The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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“How Long?”

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

 In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Now, I know you’ve heard countless sermons from the prophet Habakkuk, but bear with me through one more. Well, maybe you’ve never heard a sermon from the prophet Habakkuk; maybe you don’t even know where it is. Is it even in the Bible? Maybe you’ve never heard a sermon from the prophet Habakkuk, but I guarantee you you’ve heard Habakkuk’s complaint. “How long, Lord, will I cry to You and You will not hear? How long will I cry out and You will not save? Why do I see violence and destruction and wickedness? Why do You see wickedness and do nothing? I see strife and contention—social strife, family strife, political strife, religious strife. God’s Instruction is paralyzed, and justice, when it goes out at all, is twisted and perverted. It’s like a Dirty Harry movie, except Habakkuk doesn’t have a .44 Magnum. How long, Lord? Why? When will You act? And God answers Habakkuk. He says, “I’m going to do something that even if you’d been told, you would not believe. I’m going to raise up the Babylonians. They are the solution to the problem of Judah.” And Habakkuk says, “What? The solution is worse than the problem! The cure is worse than the disease! The answer to the injustice of Judah is the injustice of Babylon? The answer to the violence of Judah is the violence of Babylon? How can that be? You are a just and righteous and holy God. How can you watch wicked Babylon swallow up those more righteous than she?” God answers Habakkuk again: “Just write down the vision. Write it down clearly. The vision waits for its appointed time. It runs to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it. It will surely come; it will not delay.”

Habakkuk has only one choice: trust God or trust what he can see. Babylon, God says, is swollen with pride, but the righteous one lives by his faithfulness. He cries out to God, “In the midst of wrath, remember mercy!” (Habakkuk 3:2), and he clings to the promise, because that’s all there is: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail, and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet”—faith is in that “yet”—“I will rejoice in [Yahweh]; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. [Yahweh] the Lord is my strength” (Habakkuk 3:17-19, ESV). Even though everything’s gone, even though the Babylonians strip the fields bare and kill all the animals, and take all of Judah into exile, still I know whom I have believed, and I know that He will keep His promises.

You know how long Habakkuk had to wait? 600 years. Obviously, Habakkuk was not alive to see the fulfillment of God’s promise, and yet he trusted that Word. Habakkuk never saw it, but Simeon did: “Now let your servant depart in peace, for my own eyes have seen Your salvation, which You prepared before the face of every people, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). Now, God’s purpose and grace, which He promised through Habakkuk, have been revealed in the appearance of our Savior, Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 1:10). When the fullness of time had come, when the appointed time for the vision reached its fulfillment, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to buy back those who were condemned by that Law, so that you and I can receive the sonship of God (Galatians 4:4).

Now I don’t know if you’re asking the questions of Habakkuk this morning. I don’t know if you’re looking around at the world and its violence and strife—social strife, family strife, political strife, religious strife—and asking, How long, O Lord? Why, Lord? Know that the Lord will bring justice to His creation, but what have we to do with judging outsiders? God will do it. Better for us to begin with the household of God. How long, O Lord, will strife and contention be the way of Your people? Lawsuits among the people of God? Strife and contention among the people of God, not over the Word of God—which we could accept, because St. Paul says it must be there to prove who is genuine—contention not over the Word of God, but over our feelings and preferences! We will fight to the death over that which the Word of God neither commands nor forbids, but the Word of God we will treat as something too unimportant to even mount an argument for it. And in the midst of such a Church, it is not too hard to ask Jesus’ question, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). We might cry out with the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). To which the Lord answered an absurdity: “If you have faith like a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6). No, little faith and big faith don’t matter; only faith or no faith. Because faith is simply trust in the One who saves. Faith is simply knowing that we are unworthy slaves and beggars; that even if we have done all that is required of us, we can demand and deserve nothing.

Faith’s object is not a mulberry tree, nor is it the world, nor is it the Church. Faith’s object is the promised coming one. “Faith looks to the person of Christ, as this person submitted to the Law for us, bore our sin, and in going to his Father performed complete and perfect obedience for us poor sinners, from his holy birth to his death” (Formula of Concord, III:58). In the midst of the wrath of God that Christ faced on the cross, He remembered mercy for sinners, whom He would cleanse to be His Church. And now, “Though with a scornful wonder the world sees [the Church] oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, yet”—faith is in that “yet”—“saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, ‘How long?’ And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song” (LSB 644:3). It is in the midst of the wreckage of this world, the carnage of this Church, the mess of our lives, that we not only walk by faith, but we live by and from faith. As St. Cyprian, no stranger to death and destruction, put it, “There flourishes among us the strength of hope and the firmness of faith. Among these very ruins of a decaying world, our soul is lifted up and our courage unshaken.” So we are not ashamed, because we, like Paul, know whom we have believed and we are convinced that He is able to guard until the last Day the faith He has entrusted to us. Wait, beloved, for Yahweh. He is not slow in keeping His promises, as some understand slowness, but He is patient with us, not wanting anyone to perish, but all to reach repentance and faith in the Son of God (2 Peter 3:9). Though He seems slow, wait for Him. He will surely come and will not delay. Be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for Yahweh (Psalm 27:14). He will surely come.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/2/10

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