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Sermon for Sunday 6 October 2019

First Reading                    Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

1The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. 2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.  21I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint. 2And the Lord answered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. 3For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end — it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. 4Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”

Psalm                                     Psalm 62

1For God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation. 2He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be greatly shaken. 3How long will you assail me to crush me, all of you together, as if you were a leaning fence, a toppling wall? 4They seek only to bring me down from my place of honor; lies are their chief delight. 5They bless with their lips, but in their hearts they curse. 6For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him. 7He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken. 8In God is my safety and my honor; God is my strong rock and my refuge. 9Put your trust in him always, O people, pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge. 10Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath, even those of low estate cannot be trusted. 11On the scales they are lighter than a breath, all of them together. 12Put no trust in extortion; in robbery take no empty pride; though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it. 13God has spoken once, twice have I heard it, that power belongs to God. 14Steadfast love is yours, O Lord, for you repay everyone according to his deeds.

Second Reading                         2 Timothy 1:1-14

1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus, 2To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. 5I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. 6For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, 7for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. 8Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, 9who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, 11for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, 12which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. 13Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

Gospel                                                        Luke 17:1-10

1{Jesus} said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. 3Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” 5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”


Weather forecast aside, I don’t know about you but I, quite frankly, am sick and tired of watching the nightly news.  I don’t care which network you watch, everywhere you turn it’s the same old bad news:  natural and manmade disasters, the con­tinuing conflict in the Middle East, doctors and hospitals fraudulently billing Medicare, entertainers gone wild, and self-destructive sports idols disappointing us.  And then there’s our federal elected officials who are constantly at each other’s throats and are, at best, incompetent, or at worst, corrupt.  What makes it even more depressing is, we’re the ones who voted those currently in Washington DC into office!  Therefore, the only people we can blame is ourselves.  As a country, we seem to have lost our way.  Power, corruption, greed, violence, the aggressive promotion of ever more deviant sexual immorality, the open and unashamed rabid hatred of another person, the ever-increasing number of people who seem to be morally bankrupt; what do we do?  Where do we turn?

Interestingly, 500+ years ago a monk in Germany was faced with a similar state of affairs.  All of society in his day was built around the institution of the church.  However, that monk found institu­tional corruption and greed all around him, supported by a theology that was essentially bankrupt and couldn’t adequately deal with the ques­tion of evil in this world and the power of sin in a person’s life.  In his struggle and search for an answer, that monk found it in a most unlikely place, the book of Habakkuk.

We all know Martin Luther’s story and we know of his preference for the Pauline writings.  But I was surprised when I read that Luther also found a great deal of help here in Habakkuk.  Habakkuk is a small book, just 3 chapters long nestled between the minor prophets of Nahum and Zephaniah.

While biblical names have always figured prominently on lists of children’s names, I would bet that when young couples today start working on a list of names for their future children, Habakkuk isn’t going to be on that list.  However, when you consider that Habakkuk in Hebrew means to embrace, some young parents might want to reconsider the name.  Interesting, this is the only passage from Habakkuk that appears in the three-year cycle of readings for worship, so you aren’t going to hear many sermons based on this short book.  In fact, when I checked, I believe this is the first sermon I’ve ever preached from the book of Habakkuk.  Just goes to prove, that no matter how long you study the Bible, there’s always something new to discover.  But back to our German monk.

In Luther’s search for meaning and help, he stumbled upon Habakkuk as he was studying Paul’s letter to the Romans.  When he read Paul’s quoting of the last phrase from our first lesson for today, “the righteous shall live by their faith” (2:4), at that moment, the good news of Jesus Christ finally broke through and grabbed hold of the heart, soul, and mind of that fear­ful, angry, and confused young man — and thanks be to God, the world hasn’t been the same since. 

The situation Habakkuk describes in his first two chapters could be right out of one of our nightly newscasts.  As the prophet looked around him, he saw nothing but injustice, violence, and destruc­tion.  He even asks the questions that we may be asking: “Where is God in all of this?”  “Is God listening to us?”  “Is God with us?”  “Are we being punished?”  Interestingly, if you’ve been asking these questions yourself, then you’re not alone:  at least three of these same questions came up this past Tuesday in our pastor’s Bible study.

Thankfully, the response God gave to Habakkuk, is the same response we’re given today.  In the midst of everything that is frightening and chal­lenging, God reminds us that the perpetrators of violence and in­justice in this world are sowing the seed of their own eventual de­struction, but, the seed for life has already been planted in the righteous.  God promises that the righteous will live — that is, they will endure — by faith.  This isn’t some form of obnoxious Christian triumphalism or unrealistic cockiness.  This doesn’t mean that everything will go our way and turn out how we want it.  Living by faith isn’t a matter of having a bigger, better, faith, but faith that is strengthened through patience, serving, giving, and forgiving, without expecting anything in return.  Let me repeat that: Living by faith isn’t a matter of having a bigger, better faith, but faith that is strengthened through patience, serving, giving, and forgiving, without expecting anything in return.

We must admit, that living by faith isn’t something that is natural for us.  We, too often, think like the disciples — when things are going tough, or when Chris­tian discipleship turns out to be more radical and demanding than we expect, we ask, “Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5).  Too often our churches teach that if we had just a little more faith, then everything would be okay in our life, in our family, in our church, in this country, and even in the world.  But when we say, “amen,” to the disciples’ request for more faith, we betray a basic misunderstanding of faith; that faith is some sort of commodity we possess or as a personal achievement.

But Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed in our gospel reading for today (Luke 17:5-6) illustrates the mistake in our thinking.  In this one verse statement, Jesus is saying that the level of faith really isn’t the issue.  What matters is, that we recognize that faith is given by the Holy Spirit when we truly listen to God speaking, as Paul reminded us in Romans 10:17, “faith comes by hearing the Word of God,” and in whom we place our trust — simply stated, it’s about the quality not the quantity.  When we think of faith as a commodity, or as an achieve­ment, we end up trusting in our trust — we end up making faith a work.  By thinking of faith in this manner, we become enslaved to doubt and fear about whether we can ever be sure we’ve done enough.  What truly matters is, God provides the faith and we need to trust in Him.

When we place our trust in the love of God, through Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, that is our treasure to guard.  That’s what Luther rediscovered and what set him free.  That’s what will set us free to grow in faith.  It’s interesting that when the disciples were sent out to do the more spectacular stuff, like casting out demons, healing, and preach­ing, they didn’t ask for more faith.  But when Jesus started talking about resisting temptation and not being a stumbling block for others, about confronting fellow believers with their sin, and then forgiv­ing them when they sinned, well, then the disciples realized this discipleship thing wasn’t really about fame and glory.

Faith is all fine and good, and we claim to want more of it, if it will help us get healing for ourselves or a loved one.  Faith is al “cool” if it will help us pass a test or meet a deadline.  But we don’t want that faith to cramp our style or our lifestyle.  The truth of the matter is, many people only want an inoculation of Christianity — just enough of to protect them from catching the real thing.  However, the faith Jesus calls us to, and the sort of faith that endures and leads to life — real life, a life worth living — is one that will make us more Christ-like in sacrificial living, giving, loving, and forgiving.

In one scene in the movie Evan Almighty, Morgan Freeman, who plays God, is incognito as a waiter in a restaurant.  He has a conversation with the wife of the lead character, Evan Baxter, a first-year US Congressman, who believes God has told him to build an ark.  In some lines of great wisdom and spiritual insight, the waiter/God says:

If someone asks for patience, do you think God gives that person more patience, or does He give him more opportunities to be patient?  If he prays for courage does God give him courage or opportunities for him to be courageous?  If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm, fuzzy feelings, or does He give them more opportunities to love each other?  That’s how it is with faith.  

Faith, like a muscle, can only grow through exercise and daily, vigorous use.  That’s how the quality of our faith increases — by putting it into practice on a daily basis right where God has planted us, even in the midst of a world that seems to be falling apart at the seams.  I read an interesting account the other day about one of the first parades on behalf of women’s suffrage held in New York City.  

During that march, 89 men walked with the women that day in support of their cause.  Sometime later, after women’s suffrage had become a law, another parade was held to mark the triumph.  The original small group of men supporters were invited back to share in the celebration.  On the day of the parade all 520 of the original 89 men appeared to march in one section.  The point is, anyone can make a pretense of faithfulness when everyone has joined the crusade, but it’s quite another thing to step out and be counted when there are only a few, and when things are not so certain.  God was asking Habakkuk to trust Him, and to live out the kind of faith that trusts without empirical evidence.

In the second part of our first reading, God reveals that He was building up the Chaldean, or Babylonian, nation to fulfill His purpose in punishing the Hebrew people for their repeated failure to keep the covenant.  But, as God repeatedly tried to do, God was trying to get the people to turn from their wicked ways and return to Him.  But God knows the hearts of the people and knows that punishment must come, and He is encouraging Habakkuk’s to live by faith; to trust God, until His promises were fulfilled.  Or, in the words of God given through His prophet: “… the righteous shall live by his faith (2:4b).”

In the intervening time between God’s announcement of impending exile and the time of fulfillment, Habakkuk and the faithful few were to live by faith trusting not in their own strength but in God’s acceptance completely.  Righteousness implies a right relationship with God.  Throughout the Scriptures righteousness isn’t defined in terms of good works, of correct worship or proper pedigree, but solely in terms of faith; the trust and dependence upon the grace of God.

The Apostle Paul seized on the prophet’s words in explaining the meaning of the Gospel in his communication with the young churches in the gentile world.  He wrote: “He who through faith is righteous shall live (Cf. Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11).”  After an agonizing spiritual quest, Martin Luther rediscovered the same biblical truth and made it the hallmark of the 16th century Reformation.  Both Paul’s faith and Luther’s faith were marked by bold risk-taking.  They knew when to wait patiently in prayer, but they also knew when being faithful meant direct action, no matter the consequences or what the odds might be against them.

In one of Charles Schultz’s cartoons, Snoopy is dancing merrily along the way with apparently not a care in the world.  Lucy confronts him with the rather dismal words: “You wouldn’t be so happy if you knew what was going to happen!”  Snoopy ignores her warning and continues to dance merrily on his way and comments to himself: “Maybe it’s already happened!”  Snoopy’s attitude captures the spirit of all of us who seek to live by faith.  

None of us have a detailed blueprint for the future, but we shouldn’t be worried about what’s going to happen.  The all-important event has already happened in God’s decisive saving acts in history, especially in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Since that event has already happened, we can be patient in our praying, confident that sometimes God’s “No” means “Yes” in the long run.  And since that event has happened, we can be alert for those creative and renewing moments when God wants us to take risks and become participants by faith in something new.

God, the Father, has given us more than we need to cope with this world through the life, death, and resurrection of the Son and His continuing presence with us through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Our hope is secure because death, violence, oppression, and injustice do not have the final word in our lives or in the world.  As the book of Revelation makes clear, God has the final word and He wins.

Therefore, as the psalmist says, we can commit our way to the Lord, trusting that God will act (Psalm 37:).  And as Habakkuk reminds us, we can endure the struggles of the present with patience, hope and with joy, because of the promised future God has planned for us.


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