Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sermon: Habakkuk 3: 1-19 Joyful in God

I’m sure you’ve heard of the radio programme ‘Desert Island Discs.’ The show has been running for seventy years now, with celebrities invited to share their choice of eight songs, a book, and a luxury item they would want if they were stranded on a desert island. What would your items be? What could you not do without? It’s a fun question, and if we had time to go around the church we’d learn a lot about each other and our music preferences.

But what if the situation wasn’t just a bit of fun, a game played out on a radio programme? Forget about Desert Island Discs, and instead focus on Real Life Issues. What if the circumstances of your life brought about a radical change in your fortunes; suddenly you find yourself out of work; or ill and unable to work; broken down or laid aside. You’re a victim of the economic downturn; the Ulster Bank computer systems crash; we experience the wettest summer in living memory, the crops are ruined, the cattle barely able to be fed; whatever it might be. What could you not do without? What would you cling to?

In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Habakkuk is facing a similar meltdown. It’s not the turn of events that he would have thought possible; but the prospect of disaster is in front of him. What will he cling to?

Habakkuk’s little book is a two-way conversation between Habakkuk and his God. Habakkuk looks at society around him. God’s people are failing to live in the way they should, and he cries out ‘How long, O LORD?’ (1:2) Why isn’t God doing something to help his people? God’s reply is surprising and terrifying - he is bringing the Babylonians on Judah. (1:6) He’s bringing a worse, more evil people, to discipline Judah, God’s people.

Habakkuk complains: How can this be? How can you possibly reward these evil people and give them victory over us - ok, we’re bad, but they’re worse! Well, as God says, this is how he has chosen to act - Babylon is the instrument in God’s hand to punish - but one day Babylon too will face destruction. They’ll be repaid for their wrongdoing.

Habakkuk has been told all this by the LORD - now how does he respond? How would you respond, if you’d been told all this?

Habakkuk responds in prayer in chapter 3. He reminds God of what he has done in the past, how he rescued the people of Israel from Egypt and brought them into the promised land. ‘LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD’ (3:2) From verses 3 - 15, he retells the story of the capturing of the promised land, as God went before his people, driving out the inhabitants and delivering and saving his people, giving them their land.

Even now, Habakkuk asks for God to do the same things again: ‘Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.’ (3:2b) Yet God has declared his purposes. They are fixed, and so Habakkuk knows that the Babylonians will soon invade and capture the land.

It’s as if Habakkuk is sitting watching the enemy arrive, coming over the hill to defeat his people, God’s people. Resistance is futile. Dark days are ahead. Difficult days are just around the corner. Total devastation awaits; their homes and farms face destruction. How will he respond?

We come to verse 17 and it’s as if Habakkuk gives you a tour of his farm. It’s not one of those open working farms, where the kids can come and see how the cows are milked and where the hens lay. Rather, it’s like a tumbleweed, rundown farm, in silence:

‘Fig tree? Did not blossom. Vines? No grapes. Olive crop? No produce. Fields? No crops. Fold? Empty of flocks. Stalls? No herd present.’ Can you imagine this farm with nothing growing but weeds; nothing to eat, or sell, or make. Completely bare. ‘Disaster on a total scale’ writes one commentator. A disastrous harvest.

Maybe you’re picturing your own farm in this state. What would you cling to? How would you respond? Or perhaps farming means less to you. What if there was no food in the shops, even Asda and Tesco were completely bare? Or your P45 arrives, no job, no prospects. What would you do now?

What is it you couldn’t do without? Not so long ago there was a total meltdown in the world of Blackberries - not the fruit to make jam - but the mobile phones. Something failed, and for three or four days, they couldn’t make or receive calls. At the same time, iPhones were crashing with a software update... it was as if some peoples’ worlds were ending, they had become so attached to their phones. As one headline writer suggested, it was Apple and Blackberry Crumble.

Maybe you’re not fussed about so-called smart phones; not worried about unemployment; but what is that one thing you couldn’t do without, the thing you care about most - perhaps your grandchildren, or your possessions, or your pet hamster. How would you cope without that?

Put yourself in Habakkuk’s shoes for a moment. What do you expect him to say next? He’s gone through the farm stock list, and it’s completely empty. How would you continue? We have nothing so... pull yourself together God, what do you think you’re doing? Don’t you care about us God, can’t you see we’re fading away here?

Let’s see what Habakkuk says: ‘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 Saviour.’

I’m almost certain you didn’t expect to hear him talk about rejoicing, or being joyful. We’re suffering terribly, and yet Habakkuk wants to rejoice? How can he rejoice in the midst of suffering? Is it possible for us to do the same?

In those two lines, Habakkuk refers to God in two different ways, which together show us why he continues to rejoice, even in those difficult times. ‘Yet I will rejoice in the LORD.’ The LORD (capital letters), otherwise Yahweh / Jehovah, is the covenant name of God. It’s God’s name revealed to Moses when he called to him from the burning bush. The Lord God Almighty chose the people of Israel to be his people, and he would be their God. He has pledged himself to care and protect them through the covenant with them at Mount Sinai - and it’s this covenant making and covenant keeping God that Habakkuk is trusting in.

Even when the people of God have failed him, have walked away from him, the LORD is still keeping his covenant with them, working his purposes out. It’s this faithfulness of the LORD of the covenant that leads Habakkuk to rejoice.

So often we can get so attached to stuff that it becomes like a god to us - an idol. As those things are removed from us, everything comes back into perspective, and we see more clearly that we don’t need God and stuff - that God is all that we need, and that he is in control.

Just think of Job, the prosperous man of the Old Testament with his sons and daughters and sheep and camels and oxen and donkeys and servants. In one day, it was all taken away from him, and how does he respond? ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed by the name of the LORD.’ Can we say that, as we face difficult days? But what is it that allows us to say that? How can we lose so much or suffer in incredible ways and yet still hold fast to God?

We see it in the second way Habakkuk describes God. He says: ‘I will be joyful in God my Saviour.’ Habakkuk has a personal relationship with God - he knows him as his own Saviour. And this makes all the difference.

God is not just an abstract concept; not just a bearded man sitting on a cloud - the Lord God Almighty, the covenant making God is my Saviour - his covenant is with me; he is my rescuer!

Friends, I do not know what circumstances and situations you find yourself in tonight. I don’t know what problems you brought with you this evening, or what awaits you in the days to come. You might even think that what Habakkuk had to deal with was as nothing compared to the weight of the burden you’re carrying this evening. Friend, you do not need to deal with it alone. Even tonight, you can find that the Lord God draws near to help you in time of need; that the Lord God will be your salvation - through the work of the wonderful Saviour Jesus.

The apostle Paul writes of Jesus: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.’ (2 Cor 8:9) These riches we’re promised aren’t earthly riches, not gold or money; but heavenly riches, the incomparable riches of his grace, freely given to us. And this is what the Lord Jesus went through to save us and grace us:

‘who, for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, ‘ (Heb 12:2) The Lord Jesus lost, not just his farming, not just his produce, but everything in order to save us and restore us:

‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.’

When we see what the Lord Jesus endured in order to rescue us; to be our salvation, then we can face our problems confident that God stands with us, that his love is constantly with us - and that’s something we can rejoice in, even in the darkest day. With Habakkuk we can say that ‘God the Lord is my strength.’ He will keep us going, no matter what we’re facing.

You might have been a Christian for a long time, but it’s so easy to get caught up with material things that we lose sight of the blessings we have in Christ Jesus. Perhaps in these days of tightening our belts God is calling us back to himself, to find in him all we need; to realise that in all things God is working for the good of those who love him - not our temporary happiness, but our eternal good.

Maybe you have heard of Jesus, you know the salvation he offers, but you’ve never taken that step of faith. What is it you’re clinging to? What is it you cannot do without? Those idols you have will not deliver; they cannot satisfy. When they are taken away, what then will you do? The Lord is near, he will become your salvation this night, if you will simply trust in him - you need not fear the future with the Lord Jesus as your salvation and your strength. Come to him, no matter how chaotic your life may be, and find your peace in him. God is all we need, and he is more than able to keep us and deliver us.

This sermon was preached at the Friday night Harvest service in Colaghty Parish Church, Lack, on 14th October 2012.

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