This Week’s Sermon – A Word to the Whys

Can’t say that I’ve heard many sermons preached on Habakkuk. Very interesting little book!

SCRIPTURE – Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received. How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted. I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint. Then the LORD replied:
“Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. “See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright—but the righteous will live by his faith.”

SERMON
A Word for the Whys
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Oct. 31, 2010

Could someone please check Habakkuk’s credentials? I think he snuck into the Bible on false pretenses. You see, he’s listed alongside all the other prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but Habakkuk’s book is very un-prophet-like. A prophet is supposed to speak to us the words of God, usually words of judgment or exhortation. A prophet is supposed to rant and rave and comfort and condemn. But Habakkuk doesn’t speak God’s words to us; he speaks words to God, words that, frankly, are a little critical of the Creator’s recent performance. If this is a job evaluation, Habakkuk is putting Yahweh on probation. He dares to question God.

So what would you ask God if you had the chance? What question would most want answered? I think we can learn a lot in this area from the innocence of children. Like from Jill, who asked, “God, did you invent math to count the animals on Noah’s Ark? And do we still need it?” Or Celia, who asked, “Can you make church more fun? It gets kind of boring when the guy in the dress speaks speaks.” Little Jim asks, “Was there anything special about Bethlehem, or did you figure it was as good a place as any to start a franchise?” And Greg is showing tremendous concern when he asks, “What can you do for my sister? She’s ugly.” Pam wants to know, “Since you retired 2000 years ago, what kind of things do you do?” And Eric is right on target, “Did you make it so cold in winter because you thought we could take it, or was that a practical joke?”

What question would you ask? My guess is, since most of us have endured a bit more of life than children have, our questions might be more serious. There certainly are a lot of things that have happened to us for which we felt God needs to be held accountable. We feel we deserve an explanation. Some of the questions may be simply curious: “How did you make the sunset so beautiful?” But really, when you get right down to it, our most urgent, fundamental questions start with “Why?”

That was certainly true for Habakkuk. “Why don’t you listen to me when I cry out for help? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and trouble? Why aren’t you doing something about all this?” These are relevant questions, not only for Habakkuk’s time, but for us today. And yet, how many of us who haven’t been to seminary have heard of this book? Tucked way back in the Hebrew scriptures, three short chapters nestled in between Nahum and Zephaniah. I read in Thursday’s paper about a place in Kentucky called Awe, a town that no longer exists and no one can actually find. That’s a bit like Habakkuk. You usually don’t happen upon Habakkuk unless you’re actually looking for it, and even then I’ll bet you end up using the table of contents.

This only proves once again that God speaks through every single verse in the Bible, even the ones we don’t often read. Let’s set the context: God’s people were divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The prophet Amos warned Israel that if they didn’t change their ways they would be captured by the Assyrians. Typical of God’s people, they didn’t listen, and they were invaded and captured. A few years later, Micah warned the people of Judah about the same thing. Do you think they listened? Nope, and a few years later the army of King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded and surrounded Jerusalem, which was Judah’s capital.

Now, about 100 years later, the Assyrian empire is crumbling and the next world power, those dreaded Babylonians, are on the rise. Habakkuk knows that if the Babylonians defeat the Assyrians, their next move will be to invade Judah. His questions are brought on by this coming invasion. Is God really going to let this happen, to use the evil Babylonians to punish the Israelites for their disobedience? Why? In our lives, when we experience loss or change, when our lives plummet into the darkness of desperation, who among us has not uttered Habakkuk’s cry: Where are you, God? How long are you going to ignore me? Why is this happening?

But have you ever had the guts to ask those questions out loud? Because God is God, and we’re who we are, we sometimes feel like we have no right to question God. Some people see questioning God as a slippery slope that leads to a failing faith and eventually to unbelief. So questions of God become signs of unfaithfulness, and therefore those questions are discouraged, they’re never asked or dealt with, they sit there and gnaw away at our souls. We want to scream it out, but we can only whisper: Where are you, God?

But I don’t believe questioning God means a lack of faith; in fact, it means just the opposite. Questioning God starts with the premise that there is a God to begin with. Only someone who believes can honestly ask such questions. If there was no belief, no faith that God is there, a God who hears us, then the cries and questions would be pointless and irrelevant. We can only ask why God does not do a better job if we are already convinced that God, indeed, is on the job! It is only from a profound sense of belief and faith in the goodness of God that we can look at our world and our lives and ask God, “How long are you going to stay away?” Questions can be the highest form of praise, because they show we are willing to take life with God seriously. I believe truly faithful people often ask God the toughest questions.

There is a part of each one of us that wants to make sense of life. And this is especially true when we are faced with circumstances and situations that challenge our most basic concepts of God and God’s work in the world. Questions of injustice and evil in the world are not abstract speculation or esoteric contemplation. Any person who has lived long enough to experience much of life has raised them. It does not take something so dramatic as the death of a child to raise the issue of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And it does not take historical events as horrific as the Holocaust to raise the question of “How long?” There are enough situations in everyday life to elicit the same questions.

But, Habakkuk teaches us, if you have the faith to ask the questions, you have to be willing to wait for an answer. After pleading his case before God, Habakkuk does the only thing he can do: “I will stand at my watchpost and station myself on the rampart to see what he will say to me.” In case you are wondering, a rampart is a raised tower or platform used for defending an area that gives the lookout a 360-degree view. Too often when we question God we only look for the answers we want, blocking out other possible ways that God might be at work. Habakkuk doesn’t say, “I will stand in a tunnel and wait for the answer.” Instead, he symbolically positions himself to be able to see God’s answer all around him, no matter what direction it may come from. And until that answer comes, he will wait.

That’s the hardest part, isn’t it? The waiting. And yet it’s crucial. One person defined faith as what a person does in between the times God speaks to them. The experience of waiting is the Saturday in between the Good Friday and Easter Sunday, that anxious time of praying and hoping and worrying. When God is silent, when God feels far away, when we’ve asked our questions and are waiting for answers, that’s when we are challenged and called to trust that there will be an answer. But the waiting in faith between the questions and the answer is a necessary part of living as God’s people. That is where our faith is forged, where it solidifies into the bedrock foundation that will carry us through our lives. We remember the words of Isaiah, who said, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

God calls Habakkuk to look beyond this immediate situation and see a larger time frame and a more expansive divine plan. That’s so hard to do. We don’t want to see the bigger picture, because our emotions only let us see the person lying in the hospital bed or the eviction notice or the divorce papers or the empty bank account and our only thought is, “God, when will you answer my cry?” Like Habakkuk, we want decisive action. But God’s response to Habakkuk is relevant for us, as well. “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, it does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it. It will surely come.” In other words, God’s answer to Habakkuk, as it often is to us, is, “Not yet.”

Faithfulness to God is the choice to live life by trusting in God’s plan, God’s timetable, even when God’s vision for us may feel far off in the future, and the present circumstances are bleak and barren. God has a plan for you. But until we can see that plan, we are called to live with the “nevertheless” of faith. That’s what Habakkuk expresses in chapter 3. Though the trees may not blossom and the fruit is spoiled, though life may not be going how I would want and I am being challenged and tested, nevertheless I will still praise God, because I’m counting on God’s rule to prevail, I trust that God loves me. And ultimately, no matter what happens, my life is in God’s hands.

Living on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter can feel lonely and fearful if we don’t trust that God’s answer is coming or expect God to work within our time frames. Living the in-between of faith means honestly asking our questions and then actively waiting, looking all around us for God’s answer. Being faithful in these times means a willingness to accept the “not yet” of God, confident not in what we see in the present, but in the certainty of God himself. The most powerful testimonies to God and his work in this world have come from people mired in the most awful in-betweens, who can still affirm a trust in God that goes beyond anything they can see in their own present. We see the world. We know what’s going on around us. We are acutely aware of the things that scare us, that cause us anxiety, that make us lie awake at night. I encourage you to look directly at that challenge in front of you and say with confidence, “Nevertheless. Nevertheless, Nevertheless.” May we have the strength to live as if God is with us at all times, even during the in-betweens.

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1 Comment

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One response to “This Week’s Sermon – A Word to the Whys

  1. Great post all about Habakkuk. Enjoyed reading it.

    I too was blogging about Habakkuk when I happened upon your blog. What a great message we get from this very neglected prophet.

    How can we be faithful in a world like this? (Habakkuk) is the title of my blog post in case you wanna check it out. I’d love to get some feedback.

    Just a preview, Peter Craigie wrote, “Faithfulness requires a continuation in the relationship with God, even when experience outstrips faith and the purpose in continuing to believe is called into question.” Good stuff!

    Thanks again for posting your message,
    Ken

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