Waiting on Top of the Wall

Waiting on Top of the Wall

The Rev. Amy Spagna

October 30, 2016 – Pentecost 24C (Proper 26)

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4



 “How long, O LORD, shall I cry out and You not listen, shall I shout to you, ‘Violence!’ and You not save?” (Hab 1:2, JPS)

It could be any of us, really, in the position the prophet Habakkuk is in this morning. He is very upset about the lack of justice he has observed among his people. Yet, at the same time, he has been left to wonder just where God is in all of this. So he’s done the only thing that he can: he’s climbed up to the top of wall surrounding the city of Jerusalem, and given God the what-for.

It is still hard not to ask that question when we see what’s going on in the world around us. Take the civil war in Syria, for example, where on Thursday UNICEF reported that yet another elementary school was bombed without any concern for the children inside. Or how the Standing Rock Sioux are having to defend their ancestral burial grounds and sole water source in North Dakota from an unwanted oil pipeline project. It’s a peaceful and prayerful protest whose participants have been violently removed from the land, and one where our own Episcopal Church has added its voice to those calling for law enforcement to stand down. Closer to home, I’ve heard that question asked many times. Whether it’s expressed in in the need for a new job, the desire to help a loved one in crisis, or anything else, the question underneath all of those things is why. Why does God not seem to be listening? Why isn’t God answering my prayers RIGHT NOW, when God clearly knows there is a great need?

            The truth is, God has an AWFUL sense of timing by human standards. As a familiar hymn text reminds us, a thousand ages in God’s sight are like an evening gone.[1] Time simply doesn’t flow on a cosmic scale in the same way it does on our relatively small one. What’s now on human terms might be years down the line on God’s terms. Conversely, what we think is a long wait might be like nothing at all for God. Our long history together tells us that God will always show up when asked. However, our taking that on faith doesn’t mean that it’ll happen in the way we demand it, or when we demand it. And so we have to wait – even if it sometimes means we have to wrestle with injustice along the way.

Wrestling with injustice is exactly where we find the prophet Habakkuk in today’s Old Testament reading. His short, three-chapter vision was recorded sometime around 600 B.C., on the cusp of the Exile and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Like his contemporary Jeremiah, he is greatly concerned about the consequences for the people’s failure to uphold their end of the Covenant. His main charge is that all of the bad stuff that’s happening is a symptom of justice’s being bent out of shape. He holds the people themselves and God equally accountable. It isn’t just the people’s failings which are the root cause of this disease. It’s also that God hasn’t shown up enough to correct the situation.[2]

This dual accusation is a bit clearer in the original Hebrew text than it is in English. What the translation renders as “justice” and “judgment” is in fact the same word, mishpat. Habakkuk uses it in both ways to make the point that judgment and justice are very closely linked. What happens in respect to one of them happens to both. It just makes things that much worse in Jerusalem when the people ignore the need to do justice, and it seems that God hasn’t bothered to show up to hold them accountable. It’s not just the damage caused by human failures that Habakkuk objects to. In God’s apparent absence the Law is twisted, and applied with perverted force: perhaps brutally and unequally, and perhaps even only by those who hypocritically apply it to others without any thought that they might need to change their own behavior to comply with it.[3]

It’s no wonder Habakkuk is unhappy with the situation. He sees it for the “threat” to the ideal world that it is, and he demands to know just what God is going to do about it. While he never doubts whether God will show up to begin with, he’s more than a little frustrated about what he sees as a lack of decisive action on God’s part. He lays out the charge in the last few verses of the first chapter, which the compilers of the lectionary chose to leave out: “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab. 1:13, NRSV)

            God’s answer to this accusation is to tell Habakkuk to get out his pen and parchment, and write this vision big enough to fit on a billboard: The righteous live by faith.

Say what?

The righteous live by faith. In other words, the twisting of justice at the heart of the prophet’s complaint isn’t necessarily tied to anything other than a lack of faith. The true marker of a righteous person, who actively does justice, is a willingness to live in light of the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things yet unseen (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV). That requires putting trust in a God who always seems to show up in totally unexpected ways. That kind of trust is what gives Habakkuk the ability to keep watch and listen to what God has to say. Sure, God’s answer to his demand to fix this mess ASAP is, “not yet!” However, it calls Habakkuk, and us too, to expand our narrow vision beyond just what we think we need in the immediate present. Because he is faithful, Habakkuk trusts that God’s purposes in the world will indeed unfold as they should. They can be written down for future generations to refer to, though it may take some time for them to be fully realized.[4] We’re being asked to wait, faithfully and for just a little longer – and in the meantime, to go about our lives as usual. It does NOT mean we’re to just sit there, playing with our phones, and doing nothing while we wait for God to show up. Instead, waiting faithfully requires us to keep praying and keep working in ways which will help bring the world closer in line with God’s vision.

We weren’t promised that waiting for it would be easy, or that we wouldn’t find ourselves back at the place of standing on top of the city wall and complaining that God isn’t listening. Like the prophet, our faith is what directs us to keep asking the hard questions in the first place. It’s what tells us that our prayer will eventually be answered, whether it’s in the way we hoped for or not. As Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist reminds us, "We open our hearts to God because of our relationship to God, a relationship which God has initiated.  Our prayer is always a response to God… More than anything, God longs to be in relationship with us and with all whom God has created.  It’s of God’s essence to be in relationship.  How God will break through to us will probably be because of some need we either have or know about… It’s not about information; it’s about trust in your relationship… and that makes all the difference.”[5]

            God already knew things weren’t right in Jerusalem. God still knows things aren’t right in Syria, or on the Standing Rock reservation, or for families struggling to make ends meet. Justice gets perverted because we people, whose job it is to make sure it happens, don’t always get it right. When we come across a problem, we can do one of two things. We can ignore it as something that isn’t ours to deal with anyway. Or, like the prophet, we can point it out and ask for God’s help to fix it. Even if we don’t get an answer right away, it’s the act of asking that matters most. It’s what enables us to get down off that wall and get to work – and in doing so, accept the invitation to join God in the place of need by offering our love in prayer and in action, and to be used by God for healing and transformation.[6]


[1] Isaac Watts, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Publishing, 1985), 680.

[2] Dennis Bratcher, “Commentary on the Texts: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4.” http://www.crivoice.com/lectionary/YearC/Cproper22ot.html. [Accessed October 19, 2016.]

[3] Karl Jacobson, “Commentary on Habbakuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1875. [Accessed October 19, 2016.]

[4] Bratcher, “Commentary on the Texts.”

[5] Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE, “#Petition: The Prayer of Petition.” http://ssje.org/ssje/2010/02/02/the-prayer-of-petition-br-curtis-almquist/. [Accessed October 27, 2016.]

[6] Ibid.