April 21, 2013
Rev. John Watts
IT’S NOT THE END YET
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
This was a week with another one of those almost too horrible to believe news stories. We seem to be getting them with some regularity these days. This one hit me especially hard. Running is an important part of my life. And the Boston Marathon is one of my best running memories. I ran it with my dad in 1978. It’s one of those father-son memories I will always cherish. And almost as memorable as the marathon were the two Boston Red Sox games we got to attend atFenwayPark. That park was old and decrepit back then. Now it’s 35 years older with no plans to replace it.
And the marathon, too. There are a lot of marathons staged all over the country these days. ButBostonwas the first. Back when nobody ran, clear back in 1897, they ran the first Boston Marathon. There were 18 competitors. All men. Women were not allowed to compete until 1972. Monday there were almost as many women as men. And there were over 23,000 runners altogether. About 6,000 of them were not allowed to reach the finish line.
A terrorist bombing anywhere is horrible. It’s a violation of everything we hold dear. But at the Boston Marathon there is an added dimension. It’s a desecration of a tradition that goes back before any of us were born. It’s one of the great institutions of American life. Which is probably why the sick minds who did this chose to do it there.
Back in 1978, you wouldn’t expect something like this to happen. It wouldn’t even cross your mind. But in 2013, even though you wouldn’t expect something like this to happen, it had crossed a lot of minds. That’s why the security was so tight. And that’s why when you first heard the news, even though you were shocked, it wasn’t the same shock it would have been a few years ago. Because we all know we live in a world where things like this do happen.
We don’t have to go back to 9-11. Just this past year. TheColoradomovie theater in July. The Sikh house of worship in August. TheBenghaziattack in September. TheConnecticutelementary school in December. In February we even had a ten and eleven- year-old just across our border inWashington, whose plan to murder a classmate at recess was barely stopped in time.
My Grandma Cook used to have a saying. “This world is getting more and more evil.” She’s been gone for 23 years now. And things haven’t gotten any better. In fact it seems to be going from bad to worse.
But we need to be careful about projections into the future. It’s kind of like that disclaimer the stock brokers give. “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” If we really are going from bad to worse, it must mean things used to be pretty good. If we really are “slouching towardsGomorrah”, then in the distant past humanity must have attained something high enough for us to be able to fall from. But there’s not much evidence of that. SodomandGomorrah, by the way, were in the distant past. In fact, all through the Bible we can see quite clearly that evil is not a modern invention.
We see this in the book of Habakkuk. Its opening words sound familiar. They are the same words we have gotten used to hearing to describe life in 2013. Words like violence. That one’s used twice in the first four verses. Then we have destruction. And trouble. Strife. Conflict. Wrongdoing. Evildoers. Injustice. I wish I could give you specifics on what Habakkuk is referring to. I can’t. Habakkuk is one of the more mysterious books in the Bible. We know nothing about the author, not where he lived, not even when he lived. Some educated guesses have been made, but all we know for sure is that he lived in troubled times. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse. Kind of like today.
And Habakkuk reacted to all this bad news much as we might be reacting to this latest episode of too horrible to believe news. He cried out to God. He said, “Why?” He said, “How long?” He said, “I cry for help, but you do not hear!!” He was getting real frustrated with God. God seemed to be turning a blind eye to all that was going wrong. God seemed to be doing nothing to make it right.
We find that all through the Bible, by the way. It’s a repeated refrain. Why do the evil prosper? Why do they never get what they deserve? Why do the innocent suffer and die and the guilty live to celebrate all the heartache they’ve caused? It’s a mixed up world. It was in Bible days. It still is now. Why does God do nothing about it?
There are passages in the Bible that do appeal to the “let’s get even with them” sentiment we often feel. You saw some of these passages reenacted in the series that’s been on the History Channel called “The Bible”. It makes for good television. And it is for the most part true to the Bible. The angel of death killing all those helpless Egyptian children. TheRed Sea, parting to let the Hebrews through and then flooding back to drown everyone in Pharaoh’s pursuing army. The order from God for his people to kill everyone — men, women, and children — who gets in their way as they take possession of the Promised Land. I’m afraid people watch this and think this is really what God is like. Or really what people who believe in God think God is like.
I don’t think God is like that at all. I think it’s important when we read the Bible to learn to separate God’s truth from the human tendency to twist and distort God’s truth. The Bible was inspired by
God, but it was written down by humans. Humans who have a tendency to want to make God in their own image. Who tend to resist being re-made into God’s image. The essential truth running from Genesis to Revelation is that “God is love” (I John 4:16). So therefore, as Richard Rohr has pointed out, here is a good rule to keep in mind as you read some of these more violent parts of the Bible: “God is never less loving than the most loving person you know.”
That’s part of the reason God doesn’t seem to do something about all the evil all around us. God doesn’t knock heads together and annihilate all the bad guys because that just isn’t God’s nature. But that’s only part of the reason. The other part is that God really is doing something about the evil all around us. But he’s doing it through us. Or trying to do it through us. Because sometimes we aren’t the easiest people to work with.
One of you sent me this: “Sometimes I want to ask God why he allows poverty, injustice, and violence in the world when he could do something about it, but I don’t ask him that. I don’t ask him that because I’m afraid he might ask me the same question.”
What are we doing to make this world a better place? You and me? What are we doing to fill this world with the love God envisioned in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth? What are we doing about poverty and injustice and violence?
So Habakkuk complains about how evil his world is and then God answers his complaint. God gives Habakkuk a vision to help him understand the way God works. It says, “Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, that those who run may read it.”
That’s an interesting phrase, especially in the context of the Boston Marathon — “that those who run may read it.” The commentaries have all kinds of theories about what this means. But people who run know what this means. If you’re running, you’re going to have a hard time reading fine print. The signs on a marathon course have to be big and have to be redundant. Kind of like the signs on a freeway. The faster you are moving the bigger the lettering needs to be. I have a watch I use just for running. The numbers are really big. You would think it was designed for someone who is legally blind. But it’s designed for runners, so that “those who run can read it.”
Habakkuk is being told here to make God’s vision real clear. Nothing cryptic. No riddles. No room for one person to interpret it one way and another person to interpret it another way. That’s good advice, incidentally for preachers. If you leave shaking your head and wondering what in the world I was trying to say, I didn’t do my job. God says here to write the vision in big letters. Make it plain. Make it clear.
So what is this big letter vision God gives to Habakkuk? “The vision awaits its time . . . if it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay . . . the righteous shall live by faith.” That’s the vision. And if that’s still a little cryptic, how about this? God has a vision of the way the world should be. It’s still a vision. It’s not yet reality. It’s not here yet. It will be. But it will be on God’s timetable, not our own. So what do we do in the meantime? What do we do while we wait? We live by faith. Not passive faith. Not “sitting back and letting God take care of it” faith. Active faith. Trusting God to work through us. That kind of faith. Living in this fallen world anticipating the way everyone will be living when this fallen world is at last redeemed. When God’s vision finally comes to pass.
And if you’re still not entirely sure what I just said, there were several good illustrations Monday. After the two bombs had gone off, with no way of knowing if there would be a third or a fourth or a tenth, with severely injured people lying everywhere, the people who were trained to help, did not run away. Kind of like the firemen on 9-11, running up those stairs, knowing they might not have an opportunity to run back down. So the medical people inBostonwere right there doing everything they could do to help.
I love the story of Natalie Stavas, a pediatric resident, who was running the marathon. She was hobbling. She was running on a broken foot. Why she was running on a broken foot, I have no idea, but knowing a few marathon runners, I’m not surprised. She got to mile 26. That means she had 385 yards left to go. That’s when she heard the first explosion. She was diverted off the course. She disobeyed police orders and jumped over a barricade. She said, “I’m a doctor. You have to let me through.” The police were chasing her, but she was able to hold them off. She said, “I was running like a bat out of hell.” I can tell you, after 26 miles that isn’t easy to do. She finally got to the people who needed her help. She got to several. And she did help.
She was one of the many who responded heroically bringing the best of their medical training to the injured. That there were only three fatalities is really quite remarkable. There would have been many more. There would have been many who bled out, if not for those who were God’s angels of life.
And then there were those who had no medical training, who obeyed the police orders to stay away, but who still had to do something to help. There were numerous incidents of runners who having already run 26 miles, ran another two miles to the nearest hospital so they could donate blood. Angels of life, way, way outnumbering those who were the merchants of death.
It was Easter Sunday just three weeks ago. I shared on that day a little something that I thought fit then but I think fits better today. It’s that little saying that we printed on the front of your bulletins. “Everything will be all right in the end. So if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”
It was just a few feet from the end of the marathon that the latest in our series of too horrible to believe events happened. I suppose because in some twisted minds that would be where the most damage would be done. Where the most lives would be shattered. But then I think about that saying. “Everything will be
all right in the end. So if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.” It was not yet the end of the marathon. And things were definitely not all right. Things were about as far from being all right as we could imagine. But it was not yet the end.
Some day it will be the end. Some day God’s vision of the world the way God wants it to be will become reality. “The vision [that] awaits its time.” Things will be all right then. Because that will be the end. A happy ending. In the meantime, “the righteous shall live by faith.” Which is to say, the righteous will waste as little energy as possible being angry with those who blow up innocent people or angry with God for letting it happen, and will concentrate instead on being God’s angels of life, responding to hate with love.
We pray, O God, for all those whose lives were shattered by what happened on Monday and on Friday. We pray that you will hasten the day when things like this no longer happen. But since we know we live in a world where they still do, we pray that we may be so privileged to be those are on your side, knowing that your side is always the side of love. God, we think right now of the most loving person we know. You are more loving still. May your love grow in us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.