“Watching, Waiting, & Working”
In my college OT class, the professor would always open with prayer, and sometimes by reading a few verses he thought appropriate for the day or the circumstances of the world at large. He also had what is often called a “wicked sense of humor.”
One day, early in the course, when overzealous students were still trying to prove themselves through enthusiasm alone, he asked us to open our Bibles to Hezekiah chapter 3. There was a flurry of pages as many raced to be the first there. Dr. Crouch just sat with a smile on his face, waiting for his OT students to realize there is no book of Hezekiah in the Bible.
There is, however, a book of Habakkuk—though it may take nearly as much searching to find. Though obscure, Habakkuk is my kind of prophet. He has a lot of questions for God, and many of those questions have to do with injustice, religious hypocrites, and how on earth people of God are supposed to live in the midst of it all.
The message that I believe God wants me to offer today unfolds in three parts: watching, waiting, and working. I believe they flow in that direction, and I believe that in them Habakkuk and the Bible provide us with a model for living in a world where things are not as they should be.
But first: our scripture.
Act 1: Watching
A little context: The world as Habakkuk knew it was crumbling.
When the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to their Assyrian conquerers about a hundred years prior, those in the Southern Kingdom of Judah had patted themselves on the backs. Their survival, they believed, proved that they were right and Israel was wrong, and God would forever be on their side.
But everything had started going wrong again, Habakkuk noted as he looked around him. The Kingdom of Judah occupied a little strip of land that had long been the battleground of the larger states to the south and the east. Now Babylonia was expanding, conquering more land and peoples than ever, and Judah was a fly on the windshield as Egypt sent armies to resist.
His world was filled with what today would have been called terrorism, racial aggression, religious persecution, and crimes against humanity. Some of his questions are the same sort many are asking today:
Why do arrogant and predatory people prosper while benevolent and humble people are victimized by a violent, materialistic society?
Why do greedy businessmen and politicians fleece the underprivileged, rarely coming to justice?
Why do powerful nations oppress smaller nations for the sake of enslaving people and harvesting their natural resources?
(Questions from The VOICE Bible, p.1104).
The watching side of this is that Habakkuk is looking around—he is aware of what is going on. He is using his God-given reason and abilities to evaluate and assess the world at large. And that evaluation leads him to believe that God is not acting as God should.
Now maybe you’re uncomfortable with that idea, but this is what the Bible testifies. Almost all lament—in the Psalms, the prophets, and throughout scripture—finds its voice by calling God to account—to act in accordance with God’s nature of compassion and justice.
When Habakkuk cries out in chapter 1 verse 2: “How long must I cry, O LORD, and get no answer from You?”, he is squarely in the same tradition and place that led the psalmist to accuse God of sleeping on the job in Psalm 44:23, and (even more dramatically) sleeping the deep sleep of a drunken reveler in Psalm 78:65.
In the spirit of Habakkuk, many folks today (Christian and otherwise) are watching the world around us and crying out: “God, Don’t you hear my prayers? Are you listening? Are you there at all?”
Act 2: Waiting
Having watched the world, Habakkuk begins chapter 2 with the intention to now watch for God. He waits expectantly, confident that God will answer. We’ve no idea how long Habakkuk waits, but we only have to wait one verse; for at verse 2 of chapter 2 God is already responding, and in the next verse we read:
For the revelation awaits an appointed time…
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come and will not delay.
In other words: I’m paying attention; it’s just not yet time.
Timing is a tricky thing. Without knowing all the variables and being able to see the big picture, we might well screw the timing up. It’s hard not to hear echoes here of those famous verses from Ecclesiastes 3: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven” (Eccl 3:1, ASV). Later in that book, in chapter 9 (v.11), the author shares that timing and chance play a big role in how life turns out.
Sometimes we forget that God doesn’t get permission to be an unjust jerk just because God is God. God’s central characteristics are compassion and justice for the marginalized. God can’t just do something in creation without the timing being right.
A great example of this is in the story of Abraham, back in Genesis 15. There, Abraham is promised he will inherit all the land around him—farther than he can see in any direction. But he is also told that it won’t happen during his lifetime. Why won’t God just kick out the locals right away so Abraham can live into the promise? In Genesis 15:16, God says it is “because the sin of the Amorite people has not yet reached its full measure” (VOICE). In other words, God won’t kick them out because the timing isn’t right. There, in Genesis 15, they don’t deserve it; to eject the Amorites would involve God acting contrary to God’s nature. God is, after all, “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Nehemiah 9:17 ESV; cf. Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8, usw.). That is who God is, and that is why sometimes God has to wait too.
Act 3: Working
But Habakkuk doesn’t leave us there, nor do the other texts of the Bible. Our morning’s reading concludes with the statement that “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness” (2:4). As people of faith in God, we do not merely watch and wait—we also work. We live out God’s faithfulness and characteristics in our lives—that’s what Habakkuk meant by being a “righteous person.”
As Jesus and the NT reveal to us, it is precisely those times it seems the world is coming apart that are the most important to live out and work in the Kingdom way. In several gospels, Jesus speaks on such things. He talks about about wars, natural disasters, ethnic conflict, famines, and the breakdown of the family unit. He says that “false liberators and prophets will pop up like weeds” (Mark 13:22 VOICE), inciting our fear by claiming the end is near. But he also tells us that all this stuff has nothing of significance to do with the end times (Mark 13:7; Matthew 24:6; Luke 21:9).
In his way, Jesus does tell us what to do about it—but he usually speaks through parables—a fig tree, a man returning from a journey, a persistent widow, a gaggle of bridesmaids. While the stories may vary, the lesson remains the same: double down—recommit yourself to practicing justice, doing right, paying attention to those around you, and working to advance God’s mission of love.
The NT letters of 2Peter and 1Thessalonians both emphasize the initiative we are to take when we sense the world needs more of God’s transforming power. As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he says that the day of God’s intervention—the “day of the Lord”—is going to surprise us all. But that only means, he says, that we need to “stay awake and in control [of ourselves]” (1Thessalonians 5:6 VOICE). What does that look like? Paul elaborates for us in v.11: “Support one another. Keep building each other up as you have been doing” (VOICE).
In 2Peter, we see the same challenge. Peter urges us to self-reflection and assessment: “think what sort of people you ought to be” (2Peter 3:11 VOICE). And then he lays it all out: “While we wait for the day of the Lord, work hard to live in peace” (2Peter 3:14). In fact, in what may be the only backhanded compliment recorded in scripture, Peter says that Paul has written all of this in his own letters, “although uneducated and unstable readers misinterpret difficult passages, just as they always misread Scripture, to their spiritual ruin” (2Peter 3:16 VOICE).
When we look around us and see the world as we know it crumbling, it is not time to back down or to huddle up in our religious fortresses. When the world needs more of God’s transforming power, it is time to double down on God’s mission, to recommit ourselves to following the path of Jesus, and to work toward God’s justice in the here and now.
As Peter reminds us in 2Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow about enacting His promise—slow is how some people want to characterize it—no, He is not slow but patient and merciful to you, not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but wanting everyone to turn away from following his own path and to turn towards God’s” (VOICE).
That is our reaction to the chaos of the world—at least if we are people of faith.
We watch—both attentive to the world around us, and anticipating the impossible when our redeeming God intervenes.
We wait—knowing that God will act as God is able, often intervening through very human hands and means.
And we work—reflectively, diligently, persistently, compassionately—just as did our Savior Jesus Christ. We work harder than we’ve ever worked in our life. Because no one knows how much time is left—for each of us or for any of us.
The world needs some good news right now. Good thing Jesus brought enough for everyone.