Yahweh our covenant God look at the state of your people they are your people Lord & they are in a terrible mess. Why don't you stop the rot amongst your people?"
Does it not strike you how we have here a man with passion about God's people a believer who really cares. This is not the superficial moaning of someone who has a personality clash with the minister or who complains that there aren't enough hymns in the services, he is deeply concerned for the honour of God's name & the integrity of God's people.
How different we so often are when we accept situations that shouldn't be as they are & simply become resigned; when we are indifferent to the bad name of the Christian Church, the heresy of church leaders, the failure of many Christians to live distinctly holy lives. Hab's passionate complaint before God rebukes our detached acceptance of sin, error & evil in our world & particularly amongst God's people.
The basic fact that he prayed, rebukes us too Clearly Hab in his concern about the situation doesn't simply lament the spiritual decline, he poured his heart out to God. Could it be that God's word to us so often is that in James 4:2 "You do not have because you do not ask God?"
Yet there is a problem for believers who do pray, sooner or later. That is the problem Hab has with God; the question of apparently unanswered prayer.
Like Hab we do pray, we do believe & yet we don't seem to see in our experience what we know to be true. How do we respond?
As we touched on in considering Jesus' Sermon on the Mount 2 weeks ago, we need to remember that God is not only our all powerful heavenly father he is our wise heavenly father sometimes what we ask for is not for our or others greater good.
Bt also to be confident when it comes to expecting answers to prayer, we need to have God's promise in his word to know that something is certainly what he wants. Now sometimes we don't have specific promises so when for eg we pray for an ill person to get better God may or may not answer by bringing a full recovery we have to trust God's bigger, wise purpose but we do know he will answer our prayer for the ill for grace & strength to persevere, to remain faithful under suffering - for he has promised that he will keep his people until the end (eg Jude 24,25).
Habakkuk knew God had said through Moses that if people responded faithfully, God would bless them; but that if people responded faithlessly, God would judge them (eg, Deut 28: 58-68). Habakkuk knew that most of his contemporaries were faithless, bringing shame on God, and God had promised to judge that kind of thing. So Habakkuk knew he was praying the right thing, praying in line with God's promises, praying something he could expect God to answer.
But, it seemed there was no answer. So out come those familiar questions: v2, 'How long, O LORDand v3, 'WhyWhy
Sometimes we pray for the wrong thing. Sometimes we pray for something that's OK, but we can't expect it definitely because there's no promise to claim. But sometimes we pray for something God has promised - but there's still the problem that his time-scale is not our time-scale.
We shall see this is one of the key points in this book - we must learn to wait & trust that God will fulfil his purpose according to his timing that's not necessarily ours. (p)
"Lord, Why don't you stop the rot amongst your people?" asks Hab. And God replies directly to his complaint yet what God says is not at all what Hab expected!!
2) God's 1st reply: The LORD God will act, but unexpectedly v5-11
Hab had asked "How long O Lord? How long before you do something" God replies "I am going to do something I am going to stop the rot amongst my people I am going to judge them & I'm going to use the Babylonians as my instrument!"
V5 "Look at the nations and watch-- and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.6I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own."
Do you realise how shocking this was? The Babylonians were the ultimate Pariah State modern Babylon Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Taleban controlled Afghanistan or soviet controlled Russia were nothing on this nation. They were (v9-11) infamous for their ruthlessness & expansionist lust, they were contemptuous of the authority of other countries invading & capturing whoever they wanted whenever they wanted. They were immensely powerful militarily having the equivalent of Chemical & nuclear weapons of their day (v8). And they were (v11) a nation that was proud & godless, indeed idolatrous in it's attitude to it's own power. Not surprisingly v7, they were "feared & dreaded".
And what did God say about them v6 "I am raising up the Babylonians" to stop the rot in my people. I will use them to judge my people!! I will use as my instrument a people even more wicked than you are." And that is what happened when in 587 BC the special City of God's people Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians under King Nebudchanezzar.
There's a great reminder here of the truth that God is in control - he is sovereign. Anyone looking on from outside would have seen in 587BC yet another victory for the awesome Babylonians, it appeared to be a merely human act but the truth was God was behind it too.
Now the humans involved were responsible for their actions & accountable to God for them, so they're described v11 as "guilty men, whose strength is their own god." But at the same time God was working out his purpose.
This is a truth that is often unpopular, but clear in the pages of the Bible: God is sovereign over everything - including evil actions. Nothing happens in this universe, in history, in our own personal lives, that is beyond God's control. Everything ultimately serves his purposes - even evil actions.
In our experience, sometimes we can see how circumstances serve God's purposes (as here in vv5-11, where circumstances are God's judgement on Israel). But sometimes we can't see how God is in control and how he's working his purposes out. All we can do is to trust that he is in control working out his ultimately good plan, and cling to a promise like Romans 8.28:
And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
On other occasions, looking back, we can begin to see how God was working out his good purposes.
The supreme example of this is the death of Jesus on the cross. We said earlier in the Creed that Jesus, "suffered under Pontius Pilate." At the human level the Roman governor Pilate (and Judas and the Jewish leaders) were responsible (and therefore guilty of evil). And yet, simultaneously, God was sovereign, using their evil deeds in the event that saved us who believe from sin and the consequences of sin. Human beings are responsible. Yet at the same time, over all, God is sovereign.
That truth - that God is sovereign over everything - is actually a great encouragement. We are not simply at the mercy of purposeless fate or purely random chances - nothing happens which is outside our loving heavenly Father's control.
God's reply to Hab reminds us that he can use all things to serve his purposes - even human sin, even difficulties in our lives, even suffering.
But Hab hearing God's message is shocked to the core (2nd complaint)
3) How can you use them LORD who are so evil? v 12-17:
v12 "O LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, we will not die. O LORD, you have appointed them to execute judgement; O Rock, you have ordained them to punish. 13Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?"
Hab says to God: "How can you the holy God, use these disgusting violent pagans to judge your people surely that can't be right!!"
Now the life of any believer includes times when we are simply perplexed. If there are never times like that we need to ask whether we have become over familiar with holy things.
It's actually frighteningly easy for Christians to become like the people who once greeted American President Roosevelt at a gala ball. Tired of shaking hands and smiling his big smile and saying all the usual platitudes at such occasions, Roosevelt tried doing something outrageous.
Convinced that no one was listening anyway, he greeted each person by saying, 'I murdered my grandmother this morning.' Everyone he met smiled vacantly and said things like: 'Wonderful! ' 'Lovely!' 'Keep up the good work!' One diplomat was listening, however. He leaned over and whispered in Roosevelt's ear, 'I'm sure she had it coming to her!`
There is something wrong if we are not shocked or surprised from time to time by God & his word Hab clearly was.
God goes on to address this question in Ch 2 but what God says here to Hab & Hab's response helps us see something of why we have apparently unanswered prayers or unexpected answers to prayers.
When Habakkuk prayed, he was probably expecting God to answer by removing the wicked from the land. Like us so often, he was effectively telling God how he should answer! But just as our time-scale is not God's time-scale, so our wisdom is not God's wisdom. In Habakkuk's case, God's wisdom was not to remove the wicked from the land, but to remove everyone from the land.
Remember what God said in v5? "..I am going to do something ..that you would not believe even if you were told" Judging the people & removing them from their land would have seemed unbelievable because it would have seemed that God was giving up on his promise to Abraham. It would have seemed that God was scrapping his plan to save people from sin and the consequences of sin.
But in fact God's plan was going to continue as people in each generation put their faith in him. God's plan was going to continue as, ultimately, people put their faith in God's rescuer who saves those who believe, from sin and the consequences of sin, Jesus. We shall see next time that in 2.4 (a verse v significant in the NT) God says: "See, he [ie, the faithless] is puffed up; his desires are not upright - but the righteous will live by his faith
This was the lesson the Apostle Paul taught to the religious leaders in Antioch, as we saw in our reading from Acts 13 v38"Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses. 40Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: [Quoting Hab 1:5] 41" `Look, you scoffers,
wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.'"
How do we respond to the state of God's people, our nation, our own lives?
How do we cope with unanswered prayer & unexpected answers to prayer?
Hab's honest questioning of his God & the LORD God's replies are reminders that God's purposes are not ultimately dependent on any nation or place or human leader or denomination or individual church.
God's plans rather depend on his faithfulness, worked out often on a different time scale to ours, & they depend on people in each generation meeting His faithfulness with their humble trust in him & his sovereignty.
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