Monday, March 6, 2017

Habakkuk: When Good Things Happen to Bad People

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The scripture was Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4:

Last week when we looked at the prophet Nahum, we addressed his gleeful delight in God being an avenging warrior who was going to bring destruction to the city of Nineveh, and I used Nahum’s position as a sort of launch pad to look at the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” I didn’t really give a full answer to that question, first because we don’t have enough time in one setting to do that, but secondly because in many ways that question is ultimately unanswerable.  The technical word for the inquiry is known as theodicy, which is if God is just how come there is injustice in the world, or if God is all powerful why doesn’t God use that power to stop bad things from occurring. If superman can stop a plan from falling out of the sky, and even turn time back to undo something that had happened, why doesn’t God do the same? The prophet Habakkuk is asking the same question, although he asks it in a different way, which is why are good things happening to bad people, and they are getting away with it, and in his inquiry Habakkuk is very unlike the other prophets we have encountered.

We know really nothing about Habakkuk, and yet can speculate about a lot. He is the first of the minor prophets we have seen who is specifically called a prophet in the introduction, although several others do have a similar introduction. Like others, there is no specific information given about when he is prophesying, that is there is no list of kings included. But because he is talking about the Babylonian Empire, who are here referred to as the Chaldeans, which is how the Biblical historians called them, we can come pretty close to his dating, or at least make a pretty good guess about it.  The Assyrian empire is not officially defeated by the Babylonians until the year 605, and then the Babylonians appear on the Judean coast in the year 604. Since Habakkuk makes a proclamation that God will use the Babylonians to destroy Judah in punishment for their sins of injustice, it is presumed that Babylon is actually a known threat to them, but has not yet appeared on the scene, although it could be that they are hovering, increasing a sense of doom, but have not yet attacked, which happens when Jerusalem is sacked, but not destroyed, in the year 598. That means we might be able to guess his prophetic career, or at least what we have record of, to a five-year period, which based on some of the other minor prophets we have encountered is remarkable. There is also some speculation that because of Habakkuk’s use of wisdom, lamentation and psalm literature, or at least their genres, that Habakkuk might be involved with, or a member of, the cultic operations of Judah. That is, he might be an official prophet for the Temple. Much of this speculation comes about because of chapter 3 which is phrased as if it is a psalm, and if you didn’t read it in preparation for today, I would encourage you to do so.

But the other piece to know about this is that there is also some speculation that the third chapter may not be original to the book or perhaps even to Habakkuk himself.  Although there is belief about some of the other minor prophets we have already covered that perhaps some of their writings have been added to at different times in history, I haven’t addressed that as an issue. But with Habakkuk we do have other sources to consult to see what might be original, with perhaps the most interesting piece coming from the Qumran community which is where we get the documents popularly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. In those writings, there is a commentary written on Habakkuk, but it is only on the first two chapters. So, there are several possible reasons for this. One is that the 3rd chapter wasn’t there to be written about, and thus was a later addition. The other side could be the writer simply didn’t care about the 3rd chapter, and so didn’t write on it. But, the third chapter is considerably different, and does include a second superscription, or introduction. Now it is still possible that it was written by Habakkuk, and later added, and it’s also possible that this psalm like writing was attributed to Habakkuk, as the LXX has four psalms that are attributed to other prophets, and then was added to this book later. None of that ultimately impacts the message, but I think is important, or at least interesting to know, but also to note that while chapter 3 is clearly different, it does in some ways match the first two chapters, which have the form of a lament, and where do we find most of the lamentations in the Hebrew scriptures? In the psalms.

And Habakkuk begins with a lament, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?” (1:1) This complaint is not that anything bad is happening directly to Habakkuk, or at least nothing reported, but instead the things that he is seeing, that justice is not being done in the nation.  Good things are happening to bad people and as a result of this, he says, the law “becomes slack.” The righteous are surrounded by the wicked, and, it seems, because the wicked seem to be getting away with everything.  Not only is society being affected because they keep doing these things, but that others see what is happening and say “well if they are doing it, then I have to do it too just to keep up,” and thus “judgment comes forth perverted.” In fact, there is no justice, and so Habakkuk demands that God answer why this is happening, why God is allowing this to happen. God then responds with an answer, which in fact, as we see politicians do all the time, does not answer the question at all. Instead God tells Habakkuk that the Chaldeans are going to destroy Judah for the injustices that they are carrying out. That is sort of how a normal prophet we have seen works. But Habakkuk is not a normal prophet, because rather than just accepting God’s word, he’s like Jonah and he argues back with God. This is a conversation that is taking place, and Habakkuk says to God, basically, how are you going to overcome the injustice of Judah by using the Babylonians who are even more just than our leaders are, an idea we touched on last week as well. And then to make his point as clear as possible that he is serious, he says that he is going to “stand on his watchpost” or watchtower on the ramparts to keep watch for God’s answer to his complaint, although the Hebrew word here might be better translated as rebuke or accusation. That is that this is not just some random comments Habakkuk is making, he is chastising God, who is just, for allowing injustice to take place, and even, apparently, using injustice to punish injustice. Questioning and challenging God doesn’t happen much in the New Testament, but it is a common feature in the Hebrew scriptures, as is the demand that God answer these challenges.

And then God answers Habakkuk again, and what God replies is that there will be an appointed time in which all will be judged, in which God will set everything right again.  The wicked will be punished and the good will be rewarded, but that time comes not in our time, but in God’s time.  Then God says something which becomes crucial for Paul’s argument about faith and being a Christian, and God says “the righteous live by their faith.”  The Hebrew word for faith that is being used here, emunah, is not an assent to a series of beliefs, but instead would be better translated as faithfulness, meaning steadfastness, endurance, loyalty, or fidelity. It’s that we will be faithful to God, but more importantly that God will be faithful to us. That no matter what happens that God’s promises will be true. We can see this in the LXX which says rather than living by our faithfulness, instead “The righteous one will live by my faithfulness.” That is the faithfulness of God. That God will be faithful to the promises that our made, and we have to live in that faithfulness, we have to remain steadfast in God’s promises knowing they will eventually succeed even as we see the wickedness that surrounds the righteous. That is the faithfulness that Habakkuk is displaying, because we have to remember that in his frustration, Habakkuk is not rejecting God, he is challenging God, and this is a challenge from within the faith, and he is going to remain steadfast on his rampart seeking his answer.

Edward Hays, a Roman Catholic priest and author, recounts a story from the early desert and father mothers, the founders of the monastic movement, of a young man who went to seek enlightenment, and found a monk sitting outside his cave, while his dog laid lazily in the sun next to him. The young man asked the monk why it was that some people came to the desert to seek God and were zealous about the pursuit, but left after a year, whereas others remained faithful for a lifetime.  The monk said, “one day my dog and I were sitting here enjoying the sun, much as we are now, when a large white rabbit ran in front of us. My dog jumped up, barking and took off after the rabbit. He chased after the rabbit with a passion, and the other dogs, hearing his barking, joined in with him. What a sight it was all those dogs running after the rabbit, over hills and stony paths, through thickets and thorns. Gradually, however, the other dogs began to drop out, discouraged by the course and frustrated by the chase. Only my dog continued to chase the rabbit to the end.”  Confused, the young man said “what does the white rabbit chase have anything to do with the quest for God?”  The hermit replied “why didn’t the other dogs continue the chase? They had not seen the rabbit. They were only attracted by the barking of the dog. But once you see the rabbit, you will never give up the chase.”  Seeing the rabbit, and not simply following the commotion was what kept the monk in the desert.

Habakkuk does not give us the answer, and God does not give him the answer, to the question why do good things happen to bad people or even why bad things happen to good people. He does not tell us why injustice prevails in the world when God calls for justice. But what Habakkuk does tell us, and show, is about faithfulness. That even in asking the questions of God that he is changed. That by engaging in this conversation with God, not based on unbelief, but deeply rooted in faith, that the nearness of God has left him fundamentally different in his faithfulness. He has seen the rabbit, and so keeps chasing.  To live by our faith, to live in faithfulness, does not mean we have all the answers, or even that we get the answers we need or desire, but that we keep seeking those answers, we keep running the race, we keep pursuing God. It means believing that God’s promises are true and they will be fulfilled, and more importantly it means acting as if God’s promises will be fulfilled. It means living one’s life, and shaping one’s life, not as if the Kingdom of God is happening sometime in the distant future, but that the kingdom is happening right here and right now. Repent for the kingdom of God has come near, is what Jesus says as he begins his ministry. A kingdom that is good news for all people. A kingdom that is not only given to us, but that we bring about by living into it and living as if it is already here. That is the vision that is to be written on tablets large enough for runners to see, that is the vision that is to be lived out by us, because the righteous live by their faith, they are faithful to God and to God’s promises. But that faithfulness is both a promise and a challenge. A promise to us of the faithfulness of God, and a challenge to us to remain faithful, to live and to act justly, to keep chasing that white rabbit and to seek the kingdom of God. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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