The Righteous Shall Live by His Faith

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O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and You will not hear? Or cry to You “Violence!” and You will not save? Why do You make me see iniquity, and why do You idly look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:2-3)?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

We’ve probably all asked these questions, at least most of us. And maybe we felt guilty asking. On the other hand, maybe sometimes we should have asked and didn’t. Maybe instead of asking, we just stewed, fretted, or despaired. Well, today in our text, the prophet Habakkuk asks some questions that the righteous person might indeed ask: How long will God let the evil of the unrighteous go on? And why does He tolerate it?

In our text we see a clear example of Hebrew lament. The laments of the Hebrews called upon God to remember His people who are suffering, to be faithful and deliver them. Note this important aspect: In their laments, the Hebrews never ask permission to deliver, rescue, revenge, or punish—all this is left in the Lord’s hand. They call upon God to be faithful to His promises and deliver them. They leave it up to Him on the “how” and the “when.” It is, after all, His responsibility, His job description, and His place in the relationship. When we can’t understand Him or what He is doing or not doing, the problem is not on His part, but ours.

As God’s people, we may take our concerns about this hidden or seemingly unjust God to God Himself. We can go right to the Source with our complaints. Job does it in Job 7. Jeremiah does it in Lamentations. David does it in Psalm 22, crying “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” (v 1), a shout picked up by Jesus from the cross when things got worse before they got better. Habakkuk does it here—he takes his complaint directly to God. And in this lamenting, we are provided with a beautiful dialog between Habakkuk and the Lord.

The prophet Habakkuk himself is a bit of an enigma. We know nothing of him apart from his book except for a strange reference to him in the apocryphal, “Bel and the Dragon.” The text seems to indicate that he prophesied around 609-605 B.C., shortly after the death of Josiah. Josiah was one of the few godly kings of Judah. He conducted a religious reform that included destroying the idol shrines, repairing the temple, and cleansing its courts of the corrupt religious practices of the day. His work didn’t last long or go very deep, unfortunately.

After his death in 609 B.C., Josiah’s son Jehoiakim came to the throne, and Jehoiakim had none of his father’s redeeming qualities. He was an irreconcilable enemy of Habakkuk’s contemporary, Jeremiah. It seems that the godless attitudes and wicked behavior which were present in his royal house filtered down to lesser officials and, finally, to the people themselves. It is this condition in society that Habakkuk was concerned about.

Habakkuk begins by complaining that he has been praying to God for a long time to stop the violence and injustice in Judah, but God has not answered. Upset that wickedness, strife, and oppression are rampant in Judah while God seemingly does nothing, he cries out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and You will not hear? Or cry to You ‘Violence!’ and You will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2).

This is not the only time that Scripture records such a cry from the lips of God’s people. The apostle John reports that he saw the souls of those who had been killed for their faithful witness to God’s Word. He heard those martyrs calling out in a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10).

Neither Habakkuk nor the saints in John’s vision spoke these words in a mean-spirited manner. They were not thirsting for vengeance for wrongs the wicked had done to them. After all, the Lord tells His own to love their enemies and willingly turn the other cheek when wronged. Rather, their questions simply ask the Lord when He is going to defend His honor and act justly against the wicked in the way He has promised. God Himself, after all, gave us this self-description at Mount Sinai as He handed down the Law: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me” (Exodus 20:5). And even though He told Moses on the mountain that He was “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6), He also said that He “will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:7). Habakkuk knows what the Lord has said about Himself, and so He cries out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for justice and deliverance, and receive no response from You?”

Habakkuk asks a second question: “Why, O Lord, do you tolerate wickedness in the first place?” Again, Habakkuk is not the only one, or even the first one, to put this concern into words. In His suffering, righteous Job had raised the issue: “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power… They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol” (Job 21:7, 13). The psalmist Asaph also confessed that he envied the prosperity of the wicked. He wondered, “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile Your name forever? Why do You hold back Your hand, Your right hand? Take it from the fold of Your garment and destroy them!” (Psalm 74:10-11).

Both Asaph and Habakkuk wonder why the Lord has His hands in His pockets, why He takes no action against those who willfully revile Him and ignore His will. How, they ask, can He permit the haughty, wicked person to slap Him in the face and dare Him to respond, and then make the godly view such behavior or, worse, become victims of it themselves?

What is it that Habakkuk sees that causes him such dismay and prods him to ask such daring questions of the Lord? As this keen observer of his times strolls down the streets of Jerusalem and looks around at the society of his day, he sees “violence” and “injustice” rear their ugly heads on every hand—whether in the hovels of the poor, the palatial homes of the rich, or the shops and booths that line the streets of the business section of the city.

“Violence” describes the immoral or even criminal behavior evident on all levels of Jerusalem society under Jehoiakim: murder, robbery, theft, fraud, embezzlement, rape, adultery, and other flagrant violations of God’s moral law. These are sins that flow out of godless minds and unregenerate hearts. They destroy the lives of individuals and ruin the fabric of society. They look very much like the things that fill our society today, do they not?

“Injustice” is the inability or unwillingness of society to react against and punish the “violence” it finds in its midst. Habakkuk observes that the courts are corrupt, that the processes of justice have broken down. Justice is perverted to favor the wicked intentions of the godless, and the godly find that justice eludes them, or they are ridiculed or persecuted because they refuse to condone evil but call for its condemnation and punishment.

The way Habakkuk pictures the law in his society is memorable: “The law is paralyzed.” A paralyzed person cannot walk or move his hands; he can’t work or defend himself if attacked. So likewise, is the law in an immoral society. The law has become ineffective, easy to circumvent, so crippled that “justice never goes forth.” There is no agreement on what is right or wrong. There is no willingness to effectively punish those who break laws. As a result, the law ceases to function. It becomes unable to dispense proper justice.

An immoral society is a lawless society. Where the Ten Commandments have become a dead letter, the breakdown of law and order in society is the inevitable result. This is what Habakkuk sees all around him, and he wonders why a just God does not act. Why does God tolerate this? Why doesn’t He save His people and deliver them from the wicked men who were hemming them in? Why has He let things get so bad in the first place?

The prophecy of Habakkuk reads like a textbook for those of us facing situations that are getting worse before they get getter. Habakkuk’s words weave a path from frustration, through a chaotic time in Judah’s history, to hope. For those of us sensing a downward spiral in our own world, this prophet shows how God provides the blessings that culminate in hope.

We’ve already seen God’s first provision. Habakkuk takes his frustration to God in prayer. Prayer is not just asking God for things; God invites us to open our hearts to him, freely expressing our anger, hurt, disappointment, and fears. The Psalms are examples of this openhearted prayer. All these emotions topple out of the hearts of the psalmists. As they talk and sing with God, even within a single psalm, we can often hear the mood swings along the way. Prayer recognizes that hopeless situations begin to change as God listens and acts.

A second of God’s provisions toward hope we see in 2:2, as Habakkuk says, “I will… look out to see what [God] will say to me.” Having stated his complaints clearly in prayer, Habakkuk takes a stand looking for God’s will in the form of a vision, so that Habakkuk will not only hear but also see the Word of the Lord.

Those seeking hope look for it in the Word of God, preserved in the Bible. There, too, God’s Word can be heard and seen. It is also heard and seen in the witness and encouragement of other Christians. When God comes to Habakkuk with His answers, He tells him to make the vision “plain” by inscribing it on tablets of stone or wood. It is a lasting Word God speaks, clear and plain to those who read it. So, we approach it with confidence in its inspiration and truthfulness.

A third way God provides hope to Habakkuk comes in 2:3. God makes clear that the full answer to Habakkuk’s prayer (and the complete fulfillment of his prophecy) will not come anytime soon. The Lord tells Habakkuk, “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.”

In our day of instant gratification, the call to wait for anything goes down hard for us. Some things take time. Hope always involves waiting. It’s like standing in the checkout line, like being put on hold, like the last month of pregnancy. It’s just in the waiting that we learn dependence, we grow, and we’re shaped by God. Most important, in the waiting, faith is strengthened, and hope has everything to do with faith in what God will do in the future.

That’s the fourth blessing toward hope God offers Habakkuk—and His most significant. “The righteous shall live by his faith.” Hope from a biblical perspective is inseparable from faith. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (11:1). Faith, in other words, gives hope its substance. Faith is not just our trusting that everything will turn out all right. Faith is believing God will care for us because He has been reconciled to us by the one He promised even to the Old Testament people including Habakkuk.

As St. Paul makes clear in Romans when he quotes these words of Habakkuk, it is Jesus Christ who by His death on the cross and His resurrection has accomplished this reconciliation to God. Our sin, which would have forever placed us on the other side of God’s judgment—with the unrighteous of Judah, with the wicked Chaldeans—He took on Himself and took away. Faith in that—in Him!—is the faith by which we live and by which we are righteous before God.

Hope is the amazing gift of seeing the future through what we believe. It’s why Christians with cancer can see themselves whole again—if not now, on earth, then forever, in heaven. It’s why a husband and wife torn apart by conflict, sitting with a Christian counselor, suddenly see a future they may have together. It’s why Christians who look at a world that is so filled with violence, strife, wickedness, and oppression and can trust that the Lord will see them through to a better tomorrow, a day and place where there are no tears nor mourning nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

“The righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Yes, they live by that faith centered in a God who keeps His promises, who at the right time proved His trustworthiness and sent His one and only Son to save us. For when we needed God most, God was there, working a plan that spanned millennia with a parade of prophets preaching and proclaiming that promise. “The righteous shall live by his faith.”

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Appearances Can Be Deceiving

“The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus” by Eugene Burnand

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[Jesus said:] “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Appearance. Style. Image. They’re everything in our world. In debates. At work. In school. Even in the church. Among Christians. Are you healthy, wealthy, and successful? Is your church growing rapidly? Well then, God must love you. That’s the popular thinking.

But appearances can be deceiving. Take Lazarus for example. A beggar. His body riddled with oozing sores. Dogs lick the pus, and he’s too weak, too depressed, to stop them. He’s an outcast who rummages through the dumpster, looking for the scraps that have fallen from the table of the rich and elite.

Does Lazarus look like he’s blessed? No, he looks like he’s a man to be pitied. He appears to not be blessed by God. In fact, maybe God doesn’t even like Lazarus too much. Otherwise, he’d be healthy, wealthy, and prosperous. That’s what the world would say in a culture where image is everything.

“The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus” by Eugene Burnand

Then there’s the rich man. Clothed in purple and fine linen. The ancient Middle Eastern equivalent of Armani suits and custom-tailored silk shirts. His daily menu is nothing short of royalty, either. Sumptuous feasts. Think Caviar. Lobster. Escargot. Filet mignon. Waldorf salads. Trifle and frozen custard. Claret and champagne. From all appearances he seems to be blessed by God.

But appearances can be deceiving. What counts is what God sees. “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). What counts is how these two men stand before Him, from whom nothing can be concealed.

Then comes the great equalizer: Death! Both men die. Death strips them of their outward appearances. Angels escort Lazarus to heaven. No more sickness. No shame. No hunger. And the sores are all healed. He’s given a place at the banquet of salvation right next to Father Abraham. Now we see Lazarus as he really is. Clothed with the righteousness of his Savior. His poor life redeemed. He shines in a glory not his own. He is in the presence of His God and Savior Jesus.

Death peels back the veneer of prestige and fortune of the rich man. It unravels the wealth he used to hide his spiritual corruption. Notice, how the rich man is not even named in this parable? And there’s no angelic escort. Jesus simply says: “The rich man also died and was buried.”

Now, the problem with the rich man is not that he was rich. Being wealthy is not a sin. Neither is being poor and miserable a virtue, in and of itself. The sin is that the rich man trusted in himself… in what he had… in what he did.

And so, he ends up in hell. Forever separated from Jesus. The agony and torment of hell is immense. Never ending regret. Forever seeking Jesus but having no access to Him. Seeing what could have been and now can never be. And so, Jesus pictures the rich man looking over that great divide. That unbridgeable chasm between heaven and hell.

Remarkably, even in hell, the rich man still displays his arrogance. Wants to use Lazarus as his lackey. “Father Abraham,” he demands, “send that poor chump Lazarus over here with a drop of water to cool my tongue.

“Sorry Rich Man. I can’t do that. Lazarus is in Paradise. He’s forever separated from all that would cause him pain.”

“Well, at least send Lazarus to my brothers to warn them. We don’t want them to end up in hell here with me, do we?”

“You don’t get it, do you, Rich Man? Your brothers have Moses and the Prophets. They have the Scriptures. They’re read in worship every Sunday. They proclaim Jesus the Savior. Let them listen to God’s Word preached in church and they will not end up in hell.”

“Yea, right Abraham! Nobody pays attention to sermons. Been to church lately? I’ll tell you what. Let’s do a crossing over thing. If Lazarus returns from the grave, surely my brothers will get religion. They’ll clean up their life for sure.”

“No way,” is Father Abraham’s icy reply. “No wonder you’re in hell, Rich Man. The Scriptures plainly proclaim Jesus as the Savior. The one true God. And guess who did die and came back from the dead? That’s right: Jesus.”

Father Abraham continues: “Moses and the prophets preached this. But you would not listen. You would not believe. The prophet Amos warned about your idolatry. Putting all your trust in your possessions, wealth, and comfort. And one of our Lord’s apostles wrote: ‘For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.’ Rich Man, in this life you appeared to be blessed. You fooled a lot of people. I heard what they said at your funeral. But appearances, especially in your case, were deceiving. You’ve wandered from the faith. You’ve pierced yourself with the eternal grief of hell because you would not listen to God’s life-giving Word.”

Dear Christian friends, there is a word of warning here for us. The rich man is anyone who trusts in himself or anything other than the merits of Christ. If we trust in ourselves, if we believe ourselves to be self-righteous, we are as lost as this rich man. For the truth is none of us have anything to offer God.

“We are all beggars before God. This much is true.” So said Dr. Luther on his death bed. You and I, before God, have absolutely nothing on our own—nothing but sores and other hideous things that we just wish we could hide or make go away. We have nothing to hold up before God. Nothing but sins that show just how poor and miserable we truly are, lacking any righteousness of our own.

We can’t look up. We can’t do anything but hold our heads down and hands up in desperate hope that God would have mercy… that He would help us, forgive us, and save us. And we know without doubt that it is totally by grace—for we surely deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment.

Still, we should not rest on our Lutheran heritage. We need to watch ourselves, too—because we have a way of saying the right words: “I’m a poor, miserable sinner,” yet live and speak as though we don’t really believe it’s true. In the process, we end up emptying those words of real meaning. “I’m a sinner, Pastor. I know I am, but the problem is (so and so). You should see what they do. I realize I’m not perfect, but…” “But”—the chief tool of excuse making. The verbal eraser that cancels out everything we’ve just said. And with that little “but” we put our faith and trust in something else other than the righteousness of Christ.

Beggars don’t even have excuses to cling to. They are completely empty, devoid of any imagined righteousness of their own. And they know it. “Mea culpa,” they say. “My fault. My fault. My own grievous fault.” It’s always their fault. It’s always their sin. And they are always willing to accept the blame.

Imagine that! Being the one that accepts the blame rather than pointing a finger at the next guy. That’s what it means to be a beggar before God!

“The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus” by Eugene Burnand

This text warns us, repeatedly, of sins that would distract us from God’s Word. It warns us not to trust in ourselves, our own comfort level, our own self-righteousness, or what we see. It bids us to hear the Word of God and believe it.

So far, you’ve heard God’s word of Law directed at the rich man, but it really applies to you, too. Like the rich man, you are also tempted to trust in appearances. You desire to look for God’s presence in what you see rather than in His Word. You’re tempted to look for an indication of God’s favor by the number of your possessions or the level of your comfort or the status of your health or your level of success. But such signs are no proof of the Lord’s blessing and approval. There are plenty of people who are blessed by God with material things, who still do not believe that Christ is risen from the dead. There are plenty of “good” people who are trusting in their own filthy rags of righteousness rather than Christ’s perfect robe of righteousness for their salvation.

But praise the Lord! The Law is not God’s last Word. Once it has convicted you of your sin, you are ready to hear the Gospel. You are ready to hear of your Savior who humbled Himself to become a Servant among us.

Talk about how appearances can be deceiving! God’s only Son was born to a humble virgin, a manger for his bed. In His ministry, the Son of Man had no place to call His own. The God-man endured the scorn, suffering, and shame of those who considered Him to be among the dregs of society. Christ bore the weight of our guilt and shame and sin to the cross. He suffered and died for the sins of the world—yours and mine included. Then He came back from the dead to prove that His Word and promise is true. And now He reigns over His Church here on earth, despite all appearance to the contrary. Hear His Gospel now.

Are you afflicted? Troubled? Worried? Sick? Without comfort? Old Adam will use these things to convince you that God has no love for you. Your sinful nature will use your exhaustion, hurt, and circumstances to say that the Lord must be out to get you. But you don’t listen to Old Adam, your circumstances, or your fatigue to know God’s will. Instead, you listen to His Word.

God’s Word tells you this: There is no way that God does not love you or is out to get you. Why? Because of Christ. Out of love for you, your Savior was afflicted, beaten, and troubled. He bore your sins, sicknesses, and infirmities all the way to the cross for you. There, God poured out all His wrath for all your sin. He has no more wrath to pour out upon you now. He is not punishing you, but disciplining you, patiently teaching you His way of righteousness as a loving Father instructs his own dear child. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.”  

God has not run out of love for you, nor is He out to get you. Old Adam will do His best to get you to think so, but Old Adam wants you to share the same fate as the rich man in the parable. So don’t try to learn about God from sinful thoughts, temptations, signs, or life conditions. Learn about Him from His Word. Cling to His promises… even more when you are afflicted. Because there Christ promises, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Do you suffer for the name that you bear… for being a Christian? A Lutheran who takes doctrine seriously? The world has little tolerance left for the saving Gospel that Christ has died for the sins of the world, and that the Holy Spirit works through the means of grace to deliver forgiveness and faith. If you cling to this Word, you will likely face scorn. You will likely be made to feel uncomfortable. In fact, I would be more concerned if you did not suffer some than if you do for the sake of Jesus.

But again, you don’t get your identity from the world. Because the world rejects Christ and instead looks to endless torment, it will mock His people. It will seek to make you so uncomfortable to be a Christian that you decide you’d rather be worldly instead. So don’t listen to what the world calls you. Cling to the Word, and hear what Jesus calls you. He calls you His beloved child, for whom He has shed His blood and risen again. He calls you an heir of heaven. He’s placed His name on you in your baptism, and He will not let you go. You are not a Christian because of appearance or because you say you are. No, far better: You are a Christian because Christ says you are.

Does the world seem to be crashing down around you, so that there is little good to see? Do you long for a sign of the Lord’s presence and love? Don’t look too far because the Lord is near to you. Look to the font and remember that He saved you there. There in the waters of Holy Baptism, He has quenched the fires of hell for you, marking you as His own, no matter how little the world esteems you or your Baptism.

Look to the Word, for there He speaks and strengthens your faith. There, through the mouth of His called and ordained servant, God speaks His Law, which exposes your sin and calls you to repentance. There, in His Gospel, you hear that Good News that for Jesus’ sake all your sins are remembered no more. Cast into the depths of the sea. As far away as the east is from the west.

Look to the Lord’s Table. To keep you in the one true faith unto life everlasting, the Lord feeds you with what the world thinks are only crumbs and a great big nothing… while they feast on the riches they have piled up for themselves. What the world thinks are crumbs, we poor Lazaruses confess are the true Body and Blood of Jesus, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.

By all appearances, none of these things looks spectacular or powerful, but by them you have everything you need. There, in these means of grace, you have the Lord Himself present for your forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

With Jesus you have everything. Your life is full and complete with Him no matter how sick or poor or unsettled you might appear in the eyes of the world. You are heirs of heaven. You’re numbered with Lazarus. One who believed and trusted in Jesus alone. And when you die the angels will carry you to heaven. You can count on it. You are among God’s elect children. For you are forgiven of all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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