30 November 2014

Active Waiting

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:7-19

First Sunday in Advent/ 30th November 2014

It’s a dangerous book, Habakkuk. Written at an enormously traumatic time in Israel’s history.  In years before its writing, the mighty Assyrian army destroyed one city after the other, brutally murdering countless people.  And not long after Habakkuk was written, the Babylonians, under King Nebuchadnezzar, attacked Jerusalem three times, sending the leaders and skilled citizens into exile.  Finally, in 587 BCE—one of the most significant years in ancient history, witnessing one of the most critical events in the history of the Israelites—the city of Jerusalem was conquered and the temple, the dwelling place of Yahweh, completely destroyed.  The landscape was covered in violence.

The prophet Habakkuk—with the sensitivity, vision, and the voice of a poet—gives expression to the plight of God’s people.  He hears the cries of suffering.  He witnesses the anger and frustration and fear in the streets.  All that they considered “normal,” all that they considered safe and secure and even sacred, is now lost.  He sees desolation and destruction all around him.  He searches with God’s people for justice, but sees none.  He prays to God for help, but God is nowhere to be found.  Prayer after prayer ascends to the heavens and the response is sheer silence.

“O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen, and you will not listen?”  How long shall I cry to “Violence!” [–violence is all around us—] “and you will not save?” (Hab. 1:2).  Why, O LORD?  The prophet holds God accountable, “Why do you make see wrongdoing and look at trouble?  Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contentions arise” (Hab. 1:3).  Even the things we used to count on, a reliance on the courts of law and justice to order society and help save a people have now gone into exile.  “So the law becomes slack,” Habakkuk writes,” and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted” (Hab. 1:4).  The world has become unhinged from its axis and swirls off into chaos.

I chose this text for the first Sunday in Advent several weeks ago, before the grand jury made its decision last week in Ferguson, MO.  It’s not the traditional lectionary reading for today; it’s the selection from the Narrative Lectionary. Yet, it speaks to where we are as a nation.  I chose it, most significantly, because it says something about waiting and Advent is, of course, all about waiting—waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus, waiting for Jesus’ final return, waiting for that day the English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) saw in a vision and later wrote, “And all shall be well, and all shall be well and every many of thing shall be well.”[1]

That’s the promise. But how long does one wait?  It’s easy to wait when everything is going our way, when life is good and there are plenty of things to distract us from all the injustices in the world. It’s easy to wait when the balance of justice weighs in your favor, serves your purposes and ends, satisfies your needs for food, shelter, employment, safety.  It’s easy to wait for that better day when most days are lived from a position of privilege or power or influence. 

It’s another thing entirely to wait when you feel like everything is against you, when you feel like you can never get ahead no matter how hard you strive, when life is not so good and you have nothing to distract you from all the injustices in the world—because you wake up every day surrounded by injustice.  It’s another thing entirely to wait when the balance of justice is weighing against you, obstructs your purposes and ends and hinders your dreams, impedes your ability to eat three meals a day, have a warm bed, a job that pays the bills or to know what it feels like to go to sleep feeling safe.  What does it feel like to wait without privilege, power, security, or influence?

This is one of the reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Even though this text has become part of the “scripture” of American history (and rightly so), it’s often overlooked (and sometimes omitted from various versions of the letter itself) that the letter was addressed to clergy.  King was exasperated by religious leaders—Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish leaders of white congregations— who all begged King to slow down his movement, who said he was moving too fast, expecting too much.  King wrote in his letter that, "justice too long delayed is justice denied."[2] 

King didn’t come up with this phrase. It’s a vision that has its origins in scripture. Justice delayed is justice denied.  In the Mishnah, a Jewish commentary on scripture itself, written around the first century CE, we find these words: "Our Rabbis taught: ...The sword comes into the world, because of justice delayed and justice denied...."[3] The Quaker William Penn (164-1718) said, "to delay Justice is Injustice."

How can you say to someone who is bearing the weight of injustice, the victim of injustice, to slow down?  Wait.  Put yourself in their shoes.  How does it feel to hear that?  Have you ever been the victim of injustice?  Have you ever felt the weight of privilege or power bearing down on you?  “How long, O Lord?  How long will I cry for help, and you will not listen?” When has that been your cry?  When have you cried “how long”?  If you’ve never made this cry, then at least name the children or adults who have made it their cry and continue to make that cry.  Put yourself in their shoes.

It’s easy to understand why people become impatient and refuse to wait and take matters into their own hands, force something to happen, anything to happen, often in anger and frustration.  These are actions that in the end are counterproductive, that hurt the cause, which will probably further hinder justice.  It’s the sick fruit that frustrated justice tends to produce.

And yet scripture tells us to wait.  Eventually Yahweh speaks to Habakkuk and says, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it” (Hab. 2:2).  Even in the midst of all your activity and hustle and bustle, look and see the vision that God has placed before you.  Don’t miss it!  “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, it does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3).  Wait for it.

There are, at least, two different types of waiting. There’s passive waiting and there’s active waiting.

Passive waiting is a kind of resignation or indifference.  “I can’t do anything about it, so why try.”  I’ll just sit here and wait for things to change.  The bus will arrive eventually, it always does, so relax, don’t stress.

Active waiting is different. We’re waiting, but never indifferent. We’re engaged, alert, expectant, vigilant, actively looking for what is coming.  It’s like being on a platform eagerly waiting for a train arrival. 

As I shared in the December Messenger, ever since I was a boy I had a great love for trains.  I had toy trains, I used to set up the train under my grandmother’s Christmas tree most years, and then I commuted to college by train, from Newark to New Brunswick, NJ.  Just last week I was on a train from Savannah to Fayetteville, NC, where I celebrated Thanksgiving.  What has always fascinated me and continues to fascinate me is the experience of waiting, actively waiting for a train to arrive.  You can stand on a platform, face forward and passively wait for it.  Or you can stand on the platform and turn to the left (or, if you’re in Britain, say at Waverly Station in Edinburgh, you turn to the right) and look for some sign of what is coming toward you.  You look for the lights of the train coming toward you, approaching out of the future, on its way toward you, on its way, and you get to witness the process its arrival, eventually arriving there before you.  And as you wait and strain your neck to see you’re actively participating in its arrival.  You’re sharing in the experience.

That experience—that’s an Advent-thing.  It’s a Habakkuk-thing.  It’s a God-thing.  We’re called to actively wait, to search for, anticipate the new thing that even now God is preparing for God’s children. And you have to be vigilant about this, look deep and hard into reality because you could miss it; keep awake for the signs of the time. But don’t be discouraged if you can’t see it now.  Seeing is not always believing.  Everything might be going to hell in a hand basket all around you, you might be surrounded by injustice, the land might be full of destruction and devastation and violence.  Even if you have no evidence to believe otherwise “wait, it will surely come,” God says.

This is one of the reasons why Habakkuk is a dangerous book—especially for those who profit from or are perpetrators of injustice.  In 1940, a church newspaper in Basel, Switzerland published a column with the title: “Word on the (Current) Situation,” which included an excerpt from Habakkuk.  The military censors across the border in Germany banned the newspaper because they viewed the text as a critique of the Nazi regime. This unflinching belief in God’s ability to make an end to violence is precisely the reason why the book Habakkuk was banned in Nazi Germany.  The idea that God will end unjust power was considered too dangerous to be tolerated.[4]

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of the deer, and makes me tread upon the heights” (Hab. 3:17-19).

Devastation and violence and injustice might be all around us—and they are—but God will have the last word.  God is our strength who allows us to approach the future with confidence, not fear.

Remember, it was into a world of injustice that Jesus was born.  Jesus was born at a time of brutal Roman oppression when people cried “How long, O God, how long?”  It’s for a world such as ours that Jesus was born, a world broken and torn apart by sin. It’s for a world such as ours, where we are still called to wait—actively, eagerly—for some sign that salvation, the birth of a child, the promise of redemption, hope for the hopeless, justice, true justice, restorative, healing justice for every victim of injustice.

The poet/writer Walter Wangerin wrote:

"God is coming! God is coming!
All the element we swim in, this existence,
Echoes ahead the advent.

God is coming! Can’t you feel it?”[5]

God is coming! 

And nothing can stop that train.

[1]From Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love.
[2] Letter from Birmingham, 16 April 1963.
[3] Mishnah, Pirkei Avot (Chapters to the Father) 5:8.
[4] As told by Ulrike Bail, cited by Juliana Claassens at Working Preacher.
[5] Walter Wangerin, Jr., “The Signs of the Times,” The Manger is Empty (Harper San Francisco, 1994).