THE VISION WILL SURELY COME

Sermon delivered on the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity the 2nd October 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in St. Alban’s Church of England, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Habakkuk 1: 1-4; 2: 1-4     2 Timothy 1:1-14     S. Luke 17:5-10

Habakkuk 2:3 “For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end - it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it: it will surely come, it will not delay.”

THE PROPHET’S ANGUISH
This message can be entitled "The Vision Will Surely Come", and the idea comes out of our first lesson from the prophet Habakkuk. Generally the biblical commentators reckon the circumstances reflected in this prophetic book to be the heavy handed rule of Assyria over Judah as its tributary, inflicting punishment and tribute, and then the weakening of the Assyrian power due to the rise of Babylon, to the ultimate defeat of the Assyrians by Babylon and perhaps the fulfilment of Habbakkuk’s prophecies of a Babylonian invasion of Judah. Meanwhile Judah had been going through spiritual and moral weakness, worshipping Baal on the high places, offering its children to Molech, dedicating horses to the sun god and allowing the temple to fall into ruin, before the short-lived time of religious revival during King Josiah’s reign. This was a society that had all but abandoned what we might call its biblical values. The prophet’s words in the first chapter reflect his soul’s anguish as he cries out to what seems even to him as a void in the place of the redress of the concerned God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear? Or cry to thee ‘Violence!’ and thou wilt not save? ... So the law is slacked and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted.” (Ch 1:4)

ANGUISH IN OUR EXPERIENCE
The anguish of the prophet is shared by many. There do come times in a person’s life when it seems that the hopes and assumptions upon which we normally proceed are either shattered or delayed indefinitely. I am reminded of those small and larger businesses that have been targeted, perhaps more than once, by the evil of hooded, masked and armed robbers. We are reminded all too often of the unspeakable horror of the sexual abuse of children that may go on without redress for years; some having cried and battered at a multitude of doors for action or protection have felt, and others giving up all hope from the beginning. Or how many are there who go into some situation with the highest of hopes and after a while find that things are not as they envisaged? Thank God, there are many who get through their anguish and continue to have the fortitude to know that, as the prophet says, “The vision awaits its time.” But many do not have that fortitude or that faith. Many enter their adult life with high hopes of what can be accomplished, and then by mid-career settle for a lesser aim, rather than for what could be their most effective, satisfying and valuable area of service, or in some other way lose grip on the vision they had at first.

ANGUISH IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
On occasion we as Christians feel a similar anguish. Perhaps it is because our vision finds less expression in the church’s life than we would want. Some of the hopes that we had when we embarked on a particular life of discipleship at first seem to be not possible of fulfilment for all sorts of reasons. We may find the way most people look at such things is so different that in order not to be misunderstood we become uncommunicative. And with the prophet we are caused to lament: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear? ... Why dost thou make me see wrongs and look upon trouble?”

ANGUISH IN TROUBLED TIMES
In addition to such Christian anguish, that can happen in supposedly “normal” times, is the anguish felt by many in times that are not normal, when it is difficult to forecast the future, as I am supposing is the case when we look both east and west today. That is the time when the prescience of a faithful believer can very well give a more accurate forecast than the intelligence-gathering of governments and polls. For we have been made aware as Christians that the future is in God’s hands and contains much that we cannot certainly predict. Now we are called to translate that teaching into our daily experience. We certainly do not know where the implications of an all-out modern war might lead us, or even of unsustainable western indebtedness or social degradation. What would be the chances of ultimate survival in lands where, in the words of Habakkuk, “the law is slacked and justice never goes forth”, and external enemies feel impelled to degrade them and take over? So we might pray for direction. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear?"

USING THE GRAIN-SIZED FAITH
Yet in the time of the anguish that it is altogether reasonable and possible to feel, the Scriptures show us how to assuage it. We might very well want to ask God at this time to increase our faith. In our Gospel today from St. Luke Ch. 17 we have it recorded that the apostles asked this of Jesus. For some reason, no doubt, they felt insecure. Perhaps they felt overawed by the mighty teaching and works of Jesus Himself, and saw how puny and ineffective they were. The Lord answered with a hyperbole. He said, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” The Lord is saying that we do not need to increase our faith so much as to make use of the little we have. Even the smallest faith is capable of the greatest deeds if only it is put to use. So even in the time of anguish the way to go is to decline to be discouraged and pursue the vision that we had reckoned was God-given. If it was God-given at first it is surely God-given still, and no circumstances, however powerful, can detract from its truth. Just keep on going then, like the hungry servant preparing his master’s supper. Your own needs will be looked after at the right time. The circumstances will be manageable if you are only obedient to the Master.

HABAKKUK’S FAITH-SPACE
In the time of his anguish Habakkuk made this sort of faith-space for himself. “I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what He will say to me.” In spite of giving expression to his anguish, this prophet made space in his mind and heart and will for what the Lord would say to him. It is not a wrong thing for us to admit to anguish, and on occasion to express it, but like the prophet we also must take our stand to watch and see what the Lord will say. To the prophet the Lord confirmed the original vision, as He does to us. We may not see the final issue of the problems we face, but still, the divine justice is inexorable and will come in due time; meanwhile, the righteous man or woman must live faithfully. “The vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end - it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”

EMPLOYING THE GRAIN OF FAITH TO SPEAK GOD’S WORD DEFEATS ANGUISH
In the scriptures and Christian understanding, vision and word as expressions of God’s revelation come together. Habakkuk’s vision was an expression of the word of God. In the New Testament Lesson we see St. Paul encouraging St. Timothy with the word of God, and it does seem that the letters to Timothy, who had been given a supervisory charge of the Christians around Ephesus, were written against the various discouragements that were afflicting Timothy very deeply. Timothy is reminded of what should be his faith-space. “I remind you” St. Paul says, “to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands. ... Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God.” St. Paul gives Timothy many other exhortations and encouragements. It is clear that at the time he does this, Paul himself is a prisoner, whose outward circumstances were worse than those of the one he was encouraging. Let that be our guide and example. We too may prevail over any anguish of our circumstances, and may help others to prevail as well, by employing the grain of faith the Lord has given us. The vision will surely come: it will not delay.

QUESTIONS

1. Identify some examples of anguish that in the past you experienced in your life. How did you express (“give vent”) to them. On reflection, was that the best way? How may it have been handled better?

2. Consider, in relation to the fact of anguish in life, the importance of personal prayer and Bible reading.

3. What might be a good Biblical model for helping someone to cope with his anguish?