"Waiting for the train." Image by Amos Bar-Zeev via Unsplash; licensed under CC0.
I know it is the custom in this column to focus on the Gospel text, but this week I’m going to focus primarily on the Old Testament reading from Habakkuk. Not just because I’m an Old Testament teacher, but because Habakkuk’s message speaks to me this week. (By the way, if you plan to preach on the Gospel, the commentary by Ira Brent Driggers is very helpful indeed.)
If you haven’t preached on an Old Testament text for a long time, this week’s reading would be a good place to start. Because Habakkuk asks questions that are as old as human civilization and as current as today’s headlines:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? … The law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted (Habakkuk 1:2,4).
The prophet, like countless people through the centuries, asks why bad things happen to good people and (perhaps just as troubling) why bad people often prosper. People who oppress the poor, who lie and cheat, despots and dictators—they too often die peacefully in their beds in old age like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe a few weeks ago.
Where is the justice in that? Where, in fact, is God in that?
The prophet demands an answer: “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” (Habakkuk 2:1).
And perhaps that’s one place to begin to focus the sermon, giving your people permission to ask hard questions of God, and to demand an answer. They have those questions, though they may be hesitant to articulate them. So your own example, dear preacher, your own articulation of some of those questions from the pulpit (using Habakkuk as an example) may be a liberating word for your people.
There is more to the reading, though. Like all of the texts for this week, Habakkuk is concerned with the matter of faith: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).
That sounds good—the righteous live by their faith. But what does it look like to “live by faith”?
The disciples seem to think that faith is quantifiable, something that can be measured. “Increase our faith,” they demand of Jesus (Luke 17:5). And Jesus responds by confounding their expectations—faith is not something one stockpiles. In fact, faith the size of a mustard seed is sufficient.
Paul (or whoever wrote 2 Timothy) reminds Timothy that faith is often learned in community; in his case, the community of his mother and grandmother.
For their part, the psalmist and the prophet both emphasize the fact that faith involves waiting.
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him….For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land (Psalm 37:7,9).
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 (Habakkuk 2:3).
These are all important insights on faith, but this last one—that faith involves waiting—is the one that speaks to me, at least, this week and may also resonate with your congregation. We all know what it is to wait, and how hard waiting can be: Waiting to hear the results of a medical test; waiting for the safe arrival home of a loved one long absent; waiting for morning through the hours of a sleepless night.
Ask your congregation: What do you wait for? What do you long for? And then talk about the role of faith in such times of waiting. Faith, as the writer of Hebrews says, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is what sustains us when we do not yet see the fulfillment of our longing. It is our touchstone as we wait, especially in those times when the evidence on the ground would seem to contradict our hope.
Note—this is not faith in faith. It is faith in a God who has proved faithful to us and to our ancestors, as Habakkuk and the psalmist and Paul all testify. Such faith does not answer all the questions and dispel all the suffering, but it does give us light on the way. As Pope Francis says:
Faith is not a light that scatters all our darkness but a lamp that guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.1
The book of the prophet Habakkuk ends with one of the most beautiful statements of faith in all of Scripture, though for some strange reason this passage is not included in the Revised Common Lectionary. Consider including it in your sermon, though.
After God responds to Habakkuk’s questions, essentially telling him to wait for God’s promises to be fulfilled, the prophet remembers God’s saving power in the past and then, seemingly without any outward change in his circumstances, says this:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
Though there is nothing in his outward circumstances that would seem to warrant praise; though the evidence on the ground contradicts the promises of God, the prophet still praises God. He will not allow his present circumstances to determine his future hope. He will not allow his present circumstances to cloud his vision. He knows that God is faithful, and he continues to trust God and to praise God for all that God has done and will continue to do in his life and in the lives of his people.
Such is the power of faith.
Thank you, dear preacher, for your own commitment to proclaiming this good news of God’s faithfulness to your community. It is a vital ministry. God give you joy in the midst of it.
Francis, Lumen Fidei (Vatican Press, 2013), 57.