This first Sunday of Advent is a bit different for me from usual. Many of you will know that I tend to choose the Sunday readings from what is called a lectionary. The word lectionary comes from the Latin lectio, to read; and it is a table of readings for each Sunday of the year. So my scripture readings are not random- they are taken from a weekly list of readings which have been carefully chosen. The advantage of a lectionary is that it takes us through a lot of the Bible, and ensures you don’t just always just hear my favourite passages!
The Christian year traditionally begins on the First Sunday of Advent- today. But this year is different from me because I have decided- in the spirit of trying to keep fresh- to use a new lectionary. It’s called the Narrative Lectionary, and it came to my attention through a publication called Spill the Beans. Spill the Beans is a periodical, published on the internet, with ideas for prayer, preaching and education in churches. It is produced by a group of people largely from the Church of Scotland. We have already been using it with our Sunday School, and they seem to be enjoying it very much.
The Spill the Beans authors have decided that they are going to base their materials on the Narrative Lectionary, which has been developed by a Lutheran seminary in America. The texts chosen attempt to give congregations the broad sweep of the Biblical story in the course of a year. So I’ve decided, with some trepidation, to leave behind the familiar contours of the lectionary I’ve used throughout my preaching ministry (the Revised Common Lectionary), and dive into this new way of telling the Christian story. Bear with me- this could be something of an adventure!
And immediately I’m intrigued that on this first Sunday of Advent, we are confronted in this new lectionary, not by a familiar character like John the Baptist, but by a rather obscure Hebrew prophet by the name of Habakkuk. Habakkuk lived in a time when the Babylonians were in power, and they were a cruel and violent people. Surrounded by death and destruction, Habakkuk not only condemns their injustices, but also questions why God seems silent in the face of such evil.
Let’s just listen again to the sort of thing Habakkuk was saying in the verses Rachel read to us. This is a sort of paraphrase, a retelling of the passage (it’s taken from Spill the Beans):
God, how long do I have to cry out for help
before you listen?
How many times do I have to yell,
“Help! Murder! Police!”
before you come to the rescue?
Why do you force me to look at evil,
stare trouble in the face day after day?
Anarchy and violence break out,
quarrels and fights all over the place.
Law and order fall to pieces.
Justice is a joke.
The wicked have the righteous hamstrung
and stand justice on its head.
Though the cherry trees don’t blossom,
and the strawberries don’t ripen,
though the apples are worm-eaten,
and the wheat fields stunted,
though the sheep pens are sheepless,
and the cattle barns empty,
I’m singing joyful praise to God.
I’m turning cartwheels of joy to my Saviour God.
Counting on God’s Rule to prevail,
I take heart and gain strength.
I run like a deer.
I feel like I’m king of the mountain!
One of the BBC’s flagships programmes is the Today programme, the early morning news and current affairs programme on Radio 4. It’s a show which quite often sets the political agenda, for politicians feel they cannot miss it. But although it is an excellent programme in many ways, its listening figures have been dropping this year. The editors put it down to the sheer volume of terrible news which is around at the moment, especially from abroad. I think they may have a point, for the news this year seems to have got grimmer, and more horrific. We seems to hear of hostages beheaded every other week. The people of Syria continue to suffer in ways we can hardly imagine. If dozens are killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad or Kabul, we hardly notice, its become so common. Ebola is causing devastation in Africa, and Mr Putin is threatening the peace of Europe. The domestic news is not much better- scandals, waste, dysfunctional public services, the abuse of children, the elderly, the aged, the disabled. Habakkuk could be commenting on today’s news:
O Lord, how long must I call for help before you listen, before you save us from violence? Why do you make me see such trouble? How can you stand to look on such wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are all around me, and there is fighting and quarrelling everywhere. The law is weak and useless, and justice is never done. Evil people get the better of the righteous, and so justice is perverted.
There is nothing wrong with complaining to God. We all have times when we feel God is not listening to us, or is slow to act. Habakkuk is not the only hero of the faith in the Bible who complains to God. But there’s a right way to complain, and a wrong way to complain.
Many complainers are just moaners. Someone sees that the street light outside their house isn’t working, moans to everyone about it, says it’s a disgrace the council won’t do anything about it- and then you ask them- did you phone the council?- and of course, they didn’t think of that. Or the person who complains that ‘The church should do this’, and we ask them, OK, we will, but we need people to help- will you help?- and we get excuses or silence. Just to moan all the time is the wrong way to complain- but often it’s all we do. You have to complain properly. You have to do something about it (lift the phone) and complain to the right person.
Habakkuk, as person of faith, complains to God because he expects God will do something. Complaining to God doesn’t show a lack of faith. Rather it assumes faith. There’s not point in carry on complaining to someone who can’t or won’t do anything about it. Habakkuk complains to God because he expects God to do something about it.
And first he does something. ‘I will climb my watchtower and wait to see what the Lord will tell me to say and what answer he will give to my complaint’. Up the ladder he goes, to take a wider view, look at things differently, as the Psalmist said, to lift his eyes to the hills. So he climbs his tower, and he is given new vision, for now he can, as it were, see further. And then he hears God saying, I will right the wrongs. It might take longer than you want, but it will happen. The evil ones are doomed; but the righteous will live. It might be a long time coming, and it might even come from a strange direction- but justice will come.
Prophets help us see things differently. They are like a light in the darkness, or better pair of spectacles. The take us to high places where everything looks different, where we can see further and the view is more inspiring. They can help us to turn our moans into complaints and start to hear answers from God. Indeed, in the final part of our reading, Habakkuk says a strange song, says a strange thing. These are words which could only come from someone with great faith. He’s sure God will act, although it hasn’t happened yet and he can’t see it yet. Nevertheless, he says (I rather think he may have sung these words):
Even though the fig trees have no fruit
and no grapes grow on the vines,
even though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no grain,
even though the sheep all die
and the cattle stalls are empty,
I will still be joyful and glad,
because the Lord God is my saviour.
The Sovereign Lord gives me strength.
He makes me sure-footed as a deer
and keeps me safe on the mountains.
Sometimes atheists suggest that we men and women of faith deceive ourselves. They think we wear rose-tinted spectacles, and that’s what makes us optimistic. But the biblical faith is not like that. Habakkuk is not pretending that the fig trees are bare, or that the sheep haven’t died of starvation. They have, and that’s how it is. Our very short Gospel reading tells us that, as he faced up to his coming suffering and death, Jesus was driven to despair: ‘The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me’. The only way he can face it is to surround himself with friends: ‘Stay here and keep watch with me’, he says to some of his closest disciples- and he goes off to pray. Later we learn even his friends let him down- they fall asleep. And Jesus then has to endure a humiliation and a terrible execution.
Yet that story is at the heart of our faith- the story of man who has the life crushed out of him, but who is nevertheless finally vindicated by God. Faith does not mean that we have to be eternally sunny and happy. Faith is about living in the midst of death, destruction, injustice- and then saying, ‘Even though fig trees have no fruit… and the fields produce no grain… and the sheep and cattle are dead… I will still be joyful and glad, because the Lord God is my saviour’.
While people in Africa die of Ebola, and fanatics murder and kill and main around the world, in this country last week there were reports of scuffles as people fought to get their hands on pre-Christmas bargains in Tesco. Oh, we could moan about that, couldn’t we! And we could moan about the crass commercialization of Christmas, the fact that it’s just a shopping and partying frenzy for so many people, who have forgotten about the child in the manger.
Or we could do something about it. Like last Sunday, when we filled the Old High Church with excited children and families who were there for the Christmas lights switch on, and we had puppets tell them the age-old tale of the shepherds and the angels. Or next week, we could give ourselves a pre-Christmas gift of peace and reflection, but coming along to our Alternativity meal- an alternative nativity, a different approach to Christmas. Someone once said to me that in the midst of the Christmas rush, they liked to go away somewhere quiet and think about the incarnation, which is something we could all do. Instead of complaining about the secular Christmas, why don’t we share the joy of Christ-Child with our neighbours?
Habakkuk mounted his watchtower, and God helped him to take a wider view. And so, even although things seemed dire, the prophet learned to rejoice, because he knew that God would be his saviour. He saw goodness and justice, when all around he was surrounded by evil and injustice. And so, against all the odds, he could rejoice.
Look at this table in the ordinary, and you will only see bread and wine. Look with faith, and you will see the body and blood of Christ, broken for you, even although you might be in despair, and broken for the salvation of a suffering world. Even though it’s just bread and wine, even though the fig trees have no fruit, we can rejoice in God our saviour!
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo