July 9th, 2018

Whom are we overlooking? What strategies for Spread have we not considered?

Habakkuk 2:12-20


A summer of oceans

Most of the past week Linda and I spent with my mother and other extended family in and around Suffolk, Virginia. Much of that time was spent in conversation in the living room, over meals, and in the car, enjoying Mom’s presence. We also accomplished a few tasks on her “Honey Do List,” since her honey, my dad, passed away several years ago – not that a “Honey Do List” was his specialty. We love how my 90-year-old mother “visits the old people” in two nursing homes, touching the residents literally and figuratively with Scripture, prayer, music, and Bible teaching.

On Friday afternoon we decided to get out together and do something unusual. My sister Elizabeth suggested the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News. Their mission is “to connect people to the world’s waters, because that is how we are connected to one another.” We learned about ancient ocean explorers like Alexander the Great, about military conflicts on the ocean like the first battle of ironclad ships – the epic Monitor v. Merrimac battle during the American Civil War, and about commercial use of the oceans, about recreation and transportation on ships such as the Titanic, and about ocean sport such as the America’s Cup. I never knew those yachts are as wide as our nave and the sails are taller than our sanctuary.

I realized as I walked through the exhibits that the ocean has never gripped my soul and imagination as it has others. Perhaps that is one reason Linda and I have never been on a cruise. I’ve never had the desire to wrestle giant fish miles from land. Had I joined the military, it would not have been the Navy. Seeing the primitive navigational tools that were far more advanced for their time than I realized made me aware of how terrifying it would have been for me to go out into the sea without sight of land for weeks on end with nothing but the stars to guide me.

Nevertheless, the ocean has dominated my summer. I’ve flown across the Pacific to Hawaii and across the Atlantic to Moldova. Still ahead is Linda’s and my anniversary trip to Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean. While in Hawaii we spent time with our son Phil, who earned a Ph.D. in Physical Oceanography and directs the Sea Level Center at the University of Hawaii. His wife, Carlie, with her Ph.D. in Marine Biology, directs the Communication arm of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a floating research vessel. While we were with them, we visited Honolulu’s Aquarium.

The most paradigm-shifting book I have read the last few weeks is a book called Blue Ocean Strategy. I borrowed those words for my sermon title and will return to the book later in this sermon. Still, I have to confess that the deep and wide ocean sparks in me the fear of the unknown, the fear of losing my way, of disappearing into the unknown. I admire people who love and pursue exploration of the deep, but I am not one of them.

As the waters cover the sea

All this reflection on the ocean, and my relationship to it – which lies somewhere between willful disinterest and fear – came after I had already chosen Habakkuk 2 for today’s sermon. I chose this text because this month’s theme at Corinth is “Spread,” which is about evangelism. Had I thought through the sermons before we printed the flyers, I might have suggested, in addition to peanut butter and seeds, an image of the vast ocean, maybe serene or perhaps striking terror with giant waves.

Habakkuk 2 includes three verses probably known to most of you, even if you didn’t know where to find them in the Bible. “The just shall live by faith” (2:4). “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (2:20). And the verse that captured my attention: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea” (2:14).

Habakkuk is a book of songs in the style of Psalms. Habakkuk opens with a psalm of lament, of sadness and complaint against God. The prophet rails against God for not judging the people of Judah, who live their lives as practical atheists – shedding blood and flaunting injustice as if there were no God to whom they would be accountable. Habakkuk wants God to show up and do something to correct his wayward people.

Still in chapter 1, God answers, “I’m about to do something. I will send the Babylonians to judge my people.” Habakkuk doesn’t like that answer. If Judah rates a 7 on an injustice scale of 1-10, Babylon is a 15. Why use a pagan nation even more unjust to punish God’s people who have gone astray?

Habakkuk ends in chapter 3 with a psalm of praise and trust. “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food… yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will be joyful in God my Savior” (3:17-18).

In the middle chapter, between the complaint and the praise, is what one preacher calls “a taunting song.” If you’ve been to a Duke-Carolina basketball game or any one of a number of other sporting events, you know what I’m talking about. England’s taunting song at the World Cup in Russia goes like this:  Woah, England are in Russia, Woah, drinking all your vodka, Woah, England’s going all the way!


It’s spelled differently, but “woe” is the primary content of Habakkuk’s taunting song in chapter 2. Actually, it’s God’s taunting song. The word “woe” appears five times in the chapter, and one commentator suggests that “ha!” would be a good translation. Now that’s a taunting song. The five “woes” amount to God telling Babylon, “You’ll get yours.”

“Ha!” God says in verse 6 to those who get rich by stealing from others. You just wait – they will rip you off.

“Ha!” God says in verse 9 to those who build fancy mountain-top houses to distance yourself from the problems of people in the slums. Your foundations will rot just like your soul has.

“Ha!” God says in verse 12 to the Babylonians who built entire cities of glamour on slave labor, treating people like expendable machines. God Almighty will burn it all up.

“Ha!” God says in verse 15 to those who prey on the addictions of others for their own lust and power, making them drunk so you can abuse them. The cup of God’s wrath will be poured out on you.

“Ha!” God says in verse 18 to those who replace the worship of the Creator with trust in gold and silver idols they make for themselves. Your so-called gods can never guide you or help you. They’re useless.

This is a word not just to Babylonians or the people of Judah, but a word that echoes down to us. If we think all God cares about is that we “preach the gospel,” meaning tell people to believe in Jesus and get saved, we have overlooked so much of the Bible. God cares about justice – about integrity and fairness and dignity. What exactly justice looks like and how to go about it is something Christians vigorously debate.

One book I highly recommend is the one the Board of Elders will be discussing at our retreat later this month – Generous Justice, by Tim Keller. Keller does a great job not only laying the biblical foundation for justice in both Old and New Testaments, but writing very frankly and helpfully about how conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, see justice differently – and how we need to hear both perspectives.

When Habakkuk declares God’s vision for the whole earth, it includes a vision of justice. Extortion, manipulation, abuse, and greed – wherever it exists – is challenged by truth and righteousness and faith. God’s vision is that all the earth would be filled with those who know God and bring him glory in a world where there is freedom and justice for all.

His point is not so much that you should go out and fix everything that’s wrong, although there are certainly ways in which you can and must do your part. The point is rather that history is moving undeniably and absolutely toward a world that is just and right because it’s God’s world. “The earth will be filled….” If that’s what God is doing, and that’s where history is heading, don’t you want to be on his side?  Because if you’re not, Habakkuk says, you will face the fury of his cup of wrath!

So shut up! Okay, that’s my paraphrase of verse 20:  “Let all the earth keep silence before him.” He’s the judge, the righteous one. Stop making excuses before him. If you’ve been treating people badly, making yourself more and more comfortable while those around you languish, remember, he’s in his holy temple. He’s in charge. He’s the judge. You will answer to him. Be silent and ponder that!

Blue ocean strategy

The book titled Blue Ocean Strategy is a book about business, not church or faith. At least not directly. The basic idea of the book is that too many entrepreneurs try to compete in the “red ocean of bloody competition” when there is a “blue ocean of uncontested market space” that is wide open to those who go exploring. I admitted to you earlier that this is not my natural instinct. I’m not wired to go out into the vast unknown. It frightens me. That’s as true of church as it is of business. I lead the “traditional service” because I’m most comfortable with continuing what has been.

The reason I liked this book, though, is because it was a tool I could give to our friends in Moldova to encourage them to think outside their landlocked box in terms of possibilities and opportunities. As the book points out, most of today’s best-known and most profitable companies are in businesses that only appeared and blossomed in the last century – think automobiles and aviation – or even in the last couple of decades – think Apple and Facebook, Google and Amazon. These were blue ocean thinkers, and some of them are not nearly so large or well-known, but they found a need or created a want around which they built a successful business.

I started wondering what it might look like to apply blue ocean thinking to this month’s theme of “Spread.” I’m rather aware that preaching on evangelism creates for many people a resistance because of a stereotype. If it makes you feel better, it does that for me as well. Evangelism is one of those topics (prayer being another) where I preach on it not because I do it well but because I need another reminder myself.

The “blue ocean strategy” is for me a fresh way of thinking about spreading the gospel. Who is it that I’m overlooking? What ideas for sharing Christ have I not considered? In two weeks, we’ll talk about “the bridges of God,” sharing Christ with your natural network – friends, coworkers, neighbors, family. But what about the unchurched and unbelievers who have no contact with believers or the church?

I want to suggest some possible action steps for you to consider this month as you re-evaluate your own commitment to spread Christ.

  1. Inspiration: Show up in Bost Memorial Hall at 9:45 AM on “Spread Sunday,” July 29 to hear a presentation by Jaime Torres.
  2. Service:  Sign up for Service Sunday, July 15, to get your hands dirty for no other reason than the humility and joy of serving.
  3. Literacy: Partner with children’s literacy through Board of Elders and Patrick Beaver Foundation.
  4. Prayer: Focus prayer on at least one unchurched/dechurched person or family. Pray specifically for an opportunity for a spiritual conversation.
  5. Research: Join a team to find out who’s not being reached in Catawba County and what new approaches are out there like these.
  6. Race: Attend Morning Star’s revival service July 24 with Pastors Bob & Paul to identify a friend/prayer partner of a different race.
  7. Time: Invest in at least one relationship with a non-Christian or unchurched person this summer.
  8. Internet: Brainstorm how to use our new video technology to reach the unchurched of our community and the not-yet-reached peoples of the world.
  9. Neighborhood: Join a ministry team focused on meeting material and spiritual needs of people living in lower income housing in northwest Hickory.
  10. Community: Start a small group that includes at least 50% faith seekers and spiritual strugglers.
  11. Young adults: Join Kevin Watkins’ team committed to revitalized ministry with college students and 20-somethings. Kevin starts work August 1.
  12. Strategy: Share your new “Spread” idea with a church staff member or Board of Evangelism leader.

As Pastor Paul and I discussed this sermon yesterday, we agreed that guilt is not a motivator we want to use for evangelism. There are two reasons for this. First, it doesn’t work. It never has for me, anyway, and I doubt it will for you.

The more important reason is that guilt is not a New Testament motivation for any spiritual discipline – devotion, worship, holy living, witness, acts of service or justice – anything. The New Testament doesn’t follow Habakkuk’s pattern of threatening “the cup of God’s wrath” if you don’t shape up. Why? Because Jesus, having agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane over accepting the cup in his body and soul, bore all of God’s wrath on the cross. The wrath problem has been solved forever. When we embrace what Christ has done on our behalf, we are free forever from trying to do the right thing to avoid wrath.

And so today we gather around the Table of the Lord, breaking bread and sharing what the Apostle Paul calls “the cup of blessing” (1 Corinthians 10:16). We remember and proclaim a wrath-free cup that frees us to share his glory, work for justice, and spread the Gospel out of gratitude, not guilt. Amen.



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