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Sunday Service, 16th August 2020

Opening prayer

Creator God, we praise and thank you for the earth and the wonder of its life;
the beauty of landscape, sky and seasons; the variety of animals and plants
with their intricate interdependence; for making us to be part of it all.
Shaping landscape, affected by the seasons, partners in creation.

Redeeming God, we praise you for Jesus Christ and the glory of your work in him;
his life in all its fullness of doing and being; his following through of your way to the end;
for your raising of him and all who follow him.

Inspirer God, we praise you and thank you for human history and the richness of our inheritance; the heights of human artistry and the depths of human understanding.
You come to us by your Spirit and perform your work of new creation.

Generous and bountiful God, all good things come from you and now we give you thanks.
For all the saints who went before us who have spoken to our hearts and have touched us with your fire, we praise you, O God.
For all the saints who live beside us whose weaknesses and strengths are woven with our own, for all the saints who live beyond us who challenge us to change the world with them, we praise you, O God.

Lord, as we enter into the days and the events of a new week we commit ourselves to you. May the lives we live bring honour to your name and to your kingdom.

Amen

(Taken and adapted from the Baptist Union publication Gathering for Worship.) 

Hymn – Here is love vast as the ocean. Listen here. 

Scripture Reading

Habakkuk 1: 15, 2: 14, 3: 1719 (NRSV)

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgement comes forth perverted.
Look at the nations, and see!
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.

I will stand at my watch-post, and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Sermon by Rev. Robert Gemmell: Habakkuk

The book of Habakkuk is, I suggest, well down the pecking order as far as our reading of Scripture is concerned. In reality we know very little about this particular prophet, apart from the questions he asked and the replies he received from the Lord. Unlike other prophets he doesn’t preach to his compatriots. What we have is an extended dialogue between him and God. Like many of us he had problems reconciling his belief in a good and righteous God with what was going on around him. He was troubled by the eternal ‘WHY’: why were certain things allowed to happen if God was indeed all powerful? Why do the wicked seem to prosper? The prophet complains about a lack of justice in God’s management of the world. In his lament he is at one with every faithful person who has prayed for the end to whatever is troubling him/her at the time.

Let’s take a moment to look at something of the historical background of that time. The world empire of Assyria had fallen and two contenders for the vacant crown presented themselves – Egypt and Babylon. They fought it out at the battle of Carchemish in 605 BC with the Babylonians coming out on top. The Babylonians then joined forces with the Chaldeans and under Nebuchadrezzar became a formidable power on the world stage.

Jehoiakim was at the time king in Judah – a vassal of Egypt. He was a tyrant who subjected his people to forced labour. He persecuted prophets (including Jeremiah) and sanctioned injustice and idolatry. When Nebuchadrezzar defeated the Egyptian Empire Jehoiakim transferred his allegiance to him.

The opening chapter of the book presents us with Habakkuk’s complaint to God. “O Lord, how long must I call for help before you listen, before you save us from violence? Destruction and violence are all around me. The law is weak and useless and justice is never done. Evil men get the better of the righteous, and so justice is perverted.” Lord, when are you going to act?

The Lord’s reply must have come as a real shock to the prophet: “Keep watching … and you will be astonished at what you see. I am going to do something that you will not believe when you hear about it. I am bringing the Babylonians to power … they will spread fear and terror … they will come swooping down like eagles attacking their prey … no fortress can stop them … they sweep on like the wind and are gone, these men whose power is their god.” God was going to use the Babylonians as an instrument of his judgement. Not exactly the answer the prophet was expecting.

And his response to God’s message? “You have chosen the Babylonians and made them strong so that they can punish us. But how can you stand these treacherous evil men? Why are you silent while they destroy people who are more righteous than they are? Are they going to use their swords forever, and keep on destroying nations without mercy?” The question in the prophet’s mind was simple enough – why should God allow a nation as wicked as Babylon to conquer another nation, like Judah, who, at least in his understanding, was LESS evil?

The prophet expressed what he felt were legitimate questions he wanted God to answer. The questions that have dominated OUR minds and hearts over the years will obviously be of a different nature to those of the prophet, but nevertheless for us they will be just as legitimate.

For some the question of ‘why?’ may have arisen as the coffin of a youngster was being lowered into the ground or disappeared behind the curtain in the crematorium. It is a question I am sure that is asked by all parents who go through the agony of having to let go of their son or daughter in what seems to them to be a premature death.

For others the questioning of the compassionate nature of God may have arisen in times of natural disasters, for example earthquake or tsunami – or the cry may be linked to man-made disasters such as the recent explosion in Beirut or the continuing plight of innocent men, women and children in, for example, the aftermath of fighting in Syria – why does he allow such pain and slaughter of innocent individuals to happen?

The question that dominated the heart and mind of the prophet centred around injustice, injustice within Judah as a nation, but also the injustice of God using a powerful but wicked nation like Babylon to punish Judah, in his eyes, a less wicked nation – where was the justice to be found in such action? Those of us who have visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, can’t have failed to ask the question: where was the God of justice in the death camps of World War 2? Equally, we could question why God continues to allow the dividing walls to remain in place within Palestine today, dividing people, dividing nations.

Habakkuk is like every believer facing unanswered prayer.

I have highlighted a few of the questions that could be asked of God today. You, no doubt, will have your own legitimate questions to add to my list. Don’t be afraid to ask them. Don’t be afraid to scream at God as you seek an answer. You will be in good company.

As Chapter 2 opens we find Habakkuk climbing his watch tower, awaiting God’s reply to his complaint. In the prophet we have an amazing example of persistent faith. Echoes here of our Lord’s teaching about persistence in prayer from the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” The prophet knows that God is at work as he awaits a further answer to his prayer.

When the answer comes Habakkuk realises that it is not just for him, but for all. He is to write it down in letters large enough so someone running past can read it and understand it. In a sense this is what all preachers are called to do – pass on the message in a way that is clear enough for all – even if they are ‘running past’ or not paying much attention. The tablets with their message are a great image for the church of today.

“Write the message down in clay tablets … it is not yet time for it. It may seem slow in coming, but wait for it, it will certainly take place. And this is the message: ‘Those who are evil will not survive, but those who are righteous will live because they are faithful to God.’”

The answer comes in God’s time – that is the hard bit for us. Habakkuk’s task – and our task too – is to wait and in the meantime to remain faithful and steadfast.

We are a people living in the meantime just like Habakkuk. The message is that we have to live by faith. How do we as steadfast people live “in the meantime”? That is where action comes in. We are called to show justice and love and compassion in whatever way we can and whenever and wherever we can. When heaven seems to be remaining silent the earth (that’s us!) must speak.

The rest of the book is a prophecy of doom on the unrighteous. But the author presents us with a concluding psalm celebrating the greatness of God and the undying faith of the prophet.

Even though the fig trees have no fruit and no grapes grow on the vines,
even though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no corn,
even though the sheep all die and the cattle stalls are empty,
I will still be joyful and glad because the Lord God is my saviour.
The Sovereign Lord gives me strength.
He makes me sure footed like the deer,
and keeps me safe on the mountains.

I wonder how easy it is for us to identify with the prophet’s sentiments as expressed in the final few verses of the book. He refers to times of disaster and famine stating that in it all, and through it all: “I will still be joyful and glad because the Lord God is my saviour. The Sovereign God gives me strength.” Words and sentiments that some of us may find easier to state than to put into practice.

Hymn 500 – Lord of creation, to you be all praise. Listen here.

Prayer of thanksgiving and intercession

Living, loving God, thank you for the world around us, your splendid creation entrusted into our hands. Please grant us the wisdom to be faithful stewards of your earth.

We pray for nations suffering from conflicts. And pray for both a cease of ongoing, seemingly endless violence and for people to find a resolution to allow them to live together in peace.

We pray for all struggling with the effects of the pandemic and give thanks to all who offer assistance, be that in the job they do, the volunteer work, the financial aid or simply offering a hand of friendship.

We give thanks for this land that we are blessed to call home. Sometimes we feel that we are just small fish swimming alone in a very large sea. But we are not alone.

Lord God, we ask that in Your grace, You would give Your peace and comfort to all who are mourning. Lighten the darkness we pray, and comfort sorrowful hearts. Pour Your peace that passes all understanding into the hearts of all who are grieving and shower the assurance of Your love on all.

Lord, we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, those that have not trusted in Christ as Saviour, for our hope and trust is in You and our eyes are looking to You for strength, encouragement and comfort.

We come together, albeit remotely, as your church and we can and do make a difference following in the way of Jesus.

May we with generous hearts minister to those in need, sharing our time, talents and treasures.

All this we pray in the name of our saviour, Jesus Christ.

Amen.

The Blessing