How Long O Lord?!

October 31, 2019 0 comments

Can we call out to God? Am I really allowed to be angry at God?

Below is a copy of my sermon that I preached on October 6, 2019. The text preached is Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Good and gracious God, thank you for this day and for gathering us here once more around your word and meal. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we know that you experience suffering and pain. Stir in us the memory of consolation and mercy. That through your love we might see the light on our path. Amen.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret….

It is okay to question. It is okay to question God. It is okay to demand answers, to demand answers from God.

In the Old Testament text today, the prophet goes to the watchpost to await additional instruction from the Lord, to challenge God for an explanation. The prophet isn’t naïve, he expects to be reprimanded for speaking harshly to the Lord, but the prophet does not intend to back down.

Elie Wiesel, the 1969 Nobel Peace Prize laureate said, “The Jew may love God, or he may fight with God, but he may not ignore God.”[1]

The prophet is doing just that, he is going to argue with God, knowing that the full resolution of his question must come from God.

The prophet has set up a lament that contains a petition for God’s intervention. Laments can be found throughout the Bible, especially in the Psalms. The prophet cries “How long” implying that it has been awhile since he started his complaint, unanswered and this lack of response gives birth to the prospect of divine apathy.[2]

The prophet is calling out to “Violence” which is tantamount to calling out “Fire!” in a crowd. But God does not come to the rescue, on the contrary, God forces the prophet to witness conflict and contention. The prophet finds the destructive devastation an immediate menace, but God does not seem to take note of it.[3]

Ignatius of Loyola wrote of the rhythm of “consolation” and “desolation.” In consolation we are drawn closer to God, while in desolation we find it more difficult to feel God’s presence. In times of desolation we are sustained by those times when we felt the movement of the Spirit more closely.[4]

The protest to God of unanswered prayer is a common human complaint. The prophet, as well as people today, including myself asks “Why indeed does God allow suffering? Why does God not answer the prayers of the faithful? Why the apparent divine silence in the face of human misery and earnest devout pleading?”[5]

There have definitely been times in my life where I ask God these questions and more. Where my anger at the injustice in the world and, honestly what feels like suffering in my life overflow and I scream and yell at God who seems to be a God who isn’t near. When loved ones and friends fight terminal illnesses, when in death we lose parents and children, when we see other humans treated as less than because of the color of their skin, where they were born, what they believe in or who they love. I cry out in anger and frustration, tears of despair stream down my face and I say the same words of many other laments… “how long O Lord!?”

In the silence, it seems that God is either indifferent or has a profound explanation that is beyond fathoming, or it suggests that there is, after all no God.[6]

Elie Wiesel writes in his book, Night, of a death camp inmate asking, “Where is God? Where is he?” when a youth is hanged by the SS was still in agony after thirty minutes.[7]

The paradox of lament is that there is no lament without a foundation of faith. Grief, sorrow, despair can and do all exist alongside a void of faith, but argumentative lament presupposes that someone, God, is listening. Habakkuk believes that an answer will come, because he has had such experience of consolation and clarity before.[8] Faith in a God who has proved faithful to us and to our ancestors and such faith does not answer all questions and dispel all the suffering but it does give us light on the way.[9]

The prophet declares that he be on watch at a look-out station, communicating that he is determined to persist until God give him an audience. His vow underscores that the answer he seeks has to come from God. Habakkuk would counsel that the troubles do not constitute a ground of despair, for in the end God’s design will be made manifest. The first part of today’s reading, from chapter one of Habakkuk advises the people of God to be faithfully bold in wrestling with God. Chapter two keeps alive and burning the faith, in God’s triumph no matter what odds may be stacked against the pursuit of God’s justice.[10]

In 2012, I had the chance to travel to Germany and as part of that travel I visited the Buchenwald concentration camp. I saw firsthand, at least in what remained and what was discovered there, the atrocities that were committed there. I toured the grounds, where only plots remain of the housing blocks, I walked through the crematorium and the corpse cellar, which is just what you would think it is and more. I visited the intake building where people were stripped and scrubbed down raw in order to disinfect them and make them clean. This building, long since renovated with its long sterile hallways and its endless lines of people waiting for what was next, not knowing what was to come, opens into a large room now converted into a museum to tell the history of Nazi Germany and of Buchenwald, but it also told the stories of those imprisoned there. It showed the artwork discovered after the camp was liberated. Artwork that was created by prisoners from whatever they could find and hide.

And in this artwork, in the drawings showing the grotesques bodies of fellow inmates being starved and worked to death. In sculptures made out of metals and other objects used to carry out abuses no one can even imagine, the artists, the creators of such work showed hope, showed a faith in God that never abandons, shows a God who is always present.

In the conversation with the death camp inmate that Elie Wiesel writes of in Night, he continues saying found himself answering within, “Where is he? He is here. He is hanging in the gallows.”[11]

Jesus is found in the gallows, found hanging on the cross. In the incarnation, God experiences that deep human fear that there is no God. Here at least God knows what it is like to pray a prayer that seems to go unanswered.

So again, let me tell you a secret…It is okay to be angry, it is okay to cry out in lament to a God who doesn’t seem to be answering our prayers. It is okay to question, to demand answers, to stand out our watchposts until an answer comes.

It is okay because God knows what lost prayer is, God experiences lost prayer. God is there in the trenches and in the gallows with us, crying out and lamenting alongside of us with shouts of “how long.” That in our desolation, the Spirit moves us reminding us of our consolation that comes despite the injustices and despite the workings in the world that would turn us away from God.

God doesn’t just show up, God was always there. Watching, waiting, lamenting alongside of us.

Amen.


[1] Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy (New York: W. Morrow, 1991), 35. quoted in Jin H. Han, “Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 by Jin H. Han,” Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 Commentary by Jin H. Han – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL), accessed October 5, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4261.

[2] Jin H. Han, “Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 by Jin H. Han,” Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 Commentary by Jin H. Han – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL), accessed October 5, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4261.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cooper-White, P. (2010). Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, Loc 8722.

[5] Spinks, B. (2010). Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, Loc 8671.

[6] Spinks, B. (2010). Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, Loc 8679.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cooper-White, P. (2010). Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, Loc 8719.

[9] “How Long, O Lord? by Kathryn M. Schifferdecker – Craft of Preaching – Working Preacher,” How Long, O Lord? by Kathryn M. Schifferdecker – Craft of Preaching – Working Preacher, September 29, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5383.

[10] Jin H. Han, “Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 by Jin H. Han,” Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 Commentary by Jin H. Han – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL), accessed October 5, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4261.

[11] Spinks, B. (2010). Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, Loc 8684.