Habakkuk 1:1-13: 2:1-4
1 Timothy 1:1-14
When I was a young man, the philosophy of existentialism was the main competition to Christian faith among secularists. The names of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were considered to offer the biggest challenge for Christians to address. Existentialism was even a theme in popular culture. When he first started out his career, Woody Allen’s movies were an outlet for existentialist themes. Existentialism seems to have fizzled out sometime in the early 1980’s, and in recent years it has been replaced by the New Atheism. Existentialists and the New Atheists have a lot in common, but also some considerable differences. Existentialists tended to be atheists, but they could also be agnostics. They tended to be neurotic. They wondered if life had meaning if there was no God. They tended to be nicer than the New Atheists. The New Atheists have no doubts. They don’t worry about whether life has meaning. They know that there is no God, and they’re angry at him for creating the world.
The single theme that unites the old existentialists and the New Atheists is the conviction that the evil and suffering that exists in the world makes it impossible to believe in a good and omnipotent God. At the end of Woody Allen’s movie Love and Death, his character says, “You know, if it turns out that there IS a God, I don’t think that He’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about Him is that, basically, He’s an underachiever.” The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a book entitled God is Not Great, but perhaps it really should have been titled God is not Good. Among other things, he writes in that book: “The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.”
Woody Allen certainly thought that he was being humorous in his quip about God being an underachiever, and I have no doubt that Christopher Hitchens thought his comments about the Bible and the kinds of people who wrote it was rather clever. If however, they thought that they were being original, that no one had ever expressed concerns about the goodness of God before, they were just a bit naïve, as we can find when we read the passage from this morning’s Old Testament lectionary passage from Habbukuk. Habbukuk looks at the world around him, and, in the light of what he sees expresses just as much concern about the goodness of God as does any twentieth century existentialist or twenty-first century New Atheist.
There is a common theme in Habbukuk and Psalm 37, which is why both are likely included in the readings this morning: Where is God when the unrighteous prosper, and the righteous are oppressed? The Psalm directly answers the question: “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.” (v. 1) What we find in the Psalm is a typical example of a pattern we often find in prophetic literature. The righteous can be assured because God’s justice will eventually punish the unrighteous and the righteous will be rewarded. The Psalmist says: “Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.” (v. 9)
Habbukuk is different, however. In Habakkuk, we find the prophet questioning the traditional prophetic pattern. Habakkuk questions God in a way that is paralleled perhaps only by the Book of Job in the Old Testament. In chapter 1, Habakkuk complains to God about the prospering of the wicked: “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see inquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? . . . For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted.” (v. 2) This is standard prophetic fare.
And the standard prophetic answer comes in the following verses. God is not going to allow the wicked to prosper forever. They will be destroyed. The LORD promises in verse 5: “Look among the nations and see; wonder and be astounded/ For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.” God then tells the prophet about how he will punish injustice: “For behold I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.” This is the traditional prophetic answer, and it sounds much like what we have read in Psalm 37.
But here things turn interesting. Habakkuk has received the standard prophetic answer, but he does not accept it. Habakkuk is actually bold enough to suggest that God does not know what he is doing! The Chaldeans were a notoriously merciless bunch of conquerors. If the leaders of Israel were unjust, the Chaldeans were wicked without qualification. Is not using the Chaldeans to punish the unrighteous in Israel only making a bad situation worse? If the problem is the rule of the unrighteous, the Chaldeans will only bring in a new bunch, even more unrighteous. Habakkuk challenges God: “Are you not from everlasting. O Lord my God, my holy One? We shall not die.” (v. 12) He appeals to God’s own righteousness. “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil, and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (v. 13) Then in a passage that the lectionary leaves out, Habbukuk compares the Chaldeans to a fisherman who casually harvests the innocent in a net: “You make mankind like the fish of the sea . . . He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net. . . . Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” (v. 14-17)
When we read this kind of language in the Bible it suggests that the complaints of modern secularists are rather “small potatoes” by comparison. Habakkuk goes a lot further than Woody Allen’s observation in Love and Death that God is an underachiever. He actually has the gall to take God to task and to say “This just won’t do!” And then goes even further. Habakkuk goes on a sit down strike. The prophet says to God: “I’m going to wait here until you give me an acceptable answer!” In chapter 2:1, we read: “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”
The point here is not that Habakkuk questions God’s justice. From the beginning to end, the prophet assumes that God is just. This is what makes Habakkuk more interesting than Woody Allen or Christopher Hitchens. Anybody can look at the world and realize it’s a mess. Anybody can look at the mess and then conclude that no one must be in charge. Habakkuk knows that God is in charge, and he knows that God is righteous. So if there is a mess, he knows that ultimately there has to be an explanation that makes some kind of sense, since he knows that God is in charge, and God is righteous.
And the really interesting thing is that God responds to Habakkuks’ challenge. “And the LORD answered me; Write the vision make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end – it will not lie. If it seems slow wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” (Habakkuk 2:2-3) The next line is obscure “Behold the soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,” – Is this referring to the Chaldeans? – but the conclusion contains one of the those greatest hits of Scripture quotations: “the righteous shall live by his faith.” (vs. 4)
God’s response to Habbakuk is that the Chaldean solution is only an interim solution. There is going to be a complete and total solution to the problem of evil, an eschatological solution. And Habakkuk’s job is to be patient, to trust that God knows what he is doing, and, as the Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich wrote, in the end “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” The rest of the book makes clear that God does indeed intend to exercise judgment on the Chaldeans as well, and, in the end, Habakkuk trusts to God’s judgment. In the last chapter, he writes: “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.” “Though the fig tree shall not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God the LORD, is my strength.” (Habakkuk 3:16-19)
If I wanted to deliver what would be a shorter sermon than usual this morning I would just stop here, and suggest “Let us be like Habukkuk. Trust in God. He knows what he is up to. In the end, all will work out.” But then I would be neglecting the question that any preacher who pays attention to the lectionary needs to ask him or herself. Why is this Old Testament passage included here with these New Testament readings? Did you know that the reading from this morning is the only time that Habakkuk is included in the lectionary? And, for some reason, the compilers of the lectionary decided to join it with this particular passage from Luke’s gospel. What is the connection?
The connection between the Old Testament lessons and the New Testament is not obvious this morning, at least at first glance. The apostle Paul quotes Habakkuk in Romans 1:17 at the beginning of his discussion of justification by faith, but that’s not the epistle reading this morning. The lectionary editors seemed to have connected Habakkuk’s reference to “The just shall live by faith” with apostles’ request to Jesus in Luke 17:5 “Increase our faith!” To which Jesus responds, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.” (v. 6) The rest of the lectionary reading seems to be an unconnected pericope in which Jesus tells the apostles a kind of parable about a master who comes home from work and demands his servants to prepare him dinner. To which Jesus adds, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded say, We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”
Well, this seems to be fairly unhelpful. The only connection seems to be the word “faith,” which in Luke has to do with casting mulberry trees into the sea. The little story about being unworthy servants seem to have no connection to the earlier section. Many commentaries suggest that there is no connection between the passages in Luke at all – that Luke was just stringing together a handful of short stories about Jesus that don’t have any logical connection. So it seems like this could be one of those cases where the compilers of the lectionary were just being lazy: “Look, we haven’t done anything with Habakkuk, and he’s got that nice statement about faith. Let’s just throw him in here with this Luke passage about throwing mulberry trees into the ocean. After all, they both have the word ‘faith.’”
Might I suggest a possible way to draw some connections however? One commentator I read suggests that there is indeed a line of connection between the passages in Luke. In the first part of the passage which we did not read, Jesus tells the disciples that if someone sins against you seven times in a day that you have to forgive him (Luke 17:1-4). It is following this statement that the disciples ask to have their faith increased. In other words, the disciples respond to Jesus, “Forgive someone seven times in the same day? We don’t have the faith to do that!” In that context, Jesus’ response about the faith that can move mulberry trees is not some kind of promise of miraculous powers. Jesus does not expect his disciples to go around doing magic – casting mulberry trees into the ocean. He is rather rebuking them by telling them that they are asking the wrong kind of question. They assume that faith is something quantitative: “We have faith, we just need more.” Jesus’ response is a rebuke: “If you had even the smallest amount of faith you could cast a mulberry tree into the ocean. Obviously that’s not going to happen, so you don’t have even a little bit of faith.”
The concluding parable gives an illustration of what the true nature of faith is. Just as faith is the kind of thing that enables one to forgive those who have sinned against us seven times, so genuine faith is the kind of thing that, after having done what is asked, we recognizes that we are just servants, and have not done anything extraordinary. In other words, faith is nothing special. Faith is just persevering in what God expects of us.
Ouch! If that is a correct reading of the logic of the passage, then it reads largely as a rebuke to the disciples’ request “Give us more faith!” And in that respect, there is something parallel to what we have already seen in Habakkuk. Habakkuk complains to God about the problem of injustice, to which God responds in a way that is a kind of rebuke. You’re complaining about injustice? There is going to be more injustice! But Habakkuk does not stop there, and, in response, God leads Habakkuk to understand the nature of genuine faith.
Might I suggest that, as disciples of Jesus, if we push this morning’s gospel reading just a bit further, we also might be able to get beyond what appears to be Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples, and perhaps our own request to have more faith. The way to do that is to step back a bit and to look at Luke’s gospel as a whole. Who, in Luke’s gospel, is the one who has faith that can uproot mulberry trees and cast them into the sea? Who is the one in Luke’s gospel who forgives those who have sinned against him not just seven times, but over and over? And, finally, in Luke’s gospel, who is the one who acts as a servant who simply does what is demanded or expected of him?
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is first and foremost the one who has faith in his Father. Luke gives the usual christological titles to Jesus; he is the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Christ, he is Lord, he is a prophet greater than the prophets. But Luke also portrays Jesus as one who has faith. From his baptism, Jesus is empowered by God’s Spirit, and through the Spirit, Jesus brings God’s salvation (Luke 3:22;4:1,14,18;10:21;11:20). Jesus also calls forth faith in others. Repeatedly in Luke, when Jesus heals people, he tells them that their faith has saved them or made them whole (Luke 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42).
Luke is the only gospel that names Jesus as “Savior.” (2:11) Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus associates with those who are called “sinners.” He says that he has come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance (5:32). When he eats with Zacchaeus the tax collector, he is accused of being the guest of a sinner, but replies: “Today, salvation has come to this house. . . . For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:9-10)
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is also a servant. Luke’s gospel is the gospel that most emphasizes Jesus’ association with the poor, with women, and with outcasts. And Jesus challenges his disciples to follow this pattern: “Whoever receives [a] child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For whoever is least among you all is the one who is great.” (9:48) And, finally, Jesus’ crucifixion is the place where these three themes of faith, forgiveness, and servanthood come together. As the risen Jesus says to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (24:46) On the cross, Jesus shows what it means to be the servant who only does his duty.
This brings us back to the themes of injustice that dominate Habakkuk’s prophecy. In light of great injustice, Habakkuk asked when God will vindicate the righteous. At the crucifixion of Jesus, we see that Habakkuk’s question has finally been answered. On the cross, Jesus took upon himself the full weight of the kinds of injustice about which we all complain. In the resurrection of Jesus, God’s justice was vindicated when God raised the one person who could actually claim to be righteous from the dead.
The cross not only addresses the question of injustice, it also challenges us to go beyond the kind of solution to injustice that Habakkuk hoped for. Habakkuk was promised an eschatological solution, but the cross points to the way in which we are to live even as we wait for that eschatological solution. It tells us what the meaning of faith is. As Jesus lived out a life of servanthood, so also, Christian discipleship is about participating in Jesus’ faithfulness, about being drawn into his servanthood, about living as he did by learning to forgive others, by sharing in suffering, while waiting in patience, knowing that the eschatological solution to injustice has been anticipated in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The servanthood of Christian discipleship is also at least the interim answer to the complaint of both Psalm 37 and of Habakkuk about injustice. Habakkuk’s complaint was that powerfully wicked people were able to force unwilling submission from others. The Chaldeans were notorious for making slaves of those they conquered. In Psalm 37, the Psalmist complains about the wealthy and powerful who are the masters to whom all the innocent must submit.
But Jesus provides the model of a different kind of servanthood from the forced slavery that oppressors always impose. A servanthood not given unwillingly, but willingly. Those who follow Jesus are called willingly to love and serve others. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and on the Plain in Luke, Jesus calls us to love our enemies and to forgive one another (6:27-37). And that is a response to the unwilling servanthood imposed by oppressors by a reversal of logic, by taking on the role of a servant by choice.
That also effects how we think about eschatological judgment, that central theme in Habakkuk. There will indeed be an eschatological judgment, but in light of the cross, the hope of that judgment is not just that the wicked will be punished, but that the wicked will be reconciled to God, to Christ, and to their fellow human beings. In order to play our task in that reconciliation, we are called to take upon ourselves the kind of service that Jesus undertook when he went to the cross – as he prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (23:34), so we also need to learn to forgive, to love our enemies, and to pray for their conversion.
This does not mean that we will not suffer. To the contrary, to take up the servanthood of a cross means suffering, but our response to that suffering is faith, or, rather, faithfulness, waiting in patience for God’s final vindication.
In addition not only must we wait patiently on God, we must have patience with one another. For it is sometimes our own brothers and sisters in Christ who most try us and push us to our limits. And it is sometimes just when we are dealing with that frustrating brother or sister that we must remember that we and they are both servants of the one servant. We may even have to forgive our fellow Christians as many as seven times a day.
In closing, I would like to return for a moment to my opening reflection on Woody Allen’s claim at the end of his movie Love and Death, in which he said that God is not evil; He is just an underachiever. The thing is, Woody Allen knew more than he was saying. Because if the Christian claim is indeed true, then the God who has created and redeemed the universe in Jesus Christ is indeed an underachiever. For Christians believe that Jesus Christ was not just an ordinary human being, but that he was the second person of the Trinity, God from God, Light from Light, who, as Paul says in Philippians, “made himself nothing” and took on the form of a servant. As Paul writes, “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) And it is in this humility, this becoming a servant, that God has dealt with that problem of injustice that troubled prophets like Habakkuk centuries before 20th century existentialists or 21st century New Atheists were around to worry about it. As Karl Barth has pointed out, in light of the cross, the question of theodicy becomes muted, for now we find ourselves asking not how God can allow evil in a world that he has created good, but rather how God can allow himself to be humiliated as he is betrayed by his own creation. As Barth has said so well, it is “in this humiliation [that] God is supremely God, . . . in this death [that] He is supremely alive, [and that] He has maintained and revealed His deity in the passion of this man as His eternal Son.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4/1: 246-247) Our God is indeed an underachiever. He has overcome evil and defeated unrighteousness by becoming a servant who died on a cross. And he calls every one of us to be underachievers as well. “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)