17th Sunday after Pentecost
October 6, 2019
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
“When Things Get Worse Before They Get Better”
Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is one of my favorites…the Old Testament lesson from the prophet Habakkuk.
My dear friends,
You may not know this, but I wasn’t supposed to be here today. Originally, the plan was for me to be gone today because I had tickets to the Nebraska vs. Northwestern football game on Saturday. I could have been there when Nebraska kicked a field goal with no time left to win the game 13-10. However, I chose not to go and I sold my tickets to the game. It’s okay…I’ve already seen those teams play before. The last time I saw Nebraska play Northwestern (2013), Nebraska scored a touchdown on a last play of the game desperation pass into the end zone. 90,000 people went crazy. In that game 6 years ago things definitely got worse before they got exponentially better. In my life I have learned that, in sports…in life…sometimes things get worse before they get better!
The same can be said about Habakkuk and his contemporaries. Habakkuk prophesied to Judah in the reign of Jehoiakim in the last decade of the 7th century BC probably around 605BC and the Battle of Carchemish. It was a time of chaos, uncertainty, and violence for Judah. Habakkuk had gone often to the Lord in prayer for his people, and it just seemed things were getting worse before they got better. Because things were getting worse with no sign of things getting better, Habakkuk complained.
Habakkuk’s first complaint focuses on God’s apparent lack of response. Violence, wrong, and injustice seem to flourish, while God seemed distracted, disinterested, or otherwise pre-disposed. God responds by assuring Habakkuk that he is active, even now, orchestrating a coming invasion of Judah by the Chaldeans (Babylonians). That invasion, says the Lord, will bring his justice to Judah.
Huh? The Babylonians? What! Oh no…not them! Habakkuk, on hearing God’s plan for Judah, raises his second complaint. How can God take a wicked, idolatrous nation such as Babylon and use it against a more righteous nation such as Judah? Why would God even consider doing nothing while evil people triumph over those who are more righteous? Aren’t things only getting worse? Well, sometimes things get worse before they get better.
The Lord tells Habakkuk, “Still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” Uhm…come again? Seems slow? Delay? Did He say “wait?” Well…that’s a problem right there amigo. In our day of instantaneous gratification, the call to wait for anything is never easy. Know what else I’ve learned in life? Hope always involves waiting. Yet, it’s in the waiting that we learn dependence – we grow – and we’re being shaped by God. Most important, in the waiting, faith is strengthened and hope has everything to do with faith in what God will do in the future.
Finally, God offers Habakkuk and his most significant hope in 2:4 – “The righteous shall live by faith.” Wow. This also means that the righteous live by hope, and hope does not disappoint. Hope is inseparable from faith. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (Heb 11:1). Faith, this assurance, is not just our trusting that everything will turn out all right. Whether things get better or are getting worse, faith is believing God will care for us because he has been reconciled to us by the One he promised to send – a promise as old as time itself.
As St. Paul makes clear in Romans when he quotes these words of Habakkuk, it is Christ Jesus who by his death on the cross and his resurrection has accomplished this reconciliation to God. Our sin, which would have forever placed us on the other side of God’s judgment—with the unrighteous of Judah, with the wicked Babylonians even—he took on himself and took away. Faith always has an object, and the object of our faith is the saving work of Jesus. This is the faith by which we live. Faith gives us confidence as we wait for things to get better.
Hope is the amazing gift of seeing the future shaped by faith. It’s why Christians with cancer can see themselves whole again—on earth or in heaven. It’s why a husband and wife torn apart by conflict, sitting with a Christian counselor, suddenly see a future they may have together. It’s the person broken down and worn out by life that keeps lifting their head off the pillow every morning and keeps going every single day trusting it will get better.
“The righteous shall live by faith” especially when things get worse knowing that they WILL get better and that things are already better through forgiveness, salvation, and life in Christ Jesus. But you may have to wait for things to get better. And waiting stinks.
The last three verses of Habakkuk are meant to be sung to a melody we don’t know. Yet they sing through the centuries what God-centered hope looks like: “Though 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, YET I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” our strength even in knowing that things get worse before they get better. That hope-filled promise is even better than the best Nebraska last-second win.