In this fourth part of our series, Pursue: Chasing God in a Godless World, we move in a direction that is perhaps unexpected given the assumptions of our culture. When Asa and the people were busily moving in the direction of God against the grain of the culture around them they did something most people wouldn’t have done then or now. As for what this is and what it means for us, keep reading to find out.
Worship and Surrender
Have you ever used a Chinese finger trap? Unless you’ve spent the last 30 minutes stuck in it and are waiting to get loose, grab the one you were handed this morning as you came in. Go ahead and stick your fingers in it. Now, try and pull them out. The natural reaction when you stick your fingers in and can’t immediately slide them back out is to pull harder. But, as perhaps you have already discovered, pulling harder won’t get your fingers out of the trap. There are times in life like that, aren’t there? Times when more pressure isn’t going to get the job done. There are situations in which we have to learn to stop fighting if we’re going to manage to get anywhere good.
This morning finds us in the fourth part of our teaching series, Pursue: Chasing God in a Godless World. My hope is that this series so far has been both encouraging, but also challenging. The big idea for this journey has been that the culture around us is changing. More and more our culture is reaching a point where it is best described as post-Christian. Let me explain what that means for just a minute.
There are many cultures around the world that are non-Christian. This means not only do they not, but they never have operated on the basis of the assumptions of the Christian worldview. They’ve never as a culture given any meaningful credence to the Bible as a source of authority. The Law of Moses has never had any recognized impact on their laws or sense of justice as a people. They are non-Christian. That’s not us. So, what are we? Well, for a few years now (and dating back several more from there), there has been an open debate about whether or not we are or have ever been a Christian nation. Without a doubt this has been a politically-charged debate. I understand the arguments fairly well on both sides of that debate. Our nation has never been Christian in any kind of an official way and the Constitution expressly forbids giving a privileged status to any particular religion. At the same time, absent the guiding philosophical and theological assumptions of the Christian worldview our nation doesn’t make any sense and wouldn’t exist in the first place. So, the answer to whether or not we have ever been a Christian nation is…yes and no. But, what’s more important for us to recognize here and now is this: Those worldview assumptions aren’t in place any longer. They were once, but they’re not now. Well, if you used to be something, but you aren’t anymore, we could say that you are “post-” whatever it is. It’s not that you never were it or never believed in it in the first place. Rather, you don’t believe it anymore. You could choose it, but you choose something else instead. Well, our nation is post-Christian, and in some places aggressively so.
Stay with me here a bit longer. Have you ever been “post-” anything? How did you respond to the thing you used to be for once you moved past it? Lisa and I have recently started watching the ABC comedy, “Fresh Off the Boat.” It takes place in the mid-90s and the main character, Eddie, is a big fan of the hip hop music of that era. He likes it because his older cousin, Justin, whom he idolizes, introduced him to it. After moving out of state, the cousin comes with his family for a visit. Much to Eddie’s chagrin, his cousin has moved past hip hop—he’s post-hip hop—and embraced the grunge sound of groups like Nirvana. More than being indifferent to hip hop, though, Justin looks down on it as childish. That’s what we usually do, isn’t it? When we’ve become post-something, we don’t usually become simply indifferent toward the something. We usually become hostile toward it.
Are you with me? Our culture is post-Christian. In other words, when it thinks about the worldview it has left behind, its thoughts aren’t generally passive. Instead, it trends toward animosity to both the worldview and the people holding to it. That’s many of the folks in this room. All of this is to say: Following Jesus today isn’t as easy as it used to be. Chasing God in a godless world—a post-Christian world—doesn’t work the way it used to work. We’ve got to be prepared to make some changes in both our methods and approach. That’s what this series has been all about.
So far, we’ve seen that it takes starting from a foundation of godliness. If we’re going to pursue Jesus in a world that doesn’t look like Him, if we don’t look like Him, we’re going to be wasting our time. But, if this godliness isn’t something that encompasses our whole lives, inside and out, we’ll just be setting ourselves up to fail. Pursuing godliness happens both inside and out. We’ve also seen that sometimes, in spite of our best preparations, the challenges before us can still be beyond our ability to overcome. If we keep trying to go it alone, we will fail. The best way forward is to call on the God who’s ready to help. When life gets overwhelming, call on God. Finally, last week we were reminded that chasing God demands courage. It demands a commitment to doing the right thing regardless of the cost. And, as our culture continues looking less and less like Him, the costs of following will get higher and higher; not necessarily legally, but politically and socially and relationally.
In short: There’s a lot to do when it comes to chasing God in a godless world. But, have you ever gotten so busy doing something that you forgot what it was you were doing? This sometimes happens when we set out to do something for someone else. Things start out right and noble and true. But over time, we can begin to find our identity in the serving, right? Have you been there? When this happens, we begin to put more and more of ourselves into the task. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but what can happen is that while we may not lose sight of the goal of our efforts, we begin to migrate the why and sometimes even the who. No longer are we selflessly serving another person, instead we are promoting and advancing our own identity through the service. We may not think in those terms, but the reality holds all the same.
So far in this series, we’ve talked about chasing God in very active terms. We need to pursue godliness, to be courageous, to call on God. If we’re not careful, we can get so caught up in the pursuit of advancing the Gospel and Christianizing—or re-Christianizing—our culture, that we lose the why and even the who of what we’re doing. I’ve said more than once on this journey that if we aren’t absolutely sure about our heading, we can wind up chasing after someone else instead of God all the while thinking we’re on the right track. What we’re going to talk about this morning will help make sure we maintain the proper focus and heading as we move forward.
You can find this back in 2 Chronicles 15. We’ll start at v. 9 this morning and as you get there, let me make sure we’re all on about the same page as far as the context of what we’re going to see. Remember: The story of Asa as reported by the Chronicler doesn’t necessarily flow linearly as the text does. It started with that theological summary that gave a big picture view at the beginning of chapter 14 and has been hitting highlights ever since. Early on in Asa’s life, God sent someone named Azariah to speak a word of encouragement and challenge to him. This prophecy ultimately set the whole course of his reign as king. He began pursuing God with all of his heart both internally and externally. He did a spiritual house cleaning of the nation—including, as we saw last time—cleaning up his own grandma’s idol problem. But, he also built up the nation’s border defenses.
Eventually these defenses were put to the test. Well, actually, his faith in God was put to the test. Zerah the Ethiopian came against him with an unimaginably huge army. Unfazed, Asa continued in the courage that Azariah inspired and called out to God for help. God did help, and the Ethiopians were totally defeated before the armies of Judah and Benjamin.
And at this point, it would have been tempting to get right back to work on the spiritual culture war Asa was fighting in the nation, but instead, he did something different. He leveraged all of this positive momentum in the wake of his nation’s enormous victory…and paused. And we’re left thinking, “Asa, what are you doing? You’re poised in the perfect spot to roll forward with the changes you’re wanting to make. After such a dramatic win there’s not going to be anything standing in your way. Don’t pause; go for it!”
But pause he does. Yet it’s not an empty pause. He doesn’t sit idle. If you’re with me in 2 Chronicles 15:9, let’s take a look at this moment of pause and then we’ll spend a few minutes talking about what it means for Asa…and for us too. The Chronicler writes that Asa “gathered all Judah and Benjamin, and those from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon who were residing with them, for great numbers had deserted to him from Israel when they saw that the Lord his God was with him. They were gathered at Jerusalem in the third month of the fifteenth year of the reign of Asa. They sacrificed to the Lord on that day from the spoil that they had brought 700 oxen and 7,000 sheep. And they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and with all their soul, but that whoever would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, should be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman. [I should pause here briefly to note that while Israel was doing something good by all of this worship, this particular aspect does not give us an example to follow. We’ve got to make sure we take in the Old Testament through the lens of Christ. We don’t interact with God the same way the people did here because in Christ we live under a different set of rules and expectations.] They swore an oath to the Lord with a loud voice and with shouting and with trumpets and with horns. And all Judah rejoiced over the oath, for they had sworn with all their heart and sought him with their whole desire, and he was found by them, and the Lord gave them rest all around.”
Now, I won’t lie to you: There’s a lot going on there. At the most basic level, though, this is a picture of Asa leading the people of Judah to pause together and worship the Lord. Asa and the people had been working really hard. As we said last week, the kinds of changes Asa was making in the nation were not easy ones. They’d been at this a long time and had just hit a kind of benchmark in their victory over the Ethiopians. Sometimes God allows us to face battles like that because we’ve made some foolish choices and the battle is the natural result of our folly. But, sometimes He lets us face them because He’s giving us a chance to prove just how much we’ve grown in Him. And just so we’re clear: We’re proving it to ourselves, not to Him. He already knows.
But that moment when we see that we really are riding pretty high on life is so often the very moment when that subtle change we talked about can happen. We stop seeking God and start seeking ourselves. We stop glorifying His name and start advancing our own. One of Asa’s descendants, Uzziah, was a really righteous king, but made this subtle shift at some point in his life and he got far enough down the wrong path that he thought he was bigger and better than he really was. He paid for this dearly.
Rather than going down this path, Asa pauses with his people to do two incredibly important things. They worship, and they surrender. They worship the Lord in this enormous celebration of praise and thanksgiving, and they surrender themselves to Him and commit to maintaining that posture of surrender as they move forward from here.
Now, there are some really good principles we can draw out of this text. For instance, when the people came before the Lord, their posture was one of openness and inclusion. Verse 9 there talked about people from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon joining the worship assembly. These were folks from the northern kingdom who had rebelled against Asa’s grandpa, Rehoboam and broke away to form their own nation. If you are a Carolina fan and you like Roy Williams, on behalf of KU nation, you’re welcome. We loved him for a lot of years. But, when he left Kansas to come home in 2003—one year after telling us he had no plans for doing so—he immediately went from one of the most beloved sports figures in Kansas City to the most hated. When you feel like someone has betrayed you in some kind of way, you’re generally not much in a mood to worship with them. It’s a real credit to the people of Judah, that they let their fair-weather fan brothers from the north join in this gathering. It reflected the character of God in a very real way.
Another big idea is the fact that the righteous example of one person rarely stays confined to that one person. Asa was the one who first recommitted himself to the Lord. It was in large part his example that inspired this incredible gathering. Along these same lines, people are attracted to the clear movement of God in His world. When people can see God working through us, they are going to move in His direction.
But, I think there’s something even bigger here going on that I don’t want us to miss. When we’re working hard to chase after God in a set of cultural conditions which do not easily lend themselves to such a commitment, eventually, the effort can leave us exhausted. It’s often in that exhaustion that we fall to some path that diverges from the one we’re on just because it’s easier. When you get tired enough, a shortcut—even one that may force you to make some compromises that will have long-term consequences—begins to be more and more tempting. Do you know what the cure for exhaustion is? It’s rest. And what does the text say right there at the end? When Asa and the people paused for worship and surrender, God gave them rest.
Now, this is an Old Covenant story. It’s a Hebrew Bible story. God doesn’t operate toward us now the way He did toward the people the. Their relationship with Him was very different than ours is. Followers of Jesus have taken up a lot of strange positions over the years, positions that have actually been harmful to our efforts to advance the Gospel because we’ve not grasped the fact that our relationship with God is different than the people of Israel had with Him. The kind of rest God gave the people of Judah here was a physical rest. They weren’t attacked by any enemies for something like twenty years. In a day when warfare was something everybody had experienced personally because that was just how the world worked, a twenty-year reprieve was huge.
But for a couple of notable exceptions, we haven’t experienced warfare in this nation in more than 150 years. That isn’t because we’ve been given rest by God, though. It’s because we have peaceful neighbors to the north and south and an ocean on either side of us. The rest God provided for the people of Judah in response to their worship and surrender here is not the same rest we are promised today. The very idea that if our whole nation would just seek the Lord together He would solve all of our problems, stems from a misappropriation of the text here and in other places like 2 Chronicles 7:14. We are seeing God interact with a people different from us on the basis of an agreement and mode of operation that is no longer in force.
Yet the promise of rest still stands. And for us, it’s even better. We are offered rest in Christ. The kind of rest we are offered is not merely a physical rest like Judah experienced, but something more than that. We are promised a rest that is spiritual. Now, how is a spiritual rest better than a physical rest when you’re tired? Well, there are different kinds of tired. If you are physically exhausted all the time, you probably just need to sleep more. No need for God to do anything special there, you just need to balance your schedule better. But, when we are exhausted from our chasing after God against the grain of our culture, the rest of Christ looks a whole lot more attractive.
The rest of Christ may look like simply the absence of conflict, but the fact is that most often that’s not the kind of rest his followers receive. Instead, we receive peace in the midst of our conflict. We are given hope in the midst of our doubt. We are offered joy in the face of trials. We are wrapped in love when we are immersed in hatred. And, yes, sometimes these things play themselves out through our physical circumstances, but more often they come in spite of them. Even more importantly than all of that—and this is the thing that can keep us driving forward when we wrap our hearts and minds around it—the rest we are promised is one that we taste now only in part. It will be delivered in full when Christ returns to claim His kingdom. And while that may sound like a pie-in-the-sky sort of promise, if you’re thinking in those terms I would be willing to wager that you haven’t ever really experienced the rest of Christ in a personal way. If you have, though, know well that you only got a taste of what’s still to come.
But here’s the thing about this rest, and don’t miss this because it’s really important. It’s not something we can get our hands on by trying really hard. When we are stuck in one of life’s battles, trying to yank or force our way out won’t get us the rest we need. It’s like that Chinese finger trap I gave you. Pulling harder won’t get you free. The rest we need to restore our souls and keep us focused on the why and the who of our journey only comes through worship and surrender. It only comes when we worship—that is, when we recognize, celebrate, and participate in the character of God—and when we surrender—that is, when we turn our posture from one of take to one of receive—that we will find the rest our souls need. We will find rest only when we stop trying to fight our way forward and start simply following Jesus wherever He leads us. Rest comes when we stop fighting and start following.
So, how do we do it? Well, if we’re going to surrender to God in worship, the first thing that’s going to have to go is our ego. Whatever it is we’re doing, it absolutely cannot be about us. That’s where so many of us fall off the path of selflessly serving someone else isn’t? We see the opportunity to advance our own interests and ease ourselves over into the slot of object rather than the person or group we set out to serve. Okay, but how do we know if we’re aiming at ourselves rather than God? Easy: How personally are you going to take failure if you should face that? If it’s going to be mildly disappointing, but God must have something else in mind, you’re probably aiming at Him. If it’s going to be paralyzingly devastating, your ego has risen up to get in the way. Get rid of that. If we want to find the rest that will restore and refocus our souls, we stop fighting to advance our own interests and start following after those of Jesus.
Okay…but how do we do that? We constantly seek out ways to set before ourselves who God is and who we are. We can do this by regularly engaging with the Scriptures. We can do this by joining with our brothers and sisters in Christ in corporate worship. We can do this by intentionally serving people who cannot return the favor. We remember that love—that is, an intentional decision to see someone else become more fully who God designed them to be—is always to be our chief driving force and not anything else. After all, what was the one way Jesus told us that people would for sure be able to tell that we were His followers? By our love for one another. If anything else is our driving force in how we are approaching the people and situations in our lives then we are going to be pulled off track. We’ll be fighting against the flow of God’s grace and there’s no rest to be found there. Rest comes when we stop fighting and start following.
Let’s go just a bit further here. We can stop fighting and start following when we give up our right to fight back when attacked somehow and instead focus on fighting for what’s right for the people around. We leverage all of our benefits, resources, and advantages, whatever they may be, for the sake of someone who does not share them. We remember that ideas are the enemy, not people. That right there is counter-cultural enough these days isn’t it? When politics becomes our god, people whose politics differ from ours become the enemy. “Hate them, they’re the enemy,” has been the theme of the past several months of this mercifully completed election season, hasn’t it? Yet, do you remember who joined the people of Judah when they embraced this worship and surrender? Their brothers and sisters who had rejected them to form a new nation. These were their enemies. But people are never our enemies, only the ideas they hold. And because ideas are our enemies, even when the culture doesn’t look like God, taking the path of God is always going to be the best way through the mess. It will be the way that leads to rest. Rest comes when we stop fighting and start following.
If we are going to chase God in a godless world, this taking-stock process needs to be something that happens on a regular basis. We need to pay attention to where we are advancing our interests, sometimes at the expense of God. Asa and Judah paused to do it and the results were profound. They stopped tying to fight their way forward and simply received what their heavenly Father had given them, and they found the rest they needed. Rest comes when we stop fighting and start following. I pray you will know this rest.