The Narrative Lectionary points us to the writing of the prophet Habakkuk this week. This is the first week of Advent. I plan to follow the Hope, Peace, Love, Joy themes over the next four weeks. To me, Habakkuk addresses Hope in the Dark. There are four readings in the three chapters. They begin with despair and conclude in hope.
It will do the preacher well to spend a little time talking about who Habakkuk was. Habakkuk’s name means “ardent embrace”. He was likely a contemporary of Jeremiah and Zephaniah, and just a little later than Nahum. He has been called the prophet of providence. Nothing certain can be known about the prophet as a person. In rabbinic tradition he is made to be the son of the Shunamite woman (2 Kings 4:16 f.). Further legendary material may also be gleaned in the Apocrypha from Bel and the Dragon 33-39 where he is connected with the tribe of Levi and is carried by the hair of his head by the angel of the Lord to Babylon to supply Daniel with pottage when the latter is in the lion’s den. (Lewis) How much of that is useful to the person in the pew looking at this letter is questionable, but you know your own people.
As for our four texts, we begin with a complaint.
Habakkuk 1:1-4 raises the kind of profound questions that come to every person who faces troubles in life. Why does a righteous man suffer? Many libraries could be filled with the books that seek to address the problem of theodicy (the justice of God). Often when I have talked with people who have abandoned their faith they point to the existence of an all powerful God who loves all people, yet allows evil to exist. It is fairly certain that our sermon this week is not going to solve the dilemma of the ages. But it will point us toward hope, which is all the Bible does. The suffering ones continue to ask, “How long”? The preacher has a deep well to draw from here as we identify with the hurting. It could be the preacher’s own experiences. It may be focused on the world stage such as the number of children who have starved to death in Yemen or the women and children being chased away from the border with teargas, just steps away from America’s formerly welcoming border. In our country we may notice homeless veterans. There is literally no end to the reasons to ask this question of God.
How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? – Habakkuk 1:2
Habakkuk 2:1-4 positions Habakkuk on a watchtower to listen for an answer from the Lord. He assumes that God will answer his questions in some way or another. Chapter 2:2 begins the reply of the Lord, who urges him to write it down and send it throughout the land by virtue of a herald. What is the message? The ungodly enemy who appears to be having a winning season is full of pride and his defeat is certain to come. However, the only answer that comes to Habakkuk is:
The righteous person will live by his faithfulness. – Habakkuk 2:4b, NIV
But the person in right standing before God through loyal and steady believing is fully alive, really alive. Habakkuk 2:4, The Message
“That is, the Israelite who remains unswerving in his loyalty to moral principles, though he may suffer, will survive” (Lewis). This is the most famous statement in Habakkuk, being repeated three times in the New Testament (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; hebrews 10:37,38). If we are waiting for an answer that will solve all the conceivable dilemmas in our mind in regard to evil, justice, and God, we probably won’t ever get there. But the call is to trust God … to be faithful. And that’s not an empty request. Especially when we consider…
Habakkuk 3:3-6 points us toward the wonder of the Lord. This poem highlights that which we cannot really comprehend – the amazing, earth-covering, heaven-lighting glory of God. Every enemy of God trembles before him and fails to stop him. “…He marches on forever.” Is it enough to say we will not know everything about God and his ways, but we see the glory and power and eternity in His hands and trust that He knows and plans and rules in ways that we will never detect.
Habakkuk 4:17-19 is the encouraging conclusion that takes in the Why, the Wait, and the Wonder and submits the Will. Verse 17 begins with a crucial word: though. So, Habakkuk isn’t saying that all is resolved. He is saying that the righteous live by faith even though. As all followers of God though the ages who have experienced pain and loss (think of Job?), the faith to follow God is “though”. Habakkuk doesn’t back away from the losses. The loss of food, means of support, lack of ability to commerce … YET I will rejoice in the Lord. Why?
The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. – Habakkuk 3:19, NIV
The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights. – Habakkuk 3:19, NLT
At the end of our questions, we must decide Whom we will trust. Ourselves? Our enemies? Or the God who strengthens us and gives us steady ‘feet’ in the rockiest of times. At some point we realize we do not wait on a God who will remove all struggle and difficulty … but One who will walk with us through the darkest valleys and keep us steady as we go. He gives us hope in the dark. And that’s where we need it most.
Those are my initial thoughts as we look at the first text of Advent. You are welcome to join the conversation and share resources in my facebook group Narrative Lectionarians.
Lewis, Jack P. The Minor Prophets. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966.