A sermon preached on a snowy first Sunday of Advent at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Dec 2, 2018
Habakkuk 1: 1-7, 2:1-4, 3:17-19
I’m gonna bet that for many of you, this is the first sermon you’ve heard on the book of Habakkuk. It is certainly the first sermon I’ve ever preached on the book. Habakkuk is one of the prophets tucked away toward the end of the Old Testament section of the bible, between your favorites Nahum and Zephaniah.
Habakkuk is the biblical author we know the least about. Because of reference to the Chaldeans, people have a guess about when he might have written, and a guess that he wrote from Jerusalem. But we don’t know who he was, or who his favorite baseball team is, or where he was born. Scholars aren’t even sure what his name means. It’s not a Hebrew word, but it might be a variation of a Hebrew word, or an Akkadian name for a plant.
Coincidentally, today is his feast day in the Orthodox Church.
Only one photo of him exists:
This short book of prophecy, however, is important. Paul cites Habakkuk as he develops his understanding of Christian faith. In both the book of Romans and Galatians, Paul speaks of “the righteous shall live by faith”.
This book of prophecy has also been declared dangerous and forbidden at moments in history. “Ulrike Bail writes that in 1940, a church newspaper in Basel Switzerland published a column under the title: “Word on the (Current) Situation” that included an excerpt from the book Habakkuk. The military censors banned the newspaper because they viewed this text as a critique of the Nazi regime of the time.”
While Habakkuk hadn’t heard of the horrors of the Nazis when he wrote his prophecy 2,500 or so years ago, the Nazis weren’t wrong. This book is a critique of people who pervert justice, revel in violence, and declare their “own might is their god” (1:11).
This book speaks against strongmen of any age, but unfortunately for those of us who don’t like strongmen, it doesn’t offer quick relief.
The prophet cries to God:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?
And God replies:
“For there is still a vision for the appointed time…
if it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.”
God will deliver. In God’s time.
God is aware of our tendency to say, “we are tired of waiting. Maybe we can just fix this ourselves.”
To that, God replies:
‘Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.’
And as we wait, we continue to cry out to God as Habakkuk does:
Why do you make me see wrong doing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
Advent is a season of preparation. And a season of waiting.
And I don’t know about you, but I don’t wait well. I get impatient. I get weary. I want problems fixed. NOW.
My awareness of my inability to fix the entire world helps me temper my expectations, somewhat. On my good days.
But I don’t like the fact that Habakkuk would recognize our world today, still with people acting out of greed, and fear, and selfish concern.
It’s easy to grow weary as we wait.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the bad news, and the sheer volume of human suffering we see each day, and decide, “it’s too much. I can’t pay attention anymore.”
Worse than not paying attention, some people give up hope altogether.
Statistics out recently show that life expectancy in the US has reduced in recent years, and entirely from preventable conditions. 70,000 people died of drug overdoses last year in our country, the highest yearly number in our history. We have an opioid addiction epidemic in this country. Suicide rates are up too, especially among young people. Despair contributes to both of those tragedies.
Kathryn McHugh, from Harvard Medical School told NPR:
”We’re seeing the drop in life expectancy not because we’re hitting a cap [for lifespans of] people in their 80s. We’re seeing a drop in life expectancy because people are dying in their 20s [and] 30s,”.
It is hard to be people called to hope when despair is so visible.
Our weariness, our inability to stay focused on the things that matter to us, seems to also feed our leaders misbehavior.
John Calvin, in his commentary on Habakkuk, confirms the connection between tyrants and our weariness. He wrote:
“Tyrants and their cruelty cannot endure without great weariness and sorrow …When anyone disturbs the whole world by his ambition and avarice, or everywhere commits plunders, or oppresses miserable nations, when he distresses the innocent, all cry out, How long? And this cry, proceeding as it does from the feeling of nature and the dictate of justice, is at length heard by the Lord … This confusion of order and justice is not to be endured.”
And so we stand at our watch posts, as the prophet says, in an active pose of waiting for God, as an antidote to our weariness. Righteous people live by faith, as Habakkuk writes, and that faith is nurtured in praise and observant watching, crying out “how long, O Lord”.
Advent waiting is not passive waiting, or hiding in a room, binge watching TV until the situation improves. Advent waiting is preparation. It is, day by day, living lives that point the way to God and that call on God to come closer.
Habakkuk prays to God in chapter 3 and says, “I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our own time, revive it; in our own time, make it known”.
So what is the antidote to our weariness and exhaustion, for those of us who want to live by faith?
David Whyte is one of my favorite writers and poets. He tells a story of a conversation between him and his friend, Brother David Steindl-Rast.
“Brother David, speak to me of exhaustion. Tell me about exhaustion.”
And then he said a life-changing thing. “You know,” he said, “the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest.”
“What is it then?”
“The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness. You’re so exhausted because you can’t be wholehearted at what you’re doing.”
That advice rings true for me. When my heart gets parceled out in little pieces for every bit of bad news, I’m weary and exhausted.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be heartbroken by earthquakes, and wildfires, and tear gas, and mass shootings, and climate change, and and and…..
But in each moment, are we giving our whole heart, our attention, our care, to what is before us?
A few weeks ago, Boise Presbytery hosted the Covenant Network Board to do some workshops and presentations at the presbytery meeting. As moderator of that board, it was a busy weekend for me. Hosting my friends from the board for our meeting, plus the event, plus presbytery, plus a fundraising reception, plus worship here. It was a lot.
And at the end of it, sure I was tired. But I wasn’t weary. My whole heart was engaged in the work I love, of building a church as generous and just as God’s grace. I was energized and alive.
The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.
As we enter this season of Advent, I invite us to wait, to prepare, and to do so wholeheartedly. Whatever tasks you find yourself with each day, give your full attention to them.
For example, if you’re making cookies for the PW gathering this week that will be taken over to the school, you can be distracted and thinking about all of the other things you should/could/would be doing. OR you can give your whole self to to the task of cookies, thinking about, and praying for, the teachers and staff who will be receiving your gift.
If you’re shoveling snow, you can be distracted and wishing you had bought a place in Arizona. OR you can recognize that the paths you’re shoveling will keep strangers safe as they walk the streets.
The same work gets done in either case. But your heart is in a different place.
The enormity of the world’s grief is a big burden to bear. And so I say a prayer of thanks each morning that God does not require that of me. God will bear that weight. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie”, says Habakkuk.
Advent is both a time of looking forward to God’s future deliverance, and a remembering of the time God came down to earth as a child, born to parents who would become refugees, fleeing their home country to escape from tyrants, in search of safety in another land. God wholeheartedly entered the trials and the joys of human existence.
And while we don’t have to carry the enormity of the world’s grief, we are called to bring our whole hearts to journey with people through their despair, showing them the way to hope. As we seek to be the ‘righteous who live by their faith’, may we do it in ways big and small—Christmas dinners for hungry people, hats and gloves offered to people weathering the cold, calls to our congress members about issues that matter to us, acts of kindness to strangers.
Let us prepare our wholehearted selves to welcome God into our lives and our world.
Mary Oliver, in her poem, “Making the House Ready for the Lord”, speaks of Advent waiting this way:
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but still nothing is as shining as it should be for you.
Under the sink, for example, is an uproar of mice—
it is the season of their many children.
What shall I do?
And under the eaves and through the walls
the squirrels have gnawed their ragged entrances—
but it is the season
when they need shelter,
so what shall I do?
And the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard while
the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do?
Beautiful is the new snow falling in the yard
and the fox who is staring boldly up the path, to the door.
And still I believe you will come, Lord:
you will, when I speak to the fox the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering
sea-goose, know that really I am speaking to you whenever I say, as I do
all morning and afternoon:
Come in, Come in.