When I was in Boy Scout Camp as a kid, I remember falling behind my troop into the last group of kids and adults, who were all walking without their flashlights. They said, “Hey, turn off your light. We’re using night vision.” And I said, “night vision?” And they explained. When you walk in the dark for a long enough time, your eyes adjust. And even though you aren’t using your light, you can see so much more. Instead of depending on that small circle a few feet in front of you, you adjust the way you’re seeing, and you can see what’s in front of you but also what’s around you.
That has stuck with me for all my life. When you let your eyes adjust to the dark you find out how much light there really is. Even in the darknest night, there is enough light to get by. When you use your night vision, you learn to see all that faint reflected light that’s been there all the time. When I’m walking with a flashlight, I can only see what’s staring at me in the face. But when I turn off the light, and let my eyes adjust, the shadows take shape, and I’m able to see so much more of my world.
Advent is about what we do in the dark. If you’ve been waiting all year for this season, and you can finally put on some Bing Crosby or belt out Joy to the World along with the radio, the Advent texts can be a little jarring. Commercially, we’ve moved into Christmas season, but for the first two weeks of Advent we’re stuck with texts about the repentance and the apocalypse. Today we’re talking about the book of Habakkuk. And Habakkuk knows better than anyone, the importance of night vision.
For a long time I only knew one thing about Habakkuk. When you go to become a Presbyterian minister, you have to pass ordination exams, and one of those exams is on the content of Bible. Multiple choice, here’s a passage, name the book and chapter. Because it’s a Presbyterian ordination exam, they tend to use passages that were important in the Reformation, and so you can shortcut a little bit. Habakkuk is the best shortcut, because it’s not that big of a book, and there is one verse that is disproportionately significant in Reformation history. Habakkuk 2:3, “But the righteous shall live by faith.” So every Presbyterian minister knows this (and maybe only this about Habakkuk). The righteous shall live by faith. But what does it mean for the righteous to live by faith? It means learning to see in the dark.
Habakkuk begins with a complaint to God, “How long do I have to watch injustice prevail!” How long do I have to watch the wicked prosper?” Habakkuk is living in a time of great wickedness and darkness, and God’s response is swift (Chapter 1 vs. 4). “Get ready, because I’m sending the Babylonians to punish them!” God says, and Habakkuk says, “Hoora-wait… the Babylonians? They’re even worse!” And God says, “Do not worry, there is still a vision for the appointed time. Justice will prevail, you just need to wait. The righteous shall live by faith.” God has told Habakkuk that it will get worse before it gets better. But it will get better. God’s challenge is to live by faith. Even in the darkness, there is enough light to get by.
Habakkuk’s problem is what to do while we wait for God. God has promised redemption, but it’s a long way off. The night is deep and dark, and it will be a long time before light returns to the world. Habakkuk is stuck in the meantime—after the promise but before its fulfillment. And God’s response is that faith will give him enough light to see by. Even in the darkest places, there is enough light to get by. “I will stand by my rampart,” he says, “and watch for the coming day.” When the book ends, Habakkuk is still waiting. But his final words are a powerful declaration of his faith, that even when nothing looks like it is going right, still he has confidence in God.
“Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vine,
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation,
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19)
Habakkuk is a book for people who find themselves walking in darkness. Waiting on the fulfillment of God’s promises. Habakkuk is not Job. Habakkuk never doubts for a second that God’s justice will reign, or that God has a plan. But Habakkuk is tired of watching the bad guys win.
Habakkuk is for every person who is weary of witnessing injustice. Habakkuk is for every person tired of fighting the good fight and losing. Habbakuk is for every person who has prayed and worked for peace and justice but known only cruelty and war. Habakkuk is for anyone who devoted themselves to creating a loving family but watched addiction, hatred, adultery, or poverty tear it apart. Habakkuk is for everyone who is hoping to make it through December, or who has fallen once again into darkness and is wondering if light will ever come. Habakkuk is anyone who is struggling with a world that feels too awful, too messy, too out of control. Because Habakkuk knows that even in the darkest places there is enough light to get by.
If you want to survive in dark times, whether they are big overwhelming national events, or your own personal hell, you cannot survive by only looking at what’s staring you in the face. You have to learn to look out of the corner of your eye. You have to let your eyes adjust to the darkness, and find the light that helps you get by. If we are to make it through seasons of darkness in our lives, we have to develop night vision. We have to learn to see light even in those dark places. Because even in the darkness, there is enough light to get by.
It’s not about optimism. Not exactly. Optimism is looking at a grey sky and deciding that it is sunrise and not sunset. Christians make good optimists, but Christianity is about hope. Christianity looks at an innocent man on a cross and declares that evil is overthrown. That’s not declaring the glass half-full, that’s knowing that God’s purposes will be accomplished even in this moment of fear and despair. Advent is about getting ready for the light long before it arrives on the horizon, when its arrival is still in doubt, tenuous and far away. Advent is more like holding hands in the dark. Dawn might be far off, the light may be impossible to see, but the warmth of our companions is not. Advent is about waiting and watching in the dark, letting our eyes adjust and learning to look around, to see what light there is and to get ready for Christ’s coming in glory.
This Advent, practice your night vision. Learn to see in the dark. You might be in a particularly dark period in your life. You might be depressed by what’s going on in the world. You might be overwhelmed by personal challenges. But even in the darkness, there is enough light to get by. Being a caregiver can be exhausting, but pay attention to the light revealed by shadows. How do the cared for show their appreciation even when they can’t say thank you? How thankful are you for the lifetime of love and the memories that give you strength to continue when the work is thankless?
Recovering from medical care can be overwhelming. But look closely. Can you bend that joint just a little bit more? Can you eat a meal, stand up, take a step that you couldn’t do a week ago? Every little step forward is a tiny reflection of light.
Fighting a bureaucracy to take care of your kid can feel like two steps forward, three steps back. But look out of the corner of your eye. Pay attention to the tiny gains in development, the people who give you advice on how to navigate the system, the friends who show up for you, the strength/skill/compassion growing in you that will transform your life.
National politics may be giving you anxiety, but let your eyes adjust. Are their people fighting for justice? Are their small pockets where God’s reign is evident? Are there communities where people are doing justice, caring for each other, supporting each other in life and work? How can you be a part of those communities? How can you be a reflection of light that casts out shadows?
This Advent, learn to see in the dark. Strain to see what the Lord is doing. Look out of the corner of your eye. Stand at your rampart and watch. And know that your Redeemer comes, and all that is crooked will be made straight, all that is wrong will be made right, the mighty will be cast down from their thrones and the poor will be filled with good things. And when the light finally breaks through the darkness, you will be among the first to see it arrive, full of grace and truth. And the people who walked in darkness will see a great light. And they will call him, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.