The Greater Masterpiece
Readings: Habakkuk 1:1-7, 12-13, 2:1-4, Secrets of Heaven #3854:2-3 (see below)
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This morning we are going to spend some time with the prophet Habakkuk. You’d be forgiven for asking: Who? Habakkuk is only included once in the three-year cycle of the lectionary and is not usually a go-to for other bible readings. And though the common invocation “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth be silent before him,” does come from Habakkuk, we might not have heard much more from him.
We don’t know a lot about Habakkuk. He does not provide us with much information about himself, nor is there much opportunity: the book itself is a scant three chapters long. We can surmise a few things. Since he prophecies about an immanent defeat for Judah by the Babylonians, he was probably active during the reign of King Jehoiakim, which was 609-598 BCE. This would make him a contemporary of the more well-known Jeremiah.
As obscure as Habakkuk may be, however, I think that even now we can resonate with his writings. We might know something of the world Habakkuk describes. He writes:
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong-doing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and conflict abounds. Therefore, the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. (1:2-4)
How familiar this sounds! Human beings, then and now, make choices that lead to corruption and violence, choices that seem to actively prevent justice from being manifested in the world. Those who love justice, who value integrity, see evil prospering and it is perplexing, it is discouraging. Habakkuk, too, sees the prevalence of such forces and it pains him, distresses him, not only because they exist, but that their existence might imply that God tolerates these evils.
So he makes a complaint to God, lays out his case for his reasonable and rational distress, and asks for God’s reply. He asks: why does injustice prevail? and desires for God to answer for the state of the world. God’s initial reply, as characterized by Habakkuk, complicates matters. God says that he is sending the Babylonians to lay waste to the Israelites as payment for their crimes. This is how ancient peoples of all kinds understood the relationship between the divine and human history. They saw the divine as interceding directly in human affairs. That human history could be interpreted to reveal God’s acts of justice on a worldwide scale. Modern religion has, in many sectors, re-evaluated and evolved this relationship between God and human history. Even so, we see elements of evangelical religion stating that God has sent hurricanes or epidemics to punish certain groups of people whom they call sinners. So, we are not so far removed from this perspective as we might imagine.
Habakkuk though, pushes back. For as much as the Jewish tradition contained a strand of covenant thinking (ie God would give reward to those who followed the law, and punish those who didn’t), there was also a tradition such that we see in the book of Job, that grapples with a reality much less simple. For Habakkuk, God’s answer raised more questions on the topic of justice than it answered. How can it be just, Habakkuk asks, that even good people be destroyed wholesale by divine retribution. He asks God:
“Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (1:13)
It does not add up for him. How can God’s ends be met by the wicked and vicious Babylonians? Yes, the Israelites (or anyone else for that matter) should receive punishment for their misdeeds but by the Babylonians? This divine act would perform a retributive purpose but not a restorative one, and Habakkuk knew God to be deeply and steadfastly restorative. How can God answer injustice with more injustice, and still be considered divinely loving?
Habakkuk decides to wait upon the Lord once more, to press God for a different, better answer. He says:
“I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” (2:1)
This time God’s answer is different.
“Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it. It will surely come, it will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is puffed up in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” (2:2-3)
This is an answer that transcends Habakkuk’s original question. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “It is an answer… not in terms of thought, but in terms of existence.” (1) For still the vision awaits its time…and the righteous shall live by their faith. God opens up the realm of justice so that it is no longer about retribution in the short-term but rather restoration in God’s time. God turns the question back to us: What will you do, Habakkuk? What kind of vision will you write? What kind of vision will you live by? If you were truly to believe in the justice that forms the heart of God, how would you live differently?
Habakkuk had already given a clue that he was ready to hear such a word. He had written: I will look to see what *he* will say to me, and what answer *I* am to give to this complaint.” God’s answer and humankind’s response are linked; the first meaningless without the second (2), for humanity and God are now in a creative partnership. In the words of Heschel: “The universe is done. The greater masterpiece still undone, still in the process of being created, is history.” (3)
The “greater masterpiece” still to be finished, is the story of our choices, the history that we make. We recall from our Swedenborg reading:
The Lord also foresaw that it would be impossible for any good to take root in humankind except in our freedom…
Evil and injustice are travesties, but they exist because we are given the gift, the respect, the mercy, of freedom. We are given the agency to craft an internal life of choices that reflects the divine, or reflects the lack of it. Swedenborg continues:
For every smallest fraction of a moment of a person's life entails a chain of consequences extending into eternity. Indeed every one is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so every single moment of the life both of our understanding and of our will is a new beginning.
Heschel says it this way: But God needs mercy, righteousness; His needs cannot be satisfied in temples, in space, but only in history, in time. (4)
What he is saying here is that God’s desire for mercy and righteousness cannot be satisfied in any other way than in the still quiet moment of human decision, pure only in its freedom. Every small fraction of a moment contains a new beginning that might become resonant with the desire of God, and along with Habakkuk, we mourn, bitterly, desperately, when that desire goes unfulfilled, when that moment of human decision decides to give birth to in-justice, to imbalance, to oppression.
And yet still the tension remains. Can any appeal to the ultimate value of freedom justify the worst of what humanity has wrought? How can it be that the freedom of one can be allowed to harm another? How can we bear to speak of the “greater masterpiece” while things are falling apart, while real suffering is happening in the here and now. It hurts. We cry out. We lament. And well we should. It is not a sign of a lack of faith to protest the existence of injustice, and of suffering, even to God. It is a sign we are taking seriously the desire of God, the vision of God, that would bring all people into thriving. It means, as Heschel says, we understand that “Justice is not an ancient custom, a human convention, a value, but a transcendent demand, freighted with divine concern.”(5)
And so it remains something of a divine mystery, a bewilderment, that God would, in any way, cede to us something so freighted with divine concern, something so important. What *was* God thinking? God was thinking that the only way for our choice for justice to mean something is if we have the opportunity not to make it.
This is where faith and hope come into the picture. Our brains don’t really help us out with this predicament. In the words of science writer Erik Vance, the human brain is a prediction machine.(6) Its job is to take what has happened in the past, apply it to the present in order to make a prediction about the future. This helps us survive in the world, to learn what we need to learn.
And yet, in this way of looking at the world, we are acutely vulnerable to Habakkuk’s lament. When we observe rampant and persistent injustice, oppression and suffering, when we recognize how long it has been a part of human history, a good prediction machine would say it will always be so. And this can completely overwhelm us, it can debilitate us.
But there is a part of the picture that is outside of our history, outside of our neurology, outside of reason and prediction, and this is God’s promise of ultimate restoration. We have no real reason to believe it, except that each of us have experienced it, a small moment of blooming, of joy, of healing, growing up through the cracks of this world, somehow, someway. And if we do believe in it, against all odds, if we believe that justice is possible in the future, we are free to act for it in the present. For every single moment of our life is a new beginning.
(1) Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, An Introduction, 143
(2) Ibid, 142,
(3) Ibid, 198
(6) On Being with Krista Tippett, Interview with Erik Vance, The Drugs Inside Your Head, September 19, 2019
Habakkuk 1:1-7, 12-13, 2:1-4
1 The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.
2 How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
The LORD’s Answer
5 “Look at the nations and watch— and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. 6 I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor.
Habakkuk’s Second Complaint
12 LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, you will never die. You, LORD, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. 13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
2:1 I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
The LORD’s Answer
2 Then the LORD replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. 3 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. 4 “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright— but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.
Secrets of Heaven #3854
 …The Lord foresaw from eternity what the human race was going to be like in the future and what every member of it was going to be like, and that evil was going to increase all the time, so that at length humankind, of themselves, would [wish to] rush headlong into hell. That being so, the Lord has provided not only the means by which He makes it possible for human beings to be diverted from hell and led towards heaven, but also does in His providence divert and lead us all the time. The Lord also foresaw that it would be impossible for any good to take root in humankind except in our freedom, for that which does not take root in freedom is dispelled at the first sign of evil and of temptation.
 From this it may be seen how far someone errs who believes that the Lord has not foreseen and does not see the smallest individual thing with a person, or that within the smallest individual thing He does not foresee and lead, when in fact the Lord's foresight and providence are present within the tiniest details of all the smallest individual things with us, and in details so tiny that it is impossible to comprehend in any manner of thought one in many millions of them. For every smallest fraction of a moment of a person's life entails a chain of consequences extending into eternity. Indeed every one is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so every single moment of the life both of our understanding and of our will is a new beginning.
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