Worship in Turbulent Times

Worship in Turbulent Times

By Pastor Emmanuel Akatukunda

How is your worship life these days? Is this even a fair question to ask in times like these? Is it possible to worship in the tough and turbulent times we live in? Today we will share from the book of Habakkuk. Habakkuk was not a typical prophet who spoke God’s word to the people. Instead his is a dialogue, a conversation with God. This book resembles that of Job. It is about, lament (or complaint), listening to God, prayer and worship. It is a beautiful book that speaks to our human experiences. I encourage you to read the book in your free time. It is very short; you can read the entire book in under 10 minutes.

The summary (and paraphrase) of the dialogue goes like this:

Habakkuk: God, why don’t you do something about Judah’s wickedness?

God: I am about to do something. I will raise Babylonians to punish Judah.

Habakkuk: Really? But why would you use a nation more wicked than Judah to punish us?

God: Time will come when all evil will be punished. I am a just God. There will be an end to all evil and righteousness.

Habakkuk: Alright, I may not understand why and how you do Your things but I will trust in You.

Some Christians hesitate or even fear to have and honest dialogue with God. It is okay to have an honest dialogue with God. God is not put off or embarrassed by your honest questions. Our sharing today will focus on the three things that we learn from Habakkuk’s life. His life reveals a believer’s honest journey with God. I pray and hope that we will learn how to lament, to wait, and to worship.

  1. The Lament: How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? (Habakkuk 1:2)

How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Habakkuk 1:2-3

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? Habakkuk 1:13

Habakkuk’s lament is rather shocking. He asks God, “why do you idly look at wrong? Habakkuk 1:3 – ESV). He is shocked and overwhelmed by the evil that is happening around him but God seems to be unbothered.  He is wondering or rather thinks that God tolerates evil.

I don’t know about you, but there are times I have found myself struggling to understand why things are the way they are. There are times I have expected to act in certain ways but he seemed not to care. He did not respond the way I wanted. Some questions we ask are like, “How come?” Because we don’t really understand God’s ways. Or we ask, “How long?” Because we don’t really understand God’s timing.

But then God replies: I am not silent; I do not tolerate evil; I will act. I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. Habakkuk 1:5

Sometimes God may respond to us in ways we do not understand or ways that are confusing to us. But then we do not have to give up. We need to wait on him and listen.

  1. The Waiting and Listening: I will look to see what he will say to me (Habakkuk 2:1)

I admire Habakkuk’s faith. He was not afraid of asking difficult questions. He expressed his confusion to God. Even when God replied in ways he did not expect, he did not give up. He decided to wait on the Lord. You see, true lament produces hope. We admit our own failures, pain, confusion and limitations but also look up to God for the help; for answers that only He can give. Like Habakkuk we need to come to that point where we resolve that: I will look to see what he will say to me (Habakkuk 2:1)

God responded to Habakkuk:

“Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. 3 For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. (Habakkuk 2:2-3)

He also adds: the righteous person will live by his faithfulness I(Habakkuk 2:4)

Victory is assured for those who fear God. Faith—unwavering trust—in God and his will; a determination to follow Christ no matter what, is the key to the believer’s victory.

 

  1. The Prayer and Worship: I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day (Habakkuk 3:2)

Habakkuk reflects on what God has done in the past. He reflects on God’s power, His mercies, His splendor, His glory, His salvation. Can you look back and think of the works of God? What has the Lord done throughout history? What has God done in your life? When did God come through for you when you had given up? When did he move mountains to make a way for you?

Have you ever walked or run and somewhere along the journey you grew tired? But when you looked back, you realized that you had actually covered more distance than you thought; and that became a source of your encouragement? You may not understand all that is going on around you. You may not understand why things are the way they are. But you can trust in God. He has the power to move mountains. He loves you unconditionally and works in all things for your good. He is good all the time. God is merciful. He does not judge us according to what we deserve or else we would all have been destroyed.  He knows what is up to. He knows how all this will end. He guides all things to fit into His purposes.

In light of all this, Habakkuk decides to worship. 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, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

Habakkuk reflects on his life and circumstances. Things might not change; they may even get worse. Crop failure would lead to starvation and economic distress. Our feelings are not controlled by what happens around us but by our faith in God.

We must make a choice and say, “I will rejoice – in the Lord.” We serve God, not for what he gives but for who He is. He is our victory. He is our savior. He is our helper. God is our restorer. He is our strength.

The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. For the director of music. On my stringed instruments. (Habakkuk 3:19)

We will be joyful – in God our savior—the one who rescues me. He doesn’t change. He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t disappoint. He is just. He is sovereign. His ways are beyond what we can comprehend.

God gives us confidence in times of adversity. That’s why we lament, and wait…but above all worship Him.

Missions: a Call to Worship

1 Chronicles 16:23-27 (NIV)  Sing to the LORD, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day.  24 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.  25 For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.  26 For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.  27 Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy in his dwelling place.

In the passage above, King David, assisted by Asaph, calls upon the people to worship the God who created the universe. He deserves to be worshiped because He alone is God. All the other gods are idols. They are false gods. God called Israel that they would proclaim the greatness of His name to the other nations. Israel’s faith was neither meant to be private nor exclusive. God’s intention was that through Israel’s obedience and devotion to His ways, other nations would come to the knowledge of His love, justice and holiness.  This too is our mission as the church of Jesus Christ. We are called to declare the name of the One true and living God through our words and actions.

For some Christians worship and missions are two important but unrelated activities of the church. We tend to limit worship what is done when believers are gathered and missions to what believers do when they are scattered in the world. I think there is some truth to that but there is still more. Worship and missions are interconnected. The One true living God is the object of both worship and missions. None of them is a mere human endeavor. One leads to the other. Worship is both the fuel and goal of missions. John Piper famously said that, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” As such, missions is a call for the people who are estranged from God to return and worship Him.

A call to worship

When Moses encountered God in the burning Bush, God sent him to go back to Egypt. His mission was to “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Exodus 8:1). God’s desire is that all people get to worship Him. We were created to worship God, but Satan also competes for our worship. People turn away from God when they fail or refuse to worship Him alone. So, when we worship we are declaring to the enemy, Satan, that only the Lord is God who is worthy of our worship. And when we witness, we are calling people to return and worship the One true and living God.

Food for Thought:

How can you, as part of your church community, be engaged in declaring the praises of the One true God among those who do not believe in Him? 

Grace for the Least Likely

Acts 22:1-11

Then Paul said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.  I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify…“About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. “‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied.  My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. “‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked. “‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ 

A Former Persecutor (1-5)

God’s Grace is amazing! Grace actually makes more sense to the least likely—the underdogs, those considered to be dregs of the society, the irreligious lot, and many other misfits.  The famous hymn sums up the nature of grace: “Amazing grace…that saved a wretch like me.” Every believer in Jesus Christ has in one way or another experienced this prodigious grace. Of course every story is different. In today’s passage, Apostle Paul is re-telling his story—for completely different reasons.

He stands trial before the Jewish religious leaders. These were, most likely, his former colleagues before he gave his life to Jesus. In fact his religious credentials were better than most of them. As a young Pharisee, he had been mentored by an outstanding religious expert, Gamaliel. Before his conversion, he was at the forefront of persecuting followers of Jesus Christ but now his life has been transformed.

Every believer in Jesus Christ has in one way or another experienced this prodigious grace.

He has found the better way. The former persecutor of the church is now on the receiving end of the wrath he once meted out to those who followed Christ. God’s grace is truly amazing. If someone like Paul can now unapologetically stand for his faith in Christ, we can all be encouraged to pray for those who now fiercely persecute the church.

Are there people you hesitate to pray for, maybe because of their hostility towards the Gospel? No one is out of the reach of God’s love.

The Turning Point (6-11)

Paul now shares how he came to believe in the Person and the message of the One he now uncompromisingly proclaims. His encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ was as dramatic as his life would eventually turn out to be.  If there is anything that ever happened to him, it was a realization of his utter worthlessness without Jesus Christ. He, who once was powerful, was blinded and needed the assistance of his guards to get to Damascus.

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All of us who believe in Jesus have had our turning points. Some of them were dramatic while others were ordinary. In all this, it was the Lord who drew us to Himself. Now that we have been saved by His grace, we have an obligation to live for Him.

 

How did you come to know the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior? How has your life changed since then? Take time to thank Him.

The Shepherd’s Heart

Acts 20:28-31 (NIV)  Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

 

One of the widely used Biblical metaphors for spiritual leadership is that of a shepherd. Ezekiel talks about good and bad shepherds—referring to Israel’s kings and religious leaders. David is described as a shepherd of the people of Israel; Jesus described himself as a “good shepherd.” He also charged Apostle John to “feed my sheep.” Apostle Paul exhorted the Elders in Ephesus to “be shepherds of God’s flock.” And Apostle Peter calls Jesus the “chief shepherd.”

In all these analogies, there are underlying qualities of a spiritual leader. For instance
shepherds provide for the sheep. They are supposed to ensure that people under their leadership are fed on the Word of God. The Word of God provides spiritual nourishment and the basis for discerning God’s will for one’s life. Just as a parent wants the children to appreciate healthy food over junk food, the pastor’s role is to train the believer to discern truth from error based on God’s Word.

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Leaders should also have genuine interest in the welfare of their people. The parable of the lost sheep reveals the heart of the Shepherd who risks everything, including His own life to bring the wayward sheep back to the fold. The pastor has an unenviable responsibility of rebuking and disciplining believers who do not live according to God’s Word. But at the same time pastors should also comfort and restore those who have been bruised by the consequences of sin. All spiritual leaders are under-shepherds that emulate the Master-Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep.

Unmet Expectations

Luke 19:41-44 (NIV)  As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace– but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

A few years ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine over ministry expectations. He was not comfortable with my philosophy of ministry and the way we ran stuff at church. Every relationship revolves around expectations. The more these expectations are mutually met, the healthier the relationship. Some expectations may be expressed while others may not. Some are realistic, others aren’t.

It is always fulfilling when our expectations are met. But it can be disappointing or even devastating when our expectations remain unfulfilled. Unrealistic expectations can hurt both us and others, especially those whom we care about. Some people have expectations of their friends and colleagues that only God can meet. This of course puts a strain on their relationship.

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If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace…

It is also possible to have unrealistic expectations of God. The Jewish people during the time of Jesus had a faulty understanding of the person and mission of the Messiah. They were waiting for a charismatic, political and militarily powerful liberator. It’s no wonder that the Jesus Christ of Nazareth could not fit into their frame of reference. He was too ordinary to be the “savior” they had been waiting for. When He came to them they did not recognize Him. They missed the “time of God’s coming to [them]” (Luke 19:44). And their rejection of the Savior had far reaching ramifications. That’s why Jesus wept. They rejected the One who could give them peace—the Prince of Peace. They rejected their King; they One they had been waiting for all along. But that was not all. 40 years later, the city of Jerusalem would be besieged and later destroyed together with six hundred thousand of its inhabitants.

What are your expectations of God? How do you respond when things seem not to be going your way? Could you be in a resisting God’s will because you have misconstrued God’s will and His ways?

What about your expectations of the people around you—your spouse, siblings, colleagues, etc? Are they realistic and contributing to building a healthy relationship?

My prayer is that God may help us to have realistic expectations in whatever relationships we are involved in.

 

The Centrality of Worship

In the beginning…

God is Holy and demands that the people He created worship Him. Simply put, we were created to worship the One living God. When God created mankind, Adam and Eve, he put them in the Garden of Eden “to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). This was their act of worship. There was neither temple nor altar in the Garden of Eden because the fellowship between God and people was unbroken. But because of sin, mankind could no longer have direct fellowship with God. As a result altars, temples, sacrifices and priests became necessary. You see, the heart of worship is obedience. We cannot worship God on our terms. God has set the terms and conditions for those who worship Him. To worship God is to acknowledge Him for who He is and what He does.

Let my people go, so that they may worship me (Exodus 10:3).

The encounters between Moses and Pharaoh in the book of Exodus highlight the centrality of worship. God’s purpose is delivering the children of Israel from Egypt was “that they may worship [Him]” (Exodus 9:13). “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go” Pharaoh asked Moses (Exodus 5:2). Pharaoh’s response to Moses signifies how the devil’s primary mission is to stop or distract us from worshiping God. So, in this sense, worship is spiritual warfare.

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple (Revelation 21:22 22).

Jesus Christ reiterated the centrality of worship when He told the Samaritan woman that the Father seeks for worshipers who worship Him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). In the Book of Revelation, the worship ideal is restored. There will be no temple in the new earth and new heaven because God’s presence will be with His people (Revelation 21:22). This is the ultimate goal of life—the sommum bonum; to find pleasure in the presence of God. May we all strive to make worship the center of our lives.

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Death Demystified

1 Corinthians 15:55-57 (NIV)  “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

A few months ago my mother died. She was the sweetest woman I ever knew. She faithfully served the Lord for over 70 years. As a way of honoring her life we chose a celebration theme for her funeral. We sang songs of praise to God. We even danced. A friend of mine who watched a video clip of the funeral commented that it was a funeral of a different kind.

But even with all the testimonies and celebrations, facing the reality of my mother’s death was the hardest thing I have ever dealt with. A day before her death, my wife and I agreed that we would pray and surrender our mother’s life to God’s will—and that was the hardest prayer we ever prayed. Although we knew in our minds that it was time for our mother to go to the place she had always longed for, we were not emotionally ready to let her go.

Death is perhaps the scariest experience on the face of the earth (if you doubt, just google “death” and checkout the images that show up). It is a grim reality we have to deal with. The reality of death is very painful, whether it is the death of a loved one or us facing it due to a terminal illness. Death is an intruder. It is unnatural. It is something we can never get used to because we were not created to die.

What scares you most about death

However, death this is not the end. Just like sin, death has no place in heaven. Therefore, our faith in Jesus Christ makes a great difference in how we deal with death. Satan’s victory in the Garden of Eden was temporary but Jesus’ victory on the cross was decisive and final. On the cross, Jesus demystified death. We can encounter death with confidence. There is hope beyond the grave. For a Christian, death is an irony. It is a moment of pain, especially when we lose a loved one. But is also a moment of victory, because those who die in Christ will certainly live again.

What scares you most about death? Even the scariest thing on earth has been defeated by our Lord. We can, therefore, say with confidence, “Where, O death, is your victory?” We have victory over death because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.