Sunday, 12 November 2017

Destruction and Violence: A Remembrance Sunday Sermon on Habakkuk’s Complaints

I preached today at my church’s Remembrance Sunday service. This coincided with the first of a three-week sermon series on the book of Habakkuk, supplemented with whatever the Gospel reading for the day happens to be. Here’s my effort.

Habakkuk 1:1–2:1; Matthew 25:1-13

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the day we commemorate the servicewomen and servicemen who have given of themselves to help restore or bring peace to a world of destruction and violence. These are the women and men who have left families and friends and homes to journey to faraway countries to serve a perceived greater good. Some serve out of a sense of honour; others for an ideal; still others, out of duty. Each and every servicewoman and serviceman will have their own reasons to serve. Regardless of what we think of war, of the rightness or otherwise of entering and escalating and diffusing conflict around the world, we are all shaped in some way by the actions of those who have given up all that is dear to them—even, in far too many cases, their own lives. Today, these servicewomen and servicemen are in our thoughts and prayers. We will remember them.

But we’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s all for nothing. Read the newspapers, watch the news: destruction and violence are all around us. Since the turn of the century, UK servicewomen and servicemen have been involved, or are still involved, in a number of conflicts around the world, including Eastern Europe, Sierra Leone, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. And, of course, the UK is not the only country at war or threatening violence. Who can forget, for example, the recent standoffs between the United States and North Korea? Destruction and violence are all around us.

And what about here in the UK? Read the newspapers, watch the news: stabbings, bombings, shootings, acid attacks, vehicle crashes, instances of domestic violence, suicides, self-harming, substance abuse, bullying, sexual predation. These sorts of things happen all too often, and some only down the road or around the corner—or perhaps even in our own homes. Even here, even in south-east London, destruction and violence are all around us. The servicewomen and servicemen—we will remember them. But who will remember us? Will our government remember us? Will our politicians and business leaders remember us? Will God remember us?

This is Habakkuk’s complaint. Habakkuk lived in Jerusalem at a time when Judah and several of the smaller nations in the region were constantly squeezed by various aggressors. As soon as one empire moved in, another would come and see it off, leaving the people of Jerusalem and other major cities to suffer in their trails of destruction and violence. The kings of these smaller countries would make treaties with their new rulers, but they would also be on the lookout for a chance to rebel and side with the next up-and-coming superpower. The ordinary people of Jerusalem would be caught up in all of this and suffer the fallout from imperialist expansion and political expediency. And so Habakkuk complains: ‘Lord, we are your people—so why aren’t you helping us? Where are you? Do something!’

And the Lord replies, ‘I will do something.’

‘Great!’ Habakkuk’s getting excited. His prayer is being answered.

‘Look at the nations,’ says the Lord. ‘Get ready—I’m going to do something really amazing! You really won’t believe what I’m going to do!’

‘Excellent!’ Habakkuk’s really pumped now. ‘Wonderful! Revive our nation, O Lord!’

‘Habakkuk,’ the Lord replies, ‘here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to send the armies of Babylonia to attack you!’

Silence. Seriously? Is that what the Lord’s going to do? Can you imagine what Habakkuk is thinking and feeling at this point? He has approached the throne of grace, laying before God all his concerns about the destruction and violence in the world, including in his own backyard in Jerusalem, protesting and lamenting God’s inactivity, praying to God for help—and God’s response is essentially: ‘I’m going to make it worse before I make it better.’

The Babylonians (or the Chaldeans in some Bibles) were fast becoming the most destructive force of the day, swallowing up nations left, right, and centre. ‘They are very mean,’ the Lord tells Habakkuk. ‘They move quickly. They terrify others. Their horses are faster than leopards. They are meaner than wolves. They swoop down like ravenous eagles. They want to slaughter, they want to mock, and they want to rule.’ You can almost picture the Lord salivating in delicious anticipation of the destruction and violence to come.

Does this image of the Lord disturb you? It disturbed Habakkuk—so much so, that he comes back to God, challenges God. ‘Lord,’ he says, ‘Lord, you are a holy God who cannot look at evil—so why are you doing this? Why are you sending the Babylonians to attack us? Do our sins really warrant that? We’re saints by comparison! How can you do this to us? How can you raise up Babylon—Babylon!—of all the nations to bring peace to our land when all they want is destruction and violence? Why don’t you sort them out first?’ Habakkuk realises there is something very wrong here and he camps out on the city walls, waiting for the Lord to respond.

And there we must leave Habakkuk, at least for now. God’s response comes in the rest of chapter two, but we’ll need to wait until next week to hear what God says. For now, all we’re left with is a portrait of an Old Testament prophet, haggard and exhausted, watching and waiting for a sign, any sign, of God’s favour towards Jerusalem, watching and waiting, watching and waiting . . .

It is important to watch and wait. Habakkuk has to watch and wait—he can’t do anything else. But Habakkuk’s watching and waiting arises from his willingness to take his difficult questions to God in prayer and his expectation that God will respond. In many respects—and hopefully, this isn’t too tenuous a connection—in many respects, Habakkuk is not unlike the five wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable we heard earlier. If we allow the bridegroom to stand for the Lord in this parable, then we can see that Habakkuk and the five bridesmaids are cut from similar cloth. They all had to watch and wait and be prepared in one way or another. But whereas Habakkuk is left watching and waiting for the Lord to deal with destruction and violence in the land, the bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive and kick off the wedding celebrations and ultimately to consummate his marriage.

And who are the bridesmaids? We are the bridesmaids! We are the ones whom God calls to watch and wait for the Lord Jesus to bring lasting peace to this world! We are the ones whom God calls by God’s Holy Spirit to show the world the peace brought about by Jesus’s death! We are the ones whom God calls to tell of future transformation guaranteed by Jesus’s resurrection! And we are the ones who can do all this because we know Jesus is coming soon! We are the ones who can watch and wait even as we ask, and continue to ask, ‘How long, O Lord?’

Every war, every conflict, every pain inflicted on one person by another—can we see all these as questions directed to God, as longings for a world free from destruction and violence, as unspoken prayers for the completion and peace only God in Christ can bring? Can we, like Habakkuk, and as faithful and wise bridesmaids, embrace the unspoken prayers of this world, this nation, this part of London in our own prayers and ask God, again and again, ‘How long, O Lord, how long until you come and make us whole?’ Can we do this? Can we do this, for ourselves and for our world? We can and we must—but only because we know that God in Christ will not let destruction and violence be the last word. There is a last word, but that last word is a name—and that name is Jesus.

Today is Remembrance Sunday. All the servicewomen and servicemen who have lost their lives ostensibly in the name of peace, and all the servicewomen and servicemen who aim to maintain peace today—we will remember them. But today, Remembrance Sunday, let’s also remember that God has not forgotten us as a world, nor as a nation, nor even as individuals. Let’s remember that God loves each and every one of us, including the people or nations we hate or fear most. And as we take communion this morning, let’s keep watching and waiting, remembering all that Christ has done for us and all that Christ has promised to us. We will remember him.

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