Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
One of my favorite "wonders of the world" is the Gettysburg Cyclorama, which recently moved into its new home in the new visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park. Ever since I was a little guy, I have loved going to the battlefield and ending the day by looking at this massive, 360 degree painting of the climactic struggle of Pickett's Charge on the third day of the battle, July 3, 1863. This cyclorama painting was an original work of French artist Paul Philippoteaux in 1882, who wanted not only to capture the imagination and fierceness of the battle, but also to provide the public with a unique entertainment experience that, at the time, would have rivaled anything we see at the movies in 3-D.
Panoramas/Cycloramas were all the rage in the late 19th
century, with touring exhibitions drawing crowds in both Europe and the United
States. Philippoteaux’s cyclorama, like many of its day,
used diorama effects around the base of the painting to give it a more
three-dimensional feel, inviting the viewer to experience the swirl of battle. The Atlanta Cyclorama
in Atlanta’s Grant Park is still displayed this way today, depicting the brutal
combat of the Union Army’s invasion of Atlanta in 1864. Then, as now, cyclorama
viewings were accompanied with music and narration to enhance the experience.
a film, where scenes flash by and are gone, a panoramic painting invites the
viewer to study the artist’s detail, seeing the figures and brush-strokes
within the context of the whole surrounding work. When I was guiding at
Gettysburg, I usually led four Cyclorama shows a day, which meant that I got to
look at the painting up close (and listen to the cheesy narration). After the
tourists left I used to jump over the barrier to a close look at
Philippoteaux’s cyclorama, which reveals details like unfinished figures of soldiers that were
sketched but not painted in, the introduction French poppies into Pennsylvania
grain fields, and even Philippoteaux’s signature — a portrait of himself as a
Union officer observing the battle.
details, however, were only important within the context of the artist’s larger
vision. Artists like Philippoteaux stood on platforms in the middle of the
actual terrain while they conceived their paintings, getting a bird’s eye view
and a sense of the whole picture before ever putting brush to canvas.
Imagination, skill, patience, and perseverance were the common link between
these bold and visionary artists. Their grand visions of these snapshot moments
in time, both perilous and pastoral, need to be preserved.
the popularity of their art was short-lived. With the advent of the film
projector in the early 20th century, cycloramas fell out of favor as
people rushed to embrace this new artistic medium. Only 30 of the hundreds of
panoramic paintings that toured the world and drew thousands of admirers
work on the principle that humans tend to be focused on what’s right in front
of them, which would seem to be a product of the physiological fact that we
don’t have eyes in the back of our heads (unless you’re a mom, of course). As a
result, we are susceptible to becoming focused on one piece, one section, one
image at a time that is 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 most wants to wrap up life with a neat conclusion at the 2
hour mark. Sure, film is its own art form, and a good one, but there’s
something missing when we can’t slow down enough to recognize and immerse
ourselves in a panoramic vision of life — the kind of vision with which God
sees the world.
book of the prophet Habakkuk is kind of like a section of a larger painting.
Where the prophet and the people of Judah focus on what’s immediately in front
of them — namely, the invasion of the “Chaldeans” (Babylonians) — God’s reponse
to the prophet’s lament reveals a more panoramic view of history and the
purposes of God.
cry is a familiar one in the Hebrew Bible: “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,” and that
“destruction and violence” seem to be the only themes revealed by the Artist
(v. 3). The unspecified “wicked” antagonists have caused “injustice” in the
land, most likely referring to the pre-exile deterioration of Judah that took
place during the reigns of Jehoiakim and his son Jehoiachin — the former having
rebelled against Babylon and the latter being taken into exile (2 Kings
24:1-17; 2 Chronicles 35:20-27).
description of the coming Babylonian invasion isn’t a pretty picture. 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 “dread 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 Gettysburg Cyclorama. This was more than a
battle — the future existence of God’s people was at stake.
narrow view of the canvas reveals that Habakkuk is bringing up issues of
theodicy. How can God visit punishment on God’s own people by using a pagan
empire? The prophet’s incredulous response to God reveals one who has become
confused by the seemingly unfair judgment of God. “Why 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 and stands on the “rampart” to try
and discern God’s answer; sort of like how a panoramic artist would stand above
the subject to see the sweeping view (2:1).
reply to Habakkuk puts the previous scenes of distress into a 360 degree
context. Where prophet and people only see a section, a fleeting image of
destruction God, the master artist, sees this scene as part of the
all-encompassing canvas of God’s 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 two is God revealing
judgment upon both Judah and her enemies, but that the present picture 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 the in
the midst of trouble God calls to viewer to trust and not get too focused on
the sketchy details. “The Lord is in his holy temple,” says God—God is
directing and crafting the canvas from the vantage point of the whole work—so,
“let all earth keep silence before him!” (2:20).
oracle would seem to be 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 your own time
revive it, in our own time make it known; in wrath may you remember mercy”
are powerful words of comfort and assurance that we all need to hear and, like
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 fact that “the Lord is in his holy
temple” and that God’s handiwork is and will be the ultimate masterpiece.
at this text this week I realized that I not only need to preach this, but live
it myself. I was in Colorado again last week for a conference meeting, but also
looking at houses. We got a contract on one, which is very nice, but it’s still
a stressful experience—new house, new town, new church, new faces…how is this
going to go? I also have my doctoral work to do and the ministry here, which
will involve saying goodbye. I’m not ashamed to admit that my family and I are
a little overwhelmed right now and could really use your prayers.
also heard from some of you this week who are feeling the same anxiety about
this church. Who will be coming as pastor? What kind of person will he or she
be? What’s going to happen to our church and to us?
not to mention, of course, the thousands of other anxieties and worries that
we’re collectively facing individually—illness, worry about work, worry about
kids, fear of failure, fear of…well, just about anything.
in the midst of impending disaster, the prophet Habakkuk was reminded that God
has the whole canvas of human life in view. Where we see the details, God sees
the big picture.
will never be able to see the whole 360 degree work of God at once. Such are
the limits of our vision. But we can trust that somehow, God will make all
things good for those who trust in his panoramic vision of our live
Lord is in his holy temple. Let all earth keep silence before him. And trust