Bible Reading 2 Thessalonians 1:3b-5, 11-12
Paul’s praises the Thessalonian church for their patient endurance in difficulties which God uses to grow them spiritually and equip them to nobly live under the grace of God. He writes,
- 3b … your faith is flourishing and your love for one another is growing. 4 We proudly tell God’s other churches about your endurance and faithfulness in all the persecutions and hardships you are suffering. 5 And God will use this persecution to show his justice and to make you worthy of his Kingdom, for which you are suffering… 11 So we keep on praying for you, asking our God to enable you to live a life worthy of his call. May he give you the power to accomplish all the good things your faith prompts you to do. 12 Then the name of our Lord Jesus will be honored because of the way you live, and you will be honored along with him. This is all made possible because of the grace of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ. (NLT)
Message Who Watches the Watchers Selections from Habakkuk
“Who Watches the Watchers?” or the original phrase could also be translated “Who guards the guards?” It was a classical Roman phrase traced back to the poet Juvenal. It has been re-applied to many areas of life and sometimes reinterpreted a little bit, but the essence of its meaning flows along the lines that: people have been put in place to ensure others will follow proper protocols, but then who is watching them to make sure that these protectors are doing their job correctly or are failing to the same or related corruption?
To put is simply, if you have more than one child in your house, it’s be like appointing the oldest one to guard the cookie jar against the younger ones. The problem is that sometimes the older one joins right in with them and eats more cookies than they are supposed to too, and so the setting up of “guards” doesn’t accomplish its purpose. So the question comes, who is watching the watcher, (in this case, the eldest child) ?
As we take a broad overview of today’s prophet, we’ll discover that one of his major concerns is that the “watchers” – those appointed to get the “watched” in line (so they don’t take too many cookies) – exhibit even worse behaviors than the ones they are watching.
- How long must I cry ... “Violence!” … but you don’t save… justice comes out perverted. (from Habakkuk 1:2-4 (CJB))
This silence is even more difficult because we can lift verses out of the Bible that seem to imply that all we need to ask God and he will answer, instantly, and exactly how we want him to answer. This is especially true when we are speaking about deliverance from evil and violence, because it is always within God’s will that that doesn’t happen.
So the question “How long?” is asked, and God replies that he will send his justice through the Chaldean Empire, which God colorfully describes a proud, im-petuous superpower with a scorched earth policy (They destroy every-thing. Nothing is left in their path they have passed. They burn or destroy it all – right down to the ground). A military machine that marches against the people as easily as we march through a standard American ant hill.
Hollywood likes to draw fantasies for us about the how some lowly “ant” is somehow courageous and cunning enough to defy all odds and win the day against invincible enemies. But in real life, some ants may get away, some may even dare to bite a shoe – but the pile of sand does not stand against the overwhelming foot power of even our youngest members. This is what was descending on Judah to deliver justice for all their wrongdoings.
When we ask for God’s powerful love and justice, we want wrongs to be put right without any discomfort to the rest of us, without any significant disruption to our life. So, when God delivers this particular message of comfort – don’t worry, you will get the national justice for which you ask – wickedness in Judea will be made right through devastating destruction of all! -- it isn’t very comforting.
And all the less comforting, Habakkuk argues with God; because the Chaldeans were much more cruel and wicked than themselves. How can you appoint them to correct us? How can you appoint the oldest brother to keep me out of the cookie jar when he eats so many cookies I can’t get any in the first place?
He begins to describe his own people as fish made by God – fish that he had just described as intentionally violent perverters of justice – but now, all of a sudden, they are innocent fish without a ruler to guide them, it is not their fault, how could they possibly have done anything wrong? And it is unfair that we helpless, powerless, innocent victims -- (he is referring to the Judeans that he had called terrible people) -- that these innocent victims should be subjected to the fishing machinery as hooks and nets and dragnets of the enemy.
And worse yet, he says to God, you know that they will be rejoicefully worship those nets because their nets have hauled in all our resources so that they could live in luxury. How long, Habakkuk asks again, how long does a good, holy, and universally sovereign God allow a cruel, compassionless nation to capture people after people, devouring (what he now calls) the righteous people.
Habakkuk awaits an answer. It comes. The first thing God tells him is: patience. We have a limited perspective of a problem that is going on right in front of us – “they didn’t give me the tartar sauce on the drive through meal again! How unjust is that – they should know by now! I always get fish there!” We want swift and painless justice for the small thing right in front of us. But God sees a much wider scope of space and a longer range of timing and may be working for a better result than we would ever expect or imagine.
Plus, we don’t want to live in those times of waiting for God’s next big act. You know, in just a month or so we are going to start looking at Advent and preparing to participate in Christ’s birth again, and then we are going to follow him to the cross, experience Easter’s resurrection, Pentecost’s Spirit sending, the growth of the church and we begin to anticipate his birth again. In one year, we’ve condensed his 33 years. We get to see all those events – bang, bang, bang, bang, one after the other. As we read the Bible we move from one story to the next, one major event after the next, we don’t want to pause for commercials. And then when we get back to our own life, we think something is wrong because every single moment, every single day isn’t filled with something special beyond the routine, and fully positive from one day to the next. And if we aren’t careful, like Habakkuk, faith in God’s wonderful deeds is replaced by nostalgia, and our sure and certain hope by impatient despair.
- “Look at the proud: he is inwardly not upright; but the righteous will attain life through trusting faithfulness. (Habakkuk 2:4) (CJB))
God assures us that the basic premise is right. The self-glorified will indeed pay for their prideful actions, and the righteous will attain true life through their trusting faithfulness.
This fourth verse is the key of the book, and one of the most important in the Old Testament. New Testament writers pick up on it several times. Our trusting faithfulness is grounded in the conviction that God is moral and will act properly in every setting, even if we don’t always see or understand it. But we trust.
One person put it this way, “The person who is not upright will not have the courage and tenacity to succeed in life. The righteous person, that is the one whose life is penetrated by God's righteousness, shall live successfully.”
In theology, for the people who lived in Habakkuk’s day, and today too, successful living means to be able to live true to yourself and especially to God with proper character, trusting him for the ultimate results no matter what our immediate circumstances may be – to live faithfully, no matter what.
People who compromise, cut corners, oppress and manipulate and violate virtues do so because they don’t have the courage to maintain that character and because they can’t trust in God for the ultimate results, and so they violate people and moral codes to get what they think they want. And every wrong act chips away at their humanity. These people, in these moments, (as Jesus said in Matthew):
- “…do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns...for whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:23b-25 (NIV))
After the Chaldeans had fulfilled their role as judge of the Judeans, they would pay for their own evil actions. We aren’t to be sitting around waiting for these things to happen -- that is between God and them. Not our problem. What we must concern ourselves with is between God and ourselves. We must look at our own attitudes and approach to life. We’ve already seen how Habakkuk’s comparisons between his own evil nation and the much eviler nation nearly blinds him to his sense of justice.
The equivalent would be if someone who is guilty of some crime goes to trial and says, “I shouldn’t be charged guilty because the judge is worse than I am. Or the jury is worse than I am. That is irrelevant to this situation. They are not on trial. They can have their own trial later at some other time when they have will have to answer to charges against their own actions. What is important is us, and who we are, before God.
Habakkuk, with some restored confidence, now names the behaviors and consequences that will bring this superpower to its knees when it finally reaches its time of comeuppance. What is interesting is that the way it is expressed in this Bible passage. These consequences of their behaviors isn’t written as, “Now God is going to punish you!” but are spelled out as the natural consequences of doing these behaviors. It is written into the moral code of the Universe and world history. So it is a warning for us as well.
The first is the addiction to greed. Greed, by definition, is addictive – it is never satisfied. It tempts us to take from others to meet the craving. Others then feel free to do the same back, (we all seek to take more cookies that we deserve or are permitted to have) and then others take them from us too, and then we get into a cookie fight, and then you have crumbs everywhere, and then you have a broken world.
In their aggressive pursuits to ensure family futures, they took from others to provide their own nest egg, and they destroyed others they felt were threats to their position and standing in society. But like the old game. “king of the mountain”, (remember that one? what a wonderful thing to teach kids – beat everyone up so you can get to the top) and then because you beat them up to get there, the first thing everyone wants to do is pull you back down. getting to the top in such a way will expose a person and all will be eager to pull him down. That is not a path to be secure at all. There is no lasting security in ill-gotten accumulation.
And then they were trying to build their lives and communities by sheer force and immoral activities. In a modern application, I imagine smoke-filled back rooms where inappropriate deals are being made. Habakkuk declares that a life built on a lack of character is an exhausting endeavor that will eventually come to nothing. We’re wasting our time.
The prophet interrupts his warnings because he can’t wait to tell us that instead of the gains of this temporary power and the so temporary gains it may bring to us -- the real lasting world domination will be when "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (verse 14). Who would want to challenge a world built on his principles of treating everyone fairly and with love?
Then he returns to describing the violent, lude, drunken practices of the war machine as it conquered home after home and town after town, – but he is really trying to describe the effects of a whole-hearted insatiable love for power and control over others. It gets really ugly. The terror they create will become their shame as they are terrorized by the same kind of acts someday. You reap what you sow. Eventually, there will always be someone stronger that will come along and take our power away – and it is the wrong kind of power to start with.
Finally, we’ve already heard this last warning about idolatry in the fishing metaphor. They caught all the fish and then bowed down and worshipped the nets that caught them. But apparently, they also bowed down to wood, silver, gold, stone and metal representations of their gods. Then they tried to let these human-made items speak and teach them. Of course they can’t, because they are just wood and stone and silver and gold.
This is not generally a problem for us – I have not noticed anyone in a carving class sculpting out a god to worship. Yet someone put it this way: idolatry is essentially the worship of that [life?] which we make, rather than our Maker. How prone are people today to “worship” whatever makes them, (or thinks will make them), rich or successful or whatever goal they want? And they chase after that.
But unlike these who chased after anything and everything to temporarily alleviate their cravings cause by greed and security and scheming and power and popularity and all the other things we could add to that list -- temptations and actions that still call clear and loud to us today -- temptations about which their followers never stop talking (since idols don’t talk to them). Habakkuk concludes that nevertheless, God is in his holy temple, and calls all the earth to be silent before him, for the living God will speak…
From fear to faith
The natural negative consequences of building an Empire, or a life; on all the wrong principles –may not immediately come to fruition. But now our temple prophet recalls he historical actions of his God, and as he does, he again becomes confident that God will again act on behalf of his people. He will come to rescue his people like an unstoppable thunderstorm. We’ve all experienced those – they shake the house, they shake the ground, the cracks and claps make you jump out of your skin -- and its torrent never lets up. All the Empire can do is strut over the top of the earth, but God will shake his world. And as Habakkuk envisions this, he becomes faint with fear.
And yet at the same time he claims he will calmly await the day of trouble. (Habakkuk 3:16) The text is vague and leaves translators guessing – so it depends upon the translation you read as to whether the day of trouble is when the assailants come to destroy Jerusalem, or when the assailants are going be destroyed by God later when they receive their justice down the road.
Either way it will be a tumultuous time of destruction followed by difficult rebuilding. And yet in these difficult times, faith restored, the prophet concludes his song this way:
- For even if the fig tree doesn’t blossom, and no fruit is on the vines, even if the olive tree fails to produce, and the fields yield no food at all, even if the sheep vanish from the sheep pen, and there are no cows in the stalls; still, I will rejoice in Adonai, (Lord) I will take joy in the God of my salvation. Elohim Adonai (the Lord Almighty) is my strength! He makes me swift and sure-footed as a deer and enables me to stride over my high places. (Habakkuk 3:17-19) (CJB (not including the parenthetical names of God)))
Let’s pray. Lord we don’t always understand life and how you work in your world. But we trust your character, but we trust your love. We trust your justice, we trust your mercy and grace. And we trust that you know what you are doing in your Universe, and with us, and so we rejoice in being with your people and joyfully leaning on you, through Christ, who came and showed us the way. Amen.
Now go leaning on him with great joy, for he has done awesome deeds, and we can be confident that in his time he will shake up our world and yet be a very present help in our times of need. Amen.