A Sermon preached by The Revd Ken Masters at Pen Selwood on the 16th Sunday after Trinity, 2nd October 2022:
Readings: Habakkuk 11-4; 21-4; Luke 175-10
The first Reading was from the prophet Habakkuk. Like me, you may wonder, who was Habakkuk? The short answer is: we know very little about him.
The longer answer is that many scholars say that Habakkuk was ‘a Judaean prophet who probably resided in Jerusalem’ [Hastings, p.355] about the year 600 bc. This was during the turbulent time following the defeat and death of king Josiah of Judah at Megiddo (609 bc) and the Assyrian Empire’s defeat at the hands of the newly powerful Nebuchadrezzar and his Babylonian Empire. It was before the first deportation of Jews to Babylonia in 597 and the fall of Jerusalem with the second deportation in 587. [Anderson, p.604f.] During this in-between time in Judah the nation’s hold on ethical and religious standards seemed to fall apart
However, some scholars have suggested the ‘other possibility was that the enemy referred to [in Habakkuk] was the army of Alexander the Great … The commentary found [in the Dead Sea Scrolls] at Qumran would seem to support [that], which would of course date the prophecy [two and a half centuries later]. The prophet’s words would then become an anxious concern for the fate of the Israelite community and its neighbours, as Alexander’s army advanced into the Levant.’ [Neil, p.299.]
All that we know about Habakkuk – apart from a few unreliable legends – is what he revealed in 3 brief chapters. His short book was authorised as part of the Hebrew Scriptures – and so later as part of the Christian Bible. And the word of God may speak to us through the prophecies of Habakkuk.
Just as Job raised the enduring question of why God allows the innocent to suffer, so Habakkuk raised the perennial question of why God allows oppression and violence to succeed. As we heard: ‘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 there’s his awareness, two verses later: ‘So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgement comes forth perverted.’
But Habakkuk didn’t only raise the question, he also suggested what we could do. Keep a look-out. In his words, ‘I will stand at my watch-post, 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.’ So, we are to keep watching, asking questions, and being attentive to God’s answer. Again, in Habakkuk’s words, ‘For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.’ And realising our usual human impatience, he warns: ‘If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.’ We are to wait as patiently as we can for the end of the current problems. Then, he points to the essential attitude: ‘the righteous live by their faith’ or as the footnote in the Bible suggests as an alternative translation – ‘the righteous live by their faithfulness’. All of which, I think, is simply summed up in the old chorus: ‘Trust and obey, for there’s no other way … but to trust and obey.’ [HON 503]
That was how the prophet Habakkuk faced the violence and evils of his time – whether of invading Babylonian or Greek armies. Looking back at more recent history, his approach can be seen to apply time and time again when there has been violent change and oppressive regimes, lawlessness and injustice. Take, as two examples, Hitler and Pol Pot. Habakkuk’s prophecy applies over and over again, that God’s children ‘must trust in God’s justice though the divine machinery sometimes seems to be at a standstill.’ [Neil]
And what of today? The most blatant violation of world peace has been Putin’s cruel invasion of Ukraine. Western nations watched this happen and some have given military, financial and refuge help to the people of Ukraine. We continue to watch what happens – and we cry out at the injustice. But with nuclear weapons available, we must be ever more careful not to make matters even worse. The day will come when Putin will get his come-uppance. So, all that can be done must be done – and we wait, praying and praying, and trusting in the justice and mercy of God for a humane and peaceful outcome.
Habakkuk’s prophecy and approach may be applied to other aspects of life in which there are injustice, violence, and wrongdoing. Human beings always have a tendency to divide their approach between activity or passivity, between involvement or detachment. I may be reading in my own interpretation, but I think Habakkuk was suggesting a fusion. We watch, trying to see the situation through God’s eyes; we actively do what we believe God calls us to do; and we wait as trustingly as we can for God’s justice and mercy to come.
It’s all underpinned by The Prayer of trust that our Lord gave to us: ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ And we echo the conclusion: For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, p.355
B W Anderson, The Living World of the Old Testament, p.604f.
William Neil, One Volume Bible Commentary, p.299
D N Freedman (Ed), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol 3, pp 1-6