Sunday, September 4, 2022

Questioning God

What an exhausting day it's been. A young man kneels on his bed in an apartment beside the court of the House of the LORD. Not just an exhausting day – an exhausting few years. A Levite singer and temple prophet, he became old enough for his ministry during the reign of King Josiah, that shining star who devoted his life to the cause of reforming Judah into a God-loving nation once again, the nation she'd promised to be in the days of Moses. When the high priest stumbled across the ancient Book of the Covenant in the Temple archives and had it read to the king, it changed everything. Truly “there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses” (2 Kings 23:25). It was a privilege to begin singing in the Temple choir, even playing in the Temple orchestra, during his days.

But then, not long after that start, Josiah rode out to battle – this was a couple years ago – gone to stop the Egyptians from coming to the rescue of the collapsing might of hateful Assyria. Josiah had planted himself firmly in the path of the steamroller – the son of David, full of David's faith, facing a fearsome new Goliath. And the Goliath of Egypt squashed this would-be David in an instant. A chariot hauled the cold corpse of the king back to Jerusalem amid gushing tears. It was a horrible tragedy. No sooner was he buried than popular momentum seized on Josiah's fourth son Shallum, age 23, hailing him as the rightful heir – he was a young man truly committed to his father's legacy of reform and holiness. The priests anointed Shallum. The young Levite singer remembered hearing the lovely choir sing during Shallum's enthronement as King Jehoahaz.

But just a few months later, Egypt rolled back the way they'd come. The Pharaoh summoned Jehoahaz to a talk – and promptly kidnapped him. That, said the infamous prophet Jeremiah, more than Josiah's death even, was something to cry about (Jeremiah 22:10). In his place, Pharaoh handpicked his older half-brother, Josiah's elder son Eliakim, and forced Judah to install him on the throne of David instead. Eliakim, age 25, was anointed; he sat down and lived from then on as King Jehoiakim. And Jehoiakim was nothing like his father. He was a slave to the Egyptians, and taxed the people heavily to pay heavy tribute to Pharaoh. “And what he did was evil in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his fathers had done” (2 Kings 23:37). His example was infectious.

That winter, our young Levite singer watched as Jeremiah stormed through the gate and into the Temple court, interrupting their songs to tell them not to trust in the Temple's holy privileges to keep them safe from harm. “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail! Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods you haven't known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say 'We are delivered!', only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, says the LORD!” (Jeremiah 7:8-11). Oh, the people were furious! The priests and the temple prophets and singers mobbed him, threatening to lynch him. But a few elders intervened and won Jeremiah back his life. Our young Levite had himself been incensed and unsettled that day, maybe. But the past couple years had proven Jeremiah right, 100% right. Just a few short moments of Jehoiakim's rule had been enough to bring Josiah's legacy crashing down like a sandcastle in a whirlwind.

Day in and day out, the Levite singers sang at the morning and the evening sacrifice in choir. And in between, as he walked the temple courts during his division's shift of duty, he sang at the personal sacrifices people brought to the priests. For his work was that of the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, whom David had long ago assigned to “prophesy with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals” (1 Chronicles 25:1). And so this Levite singer was a temple prophet. He listened, day after day, as people led their offerings to the slaughter, sometimes begging God for forgiveness and help, sometimes rendering an empty gesture in the blood of beasts. As a temple prophet, some of the people came to him, needing advice, hoping he might find them a word from the LORD in his holy courts. More often than not, he was flummoxed, anxious, at a loss, and it tore him up inside, hoping he was making a difference. But he also listened behind the scenes as the priests grew more corrupt, mocking the people once they were out of earshot. He listened behind the scenes as his fellow temple prophets sang bawdy tunes and chased pretty girls when their wives weren't looking. He listened as the other teachers swept that Book of the Covenant under the rug. And he listened as people brought stories of justice thwarted, of judges bribed by inducement and influence. He played them songs to soothe their wounded spirits, he talked with them and tried to get them the word they needed for comfort and direction, but it was all so frustrating. So our young Levite singer kneels now on his bed. He's bottled this up long enough.

As best as we can guess from the clues we're given, this is the canvas on which this book was painted. Such a young Levite singer may have lived through and witnessed all these things – and Habakkuk may have been that very man. That, at least, is our best guess as to who Habakkuk was, since his book tells us nothing about him outright, but only hints from its style and the circumstances it portrays. So Habakkuk was probably that Levite singer, that temple prophet, in the days of young King Jehoiakim, hearing the preaching of the perennially unpopular Jeremiah, frustrated with all the behind-the-scenes corruption he's seeing and the stories of woe he's hearing and the burdensome struggle to come up with something to say in the midst of it.

What is it Habakkuk says he's noticing? He says, “Torah is paralyzed” (Habakkuk 1:4a). It's numbed, it's not moving, it's ineffective. Josiah's great recovery of the full Torah, the complete Law of Moses, has ground to a halt. King Josiah had brought the nation back to a strict adherence to God's instructions on how his people were to live. But now it's back gathering dust again. Those who remember it have missed the point, missed the heart of God laid bare in it (cf. Jeremiah 2:8). Where it's being taught, it's being widely mistaught (cf. Jeremiah 8:8). It isn't being used rightly, isn't being heard rightly, isn't being given a chance to bear fruit. And Habakkuk may even wonder how it could be that Josiah's reform could be so quickly snatched away from the hearts of a whole nation – why it is that God's Law didn't revolutionize their culture so that it stuck. (Sound familiar?)

Habakkuk adds that “destruction and violence are before me” (Habakkuk 1:3c). People are getting violent in those streets. Instead of loving their neighbor, they're laying their neighbor low with fists and daggers. There's bloodshed and persecution in the streets, where all these things were held in check just a few years ago. But so suddenly, things have gotten riotous out there. Naturally, “strife and contention arise” (Habakkuk 1:3d). The victims of this violence and this mayhem turn to the court system, seeking judgment from the priests and from the other appointed judges, so that they can be made whole. But just as often, it's the victimizers seeking to sue the victims. And “justice goes forth perverted” (Habakkuk 1:4d) – or, sometimes, “justice never goes forth” at all (Habakkuk 1:4b). These judges, some of whom were appointed under King Josiah, have let loose their old principles and become unscrupulous. As Jeremiah likes to say, “They have grown fat and sleek, they know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy” (Jeremiah 5:28).

And it all reminds Habakkuk of nothing so much as the stories handed down from the days of Moses. For when Moses was still an exile from his people, a cruel new Pharaoh rose to power, and “the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help..., and God heard their groaning, and... God saw the people of Israel, and God knew” (Exodus 2:23-25). Now, with King Jehoiakim bowing to Pharaoh all over again, it felt as though they were all re-enslaved to Egypt – or, worse, that the people of Judah had become petty pharaohs to one another. Well, if the children of Israel cried out for help then, Habakkuk cried out for help now (Habakkuk 1:2a). And he had been! But what frustrated him was that, if in those days it was said that God heard their groaning, now it seemed to Habakkuk like God was refusing to hear (Habakkuk 1:2b). And whereas in those days God saw their affliction and cared, now it seems that God “idly looks at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:3b), making Habakkuk himself look at it too, forever seeing and forever helpless to stop seeing (Habakkuk 1:3a).

So Habakkuk is frustrated. People have been coming to him with all their problems, and it's only made him sad and angry and confused. God should bring Jehoahaz back from Egyptian captivity to retake David's throne and be their savior from themselves – shouldn't he? Or is there another plan waiting in the wings? The trouble is, nothing's happening. Every day, Habakkuk hears more words of wrath and woe. Every day, Habakkuk walks the courts and the streets, seeing the battered and bruised bodies of the broken. And in the night he shouts at God about this violence and injustice, and it seems like the heavens above are nothing but a vacant smile over a bloody earth. And to Habakkuk, who's grown up dreaming what it would've been like to stand with Moses as the seas parted and salvation shone forth, this tolerance is intolerable – and, more than that, indecipherable.

So Habakkuk sings his questions before the LORD. “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you 'Violence!', and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity? And why do you idly look at wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:2-3). Or, in other words: Why are you watching this and not getting mad like I am? Why are you forcing me to watch this if there's nothing I can do? How long are you going to keep ignoring my prayers? How long will you refuse to be the same God you were when Moses cried out at the shore of the sea? What's the explanation for this strange behavior? What's the plan moving forward? Or is there even a plan? Is this just it? And what does that say about everything else?

That's what's on Habakkuk's mind – and not just his, but as a temple prophet, he's being a voice for the people, for his people and for us. And Habakkuk's questions are good questions. Hopefully they'll meet with some good answers. But we'll look for answers another week. For now, we're yielding Habakkuk and his complaints and his questions the floor. Because, to keep things simple, there's just one point we want to see today – and it's that Habakkuk's encounter with God, a real encounter with God, begins from the tough questions.

See, people have questions. That's only natural. It is natural to have questions. Inquiring minds want to know. People have a natural hunger and thirst for knowledge – God gave that to us – and, while certain forms of that hunger and thirst can become disordered, that hunger and thirst is meant to express itself in questions. Some of our questions are pretty mundane. Why is the sky blue? What are things made of? What brings us back to the earth when we jump? What will tomorrow bring? Some of our questions are scriptural and spiritual. What does this verse mean? What happened to make them write this? What does this say God is like? How can we, how should we, live these words? And some of our questions are deep and existential. Who am I? Am I being who I'm supposed to be? Why does this hurt so much? Where is God when bad things happen? Does he hear?

There are some real strengths in this movement called Evangelicalism, which our church here is defined by – (it's in the name, after all) – a passion for souls, a dream for a changed world, a commitment to the good news. But there are also some real practical weaknesses that, in many cases, can become fatal flaws. And one of those weaknesses, often a fatal flaw, is that Evangelicals can be very uncomfortable with questions. We tend not to like it when people ask us tough questions, and we aren't often willing to admit that we have real questions that can't just be waved away or kept forever on the back burner. That goes double for challenging, emotionally charged questions. This is a deep flaw that bubbles up from certain weaknesses in our vision.

But it has consequences. I've lost track of how many people I've known in my life who grew up in churches not so different from this one, or the one down the street, or the one you grew up in, and who then left – sometimes plunging into serious spiritual ruin – and it stemmed, at least partly, from them having had questions that they didn't feel they were allowed to ask in their church. In high school, I had a few close atheist friends, and some had been raised in churchgoing families. But they had questions. Uh-oh: Their churches didn't like that, or their parents didn't like that. Questions were disruptive. Questions were unhealthy. That, at least, was the impression they got from how their questioning little minds were treated. And the response made them view Christianity as all about suppressing questions instead of taking them seriously, about insisting on answers that didn't always add up. So they deconstructed it. They cobbled together their own answers. And they lost God.

Then, when I was in college, for a while I met with a group of Jehovah's Witnesses. In getting to know them, I got to know their stories. One of them told me how he grew up Methodist, but as time went on, he had a lot of questions about the Bible and his church's teachings. According to him, the pastor of his church wasn't happy to hear questions, and told him to just believe and not worry about it. So he left the church (which, he said, didn't bother his pastor at all), and a few years later he fell in with Jehovah's Witnesses, who claimed they had all the nice, simple answers that tied everything up neatly. And that was that. So now he has a Christ who isn't God.

Ever since then, I've met plenty of people who, their questions stifled, have left churches or left Christ. And I've also met plenty of people who, afraid of their own questions, have stifled themselves and gutted a God-given generator of growth in their lives. Desperate not to get dirty wrestling with what's raw and real, contenting themselves with cliches, some have seemed to domesticate the gospel or even infantilize their souls. And so they build walls around the hurt in their lives, and sing saccharine songs about happiness, and steer clear of parts of the Bible that risk confusing them.

But that could never have been Habakkuk's story. If he was a temple singer, then day in and day out he was plucking the strings of his lyre and belting out the lyrics to the psalms. And so many psalms asked questions – sometimes the very same questions that were on his mind, too. “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1). “Why have you forgotten me?” (Psalm 42:9). “Why have you rejected me?” (Psalm 43:2). “How long will you be angry with your people's prayers?” (Psalm 80:4). “When will you judge those who persecute me?” (Psalm 119:84). Those kinds of things were part of the public worship ministry that Habakkuk already had. So for him, it was natural – perfectly natural – to open a dialogue with God by asking those same hard questions. Habakkuk felt no need to pull his punches. Whether answers would come, whether he could recognize them if they did – that's for another day. But today, says Habakkuk, is a day for asking questions, a day for asking God the toughest questions that are on his mind and heart.

Nor are these questions just requests for information. They're implicit challenges. Habakkuk could only find satisfaction in three ways. The first is for God to end the wait and take action right away. If Habakkuk asks, “How long?”, and then morning dawns and Jehoiakim's in jail and justice is restored, well, that'd settle these questions well enough for Habakkuk's taste. The second way is for God to explain the wait. If Habakkuk asks, “Why?”, and then a voice from heaven whispers the secret counsels of God, and now Habakkuk can follow the logic and piece together the puzzle and appreciate the strategy that's in play, that would satisfy Habakkuk. And the third way is for God to insist on the wait, but to do so in that familiar, trustworthy voice that allows us to settle down more comfortably with our thorniest questions and cohabit there with them in peace.

But more on that another week. Habakkuk's questions are implicit challenges. But questioning God, in the sense of asking challenging questions, is a different thing than calling God into question. Habakkuk questions, he questions from the depth of his discomfort and confusion, but he doesn't cross the line into calling God into question – he doesn't approach God with an air of defiance or fundamental mistrust. Often, the Pharisees and Sadducees called Christ into question, trying to trap him, trying to use their questions as a way of seizing power over him and over popular perceptions of him. That was bad questioning, and so after he answered, it's no shock we read that “after that, no one dared to ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34).

But Habakkuk's questions aren't like those. His are sincere questions that come from a humble yet hurting heart – a good place for questions to come from. Habakkuk is a fine and fair model of how to question God – again, not calling God into question, but asking him the tough questions, and listening in humble hope. I think Habakkuk might've gotten on very well with the man in the Gospels who, in crisis, cried out to Jesus: “I believe – help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). That's what Habakkuk's questions are all about: “Help thou mine unbelief!”

If we're honest, we're in that same boat. There's a lot you don't know. And like Habakkuk in the temple courts, I can try to help sometimes, but there's a lot I don't know either. In those holes and cracks in our knowledge, questions will naturally form – some mundane, some scriptural, some existential. Some will be emotional and challenging, getting to the hearts of our joy and our pain. But we do ourselves and the world a disservice when we don't seek help for our questions, and when we're impatient with the questions of others. Are you troubled? You can go ahead and say that. Are you disturbed? Don't bottle it up, let it out. Are you perplexed? In a world like this, it's hard not to be. Are you confused? You can lay your questions before the Lord.

If there's one lesson to learn from Habakkuk's first verses, it's that God's temple is not a question-free zone – not in the initial encounter. God's temple is meant to be a space where hard, raw questions can be given voice; where we can wrestle openly with angels in the night; where we can sing not to cover our pain but to convey our pain; where we can seek the light of his understanding and the wealth of his wisdom. Because God is big enough. He's big enough for our concerns, our challenges, our confusion. If he can face a cross, he can face a question. And he did. So he does. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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