Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4
There are two kinds of waiting. I feel the first kind of waiting whenever I’m on an airplane. We wait for the plane to take off, for the flight attendant to arrive with the beverage cart, for the rows of people in front of us to get off the plane. That kind of waiting is an impatient one, a feeling of annoyance at the situation, that never really changes to something positive, it simply ceases when whatever event finally happens. However, there is another kind of waiting, the eager anticipation of something great. That kind of waiting filled my heart when I was looking forward to Christmas day as a kid or when I was waiting for my wedding day. Rather than annoyance, this second kind of waiting has a hope-filled outlook, a certain joy to it.
In this Sunday’s first reading from Habakkuk, we find the prophet doing just what I have been reflecting on: waiting. His book, unlike the other prophetic literature, is composed as a prayer, a dialogue between the prophet and God. Habakkuk complains to the Lord (1:2-4), then the Lord answers (1:5-11). Habakkuk complains again (1:12–2:1) and the Lord responds again (2:2-5). It’s comforting, I suppose, to see a holy prophet’s prayer that looks so much like our own prayers. It is even more comforting to see the Lord respond to Habakkuk’s prayers one by one, the same way he responds to our prayers.
Historical Context: Babylon is coming
Habakkuk is suffering on account of the people of Judah. He realizes that they are about to be overtaken by the powerful army of Babylon and he is helpless to stop it. Habakkuk is standing on the wall of the city (either literally or figuratively in 2:1), looking out for the Babylonian hordes. His question to God centers around one of the central questions of the Old Testament: Why does the Lord allow his Chosen People to be conquered by pagan empires? Habakkuk puts the question thus:
Why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they? (Hab 1:13 NRSV)
It is incomprehensible to the prophet that God would allow wicked nations to trample all over his own covenant family. In a sense, it is the same question we all ask when we experience sorrow and tragedy: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?
God’s response to Habakkuk can be summed up easily: Wait! That’s not the answer we’re usually fishing for when we ask the Lord for something, but it is often the one we need to hear. In fact the idea of “waiting for the Lord” is all over the place in the Bible (Ps 27:14, 31:24, 33:20, 37:7, 37:9; Isa 8:17, etc.). Habakkuk has received a vision from the Lord and the Lord simply tells him to write it down and sit tight. The prophet wants to do whatever he can to save his people—he’s even watching out for the bad guys, but God is not yet ready to act. The Lord gives him a “vision,” but not the fulfillment of it. In fact, he warns, “If it seem slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab 2:3 RSV). God’s plan in Habakkuk’s time was to discipline his people through the powerful nation of Babylon, which destroyed the temple and took the people into exile. Only after a period of seventy years would they return to the Holy Land. Habakkuk would not live to see that deliverance.
What Are We Waiting for?
While we might not be on the lookout for foreign invaders or be waiting to return from exile, each one of us has something for which we “wait on the Lord.” It might be a new stage in life, a new home or a new relationship. We might really be “waiting” for the spiritual growth we’ve been hoping for. Whatever it is, all our prayers and hopes rely on him. God does not sit on the sidelines and simply watch our lives unfold or spin out of control. Rather, he is in the game, working with us, helping us, guiding us if only we listen to his voice. When we are waiting for him to act, it is so tempting to give in to impatience and get annoyed—or worse yet, to receive what God is giving us without gratitude and then turn against him in bitterness. On the other hand, it also easy for us to fall into passivity, as if God delivers up perfect experiences without our contribution or effort.
Here is where the rubber meets the road: When we seek God and ask him to intervene, are we really willing to wait for his deliverance to come? Waiting feels useless, silly, a dead-end. And yet, waiting is truly human, an exercise of the virtue of patience. Waiting calls out our inner moral character and takes us from a domain of self-assertion into a place of receptivity. It may turn out after all the emails, texts, smartphones, alerts and 2-day shipping that T.S. Eliot was right after all: “the faith and the love are all in the waiting.”