Israel-Hamas War: a pastor’s reflection

A few months back, I was preparing a sermon about the Old Testament book of Habakkuk. As I studied the text, I was surprised at how the truths about God and his ways with Israel and its enemies may be relevant to what is happening in the ongoing Israel-Gaza War. Let me explain.

The prophet’s lament

Habakkuk was a prophet who lived in a dark period of Israel’s history. He ministered during the reigns of the last three kings of the southern kingdom of Judah. The nation was rotten to the core: violence, destruction, injustice, idolatry, strife and wickedness. The prophet was deeply affected and lamented to God in prayer. It seemed God was deaf to his pleas for God to intervene and reform society. Here is his honest complaint to God (Habakkuk 1:1-4 NLT):

How long, O Lord, must I call for help?
    But you do not listen!
“Violence is everywhere!” I cry,
    but you do not come to save.
Must I forever see these evil deeds?
    Why must I watch all this misery?
Wherever I look,
    I see destruction and violence.
I am surrounded by people
    who love to argue and fight.
The law has become paralyzed,
    and there is no justice in the courts.
The wicked far outnumber the righteous,
    so that justice has become perverted.

I like the honest lament of the prophet. Perhaps we need to lament over the tragic wars in Myanmar, Ukraine, Israel-Gaza in our prayers.

I also like that Habakkuk actually bothered to patiently wait for God’s answer. I admit I speak more and listen less in prayer, in most of the decades that I have been a Christian. I am learning more and more to listen, to watch, to discern God’s notifications. I am learning to unmute my spiritual notifications button.

God’s inconceivable reply

God’s reply got Habakkuk puzzled and upset! God said to him: “I am raising up the Babylonians, a cruel and violent people. They will march across the land and conquer other lands. They are notorious for their cruelty and will do whatever they like” (Habakkuk 1:6,7).

Habakkuk must have thought, “Did I hear God correctly?” Is God going to discipline his chosen people, with whom he made a covenant of love, through a more violent, cruel, and unrighteous nation?

O Lord my God, my Holy One, you who are eternal—
    surely you do not plan to wipe us out?
O Lord, our Rock, you have sent these Babylonians to correct us,
    to punish us for our many sins.
 But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil.
    Will you wink at their treachery?
Should you be silent while the wicked
 swallow up people more righteous than they? (Habakkuk 1:12,13)

God’s ways are usually different and higher than our ways. What is unthinkable, unfathomable to the prophet is a real possibility with God! How can a holy God use an unrighteous people to punish a more righteous people? How can God allow this to happen to his chosen nation, his covenanted people?

9/11 a judgment of God

I was at home when 9/11 happened. I remember it vividly. After a tennis game, in the master bedroom, cooling down before I bathed, on the TV, before my eyes, I saw a plane ploughed into one of the World Trade Centre towers. What movie was this? I then noticed that a news reader was relaying news of the Al Qaeda attack on the New York buildings. I was shocked.

In the aftermath of this terrorist attack,  a few preachers proclaimed that this was God’s judgment on America for its idolatry and sins. There were major reactions and objections to the message of judgment: how can a righteous God use a violent, cruel, terrorist instrument to punish a nation that believed in God. Same reaction as Habakkuk’s. In the light of what we have read in Habakkuk, why isn’t it possible that those preachers may be speaking God’s word?

What about October 2023?

What about October 2023? Was God using Iran and its proxy, Hamas, as an instrument to discipline a nation he has chosen and loves? Is not this unthinkable thought a possibility? Hasn’t modern Israel broken its covenant with God too? Israel is very much a secular nation that has left its holy roots to pursue its idols. Even if half the population claims to be Orthodox, they practice a form of religion that doesn’t please God.

God clarifies Habakkuk’s ethical dilemma

It did not take long for God to shine his light on Habakkuk’s ethical dilemma. God’s reply to Habakkuk was that the Babylonians would also be punished for their violence and cruelty – in due time. God’s judgment will come upon the Babylonians for their aggression, greed, pride, sadistic humiliation of people, and idolatry. God assured Habakkuk that this would definitely happen even if the vision awaited fulfillment for a long period (70 years later the Medo-Persians would topple the Babylonians).

In the meantime, the righteous will have to keep faith in God, and if they do so, they will live: “the righteous will live by faith”. The answers of God to Habakkuk’s complaint and protest brought him out of his doubts and distress to a place of peace and contentment. He was now convinced that God was Sovereign over all nations, small or superpower. His ways were higher than his ways or thoughts. He is worthy of complete trust and he would rest in him.

Even while the wars around us continue to increase in intensity and tragedy, and it angers and frustrates us, we will do well to remember the book of Habakkuk, and learn to lament and finally to trust in God to act in sovereignty, holiness, and justice. Take comfort in this apt song by Lauren Daigle: “Look Up Child”

Where are You now
When darkness seems to win?
Where are You now
When the world is crumbling?

Oh I, I hear You say
I hear You say

Look up child, Look up child,

Where are You now

When all I feel is doubt?
Oh, where are You now
When I can’t figure it out?

Oh I hear You say
I hear You say

Look up child,
Look up child,
Look up

You’re not threatened by the war
You’re not shaken by the storm
I know You’re in control
Even in our suffering
Even when it can’t be seen
I know You’re in control

A Prayer of Hope

My heart cries out to you Papa for the conflicts in the U.S., the war in Ukraine and Myanmar and Gaza. Come Oh God, and save your people and cause wars to cease when your Son returns in glory and power to judge the world and establish the new heaven and the new earth. Fill your people with hope Father. Whenever we read or watch the news, our hearts are broken at the fake news, this fallen world, all the confusion and conflicts. There is no peace, but we do not want the external stormy world of hopelessness to control the temperature of our faith and the stability of our deep peace. So Father, send your Spirit afresh, the dove of heaven to fill our hearts with peace and the purity of worship. Let no one say that you have abandoned the church or this rebellious world. Let no one say you are unrighteous and untrue. Let the world know that you are sovereign and there’s no other God in all the universe. Amen.

(a tongues & interpretation prayer excerpt from my journal entry on 18 May 2024, a day before Pentecost)

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Noah movie review: bring popcorn not Bible

Noah movie (2014)
Noah movie (2014)

I went to J-Cube and saw it: the Noah movie. The biblical outline was all there: the wickedness, God’s word to Noah, the building of the ark, the supernatural navigation of creatures of land and air to the ark, the floods of God’s judgment, the raven and the dove, the rainbow.

The special effects CGI ranged from amateurish to great.

As you know there is not enough tension in the biblical account to hold a film of over two hours. So here is where artistic liberties fill in the silences in the biblical narrative and adds in extra biblical elements to create more points of tension and resolution.

There was a brave attempt to show different facets of Noah’s personality: intuitive, righteous, rigid, seer, good steward of creation, introspective, anguished, obsessed, guilt ridden, mistaken, defeated, and redeemed.

Then there is the lame appeal to the younger audience with rock bound fallen angels who were punished for trying to help men without God’s approval. They remind me of the talking trees of the Lord of the Rings and the Transformers. There were the special powers of Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah. You need these to get audiences to the movies in summer. Lighten up Christians.

Would I go for a second? No, even though it cost me only $4.

Would I recommend it? Go see it with a cup of popcorn, and not the Bible in hand. Just relax and have fun speculating and let your dormant imagination stir. If you need a utilitarian reason: go see it so at least you can discuss it intelligently with friends and colleagues who saw it and have questions to ask you. You can give a reason for your hope.

And no, I doubt it would become a classic like the Ten Commandments.

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Japan Earthquake: Judgment of God? Door of Hope?

Japan tsunami

Tokyo governor’s political hari kiri

On March 14, 2011, just three days after an earthquake of 9.0 and tsunami struck north-eastern Japan, the Tokyo governor issued a statement he might regret and pay a political price for. The earthquake, he proclaimed, was divine judgment on the Japanese people. It was “tenbatsu”,  the unerring and inevitable divine retribution on the wicked, in particular the “gayoku” (egoism, arrogance) of the Japanese people. Shintaro Ishihara, 79, a novelist, stage and screen actor and champion of the Japanese political right, is serving his third term as governor. Not a smart thing to say but he is known for being a lightning rod for sweeping and flammable remarks.

Chinese new media polarized

The Chinese netizens welcomed the destruction of this proud people who refused to repent and apologise to the satisfaction of the Chinese, for their WW2 invasion and atrocities in China. A huge outcry and battle has ensued in the Chinese new media, between those who rejoice and welcome the wrath of nature on the recalcitrant Japanese and those who felt that in such natural catastrophe the only appropriate response is compassion, not giving vent to pent-up historical and hysterical anger.

Preach it!

So far no preacher has said it is the judgment of God for Japanese wickedness. At least no notable one that has generated Jesus weepsinternational publicity. In 2005, Pat Robertson the fundamentalist TV evangelist said Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on some past court decision that favoured abortionists. And the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 was said by both Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to be God’s punishment on America’s support of the abortionists and gays.

The experts

Seismologists say it is part of a pattern. Earthquake specialists see this earthquake as part of the third cluster of earthquakes the earth has seen. The two previous clusters were in the 1830s and between 1952 and 1965. What have been observed are not just the clusters but also the increased frequency of earthquakes although part of the increase could be explained by increased number of seismographs that had been set up.

The Bible and the End

There is always talk about the end of the world when such major catastrophes strike the earth. This should not be surprising because Jesus said, “See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs” (Matt. 24:6-8). Japan earthquake and tsunamiBirthpangs is a powerful metaphor that denotes increasing frequency and intensity of contraction pains in the mother about to give birth to new life. Jesus said that wars, famines and earthquakes will be like birth pangs, increasing in frequency and severity before “the end” came.

Interestingly St Paul also spoke of the groaning of the whole creation as in “the pains of childbirth”.  In Romans 8:19-22, he pictured the whole of creation under the weight of bondage to decay and frustration from God’s verdict on the sin of Adam. It’s under great strain and in labor. It is groaning. To be liberated. To give birth to a glorious new age: where the children of God in their resurrection bodies dwell with God in a new heaven and earth.

Romans 8: 19: For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.

Harbinger of Christian Hope

The use of birth pangs of a mother in labour harks back to Jesus own metaphor of the end of the age. Wars and famines and earthquakes in various places. In increasing severity and frequency like the birth pangs of a pregnant mother about to give birth make all things newto new life. If this is so, the Japanese 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, tragic and sad as we may feel about it, is but one in a series of catastrophic events that will wrack the earth with greater ferocity and quickening rhythm. And it is but a harbinger of the consummation of the Christian hope, a precursor of the age to come, when the children of God will be revealed in glorious power and divine vindication. The dead would be raised, the judgment delivered, and the new earth and heaven inherited and inhabited by the redeemed of the Triune God. What a blast that would be!

Let me emphasize that this world is not hurtling out of control into self destruction but moving purposefully toward a glorious end: the coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the great judgment, the new heaven and the new earth. This is our sure and steadfast hope. Maranatha!

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