This is the message that I gave on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 31 October 2004, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Habakkuk 1: 1 – 4, 2: 1 – 4; 2 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 4, 11 – 12; and Luke 19: 1 – 10.
It is always interesting when I post an sermon that I wrote before I began this blog back in 2005. In this particular case, I made reference to Joseph Priestley, chemist and Dissenter. But I apparently forgot that I had written this when I posted my piece, “A Dialogue of Science and Faith.” It would have been nice to have remember that because I could have used the reference that I refer to in this message. Nonetheless, what I present here offers some evidence that science and faith can work and live together. And the vision that one has for the future is not limited by one’s background or life.
I had the opportunity the other day to read a story about Joseph Priestley in Today’s Chemist at Work. Now, most of you probably do not know who Joseph Priestley is or why I would be reading a story about him. But the title of the magazine tells you that Priestley was somehow connected to chemistry, which he was.
Priestley is considered one of the two discoverers of oxygen. Now, that I knew since the history of chemistry is supposed to be one of my specialties. But what I did not know and what I found most interesting is that, in addition to being a chemist, Joseph Priestley was also a minister. And as much as he was known for his scientific work, he was also known for his orthodox religious and political views.
Priestley grew up as a Dissenter. In 18th century England, Dissenters were those who belonged to a church other than the established Church of England. His home was a center for Dissenters where they would gather to discuss politics and religion. It is clear that the religious and political discussions that took place in his home as he grew influenced his life and decisions that he made. Unfortunately, his views were so opposite the established views of his day and society (not only were his religious views in opposition to the Church of England, he supported both the American and French Revolutions) that he was forced by violence to move to America. He lived the last ten years of his life in America outside Northumberland, PA, and never returned to England.
If nothing else, it is nice to know that one can be a chemist and a minister, though many might wonder about the dissenting part and the consequences of expressing one’s thought openly. Still, there is one aspect of science illustrated by both Priestley’s life and the Old Testament reading for today.
Joseph Priestley first isolated oxygen experimentally on August 1, 1774. Later that year, he met with Antoine Lavoisier and discussed his work. Based on this discussion and his own work, Lavoisier named the new element "oxygen." Lavoisier and Priestley are both given credit for the discovery but the first to isolate and characterize oxygen as an element was Carl Wilhelm Scheele. Scheele completed his work in 1773 but did not publish his results until 1777. (Adapted from "Chemistry Chronicles", Today’s Chemist at Work, October 2004) In the world of science then, as now, if you don’t write it down when you do it, it never happened.
Habakkuk is told by God to write down his vision first. Write it down so that people will know that it is true. Now, God’s command to write down the vision first is unusual. Normally, God’s prophets spoke of the prophecy before writing it down. But this time, God wanted to make sure that the prophecy was known.
But what is the vision that Habakkuk sees? The prophet says that he will stand in the watchtower and look for what is to come. But he is expecting to see the Babylonians coming. And with their arrival, he expects to see the destruction of Israel. And Habakkuk wonders why God is using the Babylonians to accomplish His work. Much of this book will deal with the questions that Habakkuk asks God.
In this Habakkuk is different from the other prophets. The other prophets will tell people to listen for the word of God. But Habakkuk asks questions of God. He asks how long will God let the violence of the world persist. He will ask God why He, God, would even think of using a nation such as Babylon as an instrument of His peace. Habakkuk wanted to know, just as we do what God was doing and why. Why is there so much evil among the righteous and why is there so much power among the wicked?
God does not strike Habakkuk for challenging Him; rather He answers him. He tells Habakkuk that He, the Lord, will establish His Kingdom. He will hold all people and nations accountable. The present may be filled with wickedness and chaos, but the future will belong to the righteous – the truly righteous. God will bring in His Kingdom; He will give rest and salvation to His children; and He will judge His people’s adversaries.
We see the world today much like Habakkuk did back then. We see the entire world and wonder why there are so many problems. And for us as Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, the vision that we see is very frightening. By now you know that our future is not a good one and unless things change, there will be no tomorrow.
But it is how we see the world that determines the vision that we see. And so how we see the future of this church will be determined by how we see the world around us. The thing is that new visions come by renewal more than they come by reaction. The deepest changes come from a revolution of the spirit rather than by a revolution by people. New visions more often come from the margins and the bottom rather than the center and the top.
Hope has always been a more powerful force for change than despair. The renewal of our best values and moral sensibilities has the best chance of forging a new covenant. People and societies are lifted to new and higher ground by engaging the best that is within them and their traditions.
But new visions cannot come from old structures, new values cannot be created from old assumptions, new leadership does not often emerge from the ranks of the old elite, those most imprisoned by old systems and options. New visions require new places, new places in all of us.
Distinguishable signs, signs of expressed commitment that demonstrates the values of the old and an encompassing of the new, mark such visions. Such signs are rooted in the human image of God and are a powerful counterpoint to the worst of our social and cultural instincts and behavior. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)
As we approach Election Day, we are being bombarded by references to the war on terror. Yet, in all the rhetoric, I have yet to hear any politician at any level offer a new vision, a new alternative to winning this war. All with something to say repeat the same words but do little to remove the primary causes of terror. Jesus asked us what we were going to do about the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed. And as long as we live in a world where the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed are given second class status, there will always be the causes for terror. But what politician in which party is saying that we should correct that which causes brother to turn against brother, nation against nation, and mankind against itself?
It is that fight between what God would have us do and what society would have us do that is the central point to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. The church in Thessalonika is fighting a battle against persecution and problems within the church.
Just as Habakkuk worried about the violence in the world around him, so too did the people in Thessalonika worry that the persecution of Christians was a sign of the Second Coming of Christ. And many people were twisting Paul’s words to fit their own view of what the Second Coming was all about. But the ability of the people of the church to hold on to the true faith exceeds the doubts and fears of those around them and the church is growing.
The vision of the future that the Thessalonians held was a vision of Christ, not the vision of others. Even though Habakkuk could not understand what he saw, he did come to know what God intended to be the outcome of the Babylonian army destroying Israel. It was the vision that God held, not what others saw.
The story of Zacchaeus is a familiar one. We learned in Sunday School that Zacchaeus was short and, in order to see Christ walking by, he had to climb a tree. But perhaps we also need to realize that in order to have a vision of Christ, Zacchaeus found it necessary to change his viewpoint.
To have a new vision requires a new viewpoint. It also requires that we change the way we, individually and collectively, do things. Finally, we must also seek Christ. We are not going to find Christ unless we go out of our way, as Zacchaeus did. We are not going to find Christ unless we change the way we see the world.
Laurie Beth Jones, in the prologue to her third book, Jesus in Blue Jeans, wrote the following:
Many years ago I dreamed that I was standing in a meadow. Suddenly I saw a man approaching me. As he got nearer I gasped to realize that it was Jesus in Blue Jeans. When he saw the expression on my face he said, "Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you wear blue jeans." (From Jesus in Blue Jeans by Laurie Beth Jones)
The success of the Methodist Revival only came about when John Wesley realized that it was not his revival but God’s. The success only came about when Wesley changed the view of his life and placed his trust in God and God alone. John Wesley had a vision of what the world could be but it only came to pass when he saw it through God first.
Last week, the prophet Joel spoke to us and told us that in the coming days the old shall dream dreams and the young shall see visions. The young will see visions and the old will dream dreams if there is hope and promise in the future? We, as Habakkuk did, stand on the watchtower and see the future before us. Is it one of hope and promise or is it one of gloom?
But standing in the watchtower also gives us the opportunity to be like Zacchaeus and see Jesus as He walks by, calling to us and telling us that He wants to be a part of our life. In answering Jesus’ call to come down from the tree, Zacchaeus’ life changed. That will be the case for each one of us.
It was a time of gloom and persecution. People were afraid of and for the future. But Paul spoke of how others saw the church in Thessalonika. Others saw a church where the hope and promise was fulfilled through faith.
What vision will we see? Will it be a gloomy one, drawn by the world around us? Or will it be a new vision, empowered and clarified by the presence of Christ as our Savior? There is a call today to see a new vision. What vision do you see?