I am an emeritus professor from Cornell University and was a Commissioned Lay Preacher in the Presbyterian Church (USA). For many years I have followed the Daily Lectionary as printed in the Mission Yearbook of my church. For each day of a two-year cycle, the lectionary lists four psalms and three other scriptural passages--usually one from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament. My practice is to copy down a verse or two from one of the psalms and from each of the other three passages. After I have written out all four selections, I reflect upon them, rearrange their order, and incorporate them into a meditation. Sometimes I retain much of the original wording; sometimes all that remains of a selection is an idea that was stimulated when I read the original words. All selections are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. For the Daily Lectionary, see the link below.

Though the Fig Tree Does Not Blossom--Nov. 20, 2012

            Selections in today's lectionary include Habakkuk 3:1-18.  Some years ago I composed words for a hymn based on verses 17-19 of this chapter.  I am straying from my usual postings and substituting the hymn.  The first three verses of my hymn parallel the last three verses of Habakkuk.  I have added a fourth verse that summarizes what I tried to say in the other three. 

            The scripture appears below, followed by the hymn words.  Finally I am posting a thanksgiving sermon I preached that expanded upon the words of the hymn and concluded with singing it.  For the tune I used St. Flavian (CM), familiar in Be Known to Us in Breaking Bread (p. 505 of the Presbyterian Hymnal).

Habakkuk  3:17-19

17Though the fig tree does not blossom,
            and no fruit is on the vines
Though the produce of the olive fails
            and the fields yield no food;

though the flock is cut off from the fold
            and there is no herd in the stalls,
18yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
            I will exult in the God of my salvation.

19God, the Lord, is my strength;
            he makes my feet like the feet of the deer,
            and makes me tread upon the heights.
To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.


Though the Fig Tree Does Not Bloom ©

Ev’n though the fig tree does not bloom,
            And vines no fruit have borne;
Though produce of the olive fails
            And fields bring forth no corn;

And though the flock can’t reach the fold,
            No herd is in the stalls,                      
Yet I will in the Lord rejoice;
            Who saves, whate’er befalls.

In God, the Lord, is all my strength;
            In him my soul delights;
He makes my feet like feet of deer
            To tread upon the heights.

O God, whose love is steadfast though
            Our way be dark and hard,
Still grant us grace to sing your praise;
            O, ever-gracious Lord
                                                Elmer E. Ewing

Though the Fig Tree Does Not Blossom
Sermon preached at Owego Union Presbyterian Church, November 22, 2009         

Scriptures: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 and Habakkuk 3:17-19

Natural disasters have been in the news.  I heard on National Public Radio the definition of a natural disaster.  An expert explained that in order for a hurricane, for example, to qualify as a natural disaster, there must have been human casualties.  Someone had to be there.  This reminded me of the old conundrum about a tree falling in the middle of a forest.  If a tree falls in the middle of a forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make any sound?  If a hurricane churns up in the middle of the ocean, and no one is present, is it a disaster?  Today I want to add a third question: if God bestows a favor, and no one says thank you, was it a blessing?

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” are the words of the Doxology.  We shouldn’t find it difficult to praise God for the blessings that flow toward us.  After all, we know what it is like to give a gift and receive no thank you for it.  We know what it feels like if a child begs and pleads for a present, and we yield to the pleadings with a gift, and then the child does not bother to say thank you.  It hurts, not only because we are entitled to gratitude, but also because it pains us to think that the child has not learned to be grateful.  Lack of gratitude is a character defect.  Then why do I so often forget to thank God for the mercies I receive?
            Sometimes I wonder if we lack true gratitude because we have been spoiled by having too many material things, like a child overwhelmed with Christmas gifts.  Habakkuk did not have this problem.  Habakkuk was not overwhelmed with abundance.  Instead of thanking God for an abundant harvest, how about praising God in spite of a total crop failure?  Habakkuk did that. 
No figs on the trees, no grapes on the vines, no olives, no grain, no sheep, no herd—no food.  Famine looming, dead ahead!  Famine looming, death ahead!  Even so, Habakkuk says that he will rejoice in the LORD, exult in the God of his salvation.  That doesn’t sound sensible!  Still, in today’s New Testament reading, Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 

Some 40 years ago an army chaplain named Merlin Carothers published several praise books.  The books were based on our three verses from 1 Thessalonians and on similar instructions Paul gave in Philippians.  Carothers advocated that we thank God for every situation that comes our way, good or bad.  Thank you, God—Carothers taught people to pray—for the loss of my job…for my divorce…my illness.

I read his books, and for a while I tried to thank God for the bad things in my life.  Even though this was extremely difficult to do, I thought—and I still believe—there was some merit to the idea; but I’m not sure it was sound theology.  When we thank God for the destruction wrought by a flood, or for the death of a loved one, or for our own suffering, maybe we are in effect blaming God for what God had no intention of causing.  Habakkuk doesn’t say that God made the crops fail.  He just said he would rejoice in God if the crops did fail.  And Paul doesn’t say give thanks for all circumstances, but give thanks in all circumstances.

Did God cause the catastrophes the world has been enduring?  The earthquake in Indonesia, drought and famine in the horn of Africa, typhoons and flooding in the Philippines?  Did God cause the suffering from HIVAIDS and malaria?  Or the carnage from war and terrorism—did God cause all that?  Some say yes, to punish us for sin, to cause us to repent.  We can find passages in the Bible that seem to support that view, and other passages that do not. 
One of the religious leaders I most admired was the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, who died 3 1/2 years ago on Maundy Thursday.  While senior minister at Riverside Church, Rev. Coffin lost his 24-year old son, Alex, who drowned in an automobile accident.  Coffin did not blame God for the death of his son; rather, Coffin’s reaction was that God was crying too. 

Ten days after he lost his son, Coffin preached a sermon on what had happened.  “My own consolation,” said Coffin, “lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all hearts to break.”  Coffin could praise God even when his son died because he was confident that God shared his grief.  Coffin knew that God is compassionate.

That is the important part.  Whether or not we believe that God predetermines our fate, whether or not we believe that God makes bad things happen to good people, we can still follow the examples of Habakkuk and Paul and Coffin.  We praise God because God is good, and the goodness of God is not conditioned by whether we think our lives are going well.

Whatever the circumstances of our lives, we are called to praise God—even when calamity strikes.  But to be able to praise God in bad times, we need to have practiced praising God in good times.  If we praise God every day, praise becomes part of our spiritual DNA.  Only then are we likely to be able to take the next step—the step that Habakkuk and Paul and Coffin took—praising God in the midst of disaster.

To praise God in disaster is not lunacy or masochism or denial of reality; it is not groveling for mercy or challenging God to “bring it on.”  It is an expression of our trust that God is compassionate—one who suffers with us in our suffering and one who wants the best for us.  It is at the same time an expression of our confidence that—though it may be a paradox beyond our power to comprehend—God is in control.

Where do we find the strength?  Habakkuk says, “God the LORD is my strength.”  Then he launches into an odd simile:  “God makes my feet like the feet of the deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.”  These lines about deer feet treading upon the heights are borrowed from a victory song attributed to King David.  David used the image as he sang praise to God for help against King Saul. 

Habakkuk went a step farther than David did.  Habakkuk was able to tread upon the heights because God gave him the strength not just to conquer his enemy, but the strength to be thankful even in the face of disaster—crop failure and famine.

The deer of their songs is a roe deer, a little cousin of the whitetail deer that has become a pest in our gardens and a hazard on our highways.  My wife hit a deer just as she was about to turn into our driveway--$4000 it cost the insurance company to fix her car; but you know, I have to admire the deer that run behind our house.  We have a deep gully there, and I can’t get over how sure-footed the deer are when they scramble up the banks.  The little roe deer in Palestine are even more nimble, more agile, and more graceful than our whitetail deer.  As the roe deer has nimble feet to escape the hunter, so God made David nimble to escape his enemies.  The deer bounds up the mountainside, up to where it can survey the danger below.  Up in the heights, it can walk secure.  We can imagine a sense of triumph, even majesty, associated with the high ground.  David, and after him Habakkuk, say that God will make our feet like feet of the deer to tread upon the heights.

There may not be high places near us like the heights around Jerusalem, but in our mind’s eye we can see them.  We may lack the time or the physical ability to hike mountains, but God will give us the ability to tread upon the spiritual heights.  God makes the feet of our minds, our spiritual feet, like feet of the agile little roe deer.  

Trapped down in the valley, the valley of humdrum, of worry, of sorrow, the valley of pain and loss, we need the chance mentally and spiritually to tread upon the heights.  God gives us strength to do that in our imaginations, even if we cannot walk there physically.  Ruminate on that.  God will take our awkward spiritual feet — clodhoppers though they may be—and make them like feet of roe deer, nimbly to dance from rock to pinnacle and from pinnacle to summit.  Way up there at the summit, we praise God.

William Sloane Coffin did not die suddenly.  His was a protracted, debilitating illness; but I think God made his feet like feet of deer to tread upon the heights.  In reflecting upon the end of his life, Coffin closed one of his last books with this sentence:
For the compassions that fail not, I find myself saying daily to my loving Maker, “I can no other answer make than thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.”

There the sermon ends, except for a postscript. 

The last line of the Habakkuk passage is an inscription, “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments,” clear evidence that this was a psalm, intended to be sung.  When I read the verses out loud several years ago, they almost sang themselves, and I paraphrased the words in the form of a poem.  Then I found a hymn tune that fit the meter.  I’ve been singing the resulting hymn to myself on a fairly regular basis.  When I am discouraged or depressed, when things have gone badly, when I am anxious or worried, I find comfort and strength in the singing.

Maybe you, too, will find the rhymed paraphrase helpful.  It is printed on the bulletin insert.  I would like to sing the hymn while you read the words; then I will ask Joan to play the tune through once, and we will stand to sing it together.


CR said...

This is a lovely sermon. Earthy, thoughtful and encouraging. To praise God in the hard times it helps to be in the habit of praising God in all times..


Elmer E. Ewing said...

Thank you Chris, and for commenting on it in your own blog.