October 6 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Habakkuk 1:1-4, and 2:1-4; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10
Theme: It's hard to put it into just a few words this week. Our readings convey to me something of the struggle we have to hang on to our faith in the face of what appears to be the reality of the world around us. Is God really working his purpose out, or is the world going to hell in a hand-basket? For some bizarre reason the slogan from the old cheese adverts has just popped into my mind, "Good Things Take Time". I might have to go with that. For more dramatic effect (and a more biblical one) we could take the line from the shocked disciples in our gospel passage today, "Increase our Faith!"
Introduction. Basically we are being reminded today that God's concept of time is very different from our own. Habakkuk looks all around him at the society of his time and is bewildered. If this is the Promised Land, if these are God's People, if this is God's world under God's authority, how come everything evil seems to hold sway? The answer he is given basically amounts to this: hang in there. God has a plan. St Paul is trying to give the same encouragement to Timothy on a more personal level. Hold firm to your faith. Never mind opposition and resistance: be like your Granny and your Mum! (A picture of inter-generational faith is emerging – the time span is extending beyond the life of an individual believer.) In Luke the emphasis shifts from the passive to the active. The world is changing, but it will only do so as people of faith change. God is not improving the world in which we live, so that we can go on living the same old life in more pleasant surroundings. God is calling his people to change, in a number of quite specific areas. Some of these are so tough and personally threatening that the caring people who produce The Lectionary have tried to reduce our pain by omitting the first few items. I call for brave defiance: start the reading at verse 1! If you survive that challenge it will make you stronger (though it is unlikely to make your congregations bigger).
Background. It might well be true that of all the species on the earth only our own has a concept of the future, but it is arguable how much we let that concept affect our present day lives. We have a Retirement Commissioner – we have Kiwi Saver – we have a Superannuation Fund – and we know that it makes good sense to save for our retirement. We have an understanding of, and a plethora of data about, demographic changes – our birth-rate is falling, we are living longer, our population is ageing, the demands on our health services are increasing – we should address these issues NOW for the sake of our children and our grandchildren and generations to come after them. But we don't and we won't, because our concern is not with the future but only with the present – and, curiously enough, with the past. I read recently a comment that whereas all great universities offer courses in history and classical studies, less than 5 percent are offering studies on "futurology" – the term has to stay in inverted commas because many of the universities surveyed for the study insisted that there is no such thing as "futurology".
On the other hand I was struck by a comment on the radio this week by a union official when asked why he welcomed the Government bail-out of Solid Energy, and what about the effect continuing coal production could have on the planet. The union official said something like this: "if you are a coal miner living in Huntley with five children to support and your job hanging in the balance you are not likely to lie awake at night worrying about a predicted increase in the sea-level of somewhere between 15 and 45 centimetres by the end of the this century." I wonder if such a thought impinged itself on anyone at our recent Synod where it was resolved to adopt, under the banner of Ethical Investment, a ban on investment in fossil fuel industries. Time-scales are tricky things at the best of times.
When I first entered parish ministry in the early 1990's I soon found myself conducting funerals for people who died in their eighties. More often than not they were widows, and I would be meeting with their children to discuss funeral arrangements. A pattern seemed to develop. "Well, tell me about Mum," I would say hopefully. "What sort of person was she? What are some of your memories of her?" A profound silence would develop, and when it finally got too embarrassing to endure any longer one brave soul would utter the line I learned to dread: "Well, you know, Mum was just, well, Mum really." What that meant was that Mum had been one of those tireless, multi-tasking women who could turn her hand to anything on the domestic front. She could sew, knit, cook, preserve, mend, skin, pickle, and goodness knows what else, all at minimal cost to the household, and all, usually, without complaint. If I was lucky, I would occasionally be given a little anecdote about the day the old copper boiler finally pushed Mum's patience to breaking- point.
The picture was one-dimensional and static. Mum was just Mum, the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. And then one day I discovered that this particular deceased Mum had been born in 1917, on the very day on which the Russian revolution broke out; and she had died at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And so here was a woman, one individual human life, whose life-span equalled the entire history of the Soviet Union which, to me and my generation had seemed invincible and eternal. So I started to talk to these families about the changes that their respective Mums had lived through – from the first cars and planes to space-stations – from wind-up telephones on party lines to cell-phones, and so on and so on. And almost always this was a great revelation to the families. Mum had always been just Mum – even as everything else around her changed so dramatically in the course of her life.
As people of faith we struggle with time-spans. It is clear that the first Christians expected Jesus' return in their lifetime, and were mystified when he didn't show up. Two thousand years later what are we to say about that? St Paul, in particular, was very clear that from the beginning God has had a plan in mind and has been unfolding it over time. Our problem is that so far that process has been going on, the scientists tell us, for about 13.7 billion years! One of Teilhard de Chardin's many claims to fame is as a great expositor of St Paul's "cosmic texts". He was asked one day to predict how long it might be before "all things were gathered up in Christ"; his reply, after considerable thought was, "Perhaps as much as another one million years". He was, after all, a geologist and palaeontologist.
I find myself coming back yet again to Ainger's great hymn God is working his purpose out. It might be more accurate to change the second line from "as year succeeds to year" to "as age succeeds to age"; but what I like about it is the change of focus between the second and third verses. First, we get the big picture: "from east to the utmost west"; and continents and islands are addressed – and, of course, the whole thing is about a future when the glory of God will fill the earth. But then suddenly we get to the nitty-gritty: what is our role in all this? What can we do to "urge the time"? And then verse 4 answers that question: we can urge that time in acts of ministry: "strengthen the weary, heal the sick, and set every captive free". Then verse 5 reminds us that such deeds will only be effective if they are blessed by God.
And here we have the answer to Habakkuk's question. This is God's world, he does have a plan which he is, over aeons, working out, and at this stage he is implementing the plan through his people of faith. It involves for those people of faith a life of discipleship, some of the details of which are spelt out for us in our gospel passage and in our epistle reading today.
Habakkuk. This is another variation on the theme so movingly crystallised in the Book of Job. The presence of all-pervasive evil in a world created by God is only an issue for people of faith, but for people of faith it is a huge issue. It does not seem to make sense; and all of us have had "Habakkuk moments" when we have asked God what on earth is going on. And just as Job received a somewhat enigmatic answer to his questions, Habakkuk is told to hold on to the vision: for there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, it does not lie. In short, keep on believing whatever is going on all around you. Good things take time.
Taking It Personally.
· Read slowly though the first passage. Get a sense of Habakkuk's feelings. How would you describe them? Imagine that he is watching the T.V. news as he lists the horrors on his mind. How would today's T.V. headlines differ from those things that are upsetting Habakkuk?
· Then read God's response in 2:3. How do you feel about that?
· Is there anything you can do about any of the issues you are concerned about?
· Next time you pray "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven", ask yourself if that involves you in some way, or is it just a vague hope that things will improve one day?
Timothy. "Hang in there" could be a modern summary of this message. There are some grounds for believing that this letter was probably not written by St Paul himself, but that doesn't change its basic message. The whole tone makes it clear that it is not an easy time for the author or the recipient – or for anyone else – to be a Christian. The author says he is in prison, and urges Timothy not to be ashamed of that, but to join him in suffering for the gospel. We are reminded that both the author and the recipient stand in the line of faithful people (verses 3 and 5), so there is the human time-scale. But the divine time-scale is never far from the author's thought, and breaks out in verse 9. Then comes the good news that is at the heart of our faith: Christ has "abolished death and brought life and immortality to light". This wonderful truth is both the reason for his calling and explains his suffering. The gospel is what makes worthwhile whatever comes his way. Therefore, Timothy – and all of us – must guard the gospel – and maintain "the standard of sound teaching".
Taking It Personally.
· From whom have you received your faith? Did your ancestors worship the same God you do? Did you have a faithful Granny and Mother as Timothy did?
· Have you had a particular mentor/encourager over the years, as Timothy had in Paul?
· Have you ever been ashamed of your faith?
· Do you accept any responsibility for passing on the faith to the next generations? Have you been, or are you being, a Lois or Eunice to others?
Luke. I sometimes picture Luke having off-days – perhaps with a migraine or something. On those days he sits at his desk, but the flow has left him. He struggles for words. Instead of more great stories told in his wonderful style, he can only manage the odd filler, or, as here, a few fillers with no obvious connection with one another. But even these fillers have much to teach us, especially when we recall that our central theme in this second part of the liturgical year is discipleship, not as an intellectual exercise, but as a way of life, the practical application of the sound teaching that we have just been considering in Timothy. With Habakkuk we need to remember that there is still a vision – a divine plan of universal and eternal significance – but its implementation depends on real people learning to live it out in daily lives. And that is rarely easy. It involves ensuring that we do not lead others into temptation; to rebuke our fellow disciples when they sin; to forgive those others if, and whenever, they repent, no matter how many times they may repeat their offences. We must learn that it's not the size of our faith that matters, but our willingness to exercise it. We must learn that as servants of Christ we are never "off-duty" – Christian life is the original 24/7 lifestyle. And we must do everything, not for the reward it brings, but because it is "meet and right so to do." Any questions?
Taking It Personally.
· A perfect passage for a time (a week?) of self-examination and confession.