On Sunday night at Refuge, we read from the prophet Habakkuk, a short book tucked into latter part of the Old Testament. If you remember from the Old Testament history we’ve referred to over the last few weeks, Habakkuk likely falls in between the destruction of the two kingdoms, after the Northern Kingdom of Israel is destroyed, but before the Babylonians take the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
As we read Habakkuk, we imagine these words of grief and hope spoken as the Babylonians are closing in on the Israelites. They are threatening to destroy Jerusalem, to wipe out their people and land, and to take them back with them as prisoners to Babylon. These words from Habakkuk, then, seem to come at a time of great suffering, imminent doom, and an unknown future.
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong doing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous– therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
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.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
For 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, it will not delay.
Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.
“O Lord, how long? O Lord, how long?” cries the prophet Habakkuk. How long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Signs of war are everywhere. He can’t escape. Will it be days before their enemies destroy them? Will it be hours? The wicked prevail! They have taken charge. And justice—what a joke! They have lost. Israel and Judah will be destroyed, wiped out, their house of worship demolished. The prophet complains to God, “I cry and you don’t listen! I plea with you to save us from the violence and you will not save us?
“O Lord, how long?” O Lord, how long?” cry those standing at a prayer vigil on a rainy summer evening. Another kid shot, another death, another murder, another life cut short by violence. April 18, 2013. JeJuan Taylor Jr. 19 years old. Gathered to remember, to lament, to pray, to cry out to God. As I listened to the stories of JeJuan, or Jay-Jay as he was called, I watched as those who loved him both celebrated his life with laughter and mourn his death through weeping. But, it’s not just Jay-Jay. He’s not the only one. It seems we’re surrounded by destruction and violence. Before him,
Aubrey Lamont Parrish, 29, before her,
Brian Christopher Keys, 24, before him,
Lashaun Lamont Hunt, 18, before him,
Kinta Lamont Newman, 33,
and that’s just January-April 2013 in our city.
“O Lord, how long? O Lord, how long?” cries a 74 year-old man battling cancer. “How long must I suffer,” he wonders. How long must he endure treatments meant to save his life–treatments that seem to be taking life away? When will this battle be over…and why do we call it a battle anyway, as if one could eliminate cancer cells from sheer willpower? “It is better to die?” he questions. “Has the Lord not heard my prayers?”
“O Lord, how long? O Lord, how long?” cries a woman behind the closed door of her bathroom. She puts on make-up, but not to make her lashes look longer or her cheeks blushed. This make-up keeps things quiet, makes sure no one asks questions at work, disguises the way her husband treats her in the privacy of their own home, when he makes sure she knows who has the control in the relationship.
“O Lord, how long? O Lord, how long?” Can we believe that Habakkuk complains to God in this way? Can we believe how open and honest he is with God, even accusatory? Can we believe it? Of course we can. We look around our neighborhoods, we hear the cries of those suffering, we turn on the news, we suspect that which is kept behind closed doors. But is it alright? Can we be this honest with God? This open? Can we cry out to God from the depths of suffering and ask God, “Where on earth are you? Where were you when Israel was wiped out by the Babylonians? Where were you when some kid shot Jay-Jay in the back of the head for no apparent reason? Where were you on day 33 of chemo? Where were you when he came at her?”
Habakkuk gives us a gift. He shows us a picture of utter honesty with God, of sorrow, of lament. Habakkuk is bold. He says, “I will stand at my watch-post. I will plant my feet on this spot. I will station myself on this hill. I am not going anywhere. I will stand here and keep watch to see what you will say to me!”
And what happens? The Lord answers him.
This gift from the prophet is a stamp of approval on our own freedom to lament. When we cry out to God in suffering, we actually make a bold statement of faith. Paul picks up on this line from Habakkuk, “the righteous live by faith.” It takes faith, in midst of suffering, to believe that there is a God to whom we can cry, “O Lord, how long?” That plea is addressed, “O Lord?” Even, then, when we doubt God, or wonder if God has heard us, or where God is, when we cry, “O Lord, how long,” we proclaim that there is a God to whom we can cry.
Our Lord and Savior made a similar plea in his moment of greatest suffering. Jesus cries from his dying body, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Honest. Truthful. Accusatory. And faithful. Christ, in uttering these words of lament, anger, sadness, and despair, believes he has a father who will hear his cry.
As we lament, we lament not alone, but together. When we plant our feet on the ground, stand at the watch-post, wake each day determined for God to answer when there seems to be silence, we do so together, not alone. We support each other. We listen. We cry together. We speak on behalf of others, “O Lord,” when they can’t utter the words themselves.
When we grieve together, being honest with God and one another, we might be surprised that this grief makes room for hope. Hope that wars will end. Hope that we can stop handguns from getting into the hands of teenagers. Hope for those whose bodies are old and worn out that God will answer the promise, “Behold, I make all things new.” Hope for those who suffer in silence, that they might speak and someone will listen. Hope that thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
The book of Habakkuk closes with beautiful lines of poetry, thanksgiving that God did in fact answer this stubborn, honest prophet.
“Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom,
and there’s no produce on the vine;
though the olive crop withers,
and the fields don’t provide food;
though the sheep is cut off from the pen,
and there is no cattle in the stalls;
I will rejoice in the LORD. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance.
The LORD God is my strength.
He will set my feet like the deer.
He will let me walk upon the heights.”