“Watching and Waiting” Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, 3:17-20
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
December 2, 2018
One year ago minus eight days, I stood in this pulpit for the first time and preached a sermon about waiting. As I prepared for this Sunday, for another sermon on waiting, for the beginning of yet another season of Advent, part of me got restless: “another sermon on waiting?”
It’s really not the sort of thing that’s a lot of fun to preach about. Lots of church people like Advent, but when asked why I’ve rarely heard “because of the preaching.” The music, yes. The candles, yes. The preaching? Eh. But waiting is something that is part of our lives. It’s a hard thing, and it is not going to go away.
So here I am, talking about waiting once more.
People back in the prophet Habakkuk’s time didn’t like waiting either. Their situation was horrible. The Assyrian army had destroyed city after city, brutally killing people.
Habakkuk and his people had a question: “Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen?” And so Habakkuk did what people do when we need to hear from God: he entered into discernment. He voiced his peoples’ deep pain and fear and trauma, asking the age-old question. Where is God? “I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you don’t deliver us.”
Habakkuk lifts his painful complaint to God. Then, God responds. We didn’t read God’s response in these selections but God more or less says: “I’m going to fix all your nation’s mistakes by sending the Babylonians your way. They’re bad themselves. But I’ll use them to wipe the slate clean.”
It’s not a good look for God. Some other time we can get into why some voices in scripture believe God used the Babylonians to punish God’s own people, but for now, it’s enough for me to say that we don’t have to accept the idea of a God that uses strong nations to violently punish weaker nations. Habakkuk had a problem with that too. So it was time for more discernment: you’re a good God. So why do you let this happen? How could you possibly do this?
Then we get to chapter 2, which we read some of.
Habakkuk voices his questions again, and then enters into a time of patient listening: “I’ll wait. I’ll wait to see what God has to say about my complaint.” Of course, his complaint isn’t just his own. It’s the question all of the people would have struggled with, even if they didn’t admit it or know how to say it. Then Habakkuk heard another message from God, “Wait. Be patient. Deliverance is coming. Things will get better. But you’ll have to wait.”
I doubt that’s Habakkuk wanted to hear. For a more silly example, when getting a car repair who wants to hear “we can fix it but we won’t have the part for a few days?” When demanding change from political leaders would want to hear “well, there is hope, but things are going to be bad for a long time.” Who in this church when wondering what is next for us wants to hear “the path forward will be discerned in time.” It’s one of the reasons I’ve struggled with the “it gets better” campaigns that pop up from time to time, encouraging the many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth in bad situations that things will be better for them. Don’t people deserve good news for the now? We humans don’t want to wait, and in many situations it seems unfair or downright cruel to say: “just wait. It’ll get better.”
However, even worse than telling people to wait is lying: Saying “it’ll be fine” when it indeed is not going to be fine. That’s what false prophets and false gods did. There are times it is much more honest and helpful to say “this will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but you will get through it” than it is to say “everything’s going to be fine.” Hard truth is better than flowery falsehood.
Habakkuk was neither a false prophet nor was his god a false god, so he preferred the hard truth. He had received the message he was waiting for. It may not have been what he wanted, but it was a message he could trust. Habakkuk entered into discernment to hear God’s voice. And in his questioning, his waiting, his listening, he found an answer that rang true to him.
I think that’s one reason Habakkuk accepted God’s response this time. I think another is that God gave a bit more details about what it will be like when things get better:
- The wealthy, those who never have enough, who take people and nations for themselves: they will be brought low.
- Those who hide away in their houses while others suffer: the very stones and plaster will respond.
- Those who are violent and unjust: thing won’t be so good for them anymore.
- Those who take advantage of others: they’ll get a taste of their own medicine.
This vision is not some vague idea that things will be better by and by. It is specific: human suffering itself will be destroyed. This is good news for those who are suffering and oppressed. But those abusing power wouldn’t hear it that way. in 1940 military censors banned a church newspaper after it quoted from this vision. The Nazis wouldn’t have banned it if they didn’t think it threatened them.
In Habakkuk’s discernment, he learned once more that God is good and truthful and trustworthy, that goodness will follow all the suffering, and that God would give him strength to go on. He found direction, he found a vision, and he learned that there was more than meets the eye. This changed everything for him. He would have to wait more for things to get better. He didn’t get all of the answers he wanted. But he did get the answers he needed.
So as the book ends he sings praises to God: even though the trees are bare, the fields empty of food, and the cattle stalls empty, I will rejoice in the Lord. “The Lord God is my strength. God will set my feet like the deer. God will let me walk upon the heights.” Habakkuk found strength for the waiting.
We, too, can believe in a God who gives us strength, even among all the questions. We can join Habakkuk in the process of discernment: asking God our questions, waiting and listening, trusting that a truthful response will come when the time is right. Yes, this is waiting, but it is not laziness or apathy. It is active waiting, a readiness to hear from God and respond. And that is really, really, really hard. So, we practice together. That’s what Advent is for. We ask our questions, and we wait, knowing that God has heard us and a vision is indeed coming.
So, I wonder what you are waiting for? What questions do you have for God, questions that seem to escape answers? What keeps you up at night? What places or situations seem beyond all hope to you? What is going on in the world that you fear will never, ever get better? What about here, in church?
As we wait to celebrate the birth of Christ into the deep darkness and pain and violence of human life, we are invited to voice those big questions to God. And just as God sent Jesus in what we Christians call “the fullness of time,” we can trust that we will hear God’s voice in our own discernment, when the time is right. This is one lesson of Advent: how to wait until the time is right to hear what God has to say to us today. And indeed, there are plenty of opportunities to discern God’s vision.
As Habakkuk wrote: “Write a vision, and make it plain…If it delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late.” God’s vision is surely coming. It might not come as fast as we want. It might not tell us what we want to hear. But it is coming, from a God who full of goodness and truth and, a God worthy of our hope and trust. A God who gives us strength. Amen.