(a sermon for November 4, 2018, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4)
You might call him… “The Unknown Prophet.”
Because in truth of fact, we really don’t know all that much about the prophet who is named “Habakkuk.” His words occupy a scant three chapters near the end of the Old Testament, and he’s almost overlooked amid a sea of so-called “minor prophets,” sandwiched between Nahum and Zephaniah. Even the meaning of his name is shrouded in mystery: some biblical scholars have suggested that Habakkuk means “to embrace” or “to clasp,” as in hands clasped in prayer, while others say that it’s simply a boy’s name derived from an ancient Hebrew word for a certain plant or vegetable! We’re not even totally sure when Habakkuk lived and prophesied; he might have been a contemporary of Jeremiah, and could have lived around about the 5th Century B.C.; again, we just don’t know for sure.
We do have a sense, however, that this particular prophetic word – it’s referred to here as an “oracle” – was given, as one commentator has put it, “in a time of dread,” in anticipation of an impending invasion by a foreign enemy, more than likely the Babylonians who had already invaded Judah, taken over Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, and now threatened total control over Palestine as a whole; a situation that did not sit at all well with Habakkuk.
In fact, if it sounded as though the words in those first few verses we read this morning were rife with anger, you heard correctly; indeed, though it is one of the shortest books of the Bible, the Book of Habakkuk remains one of the most poignant and painful passages found in all of Holy Scripture! Biblically and literarily speaking, this particular passage is considered to be a “lament,” (that is, a profound expression of loss) but that’s putting it mildly; what we actually have here is quite literally a complaint unto God! It’s all right there in the very first verse: “O LORD, how long shall I call for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” How long, O Lord? After all, the “wicked surround the righteous,” and we are most definitely outnumbered! I ask for justice, he says, yet all I see is destruction, strife, and contention. I ask for peace, yet all there is before me is hopelessness and fear. Judgment, he says “comes forth perverted.”
To say the least, this is heavy stuff.
One of my seminary professors back in the day used to tell us again and again that the point of all preaching is ultimately to bring the “there and then” of God’s word to the “here and now” of our lives today; that our task was ever and always to interpret these ancient texts of the Bible in such a way that it will proclaim timeless and divine truth that will sustain us along our own pilgrimages of faith. And needless to say, that can often be difficult; after all, we didn’t live 2,500 years ago during the Babylonian exile; very few, if any of us can speak to what it must have felt like to have been torn from our faith and ancestral homes for a length of time that by now had spanned many generations. Quite honestly, the kind of things that Habakkuk is lamenting here seem “long ago and far away” to our 21st century ears!
Or does it?
Actually, it seems to me that right about now we know a great deal about what it is to live in “a time of dread.” I mean, in the past couple of weeks alone our eyes and ears have beheld the worst of what the world and its woefully misguided people can dish out; from the Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh to the bombing threats throughout the country, all of it underscored by the ongoing and increasingly divisive and hateful rhetoric that has permeated both the airwaves and our political discourse as the mid-term elections are approaching. And the saddest part of all is that this kind of violence and hatred is swiftly becoming “the new norm” in our culture! It’s no wonder that so many these days are looking at this situation we’re in as a nation and a people, and desperately asking the question, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
Perhaps Habakkuk’s lament isn’t all that removed from our own after all!
For that matter, anyone of us who has ever hoped and prayed to the Lord with their whole hearts for some semblance of relief in their lives – the healing of a sickness, the solution to a problem, the resolution of a conflict, the lessening of deep and profound grief – only to continue feeling the pain of those experiences all the more deeply also knows what it is to cry out in the midst of our tears, “how long, O Lord, how long?” When we’ve “been through the ringer,” so to speak, we know what it is to wonder where God has been and why nothing has seemed to have changed. In the words of H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., writing about his own “dark night of the soul” in his book Preaching Through a Storm, “[The Psalm does say,] ‘weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes with the morning.’ But what I want to know is, ‘how long is the night?’”
That’s what Habakkuk’s lament is all about; and sadly it’s just as relevant “here and now” as it was “there and then.” But the good news is God’s Word does indeed have something to say to us amidst our own “times of dread.” You see, the thing about laments – most especially those of the biblical variety – is that they always begin in utter despair but they end in the sure and certain hope of God. And our text for this morning shows us just that: the movement of Habakkuk’s own dialogue with God, going from confusion and uncertainty to faith and purpose; from challenging God to heeding God’s Word! Turns out, you see, that the Lord has very specific advice in how we are to deal with these “times of dread,” and it starts with remembering the future: but not the dreaded future of our fear and despair, but rather the envisioned future; the promised future that God had already set before us, but which may have gotten lost in our hearts somewhere along the way
Actually, in those couple of verses in the second chapter of Habakkuk are three steps for remembering God’s promised future; and the first is to write it down. “Write the vision,” the Lord says. “Make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” In other words, be clear about what it is that God has set before you and let it loom large in your lives for you and everybody else to see. If you truly believe in the providence and guidance of the Lord our God, then proclaim it; proclaim it again and again, and not in a small way but in a fashion that can be clearly understood. Then the vision becomes palpable and real even if everything else around you seems to discount it.
I’m reminded here of those billboards that you still see along some highways across the country; you know the ones, the ones that say things like, “You know that love your neighbor thing? I meant it. God;” or “Will the road you’re on get you to my house? God;” or my personal favorite, “Don’t make me come down there! God.” This was one way, albeit one a bit unconventional, of writing the vision; of expressing the truth of a spiritual, Godly life in letters quite literally large enough for everyone to see. The point is that those of us who are people of faith need to know and express what we believe, and to do so boldly. That does not mean “forcing” our faith on people, but it does mean staying focused on our faith even when “the vision” seems blurred in the face of circumstances that at the moment seem bleak and barren.
So write the vision; and secondly, be patient. Because the vision, however it is expressed – in health, through wholeness, in freedom or in peace – awaits an appointed time: “It speaks of the end,” says the Lord, “and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Many times over the years as a pastor I have spoken with people whose primary spiritual struggle has been with the belief that their prayers are not being answered quickly enough. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean that quite as harsh as it sounds (!); it’s simply speaks to a very human truth that for most of us it is difficult to prayerfully wait out the struggle; that is, to let the Lord work out the good in his time and fashion, and not ours. Maybe it has to do with the fact that in this high-tech era we’re too used to quick gratification and resolution: I mean, we like our TV shows ”on demand,” our computers to be speedy and glitch free, and our conflicts to be swiftly resolved; it’s not in our post-modern sensibilities tohave to wait weeks, months or years for things to “work out.” Or maybe the truth is that we’re losing the capacity to completely trust God, letting go of our own control of whatever situation is ours and trusting that God’s Spirit will lead us in directions, however measured that lead will be.
One of the other great lessons I learned back in seminary as I did clinical pastoral education at Eastern Maine Medical Center is that as a pastor I couldn’t always instantly “make it all better.” As a young buck of a pastor, that was hard for me! I wanted to bound into the rooms of these sick people and “fix ‘em right up,” spiritually speaking at least. But, as one of my advisors reminded me, most of these folks had been sick for a long time. They didn’t need quick fixes; they needed to know that God was with them slowly and steadily, bringing them strength and healing with every long, passing moment. Be patient; for with every passing moment God is working his vision out; slowly, steadily and even in the face of all opposition.
So be patient… and finally, says the Lord, live in faithfulness. “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live in faith.” It’s important for those of us who seek to keep the faith to live faithfully; and that means being faithful to the law, just in our own relationships, and pious (in a good way!) about our own religious observances. Throughout scripture, we are called to choose life over death. When we choose life, we are making the choice to live in fidelity to God; and the fullness and abundance of life is our reward.
In other words, beloved, at some point in our struggle, it ceases to be about what’s wrong with things. It stops being about our fear over the elections or how the people who don’t agree with us are going to ruin the world; it’s not even about whether or not everything is working out for us as it should. It stops being about whose fault it is, or how bad we’ve been hurt by what they’ve done to us. At some point, it starts being about how we are, how we live, how we choose to respond to these times of dread, and whether or not we truly know God’s vision and remember his future as we live this life.
For us as God’s people, a full life is always defined by faithfulness; and in faithfulness, we can live joyfully, no matter what. That’s how some people can move on from the tragedies of their lives somehow stronger than before; that’s how someone in the worst of circumstances can talk of how God has given them a sense of peace and the ability to celebrate life. It’s a willingness to trust God in the longer range and wider scope of things, to face all the questions of justice and mercy and fairness head on and choose to live life faithfully as God’s people no matter how unjust or unfair life or the world might be.
The truth is, as the Psalmist has said, “weeping may endure for a night,” and the night may well be a long one; but joy will come with the morning! So the question is, how we will live as the long night progresses? How will we keep the faith? How do we keep on keeping on in this time between the now and not yet, between the promise and the prize, between the vision and its reality? How will we live, beloved? Will we remember God’s promised future, or will we let fear and dread cloud our memory?
The choice is ours to make, beloved; but remember that is the righteous who live by their faith, and it’s righteousness that helps us to know, even in the most uncertain of times, the presence of a power for joy and purpose and love… and that surely will change everything for the good.
For the future our Lord intends and even now is fashioning for you and for me…
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry