Planting Vineyards and Buying Pop-Tarts in Babylon

All I wanted to do was buy a box of strawberry Pop-Tarts for my seven-year-old son. Really, I had no other agenda. As I headed toward the checkout line, though, I was confronted by a prominent display of the latest edition of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, complete with three nearly-naked rear ends in full view.

Seriously…the stuff that is front and center on the magazine display racks nowadays would have been unthinkable just a couple of decades ago; I know that makes me sound like a clueless old man, but my thinking has its roots in deeper issues. What chance does a young boy have to develop a healthy view of human sexuality these days? Why are we at all surprised to learn that more people are addicted to pornography than ever before in human history?

I find myself growing increasingly weary of living in a media-saturated, me-oriented culture with a hyper-sexualized worldview, and it’s not simply because I spend time working with guys who are ensnared by addictions of all kinds, pornography among them. It seems more and more obvious to me that, increasingly so, Christians – along with people of other established faith traditions – are not just being asked to quietly tolerate public displays of sinfulness, we are also being pressured to actively celebrate all manner of evil. Any refusal to do so is generally met with accusations of intolerance and self-righteousness. “Right” and “wrong” can be defined by anyone, it seems, except the Christian.

So what should the believer’s response be to what feels like society’s increasingly-aggressive attack on our moral foundation? This is all a very loaded issue nowadays, and not one that is likely to win you many new friends at your next cocktail party. Nonetheless, we are called to deal with societal shifts in what is considered “good” and even “appropriate” when it comes to how we live out our faith.

An 18th-century Russian icon of the prophet Habakkuk
from Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery,
Karelia, Russia.

For years now, I have found myself returning again and again to the words of Habakkuk in the Old Testament whenever I am feeling despair over the “signs of the times” all around me. There are many reasons to spend time with this minor prophet, of course, but for me the consistent payoffs have been: 1) it’s a short book, just three chapters; 2) it starts off with a guy telling God how cheesed off he is; 3) it gives us a really clear picture of God not being bound by the limitations of human expectations; 4) it reassures me that God interacts with our prayers; and 5) it quickly takes Habakkuk from the position of being seriously ticked off to bending his knee in worship. All too often, I need to make this transition myself.

I read through it whenever the temptation arises to view modern American culture as desperately wicked and very much in need of an immediate holy smack-down. Habakkuk reminds me that the LORD (all caps) is firmly in control of all societies, armies, powers and authorities across the sweep of human history. Governments are both established and wrecked by the LORD as He sees fit, and when He sees fit. And, perhaps most significantly for me, we as individual believers are called to work for the Kingdom of God whether we live under wise or wicked leadership, and to trust that God will settle all accounts in the fullness of time.

Habakkuk, a faithful prophet of God, was sickened by the vile corruption that he saw everywhere in his culture. He cries out to God to act on behalf of the nations of Judah and Israel to end the iniquity all around him. I very much doubt that his hope was that God would answer his prayer by bringing destruction upon God’s chosen people, yet this is what God says in response to Habakkuk’s first complaint: “For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.” You can almost feel Habakkuk’s heart sink at this revelation: “Whoa, whoa, hold up a minute! Is this level of response really necessary? Can’t we just get some better leaders or something?”

“You would not believe if told” is one of those verses in the Bible that is very effective at reminding me that calling out for God’s judgment might not turn out quite like we all might hope.

Even though our culture has clearly lost its sexual moorings, it seems equally clear to me that God is calling us to trust that He is doing a work in our day that we would not believe, even if He revealed it to us. Because I have put all my faith in Christ, I simply cannot allow the sickness around me to infect my love and gratitude, nor dim my desire to serve in the time and place to which He has called me.

The last three verses from this book (Habakkuk 3:17-19) have been hanging over the kitchen sink in our home for the past several years, and they often catch my eye when I am cleaning up the dinner plates or just washing my hands after working in the garage. When I am distracted or worried by the cares of the day, these three verses have often reminded me to flip my problems on their head and give thanks to God for the “inconveniences” in my life: like dirty dishes, health issues, car repairs, difficult relationships, heating bills and unplanned trips to the grocery store.

Habakkuk’s prayers – and those last few verses in particular – have been a good reminder to me to remain faithful, even when things all around me are falling apart and I can’t possibly understand why God is allowing it. Living as I do in the midst of a culture enslaved to its passions, I find myself regularly grateful to be part of a church that actively seeks the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:4-7) rather than looking around our community in judgment and inviting God’s wrath. In a culture where “law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth,” I need Habakkuk’s regular reminder to humbly trust God’s plan and timing, not my own.

Habakkuk 3:17-19 (ESV)
“Habakkuk Rejoices in the Lord”

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
  nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
  and 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.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
  he makes my feet like the deer’s;
  he makes me tread on my high places.

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