I have never experienced war directly; I have scarcely experienced violence of any kind beyond, say, bullying. Which may help to explain why today’s appointed Psalms and the reading from Habakkuk seemed so foreign to me.
I suppose the good news is that, mixed in with the descriptions of divine arrows and flashing swords are descriptions of events I have experienced: earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. So, I think I get the drift. During events such as these, life as usual comes to a halt. Indeed, for some, life itself comes to a halt. And so the normal, predictable, order of things is turned upside down.
The psalmist and prophet are telling us that this is what it is like when God is present: the normal, predictable, order of things is turned upside down.
And this precisely is the problem, both for the psalmist and for the prophet. The prophet from exile cannot believe that calamity has not struck:
I heard and my heart pounded,
my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
to come on the nation invading us.
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
And so, he is going to “wait patiently for the day of calamity” (Hab. 3:16). Similarly for the psalmist:
7 Will the Lord cast me off for ever? *
will he no more show his favor?
8 Has his loving-kindness come to an end for ever? *
has his promise failed for evermore?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious? *
has he, in his anger, withheld his compassion?
10 And I said, “My grief is this: *
the right hand of the Most High has lost its power.”
11 I will remember the works of the LORD, *
and call to mind your wonders of old time.
12 I will meditate on all your acts *
and ponder your mighty deeds.
The psalmist (also from exile?) is brought to “remember,” “call to mind” and “meditate” not on events near at hand, but distant events, “wonders of old time” (Psalm 77:11-12).
Is that where we are? As much of the world slips back into fascism, as the oligarchs rub their hands together in glee, where is the fire from heaven, the earthquake, the hurricane, the cyclone? Where are the bolts of fire and flaming arrows? “Has God forgotten to be gracious? has he, in his anger, withheld his compassion?”
But then it occurred to me that as this Lenten Fast lurches forward, it is not altogether different than the first Lenten Fast. Rome is busy putting down rebellions and expanding its territories on all fronts. It devotes some, but not too many, troops to Palestine, an outpost of little importance. Most of the religious folk, in any case, are completely comfortable with the occupying Roman force, which, they say, has been very good for business. “Live and let live,” is what they say. No lightening bolts here. No fire from the sky. No earthquakes — yet (see Matt. 27:52). Life is simply proceeding as usual. And even after the crucifixion of the Palestinian Jew Jesus, life will continue on much as it had in any case — earthquakes or no earthquakes, it really doesn’t matter.
The psalmist and prophet want God to intervene, to do something big. They are each waiting.
Lent is a time of waiting for something big. Except that when it comes, when the Jew Jesus is actually crucified, his crucifixion is among the most normal, common, everyday events Romans everywhere can possibly imagine — the Gospel of Matthew notwithstanding. Perhaps like the prophet and the psalmist we too want something big to happen. “Will the Lord cast me off for ever? Will he no more show his favor? Has his loving-kindness come to an end for ever? Has his promise failed for evermore? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he, in his anger, withheld his compassion?”
Surely seems that way, doesn’t it?
But let us suppose, as they say, that we are the change we have been expecting in the world; that the road to Jerusalem does not end in a brilliant fireworks display or geological or meteorological cataclysm. The road to Jerusalem ends on a hill far outside the city where criminals are quietly murdered by soldiers from the occupying force, their bodies left to rot in the Sun. But in this singular case, this crucifixion gave rise to a community charged with bringing into reality the events they had long anticipated — the sick are healed, the blind receive their sight, the lame take up their mats and walk, the prisoners are set free, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed.
Such events, were they actually to take place, would surely signal the most dramatic cataclysm of all time. It would not be life as usual. It would be a complete disruption. It would turn everything on its head — if only it were true.
Which it is not. And so, like the prophet and the psalmist, we wait and we wonder: when?