This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on October 30th, 2016.
The book of Habakkuk often takes a minor role in our reading of the Minor Prophets. If referenced at all, it usually focuses on the famous refrain found at the end of the fourth chapter. A refrain that speaks of resting in God’s will no matter what comes. But, the impulse to jump right to those verses does a disservice to what transpires before. Similarly, there is a temptation to jump past the hard points in life. We want to jump past grief to comfort; jump past pain to healing; jump past doubt to assurance. But many times the hard times are an essential part of the overall process. This reading from Habakkuk gives us a chance to practice this discipline.
The Prophet starts out his account with a question and lament. “How long,” he asks “should I cry out for help?” The prophet is in distress, and he is fed up with it. For Habakkuk, it appears that God has not reached out to save him. God has not taken a look at his trouble. How do we help someone who is questioning God? What do we do when that person is us? Often, these questions don’t find much space in our churches. But the prophets and the psalms don’t seem as afraid of them as we can be. Commentators note that the beginning of Habakkuk’s claims seem vague, and perhaps that is for the best. We cannot write them off as a special occurrence, a one-time thing. Habakkuk speaks from a place that we all come to at some time or another. How can we speak about it?
The prophet’s laments are not just a personal matter. The larger systems of his community have failed him. “The law becomes slack” and also “justice never prevails.” The wicked are getting ahead of the righteous. Surely, he seems to imply, this state of affairs is not what God intended. In the world around us, there are moments of beauty and in-breakings of the Kingdom of God, but there is also pain and injustice. A look through the news tells us a lot about this injustice. The powerful and strong so often win at the expense of the weak. The scales of justice in our society seem weighed down unfairly. We might even call them broken. In the midst of it all, one person can feel overwhelmed, and in response, he or she cries out, and so we cry out too.
These first few verses raise an uncomfortable question. What do we do when God seems silent in the midst of our pain? Habakkuk cries out because the state of his world makes it seem like God is not listening. What does one do in these moments? Habakkuk reaches out to God with honest pain and questioning. He waits for an answer. Of course, the answer comes in the next verses, but we do not know how long Habakkuk had to wait. Waiting in the silence is hard. Also, waiting with others in their own silence is hard too, but the waiting brings an answer for Habakkuk.
The Lord answers Habakkuk with a vision. Here one might think is the answer. The easiest approach is to focus on the last phrase about righteousness and jump to some sort of conclusion. But the whole of the text should caution against that move. Habakkuk has raised large questions about the existence of pain and evil. These questions have not been fully answered by any of the greatest theologians. So, it seems unlikely that we might uncover the secret code here in these few verses.
Instead, what appears to be important to Habakkuk is the fact that God speaks and replies. The silence has been broken. What God has to say is not a direct answer to Habakkuk’s lament, but it is the start of a conversation. Which is perhaps the best way to frame these last few verses. They are the start of a conversation, not the final word. Habakkuk might take a lifetime to wrestle with the questions he has raised, but he has begun the process. This might be both daunting and encouraging for preaching this passage. In short, there is no quick answer to the question of evil and pain. The ability to wrap up the conversation with a tight bow lies beyond the grasp of the passage, but all is not lost. The words invite the preacher to allow for questions and to start the conversation about how to deal with pain, evil, and the failure of justice around the world. Habakkuk might take the preacher to uncomfortable places, but it provides a way to be present in them.
In a way, the text of Habakkuk speaks well to our current state. The world has changed, but the heart of Habakkuk’s questions still remains. The ‘answer’ of the text is not one of complex theological formations. Instead, it starts with God’s presence. Habakkuk still has some more hard things to deal with before the end of the book, but God is there in the midst of the story. That seems like a good place to start.
Broadus Memorial Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Virginia
Tags: lament, silence, presence, waiting, conversation