Suffering as a Christian

(a sermon on chapter 3 of Habakkuk, given at St Richard’s Church, Crowborough, on 14 September 2014)

Paul Millard and his wife were young Christians, and she was pregnant with their fourth child when they suddenly realised that something was seriously wrong with her health. The doctors weren’t sure totally what it was, but before long she was in a wheelchair, weak and debilitated, facing episodes of excruciating pain. Twenty years on, their struggle continues. Reflecting on that time, Paul says: “I have met so many Christians who have left me amazed at their courage and fortitude and their desire to bring glory to God through the agony they have suffered. I have seen it in my wonderfully brave and incredibly courageous wife. Her story is not one of bitterness and defeat, but one of faith and triumph.”

Others respond differently when that kind of unimaginable hardship comes into the Christian life. You may well know people who have said, “If there really was a loving God, then he would never let us go through this. I might have believed in him before; but now, how can I?”

That’s true for us when we face hardship; but we could think too of the Christians currently being ravaged by terrorists from the so-called “Islamic State” movement in the Middle East. Has God forgotten them? How can they expect to cope with rape, torture, kidnap and murder?

And what about you? What has the story of your Christian life been, perhaps with its ups and downs? What would it take to shake your faith in God?

Well, I don’t know what kind of hard times you’re going through at the moment. I don’t know how close you feel your faith is to snapping. But today we’re going to sing with Habakkuk – and his song is a song that was written to help Christians keep going.

Let’s just recap his amazing story which you’ve been looking at together over the past few weeks. Habakkuk is a godly man living in Judah around 600BC, and he’s distressed at all the wickedness he sees in the country. Why do people not follow God’s way? And why is God doing nothing about it? Is God even listening? I’m sure we’ve all prayed the same kind of prayer. “Lord, what is going on in the world?” Or at least, we should have! It’s absolutely right for us to be concerned.

But Habakkuk gets an answer he doesn’t expect. God says that he’s going to bring in a ruthless foreign army, the Chaldeans, to punish Habakkuk’s people. Now that is a bit like you crying out to God about the 200,000 unborn children aborted in the UK each year…and him answering by saying, “Yes, I know. I’m raising up Al Qaeda to execute judgment on the British people. Can you imagine that? You would say, “What, that lot? They are even worse than we are!” Which is what Habakkuk said.

And God says, “Yes, I know that. And they too, in time will receive even greater punishment for their sins.” But that’s not going to happen yet. Chapter 2 verse 3: For still the vision awaits its appointed time; [in other words, the vision will come true at the time God has set]; it hastens to the end – it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. [God’s timing is perfect, and his plans will not fail.] v4: Behold, his soul is puffed up [that’s the Chaldean warrior]; it is not upright within him, but the righteous [that is, the righteous person in Israel] shall live by his faith [in other words, his patient trust that God’s word WILL come true, and his endurance through the ravages of the Chaldeans taking over.]”

It’s a shocking message, isn’t it! And it ultimately ends up at where I think you left off last week, chapter 2 verse 20: “Let all the earth keep silence before him.” In the ultimate analysis, God is God. We are not.

And what comes next in Habakkuk’s book? He prays! As he contemplates this traumatic news of a coming judgment on his people, he prays. Actually, he sings. And we’ve got the lyrics of his song here in chapter 3. That Hebrew word “Shigionoth” in verse 1 is probably a term for a particular type of song, such as a lament. And the very last words are: “To the director of music: with stringed instruments.” So it’s a song; and not just a song for Habakkuk to sing, but for all the Jews of his day to sing. I love to imagine them singing it, perhaps when they were carried off to exile by the Chaldeans (because Habakkuk’s prophecy certainly did come true). I love to think of them singing it as they wait patiently, a humbled people, for God’s deliverance to come – which, in God’s time, 70 years later, it did.

And it’s a song that we can sing – a prayer that we can use too. We can join in with their song of patient trust in a merciful deliverer – because what happened to them is just a big visual aid of a much greater deliverance. It is a picture pointing forward to the time of Jesus and the days we live in today. Just as the Jews in Habakkuk’s day were punished and restored, so was Jesus, in his cross and resurrection. He, of course, was punished for what he didn’t do wrong. But anyone who trusts in him today is included in benefits of his death and resurrection. He was punished in our place, and we will be raised to eternal life with him. For now we’re in a kind of waiting period, rather like Habakkuk, waiting for the final fulfilment of God’s promised deliverance. As so, like Habakkuk, we can sing this song as we wait – as we wait for our biggest enemy, sin and death, to be final destroyed when Jesus returns.

So let’s have a look at chapter 3, and I think we’ll see 3 things to look at, which will help us keep going as Christians.

1: Look Up

Look at chapter 3, verse 2:

O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
in the midst of the years make it known;
in wrath remember mercy.

When faced with the realisation of what will happen – that life will be incredibly hard for God’s people, Habakkuk prays. That in itself is a challenge, isn’t it! What’s your first reaction to trouble or bad news? Habakkuk prays. And did you notice two sides to his prayer? Firstly he acknowledges that God is God – “Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear.”

Then there’s a prayer for God to do good – to revive his work, and in his wrath to remember mercy. That is a wonderful prayer to pray for our country at the moment – and for the church at the moment. We know we deserve God’s wrath, and we need God’s mercy. It’s not that we can point the finger at a particular bit of suffering and say it’s come because of a particular sin. Not at all – and often the finest Christians are the ones who seem to end up suffering the most! But in general terms, there is suffering in the world because human beings brought sin into the world. And we need to remember that our enemy is not just the devil, it is our own sinfulness. So we need to acknowledge God as God, and to pray for his mercy. We need to look up. Second, we need to

  1. Look Back

Did you notice that most of chapter 3 is looking backwards? Habakkuk’s prayer takes the people back in time. He stirs up their memories to recall God’s great deliverance of the past – the time when Moses led them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land of Canaan. So, verse 3:

God came from Teman,
and the Holy One from Mount Paran.
His splendour covered the heavens,
and the earth was full of his praise. Selah
His brightness was like the light;
rays flashed from his hand;
and there he veiled his power.
Before him went pestilence,
and plague followed at his heels.
He stood and measured the earth;
he looked and shook the nations;
then the eternal mountains were scattered;
the everlasting hills sank low.
His were the everlasting ways.

I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction;
the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble.
Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord?
Was your anger against the rivers,
or your indignation against the sea,
when you rode on your horses,
on your chariot of salvation?
You stripped the sheath from your bow,
calling for many arrows. Selah

You split the earth with rivers.
10 The mountains saw you and writhed;
the raging waters swept on;
the deep gave forth its voice;
it lifted its hands on high.

11 The sun and moon stood still in their place
at the light of your arrows as they sped,
at the flash of your glittering spear.
12 You marched through the earth in fury;
you threshed the nations in anger.
13 You went out for the salvation of your people,
for the salvation of your anointed.
You crushed the head of the house of the wicked,
laying him bare from thigh to neck. Selah

14 You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors,
who came like a whirlwind to scatter me,
rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret.
15 You trampled the sea with your horses,
the surging of mighty waters.

Look back, says Habakkuk. God has saved us before, in the most unlikely circumstances. And moreover, the reason he saved them then was not just because he was feeling particularly kind that day. It was because of a promise he made to Abraham 500 years before that. If he kept his promise and saved our people in the days of Moses, despite the way they rejected him then, well surely, in his mercy, he will keep on keeping his promise today. That’s how Habakkuk is thinking.

And we also need to look back; and we have something even greater than the Exodus from Egypt to look back to. We look back to the thing that the Exodus was pointing forward to: the ultimate deliverance from evil, led not by Moses but by the ultimate rescuer. We look back to the cross, where Jesus didn’t just pay for our sins but demonstrated his ultimate and everlasting commitment to us, as we remember at this Communion Service. As Paul put it in Romans 8:32, writing about suffering, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

So we need to look up, we need to look back, and we need to

  1. Look Forward

Look at verse 16:

I hear, and my body trembles;
my lips quiver at the sound;
rottenness enters into my bones;
my legs tremble beneath me.
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
to come upon people who invade us.

Things happen in this life that might make our bodies ‘tremble’ and our lips ‘quiver’; it might be getting bad news from the doctor; it might be the suspicion that people at work are mocking you behind your back because of your Christian faith. I’m sure you know what it is for your legs to tremble beneath you! Yet, like Habakkuk, we need to quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon the people who invade us.

In Habakkuk’s context, the ‘people who invade us’ were the Chaldeans. Who are they in our context? Well, our ultimate invaders are not the Russians or the so-called ‘Islamic State’. Do you remember Ephesians chapter 6 says that our struggle is not against flesh and blood? It’s against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Our real enemies are sin and the devil. The bible never promises that all our problems will go away, or that everything will turn out OK in this life. But it does promise a great day when Jesus will return, and ‘the day of trouble’ will come upon the people who invade us – i.e. our enemies sin and the devil.

To have faith is to ‘quietly wait’ for that day.

And in the meantime things don’t always look great. Verse 17:

17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.

Now I like to grow a few bits of fruit and vegetables. Sometimes they grow…for example this year we had an amazing crop of raspberries. Other times they don’t! So our beetroot hasn’t done very well and is slowly getting eaten by the slugs. And when nothing at all comes up, or the whole crop gets eaten…we just go to Morrisons! At times like that I’m glad I’m not a farmer whose livelihood depends on the crops. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really known food shortage. But in the economy of the day, what Habakkuk is describing is a disaster. Heading towards famine, with no supermarket down the road to bail you out.

And when life gets hard – no fruit on the vines, no herd in the stalls; for us it might be losing a job, or losing our house – it’s harder to trust God. It can seem unreasonable to trust God. Like the family I mentioned at the beginning, facing terrible illness, we might say “If there is a God, why is this happening to me?” Even more so for those Christians suffering so terribly in Syria and Iraq at the moment. Or for the times when you face opposition in sharing or living out your Christian faith here in the UK.

At times like that, faith might seem unreasonable. But actually Christian faith is quite reasonable – partly because in places like this book of Habakkuk the bible does far more than any other religion can do to explain the problem of suffering in a coherent way. And if, on the basis of the historical evidence available you believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, which is not an unreasonable thing to believe, then it’s not unreasonable to believe that he will keep his promise to come again, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that he is now in control of the universe.

No, the opposite of faith is not reason. The opposite of faith is sight. That’s why it’s hard to believe – because we do not see. We might see war, hardship and economic catastrophe – but because we believe we ‘quietly wait’ for God to act in mercy. And so, like Habakkuk, we can rejoice in the Lord – and even rejoice in our sufferings.

Paul Mallard, the guy I mentioned at the beginning has written this book, “Invest your Suffering”. It’s very straightforward and honest, and well worth reading. And not only if you’re particularly conscious of hard times at the moment. Actually the time to read a book like that is before you are in the really tough times, so that you can be prepared.

Well, what are the things that make it hard for you at the moment to continue as a Christian? Or that might do in the future? Or that make it hard for others? Well, let’s sing with Habakkuk together as we spur one another along the road to glory. Let’s look up to God. Look back to his promise and his deliverance. And look forward to the great future he has promised us in heaven with him. As the apostle Paul wrote, after all he suffered for Christ, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

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