Every season of the year can bring its own characteristic blessing. The far-off summer holds warm memories and hopeful expectations of riverside picnics, days at the beach, and lazy naps in the sun. Autumn has that first tang of wood smoke in the air, the trees in glorious gold and the promise of hot soups and tasty casseroles. Well, it’s January. Unemployment is high; the Christmas bills are coming in; we get about half an hour of daylight a week, but plenty of fog, slush, and frost. It can take a lot of optimism to find a bright spot in the long, grey chill of a British winter. But here goes:
Though the apples are long gone from the trees,
Though there isn’t a peach to be found for love nor money,
Though the walnut trees have all died back and the squirrels have had the best of them
and the allotment is just a muddy mess,
though there’s no frozen mutton, let alone fresh lamb
and though we haven’t seen fresh milk, decent cheese or any kind of beef in ages,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
You might recognise this as a somewhat loose paraphrase of Habakkuk’s great shout of praise (Habakkuk 3:17-18). You’ll find his little book towards the end of the Old Testament; he was a prophet about six hundred years before Christ. In Habakkuk’s time, there was serious trouble brewing, and he knew that hard times lay ahead. When you take a moment to read the real thing, you’ll notice how it’s both basic items (like field crops and meat) and some of the more “fancy” foods (figs and grapes) that are on the prophet’s list of things he will miss. He anticipates going hungry, not just having to do without the frills. That’s a bleak outlook for you! That’s what makes his final statement such a surprise if you’re not expecting it, especially in light of the understanding that it is actually God Himself who is about to bring disaster down on Jerusalem. The first chapter of this book details a conversation between Habakkuk and God. The prophet finds out – to his dismay – that the Lord is raising up Babylon to punish Judah for their wickedness.
How easy it is to praise God when there’s food in the larder and a little cash in the account. It’s equally easy to turn on Him in resentment – even anger – when things don’t go smoothly for us. As if God were there simply to serve our interests and make plain sailing of our lives on earth. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when life rolls along nicely: deadlines are met and plans work out and it’s easy to smile. But once in a while I have to look to people like Habakkuk to remind me that God is worthy of more than simple cupboard love. He is the same God, and just as worthy of praise even when lives are shattered and hardship descends.
So in the bleak mid-winter, when the typical family starts out the year strapped for cash; when the pundits are talking of double-dip recession; when you, or someone you love, are out of work and worried for the future; when regional economies are so brittle that no-one can even guess where it’s all going to end up; that’s not the time to abandon God, that’s the time to press in close to Him. That’s the time to head to the church, not avoid it. That’s the time to remind ourselves that God is still God. He’s not hiding from us or sleeping on the job, although He might be testing us for a little while. He’s still the only real source of joy and contentment we will ever need, or will ever find. To continue my earlier paraphrase into verse nineteen, the ending line of Habakkuk:
God is the only one who can put a real spring in your step.
And we all know that Spring is just around the corner.