Here are my thoughts for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. I am preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY this Sunday. (links updated on 12 April 2008).
In last week’s Old Testament reading (1), the prophet Joel spoke of the old dreaming dreams and the young seeing visions. That statement has to be one of the most profound statements in the Bible. For, when Joel wrote those words, the nation of Israel was essentially lost and there was no hope for the future. Thus, the old have nothing to dream about and the young have no vision of the future.
In today’s Old Testament reading (2), God commands Habakkuk to write down the vision that He is about to give the people. We have to understand that the Book of Habakkuk, the source of today’s Old Testament reading, is different from the other Old Testament prophecies. Instead of delivering a message detailing the fate of the people, Habakkuk challenges God as to why the world is in such a mess.
Why, he cries, must I continually cry out against the evil and injustice of this world? Why, he cries, is there so much violence in this world?
These are words that we hear far too often today. We also ask God why there is so much violence. Why, we ask, does it seem like our society is deteriorating in front of our eyes? Why is there so much abuse of power? Why are acts of injustice and oppression so common? Why do the people argue with each other and why is there so much litigation?
Habakkuk points out that the revelation of God given to Moses on Mount Sinai has little impact on the hearts of the people who are more focused on material success. The people have little interest in living by God’s definition of fairness or His definition of what is humane.
We see the youth and young adults of this country turning away from the church. They see hypocrisy in the words and actions of today’s church. Their description of the church does not match their description of Jesus. It has often been said that if there is no vision, the people will perish.
If the youth of this country do not have a vision or if it is a vision limited by what society offers, what does that say for and to the rest of us?
We want someone to give us a vision of the future. But like Zaccaheus, who sought a clear vision of Jesus, our vision is blocked by society. But unlike Zaccaheus, we do not see the tree which we can climb.
I do not believe that our answers will come from the present church. Once, when the world was enveloped by what was called the Dark Ages, it was the church that protected and kept the idea of civilization alive. But now, many church leaders today would answer Habakkuk’s cries by saying that these are the End Times, the days of tribulation that mark the 2nd Coming of Christ.
But who are the righteous ones of which Habakkuk speaks? They are clearly not the leaders of the country. The commentary points out that it is the powerful people of Israel that corrupted justice. Micah also pointed out that it was the leaders of the country who were guilty of inhumane treatment and perpetrated injustice against the citizens of the country. (3)
In the second portion of the Old Testament reading, God says to Habakkuk to behold the proud. In the Old Testament, the proud were the Babylonians and they were marked by how they exalted themselves and boasted of their conquests and power.
Who were the proud in Jesus’ day? Who were those who exalted themselves and boasted of the conquests and power in Jesus’ time? Who are the proud in today’s society?
A proud person relies on self, power, position, and accomplishment, a truly righteous person relies on the Lord. We heard last week what Jesus thought of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the leaders and powerful of His time. Today’s fundamentalists and conservatives are the inheritors of the mantle of hypocrisy from the Sadducees and Pharisees of Jesus’ time. They are inheritors of the pride-filled label Habakkuk gave to the Babylonians.
They are the ones who stand before the nation and proclaim that they alone speak the word of God. They are quite willing to condemn others while they proclaim themselves above condemnation. They would have us live in a theocracy, governed by what they say are the laws of God. But that was the society that Jesus was a part of; that was the society that Joel, Habakkuk, and all the prophets spoke out against. The society of laws that they lived in was a society without hope, without a vision of the future. It was a society that restricted people and did nothing to help them.
So, let us pause for a moment and think why Paul wrote his second letter to the Thessalonians. (4) Paul was commending the church for being an example of what churches were supposed to be. But, as is often the case, there is more to the story. You have to look at what we did not read today and you have to see why Paul wrote the letter. This second letter to the Thessalonians was prompted because there were a number of preachers and teachers proclaiming that time of the 2nd coming of Christ was then. Paul was encouraging the church at Thessalonica to hold onto their true beliefs and not be taken in by the false teachers of their day and age.
In 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President. During that fateful campaign of he used one quote time and time again. It was a quote by George Bernard Shaw that stated “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’”. And I remember that Senator Kennedy challenged the voters to do what was right, not what was necessarily the popular thing.
During a speech at the Indiana University Medical Center, he was challenged by one of the students as to where he was going to get the money to pay for the social programs he was proposing. His reply was simply,
“From you. I look around this room and I don’t see many black faces who will become doctors. Part of a civilized society is to let people go to medical school who come from ghettos. I don’t see many people coming here from the slums, or off of Indian reservations. You are the privileged ones here. It’s easy for you to sit back and say it’s the fault of the Federal Government. But it’s our responsibility too. It’s our society too. . . It’s the poor who carry the major burden of the struggle in Viet Nam. You sit here as white medical students, while black people carry the burden of the fighting in Viet Nam.”
The students reacted by hissing and booing him. His advisors warned him that if he was perceived as an extremist he would never win the election. However, Senator Kennedy was no longer thinking as a politician trying to maximize his vote. Instead, he was determined to say what he believed. He told Jack Newfield, one of his advisors, that he would probably not win the nomination but “somebody has to speak for the Negroes, the Indians, the Mexicans, and poor whites. Despite his pessimism, Senator Kennedy won the Indiana primary. (5)
There was another statement back then that seems so appropriate today, “if not now, when and if not me, who?”
There were those in Habakkuk’s time who remained faithful to the Lord; there remains a righteous remnant. But Habakkuk complains that they are restricted in what they can say and do because of the evil that surrounds them.
Those who still believe must not lose hope. So when God commands Habakkuk to write down the vision, it is because He has heard Habakkuk’s cries and is now responding. Those who still believe must remember that we have been given a vision that triumphs over sin and death, evil and violence. It is one reason why we come to the communion table this morning.
Two thousand years ago, the disciples gathered in the upper room to celebrate Passover. Their vision that day was a vision of the past, of an escape from earthly slavery and death. But during that Seder meal, the disciples began to receive a new vision, a vision that would be much clearer some three days later. Theirs was the vision that we have today, the vision of the Cross and the empty tomb. That is the vision that we will take with us into the world.
And the fact is that we, today, have been the messengers of this vision for almost two hundred and fifty years. This is what John Wesley first proclaimed. Salvation was, to Wesley, a present thing and it entailed not only the forgiveness of sins but the living of a new life. Wesley also believed that God had raised the people called Methodists to reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land. The institutions and practices of the Methodist movement were designed to enable Methodists to participate in God’s mission in the world. (6)
In other words, the Methodist church has been offering a vision for the world for a very long time. The problem is that the church has gotten away from that vision and now it is time to return.
So where does the vision come from? If we say we are who we are, it will come from us. First, it comes because we have accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and have allowed the Holy Spirit to empower us. Second, it will come from us because we say we are Methodists. If we are to lead a life in Christ, we must lead a life as Christ did. If we are to be the people we say we are, then what we do and say must be reflective of that.
Paul commended the Thessalonians for their forthrightness and their perseverance in holding on to the truth in spite of the false teachers of their day. We must do the same; we must set the example that shows the world the vision of Christ. In a world where the darkness of evil and injustice threatens to overcome us, it is the one little light that shines in our soul which will light the world.
Zaccaheus climbed a tree to get a better vision of the world and Jesus Christ. So too must we raise our lives up so that the vision of Christ that is in us is seen by the world around us. We are called today to open our hearts and minds to the word of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. We are called to change our lives. Yes, this can be very frightening to do this. But if we do not do that today, then \fear and evil survive. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we can then open our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit and be empowered to carry the vision of Christ into the world. Thus we are the vision in and for the world.
(1) Joel 2: 23 -32
(2) Habakkuk 1: 1 – 4, 2: 1 – 4
(3) See Micah 3: 10
(4) 2 Thessalonians 1: 1- 4, 11 – 12