Sermon for 22 Pentecost, Year C
Based on Hab. 1:1-4, 2:2-4
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
“The Complexity of Suffering”
“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgement comes forth perverted.” How long must innocent people suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? How can a loving, just God allow hatred and injustices to triumph for so long?
From the poet-prophet Habakkuk’s day, right up to the present—human beings have wrestled with such pressing, yet enigmatic questions; especially when troubles and sufferings seem to overpower us. Most people who have weathered trying times of suffering, oppression and persecution realize that there are no easy, pat answers or correct theologies, which make sense out of these difficult, extremely complex questions.
Who of us can understand God’s ways the way we would like? For one thing, God has not chosen to tell us the whole story of God’s self. God’s given us the central story but not the whole story. Whatever he has not spoken we speak for him, then demand he act the way we do. We have a black/white, on/off, binary idea of the way God should right wrongs, especially if someone has wronged us. Instant action! Instant justice! Instant retaliation!
Do we ask for the same quick, immediate solution when we are the ones who have wronged, when we have been unjust, when we have used power to serve self? It’s a different matter then, isn’t it? Then we are quick to plead extenuating circumstances, give explanations, beg for forgiveness. Perhaps God might be rejecting the instantaneous response because that would mean sweeping all aside, not just the so-called guilty. That’s what the story of the flood is all about. Sweep away the “baddies.” Keep the “goodies.” Then God discovers that the few whom he had saved were not as good as he thought.
Instantaneous rightings of wrongs has its drawbacks, mostly for those who demand that kind of action.
God understands time differently than we do. Since we measure in milliseconds, a little time seems like a lot of time. For God: “A thousand years are as one day, one day as a thousand years.”
So, the people of Israel can be in bondage in Egypt for an inordinate number of years. They cry out to God to free them. Then God remembers his promises to the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs. When did that promising take place? Only four hundred years before. And his delivery of the people of Israel is regarded as fulfilling his promise four hundred years before that deliverance. That’s a different way of keeping a promise.
A guide at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem explained it this way: A devout Jew who lives far from Jerusalem has his(her) heart set on getting to the Wailing Wall during his(her) lifetime. (S)He dies without having made the journey. Then his(her) children take up the wish and the dream. They do not make it. Then the grandchildren. They are not successful. Then the great-grandchildren, the great-great-great grandchildren. At last one of the great-great-great-great-grandchildren does get to the Wailing Wall. In the person and presence of this child, the hopes and dreams of all that went before her are fulfilled. The devout father who died several hundred years before is at the Wailing Wall as much as the child who now prays there. That is why God said that he had fulfilled his promise to the patriarchs and matriarchs when we would say he only fulfilled it for those Hebrews he brought out of Egypt some four hundred years later. 1
In all of this, it is obviously clear that our time is not the same as God’s time—our timing is not the same as God’s timing. After agonizing over the questions of how long and why must the righteous suffer; after seeing his people humiliated and oppressed by the Babylonians; after waiting impatiently for God to answer or take action; the poet-prophet Habakkuk is given an answer from the Lord: “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. The righteous live by their faith.”
But it’s downright painful and hard to wait for God’s answer sometimes, isn’t it?! Two years is a long time in a concentration camp. One year is too long when you’re a refugee living in a foreign country—wondering, hoping, praying, waiting, longing to find out if your family members back home are still safe or even alive. One week is too long when you’re locked up in solitary confinement because you asked questions concerning poverty and homelessness in your community. One day—even one hour!—is too long when you are being tortured, beaten, deprived of sleep, food and drink. Yet, some people have spent their entire lives under evil, oppressive regimes.
Each one of us also occasionally—or should I say always?!—find it difficult to wait for God’s answer to us. We wonder why God is so silent—if only he would speak or do something to help us! If only God would have prevented those aircraft from crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and in a field in rural Pennsylvania, killing our friends, neighbours, loved ones. If only God would cure my cancer. How long must I wait to find a decent job? How long must I work before I am able to see any progress? Where is the meaning to my life?
In addition to our individual questions, you as a congregation may also be asking the Lord: how long will it be before we raise enough money to build our new church? Will our youth ever become more involved and committed in the life of our congregation? How long can we weather the storm of this conflict and will we ever be able to resolve it and get on with our mission? Will we ever be able to pay off all of our debts? How can we make a difference as a congregation and reach the poor, homeless, abused and unemployed in our community?
You, like the poet-prophet Habakkuk, may occasionally feel anxiety-ridden, ambiguous, frustrated or discouraged about God’s time and God’s timing. Yet, like Habakkuk and the ancient Israelites; the answer shall come. You—like all of God’s people in every time and place—will live by your faith. Oftentimes, God asks us to live with our questions; which help us continue ahead in our faith journey; rather than relying on easy, pat answers. As Reinhold Niebuhr once observed: “Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.” If it did, then would we not fall into the danger of violating the first commandment—of attempting to be gods in our One, True God’s place?!
Trusting in God’s time, God’s timing, God’s future; we too shall be able to say with the anonymous poet:
Not till the looms are silent and the
Shuttles cease to fly.
Will God unroll the canvas and
Reveal the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver in
The pattern he has planned. 2
1 I am most indebted here to Paul Harms in his, Seek Good, not Evil (Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing Co., Inc., 1985), pp. 27-28 for his insights.