Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Habakkuk 3) transports me to Tolkien’s Middle Earth fields outside the city of Gondor, as the dreaded winged Nazgul are bearing down on the defenders of the city, bringing destruction beyond the capacity of any to resist. Any, except for one, the great wizard Gandalf, who rides into the field of battle on his beloved Shadowfax. As Gandalf approaches the battle he raises his staff and brilliant rays of light flash out onto the dragon-like creatures, scattering them and their orc cohorts. The ability to shoot light or lightning from one’s hands has been a tried and true power of mythical gods and superheroes throughout the ages, from Zeuss and Captain Marvel on. It’s right up there behind invisibility and flight as one of the powers people say they would most like if they were a superhero. It’s not the sole property of heroes, though; the villainous siths used Force Lightning as their weapon of choice against the Jedi in the Star Wars stories. My favorite hand-lightning wielder, though, was good old Johnny Bukowski from the campy 80s series, Misfits of Science. He was a rock and roller who had gained his powers after being electrocuted on stage, and he always sang Johnny B Goode whenever he was battling a villain.
I love that you don’t have to be a Tolkien fan or watch cheesy 80s tv to find heroic lightning wielders; you only have to go back and read Habakkuk. The biblical prophet was writing during the time when the Babylonians were on the verge of defeating Jerusalem and taking the people into captivity. Habakkuk is calling on God to intervene, recalling the time God swept in to rescue the Hebrews from captivity in Egypt. That had been a time, the prophet recalls, when God’s presence shook the earth and shattered the mountains. The NRSV says that rays came forth from his hand, where his power lay hidden. I like the Message translation here: His cloud-brightness like dawn, exploding, spreading, forked-lightning shooting from his hand— what power hidden in that fist! Habakkuk continues, remembering how God’s presence was enough to cause the sun and moon to stop in their tracks: Your flashing arrows stopped them, your lightning-strike spears impaled them. Angry, you stomped through Earth. Furious, you crushed the godless nations. You were out to save your people, to save your specially chosen people. You beat the stuffing out of King Wicked, Stripped him naked from head to toe, Set his severed head on his own spear and blew away his army. If God did it back then against the power of the Egyptian dynasty, couldn’t God be called on again to break into history and do a number on the Babylonians? Couldn’t divine lightning strike twice?
The longing for a superhero to intervene in history and battle the forces of injustice seems to be woven deep into our DNA. We have this idea that it has happened before, so why shouldn’t it happen now? There are people of faith around the world suffering from violence, hunger, poverty, and all sorts of ills. Would it be too much to ask for a repeat of the Exodus miracles of liberation, for the imperial powers to meet their match in the God whose hands shoot forked lightning, whose presence melts mountains? Instead of that fantastic vision, it seems to me that we have relegated the intervention of our superhero God to the realm of celebrity sports. God’s lightning hand is now on the lightning rod Tim Tebow, causing him to throw for 316 yards, averaging 3.16 yards, in a miraculous sudden death victory. I have nothing against Tebow, and am glad he’s a man of faith. But I’m hoping people like the prophet Habakkuk can remind us to set our sights a little higher when we’re longing for divine intervention, and that we won’t trade in the forked lightning that brings liberation for a third and long hail Mary.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.