Text of a sermon I delivered at Epping Uniting Church on October 30, 2016. You can listen/download to the audio by right clicking here
Readings: Hab 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Luke 19:1-10
I opened with this brilliant clip from Network, 1977.
How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.
Habakkuk expresses what we must all have expressed at a time in our lives. His prophetic book begins with a bang – a bursting open of the doors of quiet pietism and resigned apathy with a series of anguished questions and accusations. The world is not as it should be, it is not as you, you God, promised it would be – why do you not act? Why do you allow things to get so out of hand? I’m mad as hell, yells Habakkuk out of the proverbial window, and I’m not going to take it anymore!
And I ask us truly, how could we look at our world and not cry out for help, not cry out violence, not be anguished by the feeling that justice never prevails. A cacophony of examples could be cited at this point (global economic inequality, a refugee crisis, the plundering of the earth, the treatment of Indigenous communities), but really, for all the good of our age (and there is lots of good), if we’re not mad as hell, we’re not paying attention.
Yet, I imagine, that for many of us, we not only share Habakkuk’s anger, but his bewilderment of God’s apparent silence, God’s inaction. Does not the world offer a challenge to God’s promises – to God? Do not we all, from time to time, wait, defiantly for a response?
I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint
So what will God’s response be?
There is a response that comes directly to Habakkuk, however I want to pause before going to that and instead turn to God’s response in the person of Jesus.
Luke 19:1-10 – Jesus and Zacchaeus -- We know this story, right?
Zacchaeus’ actions come from one meal with Jesus, one sit down conversation – (now some of us will have heard about tax collectors in sermons, but to remind us all, these are not liked people, and for good reason. They collaborate with the Imperial Roman power, to collect a certain amount of taxes, however if they want to make profit they take above the demanded amount. If Zacchaeus is a rich tax collector, he must be taking a considerable amount above what is required. He is a collaborator, plunderer, and war-time profiteer).
So it brings me to question, how many of those under the thumb of Zacchaeus, who’ve had to go without because of the taxes he levied, how many of those oppressed by his economic exploitation found solidarity with the words of Habakkuk – how many, when they heard the scroll of Habakkuk read in Synagogue thought of the violence and injustice inflicted upon them and their community by Zacchaeus, and how many cried out to God hoping for a response… and here, Jesus embodies that response and brings change.
Zacchaeus’ makes a promise, to give away half of his possessions and to pay back four times anything he has defrauded. His pledge fits in with the broader Biblical scope; both Levitical and Deuteronomic laws address the need to make financial repair to those in our community that we have wronged, before one can seek atonement before God.
Additionally, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says to leave your gift at the alter to reconcile with your brother and sister -- so the pattern of needing to repair earthly relationships in conjuncture (or even as a prerequisite) with seeking righteousness before God runs deep through the Bible.
Side Note… I’ve been working on an essay recently… and this passage (when taken at a larger national scale) poses an interesting challenge to notions of reconciliation, apology, and reparations…
So God’s response to those who cried out “violence” regarding the ruthless exploitation of Zacchaeus is through the person of Jesus. It is through Jesus seeking out Zacchaeus, engaging with him and spending time around a table that wrongs are addressed, confessions are made, action is taken, justice is done, and there is a movement towards societal flourishing. This is one response.
So what is the response to Habakkuk?
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
There is still a vision… it is set and it will arrive. But what is this vision? Well from Jesus’s interaction with Zacchaeus it seems to involve the reconciling of relations, the achieving of justice, the repair (whether financial, emotion, spiritual) of past wrongs, a picture of goodness and flourishing – in the Biblical tradition this is captured in the word shalom. A word, which doesn’t only mean peace, but paints a more ambitious picture of wholeness. Michael Gorman defines it this way:
First, negatively, shalom is the resolution and cessation – and henceforth the absence – of chaos, conflict, oppression, and broken relations. Second, positively, shalom is the establishment, and henceforth the presence, of wholeness, reconciliation, goodness, justice, and the flourishing of creation.”
This is the vision of the appointed time.
From Habakkuk, there are, it seems, 2 approaches concerning how we live in light of this horizon. The first is to live proudly; the second is to live by faithfulness. Faithfulness moves a community toward shalom; Pride holds it back. Faithfulness allows one to give generously and admit wrongdoing; Pride causes defensiveness and tight-fisted self-protection. Faithfulness draws us into the hopes of God, promoting justice, neighbourliness, humility, and forgiveness; Pride promotes rebellion, disillusionment, distrust, and hubris. Faithfulness allows us to be content with our daily bread; Pride tells us to build bigger sheds for our surplus. Faithfulness fosters trust in the vision God has crafted for creation; Pride causes us make our pleasures the centre and fulfilment of life. Faithfulness allows us to receive reproach and correction; Pride is too fragile to acknowledge any need for change.
This last point is important when returning to our story from Luke.
When remembering that we are those caught between Habakkuk’s plea and this appointed time?
The Jesus and Zacchaeus story is so helpful, for it too exists in this temporal moment.
So, where are we in that story (knowing that from moment to moment, experience to experience, scene to scene our role might change)
Surely we are not always in the crowd who grumble at the attention being paid to the traitor, exploiter, and plunderer…
Surely we are not often Jesus, meeting with and compelling the unjust to change their ways and care for those they’ve marginalised and mistreated…
Surely, though this is the least favourable, we are often the man in the tree. The person who has built wealth and security on exploited labour, stolen land, predatory economics. We are the people who unconsciously or consciously have benefitted from a system that privileges some over others. Surely we are often those who have reached where we are because we have forgotten the calls of discipleship, charity, and neighbourliness.
The question is, imagining for this scene we are the man in the tree, if Jesus invited himself over to dine at our house, what would he convict us of? What would he call us to change? What relationships would we be called to mend? How would we be expected to repair relationships within our community, our society, our world, so that salvation may come to our house?
 Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2015), pp. 145, 146.