Sunday, November 27, 2022

Tell Me a Tale of Paradise Lost: Sermon for Advent 1

Hans stood in the crowd, ready for the play to begin. It was cold out, but he and seemingly the whole town – or at least the neighborhood – had gathered at the churchyard for the performance. His place was one of the towns of southern Germany; his time was the late 1400s. At least it wasn't quite so cold as one might normally expect this time of year – it being the twenty-fourth of December, after all. But what better day for this play, really? Tomorrow, it'll be Christmas Day, when Hans and all his neighbors will come to church and celebrate the birth of their Savior, their Lord, Jesus Christ, in fulfillment of the words of all the prophets. It'll be a grand liturgy tomorrow indeed. But if the morning will see the birth of the One whom apostles hailed as the 'Last Adam,' it only seems fitting to prepare – on this, the day before – by remembering the First Adam, and why a Savior needed to be sent. It made sense to Hans, then, that on December 24, they watch the story of Adam and Eve.1

And so, a while earlier, Hans had caught sight as the performers paraded through the streets of town, carrying the final props needed to be set up – with Adam himself (or, rather, the actor who'd soon become Adam, with his short beard and long hair) bearing the weight of a tree to set in the midst of the garden.2 And now, the parade complete, the play was about to begin. The actors took their positions. The narrator's voice shattered the silence: “In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram. Terra autem erat inanis et vacua, et tenebrae super faciem abyssi...” Hans was a simple man, not exactly conversant in Latin, but even he recognized the opening lines of the First Book of Moses.3

From the time when a choir sang back in Latin the line about the Lord God creating man from dust, breathing into him the breath of life, the action began to unfold. Hans stared in rapt attention as, in the first few bits of dialogue, the actor portraying the Maker brought forth, as if out of a pit, the actor playing Adam, and soon the actress playing Eve. Dialoguing with Adam and Eve in rhyming German lines, the Maker quite early on led them into the central level of the stage: a well-decorated area representing Paradise. And at the center of that scenery stood the juniper tree that Adam's actor had helped carry through the streets. Here it stood, evergreen – after all, any other tree would be barren this time of year. The hewn-down juniper loomed over the set, its branches festooned with shiny red apples and white communion wafers.

Around this would much of the action happen. Hans watched as, below the paradise stage, actors playing devil and demons frolicked and schemed, and as Satan slipped up to the tree to entice the pair. “Are you here, Eve?” he said, to no reply. “Oh, are you here, Eve?” he said. “Yes, I am here – but who's there?” “Are you here, O Eve, my true love?” Caught off her guard, Eve was drawn into dialogue with this serpentine trickster. Where the Maker in earlier dialogue had invited them to eat from any tree in all of Paradise except for this one, now Satan sowed seeds of doubt in Eve's mind. “Eve, seize the red apple, eat, and then you'll be wiser than God!” “Oh!” says she, “but the tree is so high that I can't seize the apple from way up there.” “Fear not, Eve,” Satan soothingly seethed, and helped her reach the apple so red. Hans watched in the crowd, as though he'd never heard the story before – and indeed, he didn't know it or understand it well. This, this was in his language. He watched as Eve bit into the apple on stage, and offered its remainder to Adam, telling him, “Adam, I've thought it through, I've brought you this: Eat with me, and you'll be wiser than the Maker of Paradise!” And as Adam thanked Eve, his true love, and agreed with her, he too bit into the apple – and immediately raised a cry of loud lamentation. “Oh, what danger! Oh, what peril! Oh, what bitterness is ours! Don't you see we're both naked in our shame?” Donning aprons designed like fig leaves over their prior costumes, the actors proceeded to play out the consequences of the fall, the confrontation with the Maker, the curses and the promise – and then they departed the stage of Paradise, as in the lower stage depicting Hell, the devil-choir cheered and feared – cheered the victory for now, feared the defeat that, in the Maker's words, they'd heard was still to come.

By the time Hans went to bed that night, what do you suppose he might've dreamt of? Could his subconscious mind have rehearsed images from that play? And if it did, wouldn't the vivid sight of that tree, verdant and bedecked with its red apples, have pressed itself to the forefront of his dreams?

Fast-forward through the centuries, and here we sit in our church, and here we move through our community. Hans was finishing out the season of Advent, whereas today we're just beginning it. This is Advent – it's not the Christmas season yet, but it's a time of thoughtful reflection and preparation for the Christmas season that'll begin in just under a month. And this year for Advent, we're going to be using an aid to our reflection. Oh, of course we have our Advent candles to guide us and mark the passage of time – and there's plenty of richness there. And we have our nativity set, to portray in miniature the scene we'd've seen in Bethlehem two thousand or so years ago, when Christ was born. But we also have this tall cone of greenery, lights, balls, and ribbons – a Christmas tree. Why, of all things, might we have a Christmas tree set up in our church? Why is there a tree set up in the town square, to be lit publicly this week? Why might some of you have put up a Christmas tree at home? What does a tree have to do with Christmas? What does this thing mean?

Undoubtedly, the Christmas tree has plenty of historical roots, and many are shrouded in mystery. But over the past couple centuries, many scholars have entered agreement that it's no coincidence that a decorated evergreen tree shared the stage with Adam and Eve in medieval Germany, and later started showing up in town halls and private parlors in the generations that followed. What Hans saw would eventually find its way into our homes – and, yes, our church. For the tree used in the 'Paradise Play' was, perhaps, a major ancestor of the Christmas tree we've come to know and love.4 The apple-bearing evergreen on stage with Adam and Eve stole the show – and the hearts of Christmas-lovers. Even in the modern era, there were once pockets of Germany where it remained customary, even after the Christmas tree made it into homes, for people to put little figurines of Adam, Eve, and a snake at the foot of the Christmas tree.5

We don't have those figurines here, but we don't need them if we use our imagination. And we should be using our imagination, this time of year especially. Ours here may have no juicy red apples, and it may be artificial – not even a real tree at all – but it connects us to that same tradition. So take a good, hard look at this beautiful Christmas tree up front today. If you put up a Christmas tree at home, or if you pass by one of the community Christmas trees this year, pause for a while to think. Don't just see it as a symbol of Christmas. Press beyond a modern shape, and see the tree that Hans saw.

As you look at this tree, mentally place it in the Garden of Eden – in Paradise. Look around it, and see with your mind's eye all the splendors of God's creation, with every running river and every blade of grass declared very good by its Maker. Take in, with your admiring gaze, the limitless bounty he provides – how in this place, this paradise, you'd want for nothing, but have all the desires of your simple heart met by the generosity woven into the fabric of the world around you. Breathe in that fragrant air, and listen for the footsteps of the Lord God as he walks with you and talks with you and tells you that you are his own. For that's what you're there for. You live in Paradise to walk with him, to talk with him, to savor his goodness. You're there to rule the earth from a garden palace, to lead the chorus of creation in a song of praise, to lay out your self-will on the altar of love and devotion. You're there to keep the garden clean from pests and well-tended, to share its splendors with the waiting world beyond those walls (Genesis 1:26; 2:15). Paradise is beautiful, next to heavenly in its bliss.

Now look again at the Christmas tree, and see the tree in the heart of the garden. Stand before it, and imagine yourself acting alongside Adam and Eve in that fateful moment. See the tinsel, the garlands of the Christmas tree? See them now as the unclean serpent, coiled around the tree. He corrects you, confronts you, challenges you in his cunning hisses. Hear him whisper his seductive lies. He denies the word God has spoken. He makes your Maker out to be a bumbling buzzkill, a stingy and jealous tyrant, irrationally hoarding from you what you can just seize for yourself. You decide your destiny, the crafty snake wants you to know (Genesis 3:1-5).

The ornaments on the Christmas tree – see through them, to the fruit they represent. So sumptuous, so plump are they! They're “good for food” (Genesis 3:6) – they'd be nutritious, they'd be delicious, just like the fruit on any other tree you'll find (cf. Genesis 2:9). Oh, but they're also “pleasing to the eyes” (Genesis 3:6) – beautiful in their symmetry, shining in their juicy fullness, just like the fruit on any other tree you'll find (cf. Genesis 2:9). Ah, and these – unlike any other tree's fruit – are “desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6) – they can teach you something, take you to the next level. They seem to be exactly what the snake is describing them as.

Look at the Christmas tree, and see the tree in the garden, with its forbidden fruit so hard to resist. All of us, in staring at that tree, have taken our nibble. Each one of us has bitten down on sin. And when we did, it turned out to be about as pleasant as biting into a Christmas ornament that we only imagined was fruit. For even if it were in itself good for food, in itself pleasing to the eyes, in itself desired for making you wise, still in being forbidden, it became deadly, like shards of glass in the roof of our mouth. Bite into an ornament, and you'll struggle to sing the praises you were made for. Sin handicaps us from living up to our full potential and living out our real purpose. It traps us in artificiality, the mere simulation of life. We become plastic representations of the people we ought to be and become.

And so, as we get ourselves ready for Christmas, we unbox this Christmas tree to remind ourselves of what we lost and how we lost it. We set it up so we can see what we let go, what we abandoned because we were too foolish and proud to say no to such flattery. The Christmas tree pictures for us, year after year, the fruitfulness we traded away for the dreary toil of winter's chill – how we smashed our summertime souls with snow shovels, and trudged eastward from Eden, out into the cold and bitter night. In the Christmas tree, we see our temptation and our sin. In the Christmas tree, we see our foolish decisions laid bare. We see and sorrow for paradise lost.

But as we look ahead to Christmas, this tree reminds us also of what can be gained. Because the Christmas tree doesn't just represent the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Christmas tree is also, just as much, an image of the Tree of Life that likewise stood at the heart of the garden. And much as the First Adam and Eve were sent away from that tree, so on Christmas we celebrate as a New Eve brings forth a Last Adam who can crush the snake and lead us victoriously back to our paradise lost and to the life-giving tree we so sorely miss.

When we set up a Christmas tree, a flourishing evergreen abounding in symbolic fruit, we have to remember that in our earliest records, Christmas trees were decorated, not just with apples, but with wafers. And those wafers were hung there as symbols of what every Christian saw, and at least sometimes tasted, Sunday after Sunday: the redemption-bringing body of Jesus Christ. For in letting himself be pinned and hung from a tree of wood, Jesus made his cross into the tree of life for us, and he himself, in his body and his blood, became the immortal fruit we've been missing out on. It's to the cross that we can reach out our hand, take and eat, and live forever. The pierced heart of God-with-us, a God who became human so he could die on a tree to save us, is the fruit of the tree of life. And so that, too, was hung on the first true Christmas trees.

For the Christmas tree does tell us a tale of paradise lost. But it tells us also the tale of paradise found – found in a Savior born in Bethlehem, found in a Savior crucified outside Jerusalem, found in a Savior who takes away the flaming sword and tells the cherubim to stand down their guard. The Christmas tree shows us a Savior born to beckon us back to the tree of life. For if the Christmas tree on the one hand shows us the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, where the snake seduced us to sin and where we lost paradise, the Christmas tree on the other hand shows us the Tree of Life, where we regain paradise. For doesn't Jesus tell us that if we overcome, he'll give us permission to at last “eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7)?

And that, too, is what the Christmas tree is all about – or can be all about. The Christmas tree calls us to come for our healing to the evergreen leaves that are meant to cure what ails all the nations (Revelation 22:2; Ezekiel 47:12). The healing isn't for one nation alone, or one party in a privileged position. To all who approach the tree of life, the leaves are medicine for whatever ails them, and whatever ails you. The Christmas tree is a word of welcome to feast on fruit that's fresh and new each month. Its juicy blessings are far more resplendent than any mere shrewdness or wisdom or knowledge. It's blessing is life, life abundant, life to the full, life eternal.

To eat from the tree of life that is in Christ is to eat the life of God, communicated to us in a way our creaturely bodies and souls can receive. That's the life that awaits us, that's the life that has been reopened to us, if only we overcome, if only we turn back from our east-of-Eden doldrums and overcome this winter we've fallen to. The Christmas tree shines bright because it needs to pierce our darkness, needs to not only remind us of our fall and the perils of temptation in the world, but to inspire our hope that, in Christ in his manger and Christ on his cross and Christ interceding for us now in heaven, the paradise of God is being opened to us once more. This fruit is for all who come in faith and overcome in faith, and to taste it is to know delight that never fades. These healing leaves will anoint all the pains and sorrows of our lives, will make good all the broken dreams, missed opportunities, and thwarted futures. And in the paradise of God, we'll dance with our Savior 'round the tree that is his grace, and open an endless chain of revelations of his undying favor and immortal love.

And that's why we've put up this Christmas tree. Pulling double duty, the Christmas tree anchors us in the scene of paradise lost and paradise regained, calls us to stand with Adam and Eve before the tree of temptation, to feel and admit the allure of sin, to properly grieve the simplicity we fouled up with our foolish grabbing of wisdom we weren't ready for. But the Christmas tree invites us not only to grieve what's past but to hope for what's to come. The Christmas tree shows us a picture of redemption, of Jesus presenting himself in a way that feeds and heals not merely for a day but for eternity – a greenness that outlasts the worst any winter can whip us with. So when you see a Christmas tree this season, think about that paradise long lost – and on paradise found, regained, restored – and tell yourself the tale again. It makes for quite the show. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Lamb Will Conquer

It was a chilly December day, 1922. He'd been on the job ten months now, and no man alive could say he hadn't been living through interesting times. Born in Milan, Achille Ratti was four years old when the Kingdom of Italy was unified. Called to a vocation in service to the Church, he was ordained when he was twenty-two, and then spent his early years earning not one, not two, but three doctorates. He dove headfirst into academia, loving Christ with all his mind. And he became prefect of the Vatican Library just as Europe – and all the world with it – was plunged into the most devastating of wars by the fuse lit by an assassin's bullet. During the war's last year, Ratti was sent into diplomatic service in Poland. And it was a mighty rough world he stepped out into.

The previous year had brought down the Russian tsar and swept the Bolsheviks into power, and in the civil war that ensued, July 1918 brought the execution of the tsar and his family in the name of Communism. Four months later, at America's insistence, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated amidst widespread uprisings, going into exile and leaving Germany to be reconstructed as a republic. Likewise, in the neighboring Austro-Hungarian Empire, Emperor Karl – who'd only come to power during the war and had tried to find peace – was formally dethroned and banished by the Austrian Parliament in April 1919. The world, she was a-changin'.

Then, the 65-year-old Achille Ratti – having been kicked out of newly independent Poland – was, much to his own surprise, elected on the fourteenth ballot. In February 1922, he quite abruptly found himself pope. In keeping with tradition, he gave up his name and adopted a new one: Pius XI. Now sequestered behind the Vatican walls, he watched Joseph Stalin approach power in the Soviet Union; Italy welcome the overthrown king of Greece; and, the very next month, Fascists march on the city of Rome just outside his walls. They foisted upon Italy a new prime minister: Benito Mussolini. It did not portend sunshine for the world's soul.

Pius XI had been watching all these events unfold with dismay, and now Christmas was near. It was time to let the voice of the gospel be heard. He'd been preparing a letter to speak to such sensitive times as these proved to be. He lamented that “since the close of the Great War, individuals, the classes of society, the nations of the earth have not as yet found true peace.”1 “Public life is so enveloped, even at the present hour, by the dense fog of mutual hatreds and grievances that it is almost impossible for the common people so much as freely to breathe therein.”2 “Internal discord... menaces the welfare not only of nations but of human society itself. … To these evils, we must add the contests between political parties... From this course, there often arise robberies of what belongs rightly to the people...”3 “It is most sad to see how this revolutionary spirit has penetrated into that sanctuary of peace and love: the family, the original nucleus of human society. … Frequently we behold sons alienated from their fathers, brothers quarreling with brothers... Too often likewise have we seen... the sanctity of the marriage tie... forgotten.”4 “In the face of our much-praised progress, we behold with sorrow society lapsing back slowly but surely into a state of barbarism.”5 “The sense of man's personal dignity and of the value of human life has been lost in the brutal domination begotten of might...”6

“Because men have forsaken God and Jesus Christ, they have sunk to the depths of evil.”7 They desired “that both our laws and our governments should exist without recognizing God or Jesus Christ, on the theory that all authority comes from men, not God.”8 “Legislation was passed which did not recognize that either God or Jesus Christ had any rights over marriage...”9 “Added to all this, God and Jesus Christ, as well as his doctrines, were banished from the school. … Gone, too, was all possibility of ever laying a solid groundwork for peace, order, and prosperity, either in the family or in social relations.”10 “It is, therefore, a fact which cannot be questioned that the true peace of Christ can only exist in the Kingdom of Christ.”11

That was what Pius XI shouted to a world desperately broken and in need. And yet the next three years see the world continue to spiral into further godlessness. A teenage boy in America is murdered by rich college students chasing the thrill of the kill. Italians are assassinated for speaking out against the Fascists. In Germany, Hitler, released from prison, calls for a racial society with no room for Jews. In the United States, the ACLU challenges Christian influence in the school, while the KKK marches publicly in Washington DC. With his fingers on the world's pulse, Pius XI could feel the quickening secular arrhythmia, and a whole host of disorders along with it. And so, in December 1925, he preached a message into the ears of every nation.

He asked, “Do we not read throughout the Scriptures that Christ is the King? He it is that shall come out of Jacob to rule [Numbers 24:19], who has been set by the Father as king over Zion, his holy mount, and shall have the Gentiles for his inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for his possession [Psalm 2].”12 “This same doctrine of the Kingship of Christ which we have found in the Old Testament is even more clearly taught and confirmed in the New.”13 “Christ himself speaks of his own kingly authority.”14 “It would be a grave error,” then, “to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power.”15

“Thus, the empire of our Redeemer embraces all men. … Nor is there any difference in this matter between the individual and the family or the state, for all men, whether collectively or individually, are under the dominion of Christ. In him is the salvation of the individual; in him is the salvation of society. … If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ.”16

“When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace, and harmony.”17 “That these blessings may be abundant and lasting in Christian society, it is necessary that the kingship of our Savior should be as widely as possible recognized and understood; and, to that end, nothing would serve better than the institution of a special feast in honor of the Kingship of Christ. … Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God's teaching, that he may make it a part of himself and use it with profit for his spiritual life.”18

“We firmly hope, however, that the Feast of the Kingship of Christ, which in future will be yearly observed, may hasten the return of our society to our loving Savior. … If the faithful were generally to understand that it behooves them ever to fight courageously under the banner of Christ the King, then, fired with apostolic zeal, they would strive to win over to the Lord those hearts that are bitter and estranged from him...”19 “Therefore..., we institute the Feast of the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to be observed yearly throughout the whole world...”20 “Nations will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast that not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ. It will call to their minds the thought of the last judgment...”21 So hoped Pius XI. And wouldn't that be a very good thing indeed?

The following year – 1926 – was the first in which Christ the King Sunday was celebrated. In the 1960s, it was relocated to when it is now: the last Sunday before Advent. Today. And although it was originally celebrated only in the Catholic Church, the idea caught on. Over the decades since, it's been wisely adopted by Anglicans, Lutherans, Moravians, Methodists – and who are we to hold ourselves aloof? Officially, our denomination hasn't caught up yet – our calendars just say “Thanksgiving Sunday.” But in spite of ourselves, today we break out the white paraments you see up here on the altar and pulpit, the same ones for Christmas and Easter. Because today is much bigger than just “Thanksgiving Sunday.” It's the Feast of Christ the King.

And as we wind down another Christian year – which runs from Advent to today – we know we have no less need of this holiday today than we did a century ago. Because the way Pius XI described the world around him is hardly foreign to what we see around ourselves. And these things are made clear in the scriptures we read.

For what have we learned from Scripture today? We heard, first of all, that Jesus is first and foremost the Lamb – “a Lamb standing as though it had been slain, with seven horns and seven eyes which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Revelation 5:6). He was crucified – there the Lamb was slain. He is risen – that's why the Lamb stands! He offered himself as a sacrifice out of perfect love, and his indestructible life is forever grounded in his identity as Supreme Love, as the Love which God eternally is. And because love can't be limited, his vision and power pour forth the perfect sevenfold Holy Spirit of Love to the whole world.

Second, we heard that, as the Lamb who had been slain but now stands in heaven, Jesus is acclaimed as worthy. Worthy of what? “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12) – seven gifts for the seven spirits. He's 'worthy' because the Lamb is the Lord who deserves to reveal secret wisdom from heaven, who deserves to be invested with royal strength and royal authority, who deserves to receive all tax and tribute from creation, who should be respected and heeded, who ought to be celebrated with praise. The Lamb, from any angle, is worthy! For, as the Lamb, Jesus' blood ransomed people from every tribe and every nation, and enrolled them as citizens of a higher kingdom than any earthly empire could boast (Revelation 5:9-10). And, because his kingdom is as indestructible as his resurrection life, and because his kingdom is a heavenly kingdom to which all earthly kingdoms are accountable, Jesus is rightly acclaimed as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5).

And yet, as both scripture and history bear out, the worldly powers-that-be tend not to want to be ruled – least of all by a Lamb. And so we read cryptically about a beastly force at work (Revelation 17:11), and about many “kings” who briefly receive political authority in the earth (Revelation 17:12-13). And what do they do with this authority they have? “They will make war on the Lamb” (Revelation 17:14). That's what we're told. Now, it's not the Lamb who picks this fight. He doesn't come against them with aggression or with armies. The Lamb's kingship isn't like the kingships of this world, so as to require swords and guns and bombs, political savvy and deep pockets and the serpentine shrewdness of propaganda machines (cf. John 18:36). No, the Lamb took his throne when he perched himself on a cross, when he let thorns crown his brow bloody, when he hurled his lifeblood against the heart of darkness to dissolve it away and let the light shine in.

But, risen, he appears again and again on the world scene with a royal witness and royal claim. His appearance comes in the person of the Church, the Lamb's Body that still bleeds his blood on the earth and its darkness. He appears even by the dignifying image of himself that every human life is made in, from the terminally ill to the unborn, from every creed and from every party, rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and native, prisoner and free. He appears with his royal witness and his royal claim. But often, when the kings of the earth look at human life they deem unworthy, and especially when they behold the Church staking claims for Christ, they choose – with a mind borrowed from a beast – to go on the attack. They react against what they see, what they hear, what they fear. And so whether against human life in general, or human life of a particular kind, or against even the Church itself, the kings of earth have a nasty habit of waging war on the Lamb all over again, wishing to crucify him anew through the hands and feet of everyone they disdain or crushingly neglect.

But what will the result of all this be? The same Scripture has told us. “The Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings!” (Revelation 17:14). Whenever the kings of earth make war on the Lamb, and whenever individuals think themselves kings worthy of making war on the Lamb, we know the outcome. They can be assured that they're in the wrong (for he's unquestionably King of kings), and they can be equally assured that, because they're in the wrong, they're then outmatched (for he unquestionably will conquer)! The Lamb may conquer in the midst of the years, by turning the wheel of the ages, shifting the balances of power. The Lamb may conquer by salting the earth with the blood of his martyrs, so that the aspirations of the beast cannot thrive in the soil that cries out against these new Cains. The Lamb may conquer by the voice of witnesses that can't be silenced by any show of tooth and claw. And the Lamb will conquer, in the end, in ways that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined” (1 Corinthians 2:9). From start to finish, the Lamb renders his verdict on human history, in all its twists and turns, with all its movements and all its moments.

But then what does that mean for us? Scripture has the answer here, too. “The Lamb will conquer..., and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14). Those three words describe the winning team in the war of the ages. First, those with him are 'called' – they're summoned, they're invited, they're given an audition. That's what happens when we hear the preaching of the gospel, the apostolic call going out into all the earth. Paul addresses himself to “you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6), and says to us, “You were called to the one hope that belongs to your call” (Ephesians 4:4). You're called – that's 1 out of 3.

But, as Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). That's the second part. It's passing initial inspection (cf. Matthew 22:1-14), and so being selected after being called. Yet “we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5). We didn't just hear the word with our ears; we were baptized into its power, body and soul, and so “have been born again... through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23; cf. Colossians 2:12). That's you, yes? You're called! You're chosen! Two down...

One to go. “Those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14). That means vindicating the call and choice of God with our grace-enabled response, day by day. This one, it's up to us, individually and collectively, to determine: With the grace given us, will we be loyal to Christ the King? Will we take his side? Courageous faithfulness is all we need to be assured that we'll find ourselves with the Lamb as he overcomes the rebellious kings of earth, regardless of what madnesses those kings serve in the meantime. Whatever comes out of Moscow or London, Beijing or Washington, if they make war on the Lamb, know the Lamb will conquer. Because the Lamb is Lord of lords and King of kings. In his own heavenly way, he rules over all and will judge all, and will give the final victory, not to those who wield earthly power now, but to those who live and die as called, as chosen, as faithful. Victory is for those who are truly with the Lamb. Cross-bearing is our warfare.

And that's what today is all about. Today is a feast celebrating the truth that Jesus Christ is King of Kings. It's a feast celebrating that the Lamb is certain to conquer. Today, by this holiday, we declare to the world that its politics are provisional and temporary, and so are all the ways in which we try, of our own power, to govern our families and our communities, our bodies, our souls, our lives. Today is a feast of rededication, then, so that we who are called and chosen might prove faithful to the Lamb, to loyally and trustingly and courageously “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4). For the Lamb – and none other – is King of the Universe.

And to that, we'll let Pius XI have the last word: “If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth – if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion – if this power embraces all men – it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or, to use the words of the Apostle Paul, 'as instruments of justice unto God' [Romans 6:13].”22 Now that sounds like faithfulness from the called and chosen. May it be ours! May we be all for Christ the King! Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Even If

In these strange days, do you think the prophet thought back on his childhood? I imagine he might've been a boy, holding onto his daddy's hand, that day around 621 BC when they stood somewhere on the fringes of the temple courts. It was a momentous occasion. The high priest had uncovered something in the temple archives: a forgotten book. That, said the eighteen-year-old King Josiah, was why he'd summoned so many of the people there. It was crowded, and little Habakkuk couldn't see. But the crowd was silent enough that he could hear as Judah's king read, word for word, the Book of the Covenant to them all (2 Kings 23:2). And so Habakkuk heard, for the first time in his life that day, “the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness” (Deuteronomy 1:1). He heard the declaration to all Israel that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one,” and “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). He heard: “Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). He heard from the mouth of Josiah the words of Moses: “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you today, and the curse if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).

Habakkuk heard that day the command of bringing firstfruits to the priest from the land God had given. “When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground which you harvest from your land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. … Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the LORD your God. And you shall make response before the LORD your God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers..., and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm..., and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.' And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house – you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you” (Deuteronomy 26:1-11).

Habakkuk remembered hearing those words for the first time as a boy, and how that year, under Josiah's guiding example, the people obeyed the law. As Levites, he and his family rejoiced with every tribe and every clan in God's goodness to all and to each. For, as Habakkuk had also learned that day, the blessings God promised to Judah for obedience included supply and security alike. “The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you,” Moses assured them, “and the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give you. The LORD will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands” (Deuteronomy 28:7, 11-12).

From that youthful day, Habakkuk must've become a lifelong student of this rediscovered Book of the Covenant – why else would he start and end his hymn so closely to the way the Blessing of Moses in Deuteronomy 33 started and ended? And now, we do come to the end – the end of the hymn, the end of the book, the end of our journey with the prophet Habakkuk. It's been a wild ride, on a journey from bitter protest and gripping dread to something else altogether. Or... maybe not something else altogether.

If you were with us last week, you remember how Habakkuk sang a hymn reflecting on God's great apocalyptic acts of deliverance past, about God's march to Egypt to save his people from slavery, and God's march to Canaan to save his people from oppression, and God's march to pluck David from the mire of persecution and raise him up to victory. For God's a Warrior, with bow and arrow, with lightning spear and crushing club, riding in on his chariot. He threshes the nations in anger, crushes the head of the house of the wicked. And, Habakkuk says, as God storms through, he tramples the sea and makes it churn (Habakkuk 3:1-15).

What he's come to realize is that, while he's been horrified at the thought that the coming Babylonian attack on Judah was somehow a tool in God's hands, it actually is an effect of the upheaval that's naturally brought about as God marches in – the very same march that will overthrow Babylon in the end! The Babylonian attack and Judah's salvation are, in the end, ultimately one thing. As God storms in to overthrow evil, God is the storm. And now, in this hymn born out of Habakkuk's visions and spiritual epiphanies, he's seen that. God's work in the world is overwhelming. It's unpredictable. It's reliably part of his intention to save his people, but the effect of it can, on the way to that salvation, churn life into a tizzy and make ordinary things just stop working.

Now, Habakkuk has gotten even the barest impression of what God is up to. And he's realizing the costs of that peek behind the curtain. And as we're going to realize moving forward, these experiences have made Habakkuk a brother in spirit to a man named Job. In a story long handed down, a story I hope Habakkuk already knew, Job finally – after many chapters of wishing – got to confront God in the whirlwind. Job got answers – sort of. For Job's questions were met with a barrage of questions back, exposing Job's ignorance and incapacity. Part of the lesson for Job was that the real answers – the actual explanation of the full set of equations in the moral calculus that justified God allowing such immense suffering to enter his life – well, they're intellectually beyond him. Even if God patiently started laying them out, Job wouldn't be able to follow along, any more than he can explore the fountains of the deep, or feed all creatures great and small, or tame Leviathan. And as Job realized the answers were intellectually beyond him, so Habakkuk sees the answers are psychologically beyond him.

Because listen to what Habakkuk says, after this great revelation of God at last riding to the rescue: “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me” (Habakkuk 3:16). Our friend the prophet has gotten his glimpse behind the curtain, has seen God on the move, has felt in the depths of his soul the sunshine and the storm. And he's surely no sturdier than mountains. The whipping wind that made the tents of the desert quake has shaken him to his core. This revelation may have a good end, but it's also left Habakkuk exhausted. He's in the grip of a deep anxiety. He feels sick from top to bottom. You'd think he'd be feeling elated, but the promise of this salvation has hit him like COVID, and he's thinking he oughta retreat into quarantine. Because he feels God's angry march to save, and it threshes him from the inside out. And having heard and seen God, he's not sure what to say. It's broken him.

And it's rebuilt him, albeit with a limp in his mind and heart. His stomach may churn, his lips may quiver, his bones may rot, his legs may tremble, but those are the price he paid to see in advance the assurance of salvation – that God's march would not stop until evil was overthrown and Judah was saved, not only from the danger of Babylon, but from the danger of itself. And now he knows. He's disquieted, but he's assured. And so, he sings, he's prepared to rest amidst the chaos. As the hurricane bears down, Habakkuk will climb into his hammock and take a nap. He's been assured that – though he knows he won't live to see the last leg of the march play out – it's going to happen. God will ultimately avenge all oppression, and God will somehow make good on all that Habakkuk and the others suffer in the meantime. Even beyond death, God will make all things new. And that's how Habakkuk can already “rest for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us” (Habakkuk 3:16).

What's going on here is, Habakkuk is making peace with his outer discomfort, and even making peace with his inner disquiet. That doesn't mean that Habakkuk has stopped trembling. It doesn't mean his heart has stopped racing. It doesn't mean his lips don't quiver as he sings. It doesn't mean he can get off his fainting couch. But it does mean that he accepts it. And in that, he finds rest in God. Habakkuk has reached the point of accepting his anxiety. For Habakkuk is a deeply anxious man, with everything that entails – and he embraces it. He rests as the chaos unfolds around and inside him, he rests as his mind conjures up every terrible nightmare, he rests as his world falls apart, because now he knows for a fact – and a faith – that this, all this, is God's storm, and that it may rage his whole life, it may flood the world, it may spin the ark 'round and 'round, but it will land him on the mountain top. And by believing that, Habakkuk can restfully make peace with his worst-case scenario.

And the worst-case scenario this time isn't just a product of Habakkuk's anxieties. For the blessings of security and supply were always contingent on obedience. Habakkuk, as a boy listening to King Josiah read from the Book of the Covenant, had heard about the alternative: “If you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments..., then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. … The LORD will make the rain of your land powder. … The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. … You shall carry much seed into the field and gather in little, for the locust shall consume it. You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but you shall neither drink the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm shall eat them. You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off. … A hard-faced nation... shall eat the offspring of your cattle and the fruit of your ground, until you are destroyed; it also shall not leave you grain, wine, or oil, the increase of your herds or the young of your flock, until they have caused you to perish” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 24-25, 38-40, 50-51).

But even during all Josiah's reforms, the weight of generations of sin and the continued deformed character of the people had put Judah past the point of no return. Jeremiah had long been scolding the people that God was already withholding rain on account of their sins (Jeremiah 5:24-25), and that when the Babylonians came, “they shall eat up your harvest and your food, they shall eat up your sons and your daughters, they shall eat up your flocks and your herds, they shall eat up your vines and your fig trees” (Jeremiah 5:17). Habakkuk is living under these curses of Moses and these prophecies of Jeremiah, and he knows that no obedience he personally can put forward – and maybe not even a wholesale repentance of the people at large – is going to change things. All that's left is to ride this out, to squarely face that truth.

And he does so by contemplating a radical absence of providence. The Book of the Covenant described this land as“a land flowing with milk and honey,” abundant in the sweet things of life (Deuteronomy 26:9), which was why they brought God “the first of the fruit of the ground” that he himself had given (Deuteronomy 26:10). But what if milk and honey stop flowing? What if all the curses come to pass? What if “the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; the produce of the olive fail, and the fields yield no food; the flock be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls” (Habakkuk 3:17)? What then, when the first of the fruit of the ground is all there is – or what if even that doesn't grow? What about when God doesn't provide? What then?

Jeremiah had posed a question like that: “What will you do when the end comes?” (Jeremiah 5:31). Habakkuk takes it up now. Maybe he's heard about how, when everything fell apart around Job, Job blessed the name of the LORD (Job 1:21). Maybe he's heard how, when Job's health tanked and even his dearest love was against his life, Job insisted on God's right to give disaster as a gift (Job 2:10). Habakkuk has been transformed into Job's brother in soul, and so, like Job, Habakkuk refuses to respond to this worst-case scenario by responding to curses – even God's curses – with cursing. “Bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28). That's how Habakkuk answers Jeremiah's question. So even if the fig tree doesn't blossom, even if the vines have no grapes, even if the olives drop off, even if there's no grain in the fields, even if the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle die out or get stolen, “yet I will exult in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:18).

In other words, if there are no firstfruits, Habakkuk will still show up before the altar. He'll lay down his basket even if it's a black hole. He'll be there and hail God's gift in the emptiness. When there's no harvest, Habakkuk will celebrate the harvest that ain't as though it were. He'll keep the festival even as he starves. He'll pray grace over an empty plate. He'll preach from the ash heap as he scrapes his boils. He'll sing hymns as he lugs his cross to the hill of execution. With all his anxieties and all his nightmares, he'll defiantly grin in his grave. He'll lie down to rest in the belly of death, trusting the God who's put a hold on all transactions. And as the stone rolls in front of his tomb, you'll hear through the rock Habakkuk quoting the marvelous words of Brother Job: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him!” (Job 13:15).

Yes, Habakkuk won't let thanksgiving be derailed by the mere technicality that his list of earthly reasons to give thanks is a blank page. And he won't let thanksgiving be derailed by his quivering lips, churning stomach, jelly-like legs, or rotting bones. He embraces his anxieties and piles them into the basket to lay before the altar. He will “exult in the LORD – jumping and leaping in triumph. He will “take joy in the God of my salvation” – spinning in excitement. Even if the worst-case scenario comes to pass, even if his nightmares stalk him through the streets, he'll bless the LORD as the victor – because God is the storm, and God threshes for a greater good. Habakkuk still knows God is marching for Judah's salvation. And that march may kill Habakkuk. It may take away everything from him. But it's meant to save. So Habakkuk clings to his cross, thinking on the crown.

And it's that determination, that spirit, that hope, that in just a few verses takes Habakkuk from trembling jelly to nimble ascension. Moses, singing of God's march, showed the blessing after the curse: “Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD, the Shield of your help and the Sword of your triumph! Your enemies shall come fawning to you, and you shall tread upon their high places” (Deuteronomy 33:29). David, singing of God's march for him personally, declared: “This God is my strong refuge... He has made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the high places” (2 Samuel 22:33-34). But Moses sang his song after the exodus, and David sang his after the rescue. Yet even now, even while bearing his empty basket to the altar, Habakkuk already sings: “GOD the Lord is my strength! He will make my feet like the deer's; he will make me tread on my high places” (Habakkuk 3:19). Already the jelly-legged prophet is finding his footing – and although he knows he won't outlive his poverty, his anxiety, his nightmare, yet his feet will walk on the mountain tops when all is said and done. He clings to his cross because he believes in a God of resurrection!

And the God he believes in, the God he blesses even when God seems giftless, is the God he wants you and me to know too. Habakkuk has the advantage of being a prophet, that's true. But what he's seen and heard, he's shared with us. Habakkuk's borne the brain-breaking brunt of his visions; he's interpreted for us the thunder from the mountain, crucifying his eyes and ears that we might see without seeing and hear without hearing. We can believe what he learned: his advantage now is ours. And Habakkuk faced a harsher and more nightmarish worst-case scenario than anything even our anxieties are likely imaginative enough to conjure into view. For he stared down real starvation, the absolute subtraction of all hope, the certainty of exile or death, the very curse of God. We, whether we have much or little, are likely to still eat our fill even if we do give our firstfruits.

If Habakkuk could accept his anxieties, could learn to live with them, then is this so impossible for us? And if Habakkuk was determined to repay blessing for cursing even when the curse was in the Law of Moses, then is it out of bounds for us to bless the name of the LORD in the day of distress? If milk and honey slow to a trickle, still we have more objective reason than Habakkuk to bring our baskets to the altar. If even the arrival of the end couldn't cancel Habakkuk's holiday, what pretext could we possibly produce to trash our calendar of grace? Even if the harvest was a bust, Habakkuk insisted he'd feast before the LORD from the emptiness on his plate. It was not without his anxieties that the afflicted prophet jumped and spun in celebration of God being God. Nor do we need to cure our anxieties and fears before we can rest in that same faith and hope. Even if the worst comes, even if all good gifts die off and we're left in the abyss, still the LORD is the God of our salvation.

Because “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law” – the same curse Habakkuk saw unfolding around him – “by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree,' so that in Christ the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13-14). Christ was no less anxious, in the olive grove at Gethsemane, than Habakkuk was at God's march. At least Habakkuk wasn't brought to the point of sweating drops of blood through stress. Even so and even there, Jesus chose the cross. Even there, he declared exultantly his Father's glory, entrusting his last breath of life to Eternal Love. The faithful and obedient Christ embraced the curse of the Law of Moses on faithless and disobedient Israel. He plunged into death's abyss, where no vine grows, where no figs blossom, and there in the darkness of death he exulted in his Father's unbreakable promise. He exulted so exuberantly in death that the devil's kingdom was threshed beneath his feet. He spun so vigorously in joy that the chains of death flew off him. His God and Father was his strength, who made his feet like deer's feet, to climb out of the grave, to climb back to the realm of the living, to climb even to the heights of heaven. And there he lays on the altar the firstfruits of his own self, and he worships God his Father with all the fullness that he is as God, rejoicing in eternal goodness. And we belong to his Body, receiving his promised Spirit through faith, faith like Habakkuk had for his day of distress. May we bless and thank and rejoice even if... even if... even if... Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Song of the Warrior

It was a hard day. Aaron and his neighbors wailed aloud in their tents. The pharaoh had died, who'd been cause to so much of their suffering, only to be succeeded by another who made things worse. No wonder “the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help,” and “their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God” (Exodus 2:23). That night, Aaron and Miriam and the others went to bed in tears. It looked as if nothing had happened. And perhaps it would be years before it would. But little did they know that they were heard (Exodus 2:24). Little did they know that they'd been seen (Exodus 2:25). How little did they realize that, from the moment they'd lifted up their sorrows in prayer, God had been on the move.

We know, I should hope, what happens next. However long it takes, Aaron's brother Moses, a freedom fighter living in exile in the land of Midian, is leading his flock through the wilderness of Paran and comes to the foot of Mount Sinai, where a voice speaks to him from a burning bush (Exodus 3:1-6). The LORD tells him, “I have come down to deliver them” (Exodus 3:7). God summons Aaron to meet Moses in the wilderness, together they return to inspire hope, and God unleashes ten plagues or afflictions on the Egyptian oppressors, exposing all the fraudulence of Egypt's idols. At last we find Israel pinned between the Sea of Reeds and the pursuing Egyptian army, and there Moses assures them: “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:14). Sure enough, when the Egyptians realize they've driven their chariots into a trap between the waters, they panic and cry out, “The LORD fights for [Israel] against the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:25). Watching from the far side of safety, Moses sings that “the LORD is a man of war” (Exodus 15:3), and that when the nations in the land ahead hear about this, they too will freeze in fear and trembling (Exodus 15:14-16).

God marches ahead of Israel for the next month and a half, until they reach Mount Sinai, where he comes down with “thunders and lightnings” and “smoke” and “fire,” so that “the whole mountain trembled greatly,” and God answered Moses in a voice of fearsome thunder (Exodus 19:16-19). Decades later, when Moses stood with a new generation and passed his authority over to his disciple Joshua, Moses reflected on the LORD and this march of war to answer his people's plight. Moses considered how “the LORD came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came forth from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand” (Deuteronomy 33:2). And Moses assured Joshua and the Israelites that, as they marched into the promised land, “the LORD your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes and in the wilderness” (Deuteronomy 1:30-31).

Entering the land, they found that Moses' words were true, that the LORD did wage war for them, crumbling the walls of Jericho (Joshua 6:20), throwing down hailstones (Joshua 10:11), freezing sun and moon in the sky, “for the LORD fought for Israel” (Joshua 10:12-14). But, failing temptation, Israel chose to share the land with the Canaanites, and so in a later generation, the tribes came to be as oppressed by the Canaanites of Hazor as they had been in Egypt (Judges 4:2). “Then the people of Israel cried out to the LORD for help” (Judges 4:3), from their twenty-year oppression. A man named Barak (whose name means 'lightning') was called upon to raise an army, and with the prophetess and judge Deborah at his side for courage, the enemy was defeated. Deborah sang of the victory, connecting it to God's ancient march of war: “LORD, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled and the heavens dropped, yes, the clouds dropped water; the mountains quaked before the LORD, even Sinai before the LORD, the God of Israel” (Judges 5:4-5).

Generations passed. The age of the judges ended; the age of the kings began. David found himself persecuted. And, looking back afterwards on how God had saved him from his own danger just like God saved Israel from Egypt, David rehearsed his story in those same terms: “In my distress I called upon the LORD. To my God I called! From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry came to his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the heavens trembled and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth. … The LORD thundered from heaven, and the Most High uttered his voice. And he sent out arrows and scattered them; lightning, and routed them. Then the channels of the sea were seen; the foundations of the world were laid bare at the rebuke of the LORD, at the blast of the breath of his nostrils. He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. He rescued me from my strong enemy, from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me” (2 Samuel 22:7-9, 14-18).

And then we come to our friend, the prophet Habakkuk. And we remember that for years he's been crying out to God, wondering why he isn't seeing an answer. He's begging for help about what's wrong in Judah, all the violence, and he hasn't found salvation (Habakkuk 1:2). He's being forced to look at iniquity and trouble, and in all of this, God doesn't seem to be angry but only looks on in idleness, unmoving and unmoved (Habakkuk 1:3). And even when Habakkuk does hear about God acting to raise up Babylon (Habakkuk 1:6), Habakkuk protests that God's action is unhelpful and mysterious (Habakkuk 1:12—2:1). But Habakkuk knows he's living in the times Moses warned about, when “the LORD will make the pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land” (Deuteronomy 28:21), when “I will heap disasters upon them, I will spend my arrows on them, they shall be... devoured by burning plague” (Deuteronomy 32:23-24).

Yet when he comes to the end of it all, Habakkuk realizes – and he puts it into a hymn, like Moses and Deborah and David before him – that from the very moment he cried out, God was on the march in burning wrath and saving love. And now that we've heard from Moses and Deborah and David, when we listen to Habakkuk sing, it makes a lot more sense what he's doing. He's again looking back at God's march as a warrior to judge Egypt and save Israel, to judge Canaan and save Israel, to judge the Philistines and Saul and to save David and Israel, and he's rehearsing that for his own life, he's appealing to that in the present, he's using that to understand what's been happening and what's going to go down.

So Habakkuk sings that “God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran” (Habakkuk 3:3), that “his brightness was like the light” (Habakkuk 3:4). When Israel cried out in Egypt, then (just as Moses said) God was like a sunrise on the eastern mountains of Edom, dawning hazily at first but brightly once he rose. His dawning in the heavens lights up the darkness with splendor, majesty, radiance, and all the earth gives praise (Habakkuk 3:3). And as he marches, hiding his strength in the light, on his left and right he's attended by twin rays of light from his hands, and in front of him goes pestilence as a herald, and at his feet marches plague as a rear guard (Habakkuk 3:4-5). This entourage escorted God as he marched to Egypt to unleash those plagues, but they're also at play in Habakkuk's day as the curses of Moses work themselves out in the assault of Babylon.

When God stands up as a warrior, he surveys the landscape, and it shudders in fright (Habakkuk 3:6). “His eyes see, his eyelids test the children of men” (Psalm 11:4). The nations – be they Egypt, Canaan, or otherwise – shake and are startled before God's penetrating gaze. The mountains, like Mount Sinai, tremble and scatter and sink, and even the orbits of the lights in the heavens bow (Habakkuk 3:6). The point here is that even the things we count on as the most reliable, predictable, and stable – whether the trusty orbits of stars above or the solid firmness from age to age of mountains and hills here below – are no obstacles when God is on the march. They offer no obstacles to hide behind. “When Israel went out from Egypt,” a psalmist says, “the sea looked and fled, Jordan turned back, the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs,” trembling “at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob” (Psalm 114:1, 3-4, 7). And so, where once Habakkuk cried out that God was making him look at iniquity and trouble in Judah, now he says he sees trembling and affliction come to the desert nomads of Midian as God approaches (Habakkuk 3:7).

If in the first half of the hymn the LORD comes across almost like a sun god, in the second half he marches like a storm god. Other prophets and psalmists celebrated how, in the exodus, God “dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep” (Isaiah 51:10), how he “divided the sea by [his] might” (Psalm 74:13), how he dominated and ruled its raging (Psalm 89:9). But his quarrel isn't with the rivers, and it isn't with the sea. Habakkuk depicts God like a warrior riding in a great chariot. And a chariot-mounted warrior in those days usually had a few main weapons. One was a bow-and-arrow, for shooting from a distance. The others were a spear and a mace, for stabbing or clubbing what came near to his path. And Habakkuk imagines God riding in a chariot (Habakkuk 3:8), unsheathing his bow (Habakkuk 3:9), wielding a lightning spear (Habakkuk 3:11), and using his mace or staff (Habakkuk 3:13). As he comes, rain pours down, the mountains tremble and writhe, and even the deep abyss raises its hands high in surrender and cries out for mercy (Habakkuk 3:10). And if the deepest thing surrenders, so do the highest things – sun and moon – freeze and halt before God (Habakkuk 3:11).

That's the picture Habakkuk is painting here: one where all the phenomena of nature, whether earthly or even heavenly, surrender and yield as the LORD marches or rides past them. They don't even try to resist God when God is on the warpath. But, again, his quarrel isn't with them at all. It's with the earth and its nations. “You marched through the earth in fury, you threshed the nations in anger” (Habakkuk 3:12). Before, Habakkuk was worried that God was showing no capacity for anger at injustice – that God was just idly standing around, doing nothing, totally passive in the face of the world's cruelty (Habakkuk 1:3). Now, Habakkuk's come to a very different picture of God, one on the march to thresh the nations of the earth like wheat being threshed into grain and ground into flour. God is living and active in the world in ways Habakkuk just couldn't see before. Far from being a passive observer of injustice, God is furiously on the march to put a stop to it.

For while his quarrel wasn't with the mountains or rivers or sea, his quarrel is with the nations insofar as they belong to “the house of wickedness,” which God has come to slice open and whose head the LORD has come to crush (Habakkuk 3:13). That's what God did when he overthrew Pharaoh and his charioteers in the sea, and now that Habakkuk feels himself threatened by enemies like an oncoming storm, he's looking for God to smash them the same way (Habakkuk 3:14). Why has God come? Why is God on the march? Why is God trampling the foamy waters of the sea, churning them all into a tizzy (Habakkuk 3:15). In the end, all of this – every last bit of the upheaval that comes as God marches through – is for one purpose: “You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed” (Habakkuk 3:13). That's what God's march to Egypt was about – he crushed Pharaoh for the salvation of Israel. That's what God's march in Canaan was about – he literally crushed the head of Sisera by the hand of Jael, all to ensure the salvation of Israel. That's what God's defense of David was all about – so that David could gain the upper hand and crush the violent (2 Samuel 22:43). And it's nothing less than that that Habakkuk's praying for and seeing in advance when it comes to Babylon's cruel dominion – which, Habakkuk now realizes, is itself just part of God's angry march against Judah's sin, but is ultimately purposed for the salvation of God's people. Babylon will somehow help save Judah from her sin.

Good for Habakkuk – but can we sing with him? What does Habakkuk's hymn mean to us? It foretells, I tell you, the coming of Jesus Christ. Habakkuk looks back – and, he hopes, ahead – to God rising like a dawning sun from the south and the east. The birth of Jesus was heralded with the radiant glory of God shining in the fields outside Bethlehem (Luke 2:9), and when it happened, “the people dwelling in darkness” saw “a great light,” for “on them a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16). The Light of the World marched through the land, marching his way to the cross. And there at the cross, mountains of sin crumbled to dust, and sun and moon hid their faces, and “the earth shook and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:51). So too, when he rose from the dead, “there was a great earthquake” (Matthew 28:2). With the cross as his spear and mace, he cracks the head of the house of wickedness – the devil – and before the might of his resurrection, the very abyss of hell throws up its hands in surrender. And he fires his apostles like arrows into all the world to declare the good news that a Warrior has come from heaven to save them. Down through every age since, Christ has been marching in his Church, growing a kingdom that grinds mountains to dust and makes the darkness tremble. And he threshes the nations, Jew and Gentile alike, beneath his feet – not to their destruction, but to their transformation into a pure bread of God, an offering fit for the altar. Jesus Christ is the LORD, the Man of War, who came in a hidden strength to wage a gospel war until at last the earth is indeed as full of his praise as the heavens are his splendor.

But in days to come, the days we still await, we will see and know in a new way that our Lord is on the march. For just as the exodus was accomplished by plagues that led Israel to the thunder-trumpets at Mount Sinai, and just as the LORD's march was seen at Jericho through the seven trumpets that made the city walls fall, so Revelation gives us a picture of history's unfolding in terms of seven plagues and seven trumpets – for when the seventh trumpet sounds, Christ conquers the kingdom of the world amid “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail” (Revelation 11:19). We are here “to wait for [God's] Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead: Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10), and Revelation shows us Jesus riding in as a Warrior who “in righteousness judges and makes war” (Revelation 19:11) when he “treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty,” striking down rebellious nations with the sword of his word (Revelation 19:15).

All of this is a picture, told in thick symbolism, of our final deliverance, which Habakkuk's hymn is suitable to sing aloud. For if in his first coming Christ was the Warrior who saved us in a spiritual exodus from sin, in his second coming Christ will be the Warrior who saves us at last in a bodily exodus from death and sorrow and all evil. And then at last will he crush the head of the house of wickedness, crushing Satan underfoot – and Evil will not survive. When Christ dawns on us in his return, we will see a new march of God, a march that will stop all the powers of nature in their tracks as they surrender joyously. And he will save his people – me and you, if we trust him. Habakkuk's hymn can be our song of that final victory, when God's fury at sin finally resolves it. But his fury at sin is just an aspect of his all-consuming love for us and our ultimate welfare: he marches for us.

Habakkuk's hymn sings to us of when Christ first came, to be born, to live, to teach, to die, and to rise again – that was the form of his great warfare that we read in the Gospels. And so too does Habakkuk's hymn sing to us of when Christ shall come again, to put an end to sin and sorrow, death and devil, in a great war won by his word. For now, we live in the in-between, the overlap of the ages. But if David and Habakkuk teach us anything, it's that God's march isn't only for the big events of salvation-history. Remember, David prayed for rescue in his own personal plight, his persecution by Saul and by the Philistines, and although there were no flashy miracles, no literal upheaval of the elements, still David portrayed it using the same language as Moses and Deborah, because David knew that, for him and him personally, God had nonetheless marched in to save.

Friends, as we live here in the in-between, we face some battles of our own. The Apostle Peter warns us that “the passions of the flesh... wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). The Apostle Paul claims he “fought the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7), and advises Timothy to likewise “wage the good warfare” (1 Timothy 1:18). And he speaks of us all as armed with “the weapons of our warfare” (2 Corinthians 10:4). Were we not facing opposition in life, were we not embattled and oppressed, the apostles wouldn't speak so, would they? And it's not just the enemies outside of us in the world. It's the enemies embedded within our own self, the passions that wear and tear at our souls, the temptations and evils that infiltrate past the barrier we think marks the boundary between world and self. There, even there, is a battleground. There must a good fight be fought, there must a good warfare be waged, with the weapons wherewith we are armed. But we are chronically outgunned.

Enter Habakkuk's hymn. Habakkuk celebrates the remembrance of God's march as the Divine Warrior, wrathful against oppression, intimidating the nature of heaven and the nature of earth as he passes by in fury, shining and storming on his way to thresh the nations and set his people free – free from the slavery of Egypt, free from the oppression of Canaan. And though his arrival may have seemed slow to those who were crying out, that didn't mean God was standing idly by; it meant God was on the move, beginning to respond in mysterious ways from the very moment he heard their cries. So, too, for us – even in the in-between.

We have liberty to cry out to the LORD, calling for the Warrior's help in our good warfare against the passions of the soul and our spiritual enemies. For what makes this warfare good is that we are “fighting the battles of the LORD,” that “evil shall not be found in you so long as you live” (1 Samuel 25:28). As King Hezekiah assures us, “with us is the LORD our God, to help us and to fight our battles” (2 Chronicles 32:8). If we endure in the armor he supplies, and if we cry out for the Warrior's help, he will march to our defense and deliverance. He will provide all we need to rise above. He will crush fleshly passions and sinful temptations under our feet, and save us from the enemy. He will unveil in us the splendor of his holiness in the hidden place of our soul. And though the process of sanctification is painful – it will feel like being threshed by the LORD's feet – nonetheless it is a blessing, not a curse. Even when kissed by burning plague and pestilence, even when exposed by the rays from the LORD's hand, even when what's stable in and around us crumbles at his gaze, even when it rains and floods and splits the earth of our hearts – then, perhaps especially then, is God marching in us. Then is the LORD waging war in us, both against us and for us – against the self we think we are, for the self he means us to be. No more have we to do than pray and persevere in expectation of God, and we can say with the prophet Jeremiah: “Terror is on every side..., but the LORD is with me as a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, they will not overcome me” (Jeremiah 20:10-11). So sing the Warrior's praises! For our Lord has conquered Egypt and Canaan, has conquered death and hell, will come to conquer all, and marches even now when we cry!  Thanks be to God!  Sing the Song of the Warrior!  Amen, and amen!