Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
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?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous;
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
I will stand at my watchpost
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.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faithfulness.
Let us pray: O Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
There are four words that emerge from the soul when it is bracing to stay upright. Four words for when the violence is going to grind on, four words for when the storms are going to keep coming, four words for when time itself is suddenly an enemy. Habakkuk stood on his post, and either yelled or hissed those four words: O Lord, how long?
These are the same four words the soul ekes out when the doctors sigh and say “I am so sorry. There is nothing more we can do.” O Lord, how long?
The same four words you say to your body that once took you on vacation and on runs and to meetings but now it seems unwilling to take you anywhere without punishment. O Lord, how long?
The same four words the heart utters when the future is snipped off by a single phone call saying a loved one is in trouble. You were cooking dinner one minute and making flight arrangements the next. O Lord, how long?
Habakkuk was perched on the lonely watch post of history, probably in the middle of the 7th century BC when the Chaldeans, the ancestors of the Iraqis, were preparing for a brutal annexation of Israel. In verse 1:6, Habakkuk calls them a “bitter and hasty nation.” By the time he reached the watch post, Habakkuk was no longer pressing the Assyrians – the other world power – to step up their efforts and fight back. He had given up on the power of ideas, like laws and justice, because he had seen them go slack and blow away completely in the winds of fear and violence. He was no longer numbing and distracting himself from the truth of where this was all headed. Now, he was leveling his protest to the ears of a God he thinks has either quit listening or quit caring or quit mattering at all.
Those words “O Lord, how long” are what scholars shine up and sanitize and call the lament tradition. But they are gritty words meant for periods of history where there is no easy way out but through. They are bold words for times in our lives when we don’t have a lot of decisions to make except the kind of conversation we’ll have in the God-place in our heart.
How long… You’ll hear those words throughout the Psalms, all through Job, from the mouth of Moses and Jeremiah and Zechariah and Jesus and usually God. How long, Habakkuk asked, from his tiny watchpost on behalf of exasperated souls of every time and place. And by God, the answer came.
One of my favorite books is Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, a man who survived the Holocaust. He described a day, a few days after liberation, when he walked through a meadow and saw larks rising to the sky. And he fell to his knees. At that moment, he wrote, “there was very little I knew of myself or of the world – I had but one sentence in mind – always the same, ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and he answered me from the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence I can no longer recall but I know that on that day in that hour my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.”
Maybe you remember that famous sermon given by Martin Luther King Jr. at the steps of City Hall in Montgomery, when King said, “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long, because: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
God responds throughout history. To Habakkuk, God said, “Write the vision.” Three words that gave Habakkuk courage enough to climb down from his watch post and know what to do next. Three words that were not dismissive, like, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” Not escapist, like, “Click your heels three times and all will be better.” Not defensive, like, “this mess is actually your fault.” No, the answer came. A trumpet in the dark with direction and hope. The three words were “Write the vision.” Make it plain on tablets so that someone running by can read it.
Write the vision every day of your life. If you want an end to violence and destruction and folks who bend the law their way then be what that brighter vision looks like in the most obvious way you can. That is what it means to live by faith. Not excuses or cynicism or avoidance or blaming other people or just closing your eyes to it all. You have to write the vision. Make it plain. And then, wait for it.
Jesus changed the world by leaving strikingly spare instructions, often just three words. Feed my sheep. Pray this way. Eat this bread. Drink this cup. Broken for you. Shed for you. It is finished. To a group of disciples who were lamenting and crying out “how long?” Jesus offered this table, a simple clear vision of welcome to a flawed and awkward group of people who were simultaneously capable of ultimate betrayal and drenched in love. This is the vision. I believe the beautiful truth underneath this command is that if we actually do it, we do become the beloved community by the power of the Spirit.
A social scientist named Richard Pascale wrote that for adults, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.” I have sometimes heard this described as the “as if” rule. Act as if you are brave and over time you become a brave person. Act as if you are compassionate. Act as if you are generous. Act as if you are joyful. Act as if you are forgiving. Those actions have a profound impact on how you actually feel and eventually those actions have a profound impact on how the world works.
I find it comforting that in these three word phrases, God seems to know that we can only handle simple, the next right step. Maybe my elementary and middle schoolers out there know who said, or rather sang, this very human idea:
I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath
This next step
This next choice is one that I can make [Anna, from Frozen II]
It strikes me that Jesus wrote no long op-eds, drafted no complex church blueprints, wrote no detailed policies for the world. The older I get, the more I think human beings can only digest the bright vision God has for this world three words at a time. We can really only absorb bite sized holiness.
This week, a member of this church was telling me about his childhood over a casual chipotle salad. “I went to a tough Catholic school.” I asked, “the kind where the nuns pop your hand with a ruler?” “Oh more than that. Anyway, every day we’d have snack time. Well, my mom was an alcoholic. She never packed snack for me. I was pretty angry about it, to be honest, and I started acting out, even stole another kid’s snack one day. And of course, I was caught. I was so terrified of the trouble I’d get into, and you know what, that kid, that kid gave it to me. Gave me his snack. I tell you what, that was when my faith started. I guess that’s when I understood grace. That was when I realized what it felt like to get something you didn’t deserve. It was so simple, but it changed my life.” We were both kind of teary at that point, and I said, “listen, you keep talking like that and you’ll end up in serious sermon territory.” And he laughed and said, “I guess so. You can have it.” That simple story of bite-sized grace was so clear, so true, so plain, that it sustained him over a lifetime and it stopped me in my tracks when I had been racing through the day. Here’s a snack. Given for you.
Today would have been my mom’s 72nd birthday. Three years ago, she was getting chemo and I remember all the how longs that were heavy on my heart that year when she had a few goldfish crackers and a bite of cake. She passed away in March of 2020. And you know what, today I am really looking forward to communion because in some mystical way, there is a sweet reunion to be had here. There is this gracious place to meet up at the eternal table and say “Mom, we’ve covered some ground.” So, I think this year my three simple words from God are “cloud of witnesses.”
It can be that simple and that global. In 1933, dictators were on the rise and there were economic meltdowns and breadlines and people in this country were asking all the how longs. How long until the US enters the war? How long until we run out of food here? And that is when a group of Presbyterians near Pittsburgh decided to write the vision. To act as if they believed unity in this world were possible. To act as if their faith truly mattered in the chaos of a convulsing world. They started World Communion Sunday. Three small words in the bulletin might have seemed woefully insufficient compared to the turmoil in the news. And yet, little by little it took off. By the 40s when the world was at war, church people moved toward one another in this dynamic ecumenical celebration, as the Bible says to “tear down the dividing walls of hostility.” Now, today, in cathedrals and on hillsides, storefronts and tents, despite flood waters and mortars, in all kinds of different bodies and languages, Christians are enacting this movement of peace. And I believe these simple acts change us. Move us. From the four words of desperation to the three words of hope.
Eat this bread. Drink this cup. Love one another. Write the vision. Wait for it.
Do not underestimate how far you can go just three words at a time.
This is the last installment in our “What’s the deal . . . ” sermon series.