FOR ALL THE SAINTS
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on November 3, 2013 (Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time/Observance of All Saints Day/Communion Sunday)
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
3Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
2I 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 will answer concerning my complaint.
2Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
3For 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.
4Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
– Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Our scripture lessons for this morning are not the best known in the Bible. They come from books that are rarely preached from – I don’t think I’ve ever preached from 2 Thessalonians before. Even though we are observing All Saints Day today, these aren’t traditional texts for All Saints – they are lectionary texts for this thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time. They come from books that hard to pronounce. So, if you don’t get anything else from this morning’s sermon, at least you can impress your friends that you know how to say “Habakkuk” and “Thessalonians”!
But there is a reason they are in the Bible. They deal with some important and familiar themes. The prophet Habakkuk apparently lived during bad times. Just hear some of the words he uses to describe to God the world in which he lives: violence, wrong-doing, destruction, strife, contention, wicked.
People in the church often ask me what I think of the times in which we live. Those same words could be used today. A young Pakistani girl was shot recently for wanting education for girls; banks here in the United States are paying billions of dollars in fines for wrong-doing, although none of their executives seem to lose a job or get a pay-cut; natural disasters destroy cities and homes all the time, but we seem to add to the misery by fighting wars; our congress has always been partisan and has usually been divided, but it seems harder than ever to come to any agreements and get anything accomplished for the common good.
These are bad times. And folks sometimes ask me whether I think these are signs that the world is really falling apart, and that maybe God is getting ready to bring the world to an end soon. My usual response is that I’m not sure the world today is any better or worse than it was centuries or even millennia ago. It may look worse these days because news coverage today is global – we hear about terrible events not just in our community and in our country, but in far-away corners of the world as well. And the news-consuming public seems to be fascinated by bad news – as much as we complain about it. So we get more of it.
I also think it is just a normal part of getting older to see things as getting worse. Maybe that is because we have selective memories – we remember the good things about our youth, and either we were unaware of some of the terrible things that happened around us, or we have forgotten. Decades ago no one talked about bullying at schools (it happened), or about domestic violence in homes (it shouldn’t happen, but it always has – only now are people saying it is wrong). The “good old days” were days of racism, gay-bashing, and threatened nuclear annihilation.
So, I don’t think the world is really getting worse. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s getting a lot better, either. The problem, as I see it, is that we have made tremendous progress in knowledge and technology – and many folks think those things alone will make life better for everyone. But we haven’t made much progress in making the human heart better. Peace, love and understanding are in precious short supply – they are sometimes made fun of, for being naïve and unrealistic and foolish. Popular musician Elvis Costello once sang a great song in which he asked, “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?”
Times were bad 26 centuries ago during the days of the prophet Habakkuk. And he asked back then one of the toughest questions in the history of religion: If God is powerful and good and just, then why does all this terrible stuff happen in our world? Why doesn’t God do something about it?
That’s a good question! One I often ask myself. And Habakkuk had the audacity to ask God – even to complain to God! Did you know you can do that — that it is faithful to do that? You can ask God those tough questions in prayer. But don’t ask me, because I don’t know. I have heard some answers that some pretty wise people have offered. None of them are really satisfying – none of them really make the situation any better.
The answer that Habakkuk received was a vision – a vision that he was supposed to share with others. It was a vision of a time when violence and wrong-doing and strife would come to an end. God tells Habakkuk, “wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” We’re still waiting. I’m getting impatient.
Those new Christians in Thessalonica were getting impatient, too. They thought that the time had come. Actually, at least some of the first disciples and followers of Jesus seemed to have thought that the Realm of God had come with Jesus – that he was going to lift up the poor and oppressed, and bring down the powerful and the wrong-doers, and make life good for all who believed. But then he got put to death by some of those very powerful folks, and it looked like it was all some terrible mistake. But then there was a resurrection! He was alive and at work among them again! And after his ascension, the early church believed that he would return very soon to complete the work they thought Jesus was going to do. The Thessalonians were waiting – impatiently, wondering whether the time had come when evil and suffering would finally come to an end and God would make all things right. They were even trying to behave like they thought people would have to behave if they wanted to live in God’s new world – they were growing in faith and loving one another! But they were getting impatient!
How many of you have ever gone a long family car trip – either when you were a child, or as a parent taking your young children with you? How long after the start of an eight hour drive did someone ask, “Are we there yet?” Young children have no real concept of time and distance.
The Thessalonians were asking, “Are we there yet?” They had no concept of God’s time. Sometimes we all wonder, “Are we there yet?” I have no concept of God’s time.
But the author of 2 Thessalonians counseled patience. The time wasn’t here – yet. But don’t lose hope. We are praying for you. Keep the faith. Keep loving one another. Keep spreading the word of what God is doing – “so that the name of Jesus might be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
As we observe All Saints Day today, we remember the saints of the church who lived in faith and hope for a day they did not live to see. But by no means were their lives wasted.
Maybe the reason that it is taking so long for God to make all things right is so that we might have a chance to get our act together. We aren’t right, yet. If Christ were to suddenly return to give all wrong-doers what they deserve, you would probably have to get a new pastor – because I have my failings, in spite of my good intentions. So I hope it doesn’t happen yet.
In the meantime, we can choose to live as if the Realm of God were already here. We can practice peace, love, and understanding — because maybe we can help that glorious day to come, when such actions are understood to be wise instead of foolish. We’ll know how to live when that time comes. Then we will be saints, too, “so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Robert J. von Trebra