“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:1–16)
What is Lent?
We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent.
Lent has been observed for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The counting of the days of Lent is a little convoluted since some churches observed seven weeks of fasting except Saturdays and Sundays because they liked the number 7. Others wanted it to be 40 days because of the significance of that number in the Bible. Moses was on Mouth Sinai fasting for 40 days, Elijah walked for 40 days while fasting, and of course, Jesus fasted for 40 days when being tempted in the desert – and there are more examples.
The Western church has settled on the formula being that Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday), changing the date depending on when the Jewish Passover occurs, which is on the first full moon following the Spring equinox, making Lent 46 days long, minus the Sundays, or Lord’s Days, when we celebrate His resurrection rather than His crucifixion, by worshipping rather than fasting, bringing the number of fasting days to 40. Makes perfect sense, right?
The season of Lent has traditionally been a time when Christians avoided certain foods, parties, and celebrations to contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus instead. We cut out some of the distracting, pleasurable things from our lives to confess our sins, meditate on the sufferings of Christ, and prepare our hearts by remembering why Jesus had to die on the cross. It’s a time to consider the habits of our life, mortify those sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves and more about Jesus by spending more time, energy and effort on our spiritual lives and relationship with God.
The day before Lent starts is called Shrove Tuesday and it is that day that really emphasizes how far culture has moved away from a Lenten spirit. Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the word “Shrive” meaning to confess sins and receive absolution or forgiveness. It was a day set aside to really clean out our hearts by getting serious with our sin before the season of Lent began. A day to say with David in Psalm 139(:23-24), “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
But here’s what happened. There were a bunch of foods that people would traditionally give up for Lent – things like meat, fish, fatty foods, eggs, milk, and sweets. Like the Israelites with their simple, bitter foods and unleavened bread, Christians used their diet to show what was going on in their hearts. But because there wasn’t refrigeration back then the foods people gave up would spoil before the 40 days were over. And what’s the best way to get rid of fats, eggs, milk, sweets, and meat? Have a pancake party.
So, Shrove Tuesday turned into Shrovetide, three days set aside to use up these foods. Over time, the day of confession became a time when families would get together and eat up all the foods they couldn’t have during Lent. Shrove Tuesday turned into Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (because it was the day to use up fatty foods). And you likely already know the French name for Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras.
Now, when you think of Mardi Gras, I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind is confession of sin, repentance, soul-preparation, and spiritual discipline, right? No. Mardi Gras is now an entire season, starting on January 6th, dedicated to parties and parades and often, perversion.
Now, let me pause here for a moment to say that while Christianity is against perversion, we are emphatically not against parties or parades or pancakes – because scripture is not against them. As Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (3:1,4) My point today, the reason I’m talking about Lent today, is because as a culture, especially our modern, Western culture, we are really, really bad at weeping and mourning part because we spend too much time laughing and dancing.
And in losing our ability to weep, mourn, lament, and fast – but instead keeping ourselves in a perpetual state of entertainment, distraction, and celebration, has caused us to lose a very important part of our spiritual lives and a critical way that we connect to God.
What Happens When We Lose Lent
I know I struggle with this sometimes. I’ll gear myself up for a time of self-discipline – like a change of diet or a spiritual discipline or to focus on something that I know God has been asking me to deal with – and it seems like I’m constantly interrupted by excuses to laugh and dance. The whole culture seems to work against me.
Every month has a holiday, or a birthday, or anniversary, or party of some kind. Every week the stores have a sale on something that I like. I’m surrounded by things that not too long ago were only available on special occasions. I can buy a birthday cake and sweets and balloons and chocolate and oranges every day if I want to. I don’t have to wait for a newspaper or magazine to come to my door, I can get news and pictures and crossword puzzles all day long. I don’t have to wait for next week to see my favourite TV show, or for a few months to see a movie, Netflix has new ones every day, and I can binge an entire season in one day! There’s always a new, big movie event or concert or game or playoff or another piece of entertainment that everyone says I must see. I walk into a store and there’s limited edition everything there – books, movies, candy, clothes – and two or three special seasons represented – Valentine’s Decorations next to St Patrick ’s Day stuff next to Easter chocolates – each telling me to get it soon, while it’s on sale, before it’s gone. Then I turn on the radio and hear commercials for deals that are all ending soon, so I’d better get it, that I deserve it, that I would be stupid not to jump on. Every YouTube video and picture on Instagram shows me the latest trend I’m missing out on, or something I need to experience, or something I need to take my kids to, or something I need to do with my wife. RightNow media introduces 12 new studies every week and the blogs I follow tell me about 10 new books I want to read.
And it all kind of works on me. My spirit cries out to stop, get away, find silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but I almost feel guilty not participating in all that other stuff. I work for one day and then I feel like I deserve a reward. I eat a vegetable and then feel like I deserve dessert. I worry about missing out. What if someone asks me if I’ve seen something or tried something, or gone somewhere, and I have to say that I haven’t done it? What if it would have been fun and I missed it forever?
I’m constantly tempted to live in a perpetual state of distraction, entertainment, and satisfaction – and yet the Spirit of God, the Lord Jesus, and the scriptures say that the happiness that I am constantly pursuing in those other areas, the blessedness I’m trying to find in them, the joy I want to feel when I indulge, doesn’t come from being distracted, entertained, and trying to feel satisfied with the world, but with pursuing poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, self-denial. Jesus says in His introduction to the Sermon on the Mount that if we want to feel fully human, know real peace, experience real joy, feel the satisfaction of contentedness in the midst of struggles by knowing the presence of God, then the recipe is to remove a lot of that other stuff and seek the beatitudes.
That’s really what Lent is supposed to be about. It’s not a belief that parties and celebrations are bad. It’s saying that sometimes the human soul requires a time of fasting, penitence, regret, mourning, confession, tears, simplicity, solitude, and lament. Not because we want to sit around being bitter, eating ashes, wallowing in guilt and shame, but because we know that the only way to get right with God and others is to admit that we are sinners who need a Saviour, that we are weak and need help, that physical pleasure isn’t enough and that we need spiritual fulfillment, that discipline and self-denial make us into better, more godly people.
In Matthew 11 Jesus says to the crowds,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (vs 28-29)
And then in Matthew 16 He said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (vs 24)
They seem contradictory, but both are true. Jesus says to put away the priorities of this world and the huge burden it is to try to pull ourselves towards happiness, joy, and contentment by using the things the sinful, distracting, immediate pleasures the world has to offer – but to pick up His way of life, His cross, because we will find that burden easier, lighter, and His path the way to true freedom. Jesus says that the way to gain freedom for our souls is not to avoid guilt, shame, lament, confession, mourning, the cross, but to embrace it, because when we finally do – when we finally turn from worldly pleasures to the kind of life Jesus offers – it is then that we will experience true freedom.
1 Peter 2:11 says that all those pleasures and distractions the world offers are actually like propaganda from the Enemy who uses them to war against our soul. It says,
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
1 John 2:15-17 gives this warning,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
It’s trying to give us a bigger view, an eternal view, comparing what the world offers with what Jesus offers. The world is full of wonderful things that God has given us for our joy and pleasure, that we can use to enhance our connection to God, but each one, because of this fallen world has the potential to be twisted into a trap for our souls.
- Food is wonderful, gluttony is a prison.
- Sexual pleasure is wonderful, but there’s a lot of ways it can ruin lives.
- Parties and wine and dancing and friends are wonderful, but addiction and alcoholism and hangovers and bad decisions and regrets are not.
- Work, education and study are wonderful, but workaholism, anxiety, arrogance, and elitism can be dangerous results.
- Having money and stuff and comfort is wonderful, but selfishness, controlling others, being in debt, and refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, can be terrible results when sin takes over.
- Video games and hobbies are wonderful, but removing yourself from reality to live in a fantasy world, and ignoring your friends, family, and community is not.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to cut out the distractions, do an inventory of our souls, to invite God to examine us and show us how the world has been fooling us, and to come out the other side cleaner, more holy, more blessed, and more committed to following Jesus no matter where He wants to go because we prefer His way to the world’s.
Lent & The Beatitudes
Look back with me to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:13-16. Jesus calls his followers “Salt” and “Light”. He says,
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
What’s Jesus talking about here? He’s talking about how His people should be different from the world, distinct from the world, special. The illustration of being a lamp is pretty easy to understand but consider the salt.
Just like today, salt was used as a preservative and flavouring for food, something that worked like nothing else. What makes salt special is its saltiness, its difference from the rest of the food. What point is there on sprinkling on something that tastes no different than what you’re already eating? What point is there in rubbing on or mixing in something that has no preserving effect? We wouldn’t use it.
Our calling as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is to “permeate society as agents of redemption.” We are to witness the moral decay of the world, the blandness of what it offers, the corruption of its promises, realize it to not only be a trap, but so much worse than what Jesus offers, and remain different, special, unique, salty. We don’t separate ourselves from the world, avoiding it and condemning it from ivory towers and stained glassed cloisters – after all salt doesn’t do anyone any good when it’s left in the shaker – but we work ourselves into the world, in our jobs, our communities, our friendships, our sports teams, etc. and add the flavour of Christ, the light of Jesus to that place. And we only do that by remaining different.
If we act and sound and look like the world, then we are of no use to them or the Kingdom of God. No one will become thirsty for the gospel of Jesus if they never experience our saltiness. No one will ever desire to get out of the darkness unless they see the light within us.
How To Remain Different
So how do we remain different? What distinctiveness should we have? What makes a Christian different from the world? That’s what the Beatitudes are all about. Jesus gives the Beatitudes to show us what salt and light looks like.
Some people think that what sets Christians apart is what we do and don’t do. Christians don’t drink, or smoke, or vape, or party, or watch violent movies, or listen to certain kinds of music, or swear, or make jokes, or do yoga or martial arts. Some Christians even believe that the best way for them to be Christian is to never participate in anything the culture is doing so they never go to movies, listen to secular radio, watch sports, or participate in politics.
But that’s not what Jesus says here at all. In fact, most of these have nothing to do with what we do or don’t do, but instead speak of the attitude of our hearts. What makes us salty in the world is not what we do or don’t do, it’s our character.
Everyone faces death, everyone gets angry, everyone feels sad, everyone gets sick, everyone gets betrayed, everyone feels pride. Lots of people go to parties, drink alcohol, get promoted or fired from their jobs, are blessed with good looks or money or talent, or struggle with handicaps, abuses, and disabilities. The difference isn’t that Christians run to their bubble to avoid anything bad, but instead that they actually face the problem, understand it differently, and have a very different attitude because of their relationship with Jesus.
One book I’ve read lately that has really helped me with this is J. Oswald Sanders’ “Spiritual Maturity”. In his chapter on the Beatitudes, he says,
“It is a common idea that blessedness flows from the possession of wealth, the absence of sorrow, the gratification of appetite, being well spoken of and kindly treated. Christ’s teaching cut right across this popular concept of happiness and indicated that the very experiences we are eager to avoid are the ones conducive to the deepest joy and most to be coveted.”
Why? Because they are the ones that show how Jesus has changed our lives. They are the things that make us saltier, that increase the wattage of the light that shines within us, and shows how different we are from the world.
Consider the first beatitude:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The world says that you will be happy and blessed once you have realized your potential, maximized your strength, have total independence. Jesus says, “No. You will find joy and real prosperity and blessing when you realize that you are a person in need.” When you admit you are weak and bankrupt in your soul, once you realize you are empty is the only time you will allow God to fill you up. It is only once you’ve been broken of your pride, realized your inadequacy for the demands of your life, and come to God with empty hands, that God’s unlimited resources are available to you. Until then, you’re going to be trying to take on the world with your own strength and losing over and over.
Consider the second beatitude:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Mourning is something that our society actively avoids. We idolize and worship youth and vitality while pushing age and sickness and death farther and farther from our collective minds. The Wall-Street Journal recently had an article on “The Free-Form Funeral” where people avoid churches and the topic of death in favour of more celebratory ceremonies. They are doing rock concerts and parties that memorialize life instead of facing the problem and pain of death and loss. Mourning doesn’t feel good, so they opt for a party. Grief is no fun, so it’s avoided.
The problem here is that grief and mourning are dangerous to avoid – in fact, they are impossible to avoid. Eventually, the party will end, the distraction will stop, and these people will still be faced with their loss, but will have no guidance or community to help them through it. They won’t be able to go to anyone with their feelings of loss because it’s socially unacceptable to do so, so they’ll either have to let it eat them alive – or they’ll have to get rid of it using chemicals and distraction.
But mourning and grief are gifts from God that we shouldn’t avoid. It is in those times of sadness that we are finally open to being comforted. When we face the evil of death it forces us to ask big questions, realize how powerless we really are, it forces us to face the temporary nature of this life, and forces us to feel lonesome, regretful, and sad. It is in our mourning that we are invited to ask for help. And it is in our mourning that the gospel message, where Jesus Christ the Son of God conquers sin and death, bringing hope to a lost world, starts to make sense – where the names of God like Comforter, Shepherd, Father and friend, start to really become real.
But none of that can happen if we do not mourn.
And that’s only the first two of the beatitudes. Let me close with this. Let me encourage you to consider embracing the season of Lent by committing to a time of fasting and prayer. Choose something in your life to remove – tv, entertainment, a meal, a certain food, your phone, the internet – and replace the time you would spend on that with a time of prayer and reading the scriptures.
And during that time, let me invite you to meditate on and study the Beatitudes. Many of you have prayed that God would make you salt and light, to be used to affect this world in a positive way, to see your heart and your community changed by the Gospel in deeper ways. This is a good place to start.
 Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 102). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.”
 I’m going to use a lot of concepts from his chapter called “Christ’s Ideal of Character”.
My kids have been in swimming lessons for quite a while. I took them when I was a child, as most people do, but I’m nowhere near as good at swimming as my kids are. Even my littlest, Eowyn, knows more strokes and techniques than I do. To be totally honest, I only ever made it to the third level – which they called “RED” at the time – because I failed it over and over and over. Eventually my mother got tired of paying for me to fail and said, “Well, you won’t die if you fall out of the canoe, so I guess that’s enough.”
Our intention, right now anyway, is to have all of our kids take enough lessons that they will be certified lifeguards and instructors. Ethan has already completed Bronze Cross and has First Aid and CPR, training – which is good, because that allows me to eat as much poutine as I want, with total impunity, knowing if I choke on a cheese curd or keel over with a heart attack, Ethan will be there to save me. Eventually, I will be surrounded with children that will not only be able to save me, but also teach others how to save their poutine loving fathers.
As I’ve watched my children develop in their swimming abilities, I’ve seen them take on bigger and bigger challenges. At the beginning of their training, the instructors have them jump into the shallow end of the pool, always within arms reach, and then hold them up by their tummies to practice their strokes, whispering nice, encouraging words in their ears the whole time. They tread and splash for a few moments and then sit on the side and watch others do the same. It’s very sweet.
However, as the lessons continue, it gets a lot less sweet. My boys, who have been doing this for a while, come home from swimming lessons with some very interesting stories. I’ll ask, “What did you do today, son?” and they will relate quite a grueling regimen of exercises. Long gone are the days of tummy holding and whispered encouragement.
“Well dad, during my three hour class, we started with an hour of book work, memorizing acronym after acronym after acronym, and then moved on to oral and practical quizzes. Then we were told to get in the water and swim 24 laps in under 12 minutes. After that, they told us to tread water in the deep end for five minutes – but THIS time, they dropped a 10 pound weight to the bottom of the deep end and had us retrieve it and then tread water while passing it around to each other. Then it was time to practice some rescues, which means dragging my classmate’s limp bodies out of the pool over and over – and if I didn’t do it perfectly I would have to do it again. And when we finally got them out, it was time for ‘land rescues’ where we practice saving people from choking, bleeding, passing out, having a stroke, and more – sometimes as they attack me! Oh, and by the way, the test is next week and if I make one mistake –their head goes under water, I misdiagnose, or I take my eyes off of them – I fail immediately and have to take the class all over again.”
Drowning in The Deep End
To their credit, my kids rarely complain about the work they are required to do during their classes. They know that what they are learning is important and that it takes dedication and skill to do it right. And of course, my response as a Dad is never to say, “Oh, that’s too bad! I wish they would take it easier on you.” No way, It’s “Good! I hope next week is even harder! That’s building some character! Now drop and give me 20!” (It’s a tough life at my house…)
Now, would any of us here criticize the instructors for being too hard on the students? Sure, we can’t take the toddlers and drop them in the deep end, tied to 10 pound weights, right? That’s not only inappropriate, but probably illegal.
But if we are going to give people the title of “LIFEGUARD” and give them a little piece of paper that says they are “LIFESAVERS”, then I think it’s right that they be rigorously trained and tested!
It’s no different in the Christian faith. I don’t say this lightly, but most Christians do not have a very strong faith. There are a lot of folks in our churches that are content to spend their lives paddling around the shallow end of the pool. They’re like me when it comes to swimming lessons: they think they know enough not to drown, but that’s it.
The problem is that this world isn’t a good place right now for people who don’t know how to swim in the deep end. The issues that are pressing against us are incredibly complex and go far beyond our human ability to contemplate, let alone, attempt to address. We are living in the deep end right now and there are a lot of people who call themselves believers that are struggling to stay afloat. They don’t know what to do when the waves of change crash against them and they are pulled down into the riptide of popular culture. As they sputter and flounder, they do foolish things like trust their emotions and seek wisdom from pagans. They don’t know how to pray or read God’s word and are leaving the church in droves.
It is my deepest desire that we don’t make that mistake. Even our little church out here in the middle of nowhere feels the crash of the waves of change and the pull of popular culture. We can’t avoid it – so we’d best be prepared. Not just for ourselves, but so we can help save others.
When we or someone else at our church gets nailed by crisis – whether that’s crisis of health, finance, or faith – don’t we want to be a group of well trained lifeguards that know our stuff and can jump in and save them? Rather than being like the untrained and useless masses of people that simply stand on the sidelines muttering how they wish they could do something, but not knowing how – or worse, throwing stones at the one that is hurting, hoping it might help.
It is my belief that the issues that strike the deepest part of our hearts are addressed by God in His Word. God may not answer every question that interests us, but He has certainly answered all the ones that we need to know. That’s why we need to know God and His Word. Because we and everyone around us – our children, friends, coworkers, strangers, and enemies – have big questions, and most of us are ill equipped to give any answers.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about having a bunch of pat answers under our belt so we can be the smartest person in the room or win debates with unbelievers. No, far more important is that we need to know these things so we can know God.
The problems of this world, those that happen inside and outside us, make so much more sense when we know in our heart, soul and mind that God is always good and always just. As long as we wonder if God cares about us, wonder if He even sees the problem, wonder if He’s punishing us, wonder if He’s being unfair, unjust or unkind, then we will forever live in fear and doubt. Uncertainty about God creates a life filled with anxiety.
That’s the normal life of the pagan, the atheist, and the immature believer. They live in anxious fear. They always feel insecure. Below their feet is shifting sand. They try to find security in all sorts of places: politics, money, healthcare, military power, personal relationships, new technologies, scientific progress, counsellors, teachers, entertainment, religion… but the problem is that every foundation they try keeps changing! Almost nothing the same as it was 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years ago. So they live in fear. It’s only a matter of time before the next wave hits, their foundation fails again, and they are set adrift on seas that they can neither navigate nor swim.
Have you felt this? All hell breaks loose around you, and you realize that your foundation is uncertain. Life gets very unfair and you realize that the things you thought were going to get you through, simply let you down. That’s life in the deep end. We all feel it, but I don’t want any of you to drown. No believer should live in constant fear that God has forgotten them or is going to abandon them. No believer should be crushed under the weight of this world. No believer should feel like they will drown in their sorrows.
Yes, we will feel the fear. Yes, we will feel the burden. Yes, we will feel the pain of loss. Yes, we will feel the frustration. But when those feelings come, believers have access to something greater, an off switch to the emotional roller coaster. We know that our lives are built on the unchanging Word of our immutable God, who always keeps His promises, and will always see us through.
Habakkuk’s Follow Up Question
Last week we talked about Habakkuk’s first question, “Why does God let bad things happen?” and this week we are going to look back at the conversation to see that Habakkuk isn’t done with his big questions yet. God just dropped a bomb on him saying that his plan to take care of the sin of the nation is to have the people and the cities utterly wiped out by the Babylonian army, and so now we get to the follow up question:
“Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O LORD, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?
You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad. Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich. Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” (Hab. 1:12-17)
There’s a lot of emotion in this section. As I said, these are HUGE questions. They get to the deepest part of humanity’s problem with evil, and seek to understand the most complicated details of God’s plan of salvation.
But I want you to notice something first. I want you to see something critically important. If there’s one thing you get out of this sermon, let this be it: Habakkuk begins his prayer with humility and faith. There is no doubt that Habakkuk believes God is greater and more righteous than he is. He may have no idea what’s happening or why, but his prayer starts in the right place. This is where we must start as well. We must not start our prayers thinking we are equal with God, that we get to argue with His Word, or that can come up with a better plan. We are not there to debate or negotiate. Whenever we come to prayer or study, we must come humbly, or we will have wasted it.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)
Certainly, Habakkuk is BOLD in his prayer, asking huge questions of God, but he does it in a way that is humble and trusting. Look how many titles he uses for God! He uses God’s names, “YAHWEH” and “ELOHIM”, or “LORD” and “God”. He knows He’s addressing the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe! He’s not talking to “the big guy in the sky” or “his buddy Jesus”. He’s not coming to the conversation as an equal. He knows what he’s doing is audacious. He’s asking GOD to explain himself! That’s ridiculous on its face, but such is the God we love and serve to allow us to approach His throne of grace! He is the Father and He wants to talk to his children, but He’s also GOD.
Next he calls God, “My Holy One”, intimating a personal relationship with Someone who is not only unique, but special to Habakkuk’s heart. He calls God his “Rock”, which is a term from Deuteronomy 32:4, which calls God “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” He sees the Lord as the highest Judge in the highest court, who is perfect in His decisions.
That’s where Habakkuk starts his prayer – on His face before God – and it’s where we must start our prayers. Yes, we can be angry, confused, broken hearted, weeping, pacing, broken, on our knees our shouting aloud. All of those feelings are represented in the prayers of scripture – even the prayers of Jesus. But while we pray, our hearts must be humble.
I believe that if we want answers to big questions, if we want comfort from God in the midst of our trials, then we must come to prayer with the right heart. We start with the belief that God is our unmoveable rock, the worker of our perfection, the upholder of our justice, and the keeper of our faith. It’s personal, and it’s humble.
If we start our prayers thinking that God is weak, out of control, or unfair, then our whole prayer life and relationship with Him will be skewed. Instead of finding comfort, we will be hardening our hearts to Him! But if we come in humbly, knowing who God really is, then even if we have deep hurts, doubts and questions, we’ll at least be in the right place to ask and start to find answers. During these tough times, when questions abound, check your heart before you start to pray.
If you believe in God, then I know you’ve shared these thoughts with Habakkuk. Everyone has. We look at ISIS running around harming more and more people and we say, “God, who is going to stop them?” We look at abortionists and think the same thing. Or pornographers: “They drag their hook through campuses and catch young women and men, gut their souls, and walk away smiling. How long will that last, God?” We look at the global church and see it grow more dysfunctional as it fractures and falls away from the faith of our fathers – and then watch as atheist churches take their place – and wonder how much worse it can get.
We look to our own lives and our own problems with sickness, death, trial, temptation, work, finances, relationships, and everything else – and when we finally hit our knees, our prayers sound very much like these words from over 2500 years go. Nothing is new under the sun.
The Bible word used to describe this type of prayer is “Lament”. We would use the term mourn or grieve, and it’s something we’re not very good at as a culture. We tend to run from our problems or pretend they don’t exist, rather than face them and let them break us down. We’ve lost the ability to lament, and it shows in our culture. Jesus lamented, as did many of the faithful in the Bible, and faithful people that have come since. They faced the difficult things in their life and let their hearts break, so they could bring the pieces to the One who could put them back together.
Today, instead, we usually pretend our heart isn’t broken, make excuses for it, pretend to be healthy, or medicate our feelings away. It’s terribly unhealthy. We need to lament things.
Now, lamenting isn’t just feeling sad. “Lamenting” has a more formal meaning and goes beyond emotion. What it means is that we take our heartache TO Someone who will listen, and, hopefully, do something about it. The Bible is full of laments, most often songs – which means they’ve been given some thought and inspiration. A lament isn’t merely raw emotion, but are the well-considered, meditated upon, thoughts of a believer, brought before God.
It’s not that raw, emotional prayers are bad. David’s psalms sometimes seem very raw and emotional, as though they were written in the middle of a battle – and perhaps some of them were – but Habakkuk’s writing here (like many other laments in the Bible) is of incredibly high quality, with well chosen, deeply poetic words.
That doesn’t take away from the heartache. Perhaps it even adds to it. He may have chewed on these thoughts, this prayer, this lament, these questions, for a long time. He prayed these thoughts over and over, finding new, better and and different ways to express his grief to God. And since this is inspired scripture (listen carefully), God HIMSELF was working with Habakkuk on this prayer poem. These are words written by Habakkuk and God given to believers to help us express the intense feelings that we sometimes don’t have words for.
Let’s go through Habakkuk’s prayer verse by verse and take it apart a bit so we can see how much it often reflects the prayers of our own hearts
In verse 13 we see Habakkuk’s follow up question of “Why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” The rest of this section expands on this question. God, how can you use an evil nation like the Babylonians, who are doing more evil than we are to discipline your people? That seems unfair. They get blessed with more land and victory – even though they are worse than us! How can You, the perfect Judge, stand there and allow a greater evil to swallow up a lesser one?
In verse 14-15 Habakkuk uses an illustration that we understand today. He says to God that it almost feels like there’s no accountability in this world. Like we’re all just evolved animals doing whatever we want – that the real rule of life is simply survival of the fittest. The biggest fish rules the pond. Is that how Your world is supposed to work? That doesn’t make sense at all! Aren’t you the God that defends the widow and orphan, helps the helpless, frees the captive? Then why are we living by the law of the jungle right now? The Babylonians are clearly the more evolved and stronger than we are! They are going to chase us, catch us, gut us, eat us and then smile. And are you there… just watching?
In verse 16 Habakkuk keeps arguing his case for why this doesn’t make sense. He points out to God that to make it worse, this wicked nation then turns to give the credit to demons and false gods! Actually, it’s even worse than that. The picture here is of a fisherman catching a fish and then giving worship offerings to HIS NET! He’s giving all the credit for his great victory to his fishing rod. How ridiculous! God, that’s how stupid Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon are! They don’t even know who to thank for their victory! They put their faith in demons and horses and spears rather than the One who Created the Universe! God, you don’t even get the glory! And to make it even WORSE… after they’ve slaughtered us little fish… they will be richer and more comfortable. God, this nation will NEVER turn to you because all the evil plans they come up with are doing so well!
And then verse 17 really strikes home: “Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” I can imagine that there are a lot of people living in in the world right now who have prayed this prayer – and it has echoed through ages past. The persecution and genocide of Christians around the world now, the Jews during World War 2, the African slave trade, the Acadians… and it goes on throughout history.
God how long, exactly, are you going to let this go on? This can’t last forever. It just can’t! Can it? This seems totally backwards. This seems so wrong. Evil is winning and good is losing. The victory is going to demons and fools. You get no glory, no praise, and the faithful are punished. This is so confusing. This is heartbreaking. The pain is excruciating and I don’t know how much longer I can take it. How can you stand it?
In some ways, though we’ve never been through the extreme persecution of some, we’ve all asked that question, right? Do you realize how much differently this prayer would have gone if he wouldn’t have started out humble? These are not accusations. These are big questions, but they are not accusations against God. This is a person with deep hurts and confusion, pouring his heart out to God. I know many of you have been in this situation.
Sitting in the Watchtower
Habakkuk ends his prayer in 2:1 by saying, “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”
“Ok, God. I’ll be quiet now and listen. I’m going to watch for your answer.” We could learn a lot from that. How often do we pray and then forget to listen?!
He trusts that God, His ROCK, won’t let him down, but will make His will known. Habakkuk’s plan is to go to the watchpost, sit in the tower, and wait for what God will do. He knows Babylon is coming and will see them from the tower. He will witness firsthand the fulfilment of prophecy, the justice of God. But, as he watches for what God is doing… he’s also waiting to see what God will do.
Remember last week’s helicopter view of life that God gave him. Now we see Habakkuk choosing to find a higher vantage point where he can watch not only what God is doing, but what He will do. God has given him a bigger perspective of life, and now that’s the lens he’s using to see the world.
God does that sometimes for us too. We come to him in prayer, we lament before him, and He raises us up higher, shows us some scripture or gives us a special message from a friend or a sermon, that allow us to see more of what is happening. And then He gives us a chance to chew on that knowledge for a while.
We are left to meditate on what God has said, and it requires discipline for us not to slide back down to the ground and forget all that God has shown us from higher up. What we must do is choose to climb the tower and wait for God – again – but now from a different perspective. We climb the tower and look out for what God is going to do. How will He work this out for my good and His glory? In what ways will He use this? How can this make me or others more Christ-like? This is God’s plan, and though it hurts, I’m going to watch and wait.
Remember the back story. King Zedekiah sends for Jeremiah to get some advice. Jeremiah says he should surrender to Babylon so that they don’t get slaughtered. That’s God’s GRACE in action! That message was God saying that He would be merciful even as He was punishing them, if they would only accept what He is doing. Yes, they would still go into captivity, but He would do it more gently. All Zedekiah had to do was relent to God.
If Zedekiah were up on the tower with Habakkuk, perhaps he would have made a better decision. Instead, like a fool, he chose to fight against God’s plan. He didn’t have the helicopter view. He wasn’t in the tower. He wasn’t listening to God. He didn’t see God as sovereign. He didn’t believe God was his rock. He didn’t trust God’s plan. Instead, he fought God’s plan and that choice brought terrible pain and misery to everyone around him.
That’s as far as we’re going to get this week. We’ll pick up God’s answer next week, but I want to just remind you of a few things that we’ve learned today.
First, remember that Christians have a responsibility to take their spiritual training seriously. This world is a terribly deep and treacherous pool and we will drown if we don’t make the decision to learn how to swim well and help others. Get into God’s word, stay in prayer, and do the works of a Christian. Yes it’s hard. But as Paul said to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:16)
Second, it is good for us to bring our heartaches to God, but we must make sure that our hearts are in the right place. Don’t start your prayer with a laundry list of requests. Start as Jesus taught you to start your prayers, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Mat. 6:9) God is your Father, God is in Heaven, God and his name is to be hallowed (or made high and worshipped exclusively). Start your prayers there.
Third, don’t be afraid of Lamenting. Lamentations are important – it is one of the ways that we show that we are relenting to God’s plan. It is good to bring our grief to God. It is good for us to wait for him because He will come. Isaiah 30:31 says, “They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.” And when He does come, trust that He will raise you up to a heavenly perspective of what is happening. And then, when God has shown up, climb the watchtower and wait to see what He will do next.
That’s where I’m going to leave it today.