For crying out loud, Lord!
A sermon on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 by Nathan Nettleton, 4 November 2001
Faced with the callous injustice of the world, it takes tenacious trust in the vision of Gods just reign to survive.
I dont know whether the singer Kasey Chambers has ever encountered the writings of the prophet Habakkuk, but on her recently released second album, there is a song that has a definite affinity with what Habakkuk was saying some 2600 years ago. The title and refrain of Kaseys song says, If youre not pissed off with the world, then youre just not paying attention.
One of the most difficult things about being either Jewish or Christian is trying to maintain trust in a God who is allegedly loving and just and responsible for the destiny of the world, when in the face of the ugly realities of violence, injustice and despair, this God seems to be either unable or unwilling to help. This is not a new problem. Moses wrestled with it. Job wrestled with it. Jeremiah wrestled with it. Habakkuk wrestled with it. In fact, so widespread was this dilemma in the faith of our forebears that the records of their anguished questions and complaints to God have been passed down to us as sacred scripture. And apart from anything else, that should tell you that if I claim to have solved the problem in the next ten minutes you should dismiss me as a fraud and not listen to anything else I ever say!
Habakkuks description of the world he faced sounds remarkably contemporary. He describes a society torn apart by violence and destruction. There is fighting and madness on every side. The legal system has become at best slack, and at worst corrupt, so that instead of serving to establish justice it serves merely to justify the establishment. It protects the wealthy and powerful as they continue to squeeze every last drop of sweat out of the powerless and needy. How long do I have to scream blue murder, cries Habakkuk, before you will come and do something about it, Lord?
Fair question. Youve only got to add a couple of specifics and Habakkuk could be voicing the questions that haunt us whenever we stop long enough to think.
How many times does an ordinary shop keeper like Tom in the Milk Bar across the road have to be robbed and even stabbed for just going about his business and trying to feed his family before God is going to do something about the violence and destruction tearing apart our society?
How long can wealthy comfortable nations like ours ignore the cries of desperate people fleeing horrendous oppression, hardening our hearts and using military force to keep them from disturbing our complacency? How long can such nations demonise them and twist the truth about them and manufacture fear of them in order to bolster support for the power of a heartless clutch of political power-mongers? How long can it go on before God steps in and brings about the day of justice when the refugees will have homes and the hungry will be fed?
How long can the truth of Australias attempted annihilation of its indigenous peoples be suppressed beneath superficial platitudes about good intentions and patronising policies re-branded as practical reconciliation before God steps in and pulls down the tyrants from their thrones and lifts up the dispossessed and downtrodden, healing their wounds and wiping the tears from their eyes?
How long can the worlds most powerful nations get away with trampling the hopes of the poor and propping up murderous regimes in order to protect the interests of global capital and secure for themselves free access to markets and energy reserves? How long can they totally ignore terrorism and even genocide in places where they have no interests at stake and yet ooze high principle to justify vengeful violence the minute they are asked to drink from the same cup of suffering as the rest of the world? How long can they explain away bombed hospitals and villages as collateral damage before God calls them to account and beats their swords into plowshares for them and establishes the eternal reign of justice and peace?
How long, O Lord, how long?
Neither Habakkuk, nor Moses, nor Job, nor Jeremiah get an answer from God that would enable us to say that the puzzle is solved and it all now makes sense and the philosophers can turn their minds to something else. Thats not to say that God doesnt respond; only that God doesnt respond with a philosophical defence to conclude the argument. Perhaps it is even more important to note that God doesnt respond by condemning the question and the questioners and insisting that we have no right to question what God is up to. When Job questions Gods justice and all his friends condemn him for it, God ends up saying that Job is the only one who has spoken appropriately and really shown any respect for God. God responds, not with solutions to riddles, but with relationship.
In the part of Gods response that we heard read out for us, God speaks of a vision. It is a vision that God has already given to the people. A vision of Gods coming reign of justice, righteousness and peace. God promises that the vision is not out the window, but will indeed come to pass. And in the mean time, God urges people to hold on to the vision and to live with faithfulness and endurance in the strength of that vision. The climax comes in the verse for which Habakkuk is best known: the verse which is usually translated the just shall live by faith. There is some uncertainty about the translation though, because there is an ambiguous pronoun before the word faith. It could be the just shall live by their faith or the just shall live by its faith meaning the faith of the vision that God has been referring to. Either way it is probably better rendered as faithfulness, rather than just faith which could be understood as simply belief. Im no expert on these things, but given the context of Gods focus on holding on to the vision, I lean towards reading it as the just shall live by the faithfulness that comes from the vision. It doesnt make a huge difference though, because either way, we are being exhorted to hold the line in faithfulness in spite of the injustice and chaos of a world gone mad.
I think that for me, that line would have worn a bit thin by now, two and a half thousand years later, if it wasnt for the revelation of God we have seen in Jesus. But what we have seen in Jesus is the extraordinary extent of the relationship that God has offered in response to our cries; the extent to which God has entered into solidarity with those who cry out. God is not one who is unaffected by the pain of the world and just arbitrarily decides when and where to act. Rather God is one who becomes flesh and suffers the worst of the worlds bitterness and rage alongside us. God doesnt just say, Chin up! Hold the line! and then go back to a safe distance. God gets in alongside us and leads the way, showing us what such faithfulness looks like; showing us how to absorb the hostility and hatred and convert its energy into passionate forgiveness and love.
The philosophical questions about good and evil remain unanswered. We simply dont know why or for how long the world can continue in its violence and callousness and greed. But each time we kneel here and confess the selfishness and indifference that lurk in our own hearts, we have cause to thank God for not being too hasty to annihilate the corrupt. And each time we break bread at this table we are reminded how closely God is identifying with our woundedness. And each time we embrace one another around this table and pledge peace to one another we are putting a little more flesh on the bones of that vision of the ultimate reign of peace. And each time we raise our glasses and say Until he comes, we are given a taste of the fulfilment of that vision - the first fruits of the joy to come. It doesnt make the questions go away and it doesnt put us beyond the reach of suffering, but as we are fed with the life-giving presence of God, we draw strength to maintain our protest against the reign of evil and to continue in the way of faithfulness with enduring courage and integrity until the reign of peace is fulfilled.