Did you happen to hear the Old Testament reading from the Revised Common Lectionary on Sunday? It’s a really good reading for someone like me who spends everyday at work analyzing the daily news. Something has definitely gone wrong in this world! That’s why the Bible has a form of writing called lament, so that we may respond to injustice of the world in which we live. The lament read in a lot of churches this past Sunday was from Habakkuk 1:1-4 (Australian paraphrase by Nathan Nettleton, laughingbird.net):
My name is Habakkuk and I am a prophet. I went to God seeking an explanation for the way things are.
For crying out loud, LORD!
........How long will it be before you listen?
Why do you make me witness so much evil?
........Why am I forced to see such things?
Everywhere I look: violence and carnage;
........fighting and madness on every side.
Law and order are out the window;
........justice is a joke.
The corrupt ride roughshod over decent people,
........and twisted laws protect them as they do.
Doesn’t it sound like Habakkuk just wrote this last weekend? Doesn’t this describe our world today? As faithful people, don’t we find ourselves facing the same dilemma as Habakkuk—unanswered prayers for the healing of our society? I cannot believe that an Ontario court overturned the prostitution laws. These women are being victimized; no one grows up wanting to be hooker selling herself on the street. Overturning these laws will push society toward viewing the hiring of another person for sex to be socially acceptable. With the laws in place, and the police carrying out john raids it was clear that the hiring of a prostitute was wrong and socially unacceptable. This is but one example. I see constantly the difference that money makes in legal defence. It’s not right that people serve more jail time for lack of expensive legal representation. When the government is caught lying to the public, why do their numbers still go up in the polls? …and so much more is just not right in this world.
There is a part two to this lectionary reading from Habakkuk; it’s God’s response to the prophet’s lament, from chapter 2:1-4 (v1 from laughingbird but vv2-4 were a too Australian so I’ve used the New Living Translation):
So what have you got to say, LORD?
........I’m not budging from this spot until you answer.
I’m going to stand right here, all eyes and ears,
........until you respond to my complaint.
Then the Lord said to me,
“Write my answer plainly on tablets,
so that a runner can carry the correct message to others.
This vision is for a future time.
It describes the end, and it will be fulfilled.
If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently,
for it will surely take place.
It will not be delayed.
“Look at the proud!
They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked.
But the righteous will live by their faithfulness to God.
That vision is the new heaven and the new earth. God is going to make everything right. We know this because he’s already sent his Son, our Lord and Saviour. In him we can be made right with God, reconciled and redeemed. We know that God is working toward good in our world. There is a definite time at which the vision will be completely fulfilled.
Again, I say Habakkuk is so fresh, this message could’ve been preached last Sunday! We too live in this time between the vision of the future and its fulfillment, the already, but not yet. So how do we get by? We may cry out in lament, just like the prophet. We may mourn the wrongness of things in this world. We might get pretty frustrated at times. But what’s the answer that Habakkuk is given?
Trust the vision that God has given, a new heaven and a new earth, all things brought together in Christ, no more tears, no more pain. That day is coming. People who believe in such a future do their best to approximate it and live it now. Already we experience so much of God’s grace and redemption in our lives. In community with other believers, we can experience Jesus himself in our midst. We know that better day is coming—we experience moments of it, glimmers when God is so real and peace floods our worried souls. Our goal, says Habakkuk, is to ‘live by our faithfulness to God.’ Yes, this is the verse made famous in the New Testament by Paul and in the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther, “The just shall live by faith.” But, I dare to say that we can understand its meaning better in what we’ve just read from Habakkuk. Romans 1:17 as it is commonly preached misses the breadth of what is being described in Habakkuk 2:4. The just (the righteous) or the person in right standing (or good relationship) with God will live by their faithfulness to God. One of the preachers (and authors) who made the Old Testament come alive to me, Elizabeth Achtemeier, explained that “faithfulness here means trust, dependence, clinging to God; it means living and moving and having one’s being in him alone; it means relying on him for the breath one draws, for the direction one takes, for the decisions one makes, for the goals one sets, and for the outcome of one’s living.” In short, “faithfulness is life by God’s power rather than by one’s own.”
Habakkuk sees only two options for us, the way of self with its heartbreak and emptiness, or the way of faithfulness with its dependence on God. Life can be tough because things are so messed up all around us. Prayers of lament can help us give voice to the frustration we experience when we conclude that God is not showing up in this crisis or when we question how God could let this happen. Sometimes some of us in the church are too quick to dissuade people from raising these questions or expressing these frustrations. So Peter Craigie explored this tendency, comparing it with what he saw being expressed in the writing of Habakkuk. I think you’ll find his explanation to be very helpful:
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. The life of faith does not require reason and knowledge to be abandoned, as Habakkuk’s persistent questioning makes clear. But the life of faith may require continuing belief, even though reason and knowledge have long since been exhausted. We cannot always understand either God’s action or his seeming lack of action. Nevertheless, if the relationship is secure, we can continue in the path of faith even when the road of knowledge has become a cul-de-sac.
I believe it is this kind of faithfulness to God that Paul had in mind when he quotes Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17, “the righteous will live by faithfulness.” It fits very well with what he goes on to argue in Romans 1 about the corruption of society (hmm, kinda sounds like Habakkuk’s lament). Unfortunately Paul has been misunderstood here to the point that it sounds like he is saying something very different than the prophet Habakkuk. I can’t accept that. Paul is tapping into something here bigger than just “justification by faith” and how that is typically presented. Paul understood the Scriptures and he understood that we find ourselves like Habakkuk, trusting the vision but living in a world gone wrong. The vision is being fulfilled in Christ; we are the firstfruits; we live in the tension of the already but not yet. The world is still a mess all around us, but we also live in a kingdom of people being redeemed by the Lord. We can live abundant lives though the vision may not yet be fulfilled. The prophet and the apostle call us to trust the vision and live faithfully to God.
For more on Habakkuk, see:
Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum—Malachi Interpretation Bible Commentary (Atlanta: John Knox, 1986); quote in post from p46.
Peter Craigie, Twelve Prophets Vol. 2 The Daily Bible Study Series (Louisville: John Knox, 1985); quote in post from 93.