Saturday, 9 December 2017

A big bad "But"...

In the twentieth year of King Jeroboam of Israel, Asa began to reign over Judah; he reigned for forty-one years in Jerusalem... Asa did what was right in the sight of the Lord... But the high places were not taken away. Nevertheless, the heart of Asa was true to the Lord all his days. 1 Kings 15:9-14

Do you know Robert Louis Stevenson’s story Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? It’s about a man who, for reasons we needn’t bother with here, has two totally distinct personalities, one polite, courteous and essentially good, the other demonically evil.

Even people who have never read the book (or seen any of the films made of it) will know what you mean if you talk about someone with a “Jekyll and Hyde personality”: it’s a person who is an incompatible mixture of light and darkness, someone who is a walking civil war.

Well, the truth is that we are all a bit like that, even those of us who sincerely want to follow Jesus. Outwardly we are probably all sweetness and light; but inwardly... ah, that, sadly, is a different story.

King Asa of Judah reminds me of Jekyll and Hyde. If you read the short account of him in 1 Kings 15 your heart warms to him straight away. He started a vigorous reform in Judah to do away with false worship and false gods. He even stood against his own mother because of her idolatry. His heart, we are told, “was true to the Lord all his days”.

But go then to 2 Chronicles 14-16. Here you get a much longer account of King Asa - and one which shows him up in far less rosy terms. (This, by the way, highlights the importance of not just picking bits out of the Bible, as we were thinking last time: we need, in the case of Asa, both 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles.)

Towards the end of his long reign it seems Asa badly lost his way. Instead of trusting whole-heartedly in God he makes an alliance with the pagan King Ben-hadad of Aram in order to gain victory in battle. When he is taken to task by the prophet Hanani he gets into a rage and “puts him in the stocks, in prison”. Even worse, “Asa inflicted cruelties on some of the people” (2 Chronicles 16:10). A sorry story.

Probably the comparison with Jekyll and Hyde isn’t really accurate, for you get the impression that Asa was fundamentally good at heart, but as he grew older it all went wrong. I suspect that by the end of his life he was a tormented soul, still knowing deep down what was right and good, and still wanting to do it, but unable to maintain his earlier trust in God and God alone.

I think there may be a tiny but very significant clue to his tragedy in 1 Kings 15:14: the little word “but” - “But the high places were not taken away.” In spite of all the good things he did, something vital was missing. (The “high places” were sites dotted round Judah where people went to offer prayer and sacrifices. That may sound fine; but because they were not under the supervision of the God-appointed priests in Jerusalem they easily became places of false, corrupt worship; which is exactly what happened.)

The question arises, “Why weren’t the high places taken away?” You might answer, “Well, there was lot to be done, and with the best will in the world Asa just never quite got round to it”. But wait a minute - Asa reigned for forty-one years! Did he really lack time?

I suspect that it wasn’t time that he lacked, but thoroughness. His heart was sound, all right; but, for whatever reason, he simply lacked the drive to carry through everything he knew he should. 

And, I have to admit, that’s where his story strikes uncomfortably at my heart... Yours too, perhaps. As you search your heart and examine your life, do you see there a big, ugly “But”? Yes, you’re a genuine, sincere Christian. Yes, you want to please and serve God. Yes, you are happy to worship, pray and evangelise. But... 

If we fail to deal with that “but”, I’m not suggesting that we will lose our salvation. But there are, I think, two things we will lose.

First, our peace of mind. Like Paul in Romans 7:14-25 we will feel ourselves to be “wretched” because we are torn in two.

And second, we will lose our effectiveness for God. Putting it another way, our cutting edge will be blunted.

I’ve focussed on Jekyll and Hyde. But perhaps the idea of an “Achilles’ heel” fits even better. Never mind the origin of this expression; what it means is “a weakness in spite of overall strength, which can lead to downfall” (to quote one dictionary). 

I think that fits Asa almost perfectly. And the question is: Does it fit you and me too?

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Amen.

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