Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 30, 2016
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 Commentary
As most every Bible commentary would tell you, the way Paul uses Habakkuk 2:4b (“the righteous will live by faith”) in Romans and Galatians may be a bit different from how the text “sounds” and seems to function in Habakkuk 2. Habakkuk has spent most of his prophecy up to this point complaining to God about how the evil and the greedy and the wretched people of the earth keep getting away with their crimes. God, in turn, has been replying to Habakkuk to tell him that he had to be patient: God was going to do a new and amazing thing. In the longest run, he was even going to save his people through most surprising means. In the meanwhile, however, evil would seem to prevail for a time. Even the lyric ending of this prophetic book in Habakkuk 3:17-19 indicates that faith would have to hang on to God’s promises even while hard times endure.
In this second chapter, the famous line that caught the Apostle Paul’s eye (and later Martin Luther’s eye) is, oddly enough, a kind of parenthetical within Habakkuk 2:4. In fact, where the Common Lectionary stops this reading (at verse 4) is stranger yet in that the sentence begun in verse 4 actually continues into verse 5. God is telling the prophet that a great revelation will come but it might take a while. Those who are puffed up with pride—those who are drunkards and greedy and arrogant—may seem to have the upper hand. But in the midst of all that, the righteous will be able to go on in their faith, in their belief that the new things of God will yet come. This is what will help them carry on even in those times when the wretched of the earth seem dominant and destined to win the day.
But that steadfast ability to rely on God’s promise—the ability of one’s faith in God’s faithfulness to become a stronghold for one’s life that allows one to soldier on in confidence even while the wicked seem to prosper—is a little different from how Paul later uses it. In the context of defending the gospel of salvation by grace alone in Romans 1 and again in Galatians 3, Paul seems to use “faith” as a gift imputed to believers by God (and by grace). Contained in the faith granted to us by the Holy Spirit is all the salvation of God we need. The gift of faith just is salvation and so it is literally true in a gospel context that the righteous live by faith: all of the resurrection life of Jesus comes to us in the gift of faith that God alone can give. “Righteousness” is not an accomplishment but a gift. As Paul says in Galatians 3 just before quoting Habakkuk 2:4, no one gets saved by the law (by being perfect in one’s own strength and by virtue of one’s own morality) but only by the righteousness of Jesus as given to us as our justification in Christ.
But perhaps there is something of a connection between Habakkuk and these New Testament epistle texts after all. Because in the context of Habakkuk, people needed faith in God’s faithfulness in order to soldier on and live with hope. But if that truly was an inspirational source of energy for the people then, how much more strength don’t we have now that we have come to understand and to see the fullness of God’s having already been faithful to his every promised through Jesus (in whom God’s every promise finds its “Yes”)? If faith in God’s faithfulness is a source of strength, how much greater is faith as a gift that comes on account of God’s having already been faithful to an astonishing degree?
God said that his revelation would come and that it would be really something once it arrived. Well, that is most certainly true! Who could have seen the gospel coming, replete with the shock of the incarnation and the scandal of the cross? The faith that just is our life now comes as a sheer gift of grace through the death and resurrection of no less than God’s own holy Son.
Habakkuk reminds us that God does not let evil have the final word. The final word belongs to God, and the ultimate revelation of that Word did indeed finally come to the earth, as God always said it would. If living with the faith that such a revelation would come was a source of strength once upon a time for the people of God, we now know that faith as the gift of God is not just a source of encouragement or hope: it really is life itself.
The Hebrew word for “faith” as used in Habakkuk 2 is a cognate of “amen.” And when we hear the gospel come to us once again in the reminder that the righteous do indeed live by faith alone, we cannot help but respond with a very loud and enthusiastic “Amen!”
What does the person of faith look like, I wonder? Is the faith-filled person someone who exudes a serene confidence, a calmed and hushed and unperturbed spirit? Or is the faith-filled one the active and always-in-motion kingdom worker who is mostly a kind of holy blur of volunteerism? Is faith a set of convictions that could be counted-cross-stitched and hung on a wall or is faith seen best only when it is put into practice out on the nitty-gritty streets of the real world?
In the Bible Abraham is the father of all faith, and his life was mostly a series of journeys that involved trust. By faith Abraham packed up everything he owned one day and set off on a long trip toward an as-yet unspecified far country. God said “Go” and Abraham went. God said “Go to a place I will show you later” but Abraham did not reply, “Well, if I’m going to go, could you at least give me a hint, a general direction, a region on the map?” No, Abraham just went–no map, no end destination. Just a wing and a prayer, a dream of starry skies and sandy seashores and a home country out there . . . somewhere.
What does the person of faith look like, I wonder? Is he the easy-chair person who ponders all the right creeds in his mind or is she the holy blur of ministry who practices faith through the work of her hands more than she ponders it in her head? The person of faith is, of course, both. The person of faith knows something all right. The person of faith knows the truth of the one Word: Jesus came to this earth because God is love; Jesus came to tell us that and to show us that and even to go to hell and back to convince us of that. The person of faith knows that singular Logos, that one gospel Word, that joyous creed.
But the person of faith knows also the many words of Jesus and is driven forward in life by the command that we love one another. So this person can’t only sit still, can’t only recline in faith’s easy chair to think about a creed. The glorious truths that we ponder through our doctrines force us to get moving, too. Faith is an active journey and it is often a perilous journey at that in a world that is still as mixed-up and confused as this one. We do have to do the Abraham-like thing of stepping out on faith, pressing forward in ministry even though we can’t always see the road ahead as clearly as we might like. We even press on knowing that there are potholes and dangers up ahead.
What does the person of faith look like, I wonder? He, she looks like Jesus, the One who so often sat down to teach but then always got up again to perform loving deeds. The person of faith looks like Jesus, the still-center of all comfort and joy and the ever-moving Son of God who knew better than anyone how much work there is to be done. The person of faith looks like Jesus who, even after his resurrection, did not sit around but said “Behold, I am going ahead of you into Galilee.” He’s always going on ahead of us. The person of faith who remains in the Word is always eager to follow.
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