“Hold On” Hab 1:1-4, 2:1-4 2 Tim 1:1-14 Lk 17: 5-10
If you haven’t seen the news this week, let me catch you up. The rich keep getting richer; the poor keep getting poorer; the wicked appear to get away with murder, and the righteous seem to be getting kicked while they are down. The military still never has to hold a bake sale to pay for its newest bombers, but teachers around the country still buy their own school supplies on their own meager salaries. It’s just not right!
These may be observations about our time, but they aren’t unlike similarly frustrating events in the time of the prophet Habakkuk. In both cases, the people of God are impatient with the violence and injustice they see all around, and wish God would get busy making things right already. It is a gift that our Scriptures show us Habakkuk railing against God like this, because it gives us permission also to cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long?” without fear or shame.
And what is God’s answer to the cry, “How long?” Each of our texts today offer a version of the same response: hold on. From the Hebrew Scriptures, both our first lesson and the Psalm assure God’s people that God IS paying attention, that God DOES see and understand how frustrating it is to watch evil apparently triumphing. Both readings encourage us to trust that God is planning to address the apparent injustice, so it wouldn’t be wise for us to take matters into our own hands. God has something in store, so we can let go of our tiny plots for revenge. We just have to hold on. Wait. Trust. Be patient. Have faith.
What is that–Faith? In today’s second lesson faith is described as a “gift of God that is within you” and “a good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” Faith is not, then, a tangible item. It is not a list of concepts we profess to believe or a catalogue of stuff we have to do. It is a living, breathing, embodied reality. Faith is trust. Faith is, as Dr. MLK once put it, “Taking the first step when you cannot see the rest of the staircase.” It is Indiana Jones (in the Temple of Doom), leaping over a vast chasm only to realize that a bridge–just out of sight—is firmly in place beneath him and will convey him safely to the other side.
Timothy, the recipient of the letter from which our second reading is excerpted, apparently receives this kind of faith from his mother Lois and grandmother Eunice. Maybe they were like my parents, who read devotions with us kids after supper every night, sang hymns on long car trips, prayed with us before bed, and still pray for each of us kids by name every night. But what about people whose parents do not express faith, or at least not so overtly? Do they not get faith then? Or is faith is transmitted in a different way?
What if Timothy came to faith not by genetics, but by watching his mother make extra servings of food so they’d have some to share with the neighbors who were going through a tough time? Or from hearing his grandmother defending a person everyone else was badmouthing? Maybe neither of them mentioned that they were doing these were things because of their faith in God, but Timothy made that connection for himself.
Maybe what Jesus is driving at in his parable in Luke’s Gospel is that kind of faith by example. His disciples beg him, “Increase our faith!” Which makes sense, considering that Jesus has been telling them how difficult and demanding it is to follow him: “Take up your cross and follow me,” for starters. In the verses immediately preceding today’s reading, Jesus told his disciples they must forgive those who harm them—even repeat offenders. And in recent weeks we’ve heard his insistence that the rich share what they have with the poor. No wonder they feel ill-equipped to be his followers.
But Jesus explains that faith can’t be measured in terms of having more or less. It’s like being unable to say you are “a little bit pregnant.” Either you are or you are not. Either you have faith or you do not. Even if all we have is a tiny little bit, the size of a mustard seed, that’s all we need. And all of you here today have at least a little tiny little bit, or you would not be sitting here.
Faith comes to us by what we call “the means of grace”—among them, the Sacraments. One of the reasons we baptize infants in the Lutheran church is precisely to remind ourselves that baptism is God’s work, not ours. Similarly, we trust that something powerful and mystical occurs when we share simple bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus. In these ordinary substances, God comes to us, draws us closer to God’s own heart, to one another, and to our siblings around the globe. I don’t pretend to understand it, but I have a mustard-seed-sized-faith that it is so.
As Lutherans, we don’t believe that there is anything magic about the water we use for baptism or the bread and the wine we use for Holy Communion. It’s just bread and wine from the grocery store. The water comes out of the tap. These things don’t create a super-shield around us that protects us from bad things or makes us radiate goodness. But in some way, God uses these ordinary things to touch us, to claim us, to instill faith in us, to bind us to God and one another, whether we are conscious of it or not.
The Sacraments nurture the mustard seed of faith that was planted in us by the Holy Spirit. But God isn’t restricted to using what we call “holy things” to cultivate faith. God sees the whole universe as holy and full of grace. So sometimes our faith blooms when we aren’t even looking. Sometimes treating strangers with hospitality, interacting with our co-workers with integrity, telling the truth when it would be easier not to, or refusing to participate in systems that cause someone else pain can stir up faith. We may not think that just showing up at our jobs or schools and treating people with respect and kindness is a big deal, but it is holy and powerful stewardship of our hearts and souls.
Every time we honor the people and places God has placed in front of us and on our hearts to care for, we fan the flames of faith. We live into the assurance that “God has not given us a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power and love and self-discipline.” Through our daily interactions and observations, the Holy Spirit waters, weeds, and fertilizes our faith. As Timothy was encouraged in his faith by his mother and his grandmother, likewise, each one of us is accompanied and helped along by others God provides for us on our journeys.
After God tells Habakkuk to hold on–God’s promises will be fulfilled–the prophet remembers God’s saving power in the past. Then, even without any outward change in his present circumstances, his book concludes with this lovely profession of faith, one of the most beautiful in the whole Bible:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
God is faithful. Hold on.
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