Sunday, August 9, 2009

Stomping on the Promises of God

“Stomping on the Promises of God”

Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 1:12 - 2:4
NT text: Luke 11:1-13

In our summer series on the minor prophets we have arrived at the prophet HubAkkuk. This is an obscure guy whose name I didn’t learn to pronounce correctly until I went to seminary, and whose name I didn’t learn to SPELL correctly until last week when I searched an online source for articles on Habbakuk with a double B, and came up with nothing. No, Habakkuk – h-a-single B – a – double K- u –k – three K’s in all. Habakkuk.
Anyone know anything about this guy? If you could describe him in one word what would you label? Well, you might say “obscure.” And you’d be right – his name is only mentioned this once in the entire Bible. We don’t know his family origin or his professional history. You could describe him as “minor.” Or call him “Habakkuk the prophet.”
But if I had to give him a one-word nickname it would be “complainer.” Habakkuk complained. He boldly spoke out great tirades against the Lord God Almighty. He demanded, he challenged, he criticized, he pleaded, he protested, he grumbled, you might even say he whined. And he went down in history for this! How amazing is that? In the Bible we’ve got Abraham the faithful, David the victorious, Mary the humble, Paul the evangelist, and Habakkuk the complainer.
Isn’t that great? Habakkuk set himself up against God, gave his argument, shook his fist at the sky, yelled “are you not of old, O God?” and “how long, O Lord, must I cry?” – and instead of being chastened for his ingratitude, he goes down in history and in the Bible as a bold and faithful prophet.

Complaining to God is something that the ancient Hebrews did a lot more than we do these days. Some scholars even say that there is a whole genre of prayers that should be classified as complaints. That this was one of the things you could legitimately do when you prayed – to set a case against God. It was set up almost like a legal case; it was your ultimate appeal, if human courts had failed you. So you (the pray-er or the prophet) would start out by establishing your innocence or righteousness – or if you were arguing on behalf of a people, by saying that the people did not deserve the wrongs done to them – and then go on to call on the previous promises of God. So the formula was “God, we are innocent, but we have been treated unfairly. You made promises to us. So, God of Justice, what are you going to do about this? I demand an answer.”
This is something we need to remember today because God is still our ultimate source for justice. We forget this sometimes, because we have a decent legal system here in America. It may not be perfect, but we have the right of appeal as well. But imagine being in another country where “justice” is completely reliant on bribery or personal connections, and where poor people without connections simply languish in jail never getting a trial. Many of the nations of this world cannot count on justice from human sources. Those people are not likely to forget that we have to appeal to God.
We ALL should remember, however, that there are things that even a wonderful legal system cannot set straight. It is unfair for a father to spend all his family’s income on useless things, but a judge or jury can never force someone to be responsible with money. The Holy Spirit, however, can speak to that person in their heart. A legal system may be able to give someone money for the injuries they received wrongly – but only God can give the victim true healing and peace.
Even thought it is limited in its power, we should not give up on legal justice. We are called, as Christians, to stand up and speak out for justice everywhere. I’ve heard of an interesting new form of Christian charity, where instead of sending teachers and nurses to third-world countries, they send lawyers to make cases for those who cannot afford their own legal defense. It’s called the International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org) It makes sense – what good does it do for us to feed, nurture, and educate an orphan child if they are going to grow up to be cruelly forced into a life of prostitution or worse without legal protection? Our God is a God of justice, who calls us to stand up and protect people from oppression wherever we can. We need to be on God’s side, especially when it is in our power to truly make a difference for someone.
But the other lesson we can learn from Habakkuk is that sometimes it is NOT in our power to stop injustice – and so the question comes up: how do we react to that? Habakkuk teaches us to pray boldly for God to take action. He called God out on the carpet. He got up in the watchtower of his beseiged city and shook his fist at God. He reminded God of the promises made, and he said “what are you going to do about this?” Habakkuk wasn’t just standing on the promises of God: he stood there, and he stomped his feet.
At the risk of comparing us to prophets I am going to ask a serious question: Can we pray as boldly as Habakkuk did? Can we take that great risk and shake our fists at God? Or as Jesus said, can we pray as fervently as if knocking on the door of a sleeping friend, asking for bread? I think we SHOULD have that boldness, but there are several things that might get in our way.
One problem is complacency. Sometimes we think that that the world is going to continue as it has always been, and God isn’t going to do anything about it. We think the way it is is how it’s meant to be. We might look at a problem and sigh, and instead of looking for a solution we look for a way to deal with it not being solved. We look for a band-aid instead of a cure. Why do we do this? Do we not believe that God wants to heal us and set us free? Or do we think that God has completely given up on this world, so we should just let it all run down to trash and put our hope in heaven? These are dangerous thoughts. They are half-truths. It IS true that our ultimate hope is in the next world. But it is NOT true that God is forgetting about this world. As our Lord taught us to pray, we always say “thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” And God’s will on earth is for people to be set free from sin and injustice. It is dangerous for us to get complacent about this. We need to have faith that God does care.

Another problem is when we, personally, don’t believe we deserve it. We don’t believe that we are important enough or “good enough” – as if there were such a thing – to ask God to personally show up in our troubles. God is too busy to be bothered, and we are too insignificant to deserve anything.
Have you ever gotten stuck in this trap? Where you are given an extra heavy load to bear – an unfair load – and you say “well I guess God just wants me to shoulder this” without even stopping to ask God if that burden was meant for you?
I have a friend who told me a little bit of her spiritual journey this way: she says she used to go around with a heavy, guilty heart, asking God “please, God, could you throw me a crumb? Just a little crumb and I promise I’ll be good…” and that was her attitude for many years. <> “Please, God, can you throw me a crumb?” And I don’t remember what she said was the shift in her thinking, but something shifted and she stood up straight and said to God, “I’m tired of looking for crumbs! God, please, I want you to give me the whole cake!”
Her new outlook, after her attitude adjustment, was the same kind that Habakkuk the complainer had. When foreign armies came in and trampled Judah, Habakkuk didn’t run away into a cave apologizing. He said right out loud to God, “Are you sure we deserve this? Are you sure it’s okay for the wicked to swallow up the righteous? Because that doesn’t sound like the kind of God I thought I knew.” My friend was able to say to God, “I believe that you are a good and generous and loving God who wants to bless us, and I am telling you that I want those blessings. All of them!” When she stopped asking for little tiny crumbs she was able to open her hands and receive much larger blessings.

Another thing getting in our way is the opposite attitude – some of us believe we deserve too much. We have a false sense of entitlement that muddies the waters. It puffs us up with pride, and distracts us with things that are not in God’s will for us. We might actually have a cake in front of us, and still be shaking our fist at God asking for a bigger cake. Those kinds of complainers are not the kind that will go down in history. These are the types that also tend to complain to other people, to have a negative attitude about the blessings they actually do have, and to get lost in the details. They are not praying for “God’s will to be done” but for their own will.
If this is our problem, we’re lucky to find out that we can do a little check beforehand. Are you going to ask God for a winning lottery ticket? Feel free to find a Bible verse to challenge me, but I don’t know where in the Bible it says we need scads of money. Are you going to ask God for a happily-ever-after husband or wife? Surely the Bible has love stories like that – however – God doesn’t promise everyone a fairy tale. Love still involves compromise and hard work. Are you going to ask God for your neighbor to stop bothering you? Well, first you’d better check to see if you are actually in the wrong. Are you going to ask God for peace? Now THAT is a promise God makes to us – not necessarily that we can ever experience freedom from all conflict – but that we can have peace in our hearts no matter what conflict happens around us. That is in God’s will for us.

There’s another problem here, another thing that may keep us from praying boldly. That is the danger that perhaps when we make our bold request, we might be answered – and that we might be part of that answer. We might complain to God that it is wrong for a certain person to go hungry – and it is wrong! but God might answer by telling you to bring them food. We might ask God for peace on earth – which is a great request! but God might answer by sending us to talk to our enemies. The Rev. Mark Labberton tells it well in a story about a parishioner. He says: “One day a man came to my office looking for help in making sense of the nightly conversations about Christianity he was having with his newly converted wife. He made it clear he was very busy, very successful, and didn’t really have much time for this – just some bullet points, now, please. It would have been easy for me to hand him some books or pamphlets. And while those can be good, instead I said, “I can see you are a busy and successful person, so I don’t think what you’re asking for is a good idea.” Frustrated, he asked why. “because,” I explained, “if I were to give you some bullet points, and you were to really understand them, they would have such a significant way of working into your life that it could really mess things up. You would have to rethink the meaning of success, of time, of family, of everything really. I don’t think you want to do that, do you?” // “no,” he said. // “Exactly,” I replied. // “Well, at least, I don’t think so…” he stammered. “Maybe that’s what we need to talk about first.” (Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship, p64)
If we really approach God with boldness, God might change our lives. We know that God will only change our lives for the better – but sometimes we are still afraid of going through with that. Now what happened to Habakkuk is that when he complained to God, he was given an answer to his complaint, but that he was also given instructions with that. He was sent to proclaim this message to others, to write it large on tablets, to shout it and make it plain to the people.
What was Habakkuk’s message? “look at the proud – their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by faith.”
What is that word, Faith? It’s such a “nice” “pretty” “happy” little church-word that we are likely to forget what it’s really about. Faith is a good thing, yes. But sometimes we forget that faith is hard. It is holding onto something invisible – putting your neck out in danger – refusing to back down. Faith is being persistent to the point of embarrassment, knocking on your neighbor’s door all night until he comes out and gives you what you need. Faith is standing up in the watchtower with your hands on your hips saying “God, I really expect you to do something here!”
The words of encouragement from Martin Luther are famous: “sin boldly but love God more boldly still.” Faith is not afraid to make a mistake, or say the wrong thing, or to be impolite. We can approach God with boldness.
(Altar call) WHERE ARE YOU TODAY? What is keeping you from praying boldly? I’m going to ask you some questions and please think about whether you identify with any of them.
Are you looking for crumbs? Are your hands clenched and your eyes focused so tightly on the crumbs you want to pick up that you cannot stand up and ask God for what you want and need?
Are you looking for more cake than you can eat? Are you chasing after whatever looks good, accumulating all the false things you think you should have, and forgetting what God DOES want to give you – justice and mercy and real blessings?
Or are you looking for anything? Have you given up thinking that God would actually DO anything in your life? Have you gotten used to the band-aids covering up real problems?
Where are you today, in your walk with God?
Are you ready to be in an honest relationship with God? Christ Jesus says “ask and it will be given, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” God has infinite treasures to give us. The wonderful riches of a life growing ever closer to Christ are always open to you.

Are you ready to risk your dignity by praying boldly?

If so – we are going to close with a prayer, as Jesus taught us. It is the Lord’s Prayer which I think most of us know by heart, but if you don’t, it’s printed in the bulletin. And we are going to do something risky – we are not going to pray quietly and politely with our heads bowed. As Jesus taught us, we ought to pray with the persistence of someone knocking on the door asking for food. We are going to stand up and lift our heads and SHOUT this prayer. We will do it in repeat-after-me style, and I’ll lead you. Be Bold. Let us pray!

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