Complementary Text: Matthew 26:36-38
Preaching Text: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
As he surveyed his people and his country, the prophet Habakkuk did not find much cause for celebration.
He saw the Babylonian army amassing on the horizon, preparing to swoop into Jerusalem and destroy that holy city, and he could no longer contain his cry: How long, O Lord?
He saw his own people thrown into despair, as their leaders traded justice and righteousness for their own comfort and political expedience, and he could not hold back his lament: How long, O Lord?
He remembered the promises of God that had been proclaimed throughout the centuries and wondered how he could continue clinging to them as that questioning cry escaped his lips: How long?
In our own time, we look around at our nation and our world, and often find little cause for celebration.
We see agents of terror and fear wreaking havoc on our allies and threatening our shores, and in our most honest moments we join the cry: How long, O Lord?
We see people at home and abroad crying out for justice, dignity, security, peace, and equity, and we find it difficult to hold back our own lament: How long, O Lord?
We hear or read the promises of God that have been passed down to us and claimed throughout the generations, and wonder when those promises might find fulfillment as our hearts cry out: How long?
Today, the church begins another year with the observance of the season of Advent. In years past, I’ve shared my belief that this is one of the most important seasons of the liturgical year, because it is a season characterized by brutal honesty about the state of our world and the content of our faith. American Christianity sometimes has a reputation for being unrealistic about the world around us, either through our willingness to ignore the problems that face the human community, or by claiming that we shouldn’t worry about them because they won’t matter in the end anyway. Advent doesn’t allow us to take the easy way out; it forces us to look at our world with eyes wide open, to ponder all the ways that it fails to measure up to God’s plan for creation.
At the same time, the society in which we live is caught between two pervasive ways of looking at our present and our future. The first is an attitude of unrestrained optimism: sure, things don’t always look good out there, but if we just keep trying hard enough, we have the tools we need to fix all of our problems and create the kind of world we want to live in. When we consider, however, how sin permeates even our most well-intentioned thoughts and actions, a focus on human potential alone doesn’t seem adequate. The other viewpoint, of course, is its opposite: an all-encompassing belief that the world is slated for destruction and that there’s nothing that can be done to stop it, so we might as well not bother.
As Lutheran Christians, grounded in the words of Scripture, we are called to resist these two ways of thinking – one of which places all the responsibility on us and one of which allows us to give up any sense of responsibility at all – and look beyond ourselves to God, the one who was, who is, and who is to come. It is this God who – as we have seen during our journey through the Hebrew Scriptures this fall – has proven time and again to be faithful to promises of deliverance, salvation, and renewal. It is this God who has continued to provide voices to remind of God’s will for our world, who has inspired generations of people to resist evil and injustice, and who offers comfort and strength through the words of Scripture. It is this God who was not content to remain on the sidelines, and who chose to become one of us so that we might know that God is with us and for us as we yearn for the day when justice and peace will meet and our world will be filled with God’s righteous reign.
That balance between realism and hope is the great gift of this season, and it is the core message of our reading from Habakkuk. In a situation in which all seemed lost, when the law had failed to achieve its goal and the nations surrounded the prophet, the city, and the nation, God assures the prophet that the brokenness he sees around him cannot thwart God’s purposes for them or for the rest of the world:
…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 in them,
but the righteous will live by their faith.
(Habakkuk 2:3-4, NRSV)
In response to that renewal of God’s promise, Habakkuk is able to deliver this stunning proclamation of trust in the Lord:
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,
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 a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.
This Advent, brothers and sisters, may God grant us the faith to look upon our broken and beautiful world and trust that, against all odds and despite all appearances, God is indeed working in this world to bring about God’s promised reign of justice, peace, love, and joy for all people. May God grant us hope as we remember Christ’s coming among us in the person of Jesus, as we open our eyes to the signs of Christ’s presence in our midst by the power of the Holy Spirit, and as we look ahead to the fulfillment of all things in God’s time. Finally, in the meantime, may God grant us the strength and the will to be partners with God in bringing about reconciliation, peace, and wholeness for all as we await his coming again. Come, Lord Jesus! Come quickly! Amen.