There must be some kind of way outta here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief
Business men, they drink my wine
Plowman dig my earth
None were level on the mind
Nobody up at his word
No reason to get excited
The thief he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But, uh, but you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us stop talkin’ falsely now
The hour’s getting late
All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too
Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl
If you didn’t know better, you would think Habakkuk composed those words.
But they are Bob Dylan’s, from his classic song All Along the Watchtower. Both he and Habakkuk see a world that feels “like a joke,” full of falsehood and fakery. There’s no reason to get excited because there’s no relief to be had from the injustice of the world. So, keep a watch in your watchtower, they say, and see the coming dangers, the coming violence, the coming injustice and oppression, while the rest of the world occupies itself with wine, pleasures, and falsehoods.
That indeed is where Habakkuk begins. Let’s hear now our scripture for this morning, selections from the prophet Habakkuk.
Scripture (Read 1:1-4, 2:1-4, 3:16-19)
All along the watchtower, Habakkuk waits.
Not really. He says he waits. But all along the watchtower, while he says he’s waiting, he issues his complaint to God. The Babylonians are coming! There’s danger lurking around the corner. And no one else is paying attention! They’re too busy seeking pleasure. What are you doing about it, God?
In fact, upon on the ramparts, Habakkuk looks across the entire world and sees nothing but chaos, danger, and wrongdoing. So he says the law has become slack; he says that justice never prevails; he notes that the wicked surround the righteous. He sees a world marked by violence, injustice, oppression, and hatred.
Funny how relevant scripture can be.
How many generations of people have thought the world was going to pieces all around them? Habakkuk prophesied some 2500 years ago. That’s a lot of time in which people have been thinking to themselves that the world is coming undone. For certainly, each generation has had moments where it appeared that way.
And today, it’s easy to look at the world Habakkuk saw of desolation, violence, destruction, instability, and wickedness, and see our own. If we go up in our watchtower and look out at the world, what do we see?
We see Great Britain, our strongest ally, in political turmoil as courts overrule a prime minister who tries to force the will of the people from 2016 on the people of 2019. The country remains bitterly divided over Brexit, which is, in part, what has kept the European economy from recovering as strongly as the US has.
Across the channel in Europe, we see the rise of far-right politics and an economy that is struggling so much, negative interest rates are increasingly the norm. The manufacturing giant of Germany falters and the Italian government, once again, faces bankruptcy.
The refugee crisis continues because of terrible violence, although at a slower rate, as people flee their homes looking for safe harbor in a foreign country. Imagine what that would be like for us. Leaving everything behind because life has become so terrible here that the only option left is to go to another country to find a home. Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, and other countries around the Mediterranean basin continue to give up their citizens because of war torn regions.
In subsaharan Africa, Muslims and Christians continue to kill each other. Ebola remains a threat. Unstable governments give way to rival tribes that fight, taking the lives of innocent people along the way and providing safe harbor for terrorist organizations like Boko Haram.
In the Middle East, tensions remain high across those varied international relationships. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s rivalry spreads into places like Yemen, Iraq remains unstable, Syria remains on fire, and all the while Israel’s politics are in turmoil as they struggle to find a unity government.
In Kashmir, the Hindu-nationalist Indian government and army occupy a once autonomous region, raising the specter of conflict, even nuclear conflict, with Pakistan who seems bent on defending the Muslim majority who live in that disputed region.
And of course tensions remain high across East Asia in Hong Kong, where protestors continue to fight with police and the Chinese regime; where China continues to seize land as it seeks to exert dominant influence over ocean waters; where the Koreas remain in their dangerous dance; and where rising ocean waters increasingly threaten and move villages in countries like Tonga.
All along our watchtower, we see a world that we want to work together to address some of our greatest crises: like dangerous disputed regions, terrible killer diseases, refugee crises, trade wars, global warming, and dangerous regimes. But when we go and look from our post, we see nothing but reason for despair.
Indeed, we see the violence, the turmoil, the law that has become slack, the injustice, the strife and contention, and we cry out How long? Save us!
And what are we to do about it?
Habakkuk decides he will keep a watch to see if God will respond. But why? Why keep a watch when you know what you will find. As Dylan notes, “life is but a joke,” and there’s no “way outta here” because there’s “too much confusion; I can’t get no relief.” There’s no relief, no justice, no law, no righteousness, to be had as we look out from our watch tower. Rather, there’s anxiety and fear of what might become of us and our world.
And so we ask ourselves, what if the world keeps burning? What if the world never stops its injustice? What if these conflicts around the world escalate into terrible, even nuclear, warfare? What if our enemies attack us? What if the violence of our society escalates? What if?
What if, God? That’s our prayer all along our watchtower. We point to things in our prayers and say just like Habakkuk, “look! See the violence. See the injustice. See the devastation.”
Devastation indeed. That’s perhaps the main thing that Habakkuk sees. He notes the violence and chaos of lawlessness, which cause him to tremble from within, cause his lips to quiver, cause his steps to tremble beneath him. Habakkuk is scared. He is fearful. And with good reason. Just look at the world! Just look at the devastation!
Habakkuk is fearful. And so are we.
Dylan’s words, written fifty years ago, ring true today, just as Habakkuk’s 2500 year old words do, too. We cry violence! And seem to get no word back. We see two riders approaching in the night, but no one seems to be paying attention.
It’s easy to feel like Habakkuk at the start of his prophecy: the law is slack, justice never prevails, and chaos reigns. We, too, can keep a watch, but what’s the point? As Dylan aptly noted, “life is but a joke.”
What if the world keeps burning? What if the world never stops its injustice? What if these conflicts around the world escalate into terrible, even nuclear, warfare? What if our enemies attack us? What if the violence of our society escalates? What if?
What if that’s the wrong question?
Hear that same litany again, but asked differently.
Even if the world keeps burning, Even if the world never stops its injustice, Even if these conflicts around the world escalate into terrible, even nuclear, warfare, Even if our enemies attack us, Even if the violence of our society escalates, Even if,
…”I will fear no evil; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. “(Psalm 23)
…”yet, I will rejoice in the LORD, I will exult in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength, he makes my feet like the feet of a deer and makes me tread upon the heights.”
Even if the world collapses around us, we will yet rejoice that God is stronger than the collapse of the world.
The message from God turns the what if of fear into the even if of faith.
This is the message Habakkuk receives up on the ramparts. As he walks, and waits, all along his watchtower, he sees and hears God give this message of hope.
Hope born of knowing that he serves a God who will strike out against injustice, oppression, and violence. In God’s own time, God will move against his enemies. In Habakkuk, God tells the prophet that the Babylonians are his tool for now but, the day will come when he will act against the Babylonians to protect Israel; when justice will prevail.
All along the watchtower, Habakkuk can envision the future when God moves in strength to undo the wickedness of the world. And so he can say, in the crucial verse of the entire book, “the righteous live by faith.” (2:4)
A faith that says no matter the fear that ensues, we will pray, “even if, you are still God.” Habakkuk gives us that witness. Even considering all the turmoil, violence, and reason for fear, the very last thing he says in his prophecy is this:
The fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
The produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food
The flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls,
I will rejoice in the LORD, I will exult in the God of my salvation.”
Can you hear Habakkuk saying, “even if”? This is the profound yet of faith. A yet that says, no matter what I face, yet I still believe.
The righteous will live by faith Habakkuk tells us; a faith that says in the midst of all the terrible reports we receive and see from our watchtowers, a faith that says when we see or encounter injustice, violence, oppression, and devastation…
Yet I will worship my God
Yet I will rely upon the strength of my God
Yet I will rejoice in the God who created everything
Yet I will trust in the God who is among us still
Yet I will rely upon the God who is always moving for justice
The profound yet of faith.
All along his watchtower, Habakkuk discovers this powerful truth. The profound yet of faith allows the righteous to live by faith, allows the righteous to look out from their watchtowers, see the violence and injustice and then say,
This week, here’s the challenge. Karl Barth is famous for saying that we are to hold the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.
So, however you get your news, take in the news, and then turn to Habakkuk, and pray to God the profound yet of faith; a prayer that might sound like this:
Even if Donald Trump is impeached,
Even if the Israeli government collapses,
Even if Iran really did bomb Saudi Arabia,
Even if India and Pakistan go to war over Kashmir
Even if there’s a recession
Yet, I will rejoice in the LORD, I will exult in the God of my salvation.
The prayer of the righteous sounds like taking the news headline, praying it to God, and then adding at the end, “yet, you God are strong and will save us.” This is how we can have faith no matter what we see from our watchtowers. This is how the righteous live by faith.
God is our salvation. God will save us because God is saving us, right now. Praying the profound yet of faith, even as we walk all along our watchtowers, will transform our eyes and ears to see and hear how God is moving and working in the world.
Take the challenge this week. Pray the profound yet of faith. The world is burning, YET, “GOD, the Lord, is [our] strength.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.