In advance of my preaching tomorrow, here's the sermon I've written. I didn't get a chance to do much sermon prep here on the blog because, well, it's been a busy couple of weeks. (It's telling that I haven't posted since early September... where did that month GO?)
Anyway, I did decide to preach on Habakkuk, which revealed to me my ignorance about the book of Habakkuk. After some catching up in terms of my own knowledge, I feel like the sermon came together pretty well. It's nice to preach on something that's not quite as miserably difficult as the last two sermons I've preached.
Grace and peace be with all of you, in the name of our God. Amen.
For my sermon this week, I've chosen to focus not on our Gospel text, but on the First Lesson, the Old Testament text – the reading from the book of Habakkuk. I encourage you to look at the text again in your pew Bibles if you want to refresh your memory. As I was preparing this sermon, one of the resources I consulted had this word of advice: “When have the sainted people to whom you preach ever heard a sermon based on God's timeless word to Habakkuk? This week is their chance. Do not let them down.”
Well, I will do my best. I expect many of you sainted people have not heard a sermon on God's timeless word to Habakkuk. You may be unfamiliar with this book and its themes. Even I had to do some serious reading to figure out what this book, included among the prophets, is about.
The theme in this reading that jumped out at me is justice. Habakkuk writes, “So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous — therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” Habakkuk is lamenting a situation filled with injustice.
And this lament of Habakkuk's seems timeless, doesn't it? There are so many times when we are struck by the injustice of a situation. I want us to reflect for a minute on those injustices we encounter; I'll give you an example of my own.
Last Christmas, my husband and I were traveling home from the seminary up in Gettysburg. We were flying out of the Dulles Airport, so we left our car in the long-term parking there. When we returned to our car eight days later, our front bumper was absolutely mangled. Someone had hit us in the parking lot while we were gone. There was no note, no sign at all that the person who had hit our car had wanted to make the situation right. Probably, the person who hit us figured he or she would be long gone before we got back to find our ruined bumper – and that person was right. We couldn’t know who hit our car and then drove off. So we went to a car shop and paid for a new bumper, and my husband muttered something about karma... hoping that the person who did us an injustice would get some kind of cosmic comeuppance.
What about all of you? I want you to take a moment to reflect on an injustice you have experienced, a time when maybe you wished for cosmic justice. [pause]
Some of you may have experienced injustice far worse than my husband's and my ruined bumper. I am well aware that my example is very minor compared to the injustice that some individuals and groups have to face. My little “injustice” is also very minor compared to the experience of Habakkuk. You see, Habakkuk lived in a time when the people of Israel were being deeply shaken. World powers – the Assyrians and the Babylonians – were conquering the people of Israel, sending some of them into exile and destroying their homes. Even the Temple of Jerusalem was eventually destroyed – a catastrophic event for God's people. Amidst all of this, the prophets cried out over the injustice they saw within the people of Israel – ignoring the poor, the widows and orphans; perverting the system of justice for personal gain..
That is the world in which Habakkuk speaks. Habakkuk cries out to God, “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” Habakkuk and the people of Israel are threatened by foreign powers and by internal injustice. The world around Habakkuk is all wrong, far from God's intentions and promises.
And Habakkuk cries out not only in lament to God, but in accusation. Habakkuk writes, “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?” As Habakkuk knows, the God of Israel is supposed to be a just God, a God who protects the righteous and punishes the wicked. Habakkuk sees justice perverted and the wicked prospering; and he is forced to wonder what God is doing. If the world is unjust, does that mean God is unjust? Or has God forgotten the people of Israel and God's promises to them?
Habakkuk is not the only voice that cries out in this way when faced with injustice. There are others in the Bible who question the justice of God: the book of Job is perhaps the most famous. And at times we may find ourselves asking the same questions. In the midst of violence around the world; poverty, disease, and hunger; the personal losses and hardships we experience; stories in the news about cyber-bullying driving teenagers to suicide – we may wonder if God is unjust or simply absent from our world. We may find ourselves wandering in a dark place, feeling far from God, full of pain and doubt.
It is comforting for me to know that Habakkuk is in that dark place with us. We are not alone when we ask these hard questions. Habakkuk and other faithful people throughout history have asked the same questions. And Habakkuk can provide us with a model and perhaps some hope in that dark place – for Habakkuk does not only lament, does not only ask questions. Habakkuk waits, however impatiently, for a response from God. I love Habakkuk's words: “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what God will say to me, and what God will answer concerning my complaint.” I imagine Habakkuk putting his foot down, saying to God, “I am not going to move until you answer me!” How many of us have felt that same impatience and insistence? Even when we are doubting God, we still wait for an answer from God, hoping and trusting that it will come.
For Habakkuk, the answer comes in two parts. God does respond to the voice of the prophet, but warns that the answer Habakkuk seeks requires more patience. God says, “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.” Habakkuk does not get the vision immediately. But God comes to remind Habakkuk of God's presence and faithfulness. Though it may seem that the answer to Habakkuk's questions is slow to come, God promises that it will come at just the right time.
God can speak to us through this word to Habakkuk, as well. When we find ourselves overwhelmed by the injustice all around us, or doubting the presence of God in the midst of injustice, we can read this word to Habakkuk. We can trust that God is still among us. Sometimes, we feel that presence of God in one another, in community. Sometimes, we can only hope that God's presence is there, unfelt. We trust in the word God gave to Habakkuk — that God does have a vision, a plan, and it will come at the appointed time.
When we gather here for worship, we often gather with joy. We celebrate weddings and baptisms; we celebrate God’s love and grace. Yet at other times, we gather here with different emotions. We gather to mourn at funerals, filled with sadness and overwhelmed by questions. Even for a regular Sunday service, some of you undoubtedly come weighed down by your doubts, fears, and pains. Some of you may come here overwhelmed by the injustice you see around you. Some of you may come, doubting whether God can be found here.
In many Christian churches, including this one, there is a special candle — the eternal candle. It’s right over there, on the wall. It remains lit, even when the service ends and all the other candles are extinguished. This eternal candle is meant to signify God’s ongoing, constant presence among us. Whether we gather in joy or in sadness, God remains faithfully present. Although we may not find the answers we are seeking — although we must wait for the vision to arrive — we trust that God’s spirit is here, as God has promised. Amen.