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.

1  Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 21.33

2  Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 21.31

3  On the life and career of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, see, e.g., Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius (Routledge, 2004); David M. Gwynn, Athanasius of Alexandria: Bishop, Theologian, Ascetic, Father (Oxford University Press, 2012).

4  On the life and career of St. Patrick of Ireland, see first and foremost his own autobiography, the Confessio, available online at <>.

5  On the life and career of Pope St. Gregory the Great, see Jeffrey Richards, Consul of God: The Life and Times of Gregory the Great (Routledge, 1980); Robert Austin Markus, Gregory the Great and His World (Cambridge University Press, 1997); and the introduction to John R. C. Martyn, The Letters of Pope Gregory the Great, 3 vols. (Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2004).

6  Thomas of Celano, The Life of Saint Francis 1.2, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents 1:184.

7  Thomas of Celano, The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul 1.4, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents 2:249; and Thomas of Celano, Treatise on the Miracles of Saint Francis 2, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents 2:401.

8  Jacques de Vitry, Letter 6.14 (February/March 1220), in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents 1:581; Jacques de Vitry, Historia Occidentalis 32.14 (c.1221-1225), in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents 1:584; John Tolan, Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian Muslim Encounter (Oxford University Press, 2009).

9  On the life and career of St. Francis of Assisi, see Kenneth Baxter Wolf, The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Asisis Reconsidered (Oxford University Press, 2003); Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell University Press, 2012).

10  Catherine of Siena to Pope Gregory XI, January 1376, in The Letters of Catherine of Siena 1:247.

11  On the life and career of St. Catherine of Siena, see, e.g., F. Thomas Luongo, The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena (Cornell University Press, 2006); Carolyn Muessig, et al., eds., A Companion to Catherine of Siena (Brill, 2012).

No comments:

Post a Comment