Lamentations 1:1-3, 1:4, 3:21-26 (call to worship)
Habakkuk 3:1-19 (message focus)
Last week, I mentioned that I chose Habakkuk because the prophet is dealing personally and theologically with a situation that has parallels to our experience of September 11. The parallels are limited, but the theological questions he faces are common – judgment, justice, revenge, the end of all things, the clash of cultures, wrath, mercy, God.
I remember that morning, watching the news shows and shocked and riveted by the “breaking news”. Robin kept telling me that the buildings were going to fall. And, I kept saying that they wouldn’t. I remember the surge of patriotism, seeing the flag everywhere – even those of us who don’t typically display the flag were doing so – we focused on being “one” as a nation (at least for a little while). I remember talking with a trucker who had been making delivery in NYC the day before. I remember Dolly Parton, at the Washington July 4th concert event, offering up her personal brand of shock and awe for the troops entering Afghanistan. I remember the revenge fantasies – why don’t we just nuke ‘em all. I remember the fear of the other, particularly Arabs, and the pain of my Muslim and Arab friends – who, just like me, were entirely shocked and appalled by the attacks.
I appreciate the Bible more and more. I am amazed by how human God’s Book really is. Did you hear Habakkuk say, “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us” (3.16)? Talk about a revenge fantasy! Of course, it is not all he says, and it is not the end of the matter. In the beginning of this short book, Habakkuk makes clear that he and his own people have some judgment coming, and deservedly so (1.13). Perhaps that is the source of the wisdom of Proverbs, which the Wednesday lunch group looked at this past week: “Those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished” (Pro 17.5b). So, in this chapter, he prays, “In wrath may you remember mercy” (3.2).
Much like the opening section, this passage has Habakkuk speak and God respond. Unlike the opening section, this ends with Habakkuk speaking and the middle – God’s response – is “heard” (3.16, 3.2, “shema”) but not in words. It is a vision; in the context of the book it may well be the vision the LORD refers to in chapter 2: “Write the vision ... so that a runner may read it” (2.2). Today we’ll begin by diving into the vision, first two images for God and then two origins for God.
Images: Warrior and Storm, overlapping and inter-woven
The image of God as Warrior is ancient, and difficult (Hiebert). We have to set it alongside Jesus as Prince of Peace. We’re not going to sort that out this morning. The Warrior image is tied to redemption, to the deliverance of slaves from their oppressors, to the story of Israel, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11.1, Matthew 2.15). It can be made self-serving: God likes me, I don’t like them, so God the Warrior will now destroy them. The prophet does not fall for that temptation. Instead, with humility, he prays, “In wrath, remember mercy” (Heschel).
The Storm image (how appropriate for our recent weather events) is mixed in. The arrows become lightening strikes. Mountains writhe. The moon stands still. Some storm! And, the warrior-storm vanquishes the Sea – that ancient image for chaos, evil, and danger, “Here be dragons!” “You trampled the sea with your horses, churning the mighty waters” (3.15).
The Warrior image is tied to the drama of redemption, particularly (in this vision) redemption from Egypt with “pestilence” and “plague” (3.5). The Storm image is tied to the drama of creation. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Genesis 1.1-2) ... God triumphs over Sea and brings order out of chaos.
The two images are rooted in the stories of Redemption and Creation.
These two images are, in their language, anchored either in history or in nature (creation). God acts in history. God acts in the real physical world.
And these images remind us that salvation is not accomplished without justice. Sometimes we ask, “Why doesn’t God just forgive us and be done with it?” For God, salvation cannot come without justice – thus the cross. God can forgive because justice has been done.
Origins: Teman and Paran
I use the term “origin” loosely, but don’t have an alternative to propose. I use it to describe the answer to the question, “Where are you from?”, not to make a statement about the Eternal God. In this vision, God is from somewhere, two different places in particular, places that have quite different meaning and value in ancient Hebrew culture.
“God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran” (3.3). Teman is a city in Edom, named for a grandson of Esau, and part of a never-ending biblical family feud. (See Genesis 36.11, Jeremiah 49.20, and Obadiah 1.9). Esau was jealous of his brother Jacob and vowed to kill him. Their descendants – Edom and Israel – shared a border and it was rarely peaceful. Paran is the Sinai wilderness, where Israel wandered in the wilderness, met with God, and received the Law. Paran is also important in the ancient history of Edom. It is the region in which Ishmael was raised by Hagar (Genesis 21.21, c.f. 1 Kings 11.18). Ishmael was brother to favored Isaac and became father-in-law to Esau. And, over and over, whenever Paran is mentioned, whether in connection with Israel or Edom, it is a place where people go to “get away”. In itself, it is not the destination. There’s nothing “there” but other wanderers.
Note that neither Jerusalem nor its mountains Zion or Moriah are mentioned. When the prophet tells the people that salvation will come, he makes it clear that salvation will come from an unexpected source. It will not be from Jerusalem, from the establishment of priests and kings, from the center of Jewish culture and commerce.
Put together, these “origins” tell us that salvation comes from the “fringe” – from the other person that we’d rather reject, in the barren wilderness.
One of the casualties of 9/11 has been conversation between Christians and Muslims, between Arabs and the West. In many ways, we have accepted the idea of the “clash of cultures” (see Q interview with Imam Feisel of the “Ground Zero Mosque”). The whole idea has problems: It is often portrayed as Christian versus Muslim, but the USA is not monolithic when it comes to faith ... we Americans are not all Christians. And, biblically, Christians are to love their enemies.
Two years ago in Memphis TN, a mosque bought property across the street from Heartsong UM Church. Pastor Steve Stone and the folks of the church determined from the beginning that Jesus expected them to love their neighbors. So, they put up a sign: “Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood”. The congregations got to know each other, friendships developed. When mosque construction was behind schedule, the church welcomed their neighbors to use their space for Ramadan prayers for the whole month, and church members served as greeters. They did not minimize the significant theological differences between the Christian faith and Islam. They just believed that following Jesus means really loving our neighbors. And if the prophetic vision describes God and God’s salvation as coming from Teman and Paran, then we must not close the door to relationships with those who are “other”, who are unlike us, whose very presence could make us uncomfortable.
No wonder Habakkuk responds, “I hear, and I tremble (quake) within (belly, womb); my lips quiver (tingle) at the sound (voice)” (3.16). He desires salvation, but it is so OTHER. God shows up as Warrior and Storm, entirely out of our control. Salvation comes from the fringe, not from the center. God runs with the wrong crowd. No wonder Habakkuk quakes and quivers, no wonder that – in anticipation – he cries out “In wrath remember mercy” (3.2).
But this wild vision does something else for the prophet. Remember that he is facing calamity of his own, and calamity for his nation. And God is not promising an immediate salvation, a solution that makes me happy now. So, what do we do in the meantime? How do we deal with the interim between today and the day of salvation? In chapter 2, the LORD tells Habakkuk “the righteous live by faith” (2.4). We don’t get Habakkuk’s response until the end of chapter 3:
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, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation (3.17-18).
That’s Habakkuk’s statement of faith. He chooses to rejoice in God even when there is no cause for joy in his life and country. He chooses to celebrate God’s salvation even though he is still waiting for it.
Heschel, Abraham J. 1962. The Prophets: An Introduction, volume 1. New York: Harper & Row.
Hiebert, Theodore. 1996. The Book of Habakkuk: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections. In The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume VII.
Gabe Lyons and Imam Feisel. “The Future of Muslim and Christian Relations in the West”. Conversation presentation at Q 2011.
Smietana, Bob. September/October 2011. “Peace Be Upon Them”. Sojourners Magazine, 40:9, 16.