Listen to the audio recording of the sermon:
Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
November 10, 2019
Habakkuk is the eighth of the twelve ‘minor prophets’ whose writings are collected in the Hebrew Bible, the part of our Bible that we call the Old Testament. Almost nothing is known about the writer’s life, except that he was a person who spoke to God and to whom God replied. He lived in Judah at the end of the 7th century before the Common Era, at the time when the Babylonian Empire was expanding rapidly, and menacing the city of Jerusalem. The threat of invasion, violence, and brutality hung over the people of Judah, as their own leaders slowly crumbled under the weight of their own corruption and incompetence. In this passage, the prophet struggles with the reality of perplexity and despair, while at the same time watching for the promise of wholeness that God has offered.
Habakkuk 2.1-4, 2.1-4
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgement comes forth perverted.
I will stand at my watch-post,
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.
Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
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.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
The righteous shall live by their faith. This is a phrase that Christian writers picked up six centuries later, and that we have heard quoted in Paul’s letter to the Romans and the Galatians, and in the letter to the Hebrews, so it may sound familiar. But here it doesn’t seem to mean simply that those who believe will find favour. Instead, we see that Habakkuk’s faith allows him to question and complain, and then to watch.
Here, living by faith is something that includes the question that Habakkuk addresses to God, a question that is fundamental: Where can God be in the midst of disaster? Habakkuk looks around him and sees nothing but calamity. The people have ceased to follow the law of Moses, and the King himself is personally corrupt – according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, ‘King Jehoiakim was a godless tyrant, committing the most atrocious sins and crimes. He lived in incestuous relations with his mother, daughter-in-law, and stepmother, and was in the habit of murdering men, whose wives he then violated and whose property he seized. …. [And the clincher,] he had tattooed his body. ‘ http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/8562-jehoiakim.
The country is in political danger too – passed back and forth more than once between Egypt and Assyria and Babylonian vassalages, as King Jehoiakim changes alliances to stay one step ahead of destruction. It seems especially harsh that the people of God should be punished by defeat at the hands of an enemy even less godly than they are.
Now, with the country threatened both from within and without, the prophet cries out to God. He laments bitterly. Habakkuk’s name is said to be derived from the Hebrew word for embrace, and this is what he does. He reaches out to grab God – he pleads with God – why don’t you do something about this suffering? Where are you when we need you?
These are the questions that echo through the centuries, posed in the trenches of war, and in the desolate barracks of concentration camps, and in the fearful hungry homes of the civilians. Posed in the wartimes that we commemorate at Remembrance Day, and still today in the 40 ongoing armed conflicts around the globe. Posed also in situations that are far from war, in times of illness and grief, times of loss and discouragement and sorrow. Why don’t you do something about this suffering? Where are you when we need you?
The prophet takes it upon himself to voice the protest – to write it down, to refuse to edit it out. He complains that God is unjust. And then, after giving full rein to his anguish, he falls silent. But instead of simply going home, instead of giving up in despair, and just forgetting about his faith, he vows to keep watch. He sets himself on the ramparts, eyes fixed on the horizon and on the sky. He is waiting for a response.
This watching is not a passive act. It requires courage, and willingness to see the worst. But Habakkuk refuses to look away. He is watching for signs of hope even when there is no reason to hope. Attentiveness is the action that the prophet takes.
In the world that we live in, attentiveness is one of the most challenging tasks you can set yourself. With so many ways to get the news, and so many different competing perspectives on almost every issue, there is never an end to the information bombarding you. There is an old joke about leadership that says there are some people who make things happen, and some people who watch things happen, and some people who just try to find out what is happening – and I think most of us are forced into the third category at the moment. There is just too much to sort through, even to keep up with the trends. There are more food products to choose from in the grocery store than you could ever eat. More clothing styles at the mall and on the net than you could ever wear. More books in the library and the bookstore than you could ever read. Wikipedia is the equivalent of a 2000 volume Encyclopedia Britannica. Thousands of magazines. Innumerable news broadcasts and newspapers. Add tweets and Instagram and Facebook posts …
The problem that our society has with overabundance isn’t just about conspicuous consumption by the very rich, or the epidemic childhood obesity rates, or the difficulty of finding space to dump tonnes of garbage. It is as if everyone is living in that scene, in I Love Lucy, when Ethel and Lucy get a job in a chocolate factory – the chocolates they are to wrap just keep coming so fast and furious that they can’t keep up with it. A great moment of comedy, but too painfully close to the overload people experience today. There’s just too much of everything. And in particular, information.
This makes the task of attentiveness daunting. Tempting as it is, you can’t just turn it all off and refuse to hear one more Trump story, or yet another report of violence in Toronto, or Iraq, or Hong Kong. As people of faith, we are called to pay attention to the world around us as best you can. To be a person who follows Jesus, you have to love the world he loved, and to do that you have to try to understand it. To look for the seeds of something new that may change the trajectory. To watch for hope where there is also despair. To watch for peace where there is also war. As we see in Habakkuk, the basis of prophecy is not outrage but attentiveness.
It is in the silence, as he stands watching, that Habakkuk hears the voice of God. There is still a vision for the appointed time – wait for it, says God, to him and to us. Pay attention to the conviction of a war criminal as well as to the stories of war. Watch the uprising of the young people worldwide in environmental movements, and pro-democracy demonstrations, to test the possibility of a different future. Maintain what Rohinton Mistry called that fine balance between hope and despair. This is what it means to live by faith. To hold both to the lament and to the attentiveness. To look the worst in the face, and still watch for the best.
On this day of Remembrance, as we call to mind those who served and sacrificed, may we watch for peace, and live by faith. Amen.