Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
“How Long, O Lord?”
Every parent who's ever taken a car trip with a child has heard that infamous and nagging question, “Are we there yet?” Only slightly less annoying to the parent is the persistent question, “How much longer?”
Just as children have asked these questions of their parents since the dawn of time, so too have God's children asked their Heavenly Father the same. Go back to Habakkuk, and we hear the question. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?”
In fact these two passages from Habakkuk chapters 1 and 2, are called “Habakkuk's first complaint” and “Habakkuk's second complaint” They represent the cry of a faithful man of God who is frustrated that God hasn't answered, hasn't answered him quickly enough, and hasn't answered the way he wanted him to answer.
Habakkuk lived in a time of increasing danger in the world. About 600 years before Christ, he and the Israelites watched the fall of the Assyrian empire, and the rise of the Babylonians. The Egyptians were on the march to help the Assyrians, and the Israelites tried to stop this powerful army at the battle of Meggido – which is where we get the term, “Armageddon”.
With all of this war and violence surrounding him, Habakkuk had plenty to complain about. Especially to a God who promises peace and an end to warfare. Who says that swords will be beaten into plowshares, and lions will lay down with lambs. Where is this promised peace? How much longer, oh Lord? Are we there yet? And why not?
Some Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door a while back, and showed me one of those passages, where God promises a future in which peace reigns on earth. They asked me if that sounded good. I said, “sure, if it were possible”. We then proceeded to have a small battle of our own for the next hour on my front porch.
But we do live in a world of war. Whether it is Taliban or Al-Qaeda or Iran or Iraq or the Nazis or the Communists, or the Babylonians or Assyrians. Violence surrounds us. Even in our own backyard. There was a shooting down on Byrd Avenue last week, and the Latin Kings gang was somehow involved. Milwaukee has become a war-zone in its own right with shootings almost daily. How long, O Lord, until you bring such violence to an end?
Our culture glorifies violence – from movies with unspeakable acts for which the commercials are even disturbing, to nightly news stories which sensationalize the latest shocking case. There is a part of us that is disgusted and repelled by the violence we see, but a part of us that doesn't mind so much.
What about the violence in my own life. Some of you suffer from physical abuse, even at the hands of a loved one. But even for the rest of us -What about when barbed tongues lash out from wife to husband and child to parent? What about when we use guilt as a club to get what we want, or when we employ the passive aggressive weapons at our disposal? For just as the Fifth Commandment prohibits murder, so too does it forbid us to hurt or harm our neighbor in any way. And Jesus even applies this to our sinful thoughts. How long, oh Lord, must I see such violence against me? And how long must I be captive to my own sinful, violent, deeds, words, and thoughts?
For when it comes down to it, I am violent. I do violence to my neighbor and even to myself. I hurt and harm, and my sinful nature gets a sick thrill from the violence.
Well God knows violence. And his Justice will prevail. From the flaming sword of the angel that barred the gate to paradise, to the sword of the evil empire that God uses for his own purposes. God's justice will be done.
Which should scare us. Since we deserve his wrath. That sword of judgment should be pointed at us! While we might wait impatiently for God's wrath to come on those who hurt us – we don't mind if God takes his sweet time in giving us what we deserve. In fact, the question, “how much longer?” takes on a new meaning when I am on the receiving end of such judgment.
But as Christians, we know we need not fear. We know that God's sword of judgment is not pointed at us, nor will it ever be. We know that all our violence has been forgiven. Christ has made that peace.
In fact God's wrath was poured, instead, on him. When Jesus went to the cross and his hands and feet and side were pierced for our transgressions. When violence was done to him who had no sin of his own. When the lamb of God was slain for the sins of the world. The cross is the ultimate violence of God's own wrath, and punishment, and judgment poured out on God's own Son. And not that the physical suffering and violence were anything to sneeze at, but I like how the hymn says it, “...but the deepest stroke that pierced him was the stroke that justice gave.”
That is to say, that if the nail wounds and crown of thorns seem painful to you, think of the agony of enduring God's wrath for sin – and not just one sin, but all the sins of all the sinners that had ever sinned and ever would.
Just as we cry out to God in our distress, “How long, oh Lord?” Jesus called, “My God, why have your forsaken me” at the moment of his ultimate sorrow.
God heard Habakkuk's prayer. And God hears our prayers. When his people cry out, “how long, oh Lord?” We have only to look to the cross for our answer. For there in the blood and sweat and darkness and agony and hopelessness of the cross – do we find our peace. The cross is God's answer to all human violence and warring madness.
Habakkuk would see violence his whole life. And eventually the Babylonians would even destroy Jerusalem, and decimate the very Temple of God.
You will see violence your whole life, and one day the violence of death will take down the temple of your body into the grave.
But Jesus. Jesus gives us a hope beyond the violence. In him, the temple is rebuilt. For in him, there is life after death. In him, there is calm after storm, and peace after the battle. In his resurrection from the dead we find the guarantee of our own resurrection. We receive the peace with God that passes all understanding. We find a clear conscience, and strength for the ongoing battle against sin.
“How long, oh Lord?” is not a bad prayer. It is the prayer of God's people who wait patiently for his deliverance. But it is a prayer that has been answered in Jesus, at the cross. And yet there is another answer to come. When Jesus Christ returns in glory, and we see him face to face. Then the battle and the war are finally over. Satan will be cast away forever, and we will enter into eternal rest with all the saints and angels. What a day of victory that will be. Are we there yet? No. But that day is coming, for so he has promised.