by Edea Baldwin
Habakkuk 1:12 – 2:1
November 25, 2007
Raise your hand if you enjoy waiting — waiting in line at a checkout, waiting in a doctor’s office, waiting to find out what you scored on a test, waiting to see if your loan has been approved, waiting your turn to play a game — who enjoys waiting?
We live in such a fast-paced world, if it takes over five minutes for our fast-food cheeseburger and fries to be ready, we start to get antsy. We want what we want now, and it had better be just the way we want it.
You know, years ago I read an article in some magazine (whose name I can’t recall now) about a drive-through church. I always wondered about that. What was it exactly that you got once you drove up to the window? Was it an instant sermon, a chorus of a praise song? A blessing? It still boggles my mind.
The season of the church year that we are just fixing to get into is called Advent. It will look familiar — a ring of pink and purple candles, perhaps winter flowers showing up here and there around the church, holly and ivy and mums, and of course pointsettias.
Advent is the season of waiting. Christian communities around the globe will begin talk of waiting, of watching, collectively holding our spiritual breath until He comes! Who? What a silly question! The King — the Messiah — the Son of Man — we’ll all be waiting for the coming of God in the most unexpected, humble form imaginable — clothed in the flesh of a baby boy named Jesus. Clothed in our flesh.
Advent is just around the corner. I wanted us to focus on waiting, the simple act of spending time in the expectation that something is going to happen, maybe even sooner than we expected.
Some weeks back, I was sitting in church, listening and thinking, maybe singing. I don’t even know when the idea popped into my head, but it did. The book of Habakkuk, one of the so-called “minor” prophets, but which contains what is perhaps my favorite verse in all of scripture. But more of that later. The part of Habakkuk that popped into my head wasn’t that part. It was the part about waiting. And that’s where we find Habakkuk in our scripture reading for today.
“I will stand at my watch and station myself at the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.”
I did a bit of research on who this Habakkuk was. I can tell you, no one really knows. In the Expositer’s Bible Commentary, Carl Amerding explains that Habakkuk is, in his words, “unique among the prophets because he did not speak for God to the people, but rather spoke to God about his people.” I’m not really sure I agree with that assessment — you can make of it what you will. One difference that I did discover about the book is that it ends with what is very much like a Psalm. We’ll get to that later.
One thing we have to do in order to make sense of this short book is to get the historical perspective right. The dating of the book places it at the cusp of 600 BC. Good King Josiah has died. Remember the king who discovers the law buried in the rubble at the back of some old closet, and weeps, then has the entire scripture read aloud to the people, as if it were a totally new thing? Sad to say, for most of them it was. There had been so many wicked kings that the people had turned away from Yahweh and had worshiped the gods of the various peoples they lived among.
During Josiah’s reign, there was a new birth of desire to know about the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses; of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Miriam.
But Josiah’s death was followed by backsliding. The old idolatry snuck back in. The spiritual life of God’s people was once again foundering on the rocks of ignorance and neglect. Habakkuk looked around him and saw reason for fear. It had not really been that many years since God had visited judgment upon his people through military defeat and exile.
Surely God will not allow the idolatry and faithlessness to go unpunished.
When we look around us at the world today, are our thoughts that different from Habakkuk’s?
Methodist Bible scholar J. Ann Craig says, “In our own time of war and violence, Habakkuk’s words are poignant. Today, children, women, and men are victims of war, grinding poverty, enslavement, and sexual exploitation. Nations amass armies and weapons capable of mass destruction. Billions of dollars needed to dispose of nuclear and chemical weapons create burdens on the poor. Land mines continue to maim and kill.” You could all easily add to such a list.
The book of Habakkuk opens with the echo of our own heart’s cry to God: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?”
The lament of the prophet Habakkuk sounds familiar to me — how about you? I have, so many times, heard someone say, “If there was a God, he would not permit these evil things to happen.” When we hear such statements, I think we should see them as signs of hope. When someone is angry or frustrated with God, it means they still believe in him. You don’t get angry at someone you don’t believe in.
Lamenting, expressing doubt and fear and frustration — those are signs of life! Dead people don’t feel. Hearts that are dead inside don’t ask Why? when they encounter evil and suffering.
But perhaps that’s another sermon. God’s answer to Habakkuk’s questions is surprising to him.
v. 5-6: “Look at the nations and watch, and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own.”
Can you see the prophet’s jaw drop open? Can you see his eyes grow wide, his eyebrows arched?
The Babylonians were on the brink of being one of the greatest empires the world had ever known. From our future perspective, we can look back and see that their time as a world power was relatively brief. After only a few decades from Habakkuk’s time, Babylon will be defeated by the Persians. In the end, Babylon remains as a scriptural symbol for the world system opposed to God.
But at the time, Habakkuk is dumbfounded. Is God going to use such evil, unrighteous, idolatrous people to punish his own chosen people? The destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians is still fresh in the prophet’s memory. And we can only imagine the fear he feels at God’s revelation of his plan.
In a sermon delivered in Belfast in 1999 by pastor David Legge, we hear thoughts that may have raced through the prophet’s mind: “If Judah was destroyed, where would God’s people be? Where would his light be among the darkness of the Gentiles?”
In v. 13, Habakkuk says, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil. You cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?”
In other words, Habakkuk is asking God, “Lord, how can you judge a sinful nation by using a nation that’s even worse? How is it that such a holy God can tolerate wickedness and violence in any nation?”
After all this venting, Habakkuk then does the best thing possible he could have done. In 2:1, he says, “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts. I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.”
The word “watch” is being used here as a noun. The Hebrew is mismeret — it means the duty or act of keeping watch. In all probability, Habakkuk is speaking figuratively here. It is the duty of all prophets to serve as the watchmen of God’s people — to listen and look for God and report back.
As Christians, we are prophets. I forget where I read this, it may have been somewhere in a book by Walter Brueggeman, or perhaps Eugene Peterson. A Christian is, by definition, a prophet. A Christian places faith in the birth, death, resurrection, and second coming of Jesus Christ. You can’t get much more prophetic than that.
I feel like there are so many more sermons to be found within the three short chapters of this book. I’ve only scraped the surface. I haven’t even gotten to God’s answer. Because surely you know God didn’t leave Habakkuk twisting in the wind on top of that rampart.
Here’s a sneak peek. In chapter 2, verse 4, God says something that is so foundational to everything we believe in and base our lives on: “The righteous will live by his faith.”
These words will be echoed centuries later by Paul, in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. This is the verse that turned Martin Luther and the whole Christian church upside-down, the verse that sparked a revolutionary way of describing the meaning and purpose of Jesus Christ.
“The righteous will live by his faith.”
God’s answer to Habakkuk will blow him away. Coty Pinckney, of Community Bible Church in Williamstown, Maryland, phrases it this way: When the prophet asks God how using the Babylonians is consistent with his holiness and purity, God answers, “They will reap what they sow — and they will get the opposite of what they want… But my plans are much greater than how I can use the Babylonians to punish Judah. I am working all things together for my glory — and I will be glorified if you live by faith!”
When we look at the chaos and evil around us, don’t we sometimes want to cry out to God, “Lord, what are you going to do about all of this? Your reputation with this lost world is on the line!”
What lesson can we learn from the example of Habakkuk?
He did not despair or panic. He did not assert demands of God. He positioned himself in a place of watchfulness and waiting, and clearly expected a response from God.
As we enter into the season of Advent next week, let us ask ourselves what we are waiting for from God. Do we need answers to questions? Do we need a sense of security in his love? Do we need his intervention in our lives? Do we need God to work visibly in the lives of those we love?
Picture yourself standing on the ramparts of Jerusalem, stationed with Habakkuk on the high walls.
Expect answers — expect a word, a sign, from God. Give him the sacrifice of faith. Faith that sees past sorrow and impossible situations. Faith that sees past pain and hardship. Let’s wait on the ramparts together, watching for the miraculous advent of God in the Flesh, living and walking and working in the warm light of life-giving faith.