Pentecost 17 C: Resolutely Watch for God’s Answer

The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      Lamentations 1:1–6

Psalm                    Lamentations 3:19–26 or Psalm 137


Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4

Psalm                    Psalm 37:1–9

New Testament     2 Timothy 1:1–14

Gospel                   Luke 17:5–10

The prophecy of Habakkuk is a dialog with God, an affirmation about how essential such a dialog is, and a lesson on how we faithfully fulfill our part in the conversation.

History has provided ample impetus for people of faith to start their conversation with God with “Why?” Why do we pray for peace and justice, but hear no answer? For me, these days, the question takes on a bit of a different shape: Why are we humans so easily duped into acting against our own self interests. Why are we so intent on destroying ourselves?

Why do we not cooperate to end the pandemic and to prepare for the next? Why do so many Republicans deny the results of a fair election, and support a man who so consistently lies and acts like a spoiled brat? Having watched Ken Burns’ documentary “The US and the Holocaust” I ask, why are people so gullible and quick to believe lies that turn them against their neighbors? Why are they easily persuaded to shut their doors to families desperately trying to find safety from demonic forces? Why is it that we can be fooled into hating the very people we need to form a vital society?

When we ask why some prayers aren’t answered, one plain answer that we don’t want to hear comes in Isaiah 1:15, where God says, “I don’t answer prayers from people whose hands are full of blood.”  So, immediately, we should be moved to look at our own folded hands. How much blood is there because we too treated innocent people harshly, or we just plain didn’t care?

But God’s answer to the prophet here is that God is still in control. Even the hated Chaldeans, or Babylonians, are tools of God. And when Habakkuk complains that these Babylonians have gone way past being tools, and are acting in ways that terrorize the righteous, God assures Habakkuk that the Babylonian success will last but a moment, while the righteous will live by their faith, or faithfulness.

But the passage that I believe is most remarkable in this lesson is Habbakuk 2:1, where the prophet says,

I will stand at my watchpost,

and station myself on the rampart;

I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,

and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

The prophet stands fast because the Word of God that he listens for is the only thing that speaks truly to his ultimate concerns.

Try as we might to search the world’s wisdom, we will never find the answer to why people love tyrants, follow the lead of bullies, and blame and hate the vulnerable. And certainly—most certainly—we will not find there anything that will help us do what is right and just, even when we understand it theoretically.

During the awful chapter of history called the Holocaust a great majority of people around the world saw that the oppression and killing of Jews was evil. But a great majority of them still favored doing nothing and closing their doors to immigration. “Times are rough all over,” they reasoned. “We can’t afford to help.”

And Hitler was right to point out the hypocrisy when people condemned Germany for wanting to rid themselves of Jews, while their immigration policies showed they didn’t want them in their countries.

The world’s political, scientific, and philosophical wisdom is impotent. It can easily speak one way and act another. It can always find reasons for the evils of apathy and self-preservation.

Habakkuk knew what the Apostle Paul knew. Ultimate questions demand ultimate answers, and worldly wisdom does not offer it.—what he wrote about in the first chapter of First Corinthians:

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:21-25).

So, the prophet waits. He stands fast. He shows us the way of prayer that’s worth its salt. Yes, we do have blood on our hands. Yes, both as a nation and as individuals, we are complicit in the gullibility, stupidity, fear, hatred, and self-serving of our age—all the things that feed racism and all kinds of injustice.  But if we hang in there with our prayers we will eventually understand our need of repentance. Then we will understand better God’s hidden ways and broader horizon. Then we will understand the infinite compassion and universal love of God that moved God to send Jesus Christ to turn the world right side up through humility and suffering. Then we will better understand the foolishness of God that is more powerful than any of the wisdom of the world. Then we will get up from our prayers filled with new hope.

It is a good thing when Christian congregations meet to discuss the world’s problems. But any such discussions must begin and end with steadfast waiting in prayer. We must remember that any observations by social scientists, activists, or political analysts, are penultimate. The ultimate answer to our ultimate questions of good and evil in our world will always come in the Word of God. And the Word has become flesh in Jesus Christ alone.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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