Dr. John Wright | Professor of Theology and Christian Scripture, Point Loma Nazarene University
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
No reading of any text stands by itself. Texts work by complex interactions with other texts. By the time the congregation will read the OT reading from Habakkuk, they will have gathered, invoked the eternally Triune God’s presence, and sang praises. Psalm 119:137-144 provides an immediate response. The readings and gather will slowly grow until the story of Zacchaeus from Luke 19:1-10. The Habakkuk reading prepares the congregation to hear, “The Son of man came to seek and to save what was lost” – itself a wonderful introduction to the Invitation to the Great Thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist.
The Habakkuk reading participates in this movement. The text allows no warm sentimentality, privatized piety that masks the atheism behind it. The text is taken up into the lectionary movement toward the story of Zacchaeus. The socio-historical origins that produced the text have embedded themselves in the text. The text arises from the Persian period; it addresses a small, poor, weak network of Judeans in trying to keep them tied to their God through gathering for economic redistribution of goods and worship in the Temple. These relationship between these origins and the fact that God has not left us to ourselves as seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus open the preacher to a narrative whereby the story of Zacchaeus witnesses to human beings to live in the reality that “The Son of man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
Archaeological studies have shown the poverty and numerical weakness of the Judeans in the Persian period. Stronger, more powerful people infringed upon them. They struggled to sustain the continuity from generation to generation, as they lost more and more of their children to marriage. In the south and west, the Edomites and others slowly infiltrated into their lands. Their rival kin, the Samaritans, remained much more deeply embedded into the wealthy networks of the Persian imperial overlord’s. The Temple in Jerusalem remained the only institution to bring the people together, to form an economic stimulus to preserve wealth from draining into the hands of the wealthy, to pass on the faith and worship of the God of Israel to the next generation. The Judeans experienced slow, deadly social and economic assimilation to the surrounding nations. Ironically, their main source of wealth most likely remained from patrons who descended from those taken into exile, centuries earlier.
Sound familiar? The complaints of the prophet activate an awareness of the world in which North American, particularly those of European descent, live. The cultural privilege afforded before is now gone. Though the President of the United States receive a Nobel Peace prize, the United States is currently engaged in fifteen wars. Economic bifurcations increase, particularly affecting the 20-35 year olds. Social structures like families, necessary for the thriving of children, become eroded. Sociologists show how the new generation is even more radically individualist and lassiz-faire about others in support of a new hedonism.
The Prophetic words speak for us. Violence and conflict; lack of economic development opportunities; individualism that leads to moral dissolution. They all go together. They all prepare for the story of Zaccheaus. The text speaks in protest against the apparent silence of God of the text. It hovers on the despair that can lead to the abandonment of life within the church when faith loses its intelligibility. We don’t lose people from our congregations because they have rebelled against God by drinking or smoking – the more powerful assemblages have long drained those of any real reason to leave a congregation. We lose or fail to have a vitality of faith that calls people into the church due to agnosticism, explicit or perhaps implicit.
The prophetic word, however, speaks for in faith that does not allow the world to disenchant. The prophet speaks in 2:1. Perhaps it is good to have the congregation identify with the prophet. Perhaps they can identify as the audience of the prophet – the prophet addresses the people, not God. The prophetic word is where the prophet’s takes upon himself the faith to continue for the sake of the people. The prophet will not let the world collapse into strict immanence.
In vv. 2-4, God speaks. The vision comes ahead. The text pushes ahead and calls for faith – not a blind, irrational or arational faith, but a faith that opens one to reason to receive the revelation that is to come. Faith opposes arrogance, pride, the conviction that humans control the world. As with Abraham and Paul, the righteous live by faith.
The Habakkuk reading cannot stand on its own. It looks forward. It looks forward in the readings today to give a commentary on the story of Zachaeus. It receives deeper commentary in Paul’s second address to the Thessalonians that develops the notion of faith.
We live now in a world that acts like faith is separated from reason. Faith is unwarranted belief; reason, exemplified by science, is warranted belief. Here the moderns and the postmoderns unite, with different construals of the possibility of reason. But this dichotomy is false – even if it feels strong amid the injustice and evil and violence of the world. Faith, trust allows reason and life to flourish. If a newborn would not trust the mother to feed her, a trust embedded in the child’s very biology, life withers and dies. The greatest scientist has to trust the instructors that formed her in the beginning of learning her craft; she has to trust the instruments, often themselves, complex, to use. Without trust, the networks turn back into themselves. They do not connect. All, including reason, implodes. All that is left is violence.
From a time where violence presses in upon a weak, poor people, the faith that the prophet sees does not deny the weakness, nor even the silence of God in the midst. God’s silence is not the same as God’s absence. But the silence of God permits the person to receive the gift of faith to open them to the future. The proud struggle to remain open, seeking to assert themselves – which feeds back into the cycles of violence against which the text speaks.
Hold the congregation to their affirmation of the text when they speak, “Thanks be to God!” Habakkuk shows how the Gospel requires the Law and the Prophet – that the Son of Man came to save those who were lost through the Gospel: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and on the third day arose from the grave according to the Scriptures, and appeared!
Thanks be to God!