Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Lexington, Ky., on Nov. 3, 2013.
In more than 30 years of preaching, I have never preached from the prophet Habakkuk. He is definitely not a household name, even for the church. This morning’s lesson is the only time that Habakkuk, one of Israel’s minor, or lesser, prophets, shows up in the three-year lectionary.
Which means, over the course of 156 Sundays, we get to hear Habakkuk once, which is today. But isn’t this just like God, to take an unknown character like Habakkuk and make him one of the witnesses of Scripture, whose voice serves God’s self-revelation to Israel and in Jesus Christ?
Protestant Christians have at least an indirect interest in Habakkuk through their interest in the apostle Paul, who writes in his letter to the Romans, “The just, the righteous, shall live by faith.”
Most of us have also heard these words associated with Martin Luther. But they are actually taken from Habakkuk, whose importance is much greater than he knew, limited neither to his time nor by the shortness of his prophecy.
Habakkuk is a praying prophet rather than a preaching prophet. There is a depth to his prophecy that reflects the nature of his writing as an extended conversation of speaking and listening to God.
Our reading begins, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help?”
This is a lament, a desperate cry for help in the midst of great trouble. Habakkuk’s words are a complaint; he has major issues to take up with God. I suspect we do as well, if we are honest.
Habakkuk was attentive to what was going on around him. Despite his prayers, he sees violence, injustice and wrongdoing everywhere. God’s law appears to be helpless; it does not seem to work, and the wrongdoers have gotten the upper hand.
God’s justice -- the good order given to the people of Judah, God’s own people -- is perverted in all walks of life. This was not what God had intended. God’s law, the Torah, was a gift from God for ordering all of Israel’s life to one end -- that God be honored in all things. But this was not happening, and Habakkuk became increasingly distressed and finally cries out to God.
“How long, O Lord, must I call for help?”
Habakkuk was, much like the other prophets, a morally sensitive soul. It was not easy for him to turn away from the oppression of the weak, the dismissal of the poor, dishonest dealings, constant fighting and public conflict, the destruction of the fabric of social life, endless litigation -- in short, a wholesale abandonment of God’s will by the people whose very reason for existing was to be a visible witness to God’s way with the world.
Apparently, Habakkuk had repeatedly called upon God to act, to intervene, to set things right, to just do something. Yet it seemed that God had not heard him and God would not act to save. Finally, out of a deep sense of frustration and confusion, he cries out to God, “How long, O Lord, must I call for your help, but you do not listen?!”
There may be nothing worse than speaking but not being heard, than addressing another who doesn’t listen or respond. This is no small thing for Habakkuk, a Jew whose faith and life is expressed fully in the Psalms, the prayer book of Israel.
At the heart of the Psalms is the conviction that the God of Israel is known in prayer, through speaking, listening and answering. And Habakkuk was not praying like many people pray today. He wasn’t praying to be famous or successful. He wasn’t asking for a big house, an expensive car or a higher paying job. He didn’t ask God to make him a major prophet like Ezekiel, Isaiah or Jeremiah.
In fact, Habakkuk doesn’t even pray for himself. What he offers up to God are prayers on behalf of others, especially those who suffer much and those who suffer unjustly.
A popular bumper sticker that has been around for a long time says, “Prayer changes things.” But what can we say when we have prayed and nothing changes?
This is what Habakkuk said: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?”
What if Habakkuk put that bumper sticker on his car? Could you blame him? At least he is honest.
Some churches offer classes and workshops on prayer. They sell books and DVDs on how to pray and what to pray, so that by praying, Christians can make a difference in the world. But they don’t offer instruction on what to do when God does not answer.
“How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?”
If we are honest, we would acknowledge we are one with Habakkuk. We know what unanswered prayer is like, even if we don’t pray formally.
Lord please do this, please act here, please set this right, please make this well, please right this wrong, please stop this evil, please heal this damage, please end this conflict, please change this heart.
“Lord, please do something! Act like God. Can’t you see we are weary of fighting against wrong and trying to do good?”
We may not speak these words in formal prayers, but because we are God’s people, because we are the church, the Holy Spirit prays them in us and we carry them in the depths of our hearts. We feel the deep sense of injustice, of grief, the pain of suffering, and yes, like Habakkuk, a desire to take up our complaints with God: “How long, O Lord?”
God does answer Habakkuk’s lament, his complaint against God, his cry for justice. The answer is not what he was waiting for, but it is an answer -- one that is both unsettling and astounding.
God speaks to say he is already at work and Habakkuk will see something amazing in his lifetime, so amazing he won’t believe it. God’s answer is that he will destroy the injustice among his people, the nation of Judah, by bringing the troops of Babylonia to overwhelm them.
What Judah will get is what Judah has selfishly desired and eagerly sought: injustice, violence, division, a relatively godless way of life that is easily drawn to the worship of other gods in place of the God who brought them out of Egypt and made them his own. And the Babylonians, an immoral and pagan empire, will be the instrument of God’s judgment.
In other words, Judah will get exactly what they desire, and this will be God’s judgment. This is not what Habakkuk was expecting to hear. But he persists in prayer, in conversing with God.
Amazingly, he takes God at his word, saying he plans to position himself to be alert and on the lookout for what God will do and say next. Habakkuk trusts that God is already at work, even if he can’t see it. He trusts that God has more to say, and he commits himself to waiting on God rather than taking matters into his own hands.
This is the rub in the story. Habakkuk assumes a disposition of waiting with confident trust in God.
In Scripture, to wait is to be active, to do something, something very important. In fact, it is the most important thing we do, since waiting is an expression of faith, of being open and receptive to God, to God’s action, to God’s voice, to God’s will, to God’s answer.
To wait is to be patient, which literally means “to suffer,” or to be acted upon rather than acting, to be receptive to the action of others. To wait and to be patient is to trust that God is at work even if we can’t see or understand what God is doing at any given moment of time.
Some people say that all you need is faith and everything will turn out all right. In other words, faith fixes things.
But true faith is not something we have and use; it is not a tool in our hands to make things happen. True, living faith, which is a gift of God himself, has us, since faith in God -- which is not faith in our faith or in ourselves -- is a glad willingness to accept God’s will as it comes to us each day as God continues to be God.
Living faith is an entrusting of ourselves into God’s hands as God speaks and acts in all the circumstances of our lives, since God is already busily at work. This is why the Lord tells Habakkuk to write down the vision of his purpose for the world, since it awaits its appointed time and has yet to be completed.
What is this vision? What does God give Habakkuk to put into writing and to hold until its appointed time? What does God say to him about his vision for the world -- the truth of what is going on, what is truly worth waiting for and will certainly come?
The Lord says, “See, the righteous will live by this faith.” This is not a program or a list of things to do or a blueprint or a recipe for success.
So what are we waiting for?
We are waiting for God. Faith is a willingness to trust that God knows best and will bring our lives and the world to a good completion. This is God’s vision for the world, what God has promised and what we, by faith, trust will surely come in God’s good time and in God’s good way.
We pray this each time we assemble to worship God, offering up the words Jesus taught us: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
He gave us this prayer when the disciples approached him asking, “Lord, teach us to pray.” We need to learn how to pray; we need to be taught how to converse with God by the One who is both God’s Word to us and our complete answer to God’s Word. This is why we offer our prayers in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Habakkuk could not see or know this, living almost 600 years before Jesus. But already, although not fully, but still with assurance, God tells Habakkuk the kingdom will come: “It surely will come.”
And here we are this morning, waiting for God, wondering together, “How long, O Lord?”
The truth is, we don’t know, even though a lot of people have tried to predict. We just trust that God does know, and we trust that God knows what he is doing. And contrary to many skeptics, our faith is not wishful thinking but faith that rests upon something solid, something firm, and something strong enough to sustain it. Our faith rests upon God’s sure and certain promises spoken in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther said, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his or her life on it.” Moreover, he said, “Faith is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God.”
This is amazing: “Faith is a divine work in us.”
It is something God gives and does, the work of him who creates new things out of nothing, giving life to the dead and existence to things that did not exist. In our worries about the world and its future, about our lives, our loved ones, and all that goes on in and around us, God continues to create the gift of faith, which renews us and sustains us even when we just don’t know what is going on.
What we do know is what Habakkuk wrote down, which has been revealed fully in Jesus Christ.
This is living faith, which grasps God’s gift of himself in the goodness of his Son who is the way, the truth and the life. Because of him, faith frees us to trust and accept the limits of our lives and to believe the good news that God is God and we are not: “The righteous shall live by faith.”
But this does not mean we simply do nothing. Luther says what we do is the righteousness of God, which we receive through faith and is God’s work in us.
This is all of God; it is God’s doing, which is why it frees and empowers us to find great pleasure in living a life of obedience to God, delighting in God’s ways rather than our own.
This is faith that works by the energy of love, the love which the Holy Spirit generously pours into our lives when we hear the Word and eat at the table of our Lord.
Thanks be to God.