Wait. Not exactly the word I expected for 2021, but that’s the one that stuck. Some people might say it was a word from the Lord, but I won’t be so bold as to claim to hear God in such specific terms. Still, this is the word that came to mind over and over as I pondered my focus for 2021. Two passages of scripture also circled in my head: sections from Habakkuk 2 and Jeremiah 33.
I read Habakkuk back in January, well before 2020 turned the world upside down. At that point, I considered his cry of “How long” from a theoretical perspective on the evil and injustice of humans. I could not have foreseen that “how long” would be the cry of so many people across the globe. Habakkuk prophesied in an evil age, one in which violence, poverty, devastation, and strife ruled, while the Law was ignored and justice never upheld. The Lord told him, ” Watch! Be horrified! Be frightened speechless! For I am accomplishing a work in your days — you would not believe it even if you were told!” (Habakkuk 1:5). Jeremiah heard the same word: “Call to me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). Those unbelievable “great and mighty things” included the total destruction of Judah at the hands of the Chaldeans because the sins of God’s people had reached a point of utter wickedness. Zephaniah also preached against the rebellious and defiled people who refused to obey the Lord and did “violence to the Law” (Zephaniah 3). Even before 2020, there were people crying out to God, “how long?” How long will bitterness and injustice rule even in our churches? How long will people flout God’s command to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength while loving each other? (Matthew 22:35-40). I wrote in my journal on January 17, 2020:
How long? The question of the ages, it would seem. Evil still runs rampant in the world. War, slavery, and violence are as much a part of this time as in any other…the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth. Pay attention. To say God works in mysterious ways is an understatement. However, He know what is happening, and He will judge the wicked even if we don’t. However, because His ways are not ours (Isaiah 55:8-9), how He works may not make sense to our limited minds. Here [Habakkuk 1], God uses the Chaldeans, who were know for witchcraft, astrology, and worship of Marduk to punish the wicked in Israel and Judah…How long? Until the people repent and a leader comes forth to honor God.
And here we are, nearly a year later. The world has suffered a deadly pandemic, drought, horrific natural disasters in the forms of fire, earthquake, and flood, economic catastrophes, and human suffering on a massive scale. The US has endured riots, protests, division, hatred, contentiousness, and violence, not to mention an election that pleased nobody. The economy suffered as businesses either shuttered or pivoted to “contactless” commerce. People argued over wearing masks of all things: protection or liberty. Physical distancing drove families. Work and school and church moved to online platforms. (Oh, to have bought stock in Zoom back in February.) Hugs and handshakes became elbow bumps. The virus that upended everything created chaos by its sheer inconsistency: most people recovered quickly, but some endured long term effects, and many died. Will a vaccine help? Maybe. Hopefully. But the damage to the psyche of the world is done.
And yet, after all these things, we still wait for the return of the good times. Back to “normal.” When we can attend church services and have school in classrooms and travel freely. But if we just return to the way things were, what have we learned? Have we made changes in justice? Are we better, kinder people? Do the good guys in white hats come out ahead? I submit, we have not made changes and we are not better people. The white hats are more than fifty shades of gray. And, with Habakkuk we might ask, why do the wicked seem to prevail, even after all the events of 2020? Evidently, there’s still a lesson to be learned.
I spent a fair amount of time in 2020 studying the minor prophets and considering the “day of the Lord.” Joel wrote that “the day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, and who can endure it?” (Joel 2). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that the day would come like a “thief in the night” but before that time, people would be talking about world peace and security (1 Thessalonians 5). After 2020, not much is certain, but no one is claiming this as a time of peace and security. I think the Lord does have a word for us, the same word he gave to Habakkuk: “Write down the vision…so that one who reads it may run. For the vision is yet for the appointed time; It hurries toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it delays, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay long” (Habakkuk 2:2-3). This year has been a foreshadowing of what is to come. Jesus called times like these the “beginnings of the birth pains” (Matthew 24). Habakkuk saw that things were going to get far worse before they got better; we must understand the same thing.
Why? Why the suffering? Why the certainty of eventual destruction? Because humans are desperately wicked by nature. Because, until people see themselves as they truly are, they will not see their desperate need for a Savior. We are stubborn, we humans. We want to be the masters of our souls, but we cannot be holy. And the Lord will do whatever it takes to make us see that, without Jesus, our souls are doomed. C.S. Lewis put it well when he said that God shouts to us in our pain (Lewis 1940, 2001). Joel foresaw a time when God will light up the sky with fire while turning the moon into blood. At the same time, young people will have visions and the old will dream of God’s wrath, judgement, and salvation (Joel 2). There will come a time when everyone will choose for themselves: worship the self or call on the Lord. Moderation, fence-sitting, cultural “churchianity”- these will be abolished and the lines of demarcation will be clearly drawn.
God has not destined us for that wrath. He sent Jesus, the Incarnation of Himself, for our salvation. When we call on His name, we are eternally His, no matter what happens on this earth (1 Thessalonians 5; Romans 5). The question we must address today is the same one Habakkuk faced: how do we respond to the certainty of hard times ahead?
With joy. We choose joy in the God of our salvation. We choose joy because He made a way of escape; these light and momentary struggles are nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed to us on that day (Romans 8). And for now, we wait in anticipation.
Lewis, C.S. (2001) The problem of pain. Harper. Original publication 1940.