|Preacher||Rev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness|
|Sermon Title||Rejoicing Even in Trouble|
|Text||Habakkuk ch.3 vv.17-18|
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"Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation." (Habakkuk 3, 17-18)
Now, my friends, we have come to the final service of our communion weekend and we are indeed deeply indebted to God for all His great goodness to us. It is a privilege for us to open and read and study together the Word of God. And it is certainly a high privilege for us to handle the bread and wine which are the tokens of our blessed Saviour's agonies and His death. Could any kindness be more greatly shown to sinners than an invitation by the Almighty to handle the emblems of the dying love of the Son of God? And therefore we have abundant reason to maintain and to keep alive these thanksgiving services. What a mercy it is that so great and so glorious a God has done such great things for us!
Now, you see, the text that I have chosen to speak to you from this evening is drawn from this little prophecy of Habakkuk. You would notice that most of the chapter is a rehearsal of the great acts of God in the past. He is looking back to what God has done. A great many of these expressions that he uses are as it were poetical. And they are intended to be poetical by the writer. They are beautiful ways of expressing the sheer majesty of God in the way in which He overcame the Egyptians at the Red Sea and the manner in which He brought His people through the experiences of the desert and into the Promised Land; the overthrow of the nations of Canaan and the planting of His people in their state. And you could say it's a sort of a symbolical history of the people of God of all ages. Now, it's very obvious why Habakkuk is looking back into the past. It is because he was living in a very difficult day. The cause of Christ was low in the day in which he lived. There was very little of an outward kind to give him joy and encouragement.
And yet as he looks at the present situation surrounding him, he is still hoping in God. He imagines, in my text at verse 17, the darkest possible picture that he can paint. Supposing, he says, the fig tree does not blossom. And let us suppose, he says, that there should be no vines on the stem. That the labour of the olives shall fail and the fields shall yield no food. So he goes on painting what today, I suppose, we would call the worst-case-scenario. He is not saying that these things have yet happened. Nor is he prophesying that they will happen. What he is doing is, he is imagining, that even supposing these things were to happen, all would not be lost. Supposing the very worst-case imaginable were to take place, yet, he says, as the people of God, we still have abundant reason for thankfulness. And so at verse 18, he puts it like this, "yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation" (text).
If we were to transpose the terms into expressions which we would use today, maybe we will put it like this - supposing there is no food in the shops, no petrol in the filling station, though there is no electricity on the wires, no jobs to be had, no health service and its benefit, no hospital treatment and their good, and no pensions for the elderly, yet, in spite of all, we have as believers cause to rejoice in the Lord and to joy in the God of our salvation. In other words, our response to the problems around us today, ought always to take account of God. No matter how bleak the prospect seems to us, and even though they were magnified a thousand times, yet we must never leave God out of the picture. And because God is capable of doing all things, therefore, we must adopt the same philosophy that he adopts. "Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation." (Habakkuk 3, 18)
I would like to suggest that this is the fitting theme for us to meditate on a little this evening at this thanksgiving occasion. And the first point I bring to you is this, that the Christian may rejoice in God when all else seems to fail. I say, the Christian may rejoice in God when all else seems to fail. I must explain how this is so. The unbeliever is feeding upon the creature but the Christian in feeding upon God. You and I must not feed upon anything, but only upon God Himself. The preacher must not feed upon his preaching. And you and I must not feed upon the means of grace. We must feed upon God Himself. We must make Him our supreme delight. Our ambition, not simply to hear His Words by some men's voice or to handle the bread and wine or other privileges, our ambition, to know God personally, intimately for ourselves. We feed, I say, upon Him. Now, when the soul feeds upon God through Jesus Christ, there is always a host of good reasons why we may rejoice and be comforted when there seems to be very little outwardly to give us that encouragement.
I mention three reasons at this point in my sermon why we as believers may rejoice in God when all else appears to fail. The first reason I give you is because of God's wonderful thoughts towards us as His people. God's wonderful thoughts towards His people. It's a wonderful thing you know to know of somebody who has good thoughts towards you in this world. It's the difference between a happy marriage and an unhappy one. And sadly there are many unhappy ones in this world. But a happy marriage is where each partner knows that the other entertains good thoughts towards them and that however bleak and difficult life may become at times, there is somebody there standing with them and standing by them whose thoughts are supportive and encouraging. Well, now, if that is true within marriage or friendship, how much more should it be true in our relationship with the great and blessed God! The Bible tells us that God's thoughts towards us are wonderfully kind. Let me give you a verse or two.
"... my thoughts are not your thoughts," saith the Lord, "neither are your ways my ways... as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55, 8-9) In saying that Isaiah is informing us that we sometimes entirely miscalculate when we think of God and of His attitude towards us. It was John Wesley, 250 or 60 years ago in Newcastle On Tyne who makes this wonderful point. He was standing in Newcastle as a preacher of the Gospel before the great revival broke out. And he would hear the children using the most dreadful swear language. He saw the depravity of the Newcastle society at that time, the drunkardness, the debauchery, the depravity. You know what he said about Newcastle? He said this place is so wicked, it is ripe for mercy. And mercy came! And that part of England through the grace of God, in after years, through the revival became one of the bright spots of Methodists. There were many hundreds and thousands in Newcastle and Yorkshire and Durham who were touched by the grace and power of God. God's thoughts are not our thoughts. O, we say in our gloom and in our depression, this nation is ripe for judgement. But our thoughts are not His thoughts. How do we know what God's thoughts may be?
Listen to what Jeremiah said, quoting the thoughts of God. "... I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end." (Jeremiah 29, 11) I know, says God, the thoughts that I have towards you. Thoughts of peace and not of evil. What does this mean that God had said I have loved thee with an everlasting love except to tell us God has from all eternity entertained kind thoughts towards His people?
And what does this means? Written by the Apostle Paul, If when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, how much more, being reconciled, shall we not also be loved by Him and blessed by Him. It is the argument that God's thoughts are thoughts of love and thoughts of kindness and those thoughts ought to give us comfort and rest even when the outward circumstances of life are unpromising.
Not only are God's thoughts towards us wonderful but also wonderful are His actions and His Works towards us. There's a wonderful argument like this in the Bible as you will know. "God who spared not His own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Romans 8, 32). If God has manifested His love towards us and given us His Son by death and the agonies of crucifixion, not sparing Him the full weight of divine anger, will not that same God freely also give you all things? Or again there's this argument, "Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? ... It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us." (Romans 8, 33-34). Never suppose that God's thoughts are invisible. They come to the most wonderful expression in acts: the death of our Saviour and the proof of God's thoughts of love towards us. And to His thoughts and Words, let us also add the wonderful promises of God. Is it not said in Scripture that God respects those who respect Him? "... to this man will I look," says God, " ... to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word." (Isaiah 66, 2) God respects them. God honours them that honour Him. He delights to do for men according to their faith. "Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart." (Psalm 37, 4)
So, my dear friends, though you and I might suppose there is so little in this modern world to gladden our hearts, so little that we see visible to delight ourselves in the coming of the kingdom of God or to make us think that some great new age is in the future. Nonetheless, we may feed upon God and take comfort from His wonderful thoughts of kindness toward us. The expression of that kindness in the death and agonies of Christ and in the promises of God which are all yea and amen in Christ. Those promises of which is to said, that by means of them we shall be conformed under the divine nature and escape the pollution that is in the world through sin. Let me say to you then, dear Christian friend, be thankful. Be thankful and rejoice. It was in prison that the apostle Paul wrote these words. "Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice." (Philippians 4, 4) It was not sitting in a Christian conference with carpets on the floor and subtle lighting above and a platform with a cluster of microphones and an audience of 10,000 all approving of his sermon. It was in some unpleasant Roman prison that the dear apostle, our beloved apostle to the Gentiles, announces these words, "Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice." (Philippians 4, 4) So it is with Habakkuk in his day. "Although the fig tree shall not blossom... Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation." (Habakkuk 3, 17-18)
That's the first thing and I hurry to the second. It is to say this to you, my beloved friends, God is always the compensation of the Christian in this life. God is our compensation. The more of outward things we have, very often, the less of God we have. The more we have to live with, the less we have to live for. It seems to be a universal rule and it's also true in reverse. The less we have to live with, the more of God we have dwelling with us. The apostle puts it in this rule, he said, "... when I am weak, then am I strong." (2 Corinthians 12, 10). God is our compensation. I put it to you like this. The fewer of outward blessings that we have, very often the more of God's own presence do we have. What about those covenanters who had to forsake their own places of worship and go into the fields? We know nothing about that. What about those excellent men and women at the disruption of 1843 and afterwards, who had to forsake their comfortable buildings and go out into the moors and into the hillsides and sometimes into barges and boats? Sometimes stood there listening to sermons while the snow came down and made them invisible and the preacher invisible to them. How much of God did they have in their days! The less they had of outward things, the more they had of God.
This comes home us surely from prophecy of Malachi. Malachi's day as you know was an evil day. There were many hypocrites who made some sort of profession of religion and God chastises and castigates them all. And He has a stiff word for these. But those who were truly His, He refers to like this. "Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them ... that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine " (Malachi 3, 16-17) said God. "When I make up my jewels." Isn't it strange when our blessed Saviour was born at Bethlehem in a manger that no angels were sent to Caiaphas, the High Priest who was the supreme representative of the Jewish nation and of its religion? And no angels were sent to the High Priest, to the priests and to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. To whom if you please were messengers send? The answer is to shepherds watching over their flocks by night. Angels of the Lord came down and the glory of the Lord shone round about and they were sore afraid. "And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2, 10-11). And they went to find out for themselves. They had very little of an outward kind but the less we have sometimes of outward kind, the more we can enjoy of God Himself.
And then again often there is much of Christ's spirit given to His people when they are in a low outward state. The early church was in a low outward state. They have to forsake everything. They were driven out of the temple eventually; driven out of the synagogue. They were disenfranchised; they were cast out as evil. They were spoken against. They were evil thought off by the majority of their day. And look, look what God did for them! When they gathered together for prayer, we are told the place where they had prayed was shaken. And then think of Paul and Silas at Philippi. Can you imagine the inconvenience of being not only in a prison but in a dungeon, the lowest level of the prison, the place where the very worst were put and where the most unpleasant experiences were to be had of darkness, gloom, loneliness, misery, hunger and yet we see those two mighty men of God, their feet in the stocks at night singing praises to God and praying. And the earthquake and the conversion of the Philippian jailers. I say sometimes the less we have of outward comforts, the more we have of God Himself.
There is no better historical example in the history of Scotland than the case of the great Samuel Rutherford. Rutherford was at Anwoth preaching to his dear flock and how he loved them and how they loved him. And no wonder such a genius, such a Christian, such a man of faith. And yet he was exiled to Aberdeen, the place sounds quaint in our ears, but Aberdeen was a very dark place in those days. And here he was under a kind of house arrest. He had little opportunity evidently for preaching. And yet he tells us when he was there in his confinement, Jesus Christ shone into the place where he was and made it like a palace of gold, like a chariot of love paved for the daughters of Jerusalem. There Christ poured upon him rich expressions of love and kindness and it was out of the fullness of that experience that he wrote the greater part of his wonderful letters which are sometimes described as the best book ever written apart from the Bible. The letters of Samuel Rutherford came out of an experience of being shut away from outward privilege. Outward things may be taken from us but inward things may remain. It is possible for Christians and churches to have no building but that doesn't stop them from having God. It is possible for them to have no name and yet they may still have the name of Christ written upon them. It is possible to have small reputation but at least to have the grace and favour and love of Jesus Christ. It is with this in mind and similar things in mind that Habakkuk says, "Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; ... Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation." (Habakkuk 3, 17-18)
Dear friends, this is impossible to us if we are feeding upon the creature. If all that really matters in your heart and life and mine is what men think of us, if all that really matters to you and me is whether we are going to get promotion or praise or advancement or an increased stipend or some other material advantage, then of course our hearts are broken the moment we failed to get these ambitions realized. But if all we want is communion with God, the Father, Son and blessed Spirit then it matters little where we are, or where men put us, or what they think of us or what they say of us.
I'm very touched by the great English puritans, one of the greatest races of men, undoubtedly who ever lived. And that's not nationalism coming through. That's a sober judgement which anyone could make. The English Puritan ministers as you may know were put out of their pulpits in the year 1662. We refer to that act as The Great Ejection. The reason was political and we need not detain ourselves with it now. Suffice to say their mouths were shut, they weren't allowed to go into their own pulpits or into their own churches or to preach to their own congregations. Many of them were put in prison. And what did they do in prison? Well, I'll tell you. They rose at 4 o'clock in the morning. They read their Bible for an hour. They prayed for another hour. They had family worship, they went about their studies, as many visitors as they preached to in the confines of their prisons and they spent their days preparing commentaries and writing books of theology. Thank God we have those books today! They are going all around the world changing the lives of thousands and ten of thousands. I may say what were these puritans doing before they were put in prison? I'll tell you. They rose at 4 o'clock. They read the Bible for an hour. They prayed for an hour. They took family worship, they wrote their books of theology and they prepared sermons for the pulpit. You say to me, what's the difference? I say, none at all. In prison, out of prison, in season, out of season, they were serving God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Outward things are small matters. It is to have it anchor deeply cast into the waters of grace and our heart well settled upon the truths of Scripture that really gives the blessings and the joys.
So thirdly, when things are seemingly at a low ebb and at their worst we still as Christians have abundant reasons to bless God and to hope in Him. Listen again to my text. "Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; ... Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation." (Habakkuk 3, 17-18) I want to show you now that nothing is lost when we still have God though we lose everything else. I say nothing is lost to the Christian because first of all, the Christian who lives in a dark and difficult day will still get his soul to Heaven just like anybody else. Supposing this was an age of great revival, supposing all the churches in Inverness were full. Supposing this building was too small, standing room only at the edges, amplification needed for an adjoining room, closed circuit television for all the other classrooms in this building. Supposing we had the greatest preacher of all history standing to feed our souls, yet my dear friends, when all is said and done, the great matter is not hearing sermons or seeing great vast congregations; our great ambition is to get to God, to get both our feet solidly standing upon those streets that are paved with gold. A man may do that in the dark day just as much as in a bright day. And then again, we may rejoice in God no matter whether the worst thing seemed to happen because if we seemed to lack one means of grace God can bless another means of grace to us. God can feed our souls even though we may seemed to have lost many things, yet He can bless the things that remained which we still have.
I have a dear friend who's in the land of Turkey, 99% a Muslim country, as you know. This dear friend comes from Tarsus, the same city as the apostle Paul. He is a highly qualified surgeon and doctor. He is well qualified to be in the best hospitals of the country except the problem is, he is a Christian and they are Muslims. So they will not give him his promotion, so we understand. Where does he work? He works right on the border with the country where the Kurdish people live, there are constant fighting and battling between Turks and Kurds. And his wretched job is to stitch up the wounded Kurds and the wounded Turks who are forever, as in Belfast, killing one another. That's his miserable job! Now, he's a Christian. I once had the sacred privilege of opening his Turkish Bible and looking at it. I'm telling you it was covered with marks where he was studying, studying. He has no church. He has no fellowship. The nearest Christian is about 50 miles away. I say the nearest Christian is about 50 miles away. He has no prayer meeting, no communion seasons, day after day, week after week, year after year. All he's got is God and his Bible. But God makes that Bible to him a communion day by day; and a church day by day; and the fellowship meeting day by day. God can make what we have of the means to be rich in blessing to us.
We may not be much of a church in the eyes of some but we still have the Bible. We still have the truth. We may lose the name of denomination but if we retain the presence of Christ, what do we lose? Outward troubles only drive the Lord's people closer together with more love and more unity. Outward troubles are a sifting fan. They sift one from the other. There is not the slightest reason why in times of difficulties and outward lost there should not be more love than ever and more unity than ever and more sweetness of Christ among us than ever.
I remember hearing about Richard Vernburgh who used to live, as you remember, as a Christian in Romania in the days of the regime of Ceausescu. Terrible days there were and many Christians were imprisoned. This gentleman was describing in his own condition. He was in the prison cell day after day looking at the blank bare wall, chained to a prisoner on this side and a prisoner on that side. There were many such Christians in the various cells of the prison. From time to time, somebody would smuggle a cube of sugar into the prison and this cube of sugar was given as a gift of love by some Christian from outside of prison to somehow smuggle it in as I say. And it would be passed from one to the other of these dear Christian people chained in this miserable condition. What did the Christian do when they got it? Well, we are told that he passed it on back again to some other Christian who in turn passed it to some other Christian and this sugar cubes would go round and round the cells. No Christian would take them. Why not? Because they each loved the other more than himself and each esteemed the other more than himself. Though they had no church services, no Bibles, no prayer meetings outwardly though they prayed all the time inwardly. And this expression of love whereby they passed the sugar cube round to one another was a way of saying all heaven was in their hearts and the love of Christ flowed from them to one another.
There is not the slightest reason in the world why when outward things are bleak our heart should not be quickened to love one another greater than ever. And let me say to you that in such times the Lord can do wonderful things far beyond our expectation. We tend to think that revival comes by the raising up of some eminent and great man and he stands upon the stage of history and commands repentance to the whole world. Sometimes it occurs like that. Sometimes it occurs in a very different way. In the last century, in Northern Ireland, the wonderful blessing that came to Ulster came like this. At first there was no great preacher. At first all there was, was one young man. We know his name. James McQuilkin, rather a quaint old name: James McQuilkin. He had just been converted and he gathered two or three young men like himself who were not immediately converted but they all were eventually. Four of them. What did they used to do? James McQuilkin urged them to go to a little school room at a little village called Kells and there the four of them studied the Bible together. And they prayed. There is no doubt whatsoever that the historians are right when they tell us that from that tiny insignificant gathering of four men for prayer, is the seed, or was the seed and the spring of the enormous revival that occurred in Ulster. By which at least 10 thousand immortal souls through the preaching of the truth were brought to faith in Jesus Christ. My thoughts are not your thoughts says God. My ways are not your ways. There is no reason therefore whatsoever why Christian should ever stop praising God.
This is a thanksgiving night. Let us thank God constantly. The darker the night, the brighter the stars. And the darkest hours is always before the dawn. Take Abraham as your great example. God gave him promises but there were a long time before they were fulfilled. He was promised a son and an heir and was told that in him all the nation will be blessed, as you know. But God kept him waiting and waiting and things seemed to be improbable. Almost impossible! His wife was 90 years of age, after all. He himself was 100 years of age. What hope was there of this promise of God fulfilled? It seemed that all was lost. And yet we are told about Abraham. Listen to what was told about him in the Word of God. "He against hope believed in hope... he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara's womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform." (Romans 4, 18-21) And therefore God honoured his faith and granted him the fulfilment of the promise.
It's time for me to close. Let me do so with just two or three observations, very briefly. My beloved friends, what is the best evangelism that any church can engage in. Ah, you say, tracts. No, no, says somebody else, door to door work. No, no, says a third, meetings and conferences are the thing. There is of course a place for all of these things. But I say to you, the best evangelism that any Christian company or church is this - love amongst the members, unity of heart amongst the people, happiness amongst those who gather in the services so that men and women that come sometimes into their midst may see that real Christianity breeds love, joy, peace, and all the virtues of the Spirit of God.
When I was a very young minister, I entered into a certain congregation in the south as you know. I used to imagine in my innocence all the problems were out there in the world because some years before the penny dropped and I saw that many of the problems are not out there at all but in the church itself. Put these problems right and all the rest goes right. And when unity and love and sincerity and genuine affection and fellowship comes into the people of God, God then honours them and blesses them and He will bring the people in and the people will see what you have got.
It is been a great joy to me to see the happiness and the unity and the love amongst you all. So then our calling is to be a happy people. "Rejoice in the Lord alway" (Philippians 4, 4). I'm going to do something tonight, I never did before in any sermon I ever preached and I preached a lot in my day. I am going to teach you one word of Greek. And it is this word pantote. And I will tell you what it means. Pantote is the Greek word meaning always. Always, Always. That's how we are to rejoice, always even though there is no fruit on the vine and on the fig and although there may not be anything to promise us in the fields, we may see nothing for a little while but yet even in the worst case scenario such as Habakkuk envisages, we must still by faith do what he does. "... I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation." (Habakkuk 3, 17-18) And that means a little bit of hard work both for you and for me. And with this I shall close.
What is the hard work? It's hard work denying the gloominess of our own selfishness natures. Not just yours, but mine, because I'm half Welsh. We are all inclined with a selfishness nature to be gloomy. My friends, we must put aside that natural tendency. With God nothing is impossible. And then with a little hard work at this one too. We're always tempted to walk by sight. We love to see things and up to a point, we're justified in doing so. Of course, we need to do that but we have to be patient for God's time. We do not walk by sight, says the apostle but we walk by faith. And then we must do hard work refusing the devil. You know what the devil will do. I'll tell you what he will do: he will spread some gossip. There's quite a lot of it going around already. He had said to you through the gossip line, your minister is taking a call to Australia. Now whichever amiable person started that rumour, may God bless him for it. It is not true. And then some other line of gossip goes like this, your minister is retiring. Very nice and somebody sent me a very nice and tasteful greeting card today congratulating me on my retirement! My friends, it is not true. As long as this congregation wishes me to be their minister, by the grace of God, I shall be. Whatever the outward circumstances I will not forsake you by the grace of God. You may depend upon it there will be gossip in plenty. And we can invent it and imagine it and understand what is going to be; it's all calculated to weaken our hands. My dear friends, I say, let us look beyond men and all their gossip and all that they say perhaps some of it is well meaning. Perhaps a lot of it is very innocent, let's hope all of it is well intentioned. But, I say let us look beyond all these things and rejoice in the Lord. In other words, I am going to suggest that you and I become disciples of Habakkuk. So that whatever the outward circumstances of our lives may be, we should be able to say with him, "Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation." (Habakkuk 3, 17-18)
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