On the Discomforts of Talking with God

The following is today’s sermon, which was written and preached by Dr. Adrienne Major (11/30/14)


The prophets are not comfortable people with whom to spend advent.  They are rather too inclined to see what’s wrong with the world, rather than what’s right, and to let us know in no uncertain terms that part of what’s wrong with the world are the people in it, and the other thing that’s wrong with the world is that God, oddly, seems to do nothing about the people who are wrong with the world.

We could so easily be prophets ourselves!  We can look around and see what is wrong with our world, from the petty and mundane to the downright wicked: for God’s sake, the people who trample over each other after standing in line for days at some big box store in order to buy that flat screen TV on sale on Thanksgiving day! And the police who shoot and kill unarmed black boys on the streets!  And the crowds who go mad and destroy the businesses that provide livelihoods in the very neighborhoods in which they live!  And the grinding heel of unrelieved poverty that struggles and struggles and despairs!  And the drug cartels that feed upon that struggle while running rampant in the countries that produce the drugs!  And the myriad injustices that make up our prison system!  And the deep seated distrust that runs between peoples who live together separated by walls!  And the people who use the misery of the world they live in in order to profit:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,

And you will not listen?

Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?

Destruction and violence are before me;

Strive and contention arise.

So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.

The wicked surround the righteous—

therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
(Habakkuk 1: 1-4)

We think this should be easy for God to solve: after all, what’s the point in worshipping a God who promises to be faithful to God’s faithful people if God can’t solve all of our problems for us?  How can God be omnipotent and omniscient and all of those omni-words we use to describe that force that we do not completely and cannot completely comprehend, and still allow injustice and evil?  (These questions are often grouped together and called “Theodicy”—so intractable a part of our faith that we have given them a special name.)  We cry out to God—“When will you take care of everything!”

But the ways that God could answer never seem to satisfy us—the Hebrew Bible takes us on an exploration of some of them; and when explored in story we realize that it’s not so easy to do what we demand:  Send a flood to wipe out all the evil?  Oops.  Maybe not.  How about some plagues?  Too drastic?  Here, have some Chaldeans:

Look at the nations, and see!

Be astonished! Be astounded!

For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.

For I am rousing the Chaldeans,

That fierce and impetuous nation,

Who march through the breadth of the earth

To seize dwellings not their own.

Dread and fearsome are they;

Their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.

Their horses are swifter than leopards,

More menacing than wolves at dusk;

Their horses charge.

Their horsemen come from far away;

They fly like an eagle swift to devour.

They all come for violence,

With faces pressing forward

They gather captives like sand.

At kings they scoff,

And of rulers they make sport.

They laugh at every fortress,

And heap up earth to take it

Then they sweep in like the wind;

They transgress and become guilty;

Their own might is their god!
(Habakkuk 1: 5-11)

Actually, we don’t what the evil that we see all around us to be wiped out by a conquering army—that cure is far worse than the disease.  (I wish we’d stop inflicting it on other nations and peoples ourselves, but the golden rule is ever ignored in international relations, it seems to me.)  We want a more subtle hand: we see that these answers aren’t as right as we thought they were, and ask God to send us different ones.  Habakkuk argues for us that whereas God is eternal, we are not, and whereas the broad stroke solutions that we thought we wanted would be perhaps just fine if we were immortal and could outlive the present agony, we won’t, and therefore we want a different answer.  Habbakuk places himself in position to actively watch for God’s response:

I will stand at my watchpost and station myself on the rampart;

I will keep watch to see what God will say to me,

And what God will answer concerning my complaint.

Then the Lord answered me and said:

Write the vision;

Make it plain on tablets,

So that a runner may read it.

For 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 right in them

But the righteous live by their faith.
(Habakkuk 2: 1-4)

God essentially tells us to create a billboard (sorry, Vermonters) –a tablet so large that a runner (or in our case, a driver) may read it.  And God’s answer this time to the question of Theodicy is ending (eschatology, for those of you who are gathering what we call in the biz “course-specific vocabulary”).  In other words, as Walter Brueggeman reassures us, “the future is secure in YHWH’s governance even if the present is unbearably out of control.”

I’m not at all sure I’m comforted by the assurance that the end “will surely come, it will not delay.”  However, in addition to assurances that the end will come, God reassures us that “the righteous live by their faith.”  Huh.  What does that mean?

Well, let’s think of it in practical terms.  Two weeks ago we heard again what our Lord requires of us, in the words of Micah (6:8):  “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.”  That seems straightforward enough—and the right thing to do in response to the problems we see so clearly all around us.  To do justice.  That would go a long way towards solving some of the problems we’ve asked God to take care of for us.  We can all work on that, each in our own way.  To love kindness.  I am often encouraged by the fact that we do, as a collective, love kindness.  Acts of kindness and generosity make us collectively rejoice; we should encourage them, and also encourage ourselves to engage in acts of kindness as much as we can.  To walk humbly with our Lord?  That’s a little more tricky, but what I think it means in this context is that even when we are angry at God—even when we cry out to God and demand the answers that we want to hear—even then we take time to realize that we ourselves do not know the answers—that the answers that we want to hear may not actually be the right ones—that we may be very wrong—and that we are willing to entertain the idea that we may be very wrong, and in that understanding of ourselves, be willing to hear another word, another idea: that we can walk humbly with our God.

Living by faith then does not mean that we know the answers.  It does not even mean that faith is an answer.  Or at any rate an easy answer.  Living by faith is not an end but a process, not an explanation (to paraphrase Bill Clinton, “it’s faith, stupid” is not an axiom that will work in this context) but a way of being; a way of life.  Rolf Jacobsen from the Narrative Lectionary explains it thus:

“Faith is not an intellectual assent to propositional truths about God, instead it’s a way of life that is commended to us from the word of God—a way of being faithful to God now, while we wait for other answers; a way of holding the hand of the Lord as we walk through suffering; waiting/hoping (in Hebrew another combination word with the same root) for justice in the midst of injustice while doing all we can to work to bring about the realm of God.  Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.  The opposite of Faith is not doubt, but despair.  In some cases the most hopeful, most faithful, most defiant thing we can do is to have faith in the face of despair.”

This is what Habakkuk brings us to; when everything that he sees is despair, he nevertheless walks with God:

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;

Thought 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.

(Habakkuk 3: 17-19)

In the end, the message of Faith, the way of life of faith is one of hope, not of despair.  Is one of believing against all evidence that there is goodness and love, generosity and kindness, and that in those live the God of our ancestors and our God.  Our faith is foolish, and ridiculous in the face of the evils that plague our world, but in the end it is the foolish and the ridiculous love of kindness and justice that is the only thing that will bring about the world that we all long to see and to be a part of.

Adrienne Major
November 29, 2014