20th Sunday After Pentecost
October 2, 2016
Commentary on the Texts
This reading from Habakkuk is the only Lectionary reading from this book in the three year Revised Common Lectionary cycle (the same reading is used for Proper 26 in Year C). This is unfortunate, because there is more in the book that deserves attention.
Even more importantly for our purposes we need to acknowledge that the book is a carefully constructed coherent message. This suggests that we will risk misunderstanding it if we do not examine Habakkuk as a whole, and individual readings as part of that whole. This problem is compounded even further by the fact that 2:4 is often taken as a catch phrase in Christian tradition and understood against the background of Paul's use of that phrase in Romans and Galatians. It is not so much that Paul, or Augustine, or the Reformers misused the phrase as much as we who are heirs of two thousand years of Christian tradition tend to read backwards through the tradition and end up interpreting Habakkuk through the lens of well developed Christian theology. This often makes it difficult to hear the message of Habakkuk.
So, two perspectives need to be kept in mind in working with this text as an Old Testament reading. First, study of Habakkuk needs to be made from the perspective of the book itself within its own cultural and historical context as a writing of Israel in the 5th century BC. The theological perspective here must be allowed to run forward and inform later writings, not the reverse.
Second, the book needs to be seen in its entirety, for what it says as a whole rather than what single verses might say removed from that context. This suggests that in the course of examining this particular reading, we will need to reference that larger literary context, and keep it in mind.
There are no direct date references within the book. However, there are enough hints to determine a fairly precise historical setting for the prophet's message. The tone of the book is clearly ominous, with a sense of dread at an impending invasion of the country by a foreign enemy (3:16), identified as the Babylonians (Chaldeans, 1:6). The Babylonians ruled the Middle East from 612 (the fall of the Assyrian capital Ninevah) until 539 (the rise of the Persian Empire under Cyrus).
However, historians having the advantage of looking back at the sweep of events fix those dates. From the perspective of that time, the year 605 was much more momentous. The Egyptians had established a presence at Carchemish on the upper Euphrates to prevent Babylonian expansion to the west after they had failed in 609 to rescue the Assyrians from Babylonian advances. In 605 the Babylonians drove the Egyptians from Carchemish and pushed them back into southern Palestine toward Egypt.
With that defeat, it became obvious that the Egyptians would not be able to contain Babylonian expansion, and the last real barrier to Babylonian control of all of Palestine was removed. The Babylonians invaded Judah twice, the first time only seven years later in 598 and again in 586 when the city of Jerusalem, the Temple, and most of the country were destroyed. However, the year 605 marked the beginning of the end for Judah. It is likely that the prophet Habakkuk received his message from God in this context as he reflected on the future of Judah in light of these ominous events. So the book of Habakkuk, while probably containing later additions, needs to be heard in the context of the threat from Babylon between 605 and 598 (see The Rise of Babylon and Exile (640 BC - 538 BC), especially the section Babylonian Control of Judah).
The Literary Setting
The book of Habakkuk is carefully structured in its flow of thought. Any interpretation of the book must consider that flow since any part of the book is directly related to the developing theology within that structure. The book divides rather easily into 3 major sections: the prophet's dialog with God (1:1-2:5); the woe oracles (2:6-20), and the concluding prayer (3:1-19).
Within this structure, there is a clear movement of thought in three stages. This movement is climactic, ascending "out of the depths" from problem, to changed perspective, to affirmative response. In this, there is some evidence to see the entire book structured as a lament psalm that makes the same movement (see Patterns for Life: Structure, Genre, and Theology in Psalms, especially the section Lament).
The dialog with God begins with a complaint from the prophet concerning injustice and the apparent failure of God's torah to be able to bring peace, justice, and stability into the world (1:2-4). To that question is presented an orthodox answer (2:5-11), presumably from God. But actually, the response is from the prophet himself answering for God as he interprets unfolding history from the perspective of traditional faith confessions of the community. This leads to a renewed complaint from the prophet that moves to the heart of the issue (1:12-2:5). Habakkuk concludes that the traditional and "orthodox" answers are not adequate in this circumstance. He raises heavily ironic, even sarcastic, questions about God's work in the world. The persistence and resolve of the prophet (2:1) leads to a response from God that does not really answer the prophet's questions. Instead, it addresses the more important issue of how we are to live in a world that is not in our control and often does not make sense to us (2:2-5).
From that basis, the prophet then affirms the overall rightness and justice of how the world works under God on a larger scale than his own immediate perceptions and fears (the five "woe" oracles, 2:6-19). He also affirms God as the only possible source of stability and hope in the world, simply because he is the only God (2:18-20). Both emphases reflect his changed perspective on God and how he will face his own circumstance based on that understanding of God. The prophet then lapses into a hymn that is highly poetic and rooted in cultural imagery drawn from the Ba'al myths. The language and imagery of this hymn is called a theophany, a literary form that describes an encounter with God that sees him as Lord of all the earth coming to reveal himself to his people (3:1-15; see Speaking the Language of Canaan especially the section, Yahweh, the divine warrior, and the language of theophany). It is a way to confess God, based on the historical experiences of Israel in the Exodus, as active in the world.
The conclusion of the hymn is the theological message of the entire book as it moves to the prophet's response to his changed perspective (3:16-19). His response to God's message is not simply one of resignation at events he cannot control, but a dynamic trust in an active God in spite of events and circumstances that might call God himself into question if those circumstances alone were the measure of God in the world. Indeed, the prophet himself had already done that very thing. But he has encountered God on a level that provides him the stability to face an unstable world. It is this response that provides the further definition and clarification of how God's response to him in 2:2-5, especially 2:4, would work out in life.
The first part of this reading includes Habakkuk's initial complaint to God that lays out the heart of the problem facing him. But the problem the prophet is addressing may not be as obvious as it might appear on the surface, especially in light of other details of the book and the flow of thought that unfolds.
The superscription to the book (1:1) uses a less common Hebrew word for "saw," which in nominal forms can mean "vision" or "seer" (an older term for prophet, 1 Sam. 9:9). However, we should not take this word too specifically as some kind of physical manifestation. Both verbal and nominal forms of the word clearly communicate a message or encounter with God, yet without necessarily trying to specify what kind of encounter (for example, in Isa. 2:1 it is a "word" that the prophet "saw," that is, a message). The intent here is to establish that this is, indeed a prophetic word from God, and not just the prophet's contemplation of a situation for which he proposes his own solution. This is a message that is revelatory of God.
And yet, it is important to note that it is not just God's answer to the prophet that is so characterized, but the entire book including Habakkuk's complaints and the arguably irreverent way that he challenges God. That suggests that there is something important here in the whole process of complaint, accusation against God, waiting for an answer, hearing it, and then responding in some way. It is not just the "thunder" from above that is revelatory of God, but the entire process of coming to terms with how we live as God's people in God's sometimes perplexing world.
Beyond the opening reference to a "vision" that Habakkuk "saw," words related to seeing (both "to see" and "to look at" or "to envision," as well as "vision") become an important part of this book. This theme or motif of sight serves to highlight both the problem and the solution that are at the heart of the book's message. The theme is introduced early in the opening complaint (1:3), as God causes the prophet to see wrongdoing, while God himself also sees the same things. This raises the expectation that what is seen will be significant.
The questions that the prophet presents to God are typical of lament psalms in which a person prays to God from the midst of crisis or pain (for example, Psa. 13:1-3, 22:1, 35:17; see on the structure and theology of Laments). The issue in these questions is not that God does not care or has abandoned the prophet or his people. They are stereotypical and poetically phrased cries of pain, grief, and despair directed to God in prayer. It is a way to identify a situation that the one praying is experiencing that becomes the basis for a petition to God to remedy the situation.
The collection of terms used here by the prophet serves to identify the problem. Violence and bloodshed were often typical prophetic ways to identify injustice perpetrated upon those who are unable to defend themselves against abuses of power. Sometimes that took the form of physical bloodshed, as in the case of Ahaz seizing Naboth's vineyard (1 Kings 21) or David taking Bathsheba by arranging for the death of Uriah (2 Sam 11). Yet it can also be metaphorical for injustice in general and the heavy toll it takes in human suffering (Isa. 1:15-17, 59:3, 7, Jer. 7:6; 22:3, Micah 3:9-10, 7:2-3). Because injustice and oppression against the powerless of society in that culture often became a matter of life or death, the imagery of bloodshed was appropriate.
This intent is more obvious in 1:4 where justice is lacking or is perverted (Heb: "bent out of shape"). The specific reference to the torah in this verse suggests that Habakkuk had in mind the failure of God's people to be his people. While his complaint will take on larger dimensions as it moves to the level of world history, yet it is important to see the context here as a perversion of torah, what God's people should do to respond faithfully to God and his grace. The implication is clear. The failure of God's people to follow torah unleashes destruction and violence in the world, often against the very ones that they had the responsibility of protecting.
Yet, Habakkuk's complaint is not just that there is such injustice in the world. It is really a complaint against God's apparent inaction in the face of such injustice (1: 2). God was obviously aware of the injustice, which is emphasized by noting that he has seen the situation (1:3). Then why had God not acted to right the wrongs unleashed by his people's failure to follow his instructions for how to live in his world? And even though anchored in the life of God's people and torah, the complaint implies the larger dimension as well. Why does God, who had heard the cries of oppressed slaves in Egypt and brought them freedom, allow his people and the larger world to become so corrupt and perverted?
The question is profound and, in a century that has seen the most horrible atrocities against humanity imaginable, very contemporary. It echoes the anguished cries from death camps and killing fields across the years: "Where is God?" It is a profound question that arises, not from doubt in God, but from faith in him. Only one who has believed, and still believes, can honestly ask such a question. If there were no belief, no faith that God is there, that he hears such cries and responds to them, they would be meaningless and irrelevant. It is only to those who believe that such cries make sense. It is only from a profound belief and faith in the goodness of God that the prophet can look at the state of the world around him and cry, "How long?"
As noted, the next two sections of the book, while not part of the reading, are crucial to the message here. There is debate about how to read the next section (1:5-10). Some understand it as a direct response by God, using the first person subject in 1:6 as evidence. However, the internal dynamics of the passage, as well as the lack of any formula identifying this as a response from God (as in 2:2), suggests that this is a rhetorical answer from the prophet.
The use of two different verbs for seeing in 1:5 returns to the motif of sight. They serve to redirect Habakkuk's attention from the injustice within Judah to the larger scale of world history ("the nations"). The suggestion here is that Habakkuk has been looking at the wrong thing. He has focused too narrowly on Judah when there are larger issues at stake. If this is indeed the prophet's own response, it is a way to say that he understands that the issues of justice involve a larger scale than simply God's people obeying torah. He is willing to expand his view to include the other nations as well, and in so doing understands that Judah's situation can be addressed in terms of that larger context.
Habakkuk says here what others, perhaps Jeremiah, have already said. The "proper" answer was, as Jeremiah had been preaching for some time already, that, yes, there is injustice in the land, yes God's people have failed. And that is precisely the reason God was bringing the Babylonians to punish them for their sins. Habakkuk even summarized this perspective (1:12-13a) in preparation for his extremely sarcastic final questions (1:13b, 17).
Yet for Habakkuk, that answer was not good enough. In fact, it only compounded the problem. If God's people have perverted their ways, surely the Babylonians have done worse. The description of the Babylonian army and their ruthlessness (1:6-10), as well as the arrogance they exhibit in worshipping their own power (1:11, 16) and establishing their own brand of justice (1:7) serve to establish that they are no more righteous than the Israelites (1:13b). So how can there be any justice in the world if injustice is punished by even worse injustice? Does that not make God himself the author of injustice, as Habakkuk suggests?
On a more subtle level, the extended description of the Babylonians (1:5-11) serves to equate the Babylonians and the Israelites. The Babylonians whose actions testify that they serve no god but themselves become a metaphor for the "wicked" Israelites (1:4) who, by ignoring torah and thereby perverting justice, allow their actions to say the same thing. This introduces a secondary theme into the book that does not work out in our reading but in the series of woe oracles of chapter 2 that focus on the injustice of ignored torah and conclude with a denunciation of idolatry. They affirm that God's purposes in the world include appropriate consequences for the wicked, whether they are Babylonians or Israelites!
By the time we arrive at the second portion of this reading (2:1-4), the prophet has laid out his case in no uncertain terms. In verses dripping with sarcasm, Habakkuk on the one hand has affirmed that "your eyes are too pure to look upon evil" (1:13a), and then immediately turns to make an accusation that in fact denies that very assertion: "then why do you look upon the treacherous and are silent . . .?" (1:13b). This again makes use of the motif of sight as a way to frame the problem. Habakkuk sees one thing in the world, the injustice that comes from unrighteous and wicked people. And he affirms that God should see the world from a different perspective, from the perspective of holiness and purity. Yet, God sees the same wickedness and does nothing about it. God's purity, Habakkuk contends, should not allow silence at seeing a perverted world.
The concluding question (1:17) echoes the opening question, "How long?" How long will God allow this invader who is supposedly doing God's will in the world to continue inflicting the merciless reign of terror "through the breadth of the earth" (1:6)? One can almost hear the frustration in the unspoken question: "How does this solve anything?" If it had been in the Hebrew vocabulary, he might have called the solution overkill.
What could the prophet do after such a torrent of accusations thrown in the face of God except to sit and wait, much like Job in similar circumstances, for God to give an account of himself? And so the second portion of this reading opens with Habakkuk waiting for God's response (2:1). The prophet again employs the motif of sight in the metaphor of a watchtower. He waits "to see" how God will respond.
There is significance in the very fact of the waiting. His accusations could be read as being done with God, concluding that if God acts in this way and that if the world is this unjust, then God must not be God. But there is none of that. Habakkuk waits, not to see if God will respond, but rather to hear what he will say. This again reveals a depth of trust in God that is not obvious in the rather vitriolic language cast in his direction in the preceding verses. There is a quiet confidence here that if questions are honestly asked, even irreverent ones, that God will answer. And in the meantime, one waits, expectantly.
The prophet may not have anticipated the answer that came. He may have been expecting some grand promise of deliverance. But it is crucial theology that the waiting in faith between the questions and the answer is a necessary part of living as God's people. It is like the disciples living in Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection morning. Saturday living is far more common for most people than we like to admit. Habakkuk does not yet realize that his waiting for the answer from God is itself part of the answer!
God's response comes as a vision (2:2). While some want to see this as an ecstatic or clairvoyant experience, it probably relates more to the rhetorical use of the metaphor of sight throughout the book. The issue has been what Habakkuk sees and what God sees (a slightly different use of the same contrast can be found in Gen 22:8-14). To this point, the prophet has only seen the present situation of injustice, or contemplated the imminent circumstances of devastation at the hands of the Babylonians. But now, what he would see is God's response. This suggests, with the metaphor of sight now referring to understanding, that Habakkuk was about to see something new, to reach a new level of understanding about God as he reveals himself to Habakkuk. The content of the "vision" is that new understanding of God and his work in the world.
God's response is presented in two parts, one directed to the prophet himself (2:2-3) and the other at the historical circumstances (2:4-5). Both have significant theological dimensions.
The first is an assurance to the prophet of the certainty of God's work in the world. God instructed Habakkuk to write down what he saw so that it would be plain and easily available for anyone to read. His message was to become a witness for the future (the word translated "hastens" in some versions is probably better read as "witnesses"), much as Isaiah's message had been (Isa. 8:16). This immediately established a wider time frame for the message than what Habakkuk had allowed in his complaint. Habakkuk had already introduced a time element by his question, "How long?" Where earlier the prophet had been willing to expand his understanding to a larger scope than just Judah and look to the nations, here he is called to expand his vision to a larger time frame and look to the future.
The vision calls Habakkuk to view God's work and purposes in the world not only in its breadth but in its length as well. At the same time that this is an assurance that God's purposes in the world will certainly unfold, so much so that Habakkuk can write it down for future reference, it also implies that it may be some time in coming (2:3). Habakkuk had wanted God to act in some decisive way in the world to relieve the injustice he sees. At this point, God's answer is, "Not yet."
Some scholars understand the reference to the "end" to be the end of human history, what some have called the eschatological future where God will end human history and reestablish a perfectly harmonious world. However, that is probably reading far too much into the prophetic concept, imported from later apocalyptic thinking. In the prophets, the "end" tends to refer to a decisive event within human history in which God is understood to be acting for his purposes in the world (cf. Amos 8:1-3). Part of the theology of the "end" in these cases is that the "end" is not a final end, but also the beginning of some new work of God in the world. For example, Jeremiah spoke about an end coming upon Judah, yet also spoke about a future restoration that could only come after the end (cf. Jer 4:27, 31:31-34).
The impact of this language here is to point to a future action of God in which his purposes will become clear and the issues of justice will be decided, without specifying exactly what that event might be. This corresponds closely to the answer given Job when he asked similar questions (chs. 38-41).
The second part of God's response turns to the fate of the wicked. Unfortunately, understanding this response has been complicated by textual and translation problems, as well as by later interpretations of the verses.
The first problem is the opening lines of 2:4. Most modern versions now correctly read "proud" or "arrogant." However, even the NRSV's "their spirit is not right in them" does not catch the nuances of the Hebrew. The word "spirit" does not occur in this verse. The Hebrew word is nephesh, which most often simply means person or generally "life." Also the word translated "not right" (Heb: yashar) does not necessarily imply moral or spiritual condition. The word basically means "to be straight" or "upright," and so can mean "to be healthy" as well as "to be honest." With the following references to Sheol (a metaphor for the grave and so for death) and Death (2:5), the phrase would probably best be translated with some overtones of sickness and lack of well being: "Look at the Proud! They are deathly sick." In fact, as the poetic metaphors of the following verses suggest, the "proud" act like Sheol and Death because they are so sick they about to die, and so are full of death themselves.
In this context, the poetic metaphors are striking. The proud and arrogant (both Israelites and Babylonians) think they have no need of God, are so greedy for wealth and property that they allow injustice to flourish and take advantage of those who have no power to stop them. They "stuff" themselves with their greed and idolatrous ambition (1:16), without realizing that they are only stuffing themselves with death. They are deathly sick and will die from the very thing upon which they are feasting (2:5; cf. v. 10)!
A second problem is the way the Hebrew term 'emunah (faith, faithfulness) in 2:4b has been translated. Here the problem is not so much accurate translation as it is what the Christian tradition has come to associate with the term. The term has traditionally been translated "faith," with the definition usually given from the New Testament book of Hebrews (11:1): "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." While there is certainly a sense where that is appropriate here, the emphasis within the book includes more than "conviction" and "assurance." The prophet is facing real life circumstances that require action. In this context, the meaning of "faithfulness" seems more appropriate: "The righteous shall live by their faithfulness." This implies a manner of living in which faith is operative in life. Faith in God, faithfulness to God, is more than a state of mind; it is living out inner convictions amid the vagaries of life.
It is no accident here that the righteous shall live by their faithfulness. The contrast is clearly drawn between those who attempt to live for themselves but who are in reality feeding on death and dying, and those who are righteous and live by torah with faith in God, and who thereby are the only ones who are really alive.
A third problem is that the metaphor of "wine" in 2:5 seems out of place here. An alternate reading of this word in the Dead Sea scrolls (changing only one repeated letter) restores the flow of thought. There the word reads "greed" or "wealth." This has clearly been the major description of the Babylonians in their quest for power and possessions, by analogy has been the motivating factor behind perverted justice in Israel, and is the major topic of the woe oracles that immediately follow (2:6-20). As noted above, the metaphor warns that greed for wealth and possessions that leads to injustice is a hazardous way to try to live. Acting like death, and bringing it to others is a sure way to die.
Two other features of the book beyond the reading need to be considered. As already mentioned, the woe oracles serve to confirm God's response. In a series of woes pronounced against those who commit injustice, and concluding with one aimed at idolaters, the prophet uses the idea of "poetic justice" to affirm God's work in the world. "Poetic justice" affirms that evil creates its own consequences, because that is how God has created the world to work (2:20). The consequences are inevitable, even when they are not immediately in view. Injustice will not escape such consequences, even though it seems that the perpetrators of injustice have temporarily escaped.
This addresses Habakkuk's accusation that God allows injustice in the world. The response both earlier and in the woe oracles is that appearances do not always reveal the reality. The arrogant who deny God in words or actions have created their own punishment, which simply affirms that God's dealing with injustice works on a larger and longer scale than human beings can see from any particular point. Even though the wicked appear strong, they are weak and sick. They are as good as dead because they have taken death to themselves. That is part of the "vision" that Habakkuk saw.
The second feature is the hymn in chapter 3, especially the conclusion. If everything that Habakkuk, has seen is true, the question still remains: "Even if God really is working to address the injustice of the world around us, how shall we live as God's people in a world that we experience as unjust?" What does it mean to be faithful in order to live? In some of the most eloquent poetry in Scripture, Habakkuk concludes with the rest of his "vision," a definition of faithfulness that addresses this final question (3:16-19):
I hear, and I tremble within;
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
Finally, Habakkuk understands that waiting is sometimes the only faithful response when we ask about the injustice in the world. But it is not a passive waiting with the resignation of fatalists who think there is nothing beyond the events themselves. This is a dynamic waiting that comes from knowing who is really alive and who is really dying. It is a faithfulness that is grounded in the assurance that God is really God, even though present circumstances do not provide proof of that. It is a willingness to live life on God's terms (torah), rather than trying to worship the gods of power, wealth, and short term success. It is an understanding that our perspectives are too often much too narrow in scope, too confined to our own time frames, and much too limited to our own range of vision. It is a willingness to accept the "not yet!" of God, confident not in what we see in the present, but in the certainty of God himself.
Finally, Habakkuk had no direct answers to his questions. He still did not know how long. He still did not know why. He had not been able to solve the questions of relative injustice, nor to answer the basic questions with which any person of genuine faith has asked or will ask. He still did not know God's timetable, nor exactly what the future would hold.
But he saw something more important that would allow him to face an uncertain future without knowing all the answers. He had seen God, a God who assured him that he is, indeed God, and who called him to be faithful without having all the answers. God had called him to continue living in Saturday, with the hope of Sunday coming. It is that living in faithful hope beyond ourselves, grounded in nothing but God himself, that finally gives life purpose.
There are several directions that Preaching Paths can take from this text. We will consider two.
First, there is the somewhat raucous boldness of the prophet in bringing directly to God questions about his governance of the world. Habakkuk was a person of deep faith in God who was not willing to settle for traditional answers, even when they came from other prophets. He was not willing to settle for even good theology when he could not see how it could work out in life. He was not willing to be quiet in the face of not understanding some things about God, and so brought the questions into dialog with God. He was not willing to simply be passive when there were questions that needed to be asked and ideas about God that did not make sense to him in the real world.
This dimension of the text helps clarify the nature of genuine faith. Much as in lament psalms, which the book of Habakkuk resembles, there is an affirmation here about honesty and openness before God in which the most profound questions, even doubts about God, are not out of bounds. This is a direct challenge to the idea that questions are an offense to God, that sees God as easily affronted by human questions. It disputes a false piety that suggests that truly righteous people would never question God. In fact, it affirms, along with the book of Job, that truly righteous people will raise some of the toughest questions!
There is a dimension to humanity, a humanity created by God, that seeks answers, that desires understanding, that wants to make sense of life in relation to God. And this is especially true when we are faced with circumstances and situations that challenge our most basic concepts of God and his work in the world. Questions of injustice in the world are not abstract speculation or esoteric contemplation. Any person who has lived long enough to experience much of life has raised them. It does not take something so dramatic as the death of a child to raise the issue of "Why do bad things happen to good people?" And it does not take historical events as horrific as the Holocaust to raise the question of "How long?" There are enough situations in everyday life to elicit the same questions.
Here one of the most important insights from the book of Habakkuk is that such questions do not come from doubt, they come from faith. We can only ask why God does not run the world better if we are already convinced that he, indeed, does run the world! We do not even have to enter the debates of exactly how God might run the world. At this point, it does not matter. It is only that we believe that God being God in the world should make a difference in how the world works.
That simply means that questions, honest question about God that arise from living life in God's world, are as powerful an expression of faith in God as any testimony given in church that uses all the correct formulations to praise God. The questions may be the highest form of praise, because the questions are willing to take life under God seriously. At the very least, that suggests that we, the church, should acknowledge the value of such struggles for spiritual growth and a new "vision." Sometimes the ability, or permission, to voice the questions is far more important than the answers, because it is in the context of the questions that the new vision of God comes! At best, we will take seriously the task of providing people the framework in which they are free to raise the questions and the atmosphere in which God can help them grow as they seek answers.
The second Preaching Path of this text centers on the nature of faith, or of faithfulness, that leads to life. Here 2:4 cannot be separated from 3:17-19. Faithfulness to God is the willingness to choose to live life a certain way under God, even when the "vision" may be far off in the future, and the present circumstances are bleak and barren. Personally, I have never been too encouraged by people who tell of God's great blessings in their lives, about their financial blessings, or how good their children are, or how God has provided them a job. Oh, of course we can and should thank God for those things and should rejoice at all of life as a blessing of God. But I have always found it easy to serve God when his blessings match my own expectations.
The most powerful testimonies to God and his work in the lives of people have come from people in the most awful of circumstances, who can yet affirm a trust in God that goes beyond anything they can see in their own present. To stand beside a young father who is dying of cancer and hear him in his last breath say, "I see Jesus" is the kind of faithfulness Habakkuk envisions. An even more powerful witness is to talk to a middle aged mother who has contracted a rare incurable disease, who knows that she will die within a year, and yet hear her talk of how God has given her a peace and joy, and the ability to celebrate life. She is far more alive than many people who seem to have everything going for them and enjoy health and prosperity.
That is not a denial of the circumstances in which she finds herself, but demonstrates a willingness to choose to live life in faithfulness, a willingness to decide "though the fig tree does not bloom . . .yet I will rejoice in the Lord." It is a willingness to trust God in the longer range and wider scope with the larger questions of justice, and choose to live life faithfully as his people no matter how that injustice may affect us. It does not mean that we should not care about injustice, as many other prophets make clear. But it does say that finally, we will not be able to stop it, and that ultimately, it is in God's hands.
How then should we live on Saturday, after Good Friday and before Sunday? We should live in faithfulness to God with the confidence that he is God, even though we do not have all the answers. Finally, the only strength to live is God's strength (3:19) that comes because we have chosen to allow him to be God.
This Sunday in the Church Year
Color this Sunday:
Green or Church Colors
Reading also used:
Year C, Proper 26