Scripture: Habakkuk 1:1-2:4
What is faith? What does it look like to have faith? Is faith a matter of trust, or belief, or hope, or choice?
I bet that if we took a survey of the sanctuary today – we’d probably come up with at least a dozen different definitions and understandings of faith, and they probably all wouldn’t agree with one another.
Even though it’s kind of our thing, faith is a complex word and idea to define. How do we explain something that is on the one hand a gift and on the other a choice that we make? How do we explain something that is a matter of trust but also rests on belief? If we look up faith in a dictionary, I think we’ll be disappointed by the sheer lack of depth to the word. None of the definitions come close to the appropriately explaining the simplicity and complexity of faith.
None of the definitions capture the faith of Apostle Paul or the Prophet Habakkuk or even of the church we know and love today.
The Rev. Peter Brown, in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, wrote this about faith:
The Reformers declared loudly that salvation could not be earned by good works, it could not be earned. Instead salvation was God’s gift to be accepted by faith, which itself was a gift from God. This seemingly dry theology carries profound pastoral meaning.
At the Reformation@500 event in Halifax in 2014, the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Chenard asked, ‘What does the minister have to offer a family whose 17-year-old daughter has been killed in a traffic accident?’ All the pastor has is faith in God, nothing else. Faith alone. Faith in a God who hears the cries of our hearts and knows the questions we don’t dare ask. When the pretty veneer of our lives is stripped away, all we have is faith that God will hold us.
A faith expressed by Julian of Norwich, who in the middle of the Black Death epidemic in Europe, voiced this truth when she said, ‘all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.’ In the end all there is is God’s gift of faith.
In light of these words, I am reminded of the hymn ‘It is well with my soul’. A hymn that is often sung at funerals and which reminds us, just as Julian Norwich did, that in the end even through the midst or turmoil and trouble God is sovereign and his purposes for us and for all of Creation good.
However, if I’m honest, all is often not well with my soul – whether it was the stabbing of a young man last weekend at Kennedy station, the horrific tragedies on the Danforth and North York earlier this year, or the thousands of people who live in abject poverty in this city, our country and around the world. It is difficult to say with a straight that all is well with my soul.
In fact, whenever a tragedy strikes, a chorus can be heard by Christian and non-Christian alike – how can God allow such evil, where is God in the midst of all the human suffering and evil in the world, how can we believe in a good God if bad things keep happening?
If it is any consolation, our reading from Habakkuk this morning suggests that we have good company with this kind of questioning and disappointment in God. Habakkuk’s words are our own – “How long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry to ‘Violence’ and you will not save?”
Habakkuk was a prophet doomed with a terrible task, witnessing the evils and injustices in Judah going unpunished by their righteous and holy God and then Habakkuk was tasked with proclaiming the impending defeat and scattering of Judah at the hands of the Chaldeans, the Babylonian Empire – Judah’s primary enemy, and a sinful and unrighteous nation.
The southern Kingdom of Judah (where Habakkuk hailed from) had survived the onslaught of the Assyrian Empire, when the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been defeated – because they were faithful to God, but now their sins had multiplied – their kings were unjust and unrighteousness spread throughout the land, the poor were oppressed and the people were going after other Gods. And an even greater threat loomed for the nation of Judah – the might Babylonian Empire which had overwhelmed and defeated the great Assyrian empire was directed toward the small nation of Judah, and God had seemingly turned away from his chosen people.
Often, when we think about the exile, we lump everyone in together – the people of Israel and the people of Judah were unfaithful so they were sent into exile. But the reality is, some of the people were faithful – even though their leaders, and it’s powerful people may not have been. They also suffered during the period of exile. And that’s why Habakkuk’s response is not ‘EXCELLENT! LETS GET ON WITH IT!’
Habakkuk recognizes that this is is God’s way of exercising judgement but also wonders what it means when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves. How is that fair?
Habakkuk wrestles with this.
God’s punishes the oppressors because God loves the oppressed…but it still doesn’t quite sit right with the prophet – or with many of us.
And yet in spite of this, in spite of the dire message that Habakkuk was called to proclaim, the prophet endured, the prophet declared that he would stand and wait, wait for God to act, wait for an uncertain future, wait and hope for a result that was not at all apparent. Habakkuk’s name literally means ‘to embrace’ – to embrace the God who had seemingly abandoned his people to their fate, to embrace the God who was ultimately merciful and gracious, who was abounding in steadfast love – even if he was not experiencing it in the moment.
And so Habakkuk waited.
It seems, that there is waiting involved in having faith. It is hope, trust, belief in something which we know to be true but have not yet experienced even when, in our current situation, all is not well.
Faith, more than belief, more than trust – is the conviction that it may not be well now – but in time, it will be because God does not allow evil to have the final word.
Which brings us back to Julian of Norwich ‘all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well’…and ties us back in to the prophet Habakkuk.
God responds to Habakkuk, and instructs him to continue his vigil:
For the revelation awaits on an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.
See the enemy is puffed up; his distress are not upright –
but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness
The righteous person will live by his faithfulness…just wait, says the Lord.
So Habakkuk waits. And as he waits he gets a terrible vision, which is the majority of chapter 2 which is five woes which essentially promise that the enemy will not have the last word in all of this. God always gets the last word.
The final chapter of Habakkuk, which I do encourage you all to read, especially since it’s thanksgiving, is a Psalm of thanksgiving. It recalls the times when God has blessed and delivered the people. It is an anchor for the life of faith that the prophet and the people are about to be called to during this time of exile.
I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,
Though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
Though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
Many families have a thanksgiving tradition in which each person goes around the table and shares something they are thankful for. Even if the turkey is dry, or the gravy is burned or the cousins aren’t getting along or if everything that could go wrong has gone wrong…there is always something to be thankful for.
How much more so for a life of faith.
Habakkuk lived long before Jesus. In Jesus – in his death and resurrection – we have experienced deliverance so much greater than that brought about by means of the Babylonian exile and God’s action to return his chosen people. We know what God has done for us and that we live with the promise of eternal life – even though there may be suffering now, even though it may not all be well with our souls. It is this knowledge, this faith which enables us to sing and be moved by the great hymns of our faith like ‘it is well with my soul’ because we know that that promise is built on a strong foundation of what God has done and what God has yet promised to do.
So what is faith?
- Faith is when the righteous live their present in light of the promise of a future they have yet to receive.
- Faith is a soul rejoicing in God’s blessings even when the barns, the fields and the tables might be empty.
- Faith is a heart that loves and rejoices in God, not only in God’s gifts.
- Faith is knowing that the low moments are not signs of abandonment.
- Faith is moving forward, even into the unknown, even into certain potholes and dangers – certain that evil and violence and oppression will not win and that God will have the last word.
The righteous will live by faith. Giving thanks and rejoicing in God their saviour. Let us pray.