Ordinary 31C/All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Pain and Promise of Embrace

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. 2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
I will stand at my watchpost, 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. 2Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3For 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. 4Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.
I do not imagine that you will be very surprised to learn that Habakkuk wasn’t a text I spent much time studying as a seminary student.  In fact, I’m sure I probably spent about 5 minutes thinking about Habakkuk in seminary, and only then in the context of learning the 12 Minor Prophets in the Old Testament.  Habakkuk is tucked right in there between Nahum and Zephaniah.  And I’ll admit that I didn’t spend much time on Nahum and Zephaniah either.  They are, after all, minor.  The major ones like Isaiah and Jeremiah are challenging enough and that’s who I hung out with in seminary. 
Still, a few of the other Minor Prophets are sort of famous, right?  You probably know something about Hosea, Joel, Amos, Jonah, and Micah.  You may even know Obadiah only because it’s so much fun to say, “Obadiah.” But the truth is the texts that comprise the Minor Prophets are called “minor,” not because they are unimportant, but because they are much shorter in length than Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekial.
But Habakkuk is a little read text that appears in the lectionary once every three years.  Frankly, Habakkuk faces some pretty heavy competition from other texts on this particular Sunday.  You just heard today’s gospel reading from Luke and the story about Zacchaeus, which is a very popular text to preach.  In fact, because today is All Saint’s Sunday, preachers who use the Revised Common Lectionary had no fewer than 8 texts from which to choose this week.  Odds are that there are not very many congregations hearing a sermon about Habakkuk this morning. 
Well, lucky you.  You have a pastor who can’t resist the obscure and overlooked.  You are getting Habakkuk.
So what can I tell you about Habakkuk?  Well it is short– only three chapters.  And it covers some familiar territory in terms of its historical context.  Most scholars suggest that Habakkuk was composed in the midst of the Babylonian conquest of Judah, possibly in the period right before Jerusalem was sacked and the people dragged into exile. Nobody knows anything about Habakkuk himself.  The only reason we call this book, “Habakkuk” is because somebody, possibly an editor many years later, added verse 1 which reads, “The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.”  Habakkuk is quoted by Paul in Romans, Galatians and Hebrews, but Paul only uses a single verse from the book, the verse that ended our reading today, “the righteous live by their faith.”  Of course, Paul cherry-picked that verse to support his theology of grace by faith, rather than to share Habakkuk’s perspective of people in the middle of conquest by a tyrannical army about to smash the place to smithereens.   I am not sure how much grace Habakkuk experienced in the chaos of Jerusalem.
I can only speak for myself, but I am most smitten by the English translation of the name, “Habakkuk.”  Can you guess what Habakkuk means in English?  It means to embrace.  And then I read a quote from Martin Luther and he said that Habakkuk “comforts and encourages (the people) as one embraces a poor weeping child or another person, quieting and pacifying it with the assurance that, if God wills, conditions will mend.”[1]  That’s a lovely image – not unlike 2 Isaiah in which comfort is more prevalent than condemnation.
In fact, Habakkuk reminds me of that friend you want to go to when something horribly unjust has happened or someone has done something incredibly hurtful to you.  Every person needs at least one friend like that.  If you don’t have one, I suggest you find one because such a friend is priceless.   They are the kind of friend who will not try to talk you out of being upset, but will just hang in there and not judge you for losing your cool.  That’s who Habakkuk reminds me of – the kind of friend who doesn’t try to fix things and never once tries to talk you out of being as angry as you have every right to be or convince you whatever you are feeling doesn’t hurt as much as you think.  A friend who won’t dismiss your anger, but gently embrace them – and you – for as long as it takes for the pain to ease and the fury to pass.  Habakkuk is a hugger, an embracer, someone who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.
Habakkuk begins with lament, of course, with the familiar, “How long, oh Lord, how long?” which we hear often in the Hebrew scripture, particularly in the Psalms and in the book of Job.  It is the voice of someone who cannot for the life of him see one little bit of good in suffering.  He sees violence, wrong-doing and trouble.  Destruction, strife and contention.  There is no justice.  In fact, there is only lawlessness as the enemy advances and society sinks into chaos.   The people of Jerusalem are guilty of sin against YHWH, but God’s response to their sin — the Babylonian army — is even worse. It is impossible to say who is a good guy and who is a bad guy in the confusion and disorder.  Right and wrong bleed into each other in gory, awful squalor. Habakkuk asks how long will God allow this mayhem to continue?  How long will the prophet be forced to stare into the heart of this unholy mess?
I met a guy named Bradley at the conference I attended in San Francisco last week and I was immediately drawn to him when I found out that he was a pediatric hospice chaplain for many years.   Talk about someone who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to staring into unholy, awful situations.  When I told Bradley I was thinking about preaching on Habakkuk, he said that the kind of lament reflected in this text is really the only the gateway to hope.  Otherwise, when terrible things happen and we can’t allow ourselves to lament, we resort to unhelpful platitudes like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Or worse we become cynical and withdraw from God altogether.  Giving voice to our rage means we are willing to take the risk of engaging with a God we can barely acknowledge on bad days, much less love with all our hearts, minds and strength.  Lament means that we are willing to stand on our faith and shake our fists at God, trusting that even if God is silent, by God, he will listen to what we have to say.  For Habakkuk, the worst outrage is that the Babylonian solution God has fashioned for Judah’s totally deserved punishment isn’t sufficient.  As far as Habakkuk is concerned, there is still injustice because Babylon, the superpower being used by God to punish Jerusalem, goes unpunished. 
Habakkuk is dwelling in a deep dark pool of unreason.  A place in which nothing at all makes sense.  Which sounds strange, until you realize how often we have to deal with suffering that seems unreasonable.  For so many people, all it takes is one bad decision.  One thoughtless moment.  And everything comes crashing down on our heads. 
We so desperately want to imagine that everything that happens for a reason.  Good or bad.  Because we are, for the most part, “reasonable” human beings.  We want to know the cause and effect of every last thing.   Sometimes believing that there is some sort of cosmic justice in the universe is the only thing that gets us out of bed in the morning.  And the older I get, the more I read scripture, the more I realize that “everything happens for a reason” is probably not even true.  Holding on to the notion that everything happens for a reason is wishful thinking rather than faith. 
Sometimes, oftentimes, life just happens.  The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.  Good things happen to bad people who we don’t think deserve them.  Although we hate it when it seems like someone who doesn’t deserve it gets more than their fair share of good stuff, it really doesn’t seem like God considers undeserved blessings a problem.  Ask the prodigal son if you think I’m wrong.  Actually, ask his brother.
What really shakes our faith, though, is when bad things happen to good people.  You probably don’t need to go leafing through your Bible to find the book of Job to know that is true.  Just read the newspaper.  Listen to the radio.  Ask your friends. Life happens and life can seem utterly unreasonable and out of control when we try to make it fit into reasonable categories.  Which leads me to believe that we are wasting our time looking for reasons for both deep suffering and surprising joy. 
I don’t know why God doesn’t give us the kind of answers or reasons we want so desperately.  The problem of unanswered prayer is a common human complaint.  Some days it truly does feel like God has gone off to take a tour of another planet and left us to fend for ourselves.  There is the famous story by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in which he tells about a horrible scene in a death camp in which three people are hanged.  He writes:
“Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive…
But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes.
And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him…
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
How long, oh Lord?  How long must we look at trouble and suffering beyond our ability to bear it?  How long will God be silent?  Why is there injustice, suffering and pain?  So many of our prayers seem lost, floating out there into endless space toward a distant or uncaring God.
What keeps me from folding my hand and walking away from the table is this.  I remember.  I remember.  I remember the Divine Silence experienced by the human Jesus.  The fully human Jesus had to suffer rejection, disappointment and loss. Remember?  Jesus prayed a “lost prayer” in the garden, a prayer for his followers to become one even though, at the very moment Jesus was praying, Judas was getting everything ready to turn Jesus in.  Just 24 hours later, Jesus prayed another desparate prayer: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”   
Jesus experienced the same kind of human pain as Habakkuk and the people of Judah.  Jesus looked down from the cross at a scene of violence, destruction and rage, and then he looked up, giving up his life to a Father who seemed out of reach and unresponsive to Jesus’ agony.  Silence was God’s answer to Jesus’ pain.  Jesus’ prayer hung in the air for three days until…God spoke.  God gave the ultimate answer to human sin, pain and suffering three days later.  In resurrection, God spoke God’s YES to the world’s NO so clearly and plainly that its power still roars in our lives today.
So there is lament in Habakkuk.  The prophet embraces the pain of a people who are lost and faithfully lifts their desperate situation up to God.  And then Habakkuk climbs up to a watchtower and stations himself at a rampart to see what God will do.  Habakkuk takes his lost prayers and his broken heart and climbs up to a quiet place to wait for God to speak.  Like the centering prayer we practiced this summer, Habakkuk silently watches and waits to see what God will say to him.  He waits with expectation that God will act.  He waits with patience so he can understand God’s vision when it comes to him.  He waits with determination for God’s reply to his lament.  Even when things are as messed up as they can possibly be, Habakkuk believes there is “still a vision for the appointed time.”  Habakkuk believes that God will speak and God will speak plainly.
Do we believe it?
Do we believe God’s promises are sure and true?
Do we dare to believe — despite all evidence to the contrary — that God hasn’t left the building after all?
Do we believe that God has a vision for the future that will surely come, and that God will make that vision so plain that we’ll be able to tweet it, text it, slap it up on a billboard and laminate it for our wallets? 
More importantly, can we choose to move toward embracing the silence of God? Can we be audacious enough to wait faithfully and expectantly in the space between our deepest questions and God’s answers?  Can we be like the disciples living in Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection morning?
In his suffering and death, Jesus confirms that God is with us in this life, in every moment.  In brokenness and beauty.  In unfathomable fiascos and unexpected joys that simply take our breath away.  The ancient Hebrews knew that truth in a way that is amply reflected in the psalms and prophets, and particularly in the language we hear in Habakkuk.  They knew that lament was necessary to keep faith alive when life makes no sense.  The Hebrew people also knew lament is transformed into words of expectation promise and, for us, in Jesus Christ, the assurance of new life.  Resurrection life.  Not in some far off future.  But today.  But every day.  Resurrection happens again and again. 
As he looked up at the victims dangling from ropes and saw the suffering of the boy, Ellie Weisel found himself answering his own question: “Where is (God)? He is here –hanging on the gallows.” 
Habakkuk’s small testimony of lament, patience and faith ends like this:
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, 
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation. 
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] “Lectures on Habakkuk 1526” in Luther’s Works (St. Louise: Concordia Publishing House, 1974), 19:156.

2 thoughts on “Ordinary 31C/All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2013”

  1. Thank you. This is really excellent stuff. I have long been a fan of this tiny book, thanks in part to retired professor at PTS Don Gowan, who wrote the excellent book "The Challenge of Faith in Habakkuk." If you haven't seen it, you'd love it. Your blogs/sermons are fantastic. Thanks again.

  2. This was really excellent. Thank you. I've long been a fan of this little book thanks to retired PTS professor Donald Gowan. Check out his book "The Challenge of Faith in Habakkuk" if you haven't already seen it. Good stuff.

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