When it comes to naming the ones who have gone before us and who have shaped our faith in significant ways, I usually stay in the neighborhood, as it were, close to home. I name people in my family, or teachers and mentors, men and women whom I have known in person and with whom I have spent time; people whose eyes I remember smiling at me and whose hand I still sometimes feel on my shoulder after all those years.
I never met Habakkuk, though. All I know about the man with the funny name fits on three pages in my Bible. There’s no picture of his face, and there aren’t any stories to at least imagine the outlines of his life. All I know about Habakkuk is a voice I first heard when I was in my twenties. It took that long because in the church Habakkuk doesn’t get the exposure and name recognition of prophets like Isaiah or Amos. I remember sitting in a large gathering and listening to an old Jewish man who spoke about the audacity of hope (that was long before it became the title of a book). He sat on a stage behind a small table, and looking at us over the rims of his glasses he quoted from the final verses of Habakkuk,
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
y e t I w i l l r e j o i c e i n t h e L o r d;
I will exult in the God of my salvation. Habakkuk 3:17-18
The old man was no fool. He had seen violence and injustice in his lifetime that none of us could imagine. He had known hunger, thirst, pain and loss, he had lived through the darkness of six million Jewish men, women, and children murdered. And there he sat, teaching us the audacity of hope with the authority of his own life and the words of the prophet Habakkuk. “Don’t let circumstance determine the measure of your hope,” he said. “Only God is big enough to sustain your soul when the world gives you little to sing about. Listen to Habakkuk.” And we did.
We were Christians from all corners of Germany, Protestants and Catholics. We were looking at the growing arsenals of nuclear weapons in Europe and around the globe, and we knew that peace had to be more than sitting in fear in the shadow of missiles. We were looking at apartheid in South Africa and military rule in most of South America, and we knew that justice had to be more than the ability of European corporations to continue to do business there without disruptions. We were looking at forests and rivers dying because of acid rain, and we knew that we didn’t want to live as though we had another planet in storage somewhere. We began listening to Habakkuk and we found a brother in the struggle for a different world, a different life:
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 wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. Habakkuk 1:1-4
We found a brother who didn’t switch channels to hear only the news he wanted to hear, but who looked at the mess the world was in and took his questions to God. He didn’t get himself a nice couch and pull the blanket over his ears, no, he got up and took a stand:
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what [the Lord] will say to me, and what [God] will answer concerning my complaint. Habakkuk 2:1
He wanted to see justice and salvation, he had questions about God’s just rule, and he found himself a place where he stationed himself to keep watch. He didn’t turn away, he didn’t withdraw, he paid attention: ears and eyes open, heart and mind open.
The answer concerning his complaint didn’t explain how or why, if God was in charge, the world was in the kind of shape it was in. The answer Habakkuk received was a call to write the vision and to make it plain. The answer he received was a call to be attentive and persistent, for there is still a vision for the appointed time. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay (Habakkuk 2:2-30). Stand at your watchpost in the world gone wrong and put into words every glimmer of hope you can see, every whisper of promise you can hear. Don’t let circumstance determine the measure of your hope, but solely the vision of God’s just reign of peace. Only God is big enough to sustain your soul when the world gives you little to sing about.
The voice of Habakkuk has been with me like a brother for almost thirty years, keeping watch with me.
But why does God who said, “Let there be light” and there was light, why does God not say, “Let there be justice and peace”? If you ask Luke, he’ll tell you that that is exactly what God said in the life of Jesus Christ.
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he passed through Jericho and found Zacchaeus up in a tree. You know how he got there, the wee little man who owned the biggest house in town.
Nobody liked him. They enjoyed blocking his view when Jesus came down the road. It wasn’t hard, he was short, and the streets were already crowded; all they had to do was stand shoulder to shoulder like a wall. Zack wasn’t just a tax collector, he was the chief tax collector who had gotten rich by picking every last penny from their pockets. They knew that it was their hard work that had paid for his house and everything in it.
Zacchaeus couldn’t get through the wall of bodies, but he was determined to see who Jesus was – determined enough to make a fool of himself by running like a child, and, as if that hadn’t been ridiculous enough, climbing a tree. Perhaps he had heard people talking about Jesus, the friend of sinners and tax collectors, and now, sitting in the tree above the crowd, he was wondering if it could be true.
Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Oh did he ever hurry! He practically fell out of that tree, overjoyed and speechless, happy to welcome the famous rabbi.
The people who had been laughing out loud when they watched Zacchaeus running down the road and climbing the sycamore, now grumbled, “Really? Of all the houses in Jericho it had to be this one? Why did Jesus go to be the guest of a sinner?”
Well, Jesus had been very consistent in accepting those whom everybody else rejected, and we are not nearly as surprised as the people of Jericho were. What surprises us is what happened next: Zacchaeus, the rich crook, committed himself to doing justice. He turned to Jesus and said, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” What had gotten into the little man?
I can see Habakkuk standing at his watchpost on the edge of the scene, taking notes for the vision he is to write. You remember how he cried out to God, the law becomes slack and justice never prevails?
O mercy, justice sure did prevail that day! Half of what he owned Zacchaeus pledged to address the needs of the poor, and he made four-fold restitution for what he had stolen – following the strictest interpretation of the law. Nothing anyone would call slack! Everybody was wondering, “What just happened here?” – and Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Zacchaeus was rich, and the last time Jesus had looked into the eyes of a rich man, he said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
And those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?”
Zacchaeus was rich, and in Luke news about the rich is consistently bleak: They are the ones sent away empty when the hungry are filled with good things, they are the ones who have already received their consolation, they are the fools who only know how to build bigger barns, they are the ones feasting with their friends while Lazarus is starving at the door. Woe – then who can be saved?
Habakkuk points to Zacchaeus, “That’s something to sing about, isn’t it?” And it’s not just Zacchaeus’s soul being saved. Salvation changes everything, from the very personal to the political. When Jesus is in the house, the reign of God is present and the world is being made right and whole in acts of justice and compassion.
Jericho was Jesus’ final stop before completing his earthly ministry in Jerusalem. His words to Zacchaeus are like a definition of his entire mission: “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
I am reminded of a story at the beginning of Genesis. There, Adam and Eve are hiding themselves from the presence of God among the trees. They are hiding from God in shame and fear because they know that they have broken the trust between them. The story describes God as walking in the garden, looking for them and calling, “Where are you?” It’s a serious game of hide and seek.
Now this may be a bit of a stretch, but it may still be true: we have been hiding among the trees since the days of Adam and Eve, knowing that we are not the people God wants us to be; but God is looking for us. And at the end of his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus finds Zacchaeus in the tree. God is looking for us, Adam to Zacchaeus, A to Z, and finding us. And every time one of us is found, the reign of God comes to us and the world is being made right and whole, and justice prevails.
Now that is something to sing about, isn’t it?