23rd Sunday of Pentecost October 16, 2016
Habakkuk 1:1-3, 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:3-14
20, 370, 428, 54
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
But the righteous will live by his faith
Little is known of Habakkuk’s life. He was a prophet of God, as stated in 1:1 and 3:1. He may also have been a priest or Levite at the temple in Jerusalem. When writing the third and final chapter of his brief book, Habakkuk included instructions for the temple’s music director, indicating that his words were to be set to music and used in public worship. “For the director of music,” he wrote in 3:19. “On my stringed instruments.”
More is known about when and why Habakkuk prophesied. Like his contemporaries, the prophets Jeremiah and Zephaniah, Habakkuk was sent to the southern kingdom of Judah. His “oracle” or message from God was to warn the wayward inhabitants of Judah to repent and return to God or suffer impending judgment. The Hebrew word “MASSA” literally means a burden or heavy load, indicating the grimness and seriousness of the message and the difficulty of sharing and hearing it.
Habakkuk likely prophesied under King Jehoiakim, who reigned in Judah from 608 to 597 B.C. At this time, conditions in Judah were deplorable, wicked, and increasingly godless. Habakkuk described these conditions in the opening verses of his book: “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted,” 1:3b-4.
However, as God assured Habakkuk, judgement was coming and wrongs would be righted, but in a way of God’s choosing and through a means that would stun and surprise the prophet. In God’s own words to Habakkuk: “For I am about to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own. They are a feared and dreaded people,” 1:5-7a. ‘You’re going to do what, God?’ Habakkuk asked.
One of the most endearing aspects of the Book of Habakkuk is the personal dialogues between the perplexed prophet and his compassionate God. Habakkuk asks and God answers. At one point 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,” 2:1.
If I may paraphrase the conversations between Habakkuk and God in chapters one and two: Habakkuk asks, “God, why do you allow such bad things to happen in the world and in my life; yet do nothing to prevent or solve them?” How often have you and I asked similar questions of God in our times of trouble? “Where are You, God? Why did this happen, God? Why aren’t You helping, God?”
God answers Habakkuk, “I am solving these problems—only in a way you did not expect.” Again I wonder: How many times has God said the same to us? “I’m solving your problem, but in My own time and way. Did we hear Him? Not if we were too busy worrying and fretting, wrapped up in our own complaints. At least Habakkuk had the good sense amid his complaints to stand on a rampart, waiting for God to answer.
In a second dialogue Habakkuk asks, “But God, why would You use the wicked, godless Babylonians to solve this problem and punish Your people?” And God answers, “It is not for you, Habakkuk, to question my methods but to trust them. When the Babylonians have served My purpose, I will punish them for their bloodthirstiness and iniquity.” But shouldn’t God say the same to us? How often have we questioned God’s methods, only to later realize that what He chose for us was infinitely better than the solution we chose for ourselves?
And in the middle of these dialogues, at the center of the small Book of Habakkuk, is one of the grandest, most important verses in the Bible; a verse spoken by none other than God Himself: “But the righteous will live by his faith,” Habakkuk 2:4. Life that comes through faith. Life that is characterized by faith.
Ultimately, everything about the Christian life—from conversion to conclusion; from forgiveness to salvation; from daily bread to eternal life; from obstacles to accomplishments; from marriage to ministry—is a matter of trusting God. By faith. By faith. By faith. These are not my words; they are God’s words. And God’s Word is the foundation of the Christian faith.
Such faith at its simplest is simply taking Almighty God at His word. Faith is saying, “God, I believe what You say in your Word. I trust what You tell Me about sin, salvation, creation, redemption, and sanctification; about heaven, hell, and eternal life; about marriage, ministry, capital punishment, and homosexuality; about the Holy Trinity; about Jesus Christ being my personal Savior and Jesus Christ being the only way to be saved. I believe all this because You say all this in your inerrant, inspired Word. I trust You regardless of what anyone else says, does, teaches; or how strenuously they object; or how impossible the circumstances of my life. I live “by faith.”
And faith, that is, clinging to God is what brings us true life: eternal life, spiritual life, and a daily life worth living. In fact, the meaning of Habakkuk’s name is literally, ‘to embrace’ or ‘to cling.’ Abraham is often called the ‘father of believers.’ But what made his faith so great? His personal strength or superior wisdom or holiness of life? None of these things. Abraham’s great faith lay in this one reality: He trusted God. He believed that God would keep His promises despite the impossibility of Abraham’s circumstances.
Paul wrote about Abraham in Romans 4: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be,’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet, he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had the power to do what He had promised,” Romans 4:18-21.
Amid all the turmoil and complexities of Habakkuk’s world, nation, life, and calling, he brought his questions to God in prayer. And God answered. And the essence of God’s answer lay in the words “The righteous will live by his faith.” Trust Me, Habakkuk.
Today, God is saying the same to each one of us: “Trust Me.” Amid all the turmoil and complexities of our own lives, we too should dialogue with God in prayer, as Habakkuk did. We too should ask God questions; and then take our place on the ramparts, amid our battles, on our beds or on our knees, listening carefully to God’s answers in His word—the Word that tell us who God is, what God is like, and what God has done through Jesus Christ. BY FAITH. Consider the importance of these two words.
First and foremost, for our eternal salvation. You and I ask important questions every day: “What time is it? How long will you be gone? How much gas is in the tank? Do you still love me?” But dear friends, the most important question we will ever ask is “How am I saved?” If that seems like a trivial question, try asking it on your deathbed. Try answering it without the Word of God. Try finding certainty in your own merit or good deeds or human accomplishments—the money in your bank; the awards on your shelves.
How can I be certain of my eternal salvation, knowing the things I’ve done wrong or failed to do right; the evil thoughts and words and deeds; the moments of self-interest and self-gratification; the temptations to which I not only surrendered but doggedly pursued; the repeated worry, anger, resentment, carelessness, refusals to forgive?
Yes, some day we feel wonderful, skipping along with joy in our hearts and “Amazing Grace” on our lips. But other days, we feel like the worst of sinners—like the tax collector who said, “God, have mercy on me, the sinner,” Luke 18:13; or the apostle who said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst,” 1 Timothy 1:15. And if you have never experienced the crushing weight of your guilt and sin, you will.
And when you do, what do you want to hear from God? “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m all out of forgiveness today. Try me again tomorrow.” Or, “Don’t be silly. I can give you no assurance of salvation. At the end of your life, which could be tonight by the way, I will tally up the good and bad, measure how close you were to perfection, and make a final decision then. In the meantime, keep the ten commandments, say a fifty “Hail Mary’s” and a hundred “Our Father’s.” Is that what you would want to hear from God?
If human works were God’s plan for our salvation, the only certainty we could have would be the certainty of being eternal lost, condemned, and punished. As the Psalmist wrote: “If You, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness; therefore You are feared,” Psalm 130:3-4.
Instead, what does God tell us in His word? He tells us that salvation is by believing, not by doing; by trusting in Jesus Christ alone—His righteousness and atoning sacrifice. How many passages can you think of this moment that declare the blessed truth of salvation by grace through faith? Habakkuk 2:4, “But the righteous will live by his faith.” Mark 16:16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved., but whoever does not believe will be condemned. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Romans 1:17, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ “ Romans 4:5, “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 10:9-10, “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
How many passages do we need? Yet, God gives us these passages and many more to teach us that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ and to give us the absolute certainty that through faith in Jesus, despite our sins and apart from our works, we possess eternal salvation.
Now, there may be Sundays when you come to church, open the bulletin, read the sermon title, and think to yourself, “I wish we could hear something other than the same old Gospel Truths; something other than sin and grace and salvation through faith in Christ. I know all this stuff.” However, instead of expressing frustration, we should be on our knees expressing thanks that these great Gospel Truths will never change. Give thanks that whether we find ourselves in the midst of life or death, ups or downs, riches or poverty, sickness or health, what we have done in the past or will do in the future, when we have Jesus Christ by faith, we have all we need.
“By faith,” however, does not only apply to our eternal salvation. It also applies to every other aspect of our Christian lives. Isn’t that the plain and simple meaning of the verse “the righteous will live by his faith”? 2:4.
Habakkuk wrote his book more than 2,600 years ago; yet, his opening words have a modern ring: “Destruction and violence are before me, there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.” What has changed?
Habakkuk was talking about the Kingdom of Judah; but he could have just as easily been talking about the United States of America and the entire world in 2016: destruction and violence; strife and conflict; terrorist attacks and race-related riots; senseless crimes and corrupt politicians; mustard gas in Syria or nuclear missile tests in North Korea.
At times, each of us has said with Habakkuk: “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? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” 1:2. We think, “The world is out of control. No one is in charge.” And when we think that way, we are completely wrong.
Someone is in charge. And His name is the Lord Jesus Christ. And He has all power in heaven and on earth. What is happening in the world around us is by His allowance or by His design. We don’t see that with our eyes. But we do see that by faith; faith which clings to God’s Word and lays hold of this description of Christ: “For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy,” Colossians 1:16-18.
“The righteous will live by his faith.” Based on these words of God to Habakkuk and to us, allow me to close with a few questions. Are you facing a serious health problem? The answer is “by faith.” Are you trying desperately to forgive another person? The answer is “by faith.” Are you struggling with finances? The answer is “by faith.” Are you living within a troubled marriage? The answer is “by faith.” Are you overwhelmed by personal responsibilities? The answer is “by faith.” Because, as Paul told Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline,” 2 Timothy 1:7.
By faith. By faith. By faith. AMEN.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.