6. What is the vision?
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Let us pray. Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Do you still read billboards? Advertisers are relentless in their attempts to reach out and grab us. You pick up the newspaper at the front door every morning or one of the free tabloids on your way to the subway; there’s news there but without advertising neither would exist. At the office you open your e-mail account and unless you are vigilant with your spam filters, there’s likely to be an advertisement for which you did not ask. Most radio and television stations stay on the air through advertising; even PBS has certain programmes that while uninterrupted by advertising are preceded by a very cultured English-accented voice telling us about Viking River Cruises. So much of this comes our way unbidden; you can turn your sight away from a billboard. But I don’t think we do. Advertisers are not hired to waste money. They must know that billboards still command our attention.
If the word of the Lord had been spoken to Habakkuk today, it likely would sound like this. Put the vision on a billboard and make it big enough that drivers on the 401 can see it even when the traffic is moving at the limit. What is this vision that God gave to Habakkuk? How can this vision be translated or understood by us 2500 years later? And if this vision is to be shared, what sort of billboard are we going to use?
There are precious few clues provided for us in this book as to the identity of this prophet. This particular name, Habakkuk, is about as uncommon in the world of the Hebrew people as it is in our world. The only place the name occurs in the Bible is the twice it is mentioned in this book, 1:1 and 3:1. The conditions or circumstances which prompt the ministry of this prophet fit into the reigns of three kings from about 650 to 600 B. C. Perhaps the lack of the sort of details that would help scholars to pin things down more accurately is on purpose. God, in the voice of this prophet, wanted us to know this message was a word for many situations.
There is one bit of speculation by the rabbis that I found interesting and hope that at least some of you will also find it so. You may recall the story from 2 Kings 4 in which one of the earlier prophets of God, Elisha, promises that a Shunammite woman will give birth to a son. However in the story, Elisha puts this promise in a very particular way: “At this season, in due time, you shall embrace a son.” The key word in that sentence is embrace. For example when the promise is given to Sarah and Abraham, the message is straightforward: “...your wife Sarah shall have a son.”
Well, you know what clergy are like, we haven’t changed much since 600 B. C., always looking for something obscure in words that seem a little out of place or where we can make interesting connections. So the rabbis looked at this uncommon name Habakkuk and someone said that it appeared to have the same root word as embrace, that word Elisha used when the son was promised to the woman. The speculation continues—perhaps she remembered the particular way in which the promise had been given to her, with the word embrace, and used that word to name her son. Fast forward a few years and that son is now a prophet. As I said I find such speculation fascinating, but more than that, no matter the background of this embracer I think we will find that his name says something about his character. More about that later.
For now let’s return to our text from chapter two. This short book features the prophet’s cries of lament and the response of God. The particular complaint of Habakkuk has an interesting slant to it. The prophet has no argument with God punishing God’s people. Once again, the people of God lack a commitment to social justice. However Habakkuk is appalled that God would use these evil, barbaric, pagans as the means of his judgement upon Judah. These Chaldeans or Babylonians are being used by the one worshipped in Israel as the God of all creation, but they acknowledge the god known as Marduk or Bel. This god was the patron god of Babylon and head of the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods. The Mesopotamians regarded Marduk as the supreme god and absolute ruler of the universe. Marduk was consistently portrayed as a warrior god who led the Babylonians into battle. When the Babylonians were victorious, they gave credit to their warrior god. In the great tradition of Job, Habakkuk wants to know how it is that the holy God can use such unholy people for his holy purposes.
Habakkuk tells us that he is going to take up a very particular position in order to listen to God. He wants to hear God but he is going to stand on the ramparts of the city taking up his position as a watchman. He is going to see what God has to say. Let’s explore that for a minute. If you are watching for someone, you do so with your eyes. If you’re listening it’s your ears that are put to use. It’s not very often we watch to hear what someone is saying, or is it? I have a feeling that my wife watches my posture to see what it says. I suspect I communicate a whole bunch more than I think I do by what can be seen, not heard.
So Habakkuk is going to see what God is saying. What God does is give Habakkuk a vision and then tells him to write the vision so that it can be seen. This may be an early form of communication. Isaiah is told by God twice to write a message on some sort of tablets that could then be displayed in order to be seen by the people to whom God wanted to get across his word. I could not help but think of the placard that the gospels tell us was placed above the cross as an announcement of the charges on which Jesus had been found guilty and condemned to die. In other words, “I’m Peter Mansbridge; this is The National.”
Scholars are divided on exactly what the vision is. I am drawn to our text, that the vision to be put on the billboard is what comes right after the order to get the paint and the ladder ready. 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. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. Moreover, wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure. They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves, and collect all peoples as their own.
I want to try out something on you today. I think I am on to something that is faithful to our text but likely it still needs some work. Perhaps this is something that can be done in our study and fellowship groups this week or maybe you will find a bit of contemplation time this week where you can work through this idea on your own. At its essence here is the idea—you and I need to become the billboards on which this vision can be seen. Now let me explain how I got there.
Here are what I think are the essential components of the vision.
there is an appointed time; in other words there is a designer and a design, or if you like history is his story;
the time that is appointed is not obvious; to many it does seem to tarry, to be late;
examine those whose lives are not centred on the will and purposes of God; is there any true endurance, do they not put their trust in that which ultimately fails?
those who are righteous will live out of their faith in the God who will finish the story with the triumph
of love, grace and justice.
Last month I was both challenged and inspired as I attended this year’s Theology Conference at Wheaton College in Illinois. I must confess that when world-class scholars are presenting papers there is a whole bunch that whizzes past my head, but some I catch. The topic of the conference was “The Image of God in an Image Driven Age.” Much of the conversation focused on what it means right now that human beings are created in the image of God. The reason that idea seems harder to discuss and impress upon people is that most of us are aware that we are surrounded by images that are essentially fake.
For example, the lovely and talented Keira Knightly, the British actress who starred opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game is the spokes-model for the Channel brand. Now Keira Knightly no more needs help being beautiful than I need help tying my shoelaces, but I can guarantee you for those Channel ads Ms. Knightly is prepared and painted and plasticized in order for the image to be just right. It is Keira Knightly in those ads but the image is a fake.
There was something else talked about at the conference. Scholars are not unanimous when it comes to answering the question, “what is meant by our creation in the image of God?” One of the ideas caught my attention. You recall the famous story of Jesus involving images or icons. One of the temple leaders sets what he thinks will be a political trap for Jesus. “Should we pay taxes?” He thinks if Jesus says yes, the people will think him a stooge for the Romans. If he says no, he is in danger of running afoul with the Romans. Jesus, you will remember, asks for a coin and then asks whose image is on it. It’s the image of Caesar. Then give to Caesar what belong to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.
It wasn’t just coins that had the image of the ruler. For centuries kings and emperors had been quick to place statues of themselves in as many parts of their territories as they could manage. The images were thought to function as a sort of royal representative. The ruler could not be in every part of the empire at the same time, but every day that statue could stand as a life size reminder in the market place as to who called the shots. It is absolutely clear in the commandments that God forbids any such icons or images be made. Our God is not to be represented by an inanimate object; such things are not to become the object of worship. But perhaps God is interested in having royal representatives, living images, in every part of his kingdom; and if those images are watched, God speaks. We are God’s billboards, the message is written on us.
Habakkuk, the embracer, fully embraces the place of God’s person in the world. He is going to live by faith that no matter what appears to be true in the moment, the greater truth is this—the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.