Friday, 17 May 2019

Feet of clay...?

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:8-9

I wrote last time about the mixed nature of the church - it is a community of saved sinners and sinful saints. Each of us is both of those things.

Which means, among other things, that we shouldn’t put Christians we admire on a pedestal. We may be perfectly right to admire them - but we need to keep in mind that they aren’t perfect, any more than we are.

No sooner had I posted this blog than I read - with quite some shock - about a clear example of this truth. An obituary in the paper outlined the life of a man who was well-known in Christian circles as an academic theologian, a writer of both popular and heavyweight books, and a sparkling speaker and enthusiastic evangelist.

I heard him speak on a number of occasions, and had a chat with him once or twice. He was a man you instinctively looked up to and admired.

So what was it that shocked me? Well, it seems that at one stage of his life he and his wife experienced serious marriage problems. To quote the paper: “... his lack of attention and understanding and her anger led to ‘stormy years’... including physical scuffles between the pair.”

“Physical scuffles”! Goodness me! I found that really quite difficult to believe of this man that I had looked up to. (On the good side, the article went on to say that they attended counselling sessions and learned to love one another again.)
Reflecting on this, I felt that there were various lessons we as Christians can draw.

First, and most important, let Christ alone be the focus of our worship and adoration.

As I said earlier, there’s nothing wrong with admiring fine Christians who have influenced us. The writer to the Hebrews, indeed, tells his readers to respect those “who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (13:7). That’s fine. But he then immediately adds: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” - as if to say, But never let them take the place of Jesus!

Do you have a favourite preacher or pastor? A favourite Christian musician, perhaps? A favourite writer? Even, if you’re the egg-head sort, a pet theologian? Or just somebody in your church who can do no wrong in your eyes? That’s fine - but don’t be naive; they are sinners too! Expect, at some point, to be disappointed...

Second, I felt encouraged by the thought: So God uses sinful people, then!

This wasn’t exactly a new revelation. Of course, I knew perfectly well that God uses sinners! - when you stop and think about it, he hasn’t got a lot of choice, has he?

This doesn’t mean he condones or turns a blind eye to our sins. Of course not. But given that we are all imperfect, the plain fact is that he has to work with (how shall I put this?) some pretty ropy raw material. Think, for just a couple of examples, of King David in the Old Testament and the apostle Peter in the New.

What it does mean, though, is that he wants to use you and me as well.

Never say “I am not good enough to be used by God!” No: if your heart is sincere, and if you truly hate your sins and weaknesses (David and Peter again), then God can make you an instrument of his usefulness. Just work out what he wants you to do, then roll up your sleeves and get on with it.

Third, after the shock had worn off a bit, I felt a sense of real admiration.

For one thing, this couple had had the wisdom and humility to seek counselling. None of this stiff-upper-lip-we-can-manage-perfectly-well-by-ourselves-thank-you-very-much stuff. They recognised that they needed help, and they went looking for it.

Is that a word to some of us?

And I couldn’t help admiring also that they had obviously been willing to make their difficulties known even beyond the counselling room. That, I am sure, can’t have been easy. But it’s as if they were wanting to make the very point I started with: “We aren’t Mr and Mrs Perfect! We are sinners too! So don’t put us on a pedestal.”

Let’s go back to those great words of John that I quoted at the beginning: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Plenty to ponder there, I think, as we look at others - and as we look at ourselves...

Our Father in heaven, thank you that you are a God who loves and uses sinners. Give me, please, the wisdom to value godly Christians without idolising them, and the humility to hate the sins within my own soul. Amen.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Saved sinners - and sinful saints

So when you are assembled... hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

What should a church do when one of its members is guilty of a particularly bad sin? Somebody commits a crime, say? Or falls into sexual immorality? Or gets heavily into drugs or alcohol? What about men (it’s usually men) who are exposed as addicted to pornography?

It happens. Let’s not fool ourselves that all Christians live above-reproach lives, only ever guilty of trivial failings. No: in spite of outward appearances, this may very well not be the case, for we learn to be skilled actors.

Churches tend to opt for one of three main responses: turn a blind eye and hope the problem will go away; wag a scolding finger and hope the individual in question will mend their ways; kick the offending person out of the church altogether.

About 300 years after Jesus, a grouping of Christians called Donatists sprang up in North Africa (named after a leader called Donatus Magnus). They were extreme hard-liners - and not only when it came to moral failure. They felt that severe measures were necessary for church members who had buckled under persecution and denied Christ; in particular, church leaders who had done this should only be re-admitted to the church after undergoing humiliating punishment.

To be fair, the persecution the church in North Africa had suffered was grim, so it is understandable that those who had remained faithful to Christ should not look too kindly on those who hadn’t. The dispute between the Donatists and the mainstream church rumbled on for some 400 years before Donatism faded away. But questions of church discipline never go away, even if we tend to meet them mainly at local level.

The basic question is: How “pure” should we expect the church to be? Or, putting it the other way around, to what extent should we accept that it is “mixed”?

When I was a new, teenage Christian there was something of a scandal in the church I belonged to. One of the leaders, a taxi-driver, was found guilty of fiddling his fares. This got into the local paper - just the kind of thing non-Christians love to read about. What should the church do? My recollection (many years on!) is that he was removed from his leadership position, but not thrown out of the church. I suspect this was probably about right, assuming that he expressed sincere repentance.

In my own time as a pastor there was a situation where one of the deacons got into a wrong relationship with the non-Christian husband of a fellow church member. She was quite brazen about this, and the relationship continued.

What should we do? We felt we had to ask her to leave. Did we do right?

Of course the church should be pure. It is, after all, “the body of Christ” on earth (1 Corinthians 12:27), and its members are called to be holy.

But, hang on a minute, Christians are sinners as well as saints! - saved sinners, of course, but sinners all the same. I once saw a witty wall-poster in a church hall: “Be patient with me: God hasn’t finished with me yet!” Very good!

The church in Corinth was, in various respects, a total shambles. Just read Paul’s first letter to them and you end up shaking your head - members were taking one another to court on various issues; people were using the communion service to eat and drink to excess; the worship services were often chaotic, with an abuse of the “spiritual gifts”.

So Paul has some severe things to say to them.

But it’s interesting that nowhere does he suggest they should all be thrown out of the church, or even that they aren’t true Christians. No, he seems to accept them as brothers and sisters in Christ, warts and all.

In only one case - the “immoral man” of chapter 5 - does he recommend expulsion. And even here it’s important to notice that he expects the man to be restored as a result - “that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (5:5).

Repentance is the key word in all this. If somebody who has “gone astray” remains fixed in their sin, then, yes, perhaps (after time spent praying to God and pleading with the individual) they have to go. But our hearts should be filled with pain, and the hope must be that they will come back.

In the meantime, it’s up to the rest of us to examine our own habits and feelings - and those hidden inner lives we all have. Are we perfect? Are we worthy to belong to the church of Jesus Christ?

Never forget the old saying: If you ever find the perfect church, whatever you do, don’t join it. You’ll only spoil it.

Thank you, Lord God, for the great privilege and joy of belonging to your church, sinner though I am. Help me by your Holy Spirit to strive towards true Christlikeness, and to be a challenge, a help and a comfort to others who fall short. Amen.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Anyone for a laugh?

A cheerful heart is good medicine. Proverbs 17:22

I read recently about a man who, since 2007, has kept a record of every time he sneezes. “He logs them by location, strength and activity when it happened,” it said in The Times. Apparently Sneeze Number 5126 was recorded as: “Bathroom, moderate to strong, cleaning teeth.” (Aren’t you just glad you know that?)

And don’t you just love people with a wacky sense of humour? Like the man who decided his house address was a bit boring, having only a number and street name: 44 Acacia Avenue or whatever. It ought to have a name to itself! he declared. Something to distinguish it! So after deep thought he came up with... Ocean View.

Now, isn’t that beautiful? You can almost see the sun sparkling on the waves, the gulls wheeling overhead, the boats sailing by on the horizon, the children paddling in the water. Beautiful.

Never mind that he happened to live in the suburbs of Wolverhampton. (In case you’re not familiar with the geography of England, let me just say that there are few places in the country more distant from the coast.) Hats off to that man, I say!

Or the football fan who refused to admit that his team had lost. “No,” he said, “we didn’t lose, we just ran out of time while we were temporarily behind.” (All right, have it your own way...)

I could go on. What about the person who has made himself an authority on the history of tomato ketchup? Or shipping containers? Or... whatever?

Where would we be without jokes and laughter, banter and leg-pulling? In a pretty bad way, that’s where. Humour is a wired-in part of human nature: after all, a new-born baby doesn’t have to be taught to either cry or laugh. We need light-heartedness: an adult who is never downright silly is a sorry specimen.

Of course, “religious” people have sometimes tended to be suspicious of humour. And that has included Christians - or, at least, the kind of Christians who see God mainly as hard and stern.

You can understand them to some extent. Much humour derives its effectiveness from being either cruel - making somebody else feel bad about themself - or crude. (There are some television programmes which seem to me simply disgusting, and I find it hard to understand how any Christian can enjoy them. I’m not sure who to feel sadder about - the people up front peddling this stuff, or the people in the audience howling their heads off as crudity follows crudity. I know that feeling this way exposes me to the danger of seeming self-righteous, but - well, so be it.)

A lack of humour can be a sign of danger. “Those whom the gods would make bigots, they first deprive of humour,” said James Gillis. True, there are good people who just don’t see the funny side of things, and that’s fine; but it can be genuinely worrying when even innocent humour is regarded as suspect. I doubt if there are many belly-laughs among religious extremists who believe that it’s right to kill in the name of their god.

As I look back on the bad old days of soviet communism, and picture those granite-faced men who rose to the top of the political ladder, it’s hard to remember any of them smiling, never mind laughing.

The Bible doesn’t have much to say about humour. But it does tell us to be good-humoured and cheerful. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh”. The Book of Proverbs - a lot of good earthy sense there - says that “a cheerful look brings joy to the heart” (15:30), and “a cheerful heart is good medicine” (17:22). I think modern psychology would go along with that.

Down through the centuries Christians have testified to the God-given nature of humour...

“God cannot be solemn, or he would not have blessed man with the incalculable gift of laughter”, wrote Sydney Harris.

Martin Luther went so far as to say, “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.”

And Richard Baxter (1615-1691), who belonged to that grouping of Christians who became known as “Puritans”, wrote, “Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the Godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers.”

Yes! I used to help out with “mag-packing” for a missionary society - retired people like me were roped in to get magazines ready for posting. It could be a tedious task. But one of our number had this marvellous gift of reeling off wisecrack after wisecrack to keep us entertained as we toiled. He had us almost falling about - and I think that Baxter’s dictum was well borne out.

The message has to be: Christian, cultivate holy humour and godly laughter! You will feel better yourself. And you will make this world a better place.

Loving Father, help me to take an innocent and joyful delight in the many good things I enjoy from your generous hand. And help me to lighten the heaviness of others by my good nature and appropriate cheerfulness. Amen.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

The forgotten person of the Trinity

Jesus said, “John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit”. Acts 1:5

They said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. Acts 19:2

Sermon-class was nearly over - and I had been the preacher. Now it was time for “constructive feed-back”, when everyone in chapel could pile in and comment on how I had done.

The college principal gave me a severe look and said “I’m sorry, Mr Sedgwick (things were a lot more formal all those years ago), but I’m afraid you are a binitarian.”

Gulp. What on earth was a binitarian? Was he accusing me of being some kind of heretic, like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses?

In fact, he wasn’t being entirely serious. No, this was his way of pointing out that throughout the whole service there hadn’t been so much as a mention of the Holy Spirit. Not in the hymns I had chosen, nor in any of the readings; not in the prayers or in the sermon. Mmm.

In terms of doctrine, Christians are trinitarians - that is, we believe that in God there are three (“tri-") persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are certainly not unitarians, believing that God is simply one (“uni-") person.

So what the principal was telling me was that I was guilty of believing in only two (“bi-") persons in God, the Father and the Son. But not the Holy Spirit.

This happened some fifty years ago, when I was callow, brown-haired and luxuriously bearded. But I suspect that for many genuine Christians not much has changed. If you were to ask them “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” they would be horrified: “Of course! - I’m a sound, orthodox Christian!” But for all practical purposes they are binitarians (not much different from those “disciples” in Acts 19). The Holy Spirit barely figures in their thinking at all.

May I ask: What about you? Could it be that you are a binitarian?

I suspect there are two main reasons for this sorry state of affairs.

First, it’s not easy to put into words or pictures who the Holy Spirit is, so we tend to neglect him.

Everyone has at least some idea of what a “father” is. And of course it’s not difficult to imagine God the Son - Jesus is wonderfully pictured for us in the Gospels.

But the Holy Spirit? How should we think of him? The breath of God? The supernatural life of God? The comforter? The peace-giver? A dove? The Holy Spirit is very hard to pin down! - like trying to grab a beautiful aroma with your fingers.

And, in fairness, many churches in those far-off days probably failed to give much teaching concerning him: he was acknowledged in principle, but not really in practice. (So perhaps I could be excused for my failing.)

The second reason for our neglect of the Holy Spirit can be summed up in a single word: fear.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the church suddenly woke up to the Holy Spirit through what became known as the charismatic movement. And, putting it bluntly, it frightened many people. Puzzling questions were being asked, like, “Have you been baptised in the Holy Spirit?” or “Are you filled with the Holy Spirit?”

Disturbing things started happening - things which previously we had only associated with those strange “Pentecostals” who, as everyone knew, were, ahem, slightly dodgy. People were claiming miracles and healings. People were “speaking in tongues” (or “gabbling”, as someone expressed it). Meetings and services were getting out of control, sometimes highly emotional.

All very alarming. It was, as some saw it, Pentecostalism spilling out of Pentecostal churches and into the more “mainstream” churches - Anglican, Baptist, even Roman Catholic. And so the shutters went up in many circles - as if a cursor had been placed over the Holy Spirit and the delete button pressed.

The last fifty years has taught us that yes, indeed, the charismatic movement brought with it many excesses, and there is no doubt that lives have been damaged by it. But the church as a whole has succeeded in absorbing what started out seeming wild and dangerous and which has now become mainstream.

But that nervousness remains in many quarters - deep down, we like things comfortable and predictable, don’t we, nicely pinned down? And so mention of the Holy Spirit can still make us jittery.

Which is tragic! - if indeed the Spirit really is as vitally important as the Gospels, Acts and the letters of the New Testament make clear.

Well, it will soon be Whitsun - that time in the Christian calendar when churches all round the world will be celebrating the wonderful events described in Acts 2. The first Christian Pentecost! - the events promised by John the Baptist: “I baptise you with water, but he (that is, Jesus) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).

I am no Pentecostal or charismatic: I think important aspects of the theology are wrong. But there’s no doubt in my mind that, however sound our doctrine might be in theory, a bit of self-examination might be in order for some of us: am I - are you - to all intents and purposes a binitarian?

Loving Father, we cry out to you that, even as Whitsun approaches, you would fill your church with the love of your Son - and baptise it with the power of your Spirit. Amen!

Saturday, 4 May 2019

A woman it would be nice to know

After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. Luke 8:1-3

Jesus had many prominent female disciples.

It’s easy for us to overlook that fact, given that the world in which he lived was entirely male-dominated, and that this was bound to be reflected in the ministry he exercised.

But it’s true. In this tiny passage we read the names of three such women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza, and Susanna. But Luke also mentions “many others”. He tells us two significant things about them: first, they “were with him”, along with the apostles; and second, they “were helping to support” Jesus and the twelve “out of their own means”.

Mary Magdalene and Joanna are mentioned again by Luke in 24:10 as part of a wider group who stood at the foot of the cross as he died, and then, on Easter Day, as being the first to bring to the twelve the news of his rising.

These women obviously mattered to Jesus; they mattered very much. (To them, after all, was entrusted the greatest news the world has ever heard!) The obvious implication is that godly woman should matter very much to the church today as well. What this implies for questions of female leadership and ministry is a big topic, but that’s not what I want to focus on today.

No, I want to think in particular about just one of these women: Joanna, who is described as “the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household”. (Far too much has already been written about Mary Magdalene, much of it nonsense which has no basis in the Bible.)

When you think about Jesus’ early followers, do you tend to have in mind the poor people - the “ordinary people” - from the villages and small towns: the sort of people who flocked in large crowds to “listen to him with delight” (Mark 12:37)? I must admit I do.

But, wonderful though that is, it isn’t the whole picture, for Joanna and her companions were obviously pretty well-to-do, and probably quite cultured and educated: how else could they support him “out of their own means”?

Joanna’s wealthy status probably arose from the fact that her husband Chuza was a prominent official, “the manager of Herod’s household”, no less.

Who was Herod?

The Herod family was a dynasty of Jewish rulers who came after Herod the Great, the man responsible for building the temple that we read about in the Gospels. (They ruled totally under the thumb of the Romans, of course.)

The Herod we meet here was one of his sons, Herod Antipas, who governed the region of Galilee. It was he who reluctantly and stupidly killed John the Baptist, probably while he was full of drink (Mark 6:14-29) - and it was he to whom Jesus once referred as “that fox” (Luke 13:31-32)!

It is striking that Joanna’s husband should be in the employment of this powerful man. No doubt the couple had a very nice house in the region of Galilee (Capernaum perhaps?), complete with plenty of slaves and all mod cons.

It raises interesting questions: did Chuza know that his wife was a follower of Jesus? Or did she have to keep it secret because it might get him into difficulty with his boss?

Or was Chuza perhaps a follower of Jesus himself? It has been suggested that he might be the “certain royal official” mentioned in John 4:46-54, whose son was healed by Jesus. John tells us that “he and his whole household believed”, and also that they lived in Capernaum. True, the only healing that Luke mentions is that of Joanna herself, not of any son; but it’s an intriguing possibility.

We can only speculate. But, true or not, it’s clear that there were people from the higher ranks of society who believed in Jesus. And this puts a new light on his ministry.

I don’t imagine that Joanna and her friends travelled around with Jesus anything like as much as the apostles; perhaps they simply made a point of turning out when he was in their vicinity. But the fact is that he was obviously glad to welcome their presence and their support, even at risk of causing scandal among the strict rabbis - who would never so much as dream of having female disciples in their entourage!

Joanna is certainly a woman I would like to have met. If nothing else, what little we know about her prompts important questions for us today.

First, are women in our churches recognised and valued for the roles they play? Second, are their gifts and talents fully used? And third, do we aim to build churches that are thoroughly mixed in terms of sex, social status and educational background?

Happy is that church which is “multi-generational”, both male and female, and a genuine cross-section of its local community!

Lord, thank you for unsung heroes like Joanna. Thank you for all those who love and serve Jesus in quiet and unobtrusive ways. And if that is my role in the life of the church, help me to fulfil it cheerfully and reliably. Amen.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

In praise of a sweet tooth

Eat honey... for it is good; honey from the comb is sweet to your taste. Proverbs 24:13

I once dropped a slice of toast and honey (yum yum) on the floor - and you’ll never guess what happened. It landed honey side up. Wahay! I thought, this really is my lucky day.

Well, I don’t know if you like honey. But I hope you do, because the Bible says you should eat it. (Mind you, I can’t quite believe that on the Day of Judgment God is going to look disapprovingly at anyone and say, “Well, I’m sorry, but as I scrutinise your earthly life I can’t help noticing that you didn’t eat honey regularly. Would you care to explain this disobedience on your part?” No. I suspect that he may be more interested in such little matters as pride, greed, anger, honesty, moral purity, don’t you?)

I find the Book of Proverbs intriguing. It’s great for dipping into: there are some profound and thought-provoking verses - and some others which, if I am to be completely honest, seem odd, even a bit wacky. And this is one: why would God tell us to “eat honey”, of all things?

One thing is certain: this isn’t a text which should be taken literally - though I have a nasty feeling that somewhere in the world there is a church called “The Church of the Faithful Honey-Eaters”, or some such thing. (A bit like those crazy churches which release venomous snakes into their services, on the basis of Mark 16:18, a verse which probably isn’t part of the original Bible anyway. Yes, such churches really do exist.)

No, this is a verse intended to spark off a train of thought. Let me share one or two of mine. The first is, I must admit, a bit of a stretch; the second is at least plausible; and the third gets us to the heart of it.

First, is it meant to get us thinking about our diet? Honey is a health-giving food, so this command can prompt the question, Am I a healthy eater?

Many of us live in parts of the world where junk food is everywhere available - and very tempting. Obesity is reaching epidemic proportions. How many of us are risking damage to our health through bad eating habits? The New Testament tells us that if we are Christians our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). So shouldn’t we take care to look after them well?

Many Christians are very strict when it comes to drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Which is good. But there are plenty of other health-damaging habits we can get into, aren’t there?

Second, perhaps this verse speaks to us about enjoying the good things of life. Honey, after all, is sweet and energising.

In 1 Samuel 14 Jonathan and his troops are fainting for lack of food in the midst of battle. But they find honey in the woods, so Jonathan “dipped his staff” into the honeycomb and “raised it to his mouth”, whereupon “his eyes brightened”.

So could God be suggesting to us that there is nothing wrong with an occasional treat? Life is pretty grey if we never have special things to look forward to.

Jesus wasn’t ashamed to go to dinner-parties. Indeed, according to Matthew 11:19 he was accused of over-indulging in alcohol. Of course we mustn’t take anything to excess (see Proverbs 25:16 for an important companion verse to this one), but God doesn’t expect his people to be sour and stone-faced. He wants us to enjoy the good things he has provided.

Third, and this is surely the main point, this verse speaks about wisdom.

We have focussed on Proverbs 24:13 - but what about the next verse? “Know also that wisdom is like honey for you; if you find it there is a future hope for you...”

Ah! - it seems that the writer is using honey as a metaphor for wisdom. Just as honey is good for your body and your spirits, so wisdom is good for your soul. Convincing? I think so.

But... how do we get wisdom? In essence, by giving God time in our lives - time to pray, to think, to talk with wise fellow-Christians, to read his word and to reflect on it.

Wise people are desperately needed in our troubled and restless world, which is so awash with shallowness, lies, fake news, sensationalism, celebrity-worship, coarseness and vulgarity, you name it. But such people are in short supply. Where are they ultimately to be found if not among the people of God? And that means - yes - you and me.

Perhaps you can come up with some other applications for this funny little verse. Please let me know if you do. But if we resolve to become men and women soaked with God-given wisdom, I think we will have got a vital truth from it.

Lord God, thank you for filling this beautiful world with good and enjoyable things. Help me to make use of them in a Christ-like way. And, most of all, may I grow in wisdom day by day.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Confused? Then read Habakkuk!

The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received. How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you “Violence!”, but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Habakkuk 1:1-3

When we read the Old Testament prophets, we often find them giving the people a scolding on behalf of God. But when we read Habakkuk, it’s almost as if he is giving God a scolding on behalf of the people! - or at least on behalf of himself.

“Why don’t you listen to me?” he grumbles in 1:1-4. “Why don’t you step in to save your people? Why must I put up with watching all these bad things going on while you seem to be just twiddling your thumbs?”

Habakkuk is not a happy man! - and it is Almighty God that he is not happy with.

So... who was Habakkuk?

Usually the books of the prophets start with the prophet’s name, plus perhaps his father’s name, the name of the town or village he was from, and the names of the kings during whose reigns he lived. This enables us to plot him on a time-chart of Israel’s history.

But not Habakkuk. He is a mystery man, springing out of nowhere.

The experts tell us that in all probability he lived about 600 years before Jesus. This was a time when the northern kingdom of Israel (strictly called “Israel”) had been swept away by the Assyrians, and it now looked as if the same thing was going to happen to the southern kingdom, “Judea”, only this time at the hands of the Babylonians (1:6).

Habakkuk doesn’t question that this is exactly what Judea deserves, given their wretched failure to be true to God. No problem there.

But what he can’t swallow is that God should make use of the godless and cruel Babylonians to do the job. Punish the wicked by all means, but surely not by using others who are even more wicked! I just don’t understand, Lord!

I don’t think I would find it easy to address God in quite such a bold way. But it’s refreshing to see this man refusing to speak to God in smooth, conventional ways, and, in effect, getting this load of frustration and confusion off his chest.

What can we learn from this mysterious prophet?

1. Most obviously, perhaps, this: given that God knows exactly what goes on in our hearts and minds (we can’t hide it, can we?) we might as well speak to him just as we feel. Do we too feel frustrated and disappointed, even angry, with God? Well, let it out! His shoulders are big enough to take it.

Habakkuk questions God - but from a position of faith; and as he does so he works his way toward some kind of solution to his problem.

The same thing is often true for us: we don’t get immediate answers to our questions, but somehow things gradually clear over time as we persevere in faith and prayer.

2. Notice that in 2:1 he adopts a spirit of expectation - “I will stand at my watch... I will look to see what he will say to me”.

Could we say that? How much do we expect answers to our prayers? When we pray, do we really believe that God hears and that he will answer; or do we just pray out of a sense of routine or duty, expecting nothing or very little?

3. We can be encouraged that, in 2:4, Habakkuk seems to receive at least a partial answer to his questioning: “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness [or ‘his faith’]”. (The apostle Paul famously quotes this rather throw-away line, albeit in a slightly different sense, to back up his doctrine of “justification by faith” (Romans 1:17).)

Habakkuk is saying: there are times when God’s faithful people can do no more than devote themselves to God, trust in him whole-heartedly, and wait to see the unfolding of his purposes. Christian, be patient!

Is this a message we specially need in our time of political and social uncertainty? The wonderful, simple words of 2:20 - “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” - remind us of God’s total control and lordship. In spite of appearances, our world, and our own affairs, are in good and holy hands.

4. Whatever we do, don’t put Habakkuk aside without soaking up the powerful prayer of chapter 3 - a passage that harks back to the dramatic events of the exodus, God’s great rescue act for his people.

What a climax we come to in verses 17-18! - that sequence of “thoughs”, culminating in one of the Bible’s thrilling “yets”: “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 sheepfold and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord...”

And then, “I will be joyful in God my Saviour.”

Faith, and even joy, in the teeth of discouragement! - if that doesn’t shoot a few thousand volts into our spiritual systems, I’m afraid nothing will.

Lord God, I confess that often I feel confused at what’s going on in my life, and in the world around me. Please help me, by your Holy Spirit, to hold on to you through thick and thin, to speak to you out of the fulness of my heart, and so to come to the same place of peace, hope and joy as your servant Habakkuk. Amen.