Pursue Godliness

This past Sunday we kicked off a brand-new series called Pursue: Chasing God in a Godless World.  For the next few weeks, with the story of King Asa in 2 Chronicles 14-16 as our guide, we’re going to talk about this very thing.  How can we be bold followers of Jesus in a culture where such a thing isn’t nearly as acceptable as it once was?  In this first part we lay the foundation for what follows.  If we’re going to run after Jesus, it’s going to take looking like God.  Thanks for reading.

Pursue Godliness

This past week was an anniversary of sorts, although probably not one you’ve ever heard of before.  Fifty-five years ago this past Friday, Walter Ciszek was released from prison in Soviet Russia and returned to the United Stated after more than 20 years in captivity.  As a young man in the 1930s, Ciszek, a Catholic, felt a call to ministry.  Specifically, he felt a call to the mission field.  So, stepping out on his faith, Ciszek headed for the U.S.S.R.  He was in Poland training for the work to which he had been called when Russia invaded.  Recognizing how perilous was the situation he was facing in Poland, Ciszek did what any bold, young missionary would do in his position, he head further east to serve in the Ural Mountains in central Russia.  In 1941, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison—much of it in solitary confinement.  While serving this sentence, he was sentenced to an additional 15 years in the Gulag, several years of which included hard labor.  Even once his hard labor term was complete, however, he was still held as a prisoner, now forced to work as a mechanic.

During all this time, though, his faith held strong.  Along the way he recognized that the particular mission field to which God had called him was this very Soviet Gulag.  Ciszek began secretly planting little mission churches in the places where he was held. Every time the Soviets discovered one, they moved him to another city…where he started more churches.  Eventually, they decided he was too much trouble to keep and on October 12, 1963, he was sent home in a prisoner exchange.

Given the state-mandated, virulent atheism of Soviet Russia, we can fairly well say that Ciszek was pursuing God in a context that was deeply opposed to such a notion.  The godlessness of Communism as a worldview is well-documented and demonstrated.  And yet, men like Ciszek served in such dark places with courage and boldness.  What exactly allowed them to do such a thing?  Well, we can answer that question with something like, “Their faith,” and while we would be technically correct, I think the answer is more robust than that.  In fact, we need it to be more robust than that.  We need it to be more robust than that because our own culture is changing.  Our culture is changing and the changes aren’t moving us further in the direction of the Christian worldview.

The truth is: While there are many places where the light of Christ is shining brightly, on the whole, our culture is moving in a direction of godlessness in its basic worldview assumptions, the likes of which we haven’t seen in…well…ever.  As we continue down this path, we who would profess to follow Jesus in our daily lives are in for some changes.  Changing is the amount of resistance we can expect as we stick to the path of Christ.  Changing is the reception to our faith and message we can expect from those who don’t share it.  Changing is the way we pursue Christ in the first place.

With all of this in mind, for the next few weeks (with a brief break to hear a great message from Dwight Mabry next Sunday for Homecoming), we are going to be working through a new teaching series called Pursue: Chasing God in a Godless World.  Here’s the thing: You and I both want to be faithful to our confession of Christ.  We’ve made the commitment and don’t want to fall off the wagon along the way.  What we need is some counsel for the journey.  To get this, we are going to turn to the Scriptures and specifically to the story of a guy whose name you’ve probably read before, but you likely couldn’t call to mind if you were put on the spot.  He was the third king of Judah, the southern kingdom of the people of Israel after the northern tribes seceded to form their own kingdom, Israel, to the north.  The king’s name was Asa and he receives one of the more thorough reviews among the various kings highlighted in the book of 2 Chronicles.

Asa’s is one of those stories to which we really just don’t pay a lot of attention.  It’s tucked away in the middle of a book that doesn’t get much notice.  After all, if you set out to read 1 and 2 Chronicles as a set, the first thing you come to is 9 chapters of names, most of which you can’t pronounce, and nearly all of which you’ve never heard of.  By chapter 5 your eyes are starting to cross and you decide to skip to the more exciting stuff in the Gospels.  But, all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, and so stories like Asa’s are worth giving some of that time and attention they don’t otherwise get.

You see, Asa was one of the good kings of Israel.  He wasn’t perfect by any stretch, and he certainly didn’t live up to the likes of David or even Josiah, but he was pretty good.  One of his final summary statements is that “the heart of Asa was wholly true all his days.”  That’s high praise as far as the Scriptures go.  And, considering that the world outside the kingdom of Judah was totally pagan and entirely unaware of anything even remotely having to do with the Lord, the fact that he could have a review like that is pretty impressive.  Serving the Lord when nobody else is doing it is something that attracts attention.  Walter Ciszek, who died in 1984, is already being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church for his efforts.  The question for us, then, is clear: How can we walk such a path as this one?  How can we pursue God in a godless world?

That’s where we’re going for the next few weeks.  And I think Asa is going to be a pretty good guide along the path both in terms of what to do and what not to do.  But, Asa didn’t come out of nowhere.  If you will, then, let me paint a bit of the bigger picture for you of where Asa’s story fits in the broader history of Israel.  Asa was the son of Abijah.  He took over for his father after the latter had served as king for only three years.  Abijah was one of the sons of Rehoboam, who himself was the son of Solomon.  You may remember that when Rehoboam became king, a group of tribal leaders came to him with a request: Go easier on us than your father did.  Solomon was a wise and wealthy king who built up the nation’s economy and infrastructure to levels that are still mythic in their proportions.  But much of this building came on the backs of conscripted labor.  Oh, the people were paid for their work, but they didn’t have a choice as to whether or not to do it, and the work was hard.  The people were hoping Rehoboam would go a bit easier on them and merely enjoy the fruits of his father’s labors rather than trying to expand on them.  He followed the bad advice of his young peers rather than heeding the wise counsel of the more seasoned advisors who had served Solomon and the people reacted by bolting.  Under the leadership of Jeroboam, the 10 northern tribes rebelled against the crown to form their own nation with Jeroboam as its king.

Unfortunately, Rehoboam took that foolish streak and ran with it, following in the footsteps of Solomon’s latter days which were marked by a proliferation of wives and the gods of those wives which eventually led him and the nation with him into idolatry.  And while Rehoboam had many wives, it was a concubine, Maacah, who stole his heart—that’ll become important in a couple of weeks—and it was her son, Abijah, whom he designated as his successor.  Abijah was a decent manager of the kingdom, but he wasn’t a very good person.  He mostly continued in his father’s immoral footsteps, repenting occasionally when things got dicey.  On a broader scale, that part of the world was largely in-between dominant empires.  The Egyptians were on the way out and Assyria hadn’t yet risen to power.  There were regional threats to be sure, but none that struck fear like the Assyrians later would.

In a real absence of any kind of an existential threat, the people of Israel fell into a kind of religious pragmatism wherein they mostly just did whatever worked.  Going to Jerusalem took both time and money they didn’t want to part with and so worship at the Temple mostly fell into decline.  Instead, like the nations around them, they sought Yahweh…and various other gods…at a number of “high places” throughout the land.  High places were common centers of worship in those times.  They were called high places because they were high places.  The gods were generally believed to dwell above the people and so if you could get up above the normal flat places and valleys of life, they were more likely to be able to hear you and respond to your offerings and sacrifices.  And the reasons the people fell to this kind of idolatry in spite of all the warnings not to were fairly complex, but a few things stood out.  Number one, it was easier.  Going to the top of a local hill to throw some grain into the wind in order to please a god was a lot easier than packing up and taking a multiple-day trip to Jerusalem.  Number two, it worked…mostly.  Absent any aberrant weather conditions, the climate generally cooperated with the agrarian lifestyle they had.  In their minds, the reason it worked is because the gods made it work.  And the reason the gods made it work is because they kept making their offerings and sacrifices on the high places.  For the average man, as long as your field and your wife were both fertile, you knew the gods were happy and life was good.  Absent the moral restrictions of the Law of Moses, though, people eventually behaved like…people.  Immorality and injustice proliferated at the common level and the whole thing left the God who claimed them as His own less than totally pleased.  The culture was increasingly godless.

It was into this climate that Asa became king.  And, given that his father only served on the throne for a mere three years, there’s a good chance that he became king at a pretty young age.  Somehow, though, Asa made the decision that he was going to follow God in spite of the culture around him—a choice that probably had something to do with what we’ll talk about in the third part of the series.  The question this begs us to answer is this: How did he do it?  How did he go about chasing after God in a culture that was largely godless?  Because, if there’s something he knew that we don’t, we could sure use that, couldn’t we?  Well, I’ll tell you this much right now.  If we are going to chase after God in a godless world, it’s going to require us to stand out from the pack.  If we are going to go where God is going, we’re going to have to look like God is looking.  In other words, the first thing we’re going to have to do, starting with our own lives, is that we’re going to have to replace godlessness with godliness.  Take a look at this with me starting in 2 Chronicles 14:1.

“Abijah slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the city of David.  And Asa his son reigned in his place.  In his days the land had rest for ten years.”  Now, as far as beginning your reign as king goes, that’s a pretty good way to start.  The former king, your dad, died, and people missed him enough to give him an honorable burial.  Then, you take over the job without any major foreign threats on the horizon.  So, Asa takes over the job and decides that, unlike his dad, he is going to follow in the footsteps of his great-great-grandfather, David.  And again, we don’t know why he did that.  Perhaps it was the stories told by his grandmother, Maacah, who was the daughter of Absalom, David’s son, who perhaps knew David and could tell some of his stories to her grandson.  Asa decided that it was David’s faithfulness to God that made him such a great king and so he was going to follow suit.

Whatever exactly it was that set Asa on this path, the results of it are spelled out in the next several verses which offer a kind of theological summary of his reign.  Listen to this, picking back up in v. 2: “And Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God.  He took away the foreign altars and the high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandment.  He also took out of all the cities of Judah the high places and the incense altars.  And the kingdom had rest under him.”

So, what are we seeing here?  Well, there’s a lot of repetition and a lot of references to cultural artifacts that don’t make a lot of sense to us today.  Generally speaking, most folks today draw a line of separation between their religious lives and the rest of their lives.  Now, this is a false line that comes out of a view of religion that is incredibly narrow, especially relative to how people thought in Asa’s time, but it’s all we know so we do it anyway.  For them, there wasn’t a religious life and a work life and a home life and a friends life and so on and so forth.  There was just life.  For them, religion wasn’t something you went somewhere to do.  It was everywhere.  And part of the way this worked itself out practically was through these various high places and pillars and incense altars and the like.  When you wanted your crops to grow, you stopped by the Asherah pole—a representation of a major fertility goddess—on your way home from the store, made a little offering, and went on your way.  When your crops came in and you wanted to make sure next year’s harvest was as good or better, you would thresh your grain at one of these high places, offering a little to the gods as you went.  If you needed help with some relational or emotional problem, you stopped by the local incense altar, burned some incense, asked the gods for help, and went on your way.  This kind of stuff was everywhere…and it was all gradually increasing the level of godlessness in the culture.  The reason for this was simple: All of these things served as substitutes for pursuing an actual relationship with God.  And, just in case you think I’m somehow being pejorative by using the word “godless,” I’m not.  I’m being descriptive.  When a relationship with God becomes less and less a feature of a culture, the people of that culture gradually look less and less like God and thus become God-less.

How do you put a stop to all of this?  You do just what Asa did: You get rid of it.  He started with his immediate sphere of influence and gradually broadened out from there.  Everywhere there was something that had the potential to draw the people back into an idolatry of some kind, Asa got rid of it.

That wasn’t all he did.  One of the realities of life then was warfare.  Warfare between nations for the purposes of expanding territory or demonstrating the prowess of one god over another or settling old scores or just about any other reason happened all the time.  The first line of the story of David and Bathsheba goes like this: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle…”  There was a season for warfare.  In many of these battles, though, the victors didn’t stay and hold onto the conquered territory.  Rather, they raided the national treasury, took all the good stuff with them, and went back home to enjoy the spoils.  Because all warfare was considered spiritual warfare—nations only went out to war when they had secured the blessing of their god from their priests—the victorious nation’s gods were considered more powerful than those of the losing nation.  As a result, the people on the losing side often began worshiping the god or gods of the winning side because why wouldn’t you worship the strongest, most powerful gods you could find?  They were more likely to have the power to help you overcome whatever troubles might befall you which in that day were pretty numerous.

What I’m getting at is this: Getting rid of the various artifacts of idolatry on the inside of the nation was good, but it wasn’t enough.  Asa had to build up some defenses against these external threats as well.  That’s just what he did.  Look at this starting in v. 6 now.  “He built fortified cities in Judah, for the land had rest.  He had no war in those years, for the Lord gave him peace.  And he said to Judah, ‘Let us build these cities and surround them with walls and towers, gates and bars.  The land is still ours, because we have sought the Lord our God.  We have sought him, and he has given us peace on every side.’  So they built and prospered.”  You see, it wasn’t enough to just clean house on the inside.  He had to set some guardrails on the outside to prevent anything bad from leeching back in once he was done.

And seeing both of these two pieces in place, we can start to get our hearts and minds around what exactly it was that he did that allowed him to be so successful in his pursuit of God.  He made godliness his goal and took some intentional steps in that direction.  If we’re going to do the same, we’re going to need to follow the same pattern he did.  You see, godliness is something that has to happen on both the inside and the outside.  It starts inside to be sure, but we can’t maintain the inside without the outside in place.  Sometimes we fall to focusing on one or the other to the exception of the first.  This is a grave mistake.  Without these external guardrails, we do not have the strength of character to maintain what we are doing on the inside.  But, without the internal godliness, we quickly fall to hypocritical pharisaism, insisting that others hold to a standard to which we ourselves do not keep.  Asa recognized all of this and we need to as well.  If we are going to chase after God in an increasingly godless world, pursuing both of these aspects of godliness is an absolute must.  Pursing godliness happens both inside and out.  Pursing godliness happens both inside and out.

Okay, so what does it look like for us to pursue godliness on the inside?  Well, let’s use Asa’s approach as our guide.  What was it that he did?  He removed the high places.  He got rid of internal temptations to sin.  So then, let’s ask the potentially uncomfortable question: What are some of your high places?  Where are the places in your life that you are tempted to sin?  And when I use the word “places” there, I’m speaking pretty broadly.  It may be that you have a physical place where you are routinely tempted to sin.  How about your car?  I haven’t yet found a verse that says, “Thou shalt not have a lead foot,” but it would probably be really awkward for some of us if there were.  That one was a bit of cherry-picking.  It may be that your “place” may not be a physical place at all.  What are some of the situations of your life where you are tempted to trust in something other than God for your hope and help?  Is it your phone?  Is it where you work?  Is it a particular person?  Is it a certain situation?  Where is it?

Once you’ve identified this, the next question is: How can you remove this thing from your life?  What are you willing to do in order to get rid of the places where you are most tempted to sin?  Asa destroyed the high places of Judah.  He tore down the Asherim.  He got rid of the incense altars.  Now, you may not be able to destroy your phone, but you can put in place intentional measures to prevent it from being a source of sin for you.  You may not be able to just quit your job—in fact I’m not recommending that at all—but you can have a respectful conversation with your boss about a circumstance that’s causing you problems.  You may not be able to get rid of a particular person, but you can work to limit contact with them.  Or better yet, you can work to repair and restore the broken relationship so that it is no longer a source of sin.  You may not want to get rid of your TV, but you can be more intentional about choosing wisely the kinds of shows you watch.

Getting rid of things wasn’t the only thing Asa did internally, though.  He also “commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandment.”  As you are getting rid of temptations to sin, you can put in place practices that point you to Jesus.  The first, best, and most important is reading the Scriptures.  Daily.  There is nothing so powerful as the Scriptures to keep followers of Jesus on the path and not drifting off into space.  There are also other important spiritual disciplines we can build into our lives: Praying, sacrificial generosity, worship, evangelism, silence, and the like.  Each of these will drive you internally forward in your pursuit of godliness.  But, more than just that, they will also serve as guardrails for the times when you begin drifting away from the path of life.

Speaking of guardrails, like for Asa and the people of Israel, pursuing godliness cannot be an internal quest alone.  Pursuing godliness happens both inside and out.  If we are going to chase after God in a world that is godless we’re going to need more guardrails in our lives than just spiritual disciplines.  Asa led the people to build up Israel’s defenses against external assaults that posed a threat to their pursuit of godliness.  What are some ways we can build up our defenses?  Well, what are the likely sources of external attacks on your efforts to pursue godliness?  Given our media-saturated culture, the various media in our lives is probably number one.  Regulating what media is allowed to access our hearts and minds and the filter we use to engage with it should be pretty high up on that list.

Let me leave you with one that’s even broader in scope and particularly important.  We can spend some time learning exactly what it is we believe.  As a church, we’re going to do a bit of this at the Gathering Place in a couple of weeks.  I hope you’ll plan to join us for that.  More than just what we believe, though, we can invest time in learning why we believe.  If you can’t explain to another person why exactly it is you are a follower of Jesus and not somebody else, it’s time to learn.  The reason for this is that as the culture around us continues moving in the direction of godlessness, we are going to increasingly come into conflict with it if we stay on the path of Christ.  When we do, we’re going to have to give an account of why we’re on His path and not theirs.  If we can’t, they’ll either write us—and our path—off as not worth their time, use our perceived weakness as a justification to attempt to persecute us into joining their path, or work to persuade us with clever-sounding arguments into doing the same.  If we are not rock-solid convinced on the whats and whys of our belief in Jesus, we won’t be able to withstand all these pressures.  We can have all the internal godliness in the world, but if our walls aren’t strong, we’re going to be susceptible to these attacks.  This is why pursuing godliness happens both inside and out.

Pursuing godliness in a culture that is increasingly godless isn’t easy.  It takes a fierce commitment to looking like Jesus.  This commitment is going to have to characterize our entire lives.  And it’s going to have to happen on both the inside and the outside.  Pursuing godliness happens both inside and out.  But, this is only the first step.  It’s really important to do, but it’s not the only thing we need to do.  It’s not the only thing we need to do because the whole thing doesn’t rely solely on us.  If you’ll come back next week, we’ll talk about the next step.

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