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November 13, 2016

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto

HABAKKUK 1:1-5, 3:17-18

The nation was going down the tubes. Every day, there was more shocking news of the disturbing conditions. When it seemed like things could not get any worse, they did-- increasing violence, a deteriorating economic situation, a moral mess, problems with the legal system, widespread breakdown in relationships, conflict everywhere.

No, I'm not talking about 2016. I'm describing 600 BC Jerusalem in the years preceding the conquest of Judah by Babylon. The prophet Habakkuk cried out to the Lord, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save?”

Habakkuk’s prayer was not a gentle, meek and mild conversation with the Lord. He was angry, frustrated, impatient. He challenged the Lord. He accused the Lord of not listening, of not saving God's people. Habakkuk was honest with his feelings. Authentic prayer begins with honesty--blunt, naked, unsophisticated honesty. When cancer strikes, when a loved one is suffering and dying and you are helpless, when a young person prematurely dies, when a young person is struck with disabling mental illness, when an employer demands your involuntary resignation, when violence strikes terror in the neighborhood, authentic prayer cries out, shouts at God. “How long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?”

But the Lord was listening to Habakkuk and the Lord responded, “Look...and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.”

As in Habakkuk's time, there is anger in our country today. There is widespread fear—fear of ISIS, fear of immigrants, fear of people who have a different color or a different religion, fear of deportation, fear that our way of life is disappearing, fear of the future. But, the Lord says, “Look and see. Be astonished! Be astounded!” The Lord has not gone on vacation. The Lord is not out there somewhere sitting on a cloud watching us struggle.

An often heard phrase, “the Lord does not give you more than you can handle” is not biblical because the Lord does not give you suffering. When bad things happen, the best response is, “I can't handle this, but God can!” You don't have to handle all that happens, but, look and see, God can.

How often we hear someone say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Ridiculous! God does not cause everything that happens, but God is at work in what happens. The Lord is astonishingly at work.

Ellie and I are very active in the Arizona church where I was interim senior pastor two times. Our son, Tim, and his three daughters are also very active. The girls developed a friendship with Cole, a fun, sensitive, caring young man in their youth group. He, along with Julia and Melanie, served on two youth mission trips, most recently in July to Peru. The youth group built 12 houses, worked in a senior care center and an orphanage where Cole generously gave his sunglasses to an orphan. When Amanda was sick and missed school, he called her, told her to meet him at the door where he gave her a healing cup of tea. Cole was like a brother to Melanie and he was Julia's first love. Every night at 10:00, before his mother confiscated his phone, he texted Julia and said he loved her.

August 26, Cole and Julia had a pizza and bowling date. He arranged to pick all three girls up for church on Sunday, but he didn't come. They phoned and texted but he didn't answer. Cole had died in his sleep. At 1:00 Julia abruptly woke up, startled, and Melanie audibly cried, “NO”, in her sleep. The Director of Youth Ministry told all the youth at their 9:30 Sunday School class. In the evening, the youth group held a candle-light vigil. On the day of his Memorial Service where 600 people filled the church, Cole's Mother gave Julia a gold necklace centered by a petite heart nugget, which Cole had planned to give Julia on the two-month anniversary of their first kiss.

No, everything does not happen for a reason! No, his death was not predestined. (I'm giving you Methodist theology this morning because we believe differently than popular religion!) No, Cole's death was not God's will! No, the Lord was not testing them to see what they could handle! No, God didn't need another angel in heaven! No, God didn't take him--a rare form of epilepsy took him, but God did receive him into heaven. It was more than our granddaughters could handle, but God does the handling and God is at work comforting, healing, encouraging, giving strength and peace.

Bad things happen. Habakkuk challenged the Lord. The Lord spoke and Habakkuk responded, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, or fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail, the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” Yet! Yet I will rejoice! No matter how dark the day, I will rejoice. Dare you respond as Habakkuk did? Say it with me, “I WILL REJOICE.”

There is a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness comes and goes. Joy is permanent. Joy is a deep feeling of well-being that undergirds and sustains. Joy is irrepressible. It bubbles up like an artesian well. Joy works its way through suffering and depression, and bubbles up with an irrepressible sense of well-being. Irrepressible joy bubbles up and shines through tears. Joy does not come from the externals of life. Joy doesn’t come from abundance of things. Joy comes from the Holy Spirit. Joy comes from living in a vital, dynamic relationship with Jesus. Joy cannot be forced, contrived, fabricated, or manipulated. Joy is not something you dredge up from inside yourself. Joy is not something you do, joy is a gift from God.

Kathryn Koob was an American hostage in Iran for 444 days in which she was blindfolded and moved 13 times. No one was there to help. The door to the world, the door to her family and friends was shut. Yet, during her captivity, and through her captivity, she experienced a spiritual awakening. She deepened her prayer life, and learned how to rely on God despite captivity and chaos. She said, "During this time I began to learn about joy." Imagine! She learned about joy. She is grateful for memorized Bible verses and hymns she sang by herself. She is grateful for the Bible and a Christian community which had prepared her for the ordeal. She wrote, "What we are teaching in our churches is what will give strength."

Habakkuk faced difficult times and cried, “How long, O Lord, shall I cry for help!” Churches also face difficult times. How many times has the First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto cried, “How long, O Lord, shall we cry for help!

Ellie and I call this church our church. I was a pastor here for a total of 15 years. Ellie is a member and I am Senior Pastor Emeritus. Part of our tithe is given here. We care about our church and have ridden with you on the roller coaster through downs, ups, downs and currently, an upswing. Though the roof periodically leaks, though we have been bombarded with turmoil, though members have come, gone and come again, yet we will rejoice in the Lord.

“Look and see,” the Lord told Habakkuk. “A work is being done that you would not believe if you were told.” Look and see the astonishing, astounding work God is doing.

We have three outstanding pastors and a staff who are deeply committed to our church's ministry and future. We again have a growing children and youth ministry. We are innovative—holding an indoor children's Tennis Camp! We send our youth to do hands-on mission work on Indian reservations. We have an outstanding choir and Upstream band. We have untold numbers of volunteers. We have members who are zealous about doing God's work and are contributing financially. We throw open the doors and welcome everyone regardless of their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. We opened our doors and now celebrate Tongan and Fijian congregations. We have facilities in excellent condition, thanks in large part to the Centennial Endowment Fund.

And, don't take our sanctuary for granted, which is unlike any other in the Bay Area. I recall giving a Minnesota couple a tour of our sanctuary. I didn't bring visitors into the sanctuary through the convenient side doors. I made them walk outside, across the patio, through the narthex and then into the sanctuary. The friend from Minneapolis wept. She was awestruck and whispered, “How magnificent!” She didn't say, “How nice. Where's the coffee?” She was deeply moved. She felt the presence of God. I'm afraid most of us have been here so often we take this sanctuary for granted. And, on Sundays, we're late, rushed, busy, our minds filled with myriads of thoughts, none of them on God and we miss the sense of awe. Our Minneapolis visitor entered the presence of God, and she wept. What if she had heard the organ and choir!

But, beyond buildings, the evidence of what God is doing is to see what is happening to and with people. Look and see how many people are growing in their relationship with Jesus, how many people are finding salvation, how many homeless are housed, fed, clothed and encouraged, how many children and youth are loved, how many struggling persons are encouraged through Stephen Ministry. Look and see how many around the world are blessed because of our mission giving. On and on... Look and see.

Though the fig tree should not blossom, in spite of disappointments and dark days, YET...I will rejoice! “Look and see,” says the Lord. “Be astonished! Be astounded!”

© 2016 Douglas I. Norris