This Week’s Sermon – Questions for God

SCRIPTURE – Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 – The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received. How long, 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 wrongdoing? 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, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright—but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.”

SERMON
Questions for God
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Oct. 27, 2013

            I’m sure you saw the emails or books that were popular several years ago that shared some questions that kids wanted to ask God. They questions were cute and innocent like, “Since you retired 2000 years ago, what kind of things do you do?” and “Why did you make asparagus taste so gross?” I enjoyed reading through those questions, chuckling at those darned kids and their curious sense of humor.

            Are those your questions, too? Are those the kind of burning things you can’t wait for God to answer? Those aren’t my questions. My questions aren’t so easily laughed off and tend to be about subjects a bit darker than the taste of asparagus. Most of my questions start with, “Why?” and end with anger or tears. I wonder if your questions are like mine, if they deal with things like unfairness and injustice and God’s absence. These are not cute and innocent questions. But for so long, I was told that I wasn’t allowed to ask my questions. “God’s ways are not our ways,” I was told, which is the divine version of the parental, “Because I said so, that’s why!” But sometimes, when life makes absolutely no sense, that response feels more like a copout than a comfort, and I bet that response has driven a lot of people away from God. God’s ways are indeed not our ways, but if what’s going on in the world and in our lives IS God’s ways, I’m not so sure I like this God.

To say we can’t give voice our questions is to ask us to go against the very essence of our human nature. We are a questioning species, and it starts before we can even articulate our questions. For example, when a crawling baby finds something on the ground, what do they do with it? Right into their mouth! They’re trying to figure out whether this clod of substance is a piece of dirt or an Oreo, and either way they’re going to eat it. Our curiosity starts early and continues to grow as we do. And as the complexity level of our lives grow, so do the nature of our questions. Who am I? What is my purpose? Who is my soulmate? Is there something bigger than me going on here? We ask our questions and then spend our lifetime searching for answers. So it seems only natural that we should also be able to ask our questions to God.

If you believe that, then you have a kindred spirit in Habakkuk. Now, I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but I wonder how many people here today have read the book of Habakkuk. In fact, I wonder how many people actually knew there was a book of Habakkuk in the Bible. And I wonder how many people, now having heard me read from this book, still wonder whether it’s actually in the Bible. There aren’t a lot of Sunday School lessons built around Habakkuk, because if we encourage our kids to ask their questions about God, we might find out we have more of our own than we care to admit.

Habakkuk breaks the mold for prophetic books. The typical pattern for a prophet was to hear God’s word and then relay it to God’s people. Prophecies start with something like, “The word of the Lord that came to Isaiah…” and then would spell out all that God told Isaiah to say. But not Habakkuk. His prophecy starts with a question, and it’s a little more pointed than asking about God’s retirement. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘violence!’ and you will not save?” This is less of a prophecy and more of a lament psalm, in which the writer cries out to God for help because of suffering or persecution.

How long, God? Where are you? Do those questions resonate with you? From the early Christians who were facing their death for others’ entertainment, to women accused of witchcraft, to Jews in Europe and blacks in the United States, to modern-day believers in Egypt and Syria, this same cry has bounced off the heavens. How long are you going to let this happen? 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 this?

Habakkuk’s questions arise from the situation he saw around him. God’s people had gone astray yet again, ignoring God’s law and doing their own thing, which had led to wickedness and irreverence. So Habakkuk says, “How long are you going to stand by and watch this happen?” Later in Chapter 1, God says, “Don’t worry, the wicked Israelites will be punished because I’m sending the Babylonians to invade them.” Now think about that. Your child was supposed to clean his room and didn’t, so you punish him by inviting the neighborhood bully into your home to beat him up. Habakkuk responds to God’s answer by basically saying, “Beg your pardon, O Holy and Omnipotent One, but that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard! How does this solve anything? I’m not so sure I like this God.”

It doesn’t take a Babylonian invasion or the death of a child or a Holocaust to raise these kinds of questions for us. They arise from the situations we see around us: injustice and violence and suffering that makes cry out to God, “Where ARE you?” How can we NOT question in the face of all we see going on around us? To pretend like it’s not OK to question God is to not take God seriously. If we truly believe that God is our creator, that God loves all of us, that God is a God of justice, then God has some explaining to do about what’s going on down here. We have questions.

Those questions are not a sign of unbelief or a lack of faith; in fact, I would argue just the opposite. To question God starts with the assumption that there IS a God, and that God is worthy of our questions. I believe the question may be the highest form of mindful praise, because instead of settling for empty platitudes and Christian clichés, the questioner is willing to engage God in the thorny issues that challenge our faith each day. I believe the toughest questions come from the folks who are trying their hardest to work out their faith. It takes profound belief to listen to God’s promises in the Bible, then to look at how far we are from God’s kingdom in this world, and to ask God, “What’s the deal?”

Asking those questions can be hard, but not as hard as waiting for the answer. At the beginning of Chapter 2, after asking his questions, Habakkuk says, “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.” Not only is he willing to ask the question, he says, “I’m not leaving here until you answer me.” It’s like a prophetic sit-in. Occupy Jerusalem! I love the prophet’s tenacity, his persistence in seeking an answer. He’s not waiting to see IF God will answer; he’s waiting to hear what God will say WHEN God answers. This is real faith, not a faith that gives up on God at the first sign of disappointment, not a faith that gives to God what’s left over, but a faith that wrestles with God, a faith that grabs hold of God and says, “I’m not letting go until you bless me.”

Habakkuk gets his answer, but it’s probably not the one he wanted. God says, “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.” God promises Habakkuk there is a vision, and that Habakkuk should write it down in such big, bold letters that passersby can’t miss it, like a billboard on a freeway. And that message is this: “God is still here!”

But wait. That’s not really an answer, is it? The question was “How long?” Our question is, “Why?” We don’t want to be put off like we’re some child pestering her mother for attention. We don’t want to be dismissed like some underling wasting the boss’ time. We want decisive action, we want our questions answered now and we want them answered in ways that match our expectations. Instead, the answer God gives Habakkuk is, “Not yet.” For some of us, that may not feel like an answer.

What this book reminds us is that a necessary part of living as God’s people is the waiting in between the asking of the questions and the hearing of the answers. We live as Saturday people, in between the pain and anguish of Good Friday and the answer of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, trusting that God is indeed still here and still at work, even when God seems far away. The challenge for us is this: Do we need to have all the answers in order to be faithful? Do we need to know exactly what God’s plan is before we choose to participate in it? Do we hold back on our commitment to God until we know for sure where God’s calling us?

In the end, Habakkuk is OK living in the in-between. He says in Chapter 3, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” He demonstrates that faithfulness to God is a willingness to choose to live life with hope and trust, even when answers may not be readily forthcoming.

In the end, Habakkuk’s questions are not answered. He still did not know how long. He still did not know why. He still did not know God’s timetable or what the future held. But he heard something more important that would allow him to face those unknowns. He heard God, who assured Habakkuk of God’s presence and who called him to be faithful without having all the answers. That doesn’t mean we should stop asking our questions. To the contrary, I believe asking our questions and seeking the answers are essential to our faith. But in the meantime, while we wait expectantly for God to answer us, we are called to remember that God is still here, right here with us, not only on Easter Sunday high points of life, but during the depths of our own Good Friday experiences. “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

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