Mishpat-- God's Order
Permeates the Chaos
a homily based on Habakkuk
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall
Our lesson in Habakkuk could not been better timed in light of all
the bad news lately. Just when we thought that the bad news we heard yesterday
couldnt get any worse, a new breaking story hits our screens with a bizarre, twisted
plot. And we find ourselves asking, almost praying, when will it all end?
Seems sometimes that bad news dominates our mediathe sicko who comes into
our neighborhood to check the kids out, the politician who funnels thousands of taxpayer
dollars to fund their extravagant lifestyle. Another convenience store is robbed and just
before leaving the guy pumps the college freshmen manager full of .38 hollow points
to make sure he won't be around to testify against him.
Violence! We want a word from God. Thats what the prophet Habakkuk seeks.
And so do we. But we have to go to the right place to hear God.
We have discovered in the past months that in times of violence and terror, many
voices claim divine status. And so weve also had to discern where not to go
to listen for a divine word. We wont hear it in some hidden military base where a
twisted version of Islam says that its the holy duty of muslims to kill all
Americans and her allies. Nor will we hear a divine word from the Falwell types, those
self-appointed prophets who declare that violence has come to America because God is
displeased with secularists. And we wont hear a divine word in the yells
and taunts for retaliation and revengeGod will not be enlisted on either side of
Instead, Habakkuk invites us to climb atop the watchtower, a very tall building in
biblical language, to listen for a word from heaven, to listen for words that descend from
high above ground-level, far above the violence and blood-letting. So we climb to the top
and cup our ear toward heaven, desperately listening for a genuine word from God in our
distress and outrage. What does God require of us when life overwhelms us?
Habakkuk is a prophet who lives in troubled times. The Assyrians have been the
tough guys on the block; for as long as he can remember . They're a vicious bunch, a
street gang. They're finally overthrown by the Babylonians--even worse hoodlums. Like a
bowling ball making a strike, the Babylonians sweep down the Fertile Crescent corridor
knocking down every two-bit nation that happens to be in the way. Philistia falls. Egypt
falls. Israel falls. Amidst the cruelty and violence, the Prophet Habakkuk begins with a
When are you going to start listening to us? When are you going to stop
standing around with your hands in your pocket? Like a waIIflower at the 8th grade dance?
How can you stand the stench of such violent acts?
What Habakkuk is really getting at, what really upsets him is described by a
single word in his languageMishpat. Mishpat forms the core of Habakkuk's
lament: it is translated as justice and judgment:
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the
righteous--therefore judgment comes forth perverted
Mishpat refers to God's order in our lives and world. It has to do with being
connected to God's life and ways. The prophet turns on the evening news and discovers that
Mishpat has been abandoned not by the Babyloniansthey never had itbut
by his brothers and sisters in the faith. No one it seems follows God's law.
The Law is weak, he mutters in Hebrew, which translated actually
means, The Law is paralyzed. Sunday School has been shut down and
church attendance is at an all time low. So all those stories about David and Goliath,
about Sampson, about Elijah and the parting of the Red Sea and Moses, have been long
forgotten. They can't even remember when the last time was that they recalled a story
about God breaking into their lives. They have forgotten what the Lord has done for them.
And in the place of these sacred stories, they have restocked their minds with new stories
based on different gods and values. Mishpat the way God has acted in
the pastis gone.
What happens when we abandon Mishpat? When we throw off God's law
and relationship with us? Nothing right? We'll do just fine. We can make it with just a
nice little religion once in a while, right? Sin is no longer a big deal anymore. Nor are
values--unless they payoff in the short run. Habakkuk took a hard look around him at a
neighborhood that had abandoned Mishpat. And he discovered that the Assyrian and
Babylonian hoodlums really hadn't destroyed his nation; for they had been in spiritual
decay for a long time. When we throw off God and God's way, we enter into a way that
disrupts our relationships, erodes our values, and separates us from the full-bodied life
that God has planned for us.
Habakkuk lives in my town, on Market Street in Philly, in Chicago or London or
Sidney; he attends our places of worship. Lives in our neighborhoods. He becomes all of us
when we look around and fervently pray for peace in our world and receive only war in
return. He becomes every one of us who pray for God's good blessings to come on earth only
to hear another new story of violence. It's the prayer some of us have prayed when we've
stood beside abed in the Intensive Care Unit and watched our spouse slowly, painfully slip
away despite our desperate , prayer for healing.
Habakkuk becomes those of us who have prayed for love and civility to return to
our home and found instead terrorism. Habakkuk is everyone of us who has tried to do the
right thing, pray the right words in our world. Tried to raise our kids right; tried to
resist all the stories that make violence and sex American heroes, but have finally thrown
up our hands and wondered if all of this righteous, faithful living is worth it. Habakkuk
knows our world well. He has looked out and discovered that his neighborhood, his world is
out of joint, in chaos without Mishpat.
So the old prophet crawls up into the watchtower--the highest place around the
country and waits for God to give him some answers.
Ever been up on the summit of a mountain? It's a special place. Allows us to see
for miles in every direction. Sometimes you can see almost a hundred miles away--landmarks
way off in the distance. You can't help but feel tiny when you're standing at the top of
the world. You see these snow-capped peaks maybe fifty miles away, jagged and sheer; you
take in the violent snow storms pummeling the range to the south. And the wind. It can
howl and screech and shriek and blow past you in speeds that exceed one hundred miles an
hour. Tends to put things into perspective for you.
Well, there in that mountain watchtower--that place high above the normal paths of
people--the prophet finally hears an answer from God. To his question of whether or not
God is going to fulfill his purpose and bring his Mishpat--his divinely ordered
Kingdom on earth, God replies, Yes, it surely comes.
God further tells Habakkuk, The time is coming quickly. That phrase in
the Hebrew language is impressive. The writer has God's vision for a better, well-ordered
world puffing and panting toward fulfillment like a runner pulling out all the stops as
she comes in view of the finish line. Yes, Habakkuk, my Mishpat is on the
way; from up here on my mountain, I see it clearly . . . now you wait. Yes, I will act but
in the meantime wait.
So God tells the troubled prophet to wait. Sounds pretty passive to me. So what
are we Christians supposed to do, just sit around and wait for something big to happen?
Just wait for the tenth round bell to sound and for God to come rushing out of his corner
to KO chaos and evil with a right chopper to the head? I don't want to be accused of
fatalism, of being a clench-teethed stoic when it comes to changing our world. Just wait?
Advent isn't even here yet and I'm supposed to wait?
No, God tells us to wait because we've been to the mountain, remember? We've seen
at least a glimpse of what God has up his sleeve. That the God we're in covenant with sees
the end of human history , sees the route by which God's goal will be reached--Mishpat,
justice and healing. So we work toward that goal with God. Yes we can become involved
in tearing down the chaos that threatens our cities and our .neighborhoods. We can stand
for God's vision in our life and community and work toward its fulfillment.
One of my seminary professors once described an unusual conversation he had with a
man on an airplane. The conversation took a rather serious turn. The man told my friend
that he and his wife were the parents of a son, now in his thirties, who was confined to a
nursing-care condition for a number of years because of an injury to his brain.
We had stopped loving him, said the man, it's a hard thing to
admit, but we had stopped loving him. It's hard to love someone who never responds. We
visited him often, but our feeling for him as a son had begun to die. Until one day we
happened to visit our son and discovered a visitor, a stranger, in his room. He turned out
to be the pastor of a nearby church whose custom it was to visit all the patients in the
nursing home. when we arrived we found him talking to our son--as if our son could
understand. then he read Scripture to our son--as if our son could hear it. Finally, he
had prayer with our son--as if our son could know that he was praying.
My first impulse was to say, you fool, don't you know about our
son? But then it dawned on me that, of course, he did know. He knew all
along. He cared for our son as if our son were whole, because he saw him through
the eyes of faith, and he saw him already healed. That pastor renewed in us the capacity
to love our son again.
We have a foretaste of Mishpat every time we partake in Holy Communion. We,
who struggle to walk uphill, against the wind, marching to a different rhythm, listening
to a different story, we--yearn and pant after God's Mishpat, God's order to come on all
the earth. That's why we pray every time we gatherThy kingdom come on
earth...; and Come, Lord Jesus, quickly! Those prayers have come through
the years from faithful people just like us who desired God's joyful, abundant life to
spill out on every person and every community.
So what do we do in the meantime?
First, practice righteousness. Because weve been to the mountain,
we've seen God's vision for the world, so we can do the right thing. That means to fulfill
our part of the relationship and that brings us back to our friend, stewardship and our
call to be responsible managers of God's gifts to us.
Secondly, practice faithfulness. Faithfulness means trust. Relying on God
for the breath we draw, for the direction we take, for the decisions we make, for the
goals we set, and for the outcome of our life. Charles Spurgeon, a famous minister of the
19th century , once coined it like this: what the breath is to the body,
faithfulness is to the soul Sounds to me like a lifelong habit. Place your whole
life in God's hands and trust in him to bring Mishpat, order into your
chaos--despite all personal sin and guilt; despite all psychological and social and
physical distortions. Faithfulness is life by God's power rather than by our own power.
So hear the Good News this morning! Though chaos and evil seem to claim all the
press coverage, Habakkuk reminds us that God does not stand around in heaven with his
hands in his pockets, but will bring Mishpat-- order and life into our chaos--in
his time. And in the meantime? Let's live out God's vision for our lives and this world by
practicing righteousness and faithfulness. Amen.