Keeping the Vision Alive
Just so we are clear right from the beginning, this is an All Saints sermon. But it will take a minute for me to get there. I want to start with Habakkuk.
Now, Habakkuk is not as well-known as some prophets. The book that bears his name is only three chapters long, and it only appears twice in our three-year cycle of readings, so it is easy to miss him. But we should pay attention to Habakkuk. Habakkuk wrestled with some of the big questions that continue to plague us.
As we can see in the first verses of our reading, Habakkuk lived during a grim time in Israel’s history. “Destruction and violence” were before him; “strife and contention” were on the rise; justice was not prevailing. It sounds a little like today!
We can fill in some of the story of his time. As Habakkuk prophesied, the Babylonian Empire was menacing Habakkuk’s people. Judah was on the verge of collapse. Habakkuk’s people were suffering and seemed likely to suffer more.
Habakkuk wanted to know where God was in the midst of all that suffering. “O Lord,” he prays, “how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” It’s the great question.
Habakkuk gets an answer, but probably not the one he wanted. God does not promise to rescue Habakkuk. God does not promise to prevent the terrible things that were happening all around him. In fact, the suffering was going to get worse before it got better.
So, God does not fix Habakkuk’s problem. But God tells Habakkuk what he needs to do. God tells Habakkuk to “write the vision; make it plain….For there is still a vision for the appointed time.”
The vision that Habakkuk was supposed to write in the midst of the destruction of his country was of God’s ultimate victory, of the coming of God’s kingdom, of a time when peace and justice would reign and God’s law would be written on every human heart.
Habakkuk did not live to see that vision come true. But the suffering of his time made writing the vision, holding on to the vision, all the more important. God reminds Habakkuk that the righteous live by their faith in the vision. Sometimes faith in the vision is the only way we can carry on. Sometimes faith is all that keeps us going.
That faith sustained God’s people through the bitter years of captivity in Babylon and through the disappointing years after they returned to the promised land. Through it all, they held on to the vision.
Centuries after Habakkuk, Christ came to renew the vision and to live it out in our midst. In our Gospel reading, Christ promises that the poor will inherit the kingdom of God, that the hungry will be filled, that people who weep will laugh. On that day, people will love even their enemies, will share with each other, and will treat everyone as they would like to be treated.
But Christ did more than Habakkuk could possibly have done. Christ sacrificed himself to make that vision come true. Christ died to reconcile us to God. Christ rose again, defeating sin and evil and death. Christ sent the Holy Spirit to empower us to live as his body in the world. That is the Christian gospel. That is Habakkuk’s vision made real.
Unfortunately, it is all too obvious that Christ’s victory is not yet complete.
And so, even as we give thanks for the mighty work that Christ has done, we, like Habakkuk, necessarily continue to live by faith. We continue to hold—sometimes desperately—to the vision Habakkuk saw so long ago, the vision of God’s ultimate triumph.
A lot has happened in the two thousand years since Christ’s resurrection. And through it all, Christians have held onto our faith in the vision of Christ’s ultimate victory.
On this All Saints Day, we pause to remember with gratitude all the great saints who kept the faith alive through the centuries. We celebrate those who saw the vision with a peculiar clarity, who lived by faith with a peculiar intensity, who lived and died to bring Christ’s final victory a little closer to fruition.
On this All Saints Day, we celebrate biblical heroes like Peter and Paul and Mary. We celebrate heroes of our tradition like Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila. We celebrate more contemporary heroes like Martin Luther King. We celebrate everyone who preserved and handed on the vision of God’s redemption generation after generation until it reached us.
We also pause to celebrate the less famous saints, the people from our own lives who shared the vision with us, the people who taught us to live by our faith.
We celebrate them, but we don’t need to romanticize them, to pretend they were something they were not. We all need God’s grace and forgiveness. Even the great saints were imperfect, as they would have been the first to admit. The same is true for the saints in our lives. My family certainly has plenty of skeletons in the closet!
It is helpful to remember that the people who passed on the Christian faith in each generation were mostly ordinary, imperfect, struggling people, just like we are. But they did their best, and they passed on the vision.
Today we pause for a moment of gratitude for all of them. We give thanks to God for the people who, one way or another, made us who we are, the people who helped us, one way or another, to have faith in the vision of Christ’s ultimate victory.
And here we are, the current Christian generation. Like those who went before us, we are ordinary, imperfect people. We struggle to hear God in a troubled and troubling time. It is easy to get discouraged in the midst of rising violence and addiction, dysfunctional politicians, and climate change. We may well wonder how long we have to cry to God for help before getting a clear answer.
But we are baptized into Jesus Christ and “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” Ephesians tells us that “this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people,” our promise that we share in Christ’s final victory. That gives us strength.
And we stand at the front edge of a tradition of two thousand years and more. We are the beneficiaries of all the saints, great and small, who have gone before us. And that gives us still more strength.
Today we are the ones who write the vision, the vision which we received from those who went before and which we pass on to the next generation. We are the ones who live by faith and share that faith with each other and with our world. We take our place in the long chain of transmission that dates back to Habakkuk and even earlier, that comes through Paul and all the saints, and that will keep going as long as it takes.
And always we look to Christ who taught the vision, and lived the vision, and died for the vision, and will one day return to make the vision a reality.
And so, on this All Saints Day, I give thanks to God for those who preserved the vision through the centuries. I give thanks to God for those who shared the vision with us. Most of all, I give thanks to God for Christ, who is the vision incarnate. And I pray that we can be faithful to the vision in our time. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan