How Long Before Things Get Better?

How long O Lord? How long? How much longer will this recession last? How much longer will I have to watch my retirement account fritter away? How much longer until I can get a job? How much longer until I can get a job with health insurance that will cover my children? How much longer we will as a society tolerate incivility from those running for public office? How much longer will every commercial on television be a political attack ad? How much longer will the bullies torment me in school and out of school? How much longer will people keep saying that God doesn't love everybody? How long O Lord? How long?

How long O Lord? How long? Shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry out to you that there is violence in your world, in my life, in our homes, in our neighborhoods and you will not save us from each other or save us from ourselves? How long O Lord? How long?

Habakkuk's lament translates easily into our time and our concerns in spite of the twenty-six hundred year gap between his time and ours. How long O Lord? How long? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? God, I don't know if you're paying attention but the world is going to hell. How can you just sit back and watch? I can't believe I've seen the things I've seen: Violence against women and children. Women who kill their own children. Genocide. Bully-cide. Neglect and abandonment of the hungry and the poor in this country and around the world. Sectarian fighting in the church.

Destruction and strife are before me; strife and contention arise. American politics brings out the worst in people. All day long my eyes and ears are assailed by hateful words. Meanwhile it seems like the bonds of civility, respect, and interdependence that have strengthened religious and civil society have crumbled and decayed. If I turn away from the elections there is the conflict in the diocese. Destruction and strife are before me; strife and contention arise.

The law, the Torah, God's word, becomes numb, frozen and justice never wins the day. The wicked surround the righteous; that is why justice is perverted. Habakkuk has got the world all figured out and he is telling God all about it. Because somebody should really tell God. Just in case God isn't paying attention. How could God possibly be paying attention? The world wouldn't be in the shape it's in if God were paying attention, would it? Habakkuk's lament is my lament and it may be yours as well. How much longer Lord, will the world be like this? How much longer until things get better?

And then there are our even more personal laments. We all have grief and sorrow; losses and disappointments; heartaches and heartbreaks. There are some borne by families; but there are some laments that are known to none but God, the ones that are situated so deeply in our hearts that we cannot share them. How long O Lord? How long? How long before you hear my prayer? How long before you answer my prayer? How long before you heal my hurt? How long O Lord? How long?

The first chapter of Habakkuk is a conversation between him and God - and that is all that prayer is, conversation with God. The lectionary framers have cut out God's response to Habakkuk. Don't you want to know what God says to Habakkuk's cry of "How long O Lord"?

God speaks to Habakkuk and to us in verses 5-11:

5 Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded!

For a work is being done in your days

that you would not believe if you were told.

6 For I am rousing the Chaldeans,

that fierce and impetuous nation,

who march through the breadth of the earth

to seize dwellings not their own.

7 Dread and fearsome are they;

their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.

8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,

more menacing than wolves at dusk; their horses charge.

Their horsemen come from far away;

they fly like an eagle swift to devour.

9 They all come for violence, with faces pressing forward;

they gather captives like sand.

10 At monarchs they scoff, and of rulers they make sport.

They laugh at every fortress, and heap up earth to take it.

11 Then they sweep by like the wind;

they transgress and become guilty; their own might is their god!

God tells Habakkuk that God is using the very agents of violence for God's own purposes. Indeed, that is one of the theological streams of the scriptures; that God is behind everything that happens good or evil. Far from being uninvolved or unaware, God tells Habakkuk that not one of his concerns has escaped divine notice. Not only is God paying attention, God is actively involved. God has a plan and has put that plan into motion. God also tells Habakkuk that he cannot understand what God is doing and the even if God had told him the plan, he wouldn't have believed it.

What I love about God's response is that God listens to Habakkuk and takes him seriously. God is not offended by Habakkuk's rage and indignation or by his questions. God's feelings are not hurt because Habakkuk screams and yells. God is big enough to take it. Habakkuk reminds me of Job - not the patient one who is largely a literary contrivance - but the one who sued God and tried to serve God a subpoena so that God would have to tell him why Job lost everything, not just his wealth but his health but even the lives of his children. In both cases God listens, God responds, God is there.

Amid the inexplicable and incomprehensible, God is there. God is Immanu-el, with us in all things; by night and by day, in joy and in sorrow, in hope and disappointment, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, when spouses die and when spouses leave, when you're alone in life and lonely in the night, through family strife and broken relationships. God was Immanu-El for Habakkuk as God is Immanu-El for us. God has revealed Godself as God-With-Us in the living and dying, teaching and serving witness of Jesus of Nazareth. And God remains with us in this world at this very moment in Christ Jesus, in and through the Church and in and through the Sacraments. God is with us.

And God is not merely there and disinterested. God is deeply, intimately involved in the affairs of our hearts and our lives. God converses with Habakkuk and God converses with us. Some may think of visions or the audible voice of God as belonging to a bygone age, to saints or perhaps the insane. But I believe that Good still speaks - in dreams and visions, in our hearts and through other people and through the scriptures.

The first part of Habakkuk's next response is also missing from the lectionary:

Habakkuk 1:12 Are you not from before time?

Eternal One my God, my Holy One, you shall not die.

Righteous One, you have marked them for justice;

and you, O Rock, have set a verdict in stone.

Habakkuk is immediately reminded of the difference between himself and God: God is holy and eternal, wholly righteous and just in all things. God is a righteous judge, the only truly righteous judge. And God will judge the nations and each soul in them, doing justice for each and every person. God is in control. Yet Habakkuk still has questions. I would and I do. Even though he has had this experience of God, this conversation with God, Habakkuk still has questions about the troubles of the world.

If you've ever had an experience where you felt that you had heard directly from God, then you perhaps understand why Habakkuk pressed his point. Moments of grace and clarity are healing and transformational - but they don't answer every question in the human heart. So Habakkuk continued:

13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,

and you cannot look on wrongdoing;

why do you look on the treacherous,

and are why are you silent

when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?

As Habakkuk reflects on the righteousness of God he decides to sit back and watch what God will do to put the world to rights. He says to himself:

Habakkuk 2:1 I will stand at my watchpost,

and station myself on the rampart;

I will keep watch to see what God will say to me,

and what God will answer concerning my complaint.

Habakkuk's posture is one of trust. In his railings about the state of the world he rails to God about God. His relationship with God can bear the pain, frustration and anger. God is not so dependent on our praise that God cannot bear our laments. Habakkuk waits for God to speak, expects God to speak. He believes that God cares enough about him and his concerns to respond to him. He knows that God is not uncaring or disinterested.

And God speaks again to Habakkuk:

2 Then the Holy One answered me and said:

Write the vision; make it plain on tablets,

so that a runner may read it.

3 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.

God has a vision of the world's restoration and healing. God has a plan. God's vision is one of healing and restoration. It is on the way. It may seem that it takes too long by our standards. But God promises that God's vision of the world will come to pass. God has spoken in the scriptures of a peace that human beings cannot understand, covering us, healing us and the world we have broken and remade in our own image. God has spoken in the scriptures of healing each heart and wiping every tear from every eye.

For rest of the chapter God shows Habakkuk what divine justice looks like. None shall escape. All are accountable. And the questioning prophet is stunned into silence saying:

2:20 The Holy One of Old is in God's holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before God!

But Habakkuk didn't keep silent for long. He composed a psalm that now concludes his book. He even specifies a musical setting for his psalm, although no one knows now what a shiggion is, that's how you would play Habakkuk's psalm.

3:2 Holy One, I have heard of your renown,

and I stand in awe, Sovereign One, of your work.

In our own time revive it; in our own time make it known;

in wrath may you remember mercy.

The thing is, nothing has changed. Nothing external that is. The epidemic of violence that propelled Habakkuk to demand God's intervention had not yet been stayed. Yet much had changed for Habakkuk. His perspective changed. His vision was now shaped by God's vision. He saw more than what was wrong with he world. He could see the right in the world, pervading the world, changing the world, restoring the world, healing the world.

Habakkuk was even moved to pray that God would be merciful as God meted out the justice that was sure to come to those who abused and misused the children of God. I must confess that as much as I want God to be merciful to me, I don't always pray for God's mercy to those hurt me. I still have some growing and healing to do.

The concluding psalm of Habakkuk ends with some of the most beautiful and cherished verses in the scriptures:

3:17 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 Holy One of Old;

I will exult in the God of my salvation.

19 The One God, the Lord, is my strength;

God makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

and makes me tread upon the heights.

Habakkuk began with a lament: How long O Lord? How long? Shall I cry for help and you will not listen? How long O Lord? How long? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? How long O Lord? How long? Destruction and strife are before me; strife and contention arise. How long O Lord? How long?

But Habakkuk ends with a hymn of praise: Even though the economy has not yet turned around. Even though the fruit tree are barren, the fields are laid waste and the vines have been plucked bare, I will praise the One who made me. Even though the jobs market has not rebounded - the lack of herds and flocks meant no shepherding jobs, no milk and no meat - even though I will still praise God. For it is God who saves me. It is God who has saved my people in the past. It is God who will save us in the days to come. In spite of the way things are I can rejoice because of who I know God is. I will praise my God. Won't you sing with me? Habakkuk's last words are one more set of musical directions: Musicians, (string section), hit it!