by Gary Johnson, e2 Executive Director
Text: Habakkuk 3:16-19
Lamentations 5:15 states: “Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning.” In America, our dancing has certainly turned into mourning, and it’s true not only across America, but of countries around the world. As COVID-19 spreads across our country, so also does increasing sadness. Grief is more than real.
Most of us have experienced grief, particularly when someone we loved passed away. Grief is triggered by loss, and most of America is grieving because of who—and what—we are losing. Our dancing has turned into mourning. Yes, thousands of Americans have died from COVID-19. We grieve their loss. As well, our grief has been triggered by the loss of jobs, the loss of a healthy economy, the loss of being with one another, the loss of a high school or college commencement, the loss of a wedding and reception, and more. The list of what we are losing only grows with each passing day, and a collective sadness spreads across the country and around the world as fast as the coronavirus. Our dancing has turned into mourning.
But what IF our mourning could be turned into dancing? Is it even possible? The answer is unequivocally, yes! From Psalm 30:11, we sing these words: “You have turned my mourning into dancing.” We will discover in the Scriptures HOW we can most certainly turn our mourning into dancing; our sobbing into singing.
This is the second of three brief sermons, “mini-messages” called CONTAGIOUS. Not only is COVID-19 highly contagious, but so also is fear, panic and uncertainty. This weekend, a couple in their early 50s in Illinois were victims of fear as they died in an apparent murder-suicide (link to local news story). When they thought they had contracted the virus, their fear and panic so overwhelmed them that they ended their lives abruptly. Their autopsies revealed they did not have the new coronavirus. Remember, fear will always knock at your door, but just don’t invite it in to stay.
While we are in what is thought to be the worst of the pandemic, I feel lead of the Spirit to write three simple messages on three specific texts for a time such as this. Last week, Psalm 11 revealed how we can experience a Contagious Faith instead of a contagious fear, and this week, we discover that Contagious Joy can be more than real when the Lord turns our mourning into dancing.
Years ago, the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the five stages of grief to us. As we grieve the impact of COVID-19, we experience denial when we think “this virus won’t impact me.” We then move to anger as we consider lost physical or financial health, graduations, weddings, family gatherings, and more. Next, we begin to bargain as we think if we social distance for a couple of weeks, everything will be fine—right? Then, as we move into depression we are convinced that this will never end, that life will never be normal again. Yet finally, we arrive at acceptance and we resolve to move on in life, to take the right and necessary next steps through this season of loss.
Someone in the Bible came to a place of acceptance, and his name was Habakkuk. His story is told in the Old Testament. Though Habakkuk came to a season in life of horrific suffering and his dancing was turned into mourning, he came to know real joy – and so can we when we make his story our story.
Let’s take a look at Habakkuk’s story first from the proverbial 36,000’ as we need to understand what was taking place. Though Habakkuk has a difficult writing style, we can quickly understand that something painful was about to happen. These three short chapters reveal that a storm is building on the horizon and it is not happening atmospherically, but spiritually. Not only has the Northern Kingdom (i.e., Israel) been carried off into exile by the Assyrians, but the same will soon happen with the Southern Kingdom (i.e., Judah). Why? The people of God have rebelled against Him and have rejected Him. They have turned to idols of all shapes and sizes and have become unfaithful in the most ungodly of ways.
Now, Judah is about to be invaded by Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar will marshal his vast army and will destroy the city of Jerusalem—including the temple of God—and take survivors into exile. Habakkuk’s dancing would be turned to mourning, and in roughly eight short years from the time of his writing his “oracle” (1:1). Life as they knew it to be would be radically changed. Not only would thousands of people lose their lives, but they would lose their homes, their crops and livestock and more, bringing wave after wave of grief. Yet, his mourning would be turned back into dancing.
Let’s now descend into the text from our 36,000’ perspective. As we look at some of the verses, we need to know that there is something very unique in this book of the Bible. This book is a conversation between God and Habakkuk!
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 wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Habakkuk wasted no time in his conversation with God. Speaking TO God, Habakkuk began with the hard questions: “how long” and “why”. Habakkuk began with persistent, ever-familiar questions. He wanted to know WHY the “destruction, violence, strife and conflict” were plentiful in his nation had rejected and turned away from God. And Habakkuk wanted to know HOW LONG his suffering would continue. And check out God’s answer in verse 5.
Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own.
And then God continues in the following verses, saying how He—God—has ordained, set apart the Babylonians will destroy Jerusalem and the land of Judah for their rebellion. It was a harsh answer to the hard questions asked by Habakkuk. In verse 5, the word “you” is not singular. Over and again, it is plural, meaning that this was an answer for everyone to hear. It wasn’t only for Habakkuk, but it was for Habakkuk to share throughout the city of Jerusalem and beyond. One more thing, the word “oracle” in verse 1 (and elsewhere) means “burden.” First, the word “oracle” means burden. Habakkuk had the heavy burden of communicating this news to all of God’s people. It’s one thing to share good news, yet entirely different to be the bearer of bad news. The name Habakkuk means “embrace.” Habakkuk had some bad news that he had to embrace, and the only way he could do so was to embrace God as his refuge and strength—which is exactly what he did.
Descending yet deeper into the text, check out how the conversation between Habakkuk and God ends. Though the conversation begins with hard questions and harsh answers, it ends with real hope.
I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet will I rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer, he enables me to go on to the heights.
All of chapter 3 is Habakkuk’s prayer to God, remembering and acknowledging the indescribable power of God as in times past. And thinking of what lay ahead, not only for the Israelites but for the Babylonians as well, Habakkuk was shaken. He doesn’t like what he hears, the answer he has received to his questions. In response to God unleashing His power in times past, Habakkuk was physically shaken. His “heart pounded” in his chest and his “lips quivered” in fear, while he became so weak that his legs trembled, making it difficult stand and move (v. 16). Moreover, Habakkuk would wait for calamity to engulf the invading Babylonians, for suffering and hardship to sweep over them.
And there was more. In all the ways that Israel was strong, they were suddenly weak. The agricultural and economic health of Israel was unexpectedly gone. There were no figs on the trees, grapes on the vines, and a complete crop failure when it came to olives. And to make matters worse, there were no sheep or cattle to be found! The food chain and economic engine of Israel was abruptly gone. This was a harsh, hard reality for Habakkuk. Yet, Habakkuk was able to make decision; an intentional, a deliberate decision. Without the evidence of God’s material provision and protection, Habakkuk chose to rejoice in the Lord, to be joyful in God for the Lord was his strength. Despite how bleak life looked, Habakkuk chose to rejoice in God. He would be victorious and not a victim.
We need to pause briefly in the conversation between Habakkuk and God and see some similarities with life today. America and much of the world has been invaded by COVID-19. Massive losses are real; from the passing away of people, to the loss of jobs, and much more. As COVID-19 spreads across the country, so also does fear, panic AND grief. A tsunami of sadness drowns people in despair. Like Habakkuk, we ask “WHY” this is happening and “HOW LONG” until it is over. And after asking the hard questions, we don’t like the harsh answers and observations we see, such as the increasing numbers of people testing positive with COVID-19 and the rising number of people who have died of this virus. We do not like empty parking lots and idle businesses. We do not like canceled commencements and closed churches. As in the day of Habakkuk when the olive crop failed and sheep and cattle were nowhere to be found, we find ourselves shaken to the very core. Our dancing has turned into mourning.
Think with me. There’s a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is rooted in our circumstances. For example, people get a promotion and raise at work, a student wins a scholarship, a company has record sales, and more. People are of the mindset that winning the lottery brings immediate happiness. Yet, research proves time and again that winning the lottery makes misery a reality. According to the National Endowment for Financial Education, 7 out of ten people who suddenly receive a windfall of cash will lose it within a few years. It’s called the curse of the lottery. Easy come, easy go. Divorce, depression, tragedies are a part of winning the lottery. [Melissa Chan, “Here’s How Winning the Lottery Makes You Miserable,” Time (1-12-16)]
Not even money – and lots of it—can make us happy. Money, and the things that money can buy, do not bring us joy. There is a difference between happiness and joy. We learn from Habakkuk how to find joy. Like Habakkuk, we CAN turn our mourning into dancing. We CAN experience a contagious joy. How did Habakkuk’s sobbing turn into singing? Knowing that his city would be destroyed and his life forever changed, how was he able to rejoice in the Lord? And, how can we? The answer lies in chapter 2. Think…www.joy.
I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
Habakkuk mentioned an important, a vital practice in his day – and that being the city watchman. It was essential that men be stationed on the ramparts of the city wall to look for any threat advancing coming towards the city, as well as for anyone approaching with that which was good for the city. For example, in 2 Kings 7, enemies of Israel had surrounded the city of Samaria, laying siege to it. The resulting famine claimed many lives of people in that city, but four men left the city and walked into the enemy camp to turn themselves in—only to discover that the camp had been abandoned and mountains of food was left behind. These men returned to the city and called out to the watchmen on the walls and at the gates that they had good news.
W for Watch!
While in the midst of COVID-19, make certain to watch for God’s goodness, and we will be able to rejoice in the Lord. Our mourning will turn into dancing. The media continues to feed us a constant feast of bad news. Remember, we become what we eat – not only physically but also mentally. If all we hear is one piece of bad news after another, we will be crushed by the weight of hopelessness and worry.
Amazon keeps track of your highlights and mine. When we read e-books and we mark sentences, Amazon knows what we highlight, and they take note of it. Amazon released a list of the most popular passages in some of its bestselling books. Amazon even indicated the most highlighted passage in the Bible. It wasn’t John 3:16 or Psalm 23. It is a text that speaks powerfully into a worried world, and it is Philippians 4:6-7. [Robert J. Morgan, Worry Less, Live More (Thomas Nelson, 2017, p. xiii)]. When the Apostle Paul was imprisoned, he wrote a letter to a church in Philippi, and in that letter, Paul said…
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or trustworthy—think about such things.
“Think” is a word in Greek from which we derive our word logarithm, which is a very difficult part of math demanding some prolonged thinking! Throughout this crisis, take time throughout the day to look for the “goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13). Call it a “take 10” break…ten minutes to focus on specific good in life right now. Count them on your fingers – food to eat, a roof over the head, a car to drive, a phone in my hand, an internet to surf, a Bible to read, family and friends to love, the Spirit who never leaves me, Jesus who saves me and a Father who loves me, etc.
W for Word!
Did we notice that in addition to watching, Habakkuk said that he would “look to see what he will say to me.” He would look to hear a word from God. God has been speaking from the beginning of measured time when he said, “Let there be light,” and being that God does not change, He is still speaking today. The question is: are we listening? In our hands, we have the timeless Word of God and it is filled with words of strong promise and wise counsel. It is a “lamp to our feet and light to our path” (Ps. 119:105). Romans 15: 4 reminds us that “everything written in the past was written to teach us so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.” Are we spending more time reading the news or the Word, more time playing video games and binging on Netflix or reading and thinking on the Word? When we turn to the Word of God, we hear from God and when we hear from God, we can rejoice in God – and our mourning will turn to dancing.
W for Worship!
The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth be silent before Him.
God was then and will also be worthy of our worship. Even when Jerusalem was destroyed, God was still in His holy temple, sovereign and in control. And remember that silence before the Lord is not only for reverence, but also in acceptance of God’s judgment. Habakkuk was accepting the grim reality that God was about to punish the Israelites by the Babylonians. It left Habakkuk silent before God. We worship God not only with our songs, but with our silence.
Habakkuk asked God WHY suffering was happening in the land of Judah and HOW LONG it would last. Though it wasn’t the answer he was hoping to hear from God, Habakkuk accepted what God had to say and, in the end, Habakkuk chose to “rejoice in the Lord.” The joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). We can know this joy when we watch for the goodness of the Lord, hear the Lord speak to us in His Word, and we sincerely worship the Lord, know that He is in His holy temple, worthy of our worship. Happiness is rooted in circumstances, but joy is rooted in our relationship with God.
Friends, on the night before His crucifixion, Jesus said to His disciples: “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” Jesus has overcome the world.
We are beginning to hear in the news of people who tested positive for COVID-19, struggled with it, but in the end overcame it. Now, their blood is being drawn and antibodies from their blood are given to people struggling with the virus – hoping that it will help people conquer COVID-19. That news story reminded me of another story from years ago. When diphtheria raged throughout Europe, Dr. Felix Ruh, a friend and colleague of Louis Pasteur, infected twenty healthy horses with the bacteria and one by one, each horse died, that is, except one. That strong horse conquered diphtheria, it overcame the pandemic. Dr. Ruh then took blood from that horse and inoculated over 300 hundred babies in Paris nearing death from diphtheria, and they lived. They were saved by the blood of the overcomer. And so are we! The bad news is, yes—in this world, we will have trouble. If its not COVID-19, it will be something else. But the good news is this, Jesus is the Overcomer! He alone is the One who saves us.
Joy is real. We may watch a spectacular sunrise or sunset and we don’t want it to end. We may travel and see a spectacular site where we’ve never been; seeing and swimming in an ocean for the first time, looking and walking into the Grand Canyon for the first time, and we don’t want that moment to end—but it does. Whatever that joy filled moment is, we say or think: “I don’t want this ever to end,” but it does. When we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ and we trust in His death on a cross for the gift of eternal life, we will be with the Lord and one another forever. There will be unspeakable joy. We will say or think: “I don’t want this to end. I want this to go on forever,” and it will. This is the Gospel, the Good News from the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. That word – “Gospel” – also means “the joy news.”
My parents were kids during the Great Depression, and when they were in high school, World War II impacted them—and everyone in America. Then, it was the Korean War, and then the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the list goes on and on. Over 100 times, we read a phrase in the Bible that just simply says, “And it came to pass…” The Great Depression came to pass, as did World War 2, as did Korean War, and more. It came to pass, and this crisis will come to pass.
“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
yet will I rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”
Let’s spread some contagious joy!
Copyright 2020 by e2: effective elders. All materials presented by Dr. Gary L. Johnson are copyrighted material. You may use this material for your teaching purposes. In doing so, please retain all copyright, trademark and propriety notices on this document, and do not make any modifications to the materials. For any uses other than this, written permission is required. (e2: effective elders; c/o Dr. Gary L. Johnson; 6430 S. Franklin Road; Suite A, Indianapolis, IN 46259).