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How Long, O Lord?

How Long, O Lord?
29th May 2011

How Long, O Lord?

Speaker:
Passage: Habakkuk 1:1 - 2:1, Acts 13:13 - 41

Habakkuk 1:1 – 2:1
How Long, O Lord?

Introducing Habakkuk ...

Imagine when you turn on the TV tonight, every channel is carrying the same live report:
The North Korean army is on the move, Seoul has fallen, they’ve taken Japan and the Philippines, There a million soldiers from the Korean People’s Army pressing down through South East Asia, and Australia is well and truly in their path.
And while this is all playing out in the surrounding countries, at home, the government is turning on its citizens,
Innocent people are being killed,
The justice system has broken down, only those who know a judge or can bribe a prosecutor, have any hope of things going in their favour,
And then the continuous news coverage of North Korea’s advance, is interrupted with some breaking news at home, every Christian pastor is being rounded up and executed.
How do you feel?

Sitting at home, watching this unfold on your TV?
Habakkuk was a man who lived under just that kind of scenario, except it played out in the last 25 years of the 7th Century BC in what’s now Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. And Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah, Nahum and Zephaniah, whose names you may be familiar with.
During the time of King Solomon’s son, about 300 years earlier, the nation of Israel is split in 2, there’s the Northern Kingdom, still called Israel,
And the Southern kingdom, Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital, but even more importantly, it’s spiritual centre. It’s in Jerusalem that the temple of God stood.
And for the last few decades, things had been looking pretty good for Judah, the Southern kingdom.
In 640 BC Josiah came to the throne as an 8 year old boy, and with some wise and godly leaders around him was able to get rid of false religion and encourage people to worship God as they ought.
Now the northern nation Israel has been wiped out by Assyria, in about 722 BC so before Josiah came to the throne, but by Habakkuk’s time, a hundred years or so later, Assyria is weakening, and Babylon is emerging as the new superpower.

They’re expanding their empire,
Every day they seem to be moving further and further Westward towards Judah, with even the biggest countries and most powerful empires are falling,
At home, Josiah has been killed in battle,
His son Jehoiakim takes his place on the throne, and 2 Kings 24 tells us he slaughtered hordes of innocent people.

He seems to have been the only king of Judah to have killed one of God’s prophets.

Immorality and idolatry are growing, and for those few people still trying to live in a way that pleases God, perhaps in the back of their minds, they’re remembering God’s warnings, that if the nation turned from him, he would in a sense turn from them, and remove the blessing he held out,
They would lose the land he had given them.

They would suffer at the hands of their enemies.
That’s the context.

That’s Habbakuk’s life.
He wants to know, how can we make sense of God’s purposes?

If we know that God is sovereign, or at least if we’re prepared to assume that for the sake of the argument, then how do we make sense of, so much of what we see around us every day?

How can I serve God and be faithful to God, when any day now, I might lose everything important to me?

How do I live by faith, in difficult times?
They’re great questions aren’t they?

And whether you’re a Christian person or not, I think they’re questions worth finding answers to.

Habakkuk’s Question: How can evil go unpunished?

Let’s look at chapter 1. First of all there’s a very brief introduction, The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received,
Pretty simple introduction really, but both the fact that this message is called an oracle, and that there’s this emphasis on it being received, remind us that although this is a book of crying out to God,
At the same time, it’s revelation from God.
God used the whole process of questioning, and wrestling with these issues in order to enable Habakkuk to receive God’s Word for God’s people.
And after that introductory statement saying, “remember the source of this is God himself, even if the human questioning is the thing we first notice”, we then get right to the heart of the matter,
How can evil go unpunished?

When is God going to do something about it?
Read with me from verse 3,
How long, O Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
3        Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
4        Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.
Habakkuk cries out to God, and he’s praying on behalf of other people, too, isn’t he? Maybe you’ve done that before.

And from everything that was going on, these were good questions to ask.

Their good and righteous king, the first good and righteous king for a while, had been killed in battle.
Evil and injustice and wickedness were everywhere.
Those who ought to have been leading the people in faithfulness to God were actually leading the people away from God.

And so in verse 4, Habakkuk has his eye on, not the wicked people in the world, not the threatening enemy army, but wicked people in his own nation.
The very first political conversation I ever had with my father was about democracy, and countries that weren’t democracies, which when I was a kid and Bob Hawke was Prime Minister, those countries were places like the USSR and East Germany!
But I asked my father, “What’s a democracy, and dad said, “Democracy means, we can say, ‘Bob Hawke is a slimy toad’, and not go to jail!”
As I’ve got older I’ve realised it’s a bit more nuanced than that!
Habakkuk’s not just grumpy because he voted for the other guy, or he doesn’t like the direction his country’s being led in,
It’s not just that he thinks the king is a slimy toad.
Did you hear his description?

Violence
injustice
Wrong-doing
Destruction and violence,
Strife,
conflict
the law is paralyzed,
justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
justice is perverted

How can this be?

When are you going to do something, God?
Innocent people are suffering.
Surely you’re going to being an end to this?
Surely you’re going to step in at some point?
We’re your chosen people, and look at the mess that we’re in?

How long ‘till you right these wrongs, God?
You might have asked some questions just like that.
When people you know suffer, and you long for them to find relief,
When we watch atrocities unfold on our TV screens
When those who we know are guilty, seem to just, get away with murder.
We’re rooting for Habakkuk at this point, aren’t we?!

We’re in his corner,
This seems to be an entirely reasonable complaint.

God’s Answer: Look and see what I’m going to do

And, fortunately for Habakkuk, God provides an answer, but it’s not really the answer that Habakkuk wants, as his second complaint in the later part of the chapter makes pretty clear.
And in answering, God answers the main complaint.

“You want to know what I’m going to do about evil? Well look and see what I’m going to do.

The solution to the problem of evil is terrible and costly.
Read with me, God’s response from verse 5,
“Look at the nations and watch—
and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
that you would not believe,
even if you were told.
6        I am raising up the Babylonians,

that ruthless and impetuous people,
who sweep across the whole earth
to seize dwelling places not their own.
7        They are a feared and dreaded people;
Do you see what’s happening?
Does God care about the problem of evil in Judah?
Yes, absolutely!
Is God going to do something to bring justice against those who trample innocent people?
Yes, absolutely.
And what’s he going to do?

He’s going to bring the Babylonians in to destroy Judah!
And the Babylonians are feared and fierce!

Did you get the animal metaphors?
Leopards, wolves, vultures.

Not too much imagination required to get a picture of what this army’s like!
Military forces often choose an animal that represents something about how they see themselves, don’t they? They have a mascot.
They say here is an animal that represents us!
So the US Marine Corps for example, has bulldogs as mascots.

During the first world war a regiment of the Canadian Cavalry had a black bear, called Winnie, named after the Canadian city of Winnipeg.
For you literature buffs, Winnie lived in the London Zoo for a time where she was visited by A A Milne and his son Christopher Robin, hence, Winnie the Pooh.

Winnie wasn’t the only bear though, the Polish army had bear mascots, and, bears and dogs are good representatives of military forces aren’t they? Strong, maybe aggressive, it says something doesn’t it?
Not all mascots are quite so fearsome, the mascot of the 1st Royal Welsh Battalion is a goat named William Windsor. Billy for short!

The mascot of the Norwegian King's Guard is called Sir Nils Olav, and he’s a penguin.

And one regiment in the UK has for its mascot the fearsome creature that is a Shetland pony. That actually happens to be a parachute regiment, so I hope they don’t take the pony to work with them!
Well the Babylonians would have a leopard or a wolf or a vulture, wouldn’t they?

God’s solution to the problem of evil is terrible.
This fearsome army is going to capture cities,
Devour everything in its path,
Not because they’ve earned it, did you see there in verse 6? They seize dwelling places not their own,
They are God’s instrument.

God’s sword of justice, if you like,
No wonder that in the later verses this is just about too much for Habakkuk to handle.
This seems to him, like using a sledge hammer to crack a walnut.
The Australian government and the opposition are still arguing over a carbon tax? Let the North Koreans invade! That will solve the problem?! No more arguing!
It’s a fairly extreme solution isn’t it?
That’s what Habakkuk feels when we hears that God is raising up the Babylonians as his solution to the problem of evil among his people.

Habakkuk’s Lessons for today

So what does all this mean?

How can the words of a prophet, who lived twenty six hundred years ago, help us today?
Well, it’s not too hard to see that Habakkuk experienced lots of life as we know it, didn’t he?
Habakkuk knows what it’s like for prayers to go, seemingly unanswered.
He knows what it is to pray for a country, only to see if wander further and further away from God.
He’s experienced the pain of crying out for God’s will to be done, for God’s purposes to be achieved, and then to watch, as society ignores God, and plunges further and further into evil.
And we ask his question, don’t we?

How can evil go unpunished?
Suicide bombers,
Murders,
Despotic rulers,
Child abusers,
Just open the newspaper and there’s plenty to get upset about.
So how do we learn from the similarities and differences between our situation and Habakkuk’s?

Understand the terrible cost of sin

Firstly, we have to make sure we understand the terrible cost of sin.
Poor old Habakkuk was just about beside himself when God said, “yes, I’ve seen the sin within Judah, and I’m bringing in the Babylonians to solve the problem. They’re going to wipe out Judah, almost completely.”
See how seriously God treats sin, and sin among his people, particularly?
Gangrene is a pretty horrible condition, when blood supply gets lost, to feet and toes particularly, the tissue dies and rots and bacteria get in there and, it’s terrible.
And so sometimes they have to amputate, and the person thinks “amputate?! I’ve just got a sore toe, just give me a shot and a bandaid!”
And the doctor says, “if we don’t amputate, it will spread, and you’ll die.”
Injection and bandaid, or amputate.

It all comes down to how seriously you view the problem doesn’t it? If you realise how bad it is, that it will kill you, sure cut it off, no problem! If you think it’s just like a headache, It will go away, eventually, the problem just gets worse.
Look at the terrible cost of sin and evil in Habakkuk.

For God to purify his people,
He needs destroy their city,
For all but a tiny remnant to be scattered.
That’s how seriously God views sin.

And you might think, isn’t that a bit excessive?

But there is no greater offence in all of human experience than to turn your back on the God who created you for a relationship with him.

And when people do that, Habakkuk witnessed all too clearly the kind of life that follows, evil, violence, injustice.
And of course, we see even more clearly than Habakkuk.

We see the cost of sin more clearly.
We see the full extent of the lengths God has to go to, to punish sin and evil, and to deal with it forever.
If you have your Bible there, flick over to Acts 13, and let me read a few verses to summarise that passage.

Verse 23, From King David’s descendants, God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised.

Verse 26, “it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. 27, . 28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed.

Down to verse 38, through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.

Verse 40 40 Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you:
41       “ ‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish,
for I am going to do something in your days
that you would never believe, even if someone told you.’”

You see Jesus’ death for sin is the ultimate fulfilment of God dealing with sin.

Where do we see God’s anger at sin?
At the cross of Jesus.
Where do we see the lengths to which God is willing to go, in order for justice to be done
Wrongs to be righted?
And not just punishment, but forgiveness.
A fresh start,
It’s at the cross of Christ.

God the Son, willingly went to death, separated from his Father.
That’s how seriously God views sin.

That’s the terrible cost of sin.
It seems to me that sometimes we think sin is just like a bad habit.

I wipe my hands on the tea towel instead of the hand towel, and I ignore God and disobey him!
I know I shouldn’t do those things, but, what does it really matter?
Well it does really matter. Let’s understand the terrible cost of sin.

My sin,
Your sin,
The sin of the world, cost Jesus his life.
There are lots of good reasons to obey the speed limit.
But I suspect the fact that an infringement could cost you $270 dollars is the reason that many of us stay below the limit.

We know the cost and so we deliberately try to avoid it.

We pay attention,
We’re diligent,
We constantly look at the speedo
We buy cars with an annoying beeper that tells us when we’re getting close to, speeding.
Oh that the terrible cost of sin, would make us that diligent, in watching out for it and guarding against it.

Pray according to who God is

The next lesson I want us to take away from Habakkuk is that we ought to pray, according to who God is.
Those of us who are Christians, we believe certain things about God’s character.

He is a God of justice,
He’s gracious and compassionate, This is what the Bible tells us God is like, and this is what we’ve experienced of God.
And so if you’re a Christian person, your big question when you’re witnessing evil and injustice, tends not to be “Does God care?”

We know God cares!

Our question in the face of evil is much more likely to be, “Since God cares, why doesn’t he do something?”
When our prayers are unanswered, our first question is not, “Does God answer prayer?” We might get to that point a long way down the track, but a Christian’s first question is likely going to be “Since God does answer prayer, why isn’t he answering mine?”
You see to ask questions of God is not to deny what we know of God.

To ask God, “When are you going to act?”
“When are you going to restore the world to your plan, your blueprint?”
Is not wrong or blasphemous.

In fact, in asking those questions, we’re acknowledging God’s character,
We’re calling on God to act in accordance with his character.

We’re asking God, to fulfil his promises, to act again, like he’s acted in the past.
Of course there is a way of asking that implies “I know better than you”!
Husbands can employ this communication method, I’ve discovered!

“When’s dinner going to be ready?!!”
That’s a perfectly reasonable question, but you can ask that question in a way that implies dinner should have been ready 20 minutes ago, and that, had you been responsible for making dinner, it would have been!
Is that picture familiar to anyone?
So we understand there’s a way of asking that implies wrongdoing on the other person’s part,
Obviously it’s entirely inappropriate to speak of God that way, but don’t ever think you can’t ask God.

Don’t ever think you can’t cry out to God.
And so when you pray, ask God to act because of who he is.

Let your experience of God’s character,
Most of all, let your understanding of God, revealed in Jesus, and made known to us in the Scriptures, shape your prayers.
When a pipe bursts at home or your hot water service leaks, what do you do?

Get out the yellow pages, or go online, and do you just flick the Yellow Pages open, randomly pick a number out of the book, and when someone answers, you say, “please can you come and help me, I’ve got a broken pipe, there’s water everywhere, I need you to fix it”?
And they say, “Sorry, I’m not a plumber, I’m a dentist!”

Do you say, “That’s OK, come anyway, I need help getting rid of all this water”?!
No, you find someone who you know can help.

You ask the plumber to help based on the fact that he’s been to trade school.

You ask him to help, knowing that he’s done it before.

You ask him to come to your house, because his ad promises 24 call out service.
You know all that about the plumber and so you ask him to help you.
When you pray, let what you know about God shape what you ask for.
It’s what Habakkuk does.

Why cry out to God? Because we know God cares!
We know that God longs for justice and compassion.
We know God is powerful.
We know that God always acts in accordance with his character.
Pray according to who God is.

Remember that God sees and knows

Another great lesson for us in Habakkuk, is that God knows what’s going on in the world.
Look with me from verse 5,
“Look at the nations and watch—
and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
that you would not believe,
even if you were told.
6        I am raising up the Babylonians,

that ruthless and impetuous people,
who sweep across the whole earth
to seize dwelling places not their own.
When Habakkuk asks, “how long are you going to let this evil keep going unpunished?” does God kind of raise his hand to his forehead and think, “Oh my goodness, where did all that evil come from? What am I going to do?”
Not for a second!
God’s seen,
He’s observed,
He’s already formulated his plan,
God is not oblivious to evil in the world,
To corruption in high places.
And knowing God’s character, as we’ve been speaking about, we can be sure that God is at least as troubled by evil as we are.
One of the scholars I was reading this week said this: The give-and-take between the Lord and the prophet chronicled in Habakkuk, shows God’s Word was not produced outside the arena of human pain
Isn’t that a great reminder?

This part of God’s Word actually came into existence, in and through and because of, the pain of a broken world.
What situation makes you say “that’s unfair”?
God’s Word comes to us from situations like that.
When are you tempted to say, “My life is just so complex and unique, there’s nothing that the Bible could possibly say to make sense of what I’m going through”? The human authors of the Bible were writing in situations a lot like yours, and dare I say it, often times, a lot worse.

Don’t worship what makes you rich and successful

One more, this is a quick one, and almost an aside in the passage, but it’s important, Don’t worship what makes you rich and successful.
Did you notice how Habakkuk describes the men of Babylon in verse 16, They’re being used as God’s instrument, but they have no time for God, and ultimately, because of that, they too will face judgment,
he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet,
for by his net he lives in luxury and enjoys the choicest food.

He’s made a god out of the thing that’s paying off his mortgage.
A few years ago I made a dining table for our house, it’s made out of recycled Jarrah, and as long as you don’t look too closely it looks pretty good!
Imagine you came round to my house, and saw my dining table, and immediately you rush off into my shed to find the circular saw that I used to build my table.
And you hold the saw in awe, “what a saw, this is amazing, so powerful, it cuts so straight, it produces furniture that’s a work of art!”
I would think, you’ve gone nuts, and, hang on, any glory, however small, that comes from the construction of this table, should go to me, not my saw!
It’s just a tool!
Don’t worship what makes you rich and successful.

Don’t think that what makes you rich and successful should determine the course of your life.
Habakkuk 1 is pretty clear.
The things that make you powerful,
That give you influence,
That make your life comfortable, are all held in the hand of God.
I said that would be a quick one.

Remember to look BACK to see what God has done

Let’s finish in chapter 2 verse 1

Habakkuk says, I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint

What’s he doing?

He’s looking forward isn’t he?

Looking forward to God’s answer, and God’s solution.
We of course, we have one significant advantage over Habakkuk when it comes to figuring out, “What is God doing about sin and evil?”
We don’t look forward to what God is going to do.

We look back.

We look back to the cross to see what God has done about evil, wrongdoing, and injustice.
If we’ve got questions about God’s anger at sin, what that looks like, we look at the cross.

And if we’ve got questions about how we might be spared God’s anger at sin, we look at the cross,

We want to know, how do I live by faith in difficult times?, we look at the cross.
Habakkuk stood watch, looking to see what God would do,
God invites us, Look and see what I’ve done
The centre-piece of God’s response to sin, is the cross of Christ.