Rejoice in Hope

Hope is faithful rebellion. Habakkuk is one of those mysterious Biblical characters about whom we know next to nothing. Most of the prophets, at least we know their place of birth; or perhaps their name might tell us something about them. All we really know about Habakkuk is the content of his prophecies, which help us place him some time around the Babylonian Exile. His name is even unrecognizable – possibly related to the word “embrace”, but unclear.

What stands out about this prophet is his willingness to openly question God. Most of the prophets have their questions for God, but usually about their own worthiness to be God’s vessel. Jeremiah is too young. Sarah is too old. Moses stutters. Elijah tenders his resignation. Habbakuk, however, laments the current state of affairs. He knows God to be a God of what is just, what is right, what is true. But what he sees around him is injustice, wrong, and falsehood. He even has the audacity to suggest that the Law of Moses itself is broken. If it weren’t, then God’s people would be living out God’s desires, right?

How does that sit with us? For some, the very idea of questioning God seems downright arrogant. And I can see that. Author Madeleine L’Engle put it this way:

“I have a point of view. You have a point of view. God has view.”

Who are we to question God from our narrow experiences? We may not comprehend for the moment, but surely God has a plan that is beyond anything we can imagine. It may not be clear for the moment, but clarity will surely come.

That said, we would do well to read the rest of L’Engle’s quote:

“When we really come to grips with that, our prayers become less like demands and more like conversations.”

In other words, our limited perspective should never keep us from crying out to God’s limitless mercy. The Hebrews, captive in Israel, call out to God for freedom. The Lamentations of Jeremiah are full of sorrow and distress. The psalms have litany after litany of agony and questions. Jesus himself quotes Psalm 22 from the cross: “Why, O God, have you forgotten me?” Intimacy with God is honesty with God. And if God is really God, then God can handle our questions, our frustrations, our observations, our anger and disappointment and distress. And if we can’t be honest with God, where can we let our hair down?

These are the kinds of questions and concerns people of faith out to have foremost in our minds. Why does the world seem to be so unfair? With all of our advances, why does it seem like we’re constantly moving backwards? If we know what justice looks like, why is injustice rampant?

These were the kinds of questions on my mind this past week as protests raged in the wake of the Ferguson Grand Jury decision. I’m not particularly inclined to focus on the decision itself; no one except Michael Brown and Darren Wilson knows exactly what happened that fateful night. And regardless of whether Darren Wilson exercised his best possible judgment, young Michael’s life ended far too short, and surely we can all grieve that.

For many, though, Ferguson has become a touchstone, a reminder of what it still feels like to be young, black, and male in America. I can’t, for a moment, pretend to walk a mile in those shoes. Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, can.

If you don’t know who I’m talking about, Questlove is the drummer for the Roots, the house band on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. He is six foot two, 300 pounds, with, in his own words, “an uncivilized Afro.”

By virtue of being famous, he often finds himself in places, he says, “where people who look like me aren’t supposed to be.” He talks about hating parking lots and elevators, “not because they are places that danger could occur, but it’s a prime place in which someone of my size can be seen as a dangerous element. I wait and wait in cars until I feel it’s safe for me to make people feel safe.”

He writes that this “is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own. You’re programmed and taught that from the gate. It’s like the opposite of entitlement.”

I don’t expect us to feel sorry for a celebrity. I don’t expect us to be of one mind about Ferguson or race in America. And I don’t expect you to agree with me or my point of view. What I do expect is that we would be willing to see life through the eyes and experiences of others, to get a glimpse of what it feels like to be them. In times of anger, compassion is in rare supply.

What I hope, more than anything else, is that we would see moments like these as times to return to God and to the things that make for faithful living. The outcry from Ferguson isn’t going away any time soon. The question is what we do about it.

One thing I am sure we can all agree on is the very thing that Habakkuk cries out: the world we live in is a far cry from what God desires for God’s own creation. If it was, then we wouldn’t be involved in ministries like Journey Night Shelter and the Food Pantry and Habitat for Humanity. As long as there is poverty and homelessness and warfare and exclusion, there is surely heartbreak in the heart of God. And wherever God’s heart breaks, that’s where God’s people ought to be. After all, intimacy with God

When Habakkuk points all of this out to God, God does not silence him, or put him in his place. Instead, he challenges him to do something about it.

“You say the Law has failed? Then simplify it. Write it bigger. Make it so clear that someone who just catches it out of the corner of their eye will get it. You don’t like the world the way it is? Don’t just tell me. Do something about it.”

And as he does, the prophet is brought to this amazing insight: the world is unfair; but God is still God, and there is still reason to rejoice. The world may be upside down. We may not understand why. And yet, God is still to be praised – for deliverance, for strength, for the opportunity to make a difference in the world.

Each year we begin the season of Advent by waiting for the return of the Christmas miracle, the birth of the Christ child. And in that miracle, we are reminded that God has not given up on this world, not by a long shot. God has great hope for us yet.

At Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we are installing two Advent prayer wreaths. Along with the prophet Habakkuk, we are invited to add our reasons for rejoicing, whether great or small. We will add them week after week to our wreaths, so that they might become symbols of our hope in Christ, a reminder of God who still believes in us enough to love and cherish us.

My personal hope is that these wreaths with these prayers would be our own small act of prayerful rebellion in a broken world. The time will come when no one frets an empty stomach or worries over a roofless night or fears making others afraid. If it delays, wait for it. It is coming. And until then, may these moments of rejoicing be our hopeful sign that God is still at work within us, within this world.

Friends, rejoice in hope. It is our most faithful act.