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A sermon on Habakkuk: Options for Anxiety

I was asked to preach on this passage (obscure to some, well-known to others) at a gathering for preachers in Minneapolis last year. I thought it might be of some encouragement to folks who won't hear a "live" sermon today….

Habakkuk 2:12-20. "What's the Big Story?"

We woke up this morning in a heap of trouble.

First, in case you haven’t heard, there’s a lot of political trouble - a government shutdown, a looming debt default. Then, if the debt default occurs, we are warned that a global economic crisis could follow.

On a deeper level, our political and economic crises are fueled by internal social strife. As the gap widens between a super-rich minority and a struggling majority, frustration grows proportionately. Few doubt there are also racial and sexual dimensions to our social divisions ... as the familiar world of a privileged white patriarchy gives way to a multicultural world where racial and sexual minorities cannot be marginalized. No wonder the fear of the other leads to a fervor to buy more and more guns, as if the more weapons we have the safer we will be.

Meanwhile, behind all this drama, the planet has a fever. The very fuels upon which our civilization depends are pushing us well beyond the green zone into the yellow and red zones of climate instability.

And I haven’t even mentioned weapons of mass destruction. Do you see why I say we’re in a heap of trouble?

People like us who are in a heap of trouble have four common options at our disposal to deal with our anxiety.

First, we can scapegoat somebody. We can find some group of people - Jews, Muslims, gays, Mexicans, the ACLU, China, supporters of Barack Obama or Ted Cruz - and blame them for all our problems. It’s fun, it’s easy, it requires no research or thought ... and it works - at venting our anxiety, that is. Unfortunately, it provides no real help in solving the problems we’re anxious about. In fact, scapegoating ultimately makes both our problems and ourselves worse.

So second, if we lose our taste for scapegoating, we can turn our crises into fundraising opportunities. Radio stations, TV networks, political campaigns, and religious groups are very happy to make a buck off our fear. And in fact, many sectors of the fear-industrial complex will gin up fear, rake in money, and then issue a tax deduction to boot!

Third, if scapegoating and fund-raising don’t satisfy, we can implement some sort of fundamentalist hail Mary ... we can pray more or louder or in tongues even, fast more, go to church or synagogue or mosque more, wear more religious clothing, become more observant of religious holidays, obsess more about the end times, and become more careful to avoid religious taboos, in hopes that God will send in a skyhook to save us at the last minute from the heap of trouble that threatens to crush us under its growing weight.

Fourth, if scapegoating, fundraising, and fundamentalism don’t prevail, we can offer a moral explanation by which we blame ourselves for our trouble. Yes, we can say, we’re in a heap of trouble, but that trouble is evidence of the morality of the universe. We deserve this trouble, so the bad news is actually good news ... it’s proof that God is still on the throne, still ruling the universe, still supervising the affairs of humanity. Even though we are, frankly, screwed in the short term, at least God is still in control in the long term.

That fourth option was the option of many of the prophets, including Habbakuk in today’s passage.

It was late in the 7th Century BC, and Habakkuk’s people were in a major heap of trouble. The Babylonians were rising to power to the East, and these upstart regional superpowers weren’t at all nice neighbors to have. It was only a matter of time until they invaded, conquered, and plundered Habakkuk’s homeland. In the midst of the anxiety, prophets like Habakkuk were doing their job, interpreting signs of times, trying to find or make some meaning in the madness.

Habbakuk could have scapegoated somebody, or turned the crisis into a fundraising opportunity, or engaged in a fundamentalist hail-Mary act of spiritual desperation. But instead, he took the fourth option. He said, “We’re going to be conquered, and it’s our own fault. We have been violent. We have been unjust. We have proven ourselves unworthy of God’s protection. So the Babylonians will prevail.”

If that was all that Habakkuk did, he would be a good respectable prophet. But Habakkuk didn’t stop there, and that’s what makes him so extraordinary.

Habakkuk dares to question the very answer he is proposing. Yes, God might be just in allowing us to be conquered, but how could God use a people who are even worse than us to do it? You can imagine a Texan musing: maybe the evil Dallas Cowboys deserve to lose, but do the even more evil Denver Broncos deserve to be the ones to beat them?

The prophet tries to comfort himself with the idea that eventually, the Babylonians will get theirs too. But that doesn’t solve the problem that his best explanation leaves God’s hands looking something less than sanitary in dealing with the human mess.

You might expect some perceptive journalist or snarky comedian to raise a question like this - the 7th century BCE equivalent of Erin Burnett or John Stewart. But Habbakuk himself argues with God about the situation. He refuses to be satisfied with the best answer he himself can offer.

That’s an interesting role for a preacher, don’t you think? To reject inferior explanations, to offer the best he has, but also to go public with the misgivings he has about his own best answers?

You didn’t hear Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson express any misgivings when they scapegoated liberals and the ACLU after 9-11. You didn’t hear Pat Robertson express any second thoughts when he blamed Haitians for the Haiti earthquake. You didn’t hear a local pastor express discomfort with his explanation for a local tragedy a few years back - which I think involved a conservative God punishing liberal Lutherans for their sins.

But here we have Habakkuk - giving his best interpretation of the signs of the times and openly expressing his frustration with that interpretation.

He doesn’t solve that moral paradox. But he does offer some clear moral guidance for living in it. As a great preacher once said, where you can’t offer certainty, you can still try to offer clarity. So Habakkuk offers this clear moral guidance. In the absence of a completely satisfying explanation for what’s going on, in the absence of a completely satisfying theological interpretation of the signs of the times, he says, “the just shall live by faith.”

Later theological minds like St. Paul and Martin Luther offered their own interpretations of these five words in English (or three words in Hebrew). But I think a good paraphrase of Habakkuk’s message in context would be something like this:

If we keep faith and stay faithful, we will survive. Yes, we’re in a heap of trouble, but if we keep faith and stay faithful, we will survive. Yes, our trouble is in many ways our own fault. But if we keep faith and stay faithful, we will survive. No, I can’t explain why reality is this messy, but if we keep faith and stay faithful, we will survive.

At the end of Habbakuk, he expands this simple moral summons in more poetic terms. If we keep faith and stay faithful, he says, God won’t spare us calamity, but God will give us the agility of a deer or mountain goat on a rocky mountainside so we can survive the rough terrain ahead.

It’s not pleasant, but I think it’s important to imagine what that could mean for us. The government shut down may result in a constitutional crisis. E Pluribus Unum could disintegrate into E Pluribus Duum or Tridium or whatever. The dollar could plummet. The banks and even the currency could fail. The global economy could crash and burn. More terrorist attacks could happen, echoed by more counter-terrorist attacks. Many of our fellow Christians could be possessed by a spirit of Islamophobia and revenge and our world could be torn in a thirty years war of crusade versus jihad. Chemical weapons, even nuclear bombs could fall. We could remain in denial about our unsustainable dirty energy economy, and as a result, global temperatures and sea levels could keep rising. The Gulf Stream could break. Crops could fail. Unprecedented storms and droughts could wreak havoc. Dustbowls could spread and tornado alley could widen into a tornado superhighway and the Oglala aquifer could be sucked dry as a bone. The bad guys could win, and even more scary, the good guys could become bad guys too so there are few discernible good guys left.

It’s not pleasant, but we must face these possibilities in our day just as Habakkuk did in his. But even if the worst happens, if we keep faith and stay faithful, we can trust God to give us agility to navigate the rocky terrain.

By courageously and honestly facing his own dissatisfaction with his own best explanation for the coming Babylonian conquest, Habakkuk is driven down to an even deeper affirmation of faith. Whatever short-term catastrophes may occur, he believes, in the end, in the long term, “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” That is a radical, transformative, and comprehensive conviction.

So yes, we are in a heap of trouble. That is a true story. And it is a big story. But there is a bigger story still, more capacious and gracious, deeper and more vast. “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea,” that story proclaims, and if that’s true, then trouble itself is in a heap of trouble. Amen.