Sunday, November 30, 2014

How Long? A Sermon for Advent 1 on Habakkuk

Scripture can be found here....

First: this, from the young Somali/ British poet, Warsan Shire:

“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered


Oh Lord, how long?

Today we are hearing the words of a little heard, little-known prophet, but a prophet sometimes considered dangerous, nonetheless. Just one example: In 1940 a church newspaper in Switzerland published an article titled “Word on the [Current] Situation,” about the political realities of life in Europe as the Nazi regime was on the rise. The article included excerpts from Habakkuk. Military censors promptly banned the newspaper. Habakkuk can be a dangerous prophet.[i]

He is speaking here of a “Current Situation” that existed about 2600 years ago. The kingdom of Israel was gone—ten tribes, obliterated, almost without a trace, by the Assyrian Empire. And the kingdom of Judah, which contained the holy city Jerusalem, was on the chopping block as the Babylonian Empire gained strength and size.

Habakkuk called it a time of “destruction and violence, strife and contention.” Justice, he said, did not prevail.

It is hard to hear these words without thinking of our own “current situation.” This is what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews meant when he/ she wrote,

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. ~Hebrews 4:12

The Word of God keeps up. It is capable of speaking to us from the shadowy recesses of millennia past, and yet to remain as absolutely fresh and relevant as the morning paper. Or maybe, your Twitter feed.

So we hear this word in the context of the news of the week—Ferguson, Missouri. Or Cairo, Egypt. Or even the riots that have become a part of the annual Black Friday shopping spree—this year, the toll is 9 killed, 96 injured. “Destruction and violence, strife and contention.”

At the same time, we hear this living and active Word of God in the context of all this (gesturing to the partially decorated sanctuary, the Advent wreath, the Jesse Tree). Advent. A word that means, “It’s coming. It’s approaching. It’s dawning.” A word that whispers, wait. Just a bit. This may take some time.

It all comes back to time. Advent is a particular time. But what does that mean, exactly?

The ancient Greeks had two words for time. Chronos, which refers to measured time, minutes, seconds, days, the months on a calendar. We can measure Advent like that—it begins today, and it ends on Christmas Eve. That’s 25 days, more or less.

But then there’s kairos time. Kairos means, the right time, the appointed time. One example: this season of Advent, in the way in which it circles back, again and again each year, just when we need it. Advent asks us to pause, to stop, to listen intently for what God is trying to say to us, not just about the news of the day or week, but about the ultimate nature of reality, about God’s reality and intention. Advent asks us to ask the question: For what is it God’s appointed time right now? Or, perhaps: How will we know when it’s God’s appointed time?

The prophet complains bitterly to God in the first chapter—cries out in protest, and, honestly, in frustration. How long, God, do we have to keep clamoring for your attention? How long will destruction and violence, strife and contention have their way with us?

Habakkuk reports God’s answer in chapter 2:

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.  ~Habakkuk 2:2b-3

The answer is: I meant what I said. Tell the people. Put it on a billboard. But you may have to wait.

I hate waiting. I don’t want to wait. I was that kid in the car, saying to my poor parents, “Are we there yet?” I was that kid in high school, saying to my teacher, “Can’t you tell me NOW what I got on the test?” Even now… the worst thing you can say to me, pretty much, is “We need to have a talk, but not now. Later.” That is the way to drive me right over the edge. I want to know now. I hate waiting.

And, truly, when it comes to those things that speak of injustice, or violence, or despair, or the breakdown of society… I don’t have a lot of patience to wait for these things to get better. I hate waiting, especially when I believe people are being harmed. Waiting feels irresponsible. I want things to get better, and I want them to get better right now.

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls… though rich and poor are farther apart than ever, and the death toll from Syria doesn’t even make the front page any more (191,000 and counting), though Ebola might …Though things are not as they should be, yet, things are as they often are, right before they get better. We are still asked to cling to the truth of God’s promise that it is coming. As Advent tells us. It is not coming according to my personal stopwatch or to assuage my lack of patience. It is coming at God’s appointed time.

Some of you are aware that I spent my study leave trying out, as a complete beginner, the practice of contemplative prayer. Silence does not come naturally to me; I’m sure that’s not a shock to anyone who knows me even slightly. But contemplative prayer is not like my worst imaginings, hours and hours of being locked away. All it asks of us, as beginners is a small daily investment in finding silence, which will allow us, eventually, to behold God in all things. Carl McColman writes:

Consider this: beholding God in everything is our natural state of being. So the trick it to unlearn all the ways we keep ourselves from beholding God. And that has a lot to do with learning how to shut up or at least slow down the internal chatter and commentary—the monkey mind that keeps intruding on all your efforts to be silent.[ii]

I don’t know what Habakkuk’s prayer life was like. But I believe that he must have created a spacious enough silence that he was able to behold the intention of God, even as destruction swirled around him. And he faithfully reports what each of us can do: We can voice our complaints to God, in the strongest possible terms. Which is another way of saying, we can pray for all those places and situations where we see so clearly the need for a savior. And we can listen for God’s response, if we can quiet ourselves, just a bit. We can use our lovely and powerful Advent devotional guide. And we emulate the prophet’s combination of hopeful waiting and activism—after all, he puts God’s vision on a sign, for all to see.

Another fragment poem for you, this one from Steve Garnaas-Holmes:

…The only doorbuster is one that set you free long ago.
There are no long lines here, no rush,
but solitude and silence and a purposeful slowing,
and the deepening of your longings.
There are throngs—find your place among them—
who sit and wait, who know each other by their songs,
exiles bound by a memory that weaves all geography,
prisoners waiting, dreamers who dare to yearn
for what others have abandoned
for the love of good deals and shiny things.
Sit in stillness and wait with them,
cry out and march with them, work quietly with them.
Perfect your hope for the Advent of the Loving One,
the light that spills from divine hands,
the new world that blossoms where we live.
Enter the breathing darkness, live in the hoping world,
let your eyes be opened.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Juliana Claassens, “Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19,” Working Preacher Narrative Lectionary for November 30, 2014,
[ii] Carl McColman, Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc., 2013), 103.

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