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Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer: Firm Footing

July 8, 2007

Habakkuk 2:20; 3:16-19

She sat in my office, weeping gently and then sobbing uncontrollably. “I am just a mess,” she said. She was a mess. Mascara was running down her cheeks. Her nose was dripping. Her eyes, red and black, were searching for answers. “I don’t understand. When my daughter got sick, I prayed. My friends prayed. Our church even anointed her with oil, praying for healing. We claimed God’s promises for her healing; and after all of that, she suffered terribly and then died. Now, my husband says he is sick of my crying, and he has left. Don’t you dare tell me how good God is or how much He loves me. I don’t want to hear it.”

Have you ever felt that way? Maybe those thoughts have crept into your mind, and you have quickly put them aside. “A Christian is not supposed to think that way,” maybe you have said to yourself. “Thinking like that means that I have a lack of faith, and I cannot allow that.” Maybe those thoughts have overwhelmed you, overpowered you until finally you decided to give up on God altogether. Some people make that decision in the face of great hardship. Maybe those thoughts have been a part of your life, and you are not sure what to do with them. What are we supposed to do when the God in whom we have trusted seems to let us down? When His goodness and mercy are not evident? When our prayer life is vacant? When God is not doing the job we think He should be doing? What then?

Let me introduce you to Habakkuk, a prophet with a funny name. Few of us ever read his book in the Bible. Actually, I do not know many details about Habakkuk because we only have a brief introduction that says he is a prophet who lived about the same time as Jeremiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah. We have only one conversation between Habakkuk and God, a conversation that is honest. I do know that, like the woman who sat in my office with red eyes, a dripping nose, and mascara-streaked cheeks, Habakkuk was pretty much a mess.

Chapter 1, Verses 1-4 describes Habakkuk’s many complaints about what he sees as the political and economic injustice in his day, the corruption in a land he loves.

The oracle that Habakkuk, the prophet, received.

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?

Why do you make me look at injustice?

Why do you tolerate wrong?
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Destruction and violence are before me;

there is strife, and conflict abounds.

Therefore, the law is paralyzed,

and justice never prevails.

The wicked hem in the righteous

so that justice is perverted.

This week, I read an autobiography about Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory” he is called. Andrew Jackson came from South Carolina, from the region known as the Waxhaw. As a soldier, he fought in the Battle of New Orleans, a battle made famous in a song. Injustice marred Jackson’s term as president. Certainly, he endorsed slavery, but perhaps even more than that is the blight known as the Trail of Tears of 1838-1839. During Jackson’s administration, the Cherokees and other Native American tribes endured great injustice.

Seeing a similar condition of injustice, Habakkuk asks God, “Why don’t you do something about the injustice, strife, and conflict? If people are behaving so badly, why don’t You intervene?”

I wrote a column about the four South Carolina signers of The Declaration of Independence, which appeared in the newspaper on Wednesday of this week. Wednesday afternoon, I received an e-mail from a man who had read the column. He was lamenting the path this country has taken and wrote that he wants to see a return to traditional values. He sounded a little bit like Habakkuk.

Consider one possible response from God to Habakkuk. Suppose God answered Habakkuk’s complaint by saying, “OK, I will do something about it. I will arm North Korea and Iran with atomic bombs so that they can attack and defeat you. They will destroy your country and scatter your people.” What kind of answer is that? The solution is worse than the problem. God actually responded to Habakkuk in that manner. He did not mention the countries of North Korea and Iran; instead, God referred to groups that threatened Habakkuk’s people. Verses 5-11 record God’s response: “Habakkuk, I am going to do something amazing. I am going to send the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, to destroy your nation. They will sack the temple, tear down the walls, and haul your people off into captivity.” I can imagine Habakkuk thinking, “Why bother? That solution is worse than the situation we have now. The Chaldeans have more wickedness than even the most corrupt people in Judah.” Habakkuk is honest with God. He has absolutely no hesitation speaking his mind to the Almighty and questioning God about tolerating the wicked deeds. What is interesting is that God seems open and even welcomes the conversation.

Many have compared Habakkuk to Job. Both men ask, “How do you make sense of the suffering of the righteous? How do you make sense out of what seems to be so much suffering?” Habakkuk holds God accountable. In the end, both Habakkuk and Job draw the same conclusion. It is not an easy conclusion for them, but they express an affirmation of faith.

Consider some key questions: How can you believe in a good God in a world like this? How can you believe in a good God when terror runs rampant worldwide, as it has all week in the United Kingdom? How can you believe in a good God when famine and strife are so out of control? How can you believe in a good God when wars and rumors of wars abound? When sin and evil seem to be in control? When so much injustice is committed against the most helpless of people? Where is God when we need Him?

Consider God’s direction to Habakkuk, appearing in Verse 5 of Chapter 1: “The Lord says, ‘Look at the nations and watch.’” Habakkuk could have sulked away and retreated into bitterness. He could have put on a smiley face and found himself in denial, saying, “Maybe it is not so bad after all.” Chapter 2, Verses 1-4 record Habakkuk’s decision to follow God’s instruction to watch and wait.

I will stand at my watch

and station myself on the ramparts;

I will look to see what he will say to me,

and what answer I am to give to this complaint.

Then the Lord replied:
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“Write down the revelation

and make it plain on tablets

so that a herald may run with it.

For the revelation awaits an appointed time;

it speaks of the end

and it will not prove false.

Though it linger, wait for it;

it will certainly come and will not delay.

Sometimes when I have a little extra time during my visits at Regional Hospital, I drive to the top deck of the parking garage. Few people park there because of the long walk to the hospital, but that location gives me a different vantage point, a unique perspective. The top of that parking deck offers a unique view of the twin towers of Old Main at Wofford College, the tower of the administration building at Converse College, and numerous church steeples. The largest structure in Spartanburg, the BB&T building, is visible from that spot as well. Sometimes I drive up there and think about our community, its needs, and our response to the situations that are so much a part of our life together.

Habakkuk behaves in a similar manner. He goes up in a tower to gain a different perspective. There, God speaks to him. Verse 4: “See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright – but the righteous will live by faith.” The little phrase, “the righteous will live by faith,” is the single most important verse in the book of Habakkuk. Writers of the New Testament refer to this passage three different times. The Apostle Paul uses that very verse in his letter to the Romans (Romans 1:17) and in the book of Galatians (Galatians 3:10). The writer of Hebrews uses “the just shall live by faith” to introduce his great chapter on faith (Hebrews 10:38). Some of you know that this verse contained the key concept that led to the Protestant Reformation. “The just shall live by faith” is a powerful truth.

We do not use the lectionary here at Morningside, but I do look at it almost every day. Currently, the lectionary is following Habakkuk from the Old Testament and the Gospel of Luke from the New Testament. This very passage in Habakkuk corresponds to a section in Luke’s gospel, Chapter 17:5-6: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ Jesus replied, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.’” The disciples asked that Jesus increase their faith, and Jesus talks to them about the very smallest of seed, a mustard seed, indicating that it is not necessary to have a lot of faith. Jesus states that a person must have a beginning faith, though it may be very small indeed. A beginning faith can issue forth in remarkable things.

Kathleen Norris graduated from a prestigious New England school and accepted a good job in New York City, working as an editor for a large publishing company. She met a man who was equally successful in his work. They fell in love and married. Her husband developed what we sometimes refer to as a bi-polar disorder. In those days, it was called a manic-depressive disorder. A symptom of this disorder is marked mood swings between very low lows and very high highs. Her husband’s illness was such a problem that Kathleen Norris decided she could not live in New York City. She and her husband moved back to her home in South Dakota. There, they attended the church she grew up in, a Presbyterian church, but found it inadequate for their spiritual needs. Kathleen abandoned her faith.

Her husband, in one of his manic swings, decided that he no longer needed his health insurance and canceled the policy. Kathleen knew nothing of his actions. About three weeks later, he went into a very deep depression that required hospitalization. Some time after that, Kathleen realized they had no health insurance. It was a devastating reality. They lost their home and all of their savings. In the end, Kathleen decided that she could not remain married to her husband, and they divorced. Having nowhere else to go, she relied on the help of Roman Catholic nuns in a Benedictine convent. There she met the Mother Superior who offered to show her to her quarters. While walking down a cloistered walk, Kathleen Norris reflected, “I don’t belong here. I have no faith. I just have doubts, so many doubts.” This elderly nun laughed and replied, “Your doubts are the seeds of faith.” Jesus made a similar statement. God can do remarkable things “if you just have as much faith as a tiny seed, a mustard seed.”

“The just shall live by faith,” Habakkuk says. The horrible situation that Habakkuk finds himself in will not be the final outcome. We see here a great challenge to remain committed to the idea that what we see is not the final answer. The great difficulty we see in life is not the complete story. There is much more to the story.

I said in our Call to Worship this morning those words that we read in the book of Hebrews: “We walk by faith and not by sight.” “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). To live by faith means that we trust God even when God seems to let us down, even when His justice and mercy seem to be very far away, even when all the circumstances of life mitigate against what we believe about the sovereignty of God. To live by faith means that we continue to believe that God is in control and that He will make sense out of the nonsense of this life.

Habakkuk 2:1 records an observation that Habakkuk makes from his tower. “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silent before him.” Remaining silent is very hard to do. When you stand before God, sometimes there are no words, no prayers. There is just a silent reverence that understands that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, that God’s ways are not our ways. In Chapter 3, Verses 17-19, Habakkuk emphasizes that God can take what seems to be the great difficulties of life, the nonsense, and make sense of them in the end.

Though the fig tree does not bud

and there are no grapes on the vine,

though the olive crop fails

and the field produces no food,

though there are no sheep in the pen

and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;

he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

he enables me to go the heights.

Habakkuk is saying, “Everything is gone. Could my life be any worse? No matter how bad life gets, and at sometimes it is very bad, I made a decision to rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my Savior.” Wendell Barry says that true faith is believing that life is worth greeting with joy, even though the circumstances of life mitigate against it. Habakkuk draws the same conclusion. Faith is the assurance of things not seen. Verse 19, which continues his affirmation, supplies a good comparison as explanation: “He makes my feet like those of a deer.” Because the Hebrew word for deer is difficult to translate, a better translation is “He makes my feet like those of a mountain goat.” You have likely seen the sure-footedness of a mountain goat scaling a steep rocky mountain. The final verse summarizes Habakkuk’s conclusion, “He makes my steps firm because I put my faith in Him.”

Does any place on the face of the earth seem more godforsaken than Calvary, Golgotha, the place of the Skull? Think of that excruciating cry from Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For those who followed Jesus, for these disciples who asked that Jesus increase their faith, it looked as if everything was gone. All was lost. James Russell Lowell, in his poem “The Present Crisis” says that God stands in the shadows “keeping watch above all his own.” God may seem remote, but He is not absent. Believing that is mustard seed faith. Knowing that God is present even in the worst circumstances of life is mustard seed faith. He may be in the shadows, perhaps out of our vision, but God is there. He has made us a promise, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.” We must live by that kind of faith, by faith that God is always with us, even when all of the evidence seems to the contrary. Habakkuk affirms that.

Life is hard. It has been quite hard for many of you. Do not give up the faith. Continue to believe that the God we serve is sovereign, that He has a plan we cannot imagine. Remember the great reversal that occurred three days after Golgotha. Christ conquered death. God is in the business of conquering things that seem to overwhelm us. He makes a way when there seems to be no way. Do not abandon hope. Trust in God because God loves you very much. He will never leave you, and He will never forsake you.

Have you acknowledged Jesus Christ as your Savior? If you have never made that decision, we invite you to do so. Some of you have been trying to make other decisions, possibly concerning church membership. If that is the case, we invite you to respond. Make the decision God has laid on your heart as we stand and sing a hymn that is so appropriate for this message today, “Only Trust Him.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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