Sunday, November 13, 2022

Even If

In these strange days, do you think the prophet thought back on his childhood? I imagine he might've been a boy, holding onto his daddy's hand, that day around 621 BC when they stood somewhere on the fringes of the temple courts. It was a momentous occasion. The high priest had uncovered something in the temple archives: a forgotten book. That, said the eighteen-year-old King Josiah, was why he'd summoned so many of the people there. It was crowded, and little Habakkuk couldn't see. But the crowd was silent enough that he could hear as Judah's king read, word for word, the Book of the Covenant to them all (2 Kings 23:2). And so Habakkuk heard, for the first time in his life that day, “the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness” (Deuteronomy 1:1). He heard the declaration to all Israel that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one,” and “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). He heard: “Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). He heard from the mouth of Josiah the words of Moses: “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you today, and the curse if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).

Habakkuk heard that day the command of bringing firstfruits to the priest from the land God had given. “When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground which you harvest from your land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. … Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the LORD your God. And you shall make response before the LORD your God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers..., and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm..., and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.' And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house – you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you” (Deuteronomy 26:1-11).

Habakkuk remembered hearing those words for the first time as a boy, and how that year, under Josiah's guiding example, the people obeyed the law. As Levites, he and his family rejoiced with every tribe and every clan in God's goodness to all and to each. For, as Habakkuk had also learned that day, the blessings God promised to Judah for obedience included supply and security alike. “The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you,” Moses assured them, “and the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give you. The LORD will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands” (Deuteronomy 28:7, 11-12).

From that youthful day, Habakkuk must've become a lifelong student of this rediscovered Book of the Covenant – why else would he start and end his hymn so closely to the way the Blessing of Moses in Deuteronomy 33 started and ended? And now, we do come to the end – the end of the hymn, the end of the book, the end of our journey with the prophet Habakkuk. It's been a wild ride, on a journey from bitter protest and gripping dread to something else altogether. Or... maybe not something else altogether.

If you were with us last week, you remember how Habakkuk sang a hymn reflecting on God's great apocalyptic acts of deliverance past, about God's march to Egypt to save his people from slavery, and God's march to Canaan to save his people from oppression, and God's march to pluck David from the mire of persecution and raise him up to victory. For God's a Warrior, with bow and arrow, with lightning spear and crushing club, riding in on his chariot. He threshes the nations in anger, crushes the head of the house of the wicked. And, Habakkuk says, as God storms through, he tramples the sea and makes it churn (Habakkuk 3:1-15).

What he's come to realize is that, while he's been horrified at the thought that the coming Babylonian attack on Judah was somehow a tool in God's hands, it actually is an effect of the upheaval that's naturally brought about as God marches in – the very same march that will overthrow Babylon in the end! The Babylonian attack and Judah's salvation are, in the end, ultimately one thing. As God storms in to overthrow evil, God is the storm. And now, in this hymn born out of Habakkuk's visions and spiritual epiphanies, he's seen that. God's work in the world is overwhelming. It's unpredictable. It's reliably part of his intention to save his people, but the effect of it can, on the way to that salvation, churn life into a tizzy and make ordinary things just stop working.

Now, Habakkuk has gotten even the barest impression of what God is up to. And he's realizing the costs of that peek behind the curtain. And as we're going to realize moving forward, these experiences have made Habakkuk a brother in spirit to a man named Job. In a story long handed down, a story I hope Habakkuk already knew, Job finally – after many chapters of wishing – got to confront God in the whirlwind. Job got answers – sort of. For Job's questions were met with a barrage of questions back, exposing Job's ignorance and incapacity. Part of the lesson for Job was that the real answers – the actual explanation of the full set of equations in the moral calculus that justified God allowing such immense suffering to enter his life – well, they're intellectually beyond him. Even if God patiently started laying them out, Job wouldn't be able to follow along, any more than he can explore the fountains of the deep, or feed all creatures great and small, or tame Leviathan. And as Job realized the answers were intellectually beyond him, so Habakkuk sees the answers are psychologically beyond him.

Because listen to what Habakkuk says, after this great revelation of God at last riding to the rescue: “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me” (Habakkuk 3:16). Our friend the prophet has gotten his glimpse behind the curtain, has seen God on the move, has felt in the depths of his soul the sunshine and the storm. And he's surely no sturdier than mountains. The whipping wind that made the tents of the desert quake has shaken him to his core. This revelation may have a good end, but it's also left Habakkuk exhausted. He's in the grip of a deep anxiety. He feels sick from top to bottom. You'd think he'd be feeling elated, but the promise of this salvation has hit him like COVID, and he's thinking he oughta retreat into quarantine. Because he feels God's angry march to save, and it threshes him from the inside out. And having heard and seen God, he's not sure what to say. It's broken him.

And it's rebuilt him, albeit with a limp in his mind and heart. His stomach may churn, his lips may quiver, his bones may rot, his legs may tremble, but those are the price he paid to see in advance the assurance of salvation – that God's march would not stop until evil was overthrown and Judah was saved, not only from the danger of Babylon, but from the danger of itself. And now he knows. He's disquieted, but he's assured. And so, he sings, he's prepared to rest amidst the chaos. As the hurricane bears down, Habakkuk will climb into his hammock and take a nap. He's been assured that – though he knows he won't live to see the last leg of the march play out – it's going to happen. God will ultimately avenge all oppression, and God will somehow make good on all that Habakkuk and the others suffer in the meantime. Even beyond death, God will make all things new. And that's how Habakkuk can already “rest for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us” (Habakkuk 3:16).

What's going on here is, Habakkuk is making peace with his outer discomfort, and even making peace with his inner disquiet. That doesn't mean that Habakkuk has stopped trembling. It doesn't mean his heart has stopped racing. It doesn't mean his lips don't quiver as he sings. It doesn't mean he can get off his fainting couch. But it does mean that he accepts it. And in that, he finds rest in God. Habakkuk has reached the point of accepting his anxiety. For Habakkuk is a deeply anxious man, with everything that entails – and he embraces it. He rests as the chaos unfolds around and inside him, he rests as his mind conjures up every terrible nightmare, he rests as his world falls apart, because now he knows for a fact – and a faith – that this, all this, is God's storm, and that it may rage his whole life, it may flood the world, it may spin the ark 'round and 'round, but it will land him on the mountain top. And by believing that, Habakkuk can restfully make peace with his worst-case scenario.

And the worst-case scenario this time isn't just a product of Habakkuk's anxieties. For the blessings of security and supply were always contingent on obedience. Habakkuk, as a boy listening to King Josiah read from the Book of the Covenant, had heard about the alternative: “If you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments..., then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. … The LORD will make the rain of your land powder. … The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. … You shall carry much seed into the field and gather in little, for the locust shall consume it. You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but you shall neither drink the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm shall eat them. You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off. … A hard-faced nation... shall eat the offspring of your cattle and the fruit of your ground, until you are destroyed; it also shall not leave you grain, wine, or oil, the increase of your herds or the young of your flock, until they have caused you to perish” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 24-25, 38-40, 50-51).

But even during all Josiah's reforms, the weight of generations of sin and the continued deformed character of the people had put Judah past the point of no return. Jeremiah had long been scolding the people that God was already withholding rain on account of their sins (Jeremiah 5:24-25), and that when the Babylonians came, “they shall eat up your harvest and your food, they shall eat up your sons and your daughters, they shall eat up your flocks and your herds, they shall eat up your vines and your fig trees” (Jeremiah 5:17). Habakkuk is living under these curses of Moses and these prophecies of Jeremiah, and he knows that no obedience he personally can put forward – and maybe not even a wholesale repentance of the people at large – is going to change things. All that's left is to ride this out, to squarely face that truth.

And he does so by contemplating a radical absence of providence. The Book of the Covenant described this land as“a land flowing with milk and honey,” abundant in the sweet things of life (Deuteronomy 26:9), which was why they brought God “the first of the fruit of the ground” that he himself had given (Deuteronomy 26:10). But what if milk and honey stop flowing? What if all the curses come to pass? What if “the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; the produce of the olive fail, and the fields yield no food; the flock be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls” (Habakkuk 3:17)? What then, when the first of the fruit of the ground is all there is – or what if even that doesn't grow? What about when God doesn't provide? What then?

Jeremiah had posed a question like that: “What will you do when the end comes?” (Jeremiah 5:31). Habakkuk takes it up now. Maybe he's heard about how, when everything fell apart around Job, Job blessed the name of the LORD (Job 1:21). Maybe he's heard how, when Job's health tanked and even his dearest love was against his life, Job insisted on God's right to give disaster as a gift (Job 2:10). Habakkuk has been transformed into Job's brother in soul, and so, like Job, Habakkuk refuses to respond to this worst-case scenario by responding to curses – even God's curses – with cursing. “Bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28). That's how Habakkuk answers Jeremiah's question. So even if the fig tree doesn't blossom, even if the vines have no grapes, even if the olives drop off, even if there's no grain in the fields, even if the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle die out or get stolen, “yet I will exult in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:18).

In other words, if there are no firstfruits, Habakkuk will still show up before the altar. He'll lay down his basket even if it's a black hole. He'll be there and hail God's gift in the emptiness. When there's no harvest, Habakkuk will celebrate the harvest that ain't as though it were. He'll keep the festival even as he starves. He'll pray grace over an empty plate. He'll preach from the ash heap as he scrapes his boils. He'll sing hymns as he lugs his cross to the hill of execution. With all his anxieties and all his nightmares, he'll defiantly grin in his grave. He'll lie down to rest in the belly of death, trusting the God who's put a hold on all transactions. And as the stone rolls in front of his tomb, you'll hear through the rock Habakkuk quoting the marvelous words of Brother Job: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him!” (Job 13:15).

Yes, Habakkuk won't let thanksgiving be derailed by the mere technicality that his list of earthly reasons to give thanks is a blank page. And he won't let thanksgiving be derailed by his quivering lips, churning stomach, jelly-like legs, or rotting bones. He embraces his anxieties and piles them into the basket to lay before the altar. He will “exult in the LORD – jumping and leaping in triumph. He will “take joy in the God of my salvation” – spinning in excitement. Even if the worst-case scenario comes to pass, even if his nightmares stalk him through the streets, he'll bless the LORD as the victor – because God is the storm, and God threshes for a greater good. Habakkuk still knows God is marching for Judah's salvation. And that march may kill Habakkuk. It may take away everything from him. But it's meant to save. So Habakkuk clings to his cross, thinking on the crown.

And it's that determination, that spirit, that hope, that in just a few verses takes Habakkuk from trembling jelly to nimble ascension. Moses, singing of God's march, showed the blessing after the curse: “Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD, the Shield of your help and the Sword of your triumph! Your enemies shall come fawning to you, and you shall tread upon their high places” (Deuteronomy 33:29). David, singing of God's march for him personally, declared: “This God is my strong refuge... He has made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the high places” (2 Samuel 22:33-34). But Moses sang his song after the exodus, and David sang his after the rescue. Yet even now, even while bearing his empty basket to the altar, Habakkuk already sings: “GOD the Lord is my strength! He will make my feet like the deer's; he will make me tread on my high places” (Habakkuk 3:19). Already the jelly-legged prophet is finding his footing – and although he knows he won't outlive his poverty, his anxiety, his nightmare, yet his feet will walk on the mountain tops when all is said and done. He clings to his cross because he believes in a God of resurrection!

And the God he believes in, the God he blesses even when God seems giftless, is the God he wants you and me to know too. Habakkuk has the advantage of being a prophet, that's true. But what he's seen and heard, he's shared with us. Habakkuk's borne the brain-breaking brunt of his visions; he's interpreted for us the thunder from the mountain, crucifying his eyes and ears that we might see without seeing and hear without hearing. We can believe what he learned: his advantage now is ours. And Habakkuk faced a harsher and more nightmarish worst-case scenario than anything even our anxieties are likely imaginative enough to conjure into view. For he stared down real starvation, the absolute subtraction of all hope, the certainty of exile or death, the very curse of God. We, whether we have much or little, are likely to still eat our fill even if we do give our firstfruits.

If Habakkuk could accept his anxieties, could learn to live with them, then is this so impossible for us? And if Habakkuk was determined to repay blessing for cursing even when the curse was in the Law of Moses, then is it out of bounds for us to bless the name of the LORD in the day of distress? If milk and honey slow to a trickle, still we have more objective reason than Habakkuk to bring our baskets to the altar. If even the arrival of the end couldn't cancel Habakkuk's holiday, what pretext could we possibly produce to trash our calendar of grace? Even if the harvest was a bust, Habakkuk insisted he'd feast before the LORD from the emptiness on his plate. It was not without his anxieties that the afflicted prophet jumped and spun in celebration of God being God. Nor do we need to cure our anxieties and fears before we can rest in that same faith and hope. Even if the worst comes, even if all good gifts die off and we're left in the abyss, still the LORD is the God of our salvation.

Because “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law” – the same curse Habakkuk saw unfolding around him – “by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree,' so that in Christ the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13-14). Christ was no less anxious, in the olive grove at Gethsemane, than Habakkuk was at God's march. At least Habakkuk wasn't brought to the point of sweating drops of blood through stress. Even so and even there, Jesus chose the cross. Even there, he declared exultantly his Father's glory, entrusting his last breath of life to Eternal Love. The faithful and obedient Christ embraced the curse of the Law of Moses on faithless and disobedient Israel. He plunged into death's abyss, where no vine grows, where no figs blossom, and there in the darkness of death he exulted in his Father's unbreakable promise. He exulted so exuberantly in death that the devil's kingdom was threshed beneath his feet. He spun so vigorously in joy that the chains of death flew off him. His God and Father was his strength, who made his feet like deer's feet, to climb out of the grave, to climb back to the realm of the living, to climb even to the heights of heaven. And there he lays on the altar the firstfruits of his own self, and he worships God his Father with all the fullness that he is as God, rejoicing in eternal goodness. And we belong to his Body, receiving his promised Spirit through faith, faith like Habakkuk had for his day of distress. May we bless and thank and rejoice even if... even if... even if... Amen.

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