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Living Faith in an Unjust World

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


In Friday's Times Colonist is a picture of  Stephen Truscott. He was convicted as a 14 yr old boy of the murder of a girl named Lynn Harper, and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted just before abolition of capital punishment, and he was paroled after serving about ten years. Since then, his case has become a cause for those seeking to overturn wrongful convictions. Reviews of the trial and the evidence seem to point to a false conviction, but 45 years later, he is still waiting to see if he will finally be exonerated.  Forty five years is a long time to live with the label of murderer if you in fact are innocent.

But we know that justice in this life is always an approximate thing. We do our best, at least we hope we have done our best, and we believe that's enough. Sometimes its not enough and the innocent suffer.

And in a nutshell that's what the book of Habakkuk is all about...injustice and where is God when it happens?
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4


In Friday's Times Colonist is a picture of  Stephen Truscott. He was convicted as a 14 yr old boy of the murder of a girl named Lynn Harper, and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted just before abolition of capital punishment, and he was paroled after serving about ten years. Since then, his case has become a cause for those seeking to overturn wrongful convictions. Reviews of the trial and the evidence seem to point to a false conviction, but 45 years later, he is still waiting to see if he will finally be exonerated.  Forty five years is a long time to live with the label of murderer if you in fact are innocent.

But we know that justice in this life is always an approximate thing. We do our best, at least we hope we have done our best, and we believe that's enough. Sometimes its not enough and the innocent suffer.

And in a nutshell that's what the book of Habakkuk is all about...injustice and where is God when it happens?

The book of Habakkuk is a short little book with a funny name. It is easily overlooked in favor of Isaiah and Jeremiah and other better known prophets. Its funny name and the fact that it was written thousands of years ago I suppose gives us the impression of it being strange, and maybe even rather archaic. The historical situation is of course long past, but the message is as up to date as today's newspaper. Life is not just.
Upon accepting an award, the late Jack Benny once remarked,
"I really don't deserve this.
But I have arthritis, and I don't deserve that either."


The name "Habakkuk" doesn't even sound Jewish. It sounds more arabic, but exactly what the name means or where it came from is uncertain. The man Habakkuk apparently lived about the same time as Jeremiah in and around Jerusalem. It seems he may have been a priest in the temple in charge of some part of the worship.

Isaiah, Jeremiah and Joel, who we looked at last week were prophets sent to warn Judah that God was displeased and if they did not change their ways, they would be punished. These were not the only people God used to warn them of what was coming. An interesting side note is that God gave them plenty of warning and time to change. But they did not.

In Habakkuk's time, the consequences that Jeremiah warned of are beginning to take place. Babylon has become the strongest nation in the middle east, having defeated Assyria. Egypt claimed to rival the Babylonians.
The kings of Judah often tried to make alliances with Egypt to ward off enemies from the north, but God warns them this will not work, and in king Josiah's time the Egyptian army is defeated by Babylon at the battle of Carchemish. The fact that Judah was on the wrong side of the conflict meant it had no friends and no one to go to for protection. And Babylon was notorious as being an unforgiving and ruthless nation.

Jerusalem has not yet fallen, but Babylon controls much of the countryside.
The Babylonians were ruthless. They were governed by the Code of Hammurabi, which allowed for much more severe punishment than Biblical law. But in the case of conquered people, there was no code and their cruelty was legendary.
Habakkuk has a problem and he goes to God about it.

His problem is this:
God has sent the Babylonians to punish Judah for its failures, lack of justice and immorality.
But the Babylonians are much worse than the problem they are sent to punish.
How can God call it justice to use a worse people to punish Judah for its lesser offenses?
In Habakkuk's eyes this is not just, and knowing God, he thinks it is just not right.

God tells Habakkuk that he is preparing an answer.
Habakkuk tells the Lord that he is going to climb up to his watchtower and wait to see what God will do.
A watchtower is an approximately one to two story stone structure built in a farmer's field to keep watch over the crop.
From there, if it is on a hill, Habakkuk could see an approaching or retreating army. Likely he thought the only solution was for God to drive the Babylonians out, either with a stronger army or miraculously make them retreat. This would be a good time for another Gideon.

Off he goes to his watchtower to see what God will do.
In the course of events, God speaks to him again.
Then the LORD replied:
?Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.
For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.
'see, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright?but the righteous will live by his faith

God says, OK here is your answer. Put it on a billboard so that everyone can see it.
Your answer is coming, but you will have to wait for it. It's guaranteed, but not immediate.
There were two things God told Habakkuk to answer his question:
1. The evil carry the seeds of their own destruction within them.
2. The just will live by their faith.

Every evil tyrannical empire sows the seeds of its own self destruction. Oppressed people eventually will rise up and despotic regimes rarely thrive over the long run.
The Romans on the other hand, though we would consider them oppressive by our standards governed under Roman law which for its time was reasonably fair and just.

Soviet Communism sewed the seeds of its own demise and lasted less than a century.
This is true in smaller numbers as well. A church or a club that is run unjustly will not survive.
A boss who rules as a tyrant will not retain good employees and his business will eventually suffer.

God has said that built into the very nature of life is a process that weeds out evil regimes.

But ours is the time of Spiderman, James Bond, Catwoman and a host of other superheroes. (Are Ninja Turtles totally pass??)
What superheroes offer us is perfect justice and on schedule.
When Spiderman doesn't show up on time, which is immediately, everyone knows there is a crisis.
Even Spiderman knows it isn't right to keep people waiting when evil is afoot, or aclaw.

But God says, wait for it. Be patient.
I suppose Stephen Truscott says " is forty five years long enough?"
Communism died, but so did millions in the gulags of Siberia.
When is long enough, long enough?

And then comes the second part of God's answer:
--The just will live by their faith.
Martin Luther read Habakkuk who is quoted by the apostle Paul, and it was enough to transform his life.
Up to that point Luther had tried to make it all happen through his own efforts and sensed that God was not pleased.
Then he learned that what God asks is for us to live by faith in God's ways and timing.

It strikes me that in the lives of some people that is a tall order, and its easy for me to say from the comfort of my relatively untroubled life. The just will live by their faith.
How well would I do in a prison camp, suffering unjustly?

Hurricane Carter was a well known boxer who was falsely imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.
After serving nineteen years, Carter was released.
As a free man, Carter reflected on how he has responded to injustice in his life.

The question invariably arises, it has before and it will again: "Rubin, are you bitter?" And in answer to that I will say, "After all that's been said and done'the fact that the most productive years of my life, between the ages of twenty-nine and fifty, have been stolen; the fact that I was deprived of seeing my children grow up?wouldn't you think I would have a right to be bitter? Wouldn't anyone under those circumstances have a right to be bitter? In fact, it would be very easy to be bitter. But that has never been my nature, or my lot, to do things the easy way. If I have learned nothing else in my life, I've learned that bitterness only consumes the vessel that contains it. And for me to permit bitterness to control or to infect my life in any way whatsoever would be to allow those who imprisoned me to take even more than the 22 years they've already taken. Now that would make me an accomplice to their crime.1

You live with an injustice.
You have prayed and prayed, and so far nothing seems different.
God says, "Trust me with it."
That's what is meant. "Trust me with it."
Put it up on a billboard. God is reliable. Trust Him with it.

In her book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs wrote these words about her years of slavery: "Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations."

Harriet was born in 1813 in North Carolina. For the first six years of her life, she lived in a comfortable home with her parents and brother, not realizing she was a slave. But when her mother died, Harriet learned she wasn't free.

At age 15, her new master, Dr. James Norcom, pursued and harassed Harriet, while Norcom's wife oppressed her. Seeking to protect herself, Harriet turned to a white, unmarried lawyer and bore him two children.

Norcom retaliated by sending Harriet to a plantation to work as a field hand. Not wanting her children to become plantation slaves, she ran away before they could join her there. With the help of sympathetic neighbors, both black and white, she made her way to her grandmother's home. For the next seven years Harriet lived in a tiny cubbyhole under the front porch roof. The confined space was nine feet by seven feet, with a sloping ceiling only three feet high at one end. She shared her hiding place with rats and mice.

During this time Harriet wrote to Norcom, asking him to sell her the children. He refused. However, the children's father did buy the boy and girl, allowing them to stay with Harriet's grandmother. Hiding even from her children, Harriet would squint through a peephole, hoping to catch a glimpse of them playing outside.

In 1842, Harriet escaped to the North, and two years later her children joined her. Still, she was in danger of being returned to slavery by Dr. Norcom and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Complete liberation did not come until Harriet was forty years old, when her employer bought her freedom for $300.

Harriet Jacobs knew about slavery, fear, and brutality. She experienced the pain of a family torn apart, the indignity of being sold as property, and the uncertainty of living at the whim of someone else. Harriet wrote about her life experiences, and in 1861, the year the Civil War began, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published.

Harriet concluded her book with these words: "Reader, my story ends with freedom."2

Reader, the story ends with freedom.
God is just, but it is not always immediately apparent.
Do what you can. We are God's hands of justice. There is a time to pray and there is a time to act.
But when we have acted and prayed, put it in His hands and trust Him.
God will not let you down.
That is a promise.

Preached October 31, 2004 
Dr. Harold McNabb
West Shore Presbyterian Church
Victoria, British Columbia


Notes
1.
James S. Hirsch, Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 310,  as published in Preachingtoday.com
2.
Lev Grossman, "Reader, My Story Ends with Freedom," Time magazine (2-9-04), p. 75; 500 Great Books by Women:  A Reader's Guide, Penguin USA, 1994, published in Preachingtoday.com.


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