Fresh air, dark day

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When we read the bible, and particularly the Old Testament, it can seem like we're supposed to believe that trusting and obeying God leads to blessing and prosperity, while turning from him leads to hardship and judgement.  Even with the kings, guys like David serve God and everything goes well, and others like Ahab set themselves up against God and eventually get taken down. But in the context of our daily lives we feel like that's too simple.  It seems like despite being God's people today we still suffer from money worries, family trouble, illness, loneliness and bereavement, just like everyone else.  In fact it seems that being Christians leads to more trouble, not less.  In a secular society we're irrelevant.  In a liberal society we're bigoted.  In a fun-loving society we're kill-joys. So what does the life of a faithful believer really look like and does this fit with the bible?

Over the last two weeks we've watched the northern kingdom, Israel, being wiped off the map, swallowed up by the vicious superpower Assyria.  Kings is all about Two Kingdoms, Israel and Judah, turning away from God, so at the end of 2 Kings 17 we're left wondering: Now that Israel's gone, what's going to happen to Judah?  Is God going to set the Assyrians loose on the rest of his people too?

So the rest of 2 Kings, the eight remaining chapters, are all about the southern kingdom,Judah.  And in fact, chapters 18-20 are all about just one king: Hezekiah.  And if the lesson from Israel and the lesson from chapter 17 was 'Worship Yahweh Alone' (Yahweh, God's name) then the lesson fromJudah, at least from chapter 18 is 'Trust Yahweh Alone'.  So that's the Big Idea for today: Trust Yahweh Alone.

1) Trust God by obeying him (v1-12)

1In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king ofIsrael, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king ofJudah began to reign.  Hoshea the last king ofIsrael, king in chapter 17, the guy who's in charge when Assyria finally consumes Israel, Hezekiah the king of Judah at the same time.

2He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for twenty-nine years. His mother's name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. 3He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done.  Wow, this is like a breath of fresh air in 2 Kings – a faithful, God-honouring king, a king who was both descended from David and like David.  So what did it look like to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord? V4:

4He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.  Hezekiah set about purging the land of all the idol worship that his predecessors had introduced.  Control Panel, Add or Remove Programs, Idolatry.exe -> Uninstall… You have successfully uninstalled Idolatry.  It goes on:

He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)  This bronze snake comes from an incident all the way back during the exodus when the people were attacked by snakes.  God had Moses make a bronze snake and when the people looked up at the bronze snake God healed them.  The people were essentially looking up in faith to God for God to help them. But afterwards it seems they kept it, perhaps as a precious reminder of God's help. Then maybe they propped it up at the Tabernacle and then carried it around at the Temple. Then the bishops processed in with it and before long it had pride of place and they gradually started to idolise it almost superstitiously.  The item God provided to help them to worship him has become an item they worshipped instead of him.  Good worship gone bad.  True religion gone false.  So Hezekiah broke it to pieces.  We can hardly imagine the tone of the letter he must have received from the Conservation Department of the Museum of Jerusalem.  But there was no room for anything that deflected worship away from the one true God.  V5:

5Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him.  He trusted God.  What did it mean for him to trust God? V6:

6He held fast to the Lord and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses.  And the result, v7?

7And the Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him. 8From watch-tower to fortified city [that is, from the smallest outpost to the largest city], he defeated [the old enemy] the Philistines, as far asGaza and its territory. [Just like King David.]

And just in case we dozed off in chapter 17, we get the contrast here in v9-12: early in the reign of Hezekiah, God set the Assyrians loose on northern neighbours Israel because they had stubbornly turned away from him and everything he'd done for them.  They knew what to do, but they wouldn't do it.

So if we're to follow in Hezekiah's footsteps as people who trust God, we need to notice and copy how he trusted God.  For Hezekiah, trusting God wasn't some misty, ethereal notion based on how he was feeling that day.  Trusting God was a serious business that resulted in real action.  Hezekiah's trust led him to radical obedience.  He purged the country of idol worship.  He exposed the good religion gone bad with that bronze snake.  Anything that deflected worship away from the one true God was out.  And that's what trusting God should look like in us too.  Trusting without obeying is just lip service.  Saying we're trusting in God but pursuing blessing and prosperity and security and fulfilment in money or health or image or relationships or career or religion or anything else is not really trusting in God at all.  Chasing those things shows precisely that we don't trust God to do what's best for us.  So if we want to be people who trust God, we need to be people who obey him, like Hezekiah.  Trust God by obeying him.

But then we'll quickly come to the question we wondered about at the start: does trusting and obeying God really lead to blessing and prosperity, like the Old Testament seems to imply?  Isn't that too simple?  That's what our second point is about:

2) Trust God in the trials that will come (13-37)

It turns out that the idea of prosperity coming out of obedience is not really the Old Testament message.  Even in Hezekiah we get an example of what it's like to trust God in the real world.  We're going to see how he reacts over the coming weeks, but today in the rest of this chapter, we're going to lay out the trial he faced.  Glance back over v9-12.  In Hezekiah's fourth year, Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, invaded Israel, laid siege to the capital for three years and then deported the Israelites, and it didn't take a genius to figure out who was next.

Assyria is in place of modern day Iraq and Syria, they're trying to expand but the Arabian Desert is in the way.  So they've come at Israel from the north, and now they're right next door to Judah and its capital Jerusalem. So in v13, ten years later, the Assyrian juggernaut does press south under the command of its new king, Sennacherib.  Hezekiah hasn't been paying his please-don't-invade-my-country tax, so Assyria invades and takes over every city except the capital, Jerusalem.  Déjà vu: this is starting to look a lot like what happened to Israel.

And disappointingly, Hezekiah caves in.  Look at v14.  He writes to Sennacherib to grovel.  'I've done wrong. Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me.'  Hezekiah is like a boy who gets spotted sticking his tongue out at the school bully and immediately says 'Sorry, sorry, sorry, please don't hit me.  Look I'll give you my lunch money if you just promise not to hit me.'  He tries to pay off Sennacherib, hoping that Sennacherib will let him stay on as king.

But what happens?  He hands over his lunch money and still gets thumped.  In fact it's worse than that.  He empties his palace and God's Temple of gold and silver and hands it all over.  He even strips the gold trim off the Temple doors.  And as soon as Sennacherib has put it all away in his Foreign and Colonial Investment Fund, he gathers his army and attacks Jerusalem.

Except he doesn't really attack.  See, Jerusalem is a bit of a pain. Jerusalem is spread over a couple of hills, it has decent walls… it's not the easiest city to take.  So look at v17.  The king sends these three big shot military leaders forward as his chief negotiators.  These guys have got war medals all over their chests, stripes on their shoulders, perfect creases in their uniforms, all of that.  They call for the king.  Hezekiah sends out his own negotiating party, v18: the palace head butler, his own personal assistant and his librarian.  Maybe not that bad, but they don't have the medals or the crisp uniforms or any of that, and they don't get to make the speeches either.  The Assyrian Field Commander gets started, and with a poisonous blend of truth and lies, he sets out to undermine Hezekiah and the people's trust in God.  Look at v19:

19The field commander said to them, "Tell Hezekiah:

"'This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: on what are you basing this confidence of yours? 20You say you have strategy and military strength – but you speak only empty words. On whom are you depending, that you rebel against me?'"

'Be realistic: you can't win.  We are the Assyrians.  Resistance is futile.  You will be assimilated.  You can't win.'  V21:

"'21Look now, you are depending on Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces a man's hand and wounds him if he leans on it! Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who depend on him.'"

'You can't trust anyone else to help you out of this.  Egypt is like a broken walking stick: lean on Pharaoh and you'll end up on the floor with a hand full of splinters.  You might think you can prop yourselves up with help from other people, but people will let you down.'  V22:

"'22And if you say to me, 'We are depending on the Lord our God'– isn't he the one whose high places and altars Hezekiah removed, saying toJudah and Jerusalem, 'You must worship before this altar in Jerusalem'?'"

'You say you're trusting in God, you say you're clinging to the truth about God, but you've got such a narrow view!  How can you be sure that your narrow opinions about God are right?  There's a rich spiritual tapestry out there, great diversity of worship forms.  But you think it's all wrong.  You're too narrow and now God isn't with you anymore.'

Then we get some mocking in v23.  'This isn't a fair fight… tell you what, I'll give you two thousand horses… oh, wait, no point: you don't even have that many riders!  You're so weak!'

Another angle of attack in v25:  'You think you've got God on your side but you're too narrow.  Who do you think gave me all this success?  God's on my side – I've had a special guiding word of revelation from him; I'm acting under the instruction of the Holy Spirit.  God's with me!'

So this first speech sees the commander exposing Judah's weakness (which is fair), showing that they can't trust other people for help (which is true) and claiming that they can't have confidence in God (which is absolutely false).  How will Hezekiah's negotiators respond?

V26: 'Look, er, thank you so much for starting with diplomacy instead of outright attack, but, well, what you're saying isn't very good for morale.  Please can we talk in Assyrian?  It's just that we don't want the people in the city to understand how much trouble we're in.  It would be awfully good of you.' Pretty pathetic.

V27: the field commander says, 'Hey, sound guy, bring me the radio mic!  Roll the speakers forward!  Pass the megaphone! Testing, 1, 2, 3.  This is a message to everyone who is going to slowly suffer and die for resisting Assyria.'  V29: 'Hezekiah's pathetic: he can't save you and God isn't with him!'

V31: 'Trust the king of Assyria instead!  Make peace [in other words, surrender] Come out.  I'll give you what God promised you, peace and prosperity and fulfillment.  I'll take you to a land flowing with milk and honey.  Follow me and I'll give you everything you need.'

V33: 'Look!  No-one else has resisted me.  It never did anyone any good to cling stubbornly to dying religion.  There's no-one else doing what you're doing.  You're surrounded by people who've come my way and who are now safe and secure and happy and prosperous.  Trusting and obeying God doesn't lead to blessing and prosperity.  You need to get those things from me.'

The Assyrian king sets himself up as an alternative to the one true God.  Like all those idols Hezekiah purged from the land, Sennacherib wants to deflect the people's trust and worship away from God and onto himself. V36: The people remain silent as instructed, and Hezekiah's three negotiators slink back to the palace, tails between their legs and clothes torn in grief. And the big question facing the king and the people is this: will they continue to trust Yahweh alone in this trial, or will they crumble and cave in to this overwhelming opposition?  Like I said earlier, we'll follow the story in the coming weeks.

So it seems so far that it'd be wrong for us to think that the Old Testament message is to trust and obey God for automatic blessing and prosperity.  Even here, this faithful, godly king, such a breath of fresh air in this book, a king who's had times of victory, now faces huge pressure to cave in and give up trusting and obeying God.  And that's always been the pattern for the people of God.

We're surrounded by idols today.  Dan talked at length about idols last week, so I'm not going to repeat all that now; you can listen again online.  In short an idol is anything that our hearts set up as Lord and Saviour, as alternatives to Yahweh, fast-track options to blessing and prosperity and security and approval and happiness. Meanwhile, and especially in times of trial, our weakness is exposed, any confidence we have in other people is often undermined by sin and failure, and ultimately our trust in God is challenged.  And yet, that's always been the pattern for the people of God.

1 Peter tells us that it would be wrong for us to assume that trials come without purpose, or outside God's control.  Peter says that trials come to God's people, to us if we're followers of Jesus, specifically to give us the opportunity to trust God and to learn that he's the only thing we can truly always trust, so that we will indeed trust him, and so stand firm through this life and into the next life with him. Trials come because the need for our faith to be rock-solid is greater than any other need we have.  It's greater than our need for physical comfort or material well-being or a loving spouse or healthy children or anything else, much as God does give us many, many good things. And our faith is of utmost importance because only in Jesus are our sins forgiven and only in Jesus will we enjoy life forever in a perfect new creation that is free of all sin, failure, trial and suffering.

So let's copy Hezekiah. Let's trust Yahweh alone, turning our trust into action by obeying him, deciding that no matter what trials come we will still trust him and stand firm in him, knowing that that's always been the pattern for the people of God.

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