Several months ago, we had a poll going to see what the theme and content of our summer worship series would be…. In the past several years we have studied the great stories of the Hebrew Bible in a series called Holy Moly! And two summers ago we worked through how the Parables of Jesus are still speaking to us today. And last summer we did a slow study of the book of Genesis. This year, the choices were a slow walk through the Gospel of Mark, the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament, or a ‘You asked for it Sermon Series’, where members would be able to select the Bible passages from which the sermons would be preached. And I am not sure whether there was a bit of campaigning going in the Narthex following worship where the voting was going on, but to my surprise, the Minor Prophets won!
And although I was happy the topic won, I was worried that the series might drag out a bit with only 12 Books of Minor Prophets in our Hebrew Bible, so I added the often neglected stories of women in our Old Testament as well. So the series became: Minor Prophets and Major Women of the Old Testament where each week this summer, you will become acquainted with a Super Hero of our Hebrew Texts that you might not have known as well before. Their stories and messages are inspirational and still speak to our world today. So much so that we have renamed the 2018 series, Hidden Figures and Super Heroes.
The scripture passage for today is a portion of God’s call to the minor prophet Habakkuk and the first verse of Habakkuk’s prayer in response. It serves as a jumping off point for me to introduce these Minor Prophets to you as we begin the summer series. Listen to God’ s message as told by the prophet Habakkuk 2:1-4, 3:2.
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he[a] will answer concerning my complaint. 2 Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3 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. 4 Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.
Habakkuk 3:2 2 O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our own time revive it;
in our own time make it known; in wrath may you remember mercy. (The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.)
Turn to page 835 in the Old Testament of your Bible. Leaf through the next 55 pages and see that there are 12 Books in this back section of your Old Testament that are not talked about very often in our Sunday School classes or seen in the three year cycle lectionary passages from which ministers preach. These are the 12 books of the Minor Prophets. Each book is written from the perspective of a historical prophet of the Old Testament, called by God to give a message to God’s people during a historical time. The word of these prophets was a real world marked by joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, peace and war. Hosea, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah all are from the early Assyrian Period and it is understood that much of Obadiah was reflecting on the destruction of Jerusalem. Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah are speaking to the later Assyrian Period and Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi come later and speak to what we know as the Persian Period. Only the Book of Joel is undated. Each of these twelve books contain autobiographical material that is written in the first person and it is believed that some of it actually goes back to the prophet’s words. Each book also contains biographical material about each of the prophets that is written in the third person, so we know that when the books were collected, there was editing done. And each book contains oracles and speeches attributed to the prophet which are usually in a poetic form.
As we enter their worlds through their words, we discover people buying and selling in their shops, working in their fields, building their homes, and we find Amos worshipping in his sanctuary. We find in Micah involved in an urban renewal project, hear about Hosea’s abundant harvest, and we learn about a rural crisis through Joel. We hear the sights and sounds of war, learn about people who failed to help refugees, and in Amos and Joel there are hints of the toll war takes on young people and children.
The prophets were real people living in real times. The messages they had were not always welcome. Amos was ejected from the royal temple at Bethel and Micah was told flat out, ‘Do not preach!” And although their time was centuries ago, there is a message for us in what they had to say. They believed they had a message from God and they took up the cause of the powerless, calling for justice to roll down like waters. They spoke of peace and an end to arming ourselves and discusses a time when we would beat our swords into plowshares. And they talked about the people’s sins and how God would restore God’s people once again. A commentary written on the Minor Prophets by James Limburg, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, said, ‘peace and justice, Messiah and mission, love and forgiveness – these are the major themes of the Minor Prophets.’ I believe we will find their messages relevant to us as they are themes in our world as well.
The books of the Minor Prophets are often neglected in the Christian Church and when we do deal with them we usually use passages from Amos and Hosea. However, Elizabeth Achtemeier, who taught Bible and Homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond VA, in her commentary on the Minor Prophets says there are riches to be found in all the books and she believes they should be called the Not-So-Minor Prophets.
And this morning’s scripture lesson from the Book of Habakkuk is probably the first time many of you have heard this prophet’s voice. Different from other Minor Prophets you will learn of this summer, Habakkuk is not primarily concerned about the justice of God. He is not asking the question, why are bad things happening to good people and God is rewarding the wicked…. Habakkuk believes that God is just and he takes for granted the covenant God set up with God’s people. Habakkuk also is not a person who doubts his faith. He is a man of faith and a person of constant prayer. Other Minor Prophets messages show great concern for the human suffering brought on by their powerlessness over evil and although Habakkuk is concerned about the human condition, it is not the major message in the book. What Habakkuk is concerned about is how God is keeping God’s promises to their chosen people and to humanity. Habakkuk believes God cares about the human condition and wants people to live together in harmony and security and that God will work toward that goal. God has a plan…. God has a vision…. and God is working toward that vision to be a reality in an appointed time. It has not happened yet; but it will. Theologians say Habakkuk is a Book for us who live in the meantime. God’s promises have not yet been fulfilled but will be.
Those of you who like a theology of God’s providence and shall I say the word, predestination, will be comfortable with Habakkuk. This prophet deeply believes, despite living in a difficult time where people’s prayers do not seem to be answered or even heard, that God is with us. And we understand. We fervently pray for peace, and it seems so elusive…. we pray for loved ones to heal, and their cancers spread and we are confronted with death…. we pray for shalom, for justice, and serenity and then we hear the evening news. And Habakkuk confronts God about this and God assures Habakkuk that God is indeed at work. God’s will will be done.
We are going to sing an old Presbyterian Hymn later this summer that is no longer in our Hymnal but one which Bryan asked for us to sing. (SInce Bryan is out of town this week, we had to wait and sing it later in the summer.) The message in the hymn is the same message found in Habakkuk. You might remember it. The words of the hymn, written by Arthur Ainger in the late 19th century are:
God is working God’s purpose out as year succeeds to year.
God is working God’s purpose out, and the time is drawing near.
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
Habakkuk’s message is that God is at work. The visions, the woes, and the words found in this book all come with the message that we cannot rely on our own powers to solve the problems of our day. Whether individuals or nations, all must realize that God is at work and it is not ours but it is God’s world. People who feel they deserve and own their gains, that they should get the glory for what they have, or the power they enjoy is theirs and for their own use, will, in the end, know that all is God’s and all is subject to God’s will.
The message is for us as much as it is for the Jewish people of Habakkuk’s time. Many of us feel we are living in a dark time of our history. Gains that were made in social justice, earth keeping, creating a world vision, and equality seem to be at a halt or some might say eroding. Habakkuk speaks to this time as he did to his own and to the people of every age. God is working God’s purpose out. Habakkuk found joy in that realization.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said from his Nazi prison cell before he died: “By good powers wonderfully hidden, we await cheerfully, come what may.” To me, this means that no matter how bleak our situation might appear, we, like the prophet Habakkuk can find joy in the knowledge that God is with us and that in the end, nothing can separate us from God and that in spite of whatever we do, God’s will and purpose will be done. Amen.