November 17, 2013
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
When Christians imagine the future, the days to come are neither the same as the days gone by nor are they the culmination of a present that just gets better all the time.
We speak out of the hope that God will create a new heaven and a new earth. We look toward a time when God will wipe away every tear, when nations will be swords into plowshares. And if God does indeed seem slow in bringing all this about, the prophet Habakkuk encourages us to “wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
Christians link this future to an event called by various names in various places: the “second coming of Christ,” or the “parousia” (from a Greek word meaning “arrival” or “presence,” or as we heard in the Gospel lesson this morning, the coming of the “Son of Man,” a primary way that Jesus referred to himself. In the words of the Apostles Creed we affirm that the risen Christ is seated at the right hand of God and “from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.”
When we speak in this way we approach or even exceed the limits of our human understanding. So we need to call upon our imagination to help us see what cannot be seen, to say what cannot be said.
And, of course, this often fails—as it did here in Iowa City.
The construction of Moen Tower downtown lead to some changes on the Ped Mall this past summer. That small urban park where many of the homeless in Iowa City as well as transients passing through town used to spend the day became a work site and was inaccessible. So a lot of people started congregating near the corner or Washington and Dubuque Streets in ways that apparently made them more noticeable than in years past.
So a city-wide debate developed over issues such as the use of the Ped Mall, the rights of the homeless, and the rights of others involved in the general commerce and activities of the downtown. It was an important debate and many of these issues should have been addressed years ago.
At some point in all of this, there was a letter in the Press-Citizen that brought religion into the debate. “If Jesus returned and came to Iowa City,” the writer asked, “what would he say about all of this? What would he do?”
It was a rhetorical question, of course, because the letter writer knew just what Jesus would do. He would welcome the poor and the hungry. He would hang out with those on the margins of society who were making a home at Washington and Dubuque.
And maybe the person who wrote that letter was right. After all, Jesus was known for keeping the wrong kind of company. There’s a well-known woodblock print by Fritz Eichenberg, “The Christ of the Breadline,” that imagines Jesus as one of the poor in our midst, waiting for a meal, hungering and thirsting, perhaps encouraging his followers to hunger and thirst for righteousness in response.
Maybe that letter writer was correct.
What has bothered me since last summer, however, was the sudden awareness that we are all so ready to use Jesus for our own purposes. When Jesus returns, he always seems to do and say just what we would want and expect him to do and say. Depending on one’s own leanings, the returning Christ sides with the poor, or opposes same sex marriage; he sets up a food pantry, or destroys the Soviet Union or Iraq or Iran or whatever geopolitical “enemy” we have identified at the time.
We should always be suspicious when the Christ who comes seems to want just what we want. We should question ourselves when the Christ who comes bears a striking resemblance to the incarnation of our own desires.
Maybe you remember from a college literature class that chapter from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamozov, titled “The Grand Inquisitor.” In this story Christ returns to Earth during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Jesus does very little and says nothing at all.
After standing in silence before the Grand Inquisitor during his long discourse, Christ kisses the Inquisitor and, in silence, leaves into the “dark alleys of the city.”
And a single act that is at best ambiguous.
Dostoyevsky gives us a very different vision of the return of Jesus, suggesting both searing judgment and immense compassion.
In some way this vision is more like that of the Jesus we encounter in the Gospel of Luke, who does not tell his followers what he will do or say, but asks: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
The concern of Jesus seems to be us, his followers, and what we say and do.
“Will he find faith on earth?”
Some would answer, “Well, I certainly hope not.” That great “old atheist,” Bertrand Russell, defined faith as “a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” Along with today’s “new atheists,” Russell equated faith with superstition and regarded it as a tool used by religious people seeking power over others.
Some might ask just what kind of faith is Jesus talking about here? Instead of religious belief, the “faith on earth” in question might be the kind of good faith among people—the promise that can be trusted, the handshake that is binding, the covenants that we make with our leaders—that can seem so lacking in our own time. H. Richard Niebuhr warned of the “abyss of faithlessness” into which we can so often fall and in which we now seem to have made a dwelling place. Will he find faith on earth or public officials who care only for their own comfort and well-being, research scientists who know how to manipulate data for desired outcomes, business owners who enrich themselves at the expense of people and the environment, religious leaders who are either demagogues or timid souls, unconcerned with the congregations entrusted to their care. If Christ comes looking for good faith between people he might indeed be disappointed.
When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
Jesus asks this question after telling a parable about a judge who, as Jesus says, “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” This judge’s methods lead to situations known by Habakkuk: “the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”
The theologian Dorthee Solle recalled a time when she was a child: “I saw three big kids jump a small boy, throw him to the ground, and beat him up. The little kid yelled and screamed. I had a helpless feeling inside, a feeling of rage in the pit of my stomach. What could I do? They paid no attention to me since I was even littler than my classmate. So I screamed. I screamed out of anger, out of revulsion, out of rage.”
When we cry out in our pain, we are beginning to pray.
When we cry out in pain, we too ask, “How long, O God?” We join that line of men and women who have addressed God in this way: the prophet Habakkuk, the writers of the psalms, Jesus of Nazareth and many others who did not turn away from injustice of despair, but faced it fully and called to God. Prayer is the way for the hurting part of our lives to be fully presented to God.
We cry out in the hope that we, too, will discover, perhaps to our surprise, that God is present in suffering, providing strength when we can’t take it, when we can’t make it alone.
To pray is to bring our pain before God.
And to pray is to be persistent.
I was told once of an order of nuns whose calling was to pray for peace. Twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, this order prays for peace. When I first heard of this I thought, in my often cynical way, “Well, some good that does.” Like the rest of you I could point to war and violence throughout the world that seems unaffected by their prayers.
Climbing out of the abyss of faithlessness, however, I began to imagine what our world might be without their prayers. The new perspective changed the order of my speaking as I was compelled to say: “Well, that does some good.”
Prayer is not a onetime proposition. In our own prayers, too, we can continue, persisting to cry out and not loose heart.
To pray is to persist.
And yes, even as we speak of faith, we recognize that to pray is to doubt.
Jesus crying, “My God, why have you forsaken me?
Habakkuk pleading, “O God, how long shall I cry for your help and you will not hear?”
When we question God, when we question God’s goodness, we continue to pray.
In prayer we open ourselves to hear God’s answer. But that means that we must also be open to living in God’s silence—the silence of Jesus before his inquisitor. That silence, that very real, at times almost crushing silence, can cause us to doubt, to question the whole enterprise, to think that we might as well scrap all of this and move on to something more practical. The irony is that the more we bring our pain before God, the more we persist in prayer, the more we find ourselves confronting our doubt.
To pray is to be persistent.
To pray is to doubt.
And ultimately, to pray is to find faith.
For many years now, the Chicago poet Christian Winam, has struggled with faith in the face of the cancer that nearly killed him and may yet do so. In one unfinished poem, he calls out to “My God my bright abyss…” In asking about the meaning of faith in these days, he arrives at the sense that faith “means no more than, and not less than, faith in life—in some tender and terrible energy that is, for those with the eyes to see it, love.”
The witness of the prophets, the witness of Jesus, the witness of those around us today is that God is faithful, that is God will respond, God will vindicate, God will—often in ways unexpected—speak. Out of our pain, through our persistence and our doubt—in other words, in prayer—we find our cries, our questions are, if not answered, then honored, embraced, and loved.
A cry from a cross.
A shout at an empty tomb.
The good news that God is with us honors our troubled spirits, embraces our sinful selves, and loves our finite lives to an eternal extent beyond our imagination.
The faithfulness of God then becomes the foundation of our own faith—our own ability to trust in God and to live in good faith with one another.
We are concerned here not with the dead faith that is belief in propositions. We seek the living faith that includes love.
We respond to God’s love with a faith that shows compassion and kindness, that feeds the hungry and welcomes the stranger, that visits those who are sick and in prison. The faith that is the bond between human beings is the faith that works as we wait for God.
The question becomes not, “What would Jesus do?” but “What will we do, now?”
The image of the coming Son of Man invites us to look into the always unknown future that God is creating so that we may live with confidence and faith in our uncertain and challenging present time. We look to the future so that, having glimpsed what God will do we can live fully in the present as the agents of what God is doing now, in and through us.
The Christ who comes will always be the One who comes as a surprise, not doing what we would expect, and stirring us to do the unexpected as well.
Faith will be found—and we will find faith—as we pray and act and hope, even as we wait for the God who comes.
 Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics, quoted in HRN, Faith on Earth, pg. 14.
 H.R. Niebuhr, Faith on Earth, pg.
 Dorthee Solle, Not Just Yes and Amen
 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, pg. 36.