Listen to sermon here: The Chutzpah of Habakkuk
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on October 30, 2016.
For the last seven years, I’ve been investigating what the Bible and other spiritual literature reveal about how humans ask questions of suffering and injustice and how God seems to respond to these questions when they are directed towards Him in prayer and lament. In general, God seems to respond with revelations of love, sometimes invitations to trust and sometimes calls to action. There’s a wonderful meme that Molly used to share with me in which a young man on a bench asks Jesus who is sitting next to him, “So why do you allow things like famine, war, suffering, disease, crime, homelessness, despair, etc. to exist in our world?” and Jesus responds, “Interesting that you should bring that up as I was about to ask you the exact same question.” Sometimes God responds to our questions of suffering in that way, with a call to action, call to participate in the alleviation of such ubiquitous pain and misery.
A few months ago, my prayers were mostly questions to God as I reflected on the deaths of some of my closest friends and serious illnesses within my own family. Although it seems somewhat trivial in comparison, I was also asking questions about next steps in my own vocation. I had some job offers and possibilities that didn’t seem quite right and I was wondering what God was up to. One day while visiting my parents in Cupertino with my wife Ashley, we prayed together for healing and guidance and I brought some of these questions to God in prayer. My past experience and my doctoral research had given me good reason to believe that God responds to our questions, even though we might not notice or understand the response at the time. After praying with my family, I glanced at my father’s bookshelf and saw a book which also seemed to see me and say to me, “Take up and read,” like the Bible basically did to St. Augustine.
It was this book by former professor of Jewish Mysticism and Ethics Abraham Joshua Heschel titled “The Prophets” about the ancient Hebrew prophets who often asked God questions and experienced divine responses. I opened the book and saw a stamp on the title page from its former owner, which included the former owner’s home address, which happened to be in San Rafael, which was interesting since I had already been working in San Rafael for several years. I then turned to the opening paragraph and read the following:
“This book is about some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived [I was hooked already]: the men whose inspiration brought the Bible into being—the men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith” (ix).
I knew right there and then that I was going to be spending some quality time with the prophets this year. The fact that this year’s Sunday lectionary includes Hebrew readings mostly from the prophets inspired me to make these “disturbing people” the focus of the program year for the Marin Episcopal Youth Group. Our theme is “Sharpening our Prophetic Edge” and we have been reading from the prophets and learning about what it means to be “prophetic” in today’s world.
Our reading from the Prophets is from the book of Habakkuk and tonight the youth group will likely read the whole book, which is only three chapters long and I encourage you to read it as well – you’ve already heard about one fifth of it. Habakkuk is one of the twelve minor prophets who likely lived in Jerusalem during the last decades before the Babylonian invasion of the southern Kingdom of Israel (Judah) in the 6th century BCE. A fun fact about Habakkuk that is appropriate for this time of year is that in the 15th century, Renaissance artist Donatello sculpted a famous statue of the prophet, which he referred to lovingly as Lo Zuccone, which is Italian for “Pumpkin head” (because his head somewhat resembles a pumpkin or jack-o-lantern). The statue is so realistic that it is said that while Donatello was carving the statue, he shouted “Speak to me! Speak to me!” So for Donatello, Habakkuk was a kind of pumpkin-headed Frankenstein monster.
Although Habakkuk probably never spoke to Donatello, he did indeed speak to God. And that is part of what makes him so unique among the Hebrew prophets. Most of the prophets spoke to the people on God’s behalf, but Habakkuk spoke to God on the people’s behalf. In Habakkuk’s day, the people of Judah suffered under corrupt leaders who committed disturbing acts of injustice and idolatry, including child sacrifice. Habakkuk’s prophetic pronouncement is not to the people but to God. As we read, he asks, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you not listen? Why are you not saving the innocent from the violence of the wicked? Why do you allow justice to be perverted?” This is the bold chutzpah of Habakkuk, whose prayers are questions, charged with confusion, frustration and even anger and accusation. And the amazing grace is that God responds to his questions. In fact, the whole book of Habakkuk is a back-and-forth dialogue and argument with the divine, which is fitting because Habakkuk’s name means “wrestler.” You might remember the name of the river that Jacob crossed before wrestling with God: Jabbok, which means “wrestling.” Habakkuk is another form of that Hebrew word.
God initially responds to the wrestling prophet’s questions by describing how he will execute judgment against the corrupt leaders of Judah by using the rampaging violence of the even more corrupt leaders of Babylon. Habakkuk, however, does not like this response at all and, because he is a prophet he has the wherewithal and chutzpah to push back and say, “Hold on! Wait a minute. The leaders of Judah are bad, but not as bad as the leaders of Babylon. God, are you telling me that we only have two options for leadership: one that is corrupt and another that is basically a self-obsessed bully on a violent rampage?” Habakkuk’s question to God might resonate with many of us in the US as the presidential election approaches. Are these the only options? God, where are you in all of this?
And so once again, Habakkuk lodges his questions and complaints against God, asking,
“How can you be a good and loving God in the midst of all this violence?” And that is the question Habakkuk asks right before the second part of our reading, when he says, “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” (2:1-2). Just as Zacchaeus climbs up the sycamore tree to see what this Jesus guy is all about so too does Habakkuk climb up the rampart to see what God is all about and how God will respond when consistently confronted with the prophet’s bold questions.
And God responds indeed, once again. And this time God responds with revelations of love and invitations to trust, invitations to “live by faith.” We don’t know all the details of this particular vision, but we do know it was profoundly transformative for the prophet. Heschel writes, “Habakkuk’s vision remains unknown to us. Its content is not put into words. It clearly was a vision of redemption at the end of day. There is an answer to Habakkuk’s question. It is an answer, not in terms of thought, but in terms of events. God’s answer will happen, but it cannot be spelled out in words. The answer will surely come; ‘if it seem slow, wait for it.’ True, the interim is hard to bear; the righteous one is horrified by what he sees. To this the great answer is given: ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ It is an answer, not in terms of thought, but in terms of existence. Prophetic faith is trust in Him, in Whose presence stillness is a form of understanding” (143).
God seems to respond to Habakkuk’s questions the way he responds to the similarly bold questions of the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, who hears God say, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Powerful words of hope for us during this election season.
We know that God’s response to Habakkuk was transformative for the prophet because he concludes his book with a magnificent prayer and these poetic words of faith:
“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
so that I can walk freely upon the heights.”
God responds to the chutzpah of Habakkuk by giving him faith and insight to thrive at new spiritual heights.
And God responded to my own questions through this book by Heschel (in more ways than one). As I was asking God for insight about next steps in my vocation, this book showed up, I believe, as part of God’s response. As I was revisiting the book a few days ago in preparation for this sermon, I looked again at the stamp of its former owner and realized that, through this book, God had been pointing me to this community and to this next beautiful season in my vocation, before Redeemer was even on my radar. This book, which I saw a few months ago on my father’s bookshelf in Cupertino, which he bought at a used bookstore several years ago, was initially owned by a man named “Jeremy Blodgett,” beloved former vicar of this parish.
God responds to our questions in surprising and sometimes playful ways, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. So as we enter tomorrow into this Fall Triduum of All Hallow’s Eve, All Hallow’s Day and All Souls Day, I invite us to bring our questions to God in prayer or lament as we remember those loved ones whom we have lost, as the nights become darker and longer. And may we have the chutzpah to climb atop the ramparts like Habakkuk or the sycamore tree like Zacchaeus and allow ourselves to be transformed by God’s loving response. Amen.