Sermon: When Life Goes Pear-Shaped (Habakkuk): Habakkuk’s Prayer
The first time I conducted a baptism service, the passage for the day was about John the Baptist. In my sermon, I made a crack about John the Baptist and Jesus the Methodist – only to discover that some of the happy couple’s family worshipped at Millmead Baptist Church in Guildford.
But today, I can proudly announce to you that I have discovered a Methodist in the Bible from before the birth of Christ. Habakkuk.
Why do I make this facetious comment? Because Habakkuk sang his theology. I have often said that if you spotted three Christians going to worship on a Sunday morning, each carrying a book with them, the Anglican is carrying a prayer book, the Baptist is holding a Bible, and the Methodist is holding a hymn book. It says something about our spirituality.
And as Habakkuk responds to God’s second answer in chapter 2 with a prayer, he sings it. That strange beginning in verse 1, complete with a Hebrew word to trip up the reader, highlights it:
A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.
Shigi-what? ‘Shigionoth’ is a rare term for a dirge, only used at times of complete reliance upon God’s faithfulness. There are also references (not translated in the NIV) to another Hebrew musical term, selah, in verses 3, 9 and 13. Finally, the book ends with these words:
For the director of music. On my stringed instruments. (Verse 19b)
Habakkuk’s prayer, then, is not a private prayer that happens to have been preserved, but one that has been turned into a public act of worship. Just as we often look in our Bibles and see much of the words of the prophets written in poetry, so here Habakkuk has used a creative gift to share his prayer of response to God’s word. By sharing it that way, he makes his prayer memorable and the content usable by others. Could it be that when we have an insight into faith, we might consider using our creative gifts in order to share it with others?
But that’s a little off on a tangent, something that might spark one or two of you into action. For the bulk of this morning, we need to consider the message that Habakkuk preserved for us in his sung prayer, even if we no longer know the tune.
Firstly, Habakkuk sings about God the Deliverer in the past. Verses 3 to 7 use language that is reminiscent of the Exodus and the Conquest of the Promised Land. In other words, Habakkuk looks back to see and to celebrate what God has done in the past. He goes back to the greatest act of deliverance that the Yahweh, the God of Israel, has accomplished in history, and reminds himself – and others who will hear or sing this song – of that event. If times are bad now, this is the God he believes in and trusts. When God’s people were oppressed by an unjust nation before, this is what the Lord did. He delivered them from Egypt and brought them into their own land.
I believe Habakkuk takes strength and comfort from this. He knows that God has not changed. God is still able to do this. So he fortifies himself with a theological history lesson that underlines for him the character and the actions of his Lord.
It is something we Christians can do, too. We can remember God’s great acts of deliverance in Jesus Christ. We can celebrate his Incarnation, assuming human flesh in order to redeem it. We can celebrate his death for our sins and his resurrection for our justification. We can rejoice in how his Ascension tells us that he reigns.
Indeed, Jesus has provided a particular way of doing this regularly. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he said. Every time we share in Holy Communion we remember. And although the bread and the wine particularly point us to the giving up of his body to death, in that act of the Lord’s Supper we celebrate everything from creation onwards. Notice how the great prayers of thanksgiving move through the history of God’s saving acts, climaxing in Jesus Christ. Every time we eat bread and drink wine in obedient faith to Jesus Christ, he provides a way of remembering who he is and what he has done for us. It’s not just an act of memory, it’s not merely a feat of the intellect, Christ engages our sight as we see the bread broken, our hearing as we listen to the thanksgiving, and our senses of touch, taste and smell as we receive the elements. It is a full, sensory experience of remembering the God who has delivered us in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, this Christian remembering of God’s deliverance in Christ is not one that leaves a two-thousand-year gap between those events and the present day. On the one hand, our sacramental remembering puts us back at the Cross, as if we were truly there. On the other hand, it brings the past into the present, making those past events effective today.
When we face our questions, doubts and troubles about the state of the world and about the state of the church or even our own lives, let us invite the Holy Spirit to sing the great song of remembrance in us, that encourages us to believe in our faithful, redeeming God at the worst of times as well as the best of times.
Secondly, Habakkuk sings about God the Warrior in the future. Now I have to say this is not so obvious in English translations, and here I rely on the scholars. As we move into 9 to 15, there is still a description, it seems to us, of God acting in deliverance in the past. However, not all the language here quite so easily fits the Exodus and the Conquest.
What it seems to be is this: Hebrews had a way of speaking as part of their language that is strange to us. Whereas in English we are used to a series of tenses in our verbs that are variations on the present, the past and the future, Hebrew was more complex when it came to a sense of time in their verbs. One example of this is what is called the ‘predictive past’. In other words, something is predicted to happen in the future, and the speaker is so certain of it that he or she speaks of it as already having happened in the past. When Jonah prays to God from the belly of the fish, he hasn’t been delivered, but he prays as if he has. Scholars think this part of Habakkuk 3 is also a ‘predictive past’. The prophet has been fortified by the act of remembering God’s acts of deliverance in the past. As a result, he now has faith that God will also act mightily in salvation in the future. He is so trusting of this that he sings as if it has already happened.
What does that mean for us? Something like this: if we have remembered God’s deeds of salvation in the past, we have reason to hope and trust for the future. Think of how we sing the old hymn, ‘This, this is the God we adore’ and recall those lines,
We’ll praise him for all that is past
And trust him for all that’s to come.
That, effectively, is what Habakkuk is singing. He has praise for the past, and that leads to trust for the future. Praise for the past and trust for the future are not separate. They are connected. Because we know what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we can trust him in the future.
Think of it in terms of human relationships. What is our reaction if someone comes to us and makes false accusations against a loved one? We tend to say, “But that is not consistent with what I know about the one I love.” In other words, we fall back on what we know of their character and their deeds from the past. I know it isn’t a perfect illustration, because it’s possible that someone might hide things from us, but I hope you see the basic point. In our faith, we do something like that. A whisper comes in our ear that God cannot be so good, because all this evil is going on around us. We respond by saying, “But I know what God is like. He sent his Son. And because he did that in the past, I will trust him for what is to come.”
To summarise so far: Habakkuk’s song is first of all a great song of remembering, in which we engage with what God has done in the past. It then secondly is a great song of trust in the future, because of God’s past deeds. But that leads to the third and final part of the song: what about the present? After all, now is the time when things are bad. In Habakkuk’s case, it was the wrongdoing of God’s people and their looming punishment through the evil Babylon. For us, we may be exercised by other dark scenarios. It may be war, famine, injustice or economic turbulence in the world. It may be closer to home in the form of personal sickness or troubles. Either way, there isn’t much light at present in between what God has done in the past and what we trust him to do in the future. How shall we live now?
Habakkuk offers a glorious climax to his song:
I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.
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.
The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights. (Verses 16-19a)
He is content to wait, and we’ve talked about that last week. But while the harvest fails and there are no animals on the farms for food, he rejoices in the Lord his Saviour and finds strength in him. This is an astonishing confession of faith in which the prophet basically says, “I’m not in my relationship with the living God just for what I can get out of it. I will not limit my faithfulness to the good times. God has made a covenant with his people, and I am committed in return to that covenant.” In that faith commitment Habakkuk finds joy and strength in the Lord, despite dire circumstances.
As I pondered this, I thought about which of my Christian friends leave the most impression on me. Yes, some of my dearest friends in the faith have a lot of money but have used it with a near-secret generosity to support missionaries in obscure former Soviet states, and they have also used their financial nous to advise those with far less than them. But even those people have faced devastating personal losses.
And I think of a couple I know, where both husband and wife were in professions ancillary to medicine. Yet both of them have been struck down by differing disabilities. In the fifteen years I have known them, neither has been in paid work. They depend to a large extent on the benefits system, and the forthcoming changes might well not be very kind to them. Yet they have raised three fine daughters and they both have such a vibrant faith, even though neither of them has yet received the healing from God that to my eyes would make an immense difference to them. They have suffered at the hands of a church leader, too, yet I would be proud to have them in any congregation I served. Their fig tree has not budded, so to speak, and they have no grapes on their vines, yet they rejoice in the Lord and find strength in him, because they know that God is faithful and they have committed themselves in faithfulness to him.
Are we in some form of darkness right now? Is it to do with world events or personal circumstances, be they ours or those of someone we love? Can we dare to sing with Habakkuk? Can we sing of God’s acts of salvation in the past in Christ? Can we sing of our belief that he will act again in salvation in the future? And while we wait, can we sing in defiance of the darkness, of our joy in the Lord and the strength we find in him?