Reading: Habakkuk 1: 1 – 2: 4
A university lecturer was teaching a class one day but kept getting distracted by a bloke at the front. The guy wasn’t doing anything in particular. He was just wearing a t-shirt with a huge letter K on the front. What was bugging the professor was that he couldn’t work out what this K meant. He was pretty sure the guy’s name was Barry, he couldn’t think of any major designer who had a great big K logo. He tried to put it out of his mind but every time he looked up, there it was; this great big letter K. There was nothing for it, he decided. At the end of the lesson he’d just have to ask the student.
‘Tell me’ he said, casually as if it hadn’t been driving him nuts, ‘I couldn’t help but notice your t-shirt and wondered what the big K on the front meant.’ ‘Oh that?’ said the student, ‘it stands for confused.’
Naturally this threw the lecturer even more, so rather stating the obvious he said ‘but confused starts with a C, not K,’ to which the student responded ‘yeah, that just shows how confused I am!’
We’ve been taking time to think about different seasons or phases in a healthy spiritual life. Anyone who takes seriously relating to the God we encounter in the Bible, will sometimes find following Jesus bewildering or confusing. Contrary to what people might think, faith is not about having all the answers, or even thinking you have. At times you can be confused. Perhaps with a capital K
If you doubt that, look no further than Habakkuk. The man we encounter in the little book which bears his name had immense faith in God. But that didn’t mean he understood everything. Not only did he have three Ks in his name, but all 3 Ks could, have quite easily stood for confused.
One of the things I love about the Bible, and, as a result, one of the things I love about the God revealed in its pages, is that there is no attempt to hide from those awkward questions.
The Bible is often dismissed as a set of bronze age myths, which we have outgrown. We’re more sophisticated than that. But open these pages we see the questions which puzzle us have puzzled people down through the ages.
They have not only committed those questions to writing.
They’re recorded as scripture.
Their questions are not considered faithless.
They have come to viewed as sacred, every bit as much as God-breathed as the cries of praise and thanks.
Habakkuk, worked in the temple of Jerusalem, some 2600 years ago, at a time of great national uncertainty. Just a few years earlier, the king had been Josiah. Josiah one of very few kings in the Old Testament to get a good review. He had drawn the people back to what God required of them. He has acted justly, protected the poor and vulnerable.
But Josiah was killed, by the Egyptians, in a battle at Megiddo, from which we get the term Armageddon. Egypt installed Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, on the throne.
Jehoiakim possessed none of his father’s positive attributes. He had no concern for justice and mercy, the kingdom was run to suit his own ends. It seemed like the social fabric of their national life was unravelling.
Those further down the hierarchy followed Jehoiakim’s lead, so that there was widespread oppression and injustice. Even in days before advertising by ‘no win, no fee’ lawyers, Habakkuk’s society was highly litigious. The richer you were, the less likely you were to fall on the wrong side of the law. They looked after their own. And as for trying to do the right thing. That only seemed to get you trampled on.
And this society was violent. The opening sentences of his book could almost be lifted from the evening news. I’m not one for thinking our society is so much more violent from generations before. It just takes different guises. Violence has this nasty tendency to change its form and acquire different euphemisms to describe itself.
Does anyone want to have guess at how many wars are going on in the world at the moment? Wikipedia tells me it’s around 60. Even our 24 hour news coverage can only show a little of what is going on. Today we hear of gang violence, road rage, drunken mayhem.
2 women die each week at the hands of violent partners.
There have been 6 stabbings in our borough since the turn of the year.
Even so much of what is described as entertainment is really quite violent. The words of Salman Rushdie, in his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, could describe so many ages in history, including our own. He said ‘Violence today is hot. It is what people want.’
It could also have described the age in which Habakkuk acted as a prophet.
Well, I say prophet…
…but most of the time we would probably think of a prophet as one who beings a message from God to us, who speaks from God to us.
What makes Habakkuk slightly different is that, he primarily speaks for us to God. When we turn to the book of Habakkuk, we encounter the prayer life of one individual within that society. Doubtless his words were echoed by others in his own day who sought to live as God intended.
It’s a short book, but it is packed with timeless questions which echo into our own age: like why God allows evil, the apparent pointlessness of prayer, God’s apparent silence in the midst of all manner of violence and injustice.
If you’ve ever thought ‘God, you don’t seem to make sense’ then you’ll find a companion in Habakkuk. He had great faith, but also dared to voice a feeling that I’m sure we all encounter at some point, that God didn’t know what he was doing.
We have been considering different seasons of phases of the spiritual life, each of which we have assigned one of the words on the screen. Most of Habakkuk’s book consists of a conversation with God. And, within our reading, we see him move between two of the words.
At first Hakakkuk seems to be in a When? season. What perplexed Habakkuk was not just the state of the nation but that God seemed silent, inactive, disinterested. ‘How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen. Or cry violence but you do not save.’
It’s not as if Habakkuk’s prayer was self-centred. This was no ‘Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedez Benz’ type prayer. Habakkuk could, in all sincerity say that he was praying in line with what God would have wanted. He knew what God wanted cos he probably worked in the temple. The stuff about which he was praying was supposed to be the kind of things God cared about. If anything he might have thought this should be something that God deals with without the need of Habakkuk’s prayer.
Yet long as he prayed, there seemed no answer. So why the delay? How long, O Lord? How long should I keep praying this, when no-one appears to be listening?
Habakkuk was in a season of When?
Yet if Habakkuk was perplexed when he asked the question, that’s nothing compared to how he felt when the answer came.
Last week we started looking at this word and we asked is it ever ok to say No! to God? And I suggested there are few occasions in the Bible when the answer seems to be that it is! We’re going to look at a couple of examples over the next two weeks. God’s response to two No!s is slightly different. But in neither case is it anger. Habakkuk is one of these examples.
As Habakkuk moves into the second stage of the conversation he leaves behind the season of When? and enters a season of No!
Habakkuk raises his When? question. How long? he cries out. He’s about to get his answer.
But that doesn’t mean he’s going to like it. He’s told to look out and wait to be amazed or astonished. That could mean ‘look our for something amazing’ but that’s not the meaning here.
A slightly flippant way we could characterise God’s response to Habakkuk’s prayer is ‘if you think this is bad, wait til you see what’s coming. The Message has God tell Habakkuk to brace himself for a shock.’ For what follows is a description of a new super-power for whom violence is a way of life.
For the answer suggested that far from doing nothing, God was at work, in a group of people called the Chaldeans, stirring them up. Our Bibles calls them Babylonians, but more precisely they were Chaldeans. The difference is a bit like talking of the Welsh, Scottish, or Cornish, instead of British. Whatever we call them, God answer suggested he was about to act. He was going to deal with evil and injustice from which Habakkuk had cried out for deliverance. And he was going to do it through these Chaldeans.
What Habakkuk’s invited to look at and be astounded is probably the Chaldean defeat of Egypt at Carchemish. This would pave the way was for destruction of Judah about which Habakkuk had been praying.
Habakkuk has prayed and his answer has come. But Habakkuk could be forgiven if this answer left him confused with a capital K.
This solution poses more problems than it answers.
Habakkuk had longed for the evil to be overthrown, for evil to be dealt with. But this could hardly be presented as ‘good triumphing over evil.’ God wasn’t saying you lot have got it all wrong so I’m bringing in some good guys to clean this mess up.
God pulls no punches about the Babylonians. They’re described as ruthless looters and pillagers, hellbent on destruction, oppression and violence. They’re guilty of the very things from which Habakkuk had prayed for deliverance: and proud of it. In verse 11 God describes them as evil men whose own strength is their God.
And Habakkuk is not being invited to see this as just another random change in the world order, but to see that even in this God is sovereign and that God’s plan for his world is not being derailed, but still moving forward.
Habakkuk doesn’t get it. He still comes up with a massive ‘does not compute.’
So Habakkuk moves from When? to No!
God you can’t do that! He says God, you’re eternal, sovereign, pure. You’ve told us you cannot look on evil, and won’t tolerate wrong. So how come you’re using or appointing of ordaining that lot.
You know what they’re like. They’re worse than us and you’re watching on whilst they destroy us. You won’t tolerate our wrong, but you tolerate theirs.
You’ve left us helpless like fish in the sea that just get ripped up indiscriminately.
And God I can’t even really see what’s in it for you. These people, they’re not going to recognise you. When we lie ruined they’re just going to gloat and they won’t acknowledge you. We might not be living for your glory, but having this lot take over won’t change that. God, since when did two wrongs make a right.
Habakkuk challenges God to explain himself. And that first verse in chapter 2 is quite interesting. For it treads a fine tightrope between defiance and faith. Having posed his question about how God can use the Babylonians, he says ‘I will look to see what he will say to me and what answer I am to give to this complaint.’
At one level he says to God ‘Now there’s an argument for you. Let’s see what you’ll do with that one.’
But at the same time the question is asked in faith. He is prepared to wait and listen for the answer. Habakkuk was not the kind of person whose insistent demands on God ceased only when God appears to have finally realised that he was right all along. Habakkuk dares to challenge God, but he is also prepared to have God challenge him.
His question might seem quite clever, but it actually displays a trait not uncommon to even modern humanity and from which those who claim to know something about God are far from immune.
It’s the way we instinctively assume that we have the competence to be moral judges and compare ourselves with others around us and to try and claim the moral high ground. It’s this sense of ‘I know we’re not perfect, but hey, we’re not as bad as them!’
In Habakkuk’s case he goes from calling on God to judge his sinful nation and deal with the evil which surrounds him, but once he realises how that might happen, he decides this judgement might not be a good idea – especially if it comes through people worse than them.
In the process he almost whitewashes the people whom he’d been praying about beforehand. He forgets how bad they are.
We might think in terms of us and them, good and bad, but God is not keeping league tables. There aren’t certain people pushing for places in the Champions League of holiness and others languishing in the relegation zones of lower divisions. None of us are perfect. We are all a mix of good and bad, so what about the evil in us? or the evil from which we benefit, often without us even noticing it?
But flawed though Habakkuk’s reasoning might seem, God does answer. And he asks him to write it big, so that a runner might be able to read it. Make it big, like a motorway sign so that it’ll even attract the drivers attention.
Habakkuk would not have been alone in his desperation at the prevalence of violence and evil in his land. This message was intended to galvanise those paralysed by despair at that situation. They needed a word of true encouragement to keep trusting God in the future.
Habakkuk cried how long and I am sure it felt like an age. Yet as history judges, the glory of Babylon which looked so large in Habakkuk’s vision was shortlived and is barely a historical curiosity. In fact history is littered with the corpses of insatiable empires who sowed the seeds of their own destruction. If we had read the rest of chapter 2, those words could easily be the epitaph of any number of empires, national, business or personal.
In contrast Habakkuk says three Hebrew words which not only became the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation, but which many Jewish scholars would say contain the whole message of the Bible, the righteous shall live by faith.
Habakkuk made the mistake of assuming that God was doing nothing simply because he couldn’t see any sign of it. And even when he did start to catch a glimpse of it, it must have been difficult to get his head around.
Faith doesn’t mean things always make sense. There may be times when we can say we feel confused with a capital K. And God did not condemn Habakkuk for his No! It was part of his journey of faith. He honestly faced the challenging questions his faith brought him.
And it will be part of ours. Next week I will look at a different response to our No! But for this morning the response is ‘give it time.’
Something I believe will always be a struggle is why for now God allows evil to exist and it seems so powerful.
Ours is not a God who removes suffering from us. He’s a God who enters into suffering with us, indeed goes ahead of us into it, so that he might bring us through.
Our God understands our confusion all too well. One night in a garden, as he was about to fall into the hands of evil men, he sweat great drops of blood and prayed a prayer not entirely dissimilar to that of Habakkuk.
He begged for any way he could be spared what lay ahead of him. But no alternative way came. The pathway to all that God had planned for him took him through, not round, the heart of the evil and suffering of the world. Like Habakkuk, in the midst of it he felt God was silent – even absent, as he cried My God, My God why have you forsaken me.
But he remained faithful and God was waiting to meet him and bring him through in triumphant resurrection.
The problem of evil in the midst of a world in which God reigns is not going to give a neat, logical solution. Things aren’t fully resolved, questions aren’t always completely answered. That is part of the human condition. And next time we’ll see that sometimes God requires our No! to answer our prayer.
But sometimes our journey towards understanding will take us through ‘no!’ Sometimes God needs our anger.
If we ever doubt God’s commitment to us and his world, or should we ever doubt what God can work through to fulfil his purposes, we need look no further than the cross, on which Jesus bears all the filth and darkness and our enmity to God. Yet somehow it was the means by which God was buying our deliverance. But on the third day Jesus rose triumphant from the grave, and, in his resurrection he declared that nothing could separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus. Nothing can stop God fulfilling his plan.
For now, we wait, perhaps not that patiently, for God to finish what he started in Christ. Peter reminds us that God is not slow in acting as we think it. But for now, we still might find ourselves asking ‘how long.’ For now we might, from our limited perspective, fail to see where God is at work in our world – but that is not the same thing as God being inactive. For now we might have in mind the way we want God to answer our prayers, but that does not mean God is limited by what we expect. Sometimes God will hear our No!
But for now the way in which God acts in the world, will remain a mystery.
For now we know in part, and see in part. But though we might cry out and our Spirits might groan within us, saying ‘how long’ his Spirit whispers alongside us, reminding us we are his children, inviting look to the cross where God expresses his bloodstained commitment to put right all that is wrong and broken in his world, and to look to an empty tomb where he displays his power to deliver on what he has promised.