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.

1  Michael Jursa, Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC (Ugarit-Verlag, 2010), 662-669.

2  Nebuchadnezzar II, cylinder inscription C29. <>.

3  Nebuchadnezzar II, cylinder inscription C41. <>.

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