Sunday, 13 November 2011

Habakkuk - a fitting story for Remembrance Sunday

I only occasionally get to listen to Prime Minister’s Questions. If all you have heard of PMQ’s is what is on the News then you may not have appreciated how sobering it actually is.

The 30 minutes of questions at mid-day on a Wednesday begins with a recital of the names of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan in the previous week. Rarely does a week go by without a litany of names being read.

Ours is a troubling world with its violence and the seemingly unstoppable spiral descent into whatever the financial crisis has in store for us.

One of the most perturbing of all questions is the heartfelt cry – why do those bent on evil, violence and destruction seem to get away with it and all too often it is the innocent who suffer.

For someone of faith that despairing cry can sometimes lead to the loss of faith and the biggest of questions. On the eve of our Olympic Year at Sunday Special and in this morning’s remembrance service we told the story of Eric Liddell, the Olympic Champion who refused to run on Sunday whose story was told in Chariots of Fire. I grew up with his story way before the release of Chariots of Fire because Eric Liddell was a missionary with the London Missionary Society in China and his story was one of those great missionary stories I grew up with.

Though he took the opportunity to send his wife and daughter to Canada as the Japanese invaded China, he determined to stay with the people he felt part of. He was interned in a prison camp and died of a brain tumour shortly before the end of the war. I played a clip from an interview with a couple of the people who were in that prison camp with him.

Eric Liddell had done so much to keep the youngsters going. More than that he had been an inspiration in the prayers he circulated round the camp.

One, Steve Metcalfe spoke of the despair he felt momentarily when he was a pall bearer at Eric Liddell’s funeral. “What’s life all about?” was the cry from the heart he made.

Habakkuk is one of the most powerful books in the Book of the Twelve. As remembrance Sunday comes to an end once again with the country at war albeit faraway in Afghanistan. A contemporary of Jeremiah Habakkuk is in Jerusalem as the Babylonian power are unleashing their untold violence at the very gates of the city. It is a terrifying time.

As the book opens Habakkuk has sunk into the pits of despair.

1The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
The Prophet’s Complaint

2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgement comes forth perverted.
One response to such a crisis is to try to get your mind round what’s happening. Habakkuk, Nahum and Zephaniah are the three minor prophets that can be linked with Jeremiah to this period from the end of Josiah’s reign to the collapse of the Southern Kingdom. All four have worked out a way of seeking an understanding of what’s going on. Interestingly, they seem to take their cue from Huldah.

The voice of God breaks in on Habakkuk …

5 Look at the nations, and see!
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
that you would not believe if you were told.

Habakkuk is not only in sensing that somewhere or other, though he cannot at the time make it out God’s hand is still in what’s going on. It’s very easy to read the thoughts of these prophets as if they simply see God as a capricious God who sends the Babylonians as a way of bringing judgement on the people.

I think there’s something deeper going on as we shall see in a moment. What these prophets recognise is that what’s happening in the rise of violence, the collapse of the kingdom to the invading Babylonian power is the consequence of all that they have got wrong at the hands of a succession of Kings who have so let the people down and let God down. When you read ‘judgement’ think ‘consequence’.

The consequence as Habakkuk 1 unfolds is full of untold violence.

6 For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 Dread and fearsome are they;
their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more menacing than wolves at dusk;
their horses charge.
Their horsemen come from far away;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
with faces pressing forward;
they gather captives like sand.

Such a view is hard to take. And Habakkuk finds it hard to take. And so he rails once more at a God who allows evil to prevail – he simply cannot understand what is going on.

He asks of God the biggest question of all. Why? And it is a question that has no easy answers.

12 Are you not from of old,
O LORD my God, my Holy One?
You shall not die.
O LORD, you have marked them for judgement;
and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.
13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?

What on earth can Habakkuk do?

Perhaps better is to ask what in heaven’s name can Habakkuk do.

Then comes a most remarkable picture. He goes off to a place where he can be quiet amidst all the tumult, to a place where he can listen to God.

He turns to prayer.

2I will stand at my watch-post,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

Habakkuk turns to prayer.

Out of the maelstrom of that prison camp prayer emerged for Eric Liddell as something that was of the essence. His day started in prayer and finished with prayer. He wrote a manual of prayer that helped so many in that camp – he spoke of ‘communicating with God’ “We communicate with God through prayer and Bible study. The best way is to decide upon a definite time, preferably in the early morning, and keep it sacred. Build the habits of y our life around that period. Do not allow it to be crowded out by other things.”

The practice of prayer.

Find a watch-tower. Station yourself on the rampart. Keep watch to see what he will say to you.

Notice Habakkuk’s prayer is not filled with words. It is filled with the silence of listening – he longs to see what God will say, how he will answer his complaint.

And the response comes …

2 Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.

The vision of hope. That’s what’s to hold on to. A vision then that can be applied to daily living – and every part of life. A vision that may feel a long time in the coming, but come it will. And what is the vision?

Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

It is about justice and righteousness – the justice and the righteousness that are released by faith, that trusting in God come what may, that faith that for Eric Liddell found its wonderful focus in Jesus Christ.

Steve Marriot after asking that question ‘what’s it all for’ thought again about an occasion when Eric Liddell had been devastated by the sheer horrors of that rat-infested prison camp with its open sewers and the treatment of the people by the Japanese guards.

. He read the verse, love your enemies do good to them that hate you. He said, I’ve started praying for the Japanese and he challenged us to do the same. And I did do that. It changed my attitude to them as being creatures of God and was what remained in my mind.

Steve Marriott often thought about those words and for him they transformed his life – after the war he went on to Japan and became a missionary there.

This is the kind of path we are invited to follow in the vision of Habakkuk as the righteous live by faith. That’s what’s to hold on to.

How different from those who would cling to wealth and the arrogance of power. These words are so timely speaking into this current situation of ours as well …

5 Moreover, wealth is treacherous;
the arrogant do not endure.
They open their throats wide as Sheol;
like Death they never have enough.
They gather all nations for themselves,
and collect all peoples as their own.

What then follows is a remarkable analysis of all that has been wrong in the kingdom of Judah as a consequence of which all has happened as it has. It is an indictment of injustice, the mindless accrual of wealth. It is intensely political analysis that in its indictment of the rush for wealth, the quest for power at the expense of the poor is writing for today.

‘Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!’
How long will you load yourselves with goods taken in pledge?
7 Will not your own creditors suddenly rise,
and those who make you tremble wake up?
Then you will be booty for them.
8 Because you have plundered many nations,
all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you—
because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth,
to cities and all who live in them.

9 ‘Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses,
setting your nest on high
to be safe from the reach of harm!’
10 You have devised shame for your house
by cutting off many peoples;
you have forfeited your life.
11 The very stones will cry out from the wall,
and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.

12 ‘Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed,
and found a city on iniquity!’
13 Is it not from the LORD of hosts
that peoples labour only to feed the flames,
and nations weary themselves for nothing?

15 ‘Alas for you who make your neighbours drink,
pouring out your wrath until they are drunk,
in order to gaze on their nakedness!’
16 You will be sated with contempt instead of glory.
Drink, you yourself, and stagger!
The cup in the LORD’s right hand
will come around to you,
and shame will come upon your glory!
17 For the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you;
the destruction of the animals will terrify you—
because of human bloodshed and violence to the earth,
to cities and all who live in them.

18 What use is an idol
once its maker has shaped it—
a cast image, a teacher of lies?
For its maker trusts in what has been made,
though the product is only an idol that cannot speak!
19 Alas for you who say to the wood, ‘Wake up!’
to silent stone, ‘Rouse yourself!’
Can it teach?
See, it is plated with gold and silver,
and there is no breath in it at all.
But in the face of all this Habakkuk senses the greatness of God …

20 But the LORD is in his holy temple;
let all the earth keep silence before him!

He has confidence
14 But the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD,
as the waters cover the sea.
And so he turns once more to prayer.

Chapter 3 is a prayer of the prophet Habakkuk according to Shigionoth. It is one of those Psalms that is not included in the Book of Psalms.

And that prayer gives Habakkuk the confidence to rest in God and as it were put himself and everything into God’s hands. But it’s a scary feeling. For he knows the inevitability of all that will happen.

16 I hear, and I tremble within;
my lips quiver at the sound.
Rottenness enters into my bones,
and my steps tremble beneath me.
I wait quietly for the day of calamity
to come upon the people who attack us.

Just as Habakkuk finds solace in a psalm, so too Eric Liddell found great comfort in hymns. One in particular was a favourite of his giving him confidence at those moments when circumstances seemed only to invite despair.

Be still my soul, the Lord is on your side,
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

What makes Habakkuk such a powerful book is precisely what makes it so moving to hear on Remembrance Sunday the testimony of one imprisoned in a Japanese prison camp. Here in Habakkuk and in the story of Eric Liddell we find “a message of profound hope in a circumstance of profound despair.

Nowhere is that hope more powerfully expressed than in the climax to that Psalm that makes up chapter 3 of Habakkuk. Unless of course you think of those wonderful words of Paul at the end of Romans 8 when he tells us he is persuaded that there is nothing in life or in death, in the present or the future, in height or in depth, nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That is exactly the thought shared by Habakkuk.

In the face of a world that at times seems to be falling apart in 2011 these are words for us to hold on to as well.

17 Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Those words were an inspiration for William Cowper, close friend of John Newton. He suffered the most awful periods of depression and found solace in these words of Habakkuk in a remarkable hymn that is so real. Go up on the watch tower and the hope, the faith does not always come. The light won’t always be there. But it will be sometimes. And that ‘sometimes is all important to William Cowper.

1 Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in his wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

2 In holy contemplation,
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God's salvation,
And find it ever new.
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Now let the unknown morrow
Bring with it what it may:

3 It can bring with it nothing
But he will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe his people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed;
And he who feeds the ravens
Will give his children bread.

4 Though vine nor fig-tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there,
Yet, God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice;
For, while in him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

William Cowper (1731-1800)

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