Thursday, August 10, 2006

Success in Spite of Our Past

So the other day I wrote about Ahaz, among the bottom rung of the kings of Judah. Ahaz's son, however, is probably the best king of Judah. From Ahaz to his son Hezekiah, we go from worst to first.

Have you ever noticed that Ahaz is described as having 'passed his sons through the fire'? Researching that practice, it would appear to be a ritual where the sons are passed through a flame or between two flames in order to dedicate them to a pagan god, perhaps one named Molech. I wonder if Hezekiah was subjected to this as a boy? Did he have burns on his skin, on his arm or leg for example, from being 'passed through the fire' by his father Ahaz?

Even if Hezekiah didn't have a physical mark to remind him of his childhood, he had to have vivid recollections of his father's unGodly life. His father had 'worshipped' at the sex-and-religion shrines -- basically his father had had sex with prostitutes under the theme of a pagan religion, and everyone knew it. His father had looked to the neighboring nation of Assyria -- instead of to God -- for help. Eventually, his father had ransacked the temple of God, then boarded it up, putting it out of business for good (or so it probably seemed).

Truly, Hezekiah had witnessed his father trying everything under the son -- except following God -- to be successful. And in the end, Ahaz was a dramatic failure, called one of the worst kings of Judah.

Looking at the line of kings before Ahaz, it would probably have been easy for Hezekiah to try his own way, too. You can imagine that much of the common culture in Judah was in line with Ahaz's beliefs. Ahaz wasn't the only one visiting the sex-and-religion shrines, or worshipping pagan Gods -- the people of Judah (and Israel) were all guilty of this. The culture was so infected that even the priests of God's temple had become lazy in following the commands of God about purification and worship. So Hezekiah could have simply gone along, living for himself, hoping to create his own success.

But that's not what happened. Hezekiah chose a different path. In the face of a culture that said 'live for today', and 'serve whatever god pleases you the most', Hezekiah turned to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

How hard do you suppose that was? How many childhood friends and close relatives -- many of whom most likely worshipped other gods -- did he risk offending? Judah had just begun worshipping Assyrian gods under Ahaz's reign; if Judah now rejected those gods, did Judah risk the wrath of Assyria, or the nations who worshipped the various other 'gods' at the shrines and high places in Judah?

Honestly, I sometimes find myself fretting over using the word 'God' at the office, for fear of coming across as 'holier than thou' or whatever.

And yet Hezekiah made a hard choice to do what would please God, and let the chips fall where they may. He overcame a childhood and a culture. And God smiled on him. Check this out:

Hezekiah carried out this work and kept it up everywhere in Judah. He was the very best—good, right, and true before his God. Everything he took up, whether it had to do with worship in God's Temple or the carrying out of God's Law and Commandments, he did well in a spirit of prayerful worship. He was a great success. 2 Chr 31:20ff

What are we willing to overcome, what are we willing to do, to be a success in the eyes of God?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Anything but God

So along comes Ahaz, the next king of Judah. A real star.

Ignoring the lessons God tried to teach his fathers, Ahaz does not turn to God. Instead, he makes figurines of the Baal to worship. He burns incense to other gods. He participates in neighborhood sex-and-religion shrines. Basically he tries his best to do everything apart from God.

So God finally has enough of this, and he hands Ahaz over to king of Aram, who beats Ahaz severely, and then takes prisoners from Judah. Next, an army from Israel attacks and massacres many of Judah's best fighting men. Then the Edomites attack and take captives. Then the Philistines raid Judah, and take over some cities.

You would think that Ahaz would catch these ever-so-subtle signals from God, right? But what does Ahaz do?

Ahaz asks king of Assyria for help.

And the king of Assyria responds by ... attacking Judah, and seizing Damascus in the process.

Ok, now Ahaz will wise up, right? Surely he'll turn to God now.

Actually, Ahaz ransacks God's temple and the royal palace, pulling together everything he can find of any value, and sends a gift to the king of Assyria, hoping to buy his favor.

And the king of Assyria responds by ... ignoring Ahaz.

So what now? What does Ahaz do? Well, on a trip to Damascus to meet with the king of Assyria, he saw the altars they used to worship their gods. So he thinks to himself, 'Hmmm ... the Assyrians' gods beat my army and took Damascus, so if I worship their gods too, maybe their gods will help me as well.'

You'll be shocked to learn that this doesn't help. And so Ahaz tries the shotgun approach to worship -- he sets up shrines all over Judah, to worship every 'god' he can find -- and along the way he literally boards up the temple of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Maybe he figured that if he boarded it up, it wouldn't be such a temptation to him.

Ahaz tried everything -- everything -- except submitting himself to God. God made Ahaz face the consequences of his decisions, and Ahaz still refused to turn from all the things that so obviously weren't working, weren't helping.

So today I ask you: Are you doing things your own way? How's that workin' out for ya? Ever wonder if God might be trying to tell you something? Do you know that sometimes he'll go as far as to try what I call the '2x4 to the head' approach to get your attention? As Ahaz demonstrated, we don't have to listen to God, even when he speaks so plainly through our circumstances ... but wouldn't we be more content if we'd just submit ourselves to Him?

I should point out that I don't believe that all negative circumstances are cases of God trying to show his displeasure. Sometimes it just rains, or even floods, or even tsunamis, you know? Moreover, as my brother Mike Datson pointed out recently, not all negative circumstances are necessarily even negative.

But sometimes ... sometimes...

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Personals

Ever heard of Jotham? No, not Gotham, that's where Batman lives. I'm talking about Jotham, son of Uzziah. Jotham, King of Judah.

Scripture says that Jotham 'did what was right in the eyes of the Lord' (2 Kings 15), and that 'in God's eyes he lived a good life' (2 Chronicles 27). But at the same time, scripture points out that during his reign, the shrines to other gods in Judah were still very much in use by the people, and Jotham didn't interfere with that.

Which makes me say, so which is it? Did he do what was right, or did he slip up by not taking action against these shrines to other gods? I don't think it's reasonable to say that both could be true -- that even in leaving the shrines to other gods, he was doing what was right. So what's the deal?

Could it be that when viewed 'personally', Jotham may have been a good guy, obedient to God in his day to day life, avoiding sin, etc; and yet he didn't accomplish some things that God would have wanted him to do?

This word, 'personal', is one we hear from time to time in evangelical churches, as in, 'Is Jesus your personal Savior?' This phrasology has come under fire from a few folks lately, I'll suggest not because it represents invalid thinking so much as incomplete thinking. When we give our individual lives to Christ, he is personally saving us; that's very relational language, and not inappropriate.

But if we think about things that are 'personal' -- a personal assistant, a personal ad in the newspaper, personal development, etc -- they are often things that are all about 'me'. They are 'mine'. And if we think of Jesus first and foremost as our 'personal' Savior, we may also run the risk of thinking less of the church as a whole, or what Jesus intends to do through the whole church, or what Jesus did/does for others in general.

So look back at Jotham. Scripture says he was obedient to God, but it very explicitly states that he doesn't put an end to shrines to other gods throughout Judah. The only way I can seem to fit these two statements together is to say that Jotham 'personally' was obedient to God, etc -- but when it comes to what God could have done through Jotham more actively to benefit others, Jotham didn't really go there. And as a result, something, or more probably some things (plural) were left undone that would have been within the control of the Jotham as king of Judah -- things that would have pleased God.

So the questions seem to be:

  1. As I stumble along in my walk with Christ, do I think of the walk as just Him and me, to the exclusion of others who should or could be alongside us both together?
  2. (and this may be a restatement of the previous question) Is it possible that I'm focused on Christ in my daily life, but still missing some assignments that are within my control because I'm not paying attention to others the way I should?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Mentors and Friends

Still in 2 Chronicles, just read the story of Uzziah. Still struck by the extremes in the lives of these kings of Judah.

Something occurred to me as I read about Uzziah. Scripture says Uzziah 'was well trained by his pastor and teacher Zechariah to live in reverent obedience before God, and for as long as Zechariah lived, Uzziah lived a godly life.'

It struck me that this description is similar to a description of Uzziah's grandfather Joash: 'Taught and trained by Jehoiada the priest, Joash did what pleased God throughout Jehoiada's lifetime.'

It seems that as long as these Godly men, Zechariah and Jehoiada, lived, the kings of their respective lifetimes were Godly men. But when Z and J kicked the bucket, their students Uzziah and Joash pulled a Jeckyl and Hyde, leaving their faith behind.

I wonder what kept these kings in line during the lifetimes of their Godly mentors?

Perhaps their mentors had sufficient power over the kings to keep them in check, like a parent keeping a tight rein on a child. We've all seen that, I think -- someone whose parents kept such control over their lives that when they finally were on their own, they went nuts, doing things their parents would never let them do, having little or no self control because they never needed it as a child.

Or perhaps Zech and Jehoiada didn't exert control so much as Godly influence, and when they took the last train out there was no one with a close enough relationship to the kings to stoke their consciences. In other words, perhaps Uzziah and Joash never sought out other Godly men to help hold them accountable -- something we all need.

But I'll suggest that one thing must be true: Uzziah and Joash didn't really pull a Jeckyl and Hyde. I mean, they didn't change overnight. That's not how it works. Rather, their hearts were moving away from God long before they rebelled so extremely, later in their lives.

May God's leaders today develop self-control; may they find mentors who can stoke their consciences; may they maintain humble spirits before their Creator God; may they have close friends - true Brothers - who hold them accountable for their actions and decisions; and may they be sensitive to the Spirit convicting them of sin early on, rather than allowing sin to build to the point of out-and-out rebellion. May God's will be done.