My word for 2021

Habakkuk 1-3

Wait. Not exactly the word I expected for 2021, but that’s the one that stuck. Some people might say it was a word from the Lord, but I won’t be so bold as to claim to hear God in such specific terms. Still, this is the word that came to mind over and over as I pondered my focus for 2021. Two passages of scripture also circled in my head: sections from Habakkuk 2 and Jeremiah 33.

I read Habakkuk back in January, well before 2020 turned the world upside down. At that point, I considered his cry of “How long” from a theoretical perspective on the evil and injustice of humans. I could not have foreseen that “how long” would be the cry of so many people across the globe. Habakkuk prophesied in an evil age, one in which violence, poverty, devastation, and strife ruled, while the Law was ignored and justice never upheld. The Lord told him, ” Watch! Be horrified! Be frightened speechless! For I am accomplishing a work in your days — you would not believe it even if you were told!” (Habakkuk 1:5). Jeremiah heard the same word: “Call to me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). Those unbelievable “great and mighty things” included the total destruction of Judah at the hands of the Chaldeans because the sins of God’s people had reached a point of utter wickedness. Zephaniah also preached against the rebellious and defiled people who refused to obey the Lord and did “violence to the Law” (Zephaniah 3). Even before 2020, there were people crying out to God, “how long?” How long will bitterness and injustice rule even in our churches? How long will people flout God’s command to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength while loving each other? (Matthew 22:35-40). I wrote in my journal on January 17, 2020:

How long? The question of the ages, it would seem. Evil still runs rampant in the world. War, slavery, and violence are as much a part of this time as in any other…the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth. Pay attention. To say God works in mysterious ways is an understatement. However, He know what is happening, and He will judge the wicked even if we don’t. However, because His ways are not ours (Isaiah 55:8-9), how He works may not make sense to our limited minds. Here [Habakkuk 1], God uses the Chaldeans, who were know for witchcraft, astrology, and worship of Marduk to punish the wicked in Israel and Judah…How long? Until the people repent and a leader comes forth to honor God.

And here we are, nearly a year later. The world has suffered a deadly pandemic, drought, horrific natural disasters in the forms of fire, earthquake, and flood, economic catastrophes, and human suffering on a massive scale. The US has endured riots, protests, division, hatred, contentiousness, and violence, not to mention an election that pleased nobody. The economy suffered as businesses either shuttered or pivoted to “contactless” commerce. People argued over wearing masks of all things: protection or liberty. Physical distancing drove families. Work and school and church moved to online platforms. (Oh, to have bought stock in Zoom back in February.) Hugs and handshakes became elbow bumps. The virus that upended everything created chaos by its sheer inconsistency: most people recovered quickly, but some endured long term effects, and many died. Will a vaccine help? Maybe. Hopefully. But the damage to the psyche of the world is done.

And yet, after all these things, we still wait for the return of the good times. Back to “normal.” When we can attend church services and have school in classrooms and travel freely. But if we just return to the way things were, what have we learned? Have we made changes in justice? Are we better, kinder people? Do the good guys in white hats come out ahead? I submit, we have not made changes and we are not better people. The white hats are more than fifty shades of gray. And, with Habakkuk we might ask, why do the wicked seem to prevail, even after all the events of 2020? Evidently, there’s still a lesson to be learned.

I spent a fair amount of time in 2020 studying the minor prophets and considering the “day of the Lord.” Joel wrote that “the day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, and who can endure it?” (Joel 2). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that the day would come like a “thief in the night” but before that time, people would be talking about world peace and security (1 Thessalonians 5). After 2020, not much is certain, but no one is claiming this as a time of peace and security. I think the Lord does have a word for us, the same word he gave to Habakkuk: “Write down the vision…so that one who reads it may run. For the vision is yet for the appointed time; It hurries toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it delays, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay long” (Habakkuk 2:2-3). This year has been a foreshadowing of what is to come. Jesus called times like these the “beginnings of the birth pains” (Matthew 24). Habakkuk saw that things were going to get far worse before they got better; we must understand the same thing.

Why? Why the suffering? Why the certainty of eventual destruction? Because humans are desperately wicked by nature. Because, until people see themselves as they truly are, they will not see their desperate need for a Savior. We are stubborn, we humans. We want to be the masters of our souls, but we cannot be holy. And the Lord will do whatever it takes to make us see that, without Jesus, our souls are doomed. C.S. Lewis put it well when he said that God shouts to us in our pain (Lewis 1940, 2001). Joel foresaw a time when God will light up the sky with fire while turning the moon into blood. At the same time, young people will have visions and the old will dream of God’s wrath, judgement, and salvation (Joel 2). There will come a time when everyone will choose for themselves: worship the self or call on the Lord. Moderation, fence-sitting, cultural “churchianity”- these will be abolished and the lines of demarcation will be clearly drawn.

God has not destined us for that wrath. He sent Jesus, the Incarnation of Himself, for our salvation. When we call on His name, we are eternally His, no matter what happens on this earth (1 Thessalonians 5; Romans 5). The question we must address today is the same one Habakkuk faced: how do we respond to the certainty of hard times ahead?

With joy. We choose joy in the God of our salvation. We choose joy because He made a way of escape; these light and momentary struggles are nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed to us on that day (Romans 8). And for now, we wait in anticipation.

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—  but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:1-11

Additional reference

Lewis, C.S. (2001) The problem of pain. Harper. Original publication 1940.

Jonah: the sailors.

Their gods, his god, the God, the LORD.

There is a flow to the story of the sailors of the ship bound for Spain that is worth considering. When Jonah paid his fare and went below deck to take a nap, it was just another day at work. ( aside: How could Jonah sleep knowing he was running in disobedience?) Then, the storm. This was no ordinary storm. These were men used to the open sea, but this one terrified them. They called on their gods. Like many major cities (think Thessalonica), religious pluralism was part of the culture. For them, as for most people, religion was based on traditions, routines, and social norms. It was the thing that everyone did. Their gods were silent, so the captain woke up Jonah (a really sound sleeper) to try a different god, his god.

“What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

Jonah 1:6

Jonah refused to cry out to the Lord, even if he did wake up. He was persistent in his determination to NOT go to Nineveh. He had to know that if he called on God he would be required to obey the command to go to Nineveh and preach repentance. His stubbornness led to the sailors to try a new tactic to figure out the weather. They knew this was no ordinary storm and that it had to be supernatural in origin.

Since their gods were silent, the sailors decided to throw the dice to figure out whose wrong behavior caused the storm. The lots fell on Jonah. The God who allowed the storm also allowed the lots to fall on Jonah, once again pointing out his sin. Did Jonah then repent and vow to obey? Nope. He said, “Throw me into the sea,” probably thinking if he was dead the storm would stop and he could still avoid going to Nineveh. He would rather die by drowning than preach to the evil Ninevites. How often to we persist in not loving those around us even when God specifically calls us to share the gospel with them?

At this point, the sailors recognized Jonah as a prophet of the God, and no way would they kill him. They didn’t know the God of Israel, but they recognized his power, and they did not want to displease Him. At this point, they were exceedingly afraid. In desperation, they rowed with everything they had, but the storm just grew worse.

We often think that our way is better than God’s way, especially when His way doesn’t make sense to our limited human minds. Eventually, the sailors acquiesced to Jonah’s command to throw him into the raging waters. They prayed to Jonah’s God for mercy, knowing that Jonah would certainly drown. When the sailors finally obeyed (unlike Jonah) the storm ceased.



Calm water for smooth sailing.

That got the their attention. These strong and seasoned sailors turned away from the gods of their culture and recognized the exceeding power of The Lord God. Verse 16 says, “the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”

The sailors started the journey thinking it was just another day at work. The storm made them exceedingly afraid. The Lord demonstrated His power and they responded with exceeding awe, reverence, repentance, and sacrifice.

God will use us, even in spite of our actions, to draw others to Himself. Jonah went overboard, still refusing to obey the Lord, but the secular sailors recognized the superiority of Jonah’s God when they obeyed. This is not to say that obedience is optional; it is not. If we love God we will obey Him. However, God can and does use even our bad choices to allow others to see Him as the Lord.

God moves those who look to Him from exceeding fright to exceeding awe, and all for His Name.

Why go back?

Why would anyone go back to something that doesn’t work?
Galatians 4

Why Jesus? Why did he relinquish his divine authority and be born as a human to live in an oppressed population under the Roman government? Paul says it plainly, ” to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (v 5). Jesus’s purpose was to fulfill the Law that condemns us because we are unequivocally able to keep it.
If we truly understand the implications of our salvation, we should respond with gratitude and joy. Somehow, though, we become convinced that we have to add to what Jesus did by keeping old traditions, maintaining some form of legalistic rule, or worshiping the “right” way – whatever that is. When we fall into that trap of trying to add to Jesus for salvation, justification, and sanctification, we enslave ourselves again to the things from which Jesus freed us. Legalism, as far as being required for salvation is idolatry.

Jesus redeemed us because we couldn’t meet the requirements of the Law; why would we go back to living like the Law still has power over us?

There is nothing wrong with traditions; they remind us of where we used to be. We should be doing good while pursuing justice and mercy; that comes out of the overflow of God’s goodness and mercy toward us. But these things are not ends into themselves, nor do they provide a boost to our salvation. When we look to tradition or deeds as justification as Christians, we willingly go back to being enslaved by the Law and we drag other people with us.

Our adoption as God’s children is complete. Rejoice in that gift of life, being certain that only Jesus is credited with our redemption from slavery under the Law.