Between Complaint and Praise

Habakkuk 2:1-4
A sermon written by David A. Davis and preached by Lauren J. McFeaters
October 2, 2022
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A few weeks ago, I was driving south on Interstate 71, between Columbus and Cincinnati. As I drove, I was looking for a very particular sign. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it. Lauren Yeh had told me it was on the north bound side of the road, but facing the south bound traffic, and has to do with a soccer rivalry between two professional teams.

Lauren had also told me that when the two professional Ohio soccer teams play, one from Columbus and one from Cincinnati, it’s called “The Hell is Real” Derby, pronounced “Darby.” The name comes from the sign I was looking for. I didn’t want to miss it.

Decades before, this sign in a field was put up by a farmer and reads: “Hell is Real.” I had seen pictures, but I wasn’t sure how big it was, or how hard it would be to see while driving. Turns out, there was no way you could miss it. It was very plain. A passenger, a driver, a runner, probably a pilot could read it. I take some joy in the notion that the content of the sign as been repurposed for a non-theological, non-judgmental, non-threatening use. The “Hell is Real” derby. A soccer match.

From the Book of Habakkuk:

“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets,

so that a runner may read it.

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. Look at the proud!

Their spirit is not right in them,

but the righteous live by faith.”

Write the vision on a tablet and make it plain. So that a runner can read it. Its not a sign like “STOP,” “YIELD.” It’s not a sign held up, telling a distance runner, her time as she passed by. The vision, it is to be written so that the person can carry it along, and read it, and comprehend it, in the middle of the run. Write so the messenger has the message. The message, the vision, is for the journey itself.

The message is sure and true for the appointed time. For the here and now. It’s a vision of God’s future. If you don’t see it, if you don’t grasp it, be patient. Wait for it. It is surely coming. God is here and God’s future is real. Despite all the signs that the world may be crumbling, God is still in control.

And the righteous – they shall live not by answers, not by certainties, not by threats, not by fear – but by faith. Write the vision, make it plain, etched not on tablets of stone, but etched in the hearts, of all those who are called by God, “to run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12)

There’s not much to know about Habakkuk. There’s not much information here in the Hebrew Scriptures, little, if anything, added by the historians of antiquity, not much more that comes from biblical scholarship. Habakkuk was a prophet of God. A prophet who most likely lived in or around Jerusalem, that ancient city, with expansive walls, and plenty of watch posts. Habakkuk was a Hebrew prophet at time when Babylon was the empire of the day. That means that his city was in ruins. Jerusalem was under siege. His world was literally crumbling around him. Not much more can be said about Habakkuk. What is known about Habakkuk is his complaint.

Right from the start. Right at the beginning of the book of Habakkuk, the first chapter: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing? So the law becomes slack, and justice never prevails…” Come on, God! Look around! I’m not sure which world you’re watching over, but mine, mine is falling apart. Evil carries the day. Violence never seems to stop. Righteous leaders are nowhere to be found. Aren’t you the God of old? Aren’t you the one to do something? What is known about Habakkuk is his complaint.

And yet, Habakkuk begins with a complaint, and ends with a prayer. A prayer that God would come and save God’s people, that God’s people would endure. Right at the end of the book, the last few verses, the last words from the prophet, the end of that prayer, he acknowledges that he will have to wait. The victory is yet to come. Right there at the end: “Yet, I will rejoice in the Lord. I will exult in the God of my salvation. The Lord, is my strength.”

Many of you know that Nassau Church is the spiritual home of Centurion, the Princeton based organization founded by Jim McCloskey in 1983. Just shy of 40 years, 67 individuals freed. Over 1,200 years of life spent in prison for crimes they did not commit. This week Centurion once again held their family gathering here in Princeton. The events always includes the ritual of the recently exonerated and returning citizens, removing their names from the board in Centurion office that lists the names of the current cases the team is working on. This year the names removed; the men freed: Shawn Henning, Kevin DeSalle, Ben Spencer, and Larry Walker.

In March of 2021 on a Friday, I watched a livestream video from a courtroom in Dallas, Texas. It was the hearing in which the judge vacated the conviction of Ben Spencer and ordered his immediate release.

According to the account written by Jim McCloskey, Ben Spencer was released after 34 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He walked out of prison into the arms of his wife Debra, his 82 year mother Lucille, and his son BJ, who was born three months after his father’s arrest. When asked about his strength and perseverance, how he kept going all this years, Ben said,

“Even though I had seeds of doubt, I always had Hope. I couldn’t see giving up. My Faith told me that somehow, someday, God would provide a way out.” Then he added, “Patience wins out over time. It always does.

Ben Spencer knows what it means to stand at the watch post. “Someday God would provide.”

Or as the prophet put it: “Yet, I will rejoice in the Lord.

I will exult in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord, is my strength.”

Bring your complaint here, even when, especially when your life is crumbling. When the liturgy of your life begins with a gut-wrenching plea, Jesus bids you to come. And this is our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise. This feast, a watch post really, unfolds  under a liturgy of plea and thanksgiving. This table is full. Yes, bread, wine, body, blood, grace, forgiveness, presence. The table is full. But the table overflows with the reality of our lives as well. There is still a vision for the appointed time, for here and now, and the righteous shall live by faith.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded

by so great a cloud of witnesses,

let us also lay aside every weight,

and the sin that clings so closely,

and let us run with perseverance,

the race that is set before us,

looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

(Hebrews 12)