“CAN YOU JUST BE SILENT FOR A MINUTE?”
Habakkuk 2: 18-20
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
November 20, 2016
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It was a 700 mile walk. It was the springtime when they started, probably somewhere near the end of March. Perhaps they were able to gather a few things; a couple of cherished possessions, maybe some scrolls, I don’t really know, but then they were gathered together, the whole lot of them, and the Babylonians forced them to start walking. As they turned their eyes to the east, they must have made one last look over their shoulders, back to the fallen wall, back to the smoldering ruins of the Temple, back to the captured palace, back to the only lives they had ever known. They headed northeast most likely, and walked through what is now northern Israel, then Syria, before crossing into the Western desert of modern day Iraq. It would have been a terrible walk for the exiles, hot, dusty and exhausting. As they walked, waves of grief and regret would have washed over them as they considered all they had lost.
There are two great events in the Old Testament. The first is Exodus; the escape of the Hebrews from slavery into freedom and their new land of Israel. The second is exile; the fall of Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonians and the deportation of every educated person in the nation to Babylon. Those two events underlay all the stories, poetry and laws of the Old Testament, and they laid the foundation for the theology of the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus. Habakkuk was a prophet of the exile. He told them it was coming.
Jerusalem, the great holy city had become irreparably corrupt under a terrible king and finally it had paid the price with its fall. And at the root of its fall, well, at the root of all evil in the Old Testament? Idolatry.
As the exiles trudged off into the desert they did so with many regrets, but surely idolatry must have been at the top of the list. We tend to think of idolatry as an anachronistic sort of thing, but when we do this, we would be making a mistake. Idolatry is alive and well, thank you very much, and it has been for a very long time. Idolatry, you see, is something we humans do well. John Calvin wrote that humanity is a “perpetual idol factory.” So hear me clearly when I say this, we are all idolaters. Each and every one of us. We have lots and lots of idols, just like they did.
So what is an idol? Well it is literally another god, a false god, which has been placed beside or above the true God we worship this morning. For the people of Israel it was gods imported from the cultures around them which usually got them in trouble. They would worship the god of the Canaanites, or the gods of the Egyptians, along with their own gods, and this would always be a source of God’s anger. But idolatry is more than this. Think back to the story of the Exodus for a moment. When Moses climbed Mount Sinai to receive the ten command-ments, and was gone for a long time, do you remember what the Hebrews did? They built a golden calf. They melted down their gold and made for themselves an object to worship and invest with all their hopes and dreams, hopes and dreams which they felt God had neglected. And this gets to the true point. Idols are man-made gods, no more divine than the Empire State Building, the Rubik’s Cube or a flat screen TV.
And why do we fashion idols, you ask? Well, we fashion them because God has, in some way, let us down. God didn’t save us. God didn’t comfort us. God didn’t love us enough. God didn’t feed us. You get the idea. We create idols because we think God has not done his part in some meaningful way. Now, today we may not worship little statues of foreign gods, but never imagine that we haven’t fashioned our own idols. Let me list some. Money, power, popularity, sports, politicians, stuff, nations, and even children. All of these things can function as idols for us because they are all in one way or another created by us and endowed with some divine power in our lives, taking precedence over our worship of and fidelity to God. We are all idolaters.
So what are we to do? Think about those exiles making their way to Babylon. Their heads hung low, their hopes gone, their idols in an ash heap. They had little left. For they would have had many thoughts as they walked; there would have been arguments and debates, words from their captors. But at some point, at some point along that dusty road to perdition, they would have run out of things to say, run out even of regrets and there would have been a heavy silence which fell over them. Their minds finally empty of all that was left behind. And then, Habakkuk tells us, then they may have been able to finally rediscover their faith. In the silence, they found God again. Habakkuk writes, “let all the earth keep silence before him!” What is the antidote for idolatry? Is it fundamentalism? No. Is it preaching? No. Is it knowledge? No. It is silence. It is silence! It is the stillness of our idol producing brains.
Think about all those idols I listed before. Let’s take the most common: money. Think about money for a moment and all it represents. Money is comfort. Money is power. Money is privilege. Money is knowledge. If we just had enough money, we believe, then everything would be fine. That is just the noise of our brains tricking us. That is our brain lying to us and making an idol. We can’t get enough money to fix everything. Money will not buy us love. It will not bring us joy. Money cannot be worshipped or praised. Money cannot fill us with the Holy Spirit. Money has no power over us and all the money in the world will not give us what we most want unless we are completely misguided. No. This idolatry is the work of our minds and the noise of our culture. All that noise, but when we find silence, real silence, we can begin to find God again.
Idols, you see, speak in one tongue: our own. It is your voice which your idols spit back to you. It is your anxiety that it channels, your fears it claims to relieve, your hatred which it justifies. It is you. You are the voice of the idol. Silence renders the idol mute, and a mute idol is an impotent idol. And if our idols fail to speak, we will find that, suddenly and mysteriously, God will creep back into our lives.
Do you know what the exiles did when they got to Babylon? Some of them blended in and became Babylonian, but many of them rediscovered their faith. They wrote down what they could remember. They composed new Psalms. They sat with their lament. They prayed.
The God who for centuries had been in the Temple of Jerusalem, the temple which now laid in ruins, that God was there with them. And when the time came to return, they went back to Jerusalem and they rebuilt the walls, and they led the Jewish people into a renaissance in their faith.
We are all so tired, so anxious, so scared. Your idols tell you they can fix that, they can save you from it, but they cannot. They are too weak. And remember, they are speaking to you with your voice, not the voice of God. Instead, meet your fears and fatigue and anxieties with silence, and you will find the timeless presence of God is here. Keep silent before God and find your faith again. Amen.