Advent 1: Hope (Habakkuk)
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; 3:1-2, 17-19
Today is the first Sunday of Advent! Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. During Advent we are waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. We are preparing to recognize that God is with us. God is with us not only at the incarnation, not only when God became a human and dwelled among us in Jesus, God is with us at all times and in all places and in all moments in our lives. To help us prepare to celebrate God with us at Christmas, and to help us to notice God with us now, we focus on four words during Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love. Today we will talk about Hope.
We are continuing to follow the Narrative Lectionary which brings us to Habakkuk this morning. You are probably wondering how you will ever remember Habakkuk, let alone how to spell it. There is a great trick to help remember how to spell this. It goes like this: an H and A, a B and an A, a K and a K, and a U and a K. *repeat*
Habakkuk is an interesting book to start Lent with. Habakkuk is one of the minor prophets. The last part of the Old Testament is made up of the Prophetic books. We have Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, and then the 12 minor prophets. They are called minor because they are short. Some of these 12 you would recognize, like Micah and Jonah. We also have Habakkuk. It says in 1:1, “The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.” Where does this oracle fit in the history of Israel and Judah. Remember that after king Solomon, the kingdom split in two. The northern kingdom was called Israel and the southern kingdom was called Judah. Then the Assyrians came and they conquered the northern kingdom. They tried to conquer the southern kingdom, but they couldn’t take Jerusalem. We learned about they two weeks ago when we talked about Hezekiah where we learned that faith is at the heart of Stewardship: that God will always make a way where there is no way.
Habakkuk does not give us any clear historical markers. In 1:6, which we didn’t read today, he talks about the Chaldeans, which is another name for the Babylonians. An analysis of the Hebrew in the book of Habakkuk dates it around 600 bce, which is around the time that the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom of Judah. Habakkuk receives this oracle from God around that time. We don’t know if it was before or after the Babylonians conquered Judah, but we know that was part of the context (Donald E. Gowan, The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk, (John Knox Press, Atlanta: 1976), pg. 16).
What do we learn about hope from Habakkuk? Habakkuk comes to God with a complaint. That’s what we see first in verse 2-4. He says in verse 2, “O lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” Habakkuk has been saying that he has been crying out to God about injustice and violence for a long time and that God has not responded. What has been going on? First of all, at the beginning of verse 3, he complains about having to witness wrongdoing and trouble. And he says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Why are you making me see these things?” And I think that’s interesting, with the psychological studies coming out about the effects of witnessing traumatic events. Even in ancient times they recognized that that was harmful, too, and worthy of complaining to God about. What was he seeing?
In the middle of verse 3 it says, “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” and continuing in verse 4, “So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.” According to Craig Koester, the words translated “strife and contention” in verse 3, actually refer to lawsuits; they are legal terms. So he says that these verses should say, “Destruction and violence are before me; lawsuits and indictments arise, but the law is slack and justice never prevails” (Working Preacher Podcast, Dec. 2, 2018 - NL Podcast 336: Faith as a Way of Life: https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=1077). I think this is really interesting because Habakkuk is saying that not only is there violence going on, but also, he expects that the law is supposed to work to protect victims and it’s not doing that. Not only is there violence, but also the law is not working and so justice never prevails.
It’s hard to see how this can teach us anything about hope because this presents a very hopeless situation. However, Habakkuk would not turn to God with these complaints if he didn’t have hope that God would do something about it. It is the strength of our hope in God that forces us to turn to God in situations like these and demand, “How long, O Lord?” One of my beloved professors in seminary, Dr. Donald E. Gowan, wrote a book about Habakkuk and he says that the reason why we turn to God in the face of injustice is because of our hope in who God is. He wrote, “It is God who has taught us that God’s way is a way of justice and righteousness. It is God who has promised us redemption. It is God’s word that makes us hunger and thirst after righteousness. So,” Gowan says, “if we truly believe the Gospel which has taught us that God is sovereign and righteous, and our Saviour, then we must ask, ‘Why?’ and ‘How long?’” (Gowan, pg. 33-4). If we had no hope in God, we wouldn’t ask those questions.
We can see how much hope Habakkuk has in chapter 2. Imagine an ancient city surrounded by a wall. It is night time. There are soldiers on the wall posted for the night watch. And they are watching the horizon, waiting for the sun to rise so that they can go to bed, because they know that the sun will rise. This is what Psalm 130:6 says (“My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning”) and also what Habakkuk says he is doing, in chapter 2:1. Like the Psalmist, Habakkuk is waiting for God because he knows God will answer, even though he hasn’t heard from God yet. It says this, “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.” *cross arms* That is an image of hope in God when there is no hope. Habakkuk has not heard from God, so he turns to God and complains. But he hasn’t heard from God yet. Does he turn away? Does he give up? No. “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.” Habakkuk is standing there. He’s waiting for God, and he knows God will answer as surely as the sun will rise. He has hope in the Lord even when he hasn’t received a sign.
Then God responds in verses 2-4. In verses 2-3, God says that God is going to do something about this, but it’s going to take awhile and they should wait. At the end of verse 3 is says, “If it seems to tarry, wait for it. It will surely come, it will not delay.” This means that God is doing something, God is not putting it off, but if it seems to take a long time, just wait. … This I find frustrating. There is bad stuff happening God, and you are going to take a long time to deal with it? It is an unsatisfying response, but it reflects, I think, what we often experience in our own lives. Sometimes, we experience the things that Habakkuk saw, sometimes we see the things that he saw: destruction and violence, lawsuits and indictments, justice not prevailing. We wait with expectant hope for a day when God’s promises of justice and righteousness will be fulfilled, when God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Often we find that we have to keep waiting with expectant hope.
How do we keep hoping when there is no sign of hope? How do we persevere in hope in our God? God says at the end of verse 4, “the righteous live by their faith.” We live by faith, not by sight. We hold fast to the promises of God. We turn to God and cry out, “How long?!” We don’t turn away from God and give up. Often we think that when we question God that it’s a sign of losing our faith, but actually it’s a sign of strengthening our faith and it’s evidence that we have not lost hope. I want to read to you a paragraph from Dr. Gowan’s book on Habakkuk about this point.
He wrote, “for most people, skepticism, [questioning,] doubt of any kind connotes unbelief and thus has led many a faithful Christian to fear questions, to be unwilling to bring to light the unresolved issues that lie somewhere inside and to bring them to God asking help in finding the truth. But I say skepticism is not to be feared, for as Smith wrote, the attitude of the greatest skeptics is not only one of earnestness and sincerity, but of recognition of duty towards the truth. They do not give up and say there is not truth, or the truth can never be found; rather like Habakkuk they climb to the watchtower to strain every level of their intellects in the search for truth. The presence of those great questioners in the Bible, Job, Habakkuk, Ecclesiastes-- Jeremiah also-- ought to teach us that God is by no means displeased with those who question him. Indeed, perhaps we reveal the depth of our faith that God really does intend to keep his promises, when we come to him to ask him how long it will be before we see fulfillment. God’s answer to Habakkuk, we hear in 2:2-3, is commendation for such an attitude and encouragement for those who persevere” (Gowan, pg. 40).
When God says that the righteous shall live by faith, what God is saying is that we should turn to God. In distress, and in what seem like hopeless situations, we live in hope by turning towards God. Not away. We live in hope by seeking answers, by seeking truth, by even questioning God. The reason why those are acts of hope is because we wouldn’t do it if we did not believe that God is a God of justice and righteousness, that Jesus is our saviour, and that Holy Spirit has come to transform the world. As Dr. Gowan said, God honours those who seek God in hope, in the midst of doubt, and when there are no signs.
And so, as we prepare to celebrate God becoming human and dwelling among us in Jesus’ birth, as we wait in hope for all of God’s promises to be fulfilled, I want to leave you with Habakkuk’s final words. Remember that he lived in a rural area where there were farms with fig and olive orchards, there were vineyards, there were fields of vegetables, and flocks of sheep. As we think of finding hope in God when it seems like there is no hope, these are Habakkuk’s finals words to us in chapter 3:17-19, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” Amen.