Sunday, October 06, 2013

There is still a vision (J. Barry Vaughn, Oct. 6, 2013)

Habakkuk had a problem. No, I don't mean a name recognition problem, although he certainly had that. Not many Christians of any denomination would be able to identify the name Habakkuk, and even Old Testament scholars are uncertain about the meaning of his name.


What we do know is this: Habakkuk lived in Judah, the southern kingdom in the 6th century before Christ and was a contemporary of Jehoiakim, the last king of Judah before the Babylonian invasion.


We know this because of the way the book of Habakkuk begins.


God gave the prophet Habakkuk, a disturbing vision.  "Habakkuk", God said, "I am rousing the Chaldeans, a fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own.... They all come for violence... they gather captives like sand.  At kings they scoff... they laugh at every fortress... they sweep by like the wind... their own might is their god!" (Hab. 1.6-11)


It is not a coincidence that the Chaldeans occupied the same territory occupied today by Iraq.  There seems to be something violent and warlike in the character of the people of that region.


God's vision threw Habakkuk into confusion:  "Why are you silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?" (Hab. 1.13)  And we might add, "Why are you silent, God, while terrorists kill dozens of innocent people in a mall in Kenya? When  the elderly languish in poorly staffed assisted living facilities? When the working poor can't afford child care and health insurance? When diseases defy the best efforts of doctors and nurses?


But the answer God gives us is the same answer that God gave to Habakkuk:  "Write the vision; make it plain... For there is still a vision for the appointed time... it does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay... the righteous will live by faith". (Hab. 2.2-5)


When Habakkuk's world fell apart, God said to him, "The righteous will live by faith".  I don't know about you, but it seems to be an exceptionally feeble answer.  If someone comes to us seeking food or shelter, it will not do for us to tell them what God told Habakkuk, "Live by faith!"  It is not enough for us to say "Live by faith!" to the victims of natural disaster or disease.  So why did God forecast doom and destruction and then tell Habakkuk to live by faith?


The Greek philosopher Archimedes said that if he had a firm place on which to stand and a lever long enough he could move the world.  Jesus said that his followers could do the same thing with faith.  Faith is the thread that binds together the readings from Habakkuk, First Timothy, and Luke.  "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you".


Luke was paraphrasing a saying of Jesus from Mark. And with apologies to St. Luke, I have to say that it is a bad paraphrase. What Jesus said in Mark was "Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain.  'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you."  I'm inclined to believe that Mark's words are closer to what Jesus actually said.  But it offended the sensibilities of the author of Luke's gospel.  "A mountain!?  Who could believe that faith can move mountains?  A mulberry tree, maybe.  Yeah, that's it... a mulberry tree!"


These words of Jesus have given offense to Christians and non-Christians alike for two thousand years.  They are the words of a wild-eyed visionary.  Impossible, we say.  Faith is not magic.  Bulldozers move mountains, not faith.


Yet, I want to suggest to you this morning that Jesus' words are neither impossible nor even improbable.  They are among the truest and most practical words in the gospel.


Americans are a practical, can-do people.  We love Horatio Alger stories of men and women who go from rags-to-riches.  "Give us the tools, and we'll do the job".  That is one of America's great strengths, and it's one of the things that I like best about America and its people.


However, today's Old Testament and Gospel readings remind us that before one can accomplish anything, it is essential that we have what George Bush called, in one of his more unfortunate phrases, "the vision thing" or what Jesus called "faith".


The man or woman with faith or vision attracts people to him or her.  But faith can be a dangerous thing.


Marx and Lenin and Mao articulated a faith which for seventy years enslaved half the world's people.  Rootless and economically depressed Germans put their faith in Hitler and came close to world domination.


I have taught both history and religious studies at several universities. For several years I taught hundreds of students subjects that they would rather not have been studying.  At a private Baptist-related college in Alabama I taught introduction to the Old and New Testament to undergrads who resented the fact that they had to take these courses about ancient documents in which they did not believe. And when I taught the history of western civilization to students at another university, many of my students did not understand why that had to take six hours of this subject. 


These days students believe that their time would be better spent in learning how to do something, learning skills that would be valuable commodities in the so-called "real world".


What those students did not realize is that they were in college to get an education, not to get a job.  Idealistic?  Maybe, maybe not.  Maybe I'm the practical one and the teachers of accounting, marketing, management, and computer sciences are the impractical ones.


What I tried to tell my students was that the most important thing they could acquire as a part of their university education was a vision, a sense of life's meaning, purpose, and direction -- in other words a kind of faith.  You can acquire job skills at any time of your life, but what you should try to acquire in your youth is a vision that will sustain your life, a vision that will make sense of whatever work you choose to do with your skills, some faith that will give purpose and meaning to whatever you do with your life.


However, it is not enough to say that we all need a vision or a sustaining faith.  That suggests that all faiths are equal -- that we can shop for faith much as we would shop for clothes or a new car.  A vision may be the murderous vision of a Stalin or a Hitler.  The only vision that truly sustains is the vision of faith in the God who was manifest in Jesus Christ, in the Love that embraced death on a cross, in the Life that rose in triumph from the tomb.


I promised to show that Jesus' promise that faith can move mountains was not moonshine but practical advice.  During World War II, Stalin sarcastically asked, "How many legions has the Pope?"  But now the joke is on Stalin, for Stalin lies dead and in all the places over which he formerly held sway, the Christian faith is once again free.


Faith is not magic.  It is not wishful thinking or positive thinking or any other faddish movement, but faith changes everything.  Scottish theologian William Barclay said, "I have never seen water turned into wine, but I have seen beer turned into furniture".  When our lives are possessed by faith, even the mountains of addictions that cover our lives with deep gloom can be moved and cast into the sea.


I am sometimes asked what are my goals for Christ Church. More than anything else, my goal for Christ Church is to give this parish a vision of the future, a vision that will inspire and sustain us. For several months now, I've been talking about making Christ Church a "Great Commission" church. Do you remember the four parts of the Great Commission? MAKE DISCIPLES of ALL NATIONS, BAPTIZING THEM in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and TEACHING THEM to observe everything I have commanded you. I firmly believe that that is a vision that can sustain us.


In the next two or three months we will be engaged in a long term planning process that will add details to this vision of being a Great Commission church. I want you to pray that God would guide us as we move forward in this process.


Jesus' promise of mountain-moving faith was not just a wild flight of fancy, and God's promise to Habakkuk that faith would sustain the righteous was not just a pious cliche.  Indeed, it is only faith that sustains.  When the sadness of life shatters your heart -- and it will -- the one thing needful for putting the pieces back together is faith.  "There is still a vision for the appointed time... it does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay..."