Waiting Impatiently

live-by-faith

“Aleppo” is a name that has entered our consciousness during recent years. Many of us quickly identify Aleppo as the largest city in the nation of Syria, and remember that it is the location of an awful, ongoing battle between various forces and factions in the Syrian Civil War.  The Battle of Aleppo has been going on a long time, so long that I had to look up the date of its beginning, which turns out to be July 19, 2012, more than four years ago.

One of the reasons that Aleppo bothers us deeply is that many civilians have been hurt badly. Viewing photos and videos of victims of starvation and bombings has a collective impact. One of the most memorable cases is that of a five-year-old boy named Omran Daqneesh, bloody, covered with dust, sitting in the back of an ambulance waiting for help.[1]

When you look at a scene of suffering like that, it’s natural to experience feelings of compassion and sadness that lead to anger and rage. Why does God allow this injustice to go on? Why does God seem silent? Does God really care?

Such questions may feel unsettling in a church context, but some Christian counselors encourage them.  One says when we express our outrage at God, we are articulating a form of faith, and offering a kind of prayer. We are no longer passively accepting the reality we see as the only possible one, but challenging God to be faithful and true to the reality that we know should be.[2]

The prophet Habakkuk, at the beginning of today’s Old Testament text, utters a similar prayer.  He is speaking during the final years of the kingdom of Judah, expressing concern about corruption.  He complains that God doesn’t listen to his cries. He asks for help, but still sees violence and destruction.

As chapter two opens, we learn that Habakkuk has climbed the wall of the city to wait for a response.  God answers Habakkuk’s lament with “a vision for the appointed time.”  Habakkuk announces that right now God seems powerless or absent, but a time has been set for God to act.  Until that appointed time, “the righteous shall live by faith.”

This text is small within the context of 39 Old Testament books, but had a large impact on early Christians, who found inspiration in it.

Early in Paul’s ministry, he was fighting against a way of thinking that threatened to turn Christian faith into a new form of slavery.  Paul looks back to Habakkuk’s words, written six hundred years earlier, to distinguish true from false teaching, telling the Galatians “the righteous shall live by faith” (Galatians 3:11).  Years later, after missionary journeys, he writes the Letter to the Romans, which many scholars consider his greatest, most developed work. In it, Paul summarizes the gospel of which he is unashamed, telling the Christians at Rome “the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).

Fifteen hundred years pass, and a young German by the name of Martin Luther was living as a monk, but with extremely disturbed emotions. He writes, “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and . . . I was angry with God, and said, ‘As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by . . . the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!’  Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.”[3]

“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night . . . I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.  And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”[4]

It was as if a light bulb had been turned on in Luther’s mind.  He understood this moment as one of deep spiritual conversion.  No longer did he feel compelled to try to earn God’s favor.  Instead he could accept God’s free gift, and watch and wait for God’s final victory through Christ.  In the midst of a world “with devils filled,” “the righteous shall live by faith.”

It’s the legacy of Martin Luther, and the legacy of other Reformers like John Calvin and John Knox, that we celebrate this day on the Protestant Christian calendar known as “Reformation Sunday.”

Today is also Remembrance Sunday, just two days before All Saints’ Day.  It is the time of year when we remember family and friends who have traveled the path of faith before us.  In our congregation, we take time to publicly name the members of this church who have died in the past year.

As we call to mind the memories of these saints, we remember the good times and victories they enjoyed, and that we enjoyed with them.  But, in every case, we can also remember disappointments and defeats. If we stay with the memories long enough, some of them are as painful for us as the scene of the little boy in Aleppo, hurts that with pains we wish we could have eased and tears we wish we could have wiped away. Each of our loved ones found that a life of faith sometimes involves endurance, waiting and believing that God’s salvation will come. In between the disappointment of what is, and the promise of what will be, scripture says that the righteous shall live by faith.

Waiting isn’t easy for many people; I know it isn’t easy for me. I like the coffee, sandwiches, and pastries at 222 Artisan on Main St., but I rarely visit because often there’s a long line. My 15 or 20 minutes in line pales in comparison to fans of the Chicago Cubs, world series games being played at Wrigley Field for the first time in 71 years, waiting for the first World Series championship in 108 years. Waiting can be difficult!

I’m encouraged by the example of others who know about waiting in the midst of serious and difficult circumstances.

Just a few weeks ago, Benjamin Weir passed away.  Benjamin Weir was the moderator of the General Assembly when I graduated from Princeton Seminary. Before that, he was a missionary in the Middle East for nearly thirty years, a respected voice for peace and reconciliation. Many of you will remember that he was kidnapped in Beirut in 1984 by a group known as Islamic Jihad, and held for more than one year in solitary confinement. His cell    contained a straw mattress, a bucket, and meager amounts of bread and water that were handed through a small opening.

In our Christian meditation 101 class, we have a wealth of resources to choose from, but Benjamin Weir had only a few available to him. Every day he would read from the New Testament in Aramic, which he convinced a guard to smuggle to him. Every day he would save a corner of the bread he received, which he would use for a private celebration of reunion. He had Word and sacrament, and these things sustained belief in God’s faithfulness and hope for a better future.

I’m encouraged by the example of God’s faithful children like Benjamin Weir, who know from experience what it is like to wait and to hope.

Often, we find ourselves waiting for change in an imperfect world in which much is controlled by the Prince of Darkness.  But, the good news of the gospel is that the world as it is, is not the world as it shall be.  In the time between now and then, the righteous shall live by faith.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/17/world/syria-little-boy-airstrike-victim/

[2] Cynthia Geisen, Lectionary Homiletics, October 2004, p. 45.

[3] Martin Luther, from “Luther’s Works,” as quoted by Carter Lindberg in Martin Luther: Justified by Grace, Nashville: The Graded Press, 1988, p. 17.

[4] Luther, p. 18.

 

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~ by JohnH1962 on October 30, 2016.