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“ Panoramic Vision”     Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 (text at end)    October 31, 2010
 
If you’re a movie-goer, you may have noticed that the current trend is toward digital 3-D. These new films feature stunning colors and effects / that make viewers feel as if they’re actually part of the story. When I went to LegoLand with my grandkids this summer, we saw “Bob the Builder” in 3D and were startled as a 2 x 4 plank came our way looking like it would hit us. The water hose seemed to spray right on us!
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Yet as much as Hollywood has gone 3-D, viewers still get only about a 180-degree view of the action on the screen. Surround-sound exists, but surround visuals do not.

However, panoramic art is not a new idea.
Certain 19th century artists thought on a 360-degree visual scale. Panoramic art dates from a time before television and before movies. In their day, they represented the height of special effects. Today, only a few survive as historical curiosities.
 
They are cycloramas — huge, mural-style paintings attached to the inside walls of a cylindrical building. The viewer, standing in the center of the circle, could turn around and see a portion of the scene at any position from one to 360 degrees.
 
The first cyclorama opened in Edinburgh in 1787, but the 19th century was the heyday of this art form. Some were road shows that traveled from city to city. Others were permanently installed in one place. The most familiar to Americans may be the Gettysburg Cyclorama. It recently underwent a complete restoration, and is still welcoming visitors more than 100 years after it was painted.
 
One of the most famous in the world is the “Panorama Mesdag,” housed in The Mesdag Museum in the Netherlands.  The painting, a mind-boggling 14½ meters high and 114½ meters long, depicts life in the Dutch maritime village of Scheveningen in 1881.
 
The scenes of coastal life were each produced first as sketches and then transferred to the canvas using a pattern of pencil lines for scale. The sketches were then painted to bring out the vivid and realistic panoramic view. The viewer, stands in the middle of the surrounding panorama, mounted in a cylindrical building, and is captivated by the visual feast.

Movies work on the principle that humans tend to be focused on what’s right in front of them. As a result, we’re susceptible to becoming focused on one piece, one section, one image at a time that’s quickly replaced by another.
 
Unlike a panorama, which invites lingering and taking in the whole scope of a work of art, film dictates our imagination and rushes us toward a speedy conclusion. Notwithstanding, film is its own art form — and a good one — when used thoughtfully and artistically. But film gives us snapshot views isolated from its surroundings, but not a panoramic vision of life — the kind of vision with which God sees the world.

The book of the prophet Habakkuk is like a section of a larger painting. The prophet and the people of Judah focus on what’s immediately in front of them: the invasion of the “Chaldeans” (Babylonians). God’s response to the prophet’s lament reveals a more panoramic view of history and God’s purposes.

The prophet’s cry is a familiar one in the Old Testament: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (v. 2) The prophet laments that the only thing he can see on the canvas before him is “wrongdoing” and “trouble.” “Destruction and violence” seem to be the only themes revealed by current circumstances (v. 3).

The twin threats of internal unrest and external menace have been confronting God’s people for awhile. Habakkuk  appears to have lived and worked during the height of the Chaldean (Babylonian) Empire, ca. 626-562 B.C., which is portrayed in the book’s opening chapter as the instrument of God’s judgment against Judah (1:6-11). Habakkuk delivers a set of oracles and an extensive prayer on behalf of those people. An oracle is a message, or a solomn declaration from the Lord.

God’s description of the coming Babylonian invasion is grim. They will be the ones who will “work” for God as a means of punishing Judah for its apostasy (v. 6). The images of a “[d]read and fearsome” army (v. 7) coming for “violence” and to “gather captives like sand” (v. 9) would seem to rival any of the terrible combat images of the famous Gettysburg Cyclorama (see Animating Illustrations). This was more than a battle; the future existence of God’s people was at stake.

Habakkuk doesn’t use the word “proud” (not mentally) to condemn a lifestyle that exploits the vulnerable for the comfort and security of the wealthy and powerful (see vv. 5-11). Their moral and spiritual blindness — “Their spirit is not right in them” (v. 4) — will result not only in their destruction but in the destruction of those whose fortunes they control.  (This comes a little too close for comfort in our day and age.)
 
This internal social injustice, no less than the external threat from the “fierce and impetuous” Chaldeans (1:6), is a source of anguish to the prophet, who cries out, apparently in sustained frustration, for redress from the deity. Indeed, given the relative space devoted to each topic in the book, it appears that Habakkuk understood Judah’s social injustice to be the cause of its impending punishment by the Chaldeans.
 
A narrow view of the canvas reveals that Habakkuk is bringing up issues of theodicy. How can God visit punishment on his own people by using a pagan empire? The prophet’s incredulous response to God reveals one who has become confused by God’s seemingly unfair judgment.
 
“[W]hy do you look on the treacherous and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (v. 13). Having asked the hard questions about the images he sees from his limited viewpoint, the prophet then goes to stand on the “battlement” to try to discern God’s answer — sort of like how a panoramic artist would stand above the subject to see the sweeping view (2:1).
God’s reply to Habakkuk puts the previous scenes of distress into a 360-degree context. Where prophet and people see only a section, a fleeting image of destruction, God, the master artist, sees this scene as part of the all-encompassing canvas of his plan for the people and, indeed, for all creation. God reminds the prophet that “there is still a vision for the appointed time” and that if prophet and people will “wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (2:3).

The rest of chapter 2 is God revealing judgment on both Judah and her enemies. But it also contains the assurance that the present pictures of exile and violence are part of God’s purposes, bringing forth a time when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14).
 
It is God who fills the canvas with the whole story, so that in the midst of trouble, God calls to the viewer to trust and not get too focused on the sketchy details. “The Lord is in his holy temple,” says God — he is directing and crafting the canvas from the vantage point of the whole work — so, “let all the earth keep silence before him!” (2:20).

Habakkuk’s oracle is almost a kind of Reader’s-Digest-version reminder of a similar exchange that Job has with God. Job spins out his complaint, and God thunders back with a reminder that forward-looking humans don’t see the whole picture at once and that only God knows how the whole work will be revealed.
 
Habakkuk’s final response to God is, thus, one of submission but also of appreciation that the Master Artist has assigned every figure, every brush stroke and every color to its place. “O Lord, I have heard of your renown,” writes the prophet, “and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our own time revive it; in our own time make it known; in wrath may you remember mercy” (3:2).

These are powerful words of comfort and assurance that we all need to hear and, as with a panoramic canvas, we need to be able to take in a little at a time. In the midst of trouble and fear, we rest in the facts that “the Lord is in his holy temple” and that God’s handiwork is and will be the ultimate masterpiece.

Where are you struggling this week? What kinds of trouble are you facing and fearing? Through this text, we’re reminded of the grander vision of God’s purposes, revealed not only in the canvas of God’s kingdom but also through the lens of the suffering Jesus, whose death and resurrection prove that God is even willing to enter the picture of our human predicament.

We will never be able to see the whole 360-degree work of God at once. Such are the limits of our vision, but God’s vision of the world is broader than ours. When the things we are facing seem grim or hopeless, let’s take a 360-degree view of life.
 
We face tragedy, etc every time we turn on the news or open a newspaper. The state of our contry’s economic, political, social and moral climate is probably at its all-time low. Not since the Depression have things looks so grim. We could well cry out with the prophet Habakkuk:

1:2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?
1:3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
1:4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-- therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
2:1 I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
2:2 Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
2:3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
2:4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
 
This phrase "the righteous shall live by faith" is poetically expressed in Habakkuk’s prayer in chapter three:
 
 1 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.[a]
 2 LORD, I have heard of your fame;
   I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD.
Repeat them in our day,
   in our time make them known;
   in wrath remember mercy.
16 I heard and my heart pounded,
   my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
   and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
   to come on the nation invading us.
17 Though the fig tree does not bud
   and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
   and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
   and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
   I will be joyful in God my Savior.
 19 The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   he enables me to tread on the heights.
 
If we take a cyclorama view of our future, we can sing with the hosts of heaven the hymns of praise found in the last two chapters of the Book of Revelation, ending the New Testament writings as we have them. May the peace of the Lord be with you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 
Rev. Rosemary Stelz, First Presbyterian Church, Bastrop, Louisiana
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