Yes, a sermon rewind post on Wednesday, not Monday. I took Labor Day off. Not that I am believing my own headlines, mind you. Because Sunday’s sermon was about the dangers of doing exactly that. It touched on why prosperity is so much more dangerous than adversity. And it landed at a bottom line that seemed to speak to many people: You will SUSTAIN success when you MAINTAIN desperation.
We are getting ready to look at a bible story that hinges on what it DOESN’T SAY. Yes! A story where what’s MISSING is what MATTERS. And I tell you that because I am confident that when we’re done you will have the resources and the spirit to fill in what the story leaves out and because of THAT you will leave today in a better place with a clearer understanding of life than when you walked in. Woo-hooot! No pressure, right?
Because here is where we left Josiah off a couple of weeks ago. He became king at the age of eight by the time he was 26 and what we’d call The Millennial King, he was en fuego. He has restored the Temple, he has recovered the book of Deuteronomy, he has set the nation on its proper course, and all the time he has been surrounded by his own LifeGroup as he helps Israel to regroup. And through it all, he has been faithful to his beginning in 2 Kings 22:2:
2 He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and followed completely the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.
But it turns out, he was just getting started with his reforms of the nation and its institutions and its people. 2 Kings 23 is an epic pile on of accomplishment. Take a look at just a few of the highlights from his career: READ 23:6, 12, 15, and 22
6 He took the Asherah pole from the temple of the Lord to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem and burned it there. He ground it to powder and scattered the dust over the graves of the common people.
12 He pulled down the altars the kings of Judah had erected on the roof near the upper room of Ahaz, and the altars Manasseh had built in the two courts of the temple of the Lord. He removed them from there, smashed them to pieces and threw the rubble into the Kidron Valley.
15 Even the altar at Bethel, the high place made by Jeroboam son of Nebat, who had caused Israel to sin—even that altar and high place he demolished. He burned the high place and ground it to powder, and burned the Asherah pole also.
22 Neither in the days of the judges who led Israel nor in the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah had any such Passover been observed.
Wow! He didn’t just oppose idolatry, he obliterated it. He didn’t just surpass his ancestors; he stomped on them! He didn’t just celebrate Passover, he celebrated it literally like nobody’s business. Best. Passover. Ever. Josiah has outdone himself at evyer level, he is on top of his game, living large, meeting with unprecedented levels of success. He desperately clings to God, and empowered by the Spirit, mops up all the dust of his enemies. Breathtaking.
Now. While I don’t think we have any kings here today, I know a lot of you still have those seasons. Those seasons where everything you touch turns to gold, where every idea you have comes to pass. Lord, I remember as a YOUNG pastor in Monroe, all I wanted was for Mt. Carmel to become what they called a CHURCH OF EXCELLENCE. They were trying to encourage innovation and accomplishment and they set up some metrics and if you met them you became a C OF E!! Well, guess what? It happened! A little old Mt. Carmel got a big article in it in what was then the Methodist newspaper of North Carolina. Yes! I was in the headlines and in a lot of ways I felt like I had died and gone to heaven.
For you – perhaps because you’re more normal than that – it could be different. It’s that new job. Or it’s the promotion. Or the raise. Or the new job that represents both a promotion and a raise. Or it’s that new baby. Or if you’re single, it’s the new girl who likes you or the new guy who makes it obvious he finds you pretty. For some it’s that one year of sobriety and the bronze chip to go along with it. And then for a few, it’s even that sports championship, that scholarship offer, that event you planned that went off without a hitch. Yeah, in those seasons where it’s going well and it’s gonna bet better, the future really is so bright you gotta wear shades. It’s you and it was Josiah long, long before.
And look at the result, look at the summary of Josiah’s pinnacle in 23:25:
25 Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses. READ.
There was NEVER a king like him! Best. King. Ever. His name is not just in the headlines; his name IS the headline. And notice there the key descriptor: he turned to the Lord with all his … He got there through this masterful combination of dependence and desperation where not one move came without consulting the Lord and his people. He is on top of the world morally, politically, and religiously, and he’s got a chapter’s worth of exquisite detail telling us precisely how he got there. Josiah is so much in the headlines here that you could say he is clickbait.
And then … check 23:29a:
29 While Josiah was king, Pharaoh Necho king of Egypt went up to the Euphrates River to help the king of Assyria.
So Israel at that time (and this) was a small nation, precariously stuck in the vortex of three superpowers: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon. Israel, it seemed, was always caught up in the middle of something going on with these three bigger, better, meaner armies. So Neco of Egypt marches THRU Israel to help Assyria against Babylon. It’s kind of like a bully borrowed YOUR bike (giving you no choice in the matter) to go fight another bully. No doubt Josiah and his LifeGroup leading Israel feel inconvenienced, disrespected, unsettled … but ultimately this fight was not his business. Egypt was just “passing through.”
Except, remember something: Josiah’s been in the headlines. Never a king quite like him! His success makes him feel invincible. He’s read what people are saying about him AND HE BELIEVES IT. Yet look at what happens in 23:29b:
King Josiah marched out to meet him in battle, but Necho faced him and killed him at Megiddo.
Woah. Didn’t see that coming. Note the brevity. See the lack of detail. Standing in purposeful contrast to the vivid, minute detail of all his accomplishments, including reducing idols to fine powder that he scattered on idolaters’ graves. That unexpected twist and the contrast it contains goes to show you, GS, that prosperity is almost ALWAYS more dangerous than adversity. Because while adversity is a teacher, prosperity is a tempter. Adversity gets you to realize you can’t. Prosperity lulls you into thinking you did.
But notice, Good Shepherd, what’s NOT there. In that brevity, what is missing is all the more noticeable. There is no “turning.” There is no deliberation. No desperate being with God, seeking more of God. None of what got him his success in the first place! He allows a moment of recklessness to ruin a lifetime of godliness! See, his success had made him feel invincible. God reminds him rather forcefully that he is not. What’s missing is what matters here and it gives a cautionary tale to every one of us doing well. Because I don’t want your success to be the incubator of yoru next failure. I want you to ADD what Josiah SUBRTRACTED. Here it is: You will sustain success when you maintain desperation.
Yep. The same passion, zeal, and utter helplessness before God that you had when you were in the middle of the mess, you need even more when you’re on the other side of it! So that your success reminds you of your powerlessness and doesn’t make you feel invincible. You’re all about turning to God when life stinks; how about when it is as fragrant as a daisy? I just want to remind you that when you’re in a good place you need God MORE than you need him when you are in trouble. You will sustain success when you maintain desperation.
This is so close to home. Another little Methodist tidbit in addition to “Church Of Excellence” if I may. For years, the UMC in our part of the country (WNC) has given out what they call “The Denman Award.” It actually is like a Preacher Of The Year award, or maybe even better, Most Valuable Preacher. Anyway, they’ve been giving this thing out for over 25 years in WNC and if you got through the list, the number of winners who almost IMMEDIATELY followed that win with some kind of moral failure or church implosion is simply staggering. A good chunk of folks are no longer in the ministry, even to the point of imprisonment. And I can’t help but think that the head rush of the recognition – my name is in the headlines! – contributes to the downfall. But beyond the UMC, over the last couple of years we’ve had a run of super high profile preachers of all denominations and non-denominations – TV guys, book writers, conference speakers – who have lost their ministries. The higher the pedestals, the steeper the fall. You will sustain success when you maintain desperation.
I suppose it’s that way because when we get on top of the world a looking down on creation, the only explanation WE can find is this: AV of turtle on pole. I bet that turtle thinks it got up there all by itself. Nope! We’re the same way. We get on top, we taste success, we have that new job, the new guy, the new baby, even the new year of sobriety, and we begin to believe our own headlines. Nope. That just means it’s time to believe your God even more. We’re all powerless over that temptation toward pride and arrogance. You will sustain success when you maintain desperation.
I know what some of you are like in the morning. You wake up and if a certain something is withheld from you, you’re cranky. And then it moves from cranky to headachy. And then from headachy to downright ornery. And for some of you, just plain miserable. You are desperate for the caffeine hit of coffee. My God you gotta have it here! If it’s withheld, you’re desperate to get it back.
That’s what I long for for you and the things of God when life is going well. Can I get to real practical, the brass tacks here? Is your season of success that new job, promotion, or raise? Guess what? Tithe (don’t even care if it’s not here; I just want you to acknowledge the source). Got a new baby? Dedicate him or her; that public recognition that this child is a gift from God and my main goal as a parent is not to get here into Harvard but into heaven. Got your year of sobriety? And part of you feel like “celebrating”? Hmmm … how about sponsoring instead? You finally got that girl and now she has agreed to marry you? Oh, resist the temptation to be like every guy ever and treasure her more now than then. I had a husband in my office a few years ago and when he was speaking of the difficulty of his marriage he said simply, “I had stopped treasuring my wife.” Remember to.
And if you’re in ministry? Oh, please, please know this: you don’t need to preach or teach for the applause of the crowd when you already have the approval of the king. Your name in the headlines doesn’t matter nearly enough as serving God in the frontlines. You will sustain success when you maintain desperation.
Because when I think of people who’ve “made it,” I don’t think of the flash in the pan. I think of the 80 year old pastor who never served the big church but never lost his faith or ruined his reputation. I think of the coupled married 62 years who didn’t meet on a reality TV show but who lived lives of quiet authenticity. I think of the 20 year sober alcoholic who still knows that in spite of his record of success, he really is powerless.
Maybe you’ve heard of that kite who could talk. Yes! He could! It was up in the sky, being flown as kites do, and noticed the string. “Oh, this string is cramping my style!” the kite said. “If only I could get rid of this string. If only it wasn’t holding me back, then I could fly. I could fly above the clouds, as high as I wanted to. If I could get rid of this string, there would be nothing holding me back. I’m limited by the string.” And one day the kite got its wish as the string snapped. And what happened? It came crashing down. The same string that kept it down held it up!
Oh, don’t cut the string of desperation before God in search of more pleasure. The string that seems to keep you down actually makes you fly. I simply want you hanging on with the same desperation when you’re flying as when you’re failing. You will sustain success when you maintain desperation.