Sunday, October 30, 2022

In the Midst of the Years

When we left our prophet friend last Sunday, Habakkuk's journey had finally led him from where he began – a bundle of bitterly burning prayers of frustration and challenge – to a revelation of a coming judgment, not just on Judah's sin, but even on the instrument of Judah's judgment: Babylon. And, as the prophet worked himself through these mysteries, the note he ended on was that the LORD, unlike Babylon's trendy but empty idols, is a Living God who actually dwells in his temple. He dwells in the Temple Solomon built in Jerusalem so long as it still stands, but whether it stands or not, the Living God is a Consuming Fire who blazes in his temple above the heavens, far beyond these vicissitudes of human history. So when he manifests himself in his holy temple as judge and as savior, preparing to hold court and render verdicts, the only proper response – the only truly human response – is to shush and sit and stay. It's for the whole world, and everybody in it, to silence itself and themselves so as to instead behold the face of God. And with that, Habakkuk's burdensome oracle, woven over two chapters, wraps up in an expectant silence before the God who can and will wrap things up in redemption.

And it seems like that would be a decent way for the book of Habakkuk to close. If chapter 2, verse 20 were the last words, and the next page was the title of the next book, none of us would bat an eye, nobody'd feel cheated. But it doesn't close there, and those aren't the last words. Instead, like many an old-school preacher, Habakkuk has stapled on a song as an appendix. He's written out a final prayer, the deepest meditation of his own heart as he wrestles and then taps out in the presence of the Living God. It's “a prayer of Habakkuk the prophet,” given not just in his private capacity but in his official one (Habakkuk 3:1). But then Habakkuk has taken this prayer and, as an expert composer and temple singer, he's turned it into a hymn, into a song, and handed it over to the Levite who directs Habakkuk and his fellow temple musicians. “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth” (Habakkuk 3:1), “to the choirmaster: with stringed instruments” (Habakkuk 3:19).

Now, plenty of details pass us by here, because we're in the dark about a lot of ancient Hebrew music vocab. It doesn't stop us, though, from seeing the gist. The last years of the Jerusalem temple were unpleasant. The priests have little compunction about lynching uppity prophets (Jeremiah 26:8), and contaminated the temple with evil (Jeremiah 23:11). Ezekiel, in exile, has a vision of what's going on back in the Jerusalem temple, with women worshipping a pagan god and men turning their backs on God to worship the sun (Ezekiel 8:14-16), all worshipping creepy things because they think the LORD has abandoned them (Ezekiel 8:12). This is the time, this is the environment, in which Habakkuk hands over his hymn to the faithful choirmaster, so that even as the priests fall away, faithful people can sing with Habakkuk a song of prayer that will anchor their souls in a faith to outlast the judgment that's hanging over Jerusalem's head. If we're with Habakkuk, what are we singing?

O LORD, I have heard the report of you; and your work, O LORD, do I fear” (Habakkuk 3:2). What report, what renown, did Habakkuk hear? What 'work' has Habakkuk been afraid of? The things he mentioned in his prophecies, which reported about the LORD and his plans and on the 'wondrous work' he'd done by raising up the Chaldeans to steer Babylon to, seemingly, world domination. That would certainly be a work to be afraid of! But Habakkuk and the remnant singing with him have heard more than that. They've grown up singing the psalms of David and Heman and Asaph and Korah, stories of turmoil and redemption, judgment and salvation. They've grown up remembering the legacy of Abraham and his children as strangers in a strange land. They know about Moses and the exodus out of Egypt, Joshua and the promised land, David and the kingdom of God.

In hearing those stories, in singing the old psalms, the people singing Habakkuk's hymn had heard the fame of the LORD, and because Habakkuk's prophecies had to be laid over those old, old stories, their fear of Babylon has been swallowed up by the fear of the LORD. That 'fear' is an over-arching awe at the God who has such total sovereignty over human history, pulling strings in ways we might find dark and cryptic and uncomfortable. But this awe trusts that our faith will one day be vindicated by sight, even a far-off hindsight that beholds all the patterns now being woven, that some day we'll grasp the mysteries that for now are beyond mortal hearts to see. Yes, God's latest work may be discombobulating; yes, God's latest plans may be disconcerting. But they must also be awesome and tremendous and holy, working out a glory that's yet to be revealed.

But Habakkuk has been told, and has relayed to those who'll listen to him, that while God's judgment on Judah's sin by means of Babylon isn't very far away, Babylon's eventual comeuppance is decades off, and the mightier mysteries it portends could be centuries or millennia in the making. That's a significant slog on the journey to fulfillment. And while God promised that it won't show up too late, that doesn't mean it'll be soon by the way we humans measure time. Once upon a time, God did marvelous works of salvation for Abraham and Moses and Joshua and David. Those are years for the history books, to Habakkuk and his friends. And some day, God is going to vindicate their faith by overturning the evil empire. But Habakkuk and his friends are living in the meantime, in history's mid-range, sandwiched between fading memories of God's fame and the far-off hope of final resolution. How God once saved us, and how God will someday save us, both seem distant – one lost to the past, one locked in the future. God works on grand timelines where a thousand years is scarcely a watch in the night, but the short human lifetime too often falls in between, “in the midst of the years” (Habakkuk 3:2).

And that's the trouble Habakkuk is praying about, and inviting others to pray about in his day. Habakkuk knows that he, and any adult standing with him, isn't going to live long enough to see Babylon fall. Their lives won't outlast the present day of trouble. Nor were they around to satisfy themselves by being contemporaries of holy people like Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and David. They live “in the midst of the years.” So will God's help skip over their lifespan? Here's hoping not! “In the midst of the years, give it life! In the midst of the years, make it known!” (Habakkuk 3:2). Give life to what? That wonderful work. Make what known? That report of old! Take those old, old stories, and make 'em real now! Take that work, and breathe life into it now!

And what will that mean? “In turmoil, you have to remember mercy!” (Habakkuk 3:2). That's what we sing, if we sing with the prophet. When things are as unstable as an earthquake, when nations shake and tremble, when our souls are troubled and our lives are embattled, then don't lose sight, God, of the mercy you promised you'd always have and always be! In these trying times of weakness and rage, look back, Lord, on the ways your saving works of old gave strength to our ancestors, had compassion on them. Now, as we here sit sandwiched between those lost days and the future we hope for but won't live to see, make those stories our living story now – make your work known in our experience, before it's too late!

This isn't a Maranatha prayer that skips to the end – though those are good, and we should pray them more. In these words, we've got a prayer for the mid-range of history, where Habakkuk lives – and where we live. It's a prayer for relief and help and revival while the journey's still ongoing, when the destination's yet as distant as our departure. It's a cry for loving sun and compassionate rain when the hand that planted is far behind but the harvest is scarcely on the calendar. Even now, even in the stretched-out in-between, here in the midst of the years, we ask God to show himself the same God who long ago planted and who one day will harvest, the God who worked great things in the beginning and will work greater things in the end. Will you not, even now, give life to your work? Remember us! Remind us who you are by putting your fingerprints on our lives, too. Touch our days, breathe life over us, make us new, and strengthen us with mercy amidst the turmoil of now and soon!

Here we stand, far removed from Habakkuk's time, but in our own way we live in the midst of the years. And for us, there's a holiday approaching. Believe it or not, it's an important one. Since no later than the first couple generations after the apostles, Christians have had the practice of celebrating great heroes of the faith – 'saints,' Christians who lived in exemplary holiness – and usually did so by marking their 'heavenly birthdays,' the days on which they passed from earth to heaven. It started out as a way to remember the martyrs, but others likewise proved themselves heroically holy, even as the days of outright persecution faded.

I could tell you many a story. In the fourth century, we could meet a heroic Christian named Athanasius. He was just 31 years old when he was picked as bishop of Alexandria, maybe the New York City of its day. And he spent his whole life fighting, sometimes seemingly him alone versus the whole world and even the church, for the truth of who Jesus really is: truly, fully God. On five different occasions, emperors exiled him from his city over his refusal to join their compromise. But even in constant trial and tribulation, his Spirit-fueled determination over a lifetime rallied the church around a Christ in whom we creatures come face-to-face with our uncreated Creator. When Athanasius died, people lauded “the steadfastness of his faith in Christ” when “many were faltering.”1 Through his holy zeal, it was said, Christ had again “cleansed the temple.”2 Athanasius was a hero of holiness.3

I could tell you, in the next century, about an English boy, grandson of a priest, being kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he took the name 'Patrick.' There, he repented of his youthful sins and rediscovered a God he'd too often ignored. As a shepherd watching his master's flocks, he had plenty of time to pray, and used it to his utmost until at last a vision sent him on a path of escape. Struggling his way home, there another vision helped him realize that his former Irish captors had need of the gospel. So Patrick forgave them, became a monk, studied for years, and eventually was commissioned as a missionary bishop for Ireland, where his humble and faithful ministry reaped thousands of souls and laid the seeds for a church that could preserve the light of civilization as the Western Roman Empire fell to pieces. One day, the descendants of Patrick's converts would send missionaries back to the rest of Europe. Patrick, like Athanasius, was a hero of holiness.4

Or I could tell how, a century after Patrick went to heaven, God raised up a man named Gregory. At age 33, Gregory had become mayor of Rome, but when his dad died a few years later, Gregory gave up worldly power, converted his family land to a monastery, and became a simple monk there – he didn't even put himself in charge of the monastery he founded. He became a deacon, an ambassador, and when he was around 50 years old, he was chosen as the next bishop of Rome. Things didn't look good when he started: the economy was at a standstill, there'd been floods and plagues, the city was under siege, and Roman summers were so rough on Gregory's health that he was sometimes too sick to even leave his bed for months. But God had made him a gifted administrator and insightful pastor, who promptly led a prayer parade to end the plague. Committed to serving anyone and everyone who served God, he raised funds by inspiring faith and built an effective charity network to save poor refugees. He turned church lands into farms to grow food for the starving, and until they were fed each day, he wouldn't eat his own portion. A visionary with a heart for the world, Gregory sent out teams of missionaries to pagan lands, spreading the good news, and even to evangelized lands where Gregory felt the churches were still spiritually immature. A lover of God first and foremost, Gregory revolutionized how Western Christians worshipped. He believed God was no less at work in an era of an unpersecuted church, and he held out God's sanctifying grace to all and sundry. He was a man on a journey to holiness, intent on ushering as many other people there with him as he could. And that's just what he did. He was a hero of holiness.5

Skipping forward in time to the thirteenth century, I could tell you of a spoiled rich kid who loved fancy clothes and practical jokes, who (in the words of a friend) spent his youth strutting “through the streets of Babylon.”6 Converted step by step, this brat nicknamed 'Francis' sold everything he had, renounced his birthright, washed the wounds of lepers. And one day, as he walked by a crumbling old church by the side of the road, he felt a tug at his heart to go in and pray. Kneeling before the crucifix, he lost himself in prayer and felt something change in his soul. And then he heard a voice: “Go, rebuild my church, which (as you see) is all being destroyed.”7 Believing the voice was talking about that church building, he begged in town for stones and carried out all the repairs himself. But Jesus had more in mind. As Francis gained co-workers who longed for the simple life of poor Christians, he and these newfound brothers preached through the countryside to all of creation. During the chaos of the Crusades, he even dared to break the battle lines so he could go evangelize the Muslim sultan.8 And though he gained no converts there, the renewal movement Francis launched – alongside several others in his day, simultaneously radical and obedient – revitalized the church.9

...For a time. In the fourteenth century, Rome's bishop moved his court to France, where it fell increasingly under the power of French rulers, and so church leadership was increasingly corrupted by partisan politics and by greed, losing credibility in the eyes of many. For the church, it was said to be like the Babylonian captivity. In that world, a girl named Catherine was born – she and her twin as the 23rd and 24th children of her mother. This was no rich family – her dad was a small business-owner – but Catherine was about six when she had her first vision of Jesus. And so from childhood, she promised to give her whole life to God – no holding back. As a teenager, resisting her parents' plans for her life, she joined a women's group that taught her to read and write, and devoted her days to caring for the sick wherever she could find them. Others started following her, joining her. She wrote frequent letters of encouragement and admonishment to friends and strangers – even to the pope. She dared to call him out, challenging him to be a real shepherd and rebuke the sin all around him, and to come back to where he belonged. She wrote him: “We lack nothing but virtue and hunger for the salvation of souls, but there is a remedy for this, father.... Do we want that glorious hunger that saints and true shepherds of the past had?... Then let's act as they did... Such was the fire of measureless burning charity that burned in their hearts and souls that they were all famished...”10 Though she was a simple woman with nothing but a holy reputation to commend her, and though she didn't even live to see her fortieth year on the earth, through her prayer and counsel the 'Babylonian captivity' was brought to an end. Catherine was a hero of holiness.11

For the likes of Athanasius, Patrick, Gregory, Francis, Catherine, and untold others who became known, a day was chosen – usually their heavenly birthdays – to celebrate them. But in the end, it wasn't about celebrating a man or a woman, but about celebrating God in them, God having been at work in their lives. And it was a way to draw on their strength of sanctity, both by example and intercession, so as to renew our own heavenward path in the present. Over time, of course, the Church certified so many heroes of holiness that the year was literally stuffed with them – and that's not counting how many kept their heads down and slipped to heaven heroically but unnoticed! So for well over a thousand years now, it's seemed wise to set aside one day a year to celebrate all the saints, to look back on God's masterpieces of holiness down through the ages. We call it All Hallows' Day or All Saints' Day, and it's celebrated on November 1, the day after All Hallows' Eve (“Hallowe'en”).

This Sunday, we look forward to All Saints' Day in a couple days, and we realize that Habakkuk's prayer suits it pretty well. “O LORD, I have heard the report of you.” We've heard the stories of Athanasius and Patrick and Gregory and Francis and Catherine and, God willing, many others – but they were stories of God's own saving love, his sanctifying grace that, though poured out on many, came to its full and glorious bloom in men and women like that. “And your work, O LORD, do I fear.” It's intimidating to realize how high it's possible to rise, because that impresses on us the gap between our own souls and the true heights of holiness, and between the condition of the church today and the blessedness of the days when, for all the problems and judgments the church then labored under, saints like them walked the earth. So we tremble before God's awesome work.

In the midst of the years, revive it.” Do in us today what you once did in saints like that! Raise up such heroes of holiness now, in our time, in this place, in this hour! Look at your sick church, look at your weak church, look at your scandal-ridden church in the day of contagion and confusion, wars and rumors of wars, and breathe new life into her. Strengthen her by giving her these greater gifts, whatever the cost! Pour out your Holy Spirit on us again, to revive us even now, in the midst of the years. And “in the midst of the years, make it known.” This week, as we come to All Saints' Day, we commemorate saints famous and obscure, but we know far too few of them, and too little about their stories. And yet the stories and examples of the saints have historically been one of the chief ways that the next generation of Christians was inspired and learned how to be holy. So fill us with a hunger for them, to seek them out and get to know them, these true cases of God at work in the era of Christ. Bring these stories to our attention, not just to entertain our minds, but to set them before us as an inspiration and a help. And then, LORD, do a saint-making work in us, not hidden in a corner but in the open.

In turmoil, remember mercy.” If ever the church needed renewal and reform, if ever the world needed good news, it's now. And we here can feel it. But that renewal, that revival, that reform, must be the work of God, and it's a work that only saintliness can achieve, that only holiness can bring. So we pray with Habakkuk for the LORD to have mercy on his troubled church, embattled from without, perplexed, torn, and weakened within, and to mercifully make known the things he's done and can do in us. In our present age of turmoil, he can show mercy by not waiting until the time of fulfillment to pour out his Spirit afresh – now, here, for us who yet live.

As we come to All Saints' Day, let's remember God's masterpieces of holiness in ages past, and with Habakkuk let's plead for God's grace to help us become heroes of holiness like them, for the relief and renewal of the church here and now. Because without heroes of holiness now, this generation is lost. But God has proven before that, even when the church seemed crumbling, he could sanctify men and women as tools of revival, both the famous and the obscure. May it be so among even you. This All Saints', may we each sing out for mercy on our turmoil, life on our listlessness, and, by a refreshed work of God in us, become more fully the saints the church – and our world – so desperately need. The church needs you to be saints. All creation needs you to be saints. May God, in his compassion, reveal his work and make you the saints we need. Amen.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Silence Before Him

It was a gorgeous spring day in Babylon – early in the new year, the fifth day of the great festival, the Akitu – so the sheshgallu, the high priest, had been busy since well before sunrise. Up at 2:00am to wash and pray before opening the gates to the other priests, waiting in the exalted courtyard of the Esagila temple while an exorcist cleansed the inner shrines... A long and busy morning. But now it was time to serve the god his lunch. The sheshgallu was in Marduk's shrine, standing before the statue that was the god's presence in his own house. Made of wood plated in gold and silver, crusted in gems and draped in the finest robes, Marduk – the idol that the sheshgallu believed was a god made present on earth – loomed large, as did the idol of Marduk's wife.1 And before these statues, they set golden trays stacked with sacrificial meat, bread, salt, and honey, as the sheshgallu offered wine and prayed. The sheshgallu believed, despite all evidence of his eyes, these statues ate and drank.

Hours passed. The statue of Marduk's son Nabu sailed in by canal from Borsippa, where King Nebuchadnezzar had gone to escort him to Babylon. Now the ritual was at hand. Leaving his prayers, the sheshgallu approached the king in the courtyard, leading him to Nabu's shrine, and taking Nebuchadnezzar's royal scepter and crown away, carrying them to Marduk's shrine and laying them there. Returning to the courtyard – this was the fun part – the sheshgallu slapped Nebuchadnezzar across the face, grabbed him by the ear, and dragged him back to Marduk's shrine, beneath the new cedar-wood roof that Nebuchadnezzar had sponsored there. The sheshgallu forced King Nebuchadnezzar to kneel before the mute idol and swear to it that he, King Nebuchadnezzar, hadn't humiliated Babylon or its poor in the way the sheshgallu had just humiliated him. Only then did the sheshgallu speak what the idol couldn't, assuring Nebuchadnezzar of his divine acceptance and investing him once again as king with scepter and crown before slapping him once again to draw tears as an omen of divine approval.2

This the Babylonians did every year, on the fifth day of an eleven-day Akitu festival centered around their idols – every year, that is, that the king was in town. For Babylon's final king, Nabonidus, moved away for ten years, and the festival couldn't be celebrated without him. Only in his last year did Nabonidus come back, celebrating the Akitu “as in normal times.” Desperate to defend Babylonia against his enemies, Nabonidus kidnapped the gods of other Babylonian cities, bringing them into Babylon for safekeeping and protection. But the omen that year proved false, and stuffing Babylon fuller of idols than usual was useless. Babylon fell anyway.3

That's what the prophet Habakkuk has been looking forward to. And it's good this morning to remember where the prophet started and where we are now. When we started his book, the prophet Habakkuk, probably a temple singer, was in deep distress because of all the stories of injustice he was seeing and hearing in Jerusalem. And he was crying out to God with his most burning, challenging questions about why all this was being allowed to just keep going on (Habakkuk 1:2-4). Habakkuk was in a place of real and deep pain. God gave him an answer – God told him to check out the foreign news, and see that God was raising up the Chaldeans – Nebuchadnezzar and his dad Nabopolassar – to turn Babylon into a ruthless power that would come and punish Judah for her national sins (Habakkuk 1:5-11). Habakkuk was horrified. He asked how a pure God could bring justice through an unjust tool, how God could heal his people with overkill, how God could fairly use Babylon to punish Judah when Babylon was so much worse in its cruelty and idolatry, and if Babylon's violence would continue until it destroyed the world (Habakkuk 1:12—2:1). Once again, Habakkuk is no calm prophet, chilling out in his meditative retreat. He's passionate and volatile, ready to throw down with the Almighty.

In return, God eventually gave Habakkuk a message to pass around, promising that all would become clear and that those who trust him, who give him their loyalty, were going to live – they'd have a chance to escape the destruction, and a new hope would arise (Habakkuk 2:2-4). Then God let Habakkuk eavesdrop on the future, on Babylon's victims one day rising up to taunt the empire as it dies. The Chaldean kings were plunderers of other nations, but that only made them debtors, and someday it'd be collected (Habakkuk 2:6-8). The Chaldean kings' thefts were evil profit that couldn't give Babylon security, no matter how many thick walls they built (Habakkuk 2:9-11). The Chaldean kings' forced labor to build Babylon better achieved nothing, because it'd all burn away (Habakkuk 2:12-14). The Chaldean kings' exploitation of other nations would lead to their humiliation when the cup of wrath came to Babylon at last (Habakkuk 2:15-17). All this, we've heard already.

But to drive home that last point, the fourth woe, Habakkuk adds a final remark we didn't pay much attention to last week. Habakkuk condemns Babylon and its Chaldean kings for “the violence done to Lebanon” and “the destruction of the beasts that terrified them” (Habakkuk 2:17). This, the prophet says, is just as revealing of Babylon's cruelty as “the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.” What he here is getting at is the way Babylon's empire was awful for the environment. Mount Lebanon was covered in thick forests of the finest trees, cypress and cedar. The Lebanon cedar is its own species of pine tree that can grow for centuries and reach as much as 130 feet tall. It was prized for anything big or long you needed to build with solid beams. The psalms tell us that these forests belonged to God as one of his prize creations: “The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers” (Psalm 104:16-18). It was from these cedars that Solomon built parts of God's holy temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5:8-10), so every day when Habakkuk went to work there, there was cedar under the gold.

But for the same reasons Solomon wanted cedar and cypress, so did the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar bragged about how he sent his armies to Lebanon all the time to do battle and keep control of the forest, how he'd personally with his own hands chopped down “excellent cedars” from “Lebanon, the mountain of cedars, the luxuriant forest of Marduk of sweet smell.”4 Nebuchadnezzar not only attributed the forest to his idol in place of God, but he industrialized its harvest: “What no former king had done, I did: I cut through the high mountains..., I opened up passes, I prepared a passage for the cedars.”5 With his armies constantly traipsing over the Lebanon and needing to be fed, it was, Habakkuk protests, causing environmental havoc. Not only were woodland creatures losing their homes, but they were being butchered en masse to feed Babylon's troops. And the ancient forest was dwindling as centuries-old trees were cut down and hauled away like simple reeds.

And that, Habakkuk says, was an act of violence for which Babylon would one day have to pay. Today, in an age of mechanized logging industries, when we've destroyed nearly a fifth of the Amazon rainforest over the past six decades, when worldwide about thirty million acres of forests are lost each year, Habakkuk might say that Babylon's violent spirit has metastasized and is at large once again. The God he's talking about is a God who genuinely cares how his earth is treated – whether the forests and animals he made are being treated with respect. It's not that he forbids modest harvesting of the forests, or useful hunting of the animals who live there. But Babylon – and perhaps we – have violently crossed that line. And Habakkuk says that's like bloodshed.

But Habakkuk isn't done. He's moving into the fifth and final woe against Babylon and her Chaldean kings, and this time, idolatry's in his sights. That, after all, is part of what Nebuchadnezzar did with all these trees he was killing. That temple where the sheshgallu ministered, that shrine where Nebuchadnezzar knelt? The king had refinished its roof with the choicest cedars from Lebanon.6 So much of this awful environmental violence was in service, not just to the king's own ego or appetites, but to his favorite idols. Some of Babylon's idols were made out of cedar or cypress wood (Isaiah 44:14-17). And as part of that yearly Akitu festival, they'd make an effigy out of cedar wood on the third day and burn it on the sixth.7 The violence was in service to the idols.

And that's Habakkuk's last and latest target: to lampoon the idiocy of idolatry, “one of the dominant aspects of Mesopotamian civilization,”8 “for it is a land of images, and they are mad over idols” (Jeremiah 50:38). But Habakkuk asks: “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, 'Awake!'; to a silent stone, 'Arise!' Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it” (Habakkuk 2:18-19). Is there anything as ridiculous as carving a statue out of the same wood you'd cook with, worshipping it, asking it to teach you, and trusting it in your time of need (Isaiah 44:16-17)?

Now, to be fair to them for a moment, the Babylonians weren't simpletons. They didn't believe that's all that was happening. When they made a new idol, like the idol of Marduk before which Nebuchadnezzar had to kneel, it was a complicated process. The craftsmen believed that they were working alongside the spirits of their gods, and once they'd done their work, they had to swear an oath that they hadn't done it – that the gods had made the statue without them.9 And it took a series of magic rituals to wash and open the mouth of the idol in order for it to come alive and become identified with the god it represented. Then, and only then, did the Babylonians believe the idol could eat and drink, walk and talk.

But Habakkuk, like other prophets, is making the point that this is all bogus, bunkum, a bunch of hooey! The Babylonians can play pretend about where the statue came from all they want, but the human craftsmen are the real makers, as anybody honest watching it could plainly see. And they can wash the statue's mouth all they want and say whatever magic words they please, but Babylon's gods are frauds, so the statue remains nothing more than that. It can't eat or drink – the sheshgallu could watch that gold tray until the meat rots and the bread gets moldy, but if he leaves it in front of Marduk, the idol isn't eating anything. Nor can it walk or talk – gussy it up in gold and silver and fancy robes all you want, it isn't going anywhere, and it won't say a word without a priest piping up for it. Because Babylon's religion is false, therefore can Habakkuk mock idolatry as idiocy. Nothing more is really happening than what the eyes can see. (Nabonidus would learn that the hard way.)

That's what reveals idolatry as so silly. Spiritually, the idols are totally hollow. They can't wake up, no matter what magic words you say, “for they were no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone” (Isaiah 37:19). “The craftsmen are only human” (Isaiah 44:11). The gold and silver trap the wood or stone core, but it's a caged void of human making, an emptiness deader than the grave. It can't give life. It can't teach you how to live well. It has to be carried; it can't carry you (Isaiah 46:1-2). “If one cries out to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble” (Isaiah 46:7). “They cannot do evil; neither is it in them to do good” (Jeremiah 10:5). It's blind and deaf and dead, and “those who make them become like them, and so do all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:8; 135:18).10 “They are worthless, a work of delusion; at the time of their punishment, they shall perish” (Jeremiah 10:15). They don't breathe; they don't live. And yet their own makers served them.

How easy it is to poke fun at it, with Habakkuk. But we, too, serve things we've made. Oh, we tell ourselves that, through some magic mumbo-jumbo, we've detached ourselves from their origins. We convince ourselves that some great power has come to inhabit these made things, and can help us or teach us. But Habakkuk hits us with his taunts anyway. For instance, there's the economy. It's the work of human hands, but we treat it like a god, make sacrifices to it, revere it, and let it shape our lives. The same could be said of a nation – the work of human hands, but we imagine it transcends its making. We sacrifice for it, we revere it, we think it will eat and drink, walk and talk, and rise up and teach us how to live by its constitution. And then there are the little things: our vacation homes, our creature comforts, our entertainments and diversions. These things have been made by people like you and me. Yet, the way we live, we act as if they came down from heaven to claim our adoration.

The problem in all these things, whether a physical object or a more complex one, is the same as the problem at the Akitu festival, or any other day in Babylon, for that matter. What humans manufacture is less than human life, and since the magic doesn't really work, the work of human hands doesn't become more than that. It stays breathless and empty. Whether a vacation home or a sport, whether the economic system or a political ideology or democracy or even America itself, these are things humans made. They remain smaller than you who are in the real image of God. They're made out of the same stuff you use from day to day. They can't actually eat what you're feeding them, can't actually drink what you're pouring out to them. If you try to sit at their feet as their student, all you'll learn is lies. If you call on them for help, they'll leave you high and dry, except insofar as real people also made in God's image step in to answer on their behalf. These things are trapped on the pedestal we've put them on. And all our sacrifices to them, all our service rendered as if to a god, is actually hurling resources – or even our own invaluable lives – into the spiritual abyss that lies at the heart of each and every empty nothing.

But the LORD is in his holy temple” (Habakkuk 2:20). That's the counterpoint here. Marduk isn't in his shrine – just a lifeless, breathless, spiritless statue in an empty room, glittering but dead. But the Living God is in his holy temple in Jerusalem, which is only a lower extension of his holy temple above the heavens. And even when (as Habakkuk foresees) the Jerusalem temple that Solomon built is destroyed, even when its cedar planks and cedar carvings burn in Babylonian flames, the LORD will still be in his holy temple, his heavenly one. And he is much bigger than human life. He is the Consuming Fire, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Teacher of all truth and righteousness, and the Helper in the time of trouble. He is the fullness fuller than the idols' void is empty. He made the hands we misuse to make the idols. He planted the cedars of Lebanon, he gives growth to the world, he gives life to the dead, and he outshines pure light. To him, and him alone, belongs adoration.

This is where Habakkuk ends up, as he works his way through Babylon's woes. Babylon's bankruptcy reveals its brokenness in the idols. But, though Babylon may for now look like the top dog, even now “the LORD is in his holy temple,” waiting on his people's repentance, prepared to render his verdict and carry out his sentence.11 Habakkuk started with so many burning questions, so many barbed challenges, so many doubts and objections and teary lamentations. Now, Habakkuk's heard what lies in store for Babylon. So to Habakkuk as well as to Nebuchadnezzar, the word goes out: “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20). Cut the Akitu; shush the sheshgallu! Silence the mumbo-jumbo, the objections, the outcries!

If I had to paraphrase the word Habakkuk uses for 'keep silence,' it'd be in three words: “Shush; sit; stay.” That is what everyone should do, what the entire world should do, in response to the LORD being in his holy temple. But it's not the end. It's a new beginning. This is an expectant silence, a silence that brings to a close all those past doubts and reservations, but which opens the doors of faith and hope and even love. It's a stillness in the presence of a Living God, a God who is vibrant and active in the way that no idol could even pretend to be. The silence is the silence when we “stand in awe of the God of Israel” (Isaiah 29:23), when we cross the threshold into a world we never knew so as to approach the Consuming Fire “with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28).

This is the LORD who will achieve justice. And for that reason, we set aside our fleshly striving. We stop sacrificing to our idols and slaving for our sins. We stop our meaningless chatter. We stop our empty promises. For the LORD is holding court. The LORD has banged his gavel. The LORD has the floor, and not we ourselves. And the LORD, the Living God, bids the world approach his bench. This is what the cedars of Lebanon were for – for Solomon to build a house where that could truly, physically, bodily be done. And though that house is about to end in Habakkuk's time, the LORD is still in his heavenly temple and still commands silent awe from the earth. For this is the LORD who is about to do a new thing, a thing worthy of our contemplation.

And the Living God enthroned in heaven is also in his church, his living temple, of which we each are living stones (1 Peter 2:5), and which this house is hallowed to signify. “Behold, I am doing a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19), for “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The same LORD is in his holy temple here. So then “be silent, all flesh, before the LORD (Zechariah 2:13). Let us shush ourselves, sit and stay in awe of the Living Lord, the Almighty. Quiet yourself. Render to him your attention, your adoration. Watch in humble hope and reverent contemplation, as we rest ourselves by faith in him who alone profits eternally, and not in the works of our hands. Silence before him!

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Chalice of Catastrophe

Wine is part of the biblical picture of rejoicing. One of the psalms declares that God created “wine to gladden the heart of man” alongside “bread to strengthen man's heart” (Psalm 104:15). We're told that “bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life” (Ecclesiastes 10:19). “Plenty of grain and wine” was Isaac's blessing over Jacob (Genesis 27:28), and in Moses' final blessing over Israel, he announced that God gave them “a land of grain and wine” (Deuteronomy 33:28). It's no wonder that Jesus' first miracle was providing plenty of wine – no, not grape juice, but real wine, alcoholic wine, and the real good stuff, at that (John 2:1-11). So too, wine is also part of the biblical picture of worship. From the very first book of the Bible, “bread and wine” are brought out by God's high priest as an act of worship (Genesis 14:18), and ever after, each sacrifice in Israel was accompanied by a “food offering” of oiled flour or bread and a “drink offering... of wine” (Leviticus 23:13). And in turn, God allowed Israel's priests to rejoice in him by enjoying those offerings: “All the best of the wine and of the grain, the firstfruits of what they give to the LORD, I give to you” (Numbers 18:12). An Old Testament parable sums it all up by referring to “wine that cheers God and men” (Judges 9:13).

But the Bible also uses wine as a picture of wrath. It by no means ignores wine's potential to be a source of ills, a cause of harm. The first time wine shows up, it's when Noah “drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent,” and his son Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” and sought to bring him shame and disgrace (Genesis 9:21-22). Ten chapters later, and Lot's daughters, brought up in Sodom, use wine to get their father drunk and take advantage of him in some very unsavory ways (Genesis 19:32-36). Moses refers to Israel having enemies whose “wine is the poison of serpents” and a “cruel venom” (Deuteronomy 32:33). In the chaos that punishes King David after his sin, David's son Absalom waits for David's other son Amnon to get drunk on wine, and then Absalom gives the order to assassinate Amnon (2 Samuel 13:28). Israel's wise people warn: “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly: In the end, it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder” (Proverbs 23:31-32). “Wine is a mocker..., and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). I still half-remember the night, living in Greece during my college years, I learned that the hard way. I quite quickly (and repentantly) understood why the Apostle Paul bluntly commands: “Do not get drunk with wine” (Ephesians 5:18).

As we continue our journey through Habakkuk, listening as he eavesdrops on the future and hears a series of woes and taunts aimed at Babylon and its king Nebuchadnezzar, this fourth taunt objects to the way Babylon influences and exploits its neighbors, treating them like Ham treated Noah, like Lot's daughters treated their father, like Absalom treated Amnon. “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink – you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness!” (Habakkuk 2:15). It's hard to know whether that's something Babylon did literally – were they plying war prisoners like King Zedekiah with wine, getting them drunk, taking advantage of them, and laughing at them? – or if he's talking about the influence Babylon has over other nations being like getting the world drunk. That's how Jeremiah takes it. And so he says: “Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD's hand, making all the earth drunken. The nations drank of her wine; therefore, the nations went mad” (Jeremiah 51:7). In other words, 'wine' was an image for Babylon's influence and wrath.

But just as Babylon (literally or figuratively) used intoxication to humiliate, debase, exploit, and take advantage of the world, Habakkuk has some news for them: “You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the LORD's right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory” (Habakkuk 2:16). That is, just as God handed Babylon to other nations as a cup of wine for them to drink from, Babylon's turn to drink is coming, and then Babylon will know how it feels.

This image Habakkuk uses, of God passing people a cup of wine that represents divine wrath and punishment, is actually a pretty common one all over the Old Testament. Isaiah describes how Jerusalem “drank from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath” (Isaiah 51:17), and Jeremiah's ministry was described by God as being that of a bartender of punishment, passing God's cup to one nation after another: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it” (Jeremiah 25:15).

And the Bible envisions this as having four effects. First, God's cup puts people in a stupor, or it makes them stagger. Isaiah envisions Jerusalem, after drinking from God's cup, as needing to be guided by the hand because she can't walk straight, only nobody helps her (Isaiah 51:18). One psalmist complains to God: “You have given us wine to drink that made us stagger” (Psalm 60:3). God tells Jeremiah: “They shall drink and stagger and be crazed” (Jeremiah 25:16). Second, God's cup exposes people's naked sins. Jeremiah warns the Edomites who celebrate Jerusalem's downfall that “to you also the cup shall pass: you shall become drunk and strip yourself bare..., he will uncover your sins” (Lamentations 4:21-22). Third, God's cup makes people behave ridiculously or get sick. Ezekiel says that the cup Samaria drank when the Assyrians destroyed it has now passed to Jerusalem, and so “you shall drink your sister's cup that is deep and large; you shall be laughed at and held in derision, for it contains much” (Ezekiel 23:32). And Jeremiah portrays Moab drinking Babylon so much that “Moab shall wallow in his vomit, and he too shall be held in derision” (Jeremiah 48:26). And finally, God's cup is a symbol of destruction. Jeremiah warned Jerusalem that God was saying, “I will fill with drunkenness all the inhabitants of this land..., and I will dash them one against another” (Jeremiah 13:13-14). But the same was the message for all the nations he preached to: “Thus says the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: Drink, be drunk and vomit, fall and rise no more, because of the sword that I am sending among you” (Jeremiah 25:27).

Nor is this only for the international scene. “It is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another. For in the hand of the LORD, there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs” (Psalm 75:7-8). That's what Psalm 75 says. So that's what God had in store for people clinging to sin: to drink from his cup, his chalice of catastrophe.

Which is why it's all the more significant when we turn the page to the New Testament and hear Jesus speak of “the cup that I am to drink” (Matthew 20:22). In case we're in danger of missing what he's saying, the Gospels show us Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, on his knees, asking God his Father whether there's another way: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). What cup? The only cup we've been talking about – the chalice of catastrophe, “this cup of the wine of wrath” (Jeremiah 25:15) “in the LORD's right hand” that was coming around to Babylon (Habakkuk 2:16). Who deserves to drink it less than Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God? And yet who alone can stomach it, if not Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God? “Not my will, but yours, be done,” he prays in the garden (Luke 22:42). He takes the cup of the wine of wrath from his Father's hand, to drink it himself, though innocent. And when Peter tries to prevent the arrest of Jesus, Jesus rebukes him: “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11).

And so Jesus drank it. He staggered and stumbled beneath the weight of the cross. He was stripped naked, or close to naked, by the soldiers. He was nailed to the cross and laughed at by the crowds as if he were a drunk man. And at last he was pierced and destroyed from the land of the living. The chalice of catastrophe did its work at Calvary. Only, that wasn't the end of the story. Because what he did is, he drained the cup of wrath to its dregs, and he filtered it through his holy life, a life that his Father would never let be abandoned, because Jesus' life was the life of God himself in the flesh. And from his veins, Jesus pours back his lifeblood to fill the cup again. “The cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood,” he tells us (Luke 22:20). And this, now – this, for us – is “the cup of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 10:21). To those who drink it unworthily, it is (more than ever) a chalice of catastrophe for the faithless and the unrepentant (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27). But to those who drink it worthily, who come with repentance and faith, who come as disciples made alive by grace and who hunger and thirst for more and more life, then the blood of Christ is a wine of joy and worship. It is a “cup of salvation” (Psalm 116:13). Let us lift it high, to the cheer of God and man, and eat and drink – we, who once were Babylon facing “the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath” (Revelation 16:19), but now are sons and daughters of God Most High, drinking our share in Christ's chalice of catastrophe that we might inherit a share also in his glory (Romans 8:16-17). Let us eat and drink worthily from his altar, and live.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Fill the Earth!

For a man setting a world record before the age of thirty, Don felt relatively calm in that glorious moment, like it was just another day at the office. He'd undergone so much training, practiced so intensely for this task, that it felt nearly routine. Except, as he stared out the window into the abyss, he knew this was nobody's office. It was January 1960, and Don was 28 years old, nine years younger than Jacques, the only other human in sight. The pair of them were the first ones here in all of human history. It was cramped, and they were shivering. They'd been more than half a day in this bathyscaphe, a kind of deep-sea submersible. Jacques was here because he'd helped his dad, explorer and inventor Auguste Piccard, invent it. And Don Walsh was here because he was a lieutenant in the United States Navy, which had bought the bathyscaphe from the Piccards.

Having left harbor in Guam four days ago, Don and Jacques had spent the last thirteen hours and six minutes slowly sinking down, down, down through the ocean. With the exception of a yet-unexplained sound and shock – the cracking, they'd soon discover, of an outer window – it had been an uneventful descent. And now they had, ever so gently, come to a halt. The Trieste – that was their bathyscaphe's name – had settled to the lowest point there was. They'd found the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the lowest crack in the Marianas Trench. Resting on the grayish-white ooze, they intently watched out the window at deep-sea life wriggling by before a cloud of sentiment drifted upwards to veil the ocean's wonders from sight.

We'll come back to Don and Jacques near the close of this sermon – try not to forget them. But suppose they'd brought a Bible with them into Challenger Deep, and suppose they'd opened it to the second chapter of the book of the prophet Habakkuk. Then they could've read what we're hearing today. You remember from last Sunday, most of Habakkuk 2 is filled with five taunts that Habakkuk overhears as he eavesdrops on the future, when the oppressed nations rise up and begin mocking the Chaldean kings who put them all in subjection to Babylon.

Last Sunday, we heard the first two taunt songs. First, they taunted Babylon as a plunderer. Babylon thought it was so generous to all the nations that they owed it a debt. But in fact, Babylon was forcibly borrowing from the nations, becoming in debt to them – and one day, they'd rise up and collect on it (Habakkuk 2:6-8). Second, they taunted Babylon for building so many strong defenses with those plundered goods, thinking that this “evil taking” could be used to protect Babylon from itself facing evil. But in fact, Babylon was only embarrassing itself and sinning against its own soul (Habakkuk 2:9-11). And now today, we've had the chance to listen to the third of the five taunts, which continues to challenge Babylon's building frenzy.

And to do that, Habakkuk is creatively borrowing from earlier prophets, because the first verse of the taunt here is copied almost word-for-word from somebody else. Over a century earlier, the prophet Micah had some hard words for the city leaders of Jerusalem. He accused the leaders of Judah of being so unjust, they might as well have been cannibals, that's how badly they seemed to be treating the poor (Micah 3:1-3). He accused the professional prophets of making their messages contingent on how well they'd been paid (Micah 3:5). “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin” (Micah 3:8). Micah went on to thunder against leaders “who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity” (Micah 3:9-10). And Micah prophesies that, as a result of their injustice and their reducing everything to commerce, Jerusalem would be ruined and even the Temple Mount would be wiped clean, handed back to the trees (Micah 3:12).

And it's from this prophecy that Habakkuk takes the third taunt against Babylon. He takes Micah's complaint about the capital city of Judah, and takes out the words 'Zion' and 'Jerusalem,' and throws them out into the wild – it's a bold move. It's not only Judah that's held to a standard of justice and goodness now. It's all nations. It's every city. “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!” (Habakkuk 2:12). That's any town, not just Zion. That's any city, not just Jerusalem. It goes for Babylon, too. Any city that bases itself on blood and iniquity – on violence and wrongdoing – is a society on the wrong side of God.

And Babylon surely did that. Some scholars think Micah was complaining, when he used the words 'build' and 'establish' here, about all the construction work going on in Jerusalem in his day. And that looks a lot like the heavy construction in Babylon under Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar. And while most of that construction in Babylon was done by paid laborers hired for the job,1 not all of it was. Nebuchadnezzar brags about it himself when he says that “from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea, in all of the lands that the god Marduk my lord gave me to shepherd..., as for the insubmissive, I kept them in check: I bent their necks to the palace... and made them carry baskets of earth. For guiding people of widespread lands, I recorded their names and assigned them tasks.”2 He says he took even people from remote islands – “the entirety of the widespread people of the inhabited world,” as he put it – and “I had them undertake the work of building.”3 He forced them into labor. All of Babylon's great glory – it was made possible, not just by plundered resources, but by people captured through violence and coercion. He's building Babylon on human blood. He's establishing Babylon on iniquity.

But Habakkuk's taunt isn't over. Micah supplied the woe, now it's time to comment. And here, Habakkuk could be quoting – or could be quoted by – the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah came up with a long message targeting Babylon, and here are the words he ended it with: “Thus says the LORD of Hosts: The broad wall of Babylon shall be leveled to the ground, and her high gates shall be burned with fire. The peoples labor for nothing, and the nations weary themselves only for fire” (Jeremiah 51:58). And that last sentence is almost word-for-word what Habakkuk says here: “Behold, is it not from the LORD of Hosts that peoples labor only for fire, and the nations weary themselves for nothing?” (Habakkuk 2:13).

Whoever wrote it down first, the target's the same and the point's the same. All this glory Nebuchadnezzar built for his city – all the layers of strong walls, all the tall gates with their lovely glazed bricks, all the lofty temples for his idols, all the rooms of his vast palace – it was built on blood and iniquity, so God won't, in the end, let it stand. It does no good for the people kept captive in Babylon, or her natives for that matter, to be obsessed with building these things, all to beautify a city whose sins have doomed her. But that's what's going on. The people subject to the Babylonian Empire have poured their blood and sweat and tears into these grand monuments. But in the end, such things fall apart or go up in smoke. Instead of something truly valuable, it all comes to nothing.

God guarantees that it be so. And what Jeremiah targets at Babylon in particular, Habakkuk lays open to any city, any town, any nation, any society. A civilization that builds itself in uncivilized ways has no reason to take pride in its accomplishments, he's saying, because the God of Israel will see to it that all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into such things – even if stolen, especially if stolen – end up nowhere but a trench and a flame.

And maybe these words should be more troubling to us than they are. Because if Habakkuk throws this out into the wild, this truth – if any city and any society have reason to take stock of themselves in this light – then these words make us ask painful questions here where we live. If Habakkuk and the other prophets point the finger at Babylon for the use of merely semi-free laborers for her monuments, what of the unfree hands scarred by whips and chains that laid the foundations of some of ours? The White House foundations were laid in part by slaves. The same is true of the United States Capitol building. Our government operates from atop that legacy. If Habakkuk points a finger at Babylon for plundering the surrounding nations, what of the force, trickery, and shady dealing that stretched us from sea to sea? Even the hills where Mount Rushmore is carved were – according to the Supreme Court – illegally stolen by the government. And if Habakkuk speaks about a town built on blood, what about the workers who died to raise up the Empire State Building?

Or what about now? Where do we find ourselves today? Do we harness 'cheap' and 'affordable' labor around the world to make junk that won't last the relentless march of time? Do we routinely reduce human lives to their economic value, dollars and cents for human innocence? Do we let our would-be leaders sacrifice their last scraps of decency to bid on our votes? Does our economy rely on practices that are against God's law? Are we exporting violence (e.g., abortion) to the earth? Do we invest millions of man-hours to enable or celebrate depravity? It isn't just the monuments of our past that should trouble us. It's the practices of our present. What would Habakkuk say about that? I think he'd say that so much of our energy is being dumped into the furnace – that our glory can't last when our glory comes by wrongdoing or celebrates wrongdoing.

But that's not the last word Habakkuk has for us today, any more than it was for his own day. This third taunt aimed at Babylon closes with another copied line, this time taken from the eleventh chapter of Isaiah. Long, long before Habakkuk was around, Isaiah had a hope. On the heels of the failed kings he then knew, he saw ahead to a new king who'd sit on David's throne, a king who'd be anointed not just with the symbol of the Spirit of God, but with the fullness of the Spirit of God. That king would lead by a righteous example, and all of his decisions would be right (Isaiah 11:1-5). He'd be fierce to the wicked and gentle to the poor and meek. Where once there'd been conflict, his time would offer peace and reconciliation: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). The holy mountain would become a refuge for all and from all – a place with no harm, no threat, no destruction. The land itself would be just drenched in God-awareness, and that's why the nations would come looking for this king (Isaiah 11:9-10). It would be because “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).

When Isaiah says that, he's looking back hundreds of years to the days of Moses, when God makes nearly an offhanded comment. God treats it as a sure-fire thing that “all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD (Numbers 14:21). And there he explains that the Israelites had “seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:22). In both Egypt and the desert, God's glory was on display. How? God's glory was visible when he judged his people's oppressors and toppled their false gods. God's glory was visible when opened a path to freedom before his people. God's glory was visible when he miraculously gave Israel life and law, revealing himself on the mountain, and later when he moved from the mountain to the tabernacle, “and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34). God's glory was visible when he supplied them and cared for them and walked with them all the way. When the glory of the LORD fills a place, injustice is overturned, freedom is possible, life is restored, God is revealed, heaven's love is near.

So Habakkuk yanks God's words in Isaiah and God's words in Numbers out from their place, he smashes them together, and he throws it in our faces. No sooner have we heard that Babylon's glory is doomed, that the glory of every unjust city is empty, than Habakkuk tells us what can't fail, won't fail – what is always valuable, what will outlast the fire and continue eternal, and that's the glory of God and the work done to highlight it. “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).

Thanks be to God, the words of Isaiah and Habakkuk have been coming true. Isaiah said that this would happen when a new king arose, and he has. That king is the Messiah. That king is Jesus Christ. And when Jesus came to us, his disciples could then declare, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory” (John 1:14). The miracles Jesus did “manifested his glory” (John 2:11). On the night he prepared himself to face the cross, Jesus announced, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him” (John 13:31). And thereafter, in his resurrection and ascension, God “glorified... Jesus” (Acts 3:13). When Paul at last met him, he said that he beheld “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). And now Jesus is known as “the Lord of Glory” (James 2:1).

Ever since King Jesus commissioned his apostles as ambassadors to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15), the prophecy has been coming true. When the Lord of Glory is proclaimed, when his cross and his resurrection are believed in, when his Body is built up and his Spirit is encountered, there does that place fill with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD. Where Jesus is announced and experienced, the LORD's glory is known. And that's been set in motion to every part of the earth. All of it can – and, one day, will – be filled by that knowledge, by that glory. In every place, injustice will be overturned because of Jesus. In every place, life will be restored because of Jesus. In every place, God will be revealed as who he is in Jesus. All over the earth, in every land, in every town, in every road and backyard and living room, the glory of the LORD must be known, in heart and soul and mind and body. And we've been given a chance to help – to fill the earth, in the ways we can, with knowledge of the glory of the LORD. We don't have to work for nothing. We don't have to weary ourselves out for emptiness. We don't have to build and build to feed the fire.

Instead, we can spread the word, get the good news out there, that in Jesus, God's life-saving and life-changing glory can be known. We can tell the world that Jesus, the LORD's Anointed, is the King who reigns over all, the King who outlasts all the Nebuchadnezzars of the ages, the King who replenishes the earth and rules righteously and with love toward all he has made. We can do that – it's not complicated, it's not hard. In spreading this bit of good news, we take one step toward filling the earth. And so, too, can we devote our other labors to God's glory. “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

But Habakkuk, like Isaiah, doesn't stop at saying that the whole earth will be “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD.” They add something. How much will the earth be filled? How widely, how deeply, how abundantly? This prophecy isn't content to let the world have a thin and vague awareness of God's glory – to have heard of the glory, to be distantly acquainted with the glory, to have seen a movie about the glory. For that, they could've said that the earth would be filled with knowledge of God's glory the way that paint covers my car. The paint covers the surface – well, most of the surface – but it doesn't go many layers deep, and it's not hard to scratch away, as I keep proving. But Isaiah didn't say that, and Habakkuk didn't say that. They didn't say 'as the paint covers the car,' or 'as the topsoil covers the ground,' or 'as the waters cover the puddle.' They said: “As the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).

Now, how much do waters cover the sea? Well, go ask Don and Jacques! You almost forgot about them, didn't you, since the start of this sermon? Didn't I tell you we'd come back to them at the end? When they touched bottom in Challenger Deep, they reached the seabed. Oh, they'd seen the seabed before, in other places, shallower spots – but this was the seabed at its lowest. Once they saw the color of that ooze, they were separated from the boat by over seven miles of water. They were over a mile further from the surface than somebody at the base of Mount Everest is from the top. You could drown the mountain in Challenger Deep, and from the surface you'd never know it. That's how much water covers the Challenger Deep.

Outside the Trieste when it reached the floor, the water pressure was nearly eight tons per square inch. That's over a thousand times the air pressure at sea level. Had Don or Jacques managed to open a hatch, it would have spelled instant death – their lungs would've collapsed, their bones would've become powder. The pure pressure of 6,300 fathoms deep will do that to you. That's how much waters cover the sea, not just in extent, but in depth and power. They cover it enough that you can't see an end to it. They cover it enough that you could drown a mountain in it. They cover it enough that you'd be crushed by its pressure. And yet some small invertebrate life does live naturally down there, very specially adapted for the conditions at the lowest point in the sea.

Some day, the knowledge of the glory of the LORD will fill the world just so widely, just so deeply, as the water of the ocean covers the seas and even covers Challenger Deep. Knowledge of God's glory will crush every bad habit. It'll collapse every injustice, it'll pulverize every memento of shame. However mountainous our memory of sin, it'll be drowned, swallowed up in the abyss. All creation will be flooded with pressurized splendor, so awesome and so brilliant that it's irresistible wherever you look, wherever you turn. It will be inescapable and undeniable, and as far as eye can see, you won't gaze your way to the end of it, any more than Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard could see the surface from the deep. All the earth will be thickly aware of God's glory, deeply experiencing God's glory, awash in the heaviness of God's glory.

Unlike Babylonian glory, unlike American glory, unlike all the glories achieved unjustly in whole or in part, the glory of the LORD will last – and in it, the glorification of everything ever done by his grace and in his name. One day indeed, that glory will be so richly and so abundantly known anywhere on earth that you'll be able to squeeze a testimony out of every drop of water, every grain of sand. It's for that glory that we're called to live. It's to that glory that we're made to point. It's that glory that we're blessed to know and to make known in Jesus Christ. Let us obey the prophet! Let us fill the earth! Let us make God's glory our foundation and our building. May that day draw closer, when God's glory will press out all unholiness and leave only life remaining. Amen.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Back Upon Their Heads

If you've been following along with us the past few weeks, you might remember that the prophet Habakkuk has been going through some pretty intense struggles. His book started out with his burning questions about Judah's internal mayhem after the collapse of reform. He was asking God why God was just sitting by, letting it happen (Habakkuk 1:2-4). So God pointed his attention outside, and said he was raising up the Chaldeans, a people who had recently taken control of Babylon (Habakkuk 1:5-11). But Habakkuk has a problem with that solution. The Chaldeans are enthusiastic idolaters and also messily violent. They're treating the world like a field of little pools to fish people out of and leave the whole place empty and barren. If God can't stand evil, how can he use a people like that to be his tool? How can Chaldean injustice be God's just way of bringing justice to Judah? If God chooses to use the Chaldeans anyway, does that mean the Chaldeans get a pass on everything they do in the process? And can they keep this up forever? If so, what does that then say about God (Habakkuk 1:12-17)?

Habakkuk laid these questions out, stationed himself to wait for an answer, and geared himself up to have it out with God in an argument (Habakkuk 2:1). But God doesn't take the bait. Instead, we heard last week, after a long wait, God is letting Habakkuk in on a secret revelation, one he wants Habakkuk to document for posterity. Because there are two ways to respond to what God is doing. The first is getting all puffy and huffy – priding yourself on being untouchable, and refusing to see God's justice at work. But the second way is faith – staying loyal to God on the basis of his revealed character, trusting that that character is what's driving things even when that's nowhere near obvious, and acting according to what he says (Habakkuk 2:2-4). The way this works out isn't going to be obvious for a while – but when the revelation is proven true, it won't be a moment too late.

And now the story continues. Now, as Habakkuk digests the principle at play, he's given a chance to eavesdrop on the future. God gives him words to listen in as the nations victimized by Babylon start talking as they dare not talk now in Habakkuk's time. And that comes in the form of five separate woes, taunting chants they come up with, mocking parables that bear out the wisdom of what God has already said (Habakkuk 2:6-20). This Sunday, we're only treating the first two of the taunts; we'll hear the others over the next three weeks.

In the first taunt, the victim nations drawn into Babylon's belly will mock Nebuchadnezzar for being a plunderer – “You have plundered many nations,” they say (Habakkuk 2:8). And they're hardly wrong! Nebuchadnezzar himself professes it with pride: “I had silver, gold, precious and valuable stones, copper, wood, cedar, anything that's valuable..., the yield of the mountains, the wealth of the seas, substantial tribute, lavish gifts brought into my city, Babylon.”1 He took that stuff, by force, from all the nations, taking and taking and taking. And in his eyes, it was only fair. The world was rightly theirs to use. Wasn't it a blessing for the nations to serve Babylon? In Nebuchadnezzar's eyes, all this tribute he demanded was only what was rightly due – security to ensure the blessings of Babylon's favor were kept. Nebuchadnezzar pictured himself as having “put the land in order and made the people prosper.”2 He said: “I spread a roof over them in the wind and a canopy in the storm; I made them all submit to Babylon. … I gladly gathered all of the people under its eternal protection.”3 Catch that? He thinks of himself as their protector. And with everything he thinks he's giving these nations, the tribute (however substantial) and the gifts (however lavish) are a paltry price to pay. The nations owe Babylon.

Or so that's what Nebuchadnezzar thinks! But Habakkuk overhears the nations as they wake up and smell the agenda – as they get wise to the propaganda. Babylon doesn't own the resources it's been taking: “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own!” (Habakkuk 2:6). Instead, Nebuchadnezzar's been forcibly borrowing from the nations, and these mistreated nations have all this time, in their heart of hearts, been tallying up the interest. Nebuchadnezzar's been “loading himself with pledges” (Habakkuk 2:6). So “will not your 'debtors' suddenly arise, and those awake who will make you tremble?” (Habakkuk 2:7). Those Babylon sees as debtors will all of a sudden realize themselves as her creditors. The time's coming for them to rush in and crash the system. For it's said: “Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household” (Proverbs 15:27). So everything Babylon has stolen is cursed, cursed to bring the city's downfall. The Chaldean king plundered it from them, so “all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you” (Habakkuk 2:8). Whoever's left will band together and treat Babylon as she treated them. “Then you will be spoil for them! (Habakkuk 2:7).

And what justifies that turnaround? Babylon's own behavior, as led by her Chaldean string of kings. For under first Nabopolassar and then his son Nebuchadnezzar, they've been going around producing... what? Is it 'eternal protection,' like Nebuchadnezzar's propaganda boasted? No! The result of their campaigns and control has been “human blood and violence to the land, to the city, and all its inhabitants” (Habakkuk 2:8). The gifts they promised are a lie. They don't put the land in order; they put the land into violence. They don't make the people prosper; they make the people bleed. That's what Habakkuk's hearing. Wherever they go, they wreck and wreck – and to Nebuchadnezzar the Chaldean, that's basically just another name for Tuesday. Nebuchadnezzar prayed to his idol, “May my offspring rule... forever.”4 But violence begets violence. His son Awel-Marduk lasted only two years before being assassinated, replaced by his non-Chaldean brother-in-law Neriglissar; then, even that man's child Labashi-Marduk was himself assassinated after a rule of just a month. Within six years of Nebuchadnezzar's death, his dynasty had been replaced. Never again would a Chaldean rule from Babylon.

That clinches the nations' first taunt. And the second is a lot like unto it. Here, they mock Nebuchadnezzar as a builder. Now, kings in the ancient world loved to build stuff. And Nebuchadnezzar in particular was building crazy. The inscriptions he left behind are all about how he renovated this temple or that temple that had fallen into disrepair, how he made things bigger and better, how he made Babylon tougher and more impregnable and even just fancier and nicer to look at. He describes how, with stone slabs he'd quarried from the mountains, he had the levels of one of Babylon's streets raised. Then, since that made the entrances of certain gates too low, he tore down the old gates and built them bigger and flashier than ever, with blue-glazed tiles and cedar doors and custom copper fittings. He did the same thing in building extra walls at the banks of the river, making Babylon a fortress city “so that no merciless enemy can come close,” he says, “to the outskirts of Babylon.”5 So where is Nebuchadnezzar getting the cedar and copper and the rest of these supplies? From his take, take, take!

And the nations, when they find their voice, are going to call him out on it, Habakkuk hears. “Woe to him who takes evil taking for his house, that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the hand of evil!” (Habakkuk 2:9). Nebuchadnezzar thinks that all his building is making Babylon strong and beautiful. He sees himself elevating her beyond reach, even though she's a city on a plain. He's concerned for her security, and he believes that with all this building he's been doing, he's assured it. No enemy can get close to Babylon. And it doesn't matter that he did this by evil taking – evil is a defense against evil. And that's why Nebuchadnezzar keeps “cutting off many peoples” (Habakkuk 2:10), mowing them down to size, keeping them under its thumb. Nebuchadnezzar believes he's being constructive, that this quest for glory will build a lasting house.

But what the nations taunt is that he's got it all backwards. Evil's no defense against evil. Evil begets evil. All he's 'constructed' is shame and suicide. “You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples – you have sinned against your own soul,” against your own life (Habakkuk 2:10). Those lofty aspirations of security are a myth and a farce. The very projects Nebuchadnezzar builds bear testimony of its fundamental corruption, engraved in brick after brick after brick. “For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork will respond” (Habakkuk 2:11). The things Nebuchadnezzar builds cry out against him: “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!” (Habakkuk 2:12). Every Babylonian boast only deepens the disgrace that's coming when she's exposed for what she is – because in October 539 BC, Persia's army is going to wipe out the Babylonian resistance first outside the city and then take the city (so, at least, they'll say) without so much as a fight.6

So this, then, is God's long-awaited assurance in the midst of Habakkuk's questions and misgivings. Remember, the prophet was worried that the Chaldeans' status as God's chosen tool meant that God was overlooking the way they carried out that work, with all the violence and bloodshed they brought to it. Habakkuk worried that God's appointment meant God's endorsement, and that Babylon and her Chaldean kings therefore had a moral immunity over what they did to Judah and anyone else God chose to discipline by them. Now, Habakkuk has the definitive answer he's been pining for. And it's a no to his worries, a no to his fears, a no to his nightmares.

No, God raising up the Chaldeans to lead Babylon to supremacy for a time does not mean God overlooks the Chaldeans' sins, any more than the presence of the temple in Jerusalem meant that God was overlooking Judah's sins. You can be God's tool, carry out his purpose, but still be sinning in both what you do and how you do it – and so you can still be held to account. Just because God's plan harnesses and directs your bad habits, doesn't mean your bad habits aren't bad and won't bite you. And that, Habakkuk learns as he eavesdrops on the future, is going to be Babylon's story in the long run. They won't be mercilessly killing nations forever. The opposite is true. Everything they've been doing is just digging their hole deeper. Sooner or later, first the Chaldeans, and then Babylon the earthly city, and then one day Babylon the spiritual force, will all bury themselves in it. Their sins are against their very own soul, back upon their heads. Their evil deeds weave the noose they'll hang from.

And is that so surprising in retrospect? How many books or movies are there about exactly that kind of thing? Where the arrogance and overreach of an empire or a scheme are exactly what brings that scheme or empire to fruitlessness in the end? Where the exploiters who elevate themselves out of reach suddenly discover that the long arm of justice can find its way to their cozy little nest after all? Where the cruelty of the villain is precisely what sets him up to not just taste-test his own medicine but to drown in it? It's a common trope.

And it's hardly unrealistic. In fact, it's a biblical theme. It isn't just about the history of Babylon, nor even about geopolitics and grandeur. It's a principle that applies at every level. What does the psalm say? “Behold, the wicked man conceives evil, and is pregnant with mischief, and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull violence descends” (Psalm 7:14-16). What does the proverb say? “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and he who rolls a stone, on him he'll have it roll back” (Proverbs 26:27). What does the prophet say? “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head” (Obadiah 1:15).

And that's what makes sin so stupid. I know, I know, we come up with all sorts of excuses for sin. Sometimes, we try to excuse our sin by saying that we're only getting even, so it isn't really sin after all. The other person was mean, so you'll be mean. After all, it's only fair – right? Wrong. Sin is a bloody, violent business that hurts civilization itself: two 'means' mean a weaker relationship, a weaker society, not a fixed or strengthened one. It does damage, even if we don't see it, even if we're blinded from it (Habakkuk 2:8).

Or sometimes, we try to excuse our sin by imagining nobody's looking. There are no witnesses around, so what harm could it do? But “the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork will respond” (Habakkuk 2:11). Even the stuff around you, even the stuff you think you're making better, will bear testimony about it. You may think your sin is building you something to enjoy, something to take pride in, but it takes no pride in your sin. It doesn't enjoy being the fruit of sin. It protests, even if you can't hear it.

Sometimes, it's possible to sin and try to excuse it by claiming God's authorization. “After all,” Babylon might say, “am I not God's chosen tool of discipline? Then surely I have to do it, and must be okay doing it.” I've seen people go down this route. I've known people who, because they felt God was calling them to such a special task, would say that they didn't have to submit to authority or accountability – sin! But there have been countless tales throughout history, and in our own days, of people using God to justify ungodliness in all sorts of ways, figuring that God's ends surely justify the devil's means. “Why not do evil, that good may come?” (Romans 3:8). But “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 3:18). Neither does any sin produce, of itself, a divine fruit. God's call, God's mission, are never blank checks for our vice to sign.

Nor can sin be excused by claiming that it has no consequences. Nobody stays on top forever, no matter what they think, no matter how high they think their nest is. “Do not be deceived,” writes Paul, “God is not mocked! For whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Nor can sin escape its eventual justice. It may seem like God is slow in acting, hence inactive and indulgent. Jesus told a story about a man thinking that: “If that wicked servant says to himself, 'My master is delayed,' and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with drunkards, then the master of that servant will come on a day when he doesn't expect him and at an hour he doesn't know, and he will cut him in pieces” (Matthew 24:48-51). One who presumes the Lord's delay is justification to misbehave with impunity will find out very abruptly and unexpectedly that that ain't so.

What's the takeaway, what's the bottom line? Sin never achieves profit (cf. Habakkuk 2:6). It always, always generates debt – the more sin, the bigger debt – and that debt will inevitably be called in (Habakkuk 2:7). Sin literally does not pay. It might feel enriching in the moment, but it makes you poorer than you were before. It's all borrowed at an interest rate too high to leave you standing when the creditors say time's up. Sin doesn't pay; sin makes you pay. Plus, sin never achieves security (cf. Habakkuk 2:9). It always, always puts you in greater jeopardy, greater vulnerability. Sin literally does not protect you, any more than it pays you, though it promises both through its lying teeth. And in the end, that jeopardy will always embarrass you, maybe even get you killed (Habakkuk 2:10). If not immediately, if not in a year or two years, then we know “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). “But because of your hard and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).

Sin is bad news. It's bad news to be in Babylon's shoes. But now let me tell you some good news as we wrap it up. Long ago, when Christians read these taunts of the nations, taunts against Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon, they saw in them something more than promises exhausted by the past, or even warnings for themselves today. They saw oracles of woe aimed at a spiritual Nebuchadnezzar and a spiritual Babylon. For “all that we said concerning Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar,” says St. Jerome, “can be applied to this world and to the devil.”7

Now, go back, listen to those taunts with that in mind, and you'll see why this is good news! Nebuchadnezzar wanted to gobble up the nations like a fish fry, but you can bet his hunger was merely the dimmest echo of the devil's. For “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Nebuchadnezzar's greed pales next to Satan's. The devil's greedy for everyone and everything, but not a bit of it is his. The devil's got no birthright. The devil has not a penny to his rightful name. “The Thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). All he does is cheat and steal, murder and lie and counterfeit (John 8:44). He “heaps up what is not his own” (Habakkuk 2:6). He plunders the whole world so that it lies in his power (Habakkuk 2:8; cf. 1 John 5:19). He “takes evil taking for his house,” thinking that he profits, “to set his nest on high, to deliver himself from the reach of evil” (Habakkuk 2:9). The devil evilly takes people for his own “sons of the evil one” (Matthew 13:38), and thinks he's building himself a kingdom (cf. Luke 11:18).

But in the end, he's embarrassing himself, endangering himself (Habakkuk 2:10). St. Cyril puts it like this: “Satan is... ever amassing what is not his, and bringing upon himself heavier punishment.”8 All that stuff the devil does, that he thinks is hurting you? He's hurting himself even more with every move. The devil may have plundered the nations, but Christ plundered the grave, and now through Christ's victory, the nations can rise up and plunder the devil right back. Satan is plundered by the saints and their persistence in the truth. A life of faith, enduring to the end, and achieving heavenly glory, despoils the devil of more than he ever stole away. For “this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” (1 John 5:4), faith that clings to “the Son of God” who “appeared... to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). All the devil's evil is doomed to fall back on his own head! So may you be a plunderer of his plunder, redeeming what's been stolen and more, until at last God “crushes Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20) – the fruit of all he's done, come back to ruin him. And in the devil's ruins, in the ruins of all worldly power that apes him, is peace at last. Thanks be to God! Amen.