Monday, July 03, 2017

Sermon: Habakkuk 3: 1-19 Rejocing in the Lord

I’m sure you’ve heard of the radio programme ‘Desert Island Discs.’ Celebrities are invited to share their choice of eight songs, a book, and a luxury item they would want to have 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 we could go round everyone and learn a lot about each other.

But what if the situation wasn’t just a bit of fun, if it wasn’t just a game played on a radio programme? What if the circumstances in your life brought about a radical change in your fortunes? To see the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London and imagine their situation - having nothing but what they stood up in. What could you not do without? What would you cling to?

The prophet Habakkuk is facing a similar meltdown. It’s not the way he expected things to turn out, and the prospect of disaster now lies before him. It’s like an accident that’s happening in slow motion in front of him, but he can’t do anything to stop it. What will he cling to as disaster strikes?

Well, if you’ve been with us on Sunday evenings, you’ll know that Habakkuk’s little book is a two-way conversation between Habakkuk and God. Habakkuk complained that his nation was doing wrong, and yet God wasn’t doing anything about it. So God says that he’s planning to do something about it - something unbelievable - he’s bringing the Babylonians on Judah. He’s bringing a more evil people to punish God’s people.

Habakkuk can’t understand why God is doing this, and complains about it. We might be bad, but they’re worse! But God says that while he uses Babylon to punish Judah, one day he will also punish Babylon. God calls Habakkuk and us to trust him - ‘the righteous will live by his faith.’

Last week we imagined this book as a Wimbledon tennis match. Back and forward, back and forward. Look at the way chapter 2 ends: ‘But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.’ Is that the final shot? Game over?

Well, obviously not. We’ve already heard chapter 3 read to us, so let’s look at how Habakkuk responds. Both of his previous utterances were complaints. Complaining about his own people, and complaining about the Babylonians (and God using them). Perhaps you know someone whose every utterance is complaint. Nothing’s ever right. They love a good moan. Is that the case with Habakkuk? As he opens his mouth, is it to complain again?

Verse 1. This is different. ‘A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.’ This time Habakkuk is praying. In fact, his prayer is written as a Psalm - that shigionoth is a musical term (and the very end in v 19 says ‘for the director of music. On my stringed instruments.’) But then you remember that there are some Psalms that are complaints. So is this going to be a complaining prayer? Let’s look at verse 2:

‘LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.’

This is different! First of all, Habakkuk looks back. Having heard of the LORD’s fame, his reputation, his power, he stands in awe of the LORD’s deeds. He remembers what God has previously done.

Then he asks that God do the same things in his day. What we’ve heard you do in the past, do now in our day and our time. And as you do, as you bring your wrath on our people, please, also remember mercy.

So what are the deeds he’s thinking of? What was it that brought the LORD fame? He recites some of them in verses 3-15. ‘God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran.’ Teman is in the south, Mount Paran is in and around Mount Sinai. Habakkuk is recalling the Exodus - as God revealed himself at Mount Sinai, having rescued his people from Egypt by the plagues and pestilences. The earth quaked as the law was given. God led his people to conquer the tents of Cushan and the dwellings of Midian.

Did you notice that verses 3-7 are speaking about God, but from verse 8 he’s speaking to God? It goes from he, he, he to you, you, you. Riding with his horses and victorious chariots through the Red Sea and the river Jordan, bringing his people out of Egypt and into the promised land.

God is the one who has all power over his creation; the one who rules and reigns; the one who fights for his people. ‘In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations. You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness.’ (12-13)

This is the fame of the LORD. These are the deeds of the LORD. And Habakkuk wants God to do the same in his day. Having made his request, Habakkuk shows that he is resolved to live by faith. Verse 16 brings us to the day of invasion, the day of disaster.

Imagine waking up to hear the Babylonians coming over the hill, the noise of men and horses, the dread of what the day might bring, the knowledge that they are (in the short term) going to conquer. Do you see how Habakkuk’s body is affected?

‘I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.’ It’s almost cartoonish heart pounding, thud, thud, thud. Lips quivering. Bones decaying. Legs trembling - knees knocking, as we would say. Is he resigned to ‘que sera sera - whatever will be will be’? No, verse 16 continues ‘Yet I will wait for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.’ God, you’ve said you’re going to act to save us and destroy them - so I’m waiting for that, even with knees knocking and heart pounding.

There’s a parallel with us today, isn’t there? God has promised us the victory, and the downfall and defeat of Satan. Jesus has already won the victory, yet we’re still distressed by Satan and sin. But we wait for the ultimate victory, when sorrow and sin will be no more.

So Habakkuk lives by faith as he waits for the Babylonians to have their own day of disaster. But it’s not an easy faith. It’s a faith that faces up to disaster. At the start, I asked what you couldn’t do without. For Habakkuk, he has lost everything. In verse 17 he gives us a guided tour of his farm. But it’s not like one of those open farms where the kids can see the cows being milked and cuddle the wee chicks. Rather, it’s more like an abandoned farm.

Habakkuk runs through the stock list. Fig tree? Did not blossom. Vines? No grapes. Olive crop? No produce. Fields? no food. Sheep pen? Empty. Stalls? No cattle at all. ‘Disaster on a total scale’ writes one commentator. What would this look like for you? P45? Starvation? How would you respond? How do you think Habakkuk responds?

‘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.’

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.

But even more than that, the LORD is also ‘God my Saviour’ - the one who will save, the one who in wrath will remember mercy. Sometimes, we imagine that when we become a Christian, God will save us from all trials. That we’ll have an easy ride through life, and all will be well. But God often acts to save us through our trials. We’ll go through incredibly difficult things, but God will give us the strength to get through them.

That’s Habakkuk’s testimony in verse 19: ‘The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.’

This is what it looks like to live by faith. Praying to God to act; waiting patiently for him to do what he has said he will do; and even in times or trouble and trial, rejoicing in the Lord who is our Saviour.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 2nd July 2017

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