Scripture: Habakkuk 1:1–4
When we last left our intrepid heroes, the city of Jerusalem was in trouble. The Assyrians had marched all the way up to literally their front door, ready to destroy them like they had so many others. The king of Assyria, Sennacherib, had sent his mouthpiece, a man they called the Rabshekah, to offer terms of unconditional surrender to the king of Hezekiah, the king of Judah (or at least what was left of it).
Hezekiah humbled himself and asked for God to spare his people, and that prayer was answered. The Assyrians did not destroy Jerusalem that day, or any day as a matter of fact. Sennacherib had bigger fish to fry: the Babylonians. While the Assyrian army was marching to the West, Babylon was growing in power to the East. So Sennacherib found himself fighting on two fronts, which meant he wasn’t watching his back. While worshipping in one of the Assyrian temples, his son murdered him in an attempt to take the throne by force. It plunged the Empire into chaos, and Babylon grew in strength. By the time we get to 600 years before the birth of Christ, Babylon finally defeated the Assyrian capitol Nineveh and razed it to the ground, effectively ending the Assyrian Empire.
Somewhere in the middle of all of that, Habakkuk was born. We don’t know when or where exactly, because the prophet doesn’t give us a lot of clear dates. But it seems clear that he is in the southern kingdom of Judah, and he refers to the Chaldeans, another name for the Babylonians, and seems to describe the general chaos that existed in this power vacuum, in this era between the Empires. So, with all of that context in mind, in the middle of that chaos, hear now the words of the prophet:
1The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
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?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgement comes forth perverted.
A lot of Old Testament prophets seem to speak on behalf of God to the people. But Habakkuk is different; did you notice? He spends most of his time speaking to God, on behalf of the people. In this passage, he more or less asks God “what on earth are you doing? There is nothing but injustice and violence and wrong-doing! Are you causing all of this, or are you just not paying attention?!”
Scholars have noticed a clear parallel with the book of Job. Job also spends a lot of time arguing with God, demanding justice, and asking what on earth God is doing. But where Job is more of an individual plea, Habakkuk argues on behalf of the community. Begs God to see all of the injustice and violence that surrounds him. Again, we cannot be 100% sure when he is writing, what injustice he is writing about, but we know it is a mess.
And, in a way, we know it doesn’t matter. Scholars have also called Habakkuk one of the most universal books. Because instead of being about one specific time and place, it is kind of about all times and places. Whenever we experience injustice, Habakkuk is there. Whenever we pull our hair out at the total free pass given to our leaders, the lack of accountability of our elected officials, Habakkuk is there. Whenever people fail to support and even argue against affordable housing policy, and then complain that we don’t have enough housing so people are living on the street, Habakkuk is there. Whenever violence is done to the most vulnerable in our world, targeting children trying to figure out their identity, all to score political points, Habakkuk is there. Whenever we see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, Habakkuk is there. Whenever we see God’s creation destroyed in the name of profit, Habakkuk is there. And, like Habakkuk, have you ever wondered if God is there? Is God causing all of this, or just not paying attention?
Miguel de la Torre was one of the speakers at the denominational meeting a few weeks ago, Space for Grace. And he shook the whole crowd when he told us that he doesn’t have a theology of hope. We talk about hope in the church all the time. In a week or two, we’ll light the candle of hope. We love to talk about hope. But de la Torre says that he lives by a theology of hopelessness. He said that the danger of hope is that it presumes that things are always on the way to getting better. He took aim at this progressivism that suggests that we are constantly marching toward a better world and one day we will get there. De la Torre said quite simply, “maybe things will get better…maybe things will get worse…we aren’t guaranteed either.” And just like Habakkuk who knew the Chaldeans were around the corner. Just like Mary who knew that her baby was coming to overturn and destroy the world as she knew it. Just like Jesus proclaiming that his message would bring division and angst. De la Torre warned us that if you stare longingly out at this thing called hope, you will fail to notice what needs to be done here and now. Hope, he says, carries with it the danger of inaction. Make it the gaze of your vision at your own peril.
Habakkuk talks to God, you might even say at God, and invites us to do the same. Speaking in righteous anger at the unrighteousness in our world. The book of Habakkuk is a theological and sociological conversation. After the prophet speaks about this injustice in those first few verses:
- Then God responds in the next few, in short, telling Habakkuk, “Be careful what you ask for. I am going to do something, but you aren’t going to like it. Have you met the Babylonians?”
- To which Habakkuk responds to God’s response, “wait a minute…that’s your answer to injustice, the kings of injustice? That’s your answer to violence…the princes of violence? Anything that the Babylonians do has to be immeasurably worse than the disaster that we are living now!”
- And then God responds again…
But before we get there, let’s take a break from all of this gloom and doom. Let’s talk about trail running. I have told you all a thousand times before how much I love to hike and run on trails. I see so many wonderful and amazing parts of God’s creation. On a run this week, I spooked up a couple of deer who kept running up the trail in front of me, wondering why I kept following them! The week before that, I ran beneath some gorgeous bluffs beside a meandering creek. And during our last Blue Team running trip, we were running on a beautiful trail in Colorado, when all of a sudden it opened up next to the trail a broad valley with a meadow at the bottom. I could see birds soaring on the thermals, lower than I was, and as I watched their beauty and majesty…WHAM. I was on the ground before I knew it.
You see, trail running would be perfect, if it weren’t for the falling. The thing that makes trail running so great is also the problem: if ever I have to do a run on concrete or sidewalk next to a road, I hardly ever fall. Because there isn’t anything interesting to look at! But when there are woodpeckers and squirrels and the sun poking through the trees, I get distracted by what is out there, and fail to see what is right here: the rocks and roots right in front of me.
So, I have had to learn a different way of looking. I have become better over the years at watching intently out of the corner of my eye. A lot of times, I can see the beauty as I am running. It might not be as clear as if I stopped and pulled out a set of binoculars, or a long-range photographic lens, and examined the deer or the woodpecker. But instead, there is this powerful shared moment, where the deer is running along, looking at me out of the corner of its eye, and I am doing the same, marveling through my peripheral vision at God’s beauty.
Now, hold onto that image for a moment, as I read to you God’s response in Habakkuk 2.
2 Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
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.
4 Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
Did you catch it? God tells the prophet, “write this vision down, so that a runner can read it.” Someone whose attention is elsewhere, who is looking for rocks and roots and tripping hazards, can still catch a glimpse of the vision and get the point. God knows the chaos in which the prophet lives. God knows the hopelessness that God’s people find themselves in the middle of. God knows that violence and destruction and injustice is not going to be over tomorrow. In fact, God knows that with Babylon around the corner, it’s going to get worse! But God’s message to the people through the prophet is not to freeze in fear. Not to hunker down and hide. Not to ignore the violence or excuse the wrongdoing. God tells the people, “keep running! Watch for the evil and brokenness that exists right in front of you. But as you do, never quit watching for me out of the corner of your eye. Never forget that I am running with you.” The last line in there is perhaps the most famous in Habakkuk: “the righteous live by faith.” Faith is not a matter of waiting or hiding or avoiding the world, until God fixes everything for us. It is a matter of watching out of the corner of our eye, while we don’t even break our stride.
What a powerful word for us today! Again, de la Torre has a word for us:
“With all my heart, soul, mind, and being, I wish to become intoxicated with the simplicity of an unquestionable and uncomplicated faith. But to do so would be an insult to the God in whom I claim to believe. To challenge God, to yell out in protest, to place God on trial is not the ultimate act of arrogance; rather, it is to take God seriously by crucifying our Christian-based idols for an honest appraisal of the metaphysical – whatever that might or might not be. And maybe this is the ultimate beauty of faith – to doubt, to wrestle, to curse, to question, to disbelieve, to oppose…and to hold accountable God in defense of God’s creation. God is placed on trial, not rejected.”
Isn’t that how our faith gets lived out, so often? This is the last week in our series of the Strength of Stone. And it feels like we have read these amazing stories of clarity and certainty. Solomon prayed for wisdom, and he got it…and got riches and power, to boot! So we celebrated the Stone of Worship, as Solomon knelt at the Ark of God. Then we talked about Naaman, who asked for healing, and he got it…his diseased skin became like that of a young boy! And we saw with clear eyes that it was those on the margins who spoke and changed the whole story, and asked how we might celebrate the Stone of Welcome. Then last week Hezekiah prayed for deliverance, and he got it…Assyria packed up and went home. And the Stone of Work: the work of prayer and the humble action that comes with it. Over and again, these stories are of people of faith who said, “I want this!” And they got it.
But Habakkuk asked, “How long, O Lord?!” And God told him, “a little longer.” And I would offer that this might well be the story of our faith. The story of our struggling. Sometimes faith is not so clear and obvious and unquestionable and uncomplicated. Like Habakkuk, the Stone on which our faith is written is one of Wonder. Of curiosity. Of trust. Of faith. It requires us to see it out of the corner of our eye, but never stop looking at it. To use our peripheral vision, but always trust it is there. To continue to run in faith, even if we cannot count the number of feathers on the bird as it flies. Even if we don’t know what God is up to, to believe that God is there. Even if we keep our heads down on the sin and evil and chaos right in front of us, we don’t stop looking for God out of the corner of our eyes. That is the way of wonder.
And that is the way of Habakkuk. After this long series of responses between the prophet and God, the final chapter is completely different. It is a song, complete with instructions to the music director and choir. Habakkuk knew that there was something about music that captures the experience of wonder. It holds loosely the truths that we know, and demonstrates a life of trust even in the midst of trauma. This is the way of faith. The way of wonder. And the way of the song of Habakkuk…
16 I hear, and I tremble within;
my lips quiver at the sound.
Rottenness enters into my bones,
and my steps tremble beneath me.
I wait quietly for the day of calamity
to come upon the people who attack us.
17 Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.