Everything old is new again: A study in Habakkuk
By Bob Mendelsohn
Jews for Jesus, Sydney
Given at St Johns Anglican Church,
19 April 2015
(To watch this on video, go to this website: VIMEO of Bob )
Shalom! Thank you Ross for your welcome to me today. And thank you to each of you here for giving me your ears for a bit of time today.
I didn’t grow up in Australia, so Peter Allen’s music was not as well known to me as to some of you. So his hit Broadway song, which was performed by Hugh Jackman, Everything old is new again, was equally unknown to me. And really as a Jewish man, who grew up in the center of the US, the theme was unknown as well. Old becoming new? When I read the book of Ecclesiastes which we read each year during the feast of Tabernacles, the theme might have been more likely “Everything new is old again…same old, same old.”
So when your rector asked me to give an overview of the book you will next be studying, the book of the prophet Habakkuk, and he gave me a title “Everything old is new again” I was taken aback. It went against my Jewish sensitivities.
But clearly the Bible is filled with such ideas. Isaiah the prophet, whose 48th chapter we read, understood newness. Listen to verse 6:
“You have heard; look at all this.
And you, will you not declare it?
I proclaim to you new things from this time,
Even hidden things which you have not known.”
OK, I like that. And mystery is always captivating to me.
That theme as well as the theme of newness is picked up by John the Revelator in his 21st chapter with:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.” (21.2)
So, ok, you say, this sounds like a good New Year’s sermon, or at least the beginning of one. But Bob, didn’t you know, we are already in April, and next week is Anzac Day and we just had Easter and school holidays. What does your message or the reference to Habakkuk have to do with anything?
Ah, thanks for that question.
Let me give you a quick review of Habakkuk, which I’m sure your pastor will delve into more deeply in the weeks to come, and you will see the connections. However if you are only here today and won’t be visiting again in the weeks to come, this sermon is actually modular and stand-alone. You will leave with real hope for things to come. At least that is my prayer.
So let me give you the outline. First we will unpack the things which might be titled ‘everything old’ found in the texts. Then we will ponder if they can ever be transformed into something new. And then we will find real newness and real hope, even in our troubled lives in the 21st century
A. Everything old
The prophet is full of somber tones, morbid reflections and deep questions about God in his oracle. Listen to chapter one, verse two:
“How long, O LORD, will I call for help, and You will not hear?
I cry out to You, “Violence!” yet You do not save.”
This is the sound of bellyaching and lament. It’s the painful sound of someone annoyed and angry. And he has the person in mind who is responsible. The finger is pointed straight at the Almighty. I wonder if that bothers some of you. Or does it actually reflect others of you. I’ve had plenty of conversations with God which sound like this. “What’s the deal? Why did that person prosper and I didn’t?” On my holiest of days I might not notice such disparity, but I’m not usually in such a state.
The prophet yells, ‘Violence’ which is the Hebrew word, s™DmDj◊ HAMAS. And this word reminds us of the constant barrage of bad news on the ABC and in the newspapers. Each day we read of another beheading or another bombing, the relentless hostility of evil. Yesterday five young men were arrested in Melbourne. They were planning some terrorist activity on Anzac Day next weekend. They said ISIS inspired them. It seems insurmountable. And our prayer might be something similar to Habakkuk. “What’s going on here? Why doesn’t God notice?”
The enemy in the Bible text is Babylon (sometimes titled Chaldeans), which is described by Habakkuk as bitter and rash (v 6), a nation marching through the whole earth following a scorched earth policy. The Chaldean makes up his own laws (v 7). His military force is ominous and ready to strike (vv 8–9). Doesn’t that sound familiar? He makes fun of kings and laughs at others’ defenses (v 10). The mockery by Iran and Iraq, by North Korea, ISIS and Boko Haram, or Al Qaeda and other wannabes echoes this sentiment.
So the first in our list of ‘everything old’ is the picture of evil flourishing and God seeming not to notice. It’s titled ‘theodicy’ in the dictionary, the answering of God’s alleged goodness with the problem of visible evil.
The next item in the list of ‘everything old’ is the justice poured out on humanity.
When God sees evil, even though it’s not as quick as a prophet or my mother would have liked, God promises to bring justice to bear. And this is part of ‘everything old’ to be sure. Sin has consequences and when men mock God or each other, the justice due will be recompensed.
Habakkuk answers, “Though it tarries, wait for it; for it will certainly come, it will not delay.” So the assurance is that the justice that we seek is really coming. (2.3)
In Habakkuk chapter 1, after Babylon’s dramatic surge goes on, the enemy of the Jewish people is found guilty because he worships his own power and strength (v 11).
But is justice really something we want? Any golfers here this morning? When you hit a great shot off the tee and that one branch reaches out, out of nowhere, and knocks your perfect shot down to the tree line, or worse, into the trees, you cry, “Where is the justice?” Honestly, do you really want justice for yourself? Do you know yourself a bit? Do you really want God to reward you for all the activities of your life? Non-golfers, do you want him to notice all the wrong choices you make and made? Do you want compensation for all you have done? Honestly? I doubt that. IF you know yourself, you know you are a sinner, stuck and mired in sin, and more often than not choose the easy way rather than the loving way. You choose to applaud self rather than deny it. You fail to love your neighbour as yourself. Even the best of us fail in this. Justice applied to the nation of Babylon and to anyone…that’s ‘everything old’ which needs to be replaced in a deep deep way.
OK, so evil is flourishing and justice is coming.
A third ‘something old’ is idolatry. I know that’s not something we often consider, since we are moderns. We don’t build and bow down to things. Or do we? As I travel the world, last year in Dominican Republic, in Russia, in Ireland, in the US, and all over Australia, I keep seeing idolatry as a prime driver in the human condition.
Habakkuk mocks the idolater with
“What profit is the idol when its maker has carved it,
Or an image, a teacher of falsehood?
For its maker trusts in his own handiwork
When he fashions speechless idols.
Woe to him who says to a piece of wood, ‘Awake!’
To a mute stone, ‘Arise!’
And that is your teacher?
Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
And there is no breath at all inside it.” (2.18-19)
Idolatry is rife in the planet. I saw a statue in Moscow of Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut, who was the first man in space, and thought of the billions of dollars two countries spent to win the space war. To win a race that they could have easily won for much less had they simply cooperated instead of competed? Then on a personal level, consider the little idiosyncrasies we perform before rolling dice at the casino or when going through speed and red light cameras. We also grab items to which we attribute great power and status, even though we have built them. We worship at the altar of materialism, which feeds our need to build our egos through the acquisition of more “stuff.” Our homes are filled with all manner of possessions. We build bigger and bigger houses with more closets, garages, and storage space in order to house all the things we buy, much of which we haven’t even paid for yet.
How about the drive to succeed? We might spend 80 hours a week working. Even on the weekends and during vacations, our laptops are humming and our minds are whirling with thoughts of how to make our businesses more successful, how to get that promotion, how to get the next pay rise, how to close the next deal. In the meantime, our children are starving for attention and love. We fool ourselves into thinking we are doing it for them, to give them a better life. But the truth is we are doing it for ourselves, to increase our self-esteem by appearing more successful in the eyes of the world.
The idolatry, which opposed God, is really the self-congratulatory life we live. We do that also with what I call scientism, or a belief in the exclusive power of science. If we don’t know the answer to something we turn to the scientist, and assume that if they don’t know yet, they will. This gives us the illusion that we are lords of our world and builds our self-esteem to godlike proportions.
Will that idolatry eventually be diminished? Will we ever really love the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength?
B. Can these things ever be transformed into something new?
Can the vision of Habakkuk’s ‘everything old’ ever become new again?
Let’s take them in order.
1) Theodicy: The evil flourishing and God seems not to notice
Yet the prophet continues his oracle asserting that the foreign tyrant will ultimately be overthrown (2:4, 16–17). Listen, God allows wicked tyrants like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, et.al. To spring up a for a while, but they become guilty by the abuse of their power and, like a plant before it is firmly rooted, God blows on them and they wither. God promises, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21.4)
In fact, the purpose of God withholding justice is actually for his own purposes. In Isaiah 48 we read, “For the sake of My name I delay My wrath” (.9)
2) Self-awareness: God brings justice to the planet
You think I’ve already looked at that, but I want you to see this more deeply. If God brings justice only, no one could survive.
“If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130.3)
The Revelation says even the best and most powerful on earth will wince at the idea of personal judgment:
”Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6.15-16)
God’s justice must extend not only to the bad guys, but to us as well, and that’s not very comforting, that is, if you know your own nature and your own choices. Of course, you are not ‘that’ bad, but you only say that when you evaluate yourself, you measure yourself against an ISIS terrorist and not against the measure of the commands of the Lord. Rocks fall on us!
3) Can our own idolatry ever be turned to newness?
The answer to that is no. Only when we turn to God, and really turn, when we stop being Lord of our own lives, and yield control to the real God, will life have meaning and satisfaction.
C. Finding real newness and real hope
Listen, I’ve been hinting all along. The answer to the problem of evil and the problem of injustice and the problem of idolatry are all answered in relation to God. But did Habakkuk say this also?
You may try to simplify the Bible from its size down to bite-sized pieces for your friends, your contacts, or even for yourself. The rabbis have done that, of course, as well, simplifying the 613 commandments down to 10. But that is not enough. They then limited it to 3. Micah chapter 6, verse 8 reads, “He has shown you o man what is good and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” But that’s too many, so Yeshua and others simplified it to 2: Love the Lord your God with all you have and love your neighbour as yourself. Finally the rabbis simplified the entire Older Testament down to one line, and it’s in Habakkuk 2.4 “But the righteous will live by his faith.” And isn’t that one line what captivated Martin Luther in 1517 and got his attention enough to on a wide scale trigger the entire Reformation?
Real hope is not found in religion, or a checklist version of Christianity, but rather in the joy of personal faith in the personal Messiah who gave himself for us as we remembered on Good Friday and who rose from the dead as we recalled a fortnight ago on Easter.
The Almighty through Habakkuk assures real newness of life in his declaration in 2.14 “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”
We can and should have confidence in the Almighty for all He will do. That’s Habakkuk’s conclusion as well in:
“Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord GOD is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me walk on my high places. (3.17-19)
Friends, God will win the final victory and we will be part of it. This is the joy of Kingdom Life and the assurance we can have, that all our own sins and all our own failings, all the evil in the world will eventually turn to God’s honor and praise. Hallelujah!
I can’t come and tell you about Habakkuk without telling you about a couple Jewish folks who are now living in this reality, and how God’s patience is regarded as salvation.
Melvin* is a Jewish doctor from the Northeast in the US. His wife and he have been married for over 40 years and they have lived in the Houston area almost that entire time. She was a Christian in her youth, but when they married, she officially converted to Judaism. After a few years of missing so much of what she knew about God, she started attending a Lutheran church. The pastor came by to visit her and to thank her for attending the previous Sunday. That’s when he first met Melvin. A very personable but hard man, Melvin made it clear that he didn’t want Pastor Ken to visit him or to involve him in the life of the church.
But of late, Melvin has been attending a nearby Baptist church, playing brass in their orchestra, although still a staunch unbeliever. When I spoke at the Lutheran church on my recent two-week speaking tour in Texas, Melvin was invited. He attended, and long story short, he decided to commit his life to Jesus, which he did publicly on the subsequent Sunday, Palm Sunday, walking the aisle with his mother (in her 80s), sister and daughter in attendance at his request. What a way to announce your new faith! How good is God to be patient in waiting for Melvin to be ‘ready.’
Years ago in the Hunter Valley outside Sydney, Nadine* moved nearby the local church and was befriended by the pastor and some of the members of the church. Years went by and the friendship deepened, but Nadine would always knock back the idea of attending church. Finally one of our missionaries was invited to speak at the local church, and the pastor invited Nadine to come along. She did to hear a Jew speak about Messiah. That encounter helped her enough that she has now given her life to Yeshua, has been baptized and is attending the fellowship regularly. God’s patience is her salvation!
I want to tell you more and more stories like Melvin and Nadine.
I hope you will notice the white card you have in hand, and for those online, you can contact us directly at Jewsforjesus.org.au. Here in the church, I invite you to tear the white card on the perforation, and keep the small card as a prayer reminder, then fill out the larger card, especially with your email address, and we will keep you informed about such testimonies and some historical and biblical info that I think will encourage you in your walk with Messiah. Up the back in the hall, you will find our resource table, which has many many products, which will help you in knowing about Jewish people, about Jewish life and how to witness among all people. If you can witness to Jewish people, you can witness to anyone!
Everything old in your life can be new again. If you have heard this message today, really heard it, with the ears of your Spirit, then turn your life to God. Repent. Ask Him to forgive you, right there in your pew, or at your home if you are listening or watching online, and He will forgive you. He wants to love you. He wants to forgive you. Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
Thank you Ross, for your love to me over the last 16 years and the warm hospitality you extend to me this weekend. Thanks to Jen and all of you here at St Johns who make this such a light on a hill. May God continue to brighten your vision and your impact on a city, on a state, on a country that so desperately needs the power of forgiveness and the assurance of the Saviour to bring it in our days.
Bible passages: Isaiah 48:1-6 Revelation 21: 1-5 Matthew 24:13-27
* Not their real names