In this second part of our new series, Pursue: Chasing God in a Godless World, we deal with a bit of reality. The reality is that sometimes we get as prepared as we can be for the challenges that a godless world might throw into our paths as followers of Jesus and they just don’t seem to matter. What are we supposed to do when that happens? Keep reading to find out.
Calling on God
Do you remember a time when you felt completely overwhelmed by some situation you were facing? Now, it’s one thing to feel like that when you came into a situation totally unprepared. But it’s a bit scarier when you have prepared really well. It’s scary to realize the challenge is going to be even beyond what you thought it might.
I remember joining the Wind Symphony in my sophomore year of college. It was a step up from the open enrollment Concert Band. I was given the opportunity to be the tympanist which was pretty exciting for me. The tympani are the great big drums with foot pedals so you can tune them to different notes. I had played the tympani for several years in other band settings and so was pretty familiar with what I figured was going to be coming my way in terms of parts. The fact is: most band music has tympani parts that are pretty easy. I thought I was as prepared as I could be…until he handed out the music for our first song. It was hard beyond any ensemble piece I’d seen before. There were lots of notes and lots of tuning in quick succession. It was also a pretty exposed part meaning everybody was going to be able to hear if I blew it. And the first…several…times we went through it…I blew it. And everybody knew it. I was feeling totally overwhelmed and out of my league…and then the director had everybody stop so I could have a chance to work on the part slowly by myself a couple of times…right there in front of the whole group with them all turned around and staring at me (all secretly glad it wasn’t them). I might as well have been living out that dream where you are giving a speech to your class in your underwear.
While perhaps you haven’t had that exact same experience, I suspect you’ve faced a situation similar in kind. The fact is: There are times in life when in spite of being as prepared as we possibly can be, it still feels like more than we can handle. That’s never terribly exciting…but it is life.
This morning we are in the second part of our new series, Pursue: Chasing after God in a Godless World. One of the uncomfortable truths about our culture for followers of Jesus who’ve been at it for very long is that things are changing. There’s just no denying that fact. And the harder we try, the scarier it will seem; the more it will bear down on us. At the same time, if you’ve made a profession of faith and have hung on to it this long, you’re probably not much of a mind to give it up just because things are getting tougher.
Now, if you’re not a follower of Jesus, you may be looking around wondering what all the fuss is about, but come on, you recognize that the culture is changing. Things aren’t like they used to be. For you, that may be a fact to celebrate, but at some point in your life, there’s a chance you may start to have a bit of an interest in Jesus. If or when you reach that place, things aren’t going to be as easy for you as they may have been not all that long ago. This is actually a great series of conversations for you to be a part of in terms of giving you some information to file away for that possible someday so you’ll be more prepared if it ever comes.
For everyone who is willing to say, “Yes, I’m a follower of Jesus,” you recognize that “godless” is becoming a more and more accurate word to describe our culture. Staying on the path of Christ when things look the way they do is a bit of a tall order. It’s going to require us to take a fresh look at how we’re doing what we’re doing. That’s what this series is all about.
Two weeks ago, we kicked things off by establishing a baseline. If we are going to chase after God in a godless world, we’ve got to start from a position of godliness. If it’s not the God revealed in the pages of Scripture who we’re chasing, we’re going to wind up somewhere other than where we thought we were headed. If we’re going to build the building of our lives properly, we’ve got to start on the right foundation. That foundation is godliness. It’s looking like God. And this looking like God is something that has to happen on both the inside and the outside. One of those absent the other won’t do. It won’t leave us with the kind of foundation we need. Pursuing godliness happens both inside and out.
Still, though, like the folks in Mexico City Beach, FL know all too well, you can have the strongest foundation in the world, but if the storm is big enough and strong enough that doesn’t always seem to matter like we think it should. If we are going to take off after God in a world that doesn’t want much to do with Him, there are times when all our best efforts to pursue godliness in our daily lives as a foundation point for everything else isn’t going to be enough to get the job done. There are times when life gets totally overwhelming. What are we supposed to do then?
For this morning, we look back to the story of King Asa. King Asa was the third king of Judah, the southern part of the divided kingdom of Israel after David’s grandson, Rehoboam, tried to be macho rather than humble when he took over for his father, Solomon, and lost most of his kingdom for his pride. Asa was the first king to get the nation back on track after they had wandered around in the weeds for a few years. His story, which can be found in 2 Chronicles 14-16, begins with a theological summary that was pretty positive as we saw last time. We stopped a couple of weeks ago with him having cleaned up the nation inside and built up the nation’s defense to keep any external threats at bay. 2 Chronicles 14:8 gives us a sense of just how this build up was going: “And Asa had an army of 300,000 from Judah, armed with large shields and spears, and 280,000 men from Benjamin that carried shields and drew bows. All these were mighty men of valor.”
That’s a lot of people, right? Think about everything Asa had in place to keep his nation safe; to keep them on the path of godliness he had set them on internally. He had fortified cities on the borders. These were essentially military garrisons that any nation wanting to attack Judah was going to have to deal with first before going any further. Any one of these would have been a challenge to take especially given the mountainous terrain of that part of the region. Then, he had 300,000 soldiers from the tribe of Judah. Judah was David’s tribe. It had a legacy of producing strong military heroes. And as if that weren’t enough, he had another 280,000 archers from Benjamin. The tribe of Benjamin was well-known for its skilled marksmen. Back during the civil war that marked the end of the book of Judges, an army from Benjamin featuring 700 slingers (the same weapon David used to take down Goliath) defeated not once, but twice a combined force of the other 11 tribes. These were warriors who could meet any threat and overcome it with extreme prejudice.
So yeah, Asa was feeling pretty confident in his nation. His rule was secure, his people were on the path of righteousness, and his borders were safe from intrusion. But, just like we have been talking about, sometimes life ignores all of our preparations and punches us in the gut anyway. Sometimes life rises up to meet us with overwhelming forces; forces that seem so far beyond our ability to meet them that we wonder whether or not we should even try. That’s certainly what happened to Asa. Look back in the text at v. 9: “Zerah the Ethiopian came out against them with an army of a million men and 300 chariots [which were the ancient equivalent of tanks], and came as far as Mareshah. And Asa went out to meet him, and they drew up their lines of battle in the Valley of Zephathah at Mareshah.”
So, Asa had this big army and these well-fortified cities…and here comes Zerah the Ethiopian with his force of what the ESV describes as more than a million. Now, some people are going to balk at the idea of an army of a million soldiers back then. I would tend to agree. Thankfully, that figure comes from translators doing their best to capture an imprecise Hebrew expression. The Hebrew here describing the forces of Zerah more literally reads, “myriads of myriads.” Generally speaking a myriad is 1,000 in Hebrew numbers. Well, 1,000 times 1,000 is a million which is where you get that somewhat unbelievable number. But, when the word “myriad” is used, conveying a precise figure is rarely the intent of the author. Rather, he’s trying to convey a really big number; a number bigger than anybody can count. The expression, “myriads of myriads” is used to get us to picture a number bigger than anybody can even imagine. The basic idea is that Zerah’s force was large beyond imagination. What its exact number was doesn’t matter and wasn’t the point of the text. So, don’t let yourself get all hung up on that.
With that in mind, try to imagine this with me for a minute because it’s pretty far outside the normal bounds of modern warfare. Imagine this huge valley. There’s a constant din of noise—the dull roar of a huge crowd of people. The middle of the valley is empty of people, but on each ridge you can see the battle lines. And though from the floor of the valley they don’t look so impressive, a bit of elevation allows you to see things more clearly. There’s a mass of people on each side bigger than you can really conceive. But what is clear is that one side is substantially larger than the other. It’s not close. And you can tell that when these two opposing forces finally clash, it’s not going to be pretty for the smaller group. They can fight as hard as they want to, but the sheer weight of the numbers of the other side will ensure their victory. And while the average soldier in the lines of Judah may not realize just what he’s facing, Asa as king has access to better information.
Overwhelmed probably doesn’t even begin to cover what he’s feeling. Put yourself in his shoes for a minute. Up to this point you’d done everything right. You’d established a foundation of godliness. You’d planned carefully for the possibility of future attacks. You’d committed your whole reign as king to the Lord and now you’re facing a force you have no meaningful hope of defeating. What do you do?
Now, perhaps you’re of the mindset that God wouldn’t really put you in a position like this. I mean, sure it happened occasionally in the Scriptures, but those folks were really more up to the task than the text lets on. Can I let you in on a little secret? That’s crazy talk that’s going to get you in more trouble than you can imagine. If you carry around with you false ideas about God, you’re not going to have the resources you need when the situation demands them. In particular, there are two popular false ideas about God we need to dispel here. The first is that God won’t allow you to face something greater than you can handle. That’s nonsense. He frankly doesn’t care about how much you can handle. You can’t handle much. If you follow Him very closely, you’re going to find yourself in situations beyond your ability all the time. He wants to teach you to lean into Him. That’s the point. So…lean in to Him.
The other false idea we sometimes carry is that the safest place to be is at the center of God’s will. Try telling that to a martyr. Oh wait, you can’t because their being in the center of God’s will got them killed. Following Jesus faithfully is going to have you going to the kinds of places Jesus went. And where did Jesus go? That’s right: The cross. As Mr. Beaver rightly said in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when talking about God as represented by Aslan, “Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
Following God isn’t safe in a world that is opposed to Him at almost every point. Chasing after God in a godless world isn’t a walk in the park. It’s not an unrelenting battle, but sometimes you draw up your battle lines and the odds are decidedly not in your favor. When this happens, there are several ways to respond. The first thing we might do is try and overcome the challenge using our own abilities. We buckle down, dig in, and just try harder. Hollywood aside, sometimes effort just isn’t going to carry the day. If the challenge is big enough, relying on our own abilities is going to lead to failure. Our own abilities can’t manage it. That’s the point. This kind of pride won’t get us anywhere. Another approach is to simply give in to the encroaching despair this kind of situation stirs in our hearts and quit. Depending on the situation this may be really tempting, but we all know this isn’t ultimately going to get us anywhere. Not to mention such an approach rings wholly untrue with the basic claim of the Christian worldview that Christ has won victory over anything that stands in the way of our following Him. We need only trust Him and participate in it.
Some people respond to trials in life by getting angry at God for allowing us to face something like we are. After all, if He is really sovereign over His creation, then He could have prevented this from happening in the first place. He could have kept us from such a battle. But, what this attitude assumes is that we know something God doesn’t know, namely, that there is not a single good reason why He would have allowed such a thing in the first place. It assumes the evil we are facing cannot be overcome by the potential good He plans to accomplish through it. It also forgets about the fact that, given the brokenness of the world, sometimes the way to the life He has for us goes right through these overwhelming situations. Consider the cross again. The resurrection could only have happened if the crucifixion did first. Finding ourselves in one of these situations isn’t a good thing by itself. It’s a reflection of the sin that is loose in the world. No argument there. But the life waiting for us on the other side after we have leaned into Him to get through it will be a better good than the evil was bad. In the end, getting mad at God and walking away only serves to rob us of the resources that will allow us to get through it and find wholeness again on the other side.
None of these different responses will ultimately help us overcome the odds we are facing. They certainly would not have done Asa any good. He could not have won this fight on his own. Giving up wouldn’t have mattered because he didn’t pick this battle; it picked him. It was coming for him whether he ran away or stood his ground. And getting mad at God would have been meaningless. It certainly wasn’t going to help him win. Instead, Asa did something totally different. He recognized things were not looking good for him, that the odds before him were overwhelmingly bad, and he turned right back to the God he was committed to following in spite of the godlessness of his world and cried out to him with all his heart. Listen to what he said starting in v. 11: “And Asa cried to the Lord his God, ‘O Lord, there is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude. O Lord, you are our God; let not man prevail against you.’” When the odds before Asa were overwhelming, he called on God for help. In our own lives, when life gets overwhelming, we can call on God for help. When life gets overwhelming, call on God.
Now, maybe that seems like it should be obvious. I mean, we are in a church on a Sunday for a worship service. But consider those other few responses. People turn to those all the time. And let’s be honest: When you’re in a situation like this where you feel like life has gotten completely over your head, calling on God is about the most counterintuitive thing to do. Think about it: Your head is spinning with the thought of how badly this could all go. Why would you call on a God you can’t see and who is apparently unconcerned with your plight or else you wouldn’t be here in the first place instead of actually, you know, getting to work? And yet, when life gets overwhelming, call on God.
Call on God because He’s rooting for you. Did you catch what Asa said there? There is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak. Now, the Hebrew here can go a couple of ways and the major English translations are split on which way to go. It could mean, as the wording here in the ESV suggests, simply that there is no one like God to help when we need it. It could also be worded (as I think the NIV captures well) like this: “Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty.” In other words, when the powerful are arrayed against the powerless, God takes the side of the powerless. I think both interpretations have merit. Either way, if the odds are stacked against you, you won’t find a more committed advocate than Jesus. That’s something about which the various guys who contributed to the Scriptures are explicitly clear. God takes sides. And specifically, He takes the side of the weak and the powerless when they are being threatened and challenged by the powerful. If you are weak, you have an advocate in God. Why not call on Him? When life gets overwhelming, call on God.
Call on God because your preparations, as thorough as they may be, are sometimes just not enough. In fact, no one’s are. Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare for the challenges we might face. Of course we should do that. The Scriptures point to the wisdom of being as prepared as we can in multiple places, particularly in the Proverbs. But sometimes that’s just not going to cover it. When that happens, we lean back into the power that was undergirding our whole preparation process from the start. We call on God. When life gets overwhelming, call on God.
Call on God because when you’re participating in His battles, He’s the one who’s going to do the real fighting. Now, we have a part to play, that’s for sure. Our part is to be faithful to the lifestyle of Christ. Our part is to do the things Jesus did regardless of the reception we receive. But think about the end of Asa’s prayer: “Let not man prevail against you.” He didn’t say “us” there in spite of the fact that it was him and the people of Judah on the battle lines. He said “you,” talking about God. Like David standing before Goliath, Asa recognized that the battle is the Lord’s. When we face battles that are well beyond our ability to win, we need to step back and remember that the battle is the Lord’s; that the opposition we face is really aimed at Him, we’re just the closest convenient target. Remember all of that and call on God. When life gets overwhelming, call on God.
And when you do good things can happen. They certainly did for Asa. Check this out in v. 12: “So the Lord defeated the Ethiopians before Asa and before Judah, and the Ethiopians fled. Asa and the people who were with him pursued them as far as Gerar, and the Ethiopians fell until none remained alive, for they were broken before the Lord and his army. The men of Judah carried away very much spoil. And they attacked all the cities around Gerar, for the fear of the Lord was upon them. They plundered all the cities, for there was much plunder in them. And they struck down the tents of those who had livestock and carried away sheep in abundance and camels. Then they returned to Jerusalem.”
Pretty happy ending, no? As far as ancient near-eastern literature goes, that’s a pretty standard victory report. They won an overwhelming victory and God helped them. When you call on God in the face of your own overwhelming odds, you too can experience a victory the likes of which wouldn’t have even been imaginable not so long before you won it. When life gets overwhelming, call on God. But…
Some of you know better than that, don’t you? You’ve been in one of these situations and God didn’t seem to come through in any kind of a meaningful way. You lost and lost badly. You’re still recovering from it possibly years later. Your apparently emptily crying out to God is why you’re so angry with Him now. It led you to claim atheism for a while even though your hatred of God left Him haunting your life in spite of your protests to not believe in Him. The fact is, sometimes God doesn’t respond with the kind of victory we imagine. You know what I’m talking about. You heard a really stirring sermon about leaning on the power of God in hard situations, you did that, and you still fell on your face. Hard. So, what now? When life gets overwhelming, call on God.
Wait a minute? Is that not the issue? Did I not just give voice to your reasons for not wanting to do that? How is simply repeating the big idea helpful here? Because you’ve got to be patient. Just because God hasn’t responded with the kind of victory you wanted doesn’t mean He isn’t answering your prayer. It means He has plans for deliverance that are different from yours. But, when we’re in the midst of a mess, that’s a truth that isn’t easy to get our hearts and minds wrapped around. We want relief now, not then. We want to call out to God and, like a vending machine, expect Him to spit back out our help immediately. No one wants to linger in pain or fear or isolation or any other kind of brokenness. Nonetheless, we hold fast to our calling because the God who called us is faithful. You see, our pursuit of God doesn’t happen primarily because of the things it brings us now, but because of the things that have been promised then and the faithfulness of the one who did the promising. And so, when life gets overwhelming, call on God. He may not immediately bring you the victory you want, but when the time is right He’ll bring you the victory you need. When life gets overwhelming, call on God.