Down From the Tree and Into the Crowd

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 | Luke 19:1-10

Jeremy Richards

Does anyone else feel like Habakkuk?

In the midst of an election year that seems to be even more divisive and hostile than regular,

with the constant news of yet another unarmed black man shot and killed in the street,

with reports of mass death in the middle East – 100 children recently killed in Aleppo,

[with the ever-present threat of terrorism around every corner,

with sexism that continues to be a daily reality for those of us who are women]

…and the list of injustices goes on and on…

It’s not hard to relate to Habakkuk’s words,

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
   and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
   and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
   and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
   strife and contention arise.

How long must this go on? And what’s the point of seeing it all. It’s just too overwhelming for us to see all this injustice all the time. The accessibility of news and information today is both a blessing and a curse. We are able to learn about current events – good and bad – seconds after they happen, sometimes we can watch them unfold as they are happening. This draws us together with our brothers and sisters around the world in a way never before possible.

But we also recognize how helpless we are in the face of all the destruction, devastation, and death around the world. What can we do? How do we help Aleppo? How do we address systemic racism? How do we confront homophobia? How do we dismantle the rape culture that has become an epidemic on college campuses across the country? What is to be done about poverty?

As someone who usually only has to see the effects of these injustices but rarely has to experience them, the easiest way for me to answer these questions has primarily been to ignore them. In fact, all this “trouble” and “wrongdoing” as Habakkuk calls it, actually supported a certain Christian narrative I had been taught as a child. Put bluntly, the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we just need to hold on until Jesus comes again. The more that went wrong with the world, the more our theology was confirmed. The more broken the world got, the more apparent it was that it would not last forever. All the earthquakes and hurricanes and wars and rumors of wars were inevitable, even expected.

And so, as a Christian, my responsibility was to draw closer to God. To withdraw from the world, in order that I might draw near to Jesus.

I grew up singing the popular praise song “In the Secret” with the chorus that goes:

I want to know You,
I want to hear Your voice
I want to know You more.
I want to touch You,
I want to see Your face
I want to know You more.

And I really did want to know Jesus. I wanted to see Jesus.

Just like Zacchaeus.

The problem for Zacchaeus, though, was that he couldn’t see Jesus. There were too many ordinary people around him. In-fact they were worse than ordinary: they were the sick and the poor. The least of society were everywhere around Jesus. Where was Jesus in the midst of that rabble? He couldn’t even tell where they ended and Jesus began.

So he tried to climb above it all, instead of entering into it. Like me, trying to escape the brokenness of the world, Zacchaeus’ answer was to leave the ground, to rise above the rabble that he might see Jesus. Because he wanted Jesus, but he did not want the crowd.

But no sooner does he find his vantage point, no sooner does he find that comfortable little nook in the tree, then Jesus is at the base of the tree, still surrounded by the lepers and prostitutes, beckoning him to come down.

That is what Jesus was and is always doing. That’s what made him so scandalous in his day. God did not touch lepers or accept the touch of “sinful women.” God dwelled in the pristine temple, God did not commune with a Samaritan woman at an ordinary well. God was the Almighty, who could only be accessed by the holiest of people, God did not befriend smelly, uneducated fisherman.

And yet, Jesus did all those things. Those are Jesus’ people. And if we want to find Jesus, we must look for him not above trouble and suffering, but in the midst of it. We cannot hope to see God from a high vantage point, like Zacchaeus originally thought he could. God is not in the trees or in the sky. God is on the ground.

For some of us, this message is a challenge. For those of us who have the choice to enter into the sufferings of others or not, we must decide if we really want the God that is found in the midst of the “trouble” and “wrongdoing”, as Habakkuk calls it, or if we will make for ourselves a god who reflects those things the world values: wealth, power, security.

For others of us, this message – that God is in the midst of the trouble and wrongdoing – is a comfort, because for some of us certain factors– such as gender, race, sexuality, economic status – prevented us from ever being able to choose whether or not we would enter into suffering. Instead, discrimination and violence have always been part of our lives.

I recently read a difficult, but powerful article titled “The Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About”. The article was about the way all women experience situations, almost daily, in which men make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, be it through word, touch, or even a look. The article challenged men to listen to women when they tell us about these instances, because we get to choose whether or not we’re going to listen. We get to choose to either take them seriously or to minimize their experiences. The article also challenged women to share these experiences, even though it’s usually easier to try to ignore them, to push the pain and hurt down deep and bottle it up.

This is just one example of the many ways certain members of our society experience “trouble” and “wrongdoing”, in a way that others don’t.

The God we meet in Jesus calls us to listen to the stories of those who experience “trouble” and “wrongdoing”, to join with God by joining with them, to pray for but also to work toward the goal that “God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

But if that’s true, if God really wants us to enter into the “trouble” and “wrongdoing”, then we’re right back where we started, with Habakkuk crying out because there’s just too much evil and violence. How are we supposed to enter into the suffering of others? What does that even mean? How are we, small as we are, supposed to make any difference.

I think we can learn from Habakkuk, who makes a move that, at first, seems similar to Zacchaeus’, but is actually very different. Habakkuk says, in the beginning of chapter 2:

I will stand at my watchpost,
    and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what [God] will say to me,
    and what [God] will answer concerning my complaint.

Like Zacchaeus, Habakkuk finds a high point in order to search for God. But there are two differences between Zacchaeus and Habakkuk: First: the reason they go looking for God, and second: what they expect from this interaction.

1. The reason: Zacchaeus was unwilling to enter into the suffering crowd, so he climbed a tree to see Christ from afar. Habakkuk, on the other hand, seeks God from the place of suffering. He is not trying to avoid it, he’s already in it. He’s overwhelmed by it, and so he must go find God. The state of the world propels Habakkuk to seek God out.

2. The expectation: It’s unclear what Zacchaeus actually expects. The Scripture just says that Zaccheaus “wanted to see who Jesus was,” which implies that he was motivated more by curiosity than anything else. It doesn’t appear that he was expecting Jesus to call him down by name and enter into his house. As far as we know, he didn’t initially expect, or even want, a God who would break into his life the way Jesus did.

Habakkuk is the opposite. Habakkuk demands that God intervene. Habakkuk doesn’t want a God who keeps God’s distance. He wants a God who shows up. In fact, Habakkuk isn’t leaving until God reveals Godself. He stubbornly refuses to leave his post until the Lord answers him.

Personally, I feel like this is where I am: with Habakkuk waiting for God to tell me what to do with all the injustices I see. Most of my life I was like Zacchaeus, trying to rise above the trouble, trying to hold on until Christ would come again and save all us Christians from the final judgment. But I’ve been convinced that God is calling me, calling us, down from the tree.

For me, seminary was where God opened my eyes to God’s heart for the poor and the oppressed. I spent the last three years listening to the stories of teachers and classmates who come from very different backgrounds than me, and who – due to things like their race, gender, and sexuality – have experienced injustice in ways that I will never have to.

The last three years were my equivalent of Habakkuk 1:1-4. I have had my eyes opened to the amount of injustice present in the world, and it has wrecked me. But I have also been convinced that the story of Jesus, the incarnate God, is the story of a God who takes seriously pain, suffering, and death, and calls God’s followers to do the same.

And now, like I said, I feel like I am with Habakkuk in 2:1, waiting for God to tell me what the next move is. And waiting is important. History is full of Christians who have charged into difficult situations with the best intentions, only to make things worse because they took matters into their own hands instead of listening to the Holy Spirit.

How we go about confronting injustice is rarely clear. That’s why prayer is so important. In this passage from Habakkuk we see that there is certainly a place for action, but there is also still a very important place for prayer and meditation and communion with God. When we focus only on the spiritual it leads to a form of escapism, like Zacchaeus in the tree, but when we focus only on social action we become overwhelmed, like Habakkuk, because the problems are just too big for us.

So we must see injustice and not turn away, not close our eyes (although maybe some of us can), and then we must go to God. To pray and discern, as individuals and as a community, what God is calling us to. We know there are people all around us who are suffering – who are experiencing discrimination, who are experiencing violence, who can’t afford to make ends meet – but we don’t know what to do about it.

And finally we must expect God to actually answer us, just as God answered Habakkuk by telling him to take a tablet and write down his prophecy. We must believe that God does, indeed, enter into life with us. We must believe that God has told us, just as Jesus told Zacchaeus, in the words of that popular children’s song, that “he’s coming to our house today.” We are not working alone, God is already in the midst of the crowd. God is and has always been doing the restorative work – the work of resurrection – and we are somehow, graciously, invited to join in this beautiful work.

For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
    it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
    it will surely come, it will not delay.

Ryan Weilert

Portland, OR, United States