Rejoice in the Lord! - Habakkuk 3
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin with some lines from an anonymous poem;
"Are you standing at "Wits End Corner"
Christian, with troubled brow?
Are you thinking of what is before you,
And all you are bearing now?
Are you standing at "Wits End Corner"
Blinded with wearying pain?
Feeling you cannot endure it,
You cannot bear the strain?
Are you standing at "Wits End Corner"
Yearning for those you love?
Longing and praying and watching,
Pleading their cause above?
Are you standing at "Wits End Corner"
Your work before you spread?
Or lying begun, unfinished
And pressing on heart and head?"
For whatever reason; maybe problems in the church, crises in the world, challenging circumstances in our personal or family life, Christian experience involves periods of perplexity?
Given the world we live in, what our fallen, broken world leads to, sooner or later each of us will find ourselves at "Wit's End Corner" (that is if we haven't already or if we aren't there now!)
When we face perplexity we are in the company of many other believers down the centuries who have struggled, doubted, wrestled, even argued with God about what they're going through. As we've been considering over recent weeks the OT prophet Habakkuk, is such a believer.
We saw in Ch 1 of Habakkuk's book, that he is distressed by the state of the people who bear God's name 600 years before Jesus, a people where violence is commonplace & where God's word is ignored. So in a passionate prayer he asks God; "Lord, Why don't you stop the rot amongst your people?"
God makes his 1st reply - "I am going to stop the rot amongst my people I am going to judge them & I'm going to use your enemy, the Babylonians, as my instrument!"
This was a huge shock to Habakkuk he had to learn that God is in control - He is sovereign & whilst humans are responsible for their actions, God can use all things to serve his purposes.
But Habakkuk makes his 2nd complaint; He asks "How can you, the holy God, use these disgusting violent pagans to judge your people? I know we deserve your discipline but these people are far, far worse. It can't be right that they get away with their evil behaviour Can it!?"
God shows Habakkuk that he will judge evil so it will not prosper forever. Justice will be done & will be seen to be done. The Babylonian oppressor will in the end receive what they deserve; for idolatry will be punished, the plunderer will be plundered, the shameless will be shamed.
But God's people will have to wait for the fulfillment of God's plan. In their perplexity they need to patiently trust God, for as 2: 4 puts it, the "righteous shall live by faith".
Habakkuk may not like all he hears, but he understands. In ch 3 (p942) he turns to God in what v1 describes a "prayer". He pleads with God to be at work; v2 "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".
Perhaps whilst still praying Habakkuk meditates on God's deeds, how God has worked in the history of his people, & in his role as an OT prophet God's Spirit inspires his thoughts so that we, 2 thousand years later, can learn with him.
We see that the right response to perplexity involves;
1)the big picture V3-15
When perplexed, be it about our own lives or what is happening to others, we can easily lose perspective we feel overwhelmed in the problem.
It can feel that God stands outside our struggles. It can feel like, he isn't concerned, he isn't in control, even God that God is against us or he isn't there. Perplexity can make us question whether God is great but not good (& so not willing to help us) or good & not great (& not able to help us)!
Habakkuk was led to realise that such doubts are addressed by remembering the big picture of what God is really like & what he has done to prove it.
Look at v3, in highly poetic language God is seen as visibly appearing, "God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth."
The places mentioned (Teman & Paran) are connected with the Exodus story (Dt33:2) & indeed much of the imagery in these verses is about God's classic OT act of rescue of his people.
This is very significant for the Exodus from the oppression of Egypt under Moses, centuries before, was the event in the history of Israel, it was the event which defined them & which proved to them that God is great & good at one & the same time.
So in Habakkuk's visionary prayer, God is seen acting according to his essential character v3 "His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth." v4His splendour was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden". God is certainly great!
The covenant God is represented acting on behalf of his people. There are allusions to the great rescue event of the Exodus in the plagues brought as judgement on Egypt (v5). We see God's control over his creation control that brought the parting of the Red Sea & victory over his enemies enemies which are often represented in the OT by chaotic forces of nature which God tames & orders, so v8 "Were you angry with the rivers, O LORD? Was your wrath against the streams? Did you rage against the sea when you rode with your horses and your victorious chariots?" 9You uncovered your bow, you called for many arrows. You split the earth with rivers; 10 the mountains saw you and writhed. Torrents of water swept by; the deep roared and lifted its waves on high."
Habakkuk is reminded that God came in the past to reveal himself & to act in judgement on his enemies; v12 "In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations", He recalls that God came to bring rescue for his people; v13 "You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one." God is certainly good!
We've just spent a few days as a nation remembering our Queen & her character & faithfulness over the last 50 years of her reign there have been celebrations marking the people's gratitude for her service & dedication - her commitment to her people over this long period.
There is something helpful about remembering good things when you're seeking reassurance about the present or the future. In a hugely more profound way Habakkuk is lead to do the same, he remembers what God has done & what he is like.
God is showing Habakkuk that his complaints do have an answer. His perplexity, though understandable, will one day be resolved because as God has proved faithful in the past so he can be relied upon to be faithful in the present & in the future.
Habakkuk holds onto the big picture of the character of God & his saving rule expressed in the events of history. The current situation was very perplexing, but the essential realities of God & his saving goodness hadn't changed.
How much more can we see this than Habakkuk, in the light of Jesus? As we remember this eve as we share bread & wine in the Communion service God did not even hold back his own Son in his rescue of his people, nothing else could reassure us more that God is good & will fulfil our salvation!
The big picture reassures us that God is consistent as he dealt with the threat to God's people before, so in a similar time of crisis he will deal with things now.
When we're at "Wits end corner" this is what we need to hear isn't it? Our perplexities are addressed not by new truth but fresh insight into old truth.
As we struggle with our doubts, confusions, as we wrestle with unresolved questions, apparent set backs, God's word his ancient word, speaks now we are reminded of the consistency of God's character- his enduring faithfulness that gives us hope to believe he is willing & able to help us.
Do you see what different perspective God has led Habakkuk into? Before he was taken up with the dreadful situation of his people & the necessary judgement of their sinful enemy, Babylon. Now in the process of dwelling on God's deeds Habakkuk's focus is moved from looking at the problem to positively focusing on the big picture, the good & great LORD God himself.
Right response to perplexity involves
2)the long view v16.
Habakkuk has been reminded that God doesn't change as he was at the Exodus so he is now great; righteous & powerful & also good; gracious & saving.
He has needed to hear this because as he tells us in v16 "I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled." He doesn't like what he hears in many ways hearing God's word has been an uncomfortable & shaking experience as he learns that all his people are to be judged.
But Habakkuk has also realised that God is just & the agent of God's judgement on Israel will themselves be judged they may be God's instrument but they are responsible for their evil actions. God is just & will be seen to be so but Habakkuk will have to wait to see the outworking of God's plan 2nd half of v16 "Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us."
Habakkuk realised that the difficulties of the moment real difficulties for him of seeing his people go through God's discipline can be faced with the long term view knowing God's ultimate plan will be fulfilled.
This is true for us in our perplexities some of our difficulties & sufferings can be seen rather differently when we know that in the future when Jesus returns all questions will be resolved, all difficulty will be removed all suffering will be excluded from God's new heaven & earth.
It's now just over 4 months since I last had the privilege of witnessing a baby being born into the world. Being the dad at a birth is a strange experience as you watch your wife going through the intense pain of labour. I'm sure Dave Lynch agrees having been there only a week a go!
One of the ironies is that the time when a woman has to exert her greatest effort & push the baby out is the time she is least able! She's had to put up with (usually hours) of exhausting labour & now she has to summon all her strength. How is she able to do it?
There are no doubt physiological reasons, but surely some of it is the hope of giving birth to a real baby. The pain of the moment is endured when there is hope of something wonderful in the future.
Habakkuk, waiting in faith here, points us forward to another who would endure through difficulty, one who would do so to achieve God's ultimate rescue; Listen to the words of Hebrews 12:2 "let us fix our eyes on Jesus the author & perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning it's shame & sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary & lose heart"
Habakkuk says v16 "Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us." As Christians this side of Jesus' death & resurrection we have greater insight into the long view of God's purposes, we have a greater hope than simply seeing all the wrong in the world being seen to be wrong & being punished though it's not less than that we have the hope of transformation & perfection as God fulfils his purpose when Jesus returns.
Finally a right response to perplexity involves not just remembering the big picture & maintaining the long view it also means;
3)resolve to rejoice in God v17-18.
Habakkuk has come a long way. He knows that things are not well with his people they deserve & are about to receive God's discipline for their unfaithfulness. This means their source of sustenance & the basis of their economy is about to fail. But Habakkuk knows that God remains trustworthy & faithful & so in his perplexity he can find stability, security & even joy in that knowledge;
Listen to the amazing words of v17"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, 18yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour."
Do you see what he says? "Though everyone loses their jobs, though the national economy collapses & the stock market crashes, though inflation hits a million % & the supermarkets close, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour."
These great words of faith are not a glib happy ending, swapping depression for a religious high - Habakkuk's feelings were all over the place (remember v 16). He is not simply putting on a mask of jollyness, Habakkuk is able to make a faithful statement like this because he has grasped with his mind something of who God is & what he is like.
Habakkuk is able to keep thanking God, because he is the "LORD" the faithful covenant God. Habakkuk is joyful in "God my saviour" the one who rescues & will ultimately save from all that is evil. God is v19 the "sovereign LORD" in control, working all things out for the glory of his name & the good of his people.
God can be trusted even though things are tough.
There's a reminder here that rejoicing in God thanking him for his goodness, is to some extent a discipline we need to feed our minds with his truth in order to be reminded of his goodness & greatness & praise him.
We need to do this particularly when circumstances or perplexities discourage us. A good way to do this is as we meet together to sing God's praises like tonight (why I appreciate songs packed with God's truth) & also I recommend learning bible verses or passages & rehearsing them to God in prayer it's surprising how that can lift our hearts to feel more like being thankful & even if we don't feel like it helps us remember the big picture & maintain the long view.
Habakkuk knew that he was going to suffer as part of God's people under discipline for their rejection of God's law & violent behaviour but with the perspective he has gained, he is reminded that ultimate security & joy are found in God & so he can rejoice in him.
A friend of mine who is doing full time gospel work in Europe wrote this in his last public prayer letter: "Since I last wrote I have been overwhelmed in many ways. Often it has seemed like I am hanging off the edge of a sheer drop, & I've wondered why no one has seemed able to bring me back from the brink.
I haven't blamed God, but I have cried out to him frequently to "adjust" some of the circumstances in my favour! I'm just coming round to see that rather than grumble about the nearness of the fall, I can thank God, even rejoice that he has kept me from falling, [during] what seemslong time of struggling."
My friend in his perplexity is holding onto God's promise & rejoicing. It's tough, but he knows God is great & good & that he will in time bring full rescue.
The Christian philosopher & writer Os Guinness put it like this in his book called Doubt; "God's people may not always know Why, but they can always know why they trust God who knows why!"
Perplexity will remain this side of Jesus' 2nd coming but because God is trustworthy & faithful, because he is sovereign & our saviour having proved supremely in Jesus that he is good - we have very good reasons to trust that he knows why, even when we don't.
With that knowledge we can still thank God. So God through the Apostle Paul says to us all, as we read in Phil 4 "Rejoice in the Lord always I will say it again rejoice".
The prophet Habakkuk begins his book at "Wits End Corner".
He's in depression & doubt, complaining that God didn't seem just & questioning his faithfulness. But he ends with a different view.
The circumstances at the end of the book, have not changed from the beginning, but God was at work in Hab changing his perspective as he realised with freshness the big picture of what God had done in the past as recorded in his word, as he realised the importance of taking the long view & as he saw that given who God is & what he has done before, we can continue to thank him & trust him whatever the circumstances.
Hab moves from complaint to trust, from fear to faith in the faithful God.
William Cowper was an 18th C English poet & hymn writer, he mixed in the same Christian circles as Hull's William Wilberforce the anti slavery campaigner. Cowper was a Christian who suffered from serious depression throughout his life. Let me close with a stanza from one of his poems inspired by the book of Habakkuk;
Though vine nor fig-tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there,
Yet, God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice,
For, while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.
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