Habakkuk and Times of Uncertainty (Part 3)

In a weekly email update for St. Etienne Cathedral (Kigali) I have been working through a series of messages looking at the book of Habakkuk for strength to hold on in uncertain times. These are the final two messages, slightly revised.

In the complaints and responses of Habakkuk chapters 1-2, we see God in His sovereign faithfulness. God is controlling events for the good of his people, even when circumstances seem to suggest the opposite. Here (Part 3) we turn to Habakkuk’s response to God.

Habakkuk’s first response is confidence. We see this in his prayer (3:1-16). Actually, Habakkuk was already praying, his complaints are a form of prayer called “lament.” Now in response to God he turns from lament to petition. Habakkuk realizes that in God’s sovereignty His plans must be carried out. God will punish the sin of his people. But even as he accepts that this is God’s sovereign plan, he asks God to have mercy: “in wrath remember mercy” (3:2). Although judgment is sure, Habakkuk looks for mercy, waiting for the destruction of the enemies of God’s people (3:16).

Habakkuk can be confident of God’s mercy because he knows God’s work of salvation in the past. Verses 3-15 recall God’s former acts of salvation, especially the exodus from Egypt. God was like a warrior, fighting the enemies of his people (see Exodus 15:3). Habakkuk wants God to save his people in the present the way he did in the past. He has heard of the mighty deeds of the Lord, but now he wants to see them for himself (3:2). In anticipation of God’s mercy Habakkuk has moved from complaint: “how long, O Lord?” (1:2), to confidence: “I will quietly wait for the day of trouble” (3:16).

Quiet confidence in the mercy of God is a source of strength to hold on in times of uncertainty. Generally, confidence grows as something or someone is proven worthy of trust. Confidence in God grows by continually reminding ourselves of God’s past faithfulness, reassuring ourselves that he can be trusted. Waiting for the Lord is an exercise of our trust and a source of strength: “they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31).

This brings us to the final verses of the book, and the other part of Habakkuk’s response to God. In his final poem (3:17-19) Habakkuk responds to God with joy. This may come as a surprise, since Habakkuk has accepted God’s sovereign plan to punish his people. There are dark days ahead. The prophet describes the loss of life’s basic necessities: figs, grapes, olive, wheat, sheep, cows (v.17). Although this loss could be hypothetical, for Habakkuk this is a reality that is soon to happen. The Babylonians are going to cut of supplies and ravage the land as they carry out God’s judgement. God’s people are going to experience suffering and exile.

In spite of such catastrophic loss Habakkuk chooses joy instead of despair: “yet I will rejoice in the LORD” (v.18). Even when all of God’s blessings are removed, Habakkuk will rejoice in the Lord. Habakkuk’s response is a stubborn refusal to despair and a determination to “take joy in the God of my salvation,” even if he does not save in this situation. Habakkuk chooses joy in spite of circumstances, and in this way finds God to be his source of strength: “GOD, the Lord, is my strength” (v19).

Joy in the Lord is a source of strength to hold on in times of uncertainty. So often we look for joy in our circumstances, but Habakkuk reminds us that joy is a choice we can make in spite of circumstances. We have watched Habakkuk go through a transformation, from complaining to confidence and joy. In our times of uncertainty God wants us to experience a similar transformation, to be a people of confident trust and determined joy.  When times of uncertainty come our way God himself will be our strength to hold on.

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Habakkuk and Times of Uncertainty (Part 2)

In a weekly email update for St. Etienne Cathedral (Kigali) I have been working through a series of messages looking at the book of Habakkuk for strength to hold on in uncertain times. Here are more of those messages, slightly revised.

The book of Habakkuk gives us guidance for how to live in times of uncertainty. We have already looked at Habakkuk’s first complaint to God and God’s response (Part 1). We saw that in times of uncertainty God says to us, “Watch Me!” Now we will look at Habakkuk’s second complaint and God’s second response: “Trust Me!”

Habakkuk’s second complaint (1:12-17) is a followup to God’s first response. God revealed to the prophet that He was going to use the Chaldeans (Babylonians) to judge the sins of His people. Habakkuk understands that God has “ordained them as a judgement” (1:12), but how can a Holy God use wicked people to accomplish His purposes? God’s purity cannot look at evil, and yet it seems like God is passively watching as “the wicked swallow up” the righteous (1:13). Will God let them go on “killing nations forever?” Like a watchman on a city wall Habakkuk looks to the Lord for an answer (2:1). Again he wants to know what God is going to do about this.

God responds to Habakkuk’s complaint by again indicating that He has a plan (2:3-20). Just as He plans to use the Chaldeans to judge His people, He also plans to judge the Chaldeans for their pride and arrogance (2:6-20). In His holiness God is committed to the holiness of His people (Exodus 19:6), so He will use whatever means necessary to make them holy, even a wicked empire. But this doesn’t mean that God endorses the ways of the wicked. God is not going to give the Chaldeans free reign, He will judge them.

In the meantime God’s people live by faith (2:4). In the midst of uncertainty God is saying to Habakkuk, Trust Me! Faith is a dependance on something that is firm, that can provide stability. In Habakkuk this is trust in the God who is a “Rock” (1:12), and in His word (2:2-3). Faith believes that even if God’s goodness seems hidden, “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (2:14). Faith prays that even in wrath God will remember His mercy (3:2). Faith waits on the Lord and rejoices in the midst of uncertainty.

God is calling us to trust Him in times of uncertainty. But it can feel like those times are the hardest to have faith. A friend wrote to me this week, saying, “our faith is easily shaken in times of uncertainty.” It is for this reason that we need one another. Sometimes we need the faith of a friend to give us the strength to hold on. As we come together in worship each week we grow in faith and strengthen one another.

In times of uncertainty God says to his people, “Watch Me!” and “Trust Me!” Before we move on to Habakkuk’s response to God in chapter 3, I thought we should pause and reflect on what God’s responses teach us about God. 

God’s responses to Habakkuk’s complaints not only reveal answers, they also reveal something about God. It would be easy to jump to the obvious conclusion that God reveals himself as a God of wrath. Certainly God’s wrath will come against his own sinful people and the pride of the Babylonians. But other aspects of God’s character are not so obvious.

I think God’s wrath is actually a demonstration of his faithfulness. We see this in the way God responds to Habakkuk. First, God is open to Habakkuk’s complaints, and he is ready to answer. Second, God knows what is happening and is concerned for his people. Third, God has a plan, he is working for their good, their holiness. In these ways God is showing Habakkuk that even in times of uncertainty he is faithful and he can be trusted.

This message was not only for Habakkuk, but also for the people of Judah who were facing the threat of destruction and exile. God was preparing them through Habakkuk for the difficulties that lay ahead by reminding them that through it all he was faithful. They will find the strength to hold on in uncertainty as they trust in the Lord’s faithfulness.

God wants to reveal himself to us in the midst of our own times of uncertainty. I can remember a time about 8 years ago when life was uncertain. I wanted to know what was coming next, I was waiting for God to show me the future. But a friend asked me what God might want to teach me while I waited in the uncertainty. I was so focused on the destination that I wasn’t paying attention to the journey. What is the Lord trying to teach you in the uncertain times of your life?

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Habakkuk and Times of Uncertainty (Part 1)

In a weekly email update for St. Etienne Cathedral (Kigali) I have started a series of messages looking at the book of Habakkuk for strength to hold on in uncertain times. Here are the first two of those messages, slightly revised.

It was just last week that I was talking to a friend and he said to me, “These are uncertain times.” That line really struck me and has stayed with me. We all live with a little bit of uncertainty, isn’t it? But for many of us the world we live in seems to be characterized by a greater sense of uncertainty. What will give us the strength to hold on in uncertain times?

This is a question at the heart of the book of Habakkuk, one of the prophets of the Old Testament. Habakkuk lived in uncertain times. The Kingdom of Judah was facing a crisis, internally and externally. On one hand, the king, Jehoiakim was rotten (Jeremiah 22:11-18). Under his rule, Habakkuk tells us, “the wicked surround the righteous” and justice is perverted (1:4). On the other hand, Judah was dominated by foreign powers. The nations around them were battling for control of the region and there was a threat of war from the Babylonians.

In this midst of this crisis Habakkuk cries out to the Lord. He questions God, asking to know what God is doing. Sometimes his questions are called “complaints.” It is good to remember that a Biblical worldview allows God’s people to reverently question Him when their experience seems to deny His promises (Psalm 13:1-2). God’s responses to Habakkuk reveal how His people can hold on in uncertain times.

Habakkuk’s first complaint to God is about the sinfulness of God’s people (1:2-4). Judah had descended into wickedness and violence. The law was paralyzed by sin and justice was perverted, “the wicked surround the righteous.” As he observes the condition of the people Habakkuk cries out to the Lord in the words of Psalm 13:1, “O Lord, how long?” His complaint is that God seems unconcerned about these things, it appears that God stands by doing nothing. So he wants to know what God is going to do about the sin of his people.

God responds to the prophet’s complaint by revealing that he already has a plan for addressing the sinfulness of his people (1:5-11). It is important to see that God is not surprised by Habakkuk’s description of things as if he was unaware. God knows and is concerned. He tells Habakkuk that he is planning to use the Chaldeans (Babylonians) to bring judgement against his people. God’s response to Habakkuk is that far from standing by doing nothing he has a plan. God tells Habakkuk, Watch me! (“look,” “see,” “behold”). Habakkuk needs to keep watching so he doesn’t miss what God is up to.

God’s response to Habakkuk reveals how we can find strength to hold on in uncertain times. It can feel like God is far removed from the circumstances of our lives or the problems of our world. But in times of uncertainty God wants us to watch him, to keep our eyes on him. The book of Hebrews says that for endurance in this life we must look to Jesus (12:1-2). Strength to hold on in times of uncertainty begins with having our focus on the Lord.

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Leadership and Lent

I have been taking an online class on Christian Leadership.  This has been really good for me, since it has given me the opportunity to reflect on my own leadership as well as the leadership of others.  I’m sure the people around me have noticed: leadership is coming up in conversations and in my preaching.

I was doing some unrelated reading in Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, and I came across his thoughts on leadership, particularly the leadership of the Roman Emperor, Caligula.  In his Jewish Antiquities (19.2.5) Josephus reflects that unchecked power leads to corruption:

“For all that, the advantages obtained from education could not withstand the corruption wrought upon him [Emperor Caligula] by his rise to power; so hard to achieve, it seems, is the virtue of moderation for those who find it easy to take action for which they need account to no one” (LCL, 433, 312-13).

Where he mentions “the virtue of moderation“, Josephus uses a Greek word also found in the New Testament, which is translated as “being of sound mind,” “sensible,” or “right-minded.”  For example, when Jesus cast the “Legion” of unclean spirits out of the man in the country of the Gerasenes (Mark 5:1ff), Mark reports: “And they [the people who heard about it] came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid” (Mark 5:15).  Demon possession is contrasted with being “in his right mind.”

Josephus’ use of this term in contrast to unchecked power, implies that he saw the corruption of Caligula, and leaders like him, as like the kind of madness seen in the demon possessed man.  In the context, Josephus catalogued the corruption of Caligula.  This madness/ corruption is specifically because the leader did not have to give an account, he was not liable to anyone.

In the reading I’ve been doing on Christian leadership, I’ve noticed over and over again an emphasis on leaders having accountability.  Since we are in Lent, I would encourage all of us who lead, in whatever capacity, to take time to reflect on our leadership and seek accountability so that we can grow in sensible, right-minded leadership for the sake of our followers.

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