THE MEAN TIME
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As I always like to say after Easter – you came back! Welcome back. The fact that you’re here this morning tells me that you have some level of interest and opportunity in figuring out together what it means to live as post-Easter people together. We’re going to be looking at a writing over the coming three weeks that was written by a man of faith for people of faith. What does it mean to live as post-Easter people of faith? Hence our title.
Habakkuk is one of the prophets. It tells us this in the first verse. As such the prophet brings a word from God. It’s about the future sure, but it’s also about what’s going on in the present. There’s much debate among biblical scholars as to when it was written – with opinions ranging from the 7th century BC to the 2nd century BC. We’re not certain when it was written, and this is fitting, I think. The situation that Habakkuk addresses is one for all times.
What can we tell from the text? Habakkuk is writing about the rise of the Chaldean or Babylonian Empire. In the 7th century, northern Israel had fallen to the Assyrians. Judah was going it alone, partnering with the Babylonians against the Assyrians and the Egyptians to the south. In the coming years, of course, this partnership would dissolve, and the Babylonians would invade multiple times, the last time resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 587 BC. There’s much blurring of the lines though in the book, as it’s not even clear whom Habakkuk is talking about when he says that he sees violence all around him in our text this morning. Is he talking about Judah or is he talking about the Babylonian Empire?
As I said though, it just makes the prophecy that much more timeless, that much more able to speak to any time. Self-seeking empire, self-serving countries, self-serving people are not restricted to any one time. Why do you make me see wrongdoing and violence? Destruction and violence are all around me. The law becomes slack and justice never prevails. How well can we identify with this kind of thing? Why does this sort of thing happen? How can God allow such things to happen?
We’re talking about theodicy now of course. Why do bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, to put it in the simplest way. While the book asks the question, its primary purpose is not to answer this question. There is no one good answer to this question. While the prophet seems to express doubt, the primary purpose of the prophecy is not to put an end to doubt. It’s not a case of “All your questions and doubts will be solved if you would only read this book!” The book is rather about what it means to be a people of faith – to be learning to live by faith in the midst of questions and turmoil.
How to live in the meantime. How to live while we’re waiting on God’s promises to be fulfilled. The people of Judah were living in the meantime. The meantime can be pretty mean. They were living in the midst of a lot of uncertainty and turmoil. We, even as post-Easter people of faith are also living in the meantime. We’re waiting on God’s promises to be ultimately fulfilled. We pray “Thy Kingdom come” waiting on the future fulfillment of a Kingdom that is in an unfathomable way at the same time among us and is coming. We know that the meantime can be pretty mean as we wait.
So let us look to the words of the prophet and ask God to help us. Let us pray.
One of the great things about Habakkuk is the deeply personal nature of the prophet’s words. Oftentimes in prophecy, we have the prophet presenting the words of God – “Thus says the Lord,” that kind of thing. God is the instigator as it were of the prophecy. Here we have the prophet starting. He’s going to be getting into a dialogue with God. He starts with a lament – “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” This is a complaint. The prophet is not looking for a number here. “Oh, it will be 5 years actually.” “Ok, great thanks!” It’s a rhetorical “How long” as in “How many times do I have to ask you to put away your laundry/stop leaving this much milk in the milk carton/etc etc.” It’s a complaint. The prophet is not merely theologizing or philosophizing here. He’s praying to God whom he knows.
We’re reminded about the importance of intercessory prayer. Praying for others without ceasing. Being like the importunate widow of whom Jesus would speak years later. Continually crying out to God on behalf of others. This is a really interesting thing about this lament. We’ve talked before about the importance of lament in the Bible and the language of lament – particularly in the Psalms “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1) Here we have Habakkuk asking the question on behalf of others. Violence is all around him. Injustice is all around him. People with money and/or position and/or privilege are able to work the system to their advantage and there is no justice. The law becomes slack. The wicked (rasha) surround the righteous (tsaddiq). One commentator describes the difference between the wicked and the righteous like this – “People who are tsaddiq are people who live faithfully in their relationships in the community and do the right things by them. People who are rasha are people who ignore the obligations of their relationships in the community; they just live for themselves.” I like to say that God wants us to be honest with Him. These words of Habakkuk give us both permission and a language with which to bring our concerns before God.
The thing is these concerns needn’t only be societal. They needn’t only be geopolitical. Habakkuk is searingly personal. One writer puts it like this:
“Habakkuk here faces the dilemma that has confronted faithful people in every age – the dilemma of seemingly unanswered prayer for the healing of society. The prophet is one with all those persons who fervently pray for peace in our world and who experience only war, who pray for God’s good to come on earth and who find only human evil. But he is also one with every soul who has prayed for healing beside a sickbed only to be confronted with death; with every spouse who has prayed for love to come into a home and then found only hatred and anger; with every anxious person who has prayed for serenity but then been further disturbed and agitated.” With the soul who has prayed for reconciliation and has only found a broken relationship. With the soul who has prayed for their children and has found them straying. Habakkuk gives us permission to come to God on our faces and cry out “How long?” – not in despair but with a firm trust that when our God makes promises God is faithful to them.
Learning to live by faith.
Learning to listen for God’s voice. This is what we hear starting in verse 5. “Look at the nations and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.” Which is a little ironic as God is going to go ahead and tell it anyway. A work is being done in your days. God is at work. God is at work all around us, no matter what things may look like. We’ve started construction season in Toronto, not that it ever really seems to end with all the CrossTown LRT stuff going on. Take a drive around the city on any given day and there is work being done all around. Let this remind us that God is at work all around us, carrying out his saving, delivering, purposes. Haven’t we known this? To bring this down once again to a very personal level – haven’t we known this? Haven’t we been in a circumstance in which we’ve wondered “Why?” – and again Habbakuk gives us permission to ask such questions. Haven’t we seen God transform us and those who we love through such circumstances? Oftentimes it’s not the circumstance that change but us!
God is going to raise up the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, to bring justice. They are dread and fearsome. Their justice proceeds from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more menacing than wolves at dusk; their horses charge. You may be going “Hold on hold on – these are the people through whom God is going to bring about justice??” Well yes actually. You didn’t think he only used the righteous, did you? You didn’t think he relied solely on us? Now that’s humbling. This gives us a lens through which to look at world events. One writer describes it like this – “No event in human history, therefore, is to be understood as completely divorced from his lordly action and will. God is always at work, always involved, always pressing forward towards his Kingdom. But the means by which he chooses to pursue that goal may be as incomprehensible as the destruction of a nation or as incomprehensible as the blood dripping from the figure of a man on a cross.”
Incomprehensible. The prophet again voices a complaint. The solution seems to be worse than the problem! Things were unjust and they’re going to be solved by something ever more unjust? Again though, note that the question is coming from a place of faith. A place that expects the promises of God to come about. A place that expects God’s nature to be shown. Are you not from of old – O Lord my God, my Holy One? Look at these people whom you are rousing! The enemy brings all of them up with a hook and drags them out with his net. He sacrifices to his net – he praises strength, he worships strength and not you! Is he then to keep on emptying his net and destroying nations without mercy?
We’re going to hear more about this next week. But the short answer is, injustice will not be allowed to stand. Injustice will not stand forever. We are called by faith to wait for God’s promises. Like this one – “Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them.” (Deut 4:31)
“I will stand at my watchpost…” is how the next section begins. I will stand in the Lord and be watchful. We’ve known God’s faithfulness. We’ve just celebrated new life after three days. We’re still waiting for something. As we wait we’re called to watch. He taught me how, to watch and pray, and live rejoicing every day. Happy day indeed when Jesus took my sins away. The new covenant. The promises that are ours. Let us continue to watch and wait for them together.