This past Sunday we ventured into part three of our teaching series, Pursue: Chasing God in a Godless World. One of the truths we need to embrace if we’re going to do that is that sometimes it’s hard to do. So, what do we call it when someone does the right thing even though it’s hard? Keep reading to find out.
Our culture loves heroes. Superhero movies have always been popular, but the last few years have seen their profiles rise to epic proportions. For many moviegoers, the wait for the next Marvel film is agonizing. I recently read a quote from Kevin Smith, a director popular among the nerd culture, who said that given the choice, he would rather see the next Avengers movie than direct another movie ever again. This past Wednesday evening I couldn’t even begin to count how many little superheroes I saw running around here. Since the year 2,000, sixteen of the 40 highest grossing films have been about super-powered individuals in one way or another. If you add films about heroes more generally (like Star Wars or Harry Potter) that number goes up 28 and you could probably make a good case for adding a few more to that list.
More and more, though, as the status of hero-fare has risen and the genre has attracted folks who are as committed to the artistry of such films as they are the spectacle of them, we are starting to wrestle with the concept of what makes a hero in the first place. We’re seeing this recently in the spate of movies with anti-heroes in the leading spot. These are movies with folks who would normally be considered a villain, but who, in the top billing slot have to be imagined or reimagined as heroes. Consider Sony’s recent box office success, Venom. Now, I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I do know about the character. Venom has long been the arch-rival of Spider-Man…who wasn’t in the movie at all. In other words, they did a whole movie about a traditional comic book villain without including his heroic counterpoint. Along the way, they made a hero out of him. He certainly doesn’t fit the profile created by the likes of Captain America or Superman, but the way he was presented was as a hero. These new anti-heroes often still do many of the bad things they did when they were villains, but now they just do them to bad people so it’s okay. But is it?
So again, what makes a hero? I mean, if Venom can be a hero then who can’t be? If you step back a bit and survey the heroes of almost any story, the thing that ties them all together is not just their willingness to do the right thing. Again, these anti-heroes often still don’t. No, what ties them all together is their willingness to do the right thing even when it’s hard. That’s really what makes a hero. Simply doing something hard does not make someone a hero. Doing the right thing when it’s easy doesn’t make someone a hero either. It is uniquely the combination of those two things that garners the distinction.
Well, as it turns out, we have a word in the English language to describe this behavior of doing the right thing even when it’s hard. That word is courage. Doing something that’s right in spite of the challenges to the contrary is the very essence of what it means to have courage. And as you might suspect, chasing after God in a godless world is something that is going to involve doing the right thing in spite of fierce resistance and even persecution more often than we’d probably care to admit.
This morning marks the third installment in our series, Pursue: Chasing God in a Godless World. The big idea for this series of conversations is that our culture is changing. We are moving steadily and even intentionally away from the Christian worldview foundations of our past and in the direction of something else. This has in no ways been a smooth or pain-free process. The culture wars are a real thing. And we’re not totally gone either. The worldview assumptions of a nation’s past haunt its present and even into its future for a long time before they are shaken. We are still one of the most religiously observant nations in the world and the religion we observe far and away above any other is Christianity. But, for a complex mix of reasons, the general trajectory has always been in a direction away from our founding assumptions. And in the last several years in particular, the movement has seemed to accelerate and the animosity from one side to the other has intensified. We’re no longer content to simply live and let live; we want to win, sometimes regardless of the cost to the culture as a whole. That’s unfortunately a fault shared by both sides. What all of this means for us is that pursuing the path of Christ is not as well received as it once was. We can expect resistance and pushback in ways that for many of us are unfamiliar.
If we’re going to count the cost like Jesus told us to and move forward in this direction in spite of its challenges, we’re going to need to start, as we said a few weeks ago, by establishing a foundation of godliness in our lives. If we don’t start out chasing after God and working to look like Him in every way we can with the Spirit’s help, our pursuit will lead us off in directions we don’t want to go. What’s more, this pursuit can’t be merely something we do on the inside or just the outside. It takes having both measures fully in place. Pursuing godliness happens both inside and out.
Still, though, sometimes all our preparations turn out to be for naught. Sometimes God allows us to find ourselves in situations that are so totally beyond our ability to make even a dent in them that if we were watching from the outside we’d laugh at the contrast. Now, what exactly counts as overwhelming is going to vary from person to person, but the response can be the same no matter who we are or what we’re facing: Call on God. When life gets overwhelming, call on God.
And yet…once we call on God our journey isn’t over. Asa cried out to God when facing down the unimaginably huge army of Zerah the Ethiopian, but he didn’t then turn around and walk home. He still had to actually fight the battle. You see, once we’ve called on God for our help and He points us in the right direction in some way, we still have to walk forward in that direction. When He shows us the right thing to do in order to stand firm in the righteousness of Christ, we still have to do whatever that thing is. Can we be honest together this morning? That’s hard! If we are going to chase after God in a world that is increasingly godless, it’s going to take a dogged willingness to do this right thing no matter the situation we are facing and in spite of its difficulty. In other words, it’s going to take courage. Chasing God demands courage.
You know, the thing about the courage chasing after God demands is that it’s often pretty clear what the point of courage is going to be. Someone might try and quibble with this call to courage on the grounds that we don’t always know what the right thing to do in a given situation is. And while that may be occasionally true, I would counter that in more cases than not we do. We do because God’s not shy about telling us. We have His word to give us guidance—there’s nothing so important as regular Bible-reading for folks who are committed to following the path of Christ—but sometimes God is even more explicit with us than that (which is saying something because the Scriptures are generally pretty explicit on what’s right and what’s not). Asa certainly found that to be the case. Early on in his reign, God sent a prophet to him with a message about the best way forward he could take if he wanted to find success in his reign as king. You can find this in 2 Chronicles 15. Take a look at this with me.
“The Spirit of God came upon Azariah the son of Oded, and he went out to meet Asa and said to him, ‘Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: The Lord is with you while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you. For a long time Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest and without law, but when in their distress they turned to the Lord, the God of Israel, and sought him, he was found by them. In those times there was no peace to him who went out or to him who came in, for great disturbances afflicted all the inhabitants of the lands. They were broken in pieces. Nation was crushed by nation and city by city, for God troubled them with every sort of distress. But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.”
So, what is this? Well, at first take it’s a word of prophecy spoken by some obscure prophet who isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the Scriptures. If we look a bit closer, I think there are a few more things we can say. For starters, we don’t know when this prophecy was given to Asa. Because Hebrew narratives don’t necessarily run linearly as ours do, it may be that Azariah’s prophecy came on the heels of the huge victory God gave Asa over the Ethiopians, but it could also be that this came much earlier on in his reign.
Remember: Asa became king after his father, Abijah, had reigned for only three years. Abijah took over at the end of his father Rehoboam’s 17-year reign. Now, we can’t really be sure about when these kings had their children, but if Rehoboam fathered Abijah after he became king, there’s a chance that Asa took over as king when he was a very young boy. Even if Rehoboam had Abijah several years before becoming king, Asa was probably pretty young—a teenager at most—when he became king. Well, what’s something that every young boy needs, but particularly when he’s been given some kind of a weight of authority? A mentor.
Imagine being given the weight of ruling over a nation at 12. Now, he was no doubt schooled to be ready for that in ways most 12-year-old boys aren’t, but even still, the weight of that burden had to bear heavily. When you’re that young, I don’t care how much schooling you’ve had, you’re not very wise. You haven’t had enough time to gain the kind of life experience that allows wisdom to develop. So for this young—again, let’s go with 12 for the sake of argument—boy to be charged with the task of leading a nation to have someone older and wiser who had gained his respect somehow come alongside him and speak a message of wisdom and challenge and inspiration had to mean the world to him. That kind of a message offered at a particularly opportune moment had the power and potential to change the whole direction of his life. Given the path taken by his father and grandfather, I think we can say that for Asa that’s exactly what it did. Chasing God demands courage, and sometimes that the path to embracing that courage is laid out in our lives by the wise voice of a trusted, older mentor.
Listen folks—but especially those of you with a bit more…season…to your lives than some of the rest of us—if you want to leave behind a legacy of courageous faithfulness (and, come on, who doesn’t want to do that?), one of the very best ways you can do it is to intentionally pour some of your cup of wisdom and life experience into the cup of someone who is behind you in their journey. Your inspiration and encouragement can result in an embrace of courage the power of whose impact is likely to be beyond what you could imagine. Chasing God demands courage, and you can have a direct hand in leading someone to be courageous.
The fact is, folks: This older to younger mentoring is something the church very badly needs. It may be that where you are in life, in order for you to be chasing after God as the world around you becomes more and more godless, this very act of mentoring, of pouring into someone else, someone younger than you are now, of discipling them, is exactly what you need to be doing. And here’s the thing: I know it’s scary. It’s scary to even think about, much less do. All that self-doubt and regret from sins of the past come flooding back to the front and you disqualify yourself before you even take a step in the right direction. You think: I don’t have anything to offer. You think: I’ve got too much baggage in my past, too many skeletons in my closet. You think: I’m just not the man for the job. You start to sound a bit like Moses in front of the burning bush. You know where that’s from? Satan. As far as he’s concerned, guilting someone into staying on the sidelines who might be able to inspire and encourage younger folks to take big, courageous steps of faith, is just as good as entrapping those younger folks in a web of some kind of sin. Frankly, it’s better, because webs of sin can be overcome with the help of a committed mentor.
What I’m getting at is this: Stepping up to be a voice of God in the life of someone younger than you is hard. But listen: That’s all Azariah did here. In fact, he may not have even recognized that it was the Spirit of God speaking through him. He may have just been older man, possibly a member of the royal household, who had lived a long life of intentional, even if occasionally sin-interrupted, faithfulness, who spoke an encouraging word into the life of this young king. Let’s be clear: This is the right thing to do even though it’s hard. That means it takes courage. Depending on your season of life, your act of courageous faithfulness in pursuit of God might be little more—but certainly not less—than encouraging the courageous faithfulness of the next generation. Chasing God demands courage, even if that courage is focused on inspiring courage in others. Are you with me? The actual message Azariah had for Asa matters, but we can talk about that another time. I think this is the particular word some of the folks in this room needed to hear this morning. Your act of courageous faithfulness is encouraging the courage of the next generation.
And when you do this—when Azariah did it—big things can happen. Look down to v. 8 with me now: “As soon as Asa heard these words, the prophecy of Azariah the son of Oded, he took courage…” The effect of Azariah’s words was immediate. Asa didn’t wait to mull them over. He knew what he had to do and Azariah’s word of encouragement and prophecy gave him the boost he needed to buckle down and get it done. And what did he do? He “put away the detestable idols from all the land of Judah and Benjamin and from the cities that he had taken in the hill country of Ephraim, and he repaired the altar of the Lord that was in front of the vestibule of the house of the Lord.” In other words, he did all the things we talked about the in first part of the series. What we see here is a kind of closer look at the theological summary statement we got at the beginning of Asa’s story. This part of the story answers the question we asked as to why Asa took this path when his father and grandfather hadn’t. Namely, it was the wise, godly mentoring of Azariah.
But let’s not skip exactly what Asa did here. It is tempting to take up the mindset that all of this should have been fairly straightforward given that Asa was king, but not so fast. Let’s not fool ourselves: Doing what Asa did in the nation of Judah wasn’t easy. He instituted sweeping religious reforms, yes, but more importantly than that, Asa set out on a path of changing the culture of Judah. Let me tell you: Trying to change a culture once it has set in and sprouted some roots is one of the most difficult things any leader will ever face. When we get used to something being a certain way, we don’t much like the idea of it changing. And when that something is connected with religion or is otherwise connected with something we believe to be necessary to keep our lives working the way we like this is doubly true. For Asa to begin a program of sweeping religious reforms, particularly when he was at an age when most folks would receive his efforts as the idealism of a kid that would pass once he grew a bit older, would not have been easy or popular. In fact, it would have been extraordinarily unpopular. But it was right. And so Asa took courage and moved forward. Chasing God demands courage.
Asa’s courage ran deeper than simply being a culture warrior, though. Jump down to v. 16 with me. “Even Maacah, his mother, King Asa removed from being queen mother because she had made a detestable image for Asherah. Asa cut down her image, crushed it, and burned it at the brook Kidron.” Lisa and I have finally started watching the show “This Is Us” on NBC. Nothing like coming late to the party. If you’re current, don’t spoil it for us. Recently, though, we watched the episode about how the family established their Thanksgiving tradition. The gist is that the family started off on their cherished path when Mandy Moore’s character took a stand against her controlling and manipulative mother. Standing up to do the right thing when the person on the opposing battle line is a faceless, nameless stranger is tough, but the anonymity keeps it from being but so hard. Standing up to do the right thing when the person on the opposing battle line is a family member enters a whole other universe of hard.
Maacah was Asa’s grandma. I know the text says “mother,” but as I said a minute ago, sometimes a person’s better-known-but-further-up-the-genetic-tree descendant would be referred to as their mother or father to give readers someone more familiar to wrap their minds around. It’s kind of like when we refer to someone as the child of this or that person or the grandchild of this or that person for the sake of familiarity and making appropriate family connections. They just used the language of mother or father for the sake of ease. That means the text isn’t wrong here, the author was just using a common and audience-understood literary device. In any event, in a royal household, the position of Queen Mother is often one vested with quite a bit of power and influence. Imagine if Prince Charles died and Queen Elizabeth wanted to retire, making Prince William the king. No matter what he did, as long as she was alive her shadow would loom largely over his reign. Maacah had outlived her husband and her son. She was born when David was still king. She had years of experience navigating and even managing the affairs of the kingdom. She probably had a certain amount of ambition as well. When her young grandson took over as king she likely saw a golden opportunity to informally step into the role of national leader she had been watching from second-fiddle for two generations.
She had power. She had influence. And she was using all of that to lead the nation down the same path of idolatry her father, husband, and son had all walked. Asa’s program of religious reform wasn’t going to be able to succeed if there was a problem with idolatry at the top. So he took away her idol. Actually, he didn’t just take it away. The text says that he cut it down, crushed it, and burned it. This wasn’t just a spiritual housecleaning. Asa was making a graphic point: This kind of stuff isn’t going to be tolerated anymore no matter where it is or who is participating in it. Come on: Can you even imagine saying to your grandma, “Grandma, I know you’ve been doing this thing your whole life, and that it’s really important to you, but it’s sinful and so I’m going to take it and completely destroy it”? That’s courage, right? Chasing God demands courage. It is absolutely insistent that we be willing to do the right thing no matter how hard it may seem. Chasing God demands courage.
So then, let’s ask the hard question here: What are some of the things in your life that God has called you to do, that are right to do, but which are hard to do? Parents, what are some hard but right things you need to do with respect to your children? Is it telling them, “No,” on some matter? Is it letting them flail or even fail without your safety net? Is it encouraging them with a gentle push or even a boot to the butt to leave the nest and spread their wings a bit? How about in your family more generally? For some of you, there are some patterns that need to change in order to put in place new routines that are more honoring of God. Culture changes, though, even just within a single family, are hard. They take courage and vigilance. Is there a norm in your own life that needs to change? Sometimes we fall into ruts and can’t break out of them on our own. It may be that your rut isn’t just an unwise one, but a sinful one. Let me tell you: The only way to break out of a sinful routine in your life—especially one that you’ve managed to keep a secret—is to shed some light on it. Find a trusted friend or accountability partner and confess your sin to them. There aren’t many things you’ll ever do that are scarier than that; but if you’ll take up the courage, you’ll find life waiting for you. Chasing God demands courage.
Should we go on? It may be that you need to have a hard conversation with a friend. You need to share the Gospel with an unbelieving family member one more time. You need to make a financial commitment that’s going to stretch you into the realm of uncomfortable. You need to make a God-honoring, but potentially-reputation-damaging business decision. The list here probably runs as long as the number of people in this room and beyond. Chasing after God in a world that isn’t means you’re going to come into conflict with it…regularly. Every time you do, you’re going to face something hard. This is why Jesus told us to count the cost. I’m a preacher. I’m in the Gospel-proclamation business. The last thing I want to do is to discourage someone from following Jesus. But neither do I want to call anyone to Him under false pretenses. That would be worse. Chasing God demands courage.
But when you decide you’re going to do it; when you decide you’re going to step out in faith and pursue the right thing before you regardless of how hard it seems where you’re standing now, you’ll have all the hope and help you need. What was it that God told Asa? If you seek me, you’ll find me. If you walk His way, He’s going to be walking with you. He’ll fill you with all the strength you need for the task immediately ahead of you. And then the one after that. And then the one after that. Until, as you continue down this path, you’ll discover that courage is becoming your norm, and Jesus is becoming your mirror. And in the end, all the hard stuff you’ve faced along the way will be redeemed and rewarded. Every tear will be wiped away. Crying, mourning, and pain will be gone entirely. And you’ll rest comfortably in the arms of your Savior. That’ll be a good day. It will be the reward for the courageous. Chasing God demands courage.