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Feeling As God Feels


The Minor Prophets are probably the portion of Scripture that you and I look at the least, because they're not fun to read. When you get to the Prophets you really have this deep gloomy feeling, and there's a reason for that. The prophets were men that God trotted out in times of history when all other systems were in a state of collapse—when priests were corrupt, when kings were oppressive, when the people were anarchal and spiritually deviant. When nothing was working and you were down to that last moment when God's patience was wore to a frazzle and he was about to come upon his people with all of the consequences of judgment, then God always brought a prophet into the marketplace of life. So, prophets are not happy people to be around because they essentially bring to us a word of bad news. And you and I are part of a culture today that really doesn't like people who deliver bad news.

Twenty or twenty-five years ago I was in Japan on a speaking tour with a very close personal friend. He's now gone to be with the Lord. He was a number of years older than me. We were walking down the street in Yokahama, Japan, and we were in a conversation and the name of a common friend came up. I said something very unkind about that person. It was sarcastic. It was cynical. It was a put-down. It was really snappy. My older friend stopped just like that, and he turned and faced me until his face was right in front of mine. And with very deep, slow words he said, "Gordon, a man who says he loves God would not say a thing like that about a friend."

Since then I have often thought, he could have put a knife into my ribs and the pain would not have been any greater. I hurt that moment because he had me. He did what a prophet does. But you know something? I would bet you there have been ten thousand times in the last twenty years I have been saved from making a jerk of myself; for when I've ever been tempted to say something unkind about a brother or a sister, I hear my friend's voice once again say to me, "Gordon, a man who says he loves God would not speak in such a way about a friend."

Prophets do that. They remind us of the truth and where we are falling short. We avoid prophets, a lot of us do, and we do so at the peril of our spiritual journey and our biblical life. You and I need prophets.

Prophets are people who burn.

The book of Habakkuk is only three chapters long—two and two-thirds pages. And a quick read of it will leave you very, very confused. You have to dig here. This man probably put this stuff on paper, or spoke it out and someone else put it on paper, about 600 B.C.—give or take twenty years. He ministered to his people in a time when they were about to feel the overwhelming military power of the Babylonians, who were moving westward and were about to go over the borders of Israel, take over Jerusalem, burn it to the ground, destroy the temple until nothing was left, and then take every able-bodied woman and man and move them hundreds of miles away from their soil, their hometowns, their family roots, and move them to Babylon and turn them into slaves and whatever the Babylonians want them to be. We call that period of biblical history the exile. It lasted for approximately seventy years. And Habakkuk is looking right down the mouth of this event, sensing where everything is going; he's one of those people who has to ask the question, Why is this happening? and tell people what he sees and hears.

The first point I'd like to suggest to you is that prophets are people who burn. When they get into a subject and speak into it, they speak with enormous energy and emotion. Whatever feeling they've got, you can expect it to explode like a Roman candle. They will go to any expense to express to you their horror at what they see and they feel. And often it's not just academic to them so, while they're giving you facts, figures and statistics, they feel it in their gut very personally. Prophets burn because they feel, first of all, the effect and the awesomeness of sin and evil and what it does to people. There's no coolness in the life of a prophet. And often, as they burned and they spoke, the crowd would listen to them and then walk away and ignore them.

A young theologian went to a rabbi one day and he said, "Rabbi, I want you to know that I have read through the Torah twice now. I've been through it twice." The old rabbi said, "Yes, my son, but how much of the Torah has gone through you?" That's what biblical people are supposed to allow—they are to allow the Word of God to go through them. And when the prophets spoke, their words often did not go through the people.

Now watch the prophet burn, chapter 1:1 "The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received." Do you hear pain here?

How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you don't listen? How long must I cry out to you there is violence in the streets, but you're not saving us? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me. There is strife and conflict, and it is abounding. The law is paralyzed, therefore, and justice never prevails. You can't get a decent judgment in court. The wicked are hemming in, trapping all the good people, the righteous, and justice is perverted.

In these two or three verses, I hear Habakkuk angry at God. Habakkuk is burning because he looks into his world and he sees the horror of what evil is doing. Let me tell you what he's seeing. First of all, he's seeing the total debauchery of his generation. And now, he's watching the enemy from Babylon sweeping across the border, and wherever they're going they're not taking many prisoners. Horrific things are happening before Habakkuk's eye, and he's saying in these verses, Where in the world is God in the middle of all this?

Tell me you haven't had those feelings. Tell me in a moment when you got fired from a job, or a romance that you were really keying into exploded before your eyes, or a physical problem came upon you, or you're in a moment of financial anxiety. Tell me you haven't had moments when you have begged God for relief, and as far as you can see, it hasn't come. You've done all the right things. God, where in the world are you? How can you let these things happen to me? Well, prophets are broader sighted than most of us. They're concerned about God, how can you let these things happen to my people? And prophets get so burned up that they will even get angry at God.

I want to get on to other things, but just let me leave this paragraph with you and bring it to a point of application or a challenge to you. You and I sometimes call ourselves biblical people or Christ followers—one piece of evidence that we really are becoming biblical people is that we will begin to burn, too, as we watch evil working its way out in our world. The prophet and any biblical person through whom the Scriptures has gone will not be able to look at a world like this and feel good about stuff. When you hear about drive-by shootings in cities, when you hear about men and women who have to raise their families in squalid conditions and they're being unjustly treated by the system, when you hear about all the sorts of stinking stuff that happens in our world, do you just let it fly by, or do you burn? Because biblical people burn when evil appears to be having its way. They hate sin.

Prophets look deeply into situations and diagnose them.

Prophets not only burn, but prophets also diagnose things. They look into things. Most of us look on the surface of things. We are a surface culture that measures things in terms of beauty and size and worth. Prophets look underneath to the subsoil of things, into the foundation of stuff. While we look for instant causes and cures, prophets take a long view. Prophets look into the past and are very mindful of history. What's been the pattern of God's operation in blessing and in judgment? Then, having looked at the past, they look into the present and they say, "This is what's happening right now and this is what it means." And then they move into the future, as we'll see in a few moments, and they say, "And this is the long view in light of all that, and this is where it's all headed." Biblical people know their history and they know God's purposes in the future.

Now if you go back to the book, let's watch Habakkuk do some diagnosis—I'll be cutting and editing as I go along. In chapter two, he begins by saying, "I will stand at watch and station myself on the ramparts. I will look to see what God will say to me and what answer I am to give at this complaint." People have brought their data to Habakkuk. He's got to explain the times, the present. And God says to him, "I want you to write down this revelation so that a herald may run with it, for the revelation awaits an appointed time. It speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it. It will certainly come and will not delay."

Habakkuk is telling us that God's working out through history is long term. He will not be hustled or rushed. "A day in the Lord is like a thousand years," Peter will say. And biblical people learn how to wait. Even when the data says the sky is falling, they trust in their God for what the appointed time will be in the tomorrows of history.

Habakkuk, from the ramparts, looks into the present generation with the Spirit-filled eyes of the Lord. He sees five or six things that he lists here. Verse 4, he looks at people and says, "They're puffed up. Their desires are not upright. Indeed, wine betrays him. He's arrogant, never at rest. He's as greedy as the grave. Like death, he's never satisfied. He gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the people."

I wrote in my bible the word arrogance. These are people who think that they're running the world; and Habakkuk looks at that generation and says "This place is knee-deep in arrogance, in people thinking they're in charge of everything."

Then in verse 6 there follows a whole series of passages that begin with the word woe. These are not happy passages. "Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion. How long must this go on?" he asks.

Verse 9: "Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain to set his nest on high to escape the clutches of ruin."

Verse 12: "Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime."

Verse 15: "Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors, pouring from wineskins until they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies!"

Verse 18: "What value is an idol since a man has carved it, or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation. He makes idols that can't speak. Woe to him who says to wood, 'Come to life!' or to a lifeless stone, 'Wake up!' Can these things give guidance?" Habakkuk asks.

What he's done for us, and for his people, is to diagnose the times. You and I might be tempted to say, What does Habakkuk know about the Y2K computer bug? What does he know about health care? What does he know about our conflict in the Gulf with Iraq and Saddam? What does he know about educational problems or renewing the city? That's the stuff of which life is made. And you know—you're absolutely right to say that. But while those are the surface issues of the present time, deeper issues lie beneath them. And that's what interests the prophets. They're looking at the deeper moral and spiritual issues that move people, the things underneath the surface at the deeper part of the iceberg of society.

Look back again, verse 4, I've already given you the key word there—arrogance. They see arrogance in the lives of people. Verse 6, they see crime becoming a way of life—people getting rich on things that do not belong to them. Verse 9, they see extortion as part of the way of life that has become acceptable. I love the last part of verse 9. These people get unjust gain, and then they build their homes on high so that they can escape the mess that they've made. In 18, idolatry. Woe to those who make gods and then expect the gods to give them security and wisdom.

You want to update this stuff? Habakkuk is very relevant to our time. He's speaking to lots of people in modern culture who participate, unknowingly and knowingly, in systems that run on a win/loss principle—that the wealthier I get, the poorer somebody else gets; systems that sometimes tolerate crime and allow certain people to get away with horrendous acts because they have the money for a top-notch lawyer; systems that laugh at debauchery and sexual immorality. I tell you, it does something to the soul. And Habakkuk is speaking into those kinds of issues.

Now this is heavy stuff. But someone has to speak to us about these things, and that's the role of the prophets. Until you allow them to inform you as a biblical person, you will not see all of the issues about which God is concerned. Prophets make us look at systemic evil—why whole societies and cities go down the tubes—and they force us to ask the question, Where do we participate in these abhorrent systems, and what should we do about them?

Prophets always give hope.

Prophets burn. They feel desperately what they're saying. And prophets diagnose. They want us to see what God's eyes have allowed them to see. But there's a third piece, and this is good news. Prophets also always give hope. They look at the world and they say, "Look, folks, this world is going to be ugly for a while. The judgment for people's bad choices and sin and evil is coming, but in the midst of all this, there is a way to live as a biblical person."

Earlier, in chapter two, I skipped a phrase and you may have wondered why. Look at verse 4. It's the paragraph on arrogance. "See he's puffed up. His desires are not upright." Now this phrase, "But the righteous will live by his faith." Saint Paul quoted that phrase, too, I think three times. He loves that phrase. I think it's also quoted in the book of Hebrews. The old King James translation is, "The just shall live by faith." I can translate that in another way that will be more comprehensible. "The biblical person, the Christ follower, will live in response, will navigate through life, will make choices and judgments, will develop and form relationships, by his or her faith." In other words, I will live obediently to the expressions of the Word of God. I will respond to the impulses of the Holy Spirit. I will live in submission to the lordship of Christ. I will live by my faith. These people will choose the road of arrogance; I will choose the road of faith.

Let me take you to another passage, Habakkuk 2:12-13 "Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed … Has the Lord Almighty determined that people's labor is only fuel for the fire? For the nations exhaust themselves for nothing?" But, verse 14, "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."

Sometimes you and I look upon a world where there are killings and crime and extortion and it looks like the bad guys are always winning; and Habakkuk says, yes, I know for the moment it looks like that. The Babylonians are swarming the countryside and the people here have lost all of their moral and spiritual resistance. The place is just blowing up. But there's coming a day when the whole earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord, no matter how bad it looks today. And you've got to live with that anticipation and that hope. The glory is coming, and when it comes it's going to be like a tidal wave that will cover the whole land. Every place you look, and every thing you hear—glory will be the theme song. The biblical person lives in that great hope and anticipation.

We know from the New Testament what Habakkuk is saying here—Jesus is coming. And when he comes there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and you've got to live in the anticipation of the explosion of the kingdom in all of its glory.

One or two more nuggets. Chapter 3:16: "I heard and my heart pounded. My lips, quivered at the sound. Decay crept into my bones. My legs trembled." In other words, Habakkuk is saying, This whole world is just breaking my heart. My whole system is crumbling under the weight of the immorality and debauchery of my time, yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come upon the nation invading us. I know that God is going to come in justice.

Then in verse 18: "And not only will I wait in the judgment of God, but I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my Savior." Do you remember how this book began? It began in gloom. It began with Habakkuk crying out "Everything is going to the dogs." Now notice how it's ending. But I will be joyful. I will wait. I will be patient. I will be silent. I will pray. I will trust. That's the agenda of the biblical person in a turbulent time.

And then watch the crescendo of this book. Verse 19: "The sovereign Lord"—the key word being sovereign, which is a theological word that speaks of a God who has all power, all knowledge, and who can do everything he wants in the time that he chooses. He will not be rushed. He will not be hustled. He will not be intimidated. He is the great God above all the universe. "The sovereign Lord is my strength," in spite of the fact that I feel weak. "He makes my feet like the feet of a deer. He enables me to go on to the heights."

Not far from here lives a couple that has worshiped here on occasion, husband and wife, Marshall and Susan Shelley. Marshall is one of the senior editors of the Christianity Today publications. Over the years, among the children that Marshall and Susan have birthed, two were born with terrible birth defects—Toby and Mandy. In 1991 Mandy was a year old, but was completely oblivious to reality as we know it, because of her birth defects and brain damage. When Susan was pregnant with Toby, from the very beginning of the pregnancy they knew that Toby was even more severely damaged. But they chose in both situations to see the pregnancy through when other people would have aborted, leaving the events in the hands of God. Let me read you a portion of the letter that Marshall and Susan wrote at the end of that year.

This was not a gentle year for the Shelleys. It was one in which we experienced God's grace amid some painful circumstances. First the difficulties. Our daughter Mandy, age one, was hospitalized nine times this year—seizures, surgery to have a feeding tube implanted in her stomach, surgery for acute glaucoma. She remains completely dependent, unable to respond to us in any way, although we do think she knows when she is being held. In August due to an unknown cause Mandy went into a coma, almost died. Her vital signs were failing. Susan stayed all night at the hospital holding Mandy and praying. At seven a.m. her vital signs normalized; the next day we brought her home. One of the nurses said later that she saw angels hovering over Mandy's bed.
In November our son Toby was born four pounds eight ounces, nineteen inches long, with severe birth defects—heart malformation, cleft lip, missing portions of the brain, spina bifida. It was a condition called Trisomy 13. Two minutes later he died. We got to hold him, and we saw him breath a few times. But we never heard his voice or saw his eyes. We still grieve not getting to know him.
After paying tribute to Toby with a service of remembrance and thanksgiving, 275 people at the funeral to honor him, we loaded his tiny casket into our van and drove to Kansas where we buried his body in the family cemetery. We knew that Toby himself was already in heaven enjoying eternal life free from his birth defects.
Again, we were left wondering what God was up to. Why create a child who would only live for two minutes? We still don't know what caused Toby's condition, or Mandy's. But we are convinced that they were created for a purpose. [This is biblical thinking going in past, present and future. Habakkuk would like this.] If, as the Bible says, the last shall be first, we won't be surprised to find when we get to heavy that Toby and Mandy are playing key roles that we can't even imagine right now. Susan and I have often reminded each other that all our professional and church activity may wind up in eternity looking pretty insignificant. In God's kingdom we may find that our greatest contribution was giving birth to Toby and Mandy.

That's biblical thinking. You get that kind of stuff from the prophets. And when you get into the minors, you discover how these men coped and how they thought. You get strength for today. You get hope for tomorrow. And even though life looks terribly difficult and nothing seems to be coming to some kind of resolution, you learn from the prophets that the sovereign God is still on the throne, and you have hope.

And that's my prayer for all of you.

© Gordon MacDonald
Preaching Today Tape #196
A resource of Christianity Today International

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Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

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Sermon Outline:


Prophets remind us of the truth and where we are falling short.

I. Prophets are people who burn.

II. Prophets look deeply into situations and diagnose them.

III. Prophets always give hope.