A Light and Loving Power Walk
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, February 14, 2021
Reading: Habakkuk 3:1-19
I've been looking forward to February 18th for some time, not only because it would have been my late mother’s birthday, but because of an historic event that’s going to take place: God willing, there will be a landing on Mars of Perseverance, the Rover from NASA. It will be landing on Atlas V541, along with what is called the Ingenuity helicopter. It will be followed a few weeks later by Tianwen from China. These left as long ago as July 30th of last year. This is an astounding statement of human achievement to be able to go there is remarkable. There are indeed remarkable things being done as a result of science and human achievement. The fact that we’re getting our vaccines so quickly, is a testimony to the human mind and its ability to grasp many things.
There is also another side to all of this as well, that is not quite as pleasant or wonderful. It is the notion of escapism. This desire to run away from the problems of the world and to find alternate universes, or alternate civilizations. There are some who are looking seriously at creating alternate communities in other places throughout the universe. They are putting money into this in the hope that another civilization could be found. A lot of this is born from a desire to escape the realities here on Earth; and while we stand in wonder of the things that we can do beyond our own sphere, it is a result, I think, of being ill at ease with the chaos we are currently enduring here.
When you think about it, we are beset by many problems. I don’t want to dwell on them too much, but I think they're worth noting. We know about the environmental challenge, and how we’re trying to preserve the Earth for future generations. We know and we are very much aware of the problems that we have, not only environmentally, but also in terms of overcrowding in many cities, and mass poverty in some of them. We know that those living in rural areas often have a hard time with farming, and their ability to produce enough food. All of these are stresses on our environment and the masses as a whole.
We also see people trying to escape by taking drugs. We have a very serious opioid crisis. In Toronto we hear about murders and people begin gunned down, and a lot of this is drug related. We hear of homeless people dying unnecessarily because of fentanyl. People trying to escape the reality and the hardships of our world. We read every day about the corruption of politicians and regimes. But most of all, we’re feeling the pain of the plague. We’re feeling tired of COVID-19, and even though we’re looking forward to vaccines we know this is a struggle that will be lasting, and it will be a challenge for us. I think some people are just worn out by it all.
Being on an elevator with a man not long ago, he said to me – we were both masked, just so you know – “I don’t know about you Andrew, some days I just feel like saying, from the TV program Star Trek, ‘beam me up, Scottie’, take me out of this mess.” There are a lot of people who feel that way. We need a reality check, don’t we? And the reality check is, we are on this Earth, and we have been called to be stewards and to be responsible for each other. Psalm 24 puts it this way: “The Earth is the Lord’s and everything that is within it.”
Therefore, there is no running away, there is no alternate civilization on Mars. What we have is right here, and right now, and we are responsible. We’re also people who live on the wings of hope, who need to have a sense of a future and where that future lies. That’s why I have drawn today on Habakkuk, the great prophet who wrote some twenty-six hundred years ago or thereabouts. There is a wisdom in what he said that I think affects all of us and makes our lives richer.
Now, the context in which he was writing was very telling. It was written, (the first two chapters in particular) after the death of king Josiah, who had inherited a very corrupt system, where monarchs were not only bad in government, they were bad in theology. They were leading people astray, the poor had been subjugated, and there was injustice. They were lining their own pockets. Josiah came along and issued a series of reforms that were both political and theological. He wanted to bring the people back to God, especially after the country had lived under the oppression of the Assyrians. But now Josiah has died and there is a new group of monarchs, and they have slipped right back into where their predecessors had been. There is a sadness in Habakkuk. He senses that something bad is going to happen as a result of this, that the people themselves are going to wander away from God. He is concerned about the emergence of a new empire, the empire of the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, and he knows that unless Judah remains faithful to God, then the Babylonians will come in and they will create torment just like the Assyrians. So, he wanted the people to remember what Josiah had said, to go back to those reforms and to hold firm.
The people were also questioning their God. They were wondering why the tyrants were emerging, and the poor once again oppressed. They were confused and asking questions. Habakkuk’s answer to all of this was loud and clear in chapter two verse four: “The just, the righteous will live by faith.” It’s a matter of faith. In the face of all the problems that they had, and the emerging super-power of the Babylonians, for Habakkuk, it is to rely on God.
Interestingly, in the New Testament, in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, Paul and the writer of Hebrews all pick up on that theme and quote that verse, “The just shall live by faith.” It is faith that will see the people of Judah through this crisis. Then, in today’s text from Chapter Three, read a few moments ago, that magnificent poem appears. I thought that if poetry is good enough for the Superbowl, it should be good enough for the Church right now. This piece of poetry is epic in the way that it talks about God, but also about the reality of the struggles here on Earth, and does not try to avoid or escape them, but faces them head-on.
I hope that after this sermon, you will go back and read this poem. You can find it in our order of service, or just download Habakkuk 3; it’s well-worth a read. What he says in this is so telling and important. Habakkuk is telling us that faith should be strong in the midst of chaos. Faith should be strong in the face of chaos. He makes this statement: “The Lord stood and shook the Earth.” He reminds them what had happened when the Assyrians came, and he points ahead to what will happen when the Babylonians come, and asks for faithfulness.
He talks about plagues and famines affecting the people. You can see the language he uses about the plagues coming. He talks about corruption and the problems of governance. He talks in cosmic terms about the shaking, and the language that he uses, so poetic, so fluid, so lucid, sums up just how shaken the world is.
When people turn away from their faith, when they do not rely on their God, then God shakes them. It might sound a little tough. He describes churning waters, as if horses are running through them churning things up. I don’t know if you've ever seen horses running along a beach, but I used to go in Muizenberg, outside of Cape Town, and people would bring their horses and really let them rip on this incredibly long beach. They would always run just on the water’s edge, and you could see the splash all around them, almost a mist around them.
He was talking about the chariots coming from the Babylonians, or maybe about the horses of war coming and churning things up. He also talks about God as a warrior, and at times I must say, I recoil from this notion when war has caused so much trouble. But the more I read it, the more I realise that God is a warrior against the oppressor, against the tyrant, against the coming uncertainty and turmoil. God is a warrior, not for chaos, but against it. There is within this incredible poem the sense that faith should remain strong.
There’s another part to this, and it is one that I really feel is needed right now, and that is that there comes a time for silence in the face of chaos. He makes one of the great statements of faith of all time: “The Lord is in His temple. Let the earth be silent.” You see, with all the froth and turmoil, all the churning of the waves and desecration of nature, there is still this sense that God is in His temple and that we should be silent. He uses some incredible language, and it actually goes back, and this is brilliant, to an old Babylonian creation myth that precedes the existence of the people of Israel and Judah. It’s about the god Marduk, beating the god Tiamat. Tiamat is an oppressive god who oppressed all the other gods as well as the poor and the needy and caused chaos.
Marduk, in the deep places, with the power of the four winds, defeats the chaos of Tiamat. During it all, there was God, who was greater than all the other gods. What Habakkuk is getting at, and he’s using the language of the Babylonians, is that the God of Judah, the God of Israel, is greater than these other gods and will ultimately be victorious over them if the people maintain their faith.
He wrote this poem precisely because he’s articulating what people are feeling. They must have been talking to him, and there must have been chatter on the streets about the problems that were besetting the nation of Judah. “The Lord is in His temple. Let the earth be silent.”
I saw a wonderful little caption, a cartoon, of two children in church, (and oh, how I wish we could play this out in real time now. How wonderful it would be to have children back in church) chatting away to one another during the prayers and the sermon. The mother leaned over to them and said, “Please be quiet, hush. You know you can't make noise when you're in church.”
One of them said to her, “Yeah, who’s going to stop us?”
The mother turned around and looked down the aisle and said, “See those two people at the back there? They're the hushers, and they will make sure that you are quiet.”
Sometimes there’s a need for silence. And aren’t people full of noise right now, in this chaos? Don’t you get tired of all the voices? I know you need to communicate. I know politicians and health people and media people need to communicate, but sometimes it is too much, and we need to be silent. Not silent for silence’s sake, but silence deep reverence and awe. The reverence and awe that Habakkuk had for God was enormous.
Sometimes in our lives, because of the voices, the sounds, the fury, we wonder about ourselves. I like what Frederick Buechner once wrote:
“As the farthest reach for our love for each other, is loving our enemies. As the farthest reach of God’s love for us is loving us at our most unlovable and unlovely, so the farthest reach of our love for God is loving Him when in almost every way that matters, we can neither see Him not hear Him, there is still his love.”
I think with what we’re going through, we need to know that. Maybe some silent prayer, some time out to get away, reflect and meditate on God, is what is needed. Habakkuk would say so. He also says finally, “To walk lightly in our faith.” I think the last two verses of Habakkuk are the greatest. I know Rev. Lori loves them, I love them, and they're worth repeating. Listen to this poetry, folks:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.
This is an image of us walking lightly in our faith, like a deer. I don’t know if you've seen a deer’s prints in the snow, but their footprints are very small for sometimes a very heavy beast. They are incredible, and the speed and the gentleness with which a deer can move is quite awesome for such a small footprint.
Likewise, in the hills of Judea, south of Jerusalem, Habakkuk would have seen the deer walking along very narrow ledges and going up into the mountains and the hills of Judea. Deer can manoeuvre, as big creatures, in this world and go to the high places.
That is how God treats us, that we would have the feet like a deer, that we would tread lightly and safely and faithfully, that we would go to the high places, places above problems, not by escaping them, but by allowing God to be our strength and lift us up above them. This is walking lightly in our faith. It is walking in faith in God, and it is by faith – by faith – that the just, the righteous, shall live. This is not a time for visions of escapism. This is a time for faith in our wonderful God, right here, right now. Amen.