A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, on October 31, 2010.

The best advice I can give you with 48 hours to go before we vote is in the Old Testament reading this morning: Wait! Habakkuk said: “ 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.”

There is still a vision.  I don’t hear it or see it from ther media or the politicians; I have days when I wonder whether democracy is a good idea. I have days when I wonder whether a country so divided can still endure. But I have to listen to what the prophet tells us: “ there is still a vision for the appointed time . . . If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.”

Wait.  Is that what you wanted to hear?  Probably not.  But that’s one of the problems with the Bible: it doesn’t always give us the answers we want. Not if we’re honest about it.  Oh, you can get people to give you the answers you want: just turn on your television or radio. But honest answers; answers that will give you some real guidance in the long run? Harder to find.  But Habakkuk says, “Wait.”  “There is still a vision for the appointed time . . . If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.”

So then you ask, “Who was Habakkuk, and what does he know?”  Well, there aren’t any good answers for that either.  Here is this very small book, 1400 words, maybe about the same length as an average modern-day sermon, and it comes to us from well over 2000 years ago There are no autographed copies; no photographs of the author; just some words that suggest a crisis – and that fits quite a few periods of Old Testament history.

Was it the time the Chaldeans come down and destroyed Jerusalem?  Maybe. Or was it the time the Greeks came and conquered the Jews?  Could be. Or was it . . . .  well, we just don’t know. There were lots of times the Jews were threatened, conquered, beaten, occupied, exiled, enslaved.  And in those days they spared no one: no notion of women and children first, no Geneva conventions to outlaw various kinds of brutality. No Christian notions about a just war. No, it was rape and slaughter and massacre, bloodshed and destruction.  And Habakkuk saw it coming.  And Habakkuk said, “Wait.”  “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.”

The Jews were a tiny nation sandwiched between the great powers: like Belgium between Germany and France, like Poland between Germany and Russia. If there’s a war, you are just in the way and you can guess what will happen. No armament program, no army they could draft would make any difference. But Habakkuk said, “Wait.”

Whatever time it was, it was not the first time in Jewish history that that situation occurred and not the first time God sent word to wait.  When Moses stood on the shore of the Red Sea with the strongest army on earth about to strike Moses said, “Wait.  See what God will do.” When the Assyrians were coming from the north and the Egyptians from the south King Hezekiah thought he could make some alliances and ward off the Assyrian attack, but Isaiah said, “Wait.  In returning and rest you will be saved, in quietness and confidence will be your strength.” And when the Babylonians came – if that’s when it was – it was Habakkuk’s turn to say, “Wait. The righteous will live by faith.” Not by force of arms, not by military power, not by your ability to control the situation; none of that, but by faith.

This was not the advice most people want.  Isaiah and Habakkuk were not listened to. The Jews relied on military power and they were defeated. That’s when they remembered Isaiah’s advice and Habakkuk’s advice , and wrote it down thinking future generations might benefit. That’s why it’s in the Bible and why we read it on Sunday morning. And not just because it might have some relevance to contemporary events – though it might – but because it calls us back, every one of us, to look again at the principles by which we live. For Moses, Isaiah, Habakkuk and many other witnesses, the priority was faith in a God who works through human events toward a purpose, a God who created the world and human life and presumably therefore is able to do creative things even now and continue to work toward a purpose.

I mean, is it conceivable that a God who could create the sun and moon and stars, black holes and spiral galaxies, can’t accomplish the purpose for which it was put here in the first place? Is it conceivable that God would depend entirely on our wisdom and our power?  Why do we read the Bible?  Here we have a record of centuries of experience. From Abraham down to the apostles – some 2000 years – we have a record of human events, human history, and the record shows us again and again alien armies overwhelming God’s people. Why?  Because God was helpless to defend God’s people? No, but because God’s people had abandoned their faith, had not relied on God, had thought they knew better, and so God let them try it their way.  And it never worked. It never worked.  They lost again and again. And then they would repent.  In exile and slavery they would notice that they had been wrong and the prophet had been right and that relying on their own wisdom had not been very smart.  The only time they got it right was the one time they had no alternative. Between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea, a horde of escaping slaves had no chance at all. But God opened a path through the sea and the Egyptian army was drowned, and it turned out that Moses was right.

It’s such a hard lesson to learn and we haven’t apparently learned it yet. Wait.  See what God can do.  Wait.  Don’t imagine that human strength can control events.  Wait.  Have faith.  Actually, I can think of one possible modern parallel, a time when we did wait, and that’s the Cold War.  I think most of us who lived through that era expected the worst. There were novels and movies about nuclear disaster, visions of a future catastrophe.  And who could imagine that a power like that of the communist block would never use its army against the west, never fire a single missile, never use the bombs they had? But we waited just the same.  There were first strike proposals, generals who wanted to use atomic weapons on the North Koreans and the Vietnamese and the Russians at various times the Berlin blockade, the Cuban missile crisis, but we never did; we waited instead; waited for fifty years.  And the communist ogre collapsed like a soap bubble.  Yes, we kept our own bombs and armies at the ready.  And we fought some bloody battles in Korea and Vietnam and elsewhere some of which, in hindsight, may have been needless. But on the whole we waited.  And it was the right thing to do.

Waiting in faith does work.  I can think of lots of ways to apply that text to current events but let me just suggest one: the day after the election don’t assume that all is lost if your candidate doesn’t win. Wait.  Wait.  We’re developing a politics of the jugular and faith has no need for that. God can work through the most unlikely leaders – turn them around sometimes, bring out aspects of their thinking that surprise even them. Wait and see.  You and I don’t have a major role in shaping such events. Maybe some of us serve a term or two in the military. And yes, critically important, we elect our leaders, but I think this advice is more use to most of us at a personal level. I use a prayer based on Isaiah’s words most often when visiting someone sick: “in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength.”

A few years ago when I was serving in Canaan someone taped that prayer to a desk in the office by the computer and printer. Well, yes; wait; don’t kick the machine or hit it with your shoe.  Wait.  Wait. Maybe it will straighten itself out.  Maybe someone will come along – some ten-year old child, maybe – who knows exactly what to do.  Don’t despair.  Wait.

But how many times is waiting the best thing to do in a family crisis, a personal crisis? Didn’t your mother teach you to count to ten?  But far more than that:  when you need something more than your own strength, why not look to the source of the strength you have, turn to a power beyond your own and wait – wait prayerfully – for a way forward you may have imagined even less than the Hebrews expected the deep sea to open before them?  It’s not a passive policy.  It’s not just sitting and hoping for the best. That’s not what I’m saying, not what Habakkuk or Isaiah or Moses was saying. It’s an active reliance on the ultimate power in the universe. And that power will not necessarily provide the answer you want. You may have to pass through the Red Sea to get to the promised land. The thing the Hebrews wanted most in the world was to get back to Egypt and the slavery they had learned to cope with. God’s solution to the problem was different, different beyond all imagining – and not a walk in the park either – but through the Red Sea and through the desert and past the volcano and across the Jordan and into a land where the natives didn’t want them to be and through some centuries of further conflict and a long history of conquest, defeat, and exile.  But always the message was the same: Wait. Have faith.  Trust God. And finally God had to show us that one man with his hands nailed to the cross, the ultimate symbol of failure, could by waiting, by total faith, move through even death to life and change the world forever.

Wait.  Where we expect it least, God is able to bring life.

1 Comment

Ken SymesNovember 4th, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Christopher, Thanks for posting our message. I enjoyed reading it after I happened upon while Googling “Habakkuk” for a post that I just wrote on this same lectionary text.

I like how you drew the “Wait” message out of Habakkuk.

In my post, I quote Peter Craigie who said, “Faithfulness requires a continuation in the relationship with God, even when experience outstrips faith and the purpose in continuing to believe is called into question.”

If you wanna check it out or if anyone wants to read more from Habakkuk, please visit:
How can we be faithful in a world like this? (Habakkuk)

Thanks for posting your message,
Ken Symes

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