What I love about delving into an obscure passage of scripture is that there is a message that reaches out from the past and grabs hold of us. The lectionary placed the writings of the minor prophet, Habakkuk, in front of me this past week. I was intrigued. So the circumstances of our faith ancestors living 2500 years ago have applications in our modern life of cell phones, Elon Musk moon voyages and conscious uncoupling?
So, let’s first admit that you didn’t even know there was a prophet by that name? What is the correct pronunciation of his name? We dispute that in our congregation! But, reading this book of the Bible, two dominant themes surface in this brief oracle: Why (or whether) God permits evil to exist unpunished and can our loving God use a wicked people as a means to bringing about justice? I choose to focus on the first question as that’s enough of a challenge in and of itself! In Habakkuk 1:1-4 the prophet is asking God, “Why do you tolerate wrong!” Then Habakkuk sets up shop in a guard tower threatening to stay put until he gets an answer! At this point, I’m all in! I’m sitting in that tower with him and can’t wait to hear what God has to say!
Scholars point to a date of 639-597BCE for this writing. This places the oracle in the time of King Josiah. He was crowned king at age 8 (poor kid!). Early in his reign the Book of the Law, meaning the scrolls containing the writings of the first five books, was found. It had been lost for generations and no one could remember a time when the Jewish nation had known and obeyed the commands found in these writings! This terrified King Josiah because there were curses spelled out at the end of Deuteronomy for those who didn’t obey the commandments of God. So Josiah began to institute reforms in his kingdom that called the Jewish people back to the faith. Outwardly they embraced the faith as new converts but their long-time secular ways were not easily abandoned.
In the absence of spiritual guidelines the Jews’ life had spiraled into corruption and self-serving pleasures. The Hebrew courts were clogged with lawsuits and quarrels between neighbors were common. The national politics were a circus of power-seekers. Habakkuk cries out to God that his society is rife with violence and crime. He summarizes by saying, “So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” Their law has lost its effectiveness because it is no longer being observed by the nation. Their narcissism has eroded every aspect to their daily living. As bleak as the situation sounds, we know that God permits lament and questioning because this sort of honest dialogue opens the way for faith in difficult times. Moral decay and Godlessness burned through Habakkuk’s community leaving spiritual destruction in its wake. So the prophet let’s it rip with his Creator, challenging a just, loving, vengeful God to deliver what the scriptures promise!
Are you hearing anything familiar in these themes? Is it depressing to know that some things never change in our communities? Or is it encouraging—like being in a support group with folks who share your traumatic stories?! Habakkuk lays bare his challenges to the Divine, caring enough to be in conversation with God. He keeps the conversation going since his people have long since abandoned their relationship with God. Like students who stage a sit-in, he declares that he’s going to stay put until he has his response.
In our worship service yesterday we read off the names of the saints who have impacted our lives. Folks came forward to light candles in their memory. All Saints Sunday is both an emotional and healing service. The gifts of past generations are celebrated as they live on in us. In the names we read we recognized that our ancestors had to wait for their own dreams to be fulfilled. We know stories of loved ones who immigrated from far-off lands, putting in the hard work it took to make our country their home. We remember those who fought in World War II when it seemed like our world would never know peace again. We remember loved ones who waited decades into their adult years to find the right spouse and start the family for which they had long prayed. We remember those who had their education delayed because of financial hardship and those who found the career they loved after years of laboring at something they disliked to put food on the table. Our ancestors knew what it was to wait for the right answer. Some of them had the faith perspective that gave them the assurance that all earthly matters were in God’s hands. No matter the political climate, the natural disasters, the untimely deaths or international tensions, they delayed their gratification for the sake of their children and because, in many cases, they had no choice! Every generation has their battles, as we witness in Habakkuk’s writing. In every generation there are those who remind others that God is near in spite of evidence to the contrary!
Folks are not always remembered for who they truly are. There was one weekend when I had three funerals in the span of two days. I had a separate order of worship ready for each service and prayed that I would use the right pronouns in referring to each of the deceased saints. I sought to celebrate the unique gifts of each of the three individuals as told me by their family. I met with the son of one of the elderly women to learn more about his mother. When I asked about her interests he said she loved to have a beer while playing cards. Hmmm. She was good at cards, he told me, because she cheated! He laughed. I scratched my head. How does this flesh out into a meaningful memorial meditation? That didn’t seem to be a concern of his. Getting the service behind him was the goal, giving new meaning to the expression, “Get ‘er done!” Not everyone is remembered for their life’s passions! And clearly, not everyone lived their life in the assurance of the Christian faith.
One young student wrote an essay about Queen Victoria for a history project. He might have mixed up a few details but he certainly tried to capture the highpoints of the monarch’s life. He wrote, “Queen Victoria was the longest queen. She sat on a thorn for 63 years, her reclining years and finally the end of her life were exemplatory of great personality. Her death was the final event which ended her reign.”
Our lives are not always remembered by the younger generation as we might like!
So Habakkuk reminds his people that they need to call upon God for answers to their deepest questions and to be prepared to wait for an answer. In Habakkuk 2: 1-4 God showed up! God told the prophet to write the prophecy in large letters on a sign so that it could be read easily even from a distance. It makes me think of the “cardboard testimonies” some of us offered in our worship service last Sunday. Focusing on the theme of addiction and grace, we held up signs that acknowledged the challenges we have encountered because of addiction. On the flip side of the cardboard we named the way(s) that God redeemed our struggle. We tried to tell our story in succinct language and bold print. Our hopes were that those in the pews would be able to understand each story in just a moment’s time. We prayed that God would use our words on crude cardboard to bring healing to others. From the tears I could see in people’s faces, I know that happened.
I’ve wondered recently what our congregation would write on a billboard, if we leased space on one? Where would we place it and what would we want to communicate to our neighbors? Do we have a word of hope to share for those who have run out of it? Is there a scripture passage that might awaken those outside of the Church to the presence of a God who loves them? What message would we write so that it would minister to those flying by at 78mph with their thoughts focused on how to pay their bills for another month? What word might give them the faith to hang on?
God continues to offer words of comfort through Habakkuk in the answer at the beginning of Chapter 2. There is an answer, a vision that is perfect for our time. If it seems to take awhile, hang on! It will come. We Christians continually learn to trust in God’s timing. The Psalmist writes, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.” (Psalm 62: 5-6) What Habakkuk needed was a broader worldview with a willingness to wait longer than hoped for God’s will to be accomplished. God’s justice is meted out in our human history but sometimes it seems impossible to endure the wait. The saints who shaped our lives were not spared hardships. They prayed for respite that may not have arrived as they hoped. And so we pick up the prayers where they left off. Like this obscure prophet, we seek to glorify God even in the darkest times because we trust that our history is still being written by the Creator of our world. There have been and will always be those who are “puffed up” with pride, as one translation describes those proud for the wrong reasons. Violence is on the nightly news. People with selfish motives seem to gravitate to positions of leadership. Families are driven apart by arguing. Schools become fortresses to keep their students safe. Lives are lost and countless homes burn as another fire rages through California, a fire believed to have been set by some malcontent. But God gives Habakkuk an answer we hang on today: “the righteous will live by their faith.”
On All Saints Sunday we cherish the opportunity to remember those whose faith has become an anchor in our own lives. We remember grandmothers who talked to us about Jesus, grampas who got emotional when offering grace at the dinner table, mothers who served Sunday dinners where folks talked about the worship service and fathers who read stories to us out of the Bible. We give God thanks for their example of being in conversation with their Maker, even when others proclaimed there could be no God in such a troubled world. We are grateful that they voted their consciences and took a stand for their beliefs no matter the cost. We take heart noticing that they trusted that all was well, at all times, because they knew Who shaped their days. Like them we dare to address God and ask for answers. We position ourselves so that we can discern God’s movement, ready to share our faith stories with others. We live with the eternal assurance that, in the best of times and the worst of times, the righteous live by their faith. That’s where we take our stand. Amen.