The Way of Israel’s Welfare; or An Exhortation to be with God, that He may be with us. ~ February 25, 2018 ~ 2 Chronicles 15:1-4
Today is obviously a special day. Technically our birthday was on Thursday, February 22, 1670. Thirty-one men and women gathered together to form the Second Church of Christ in Hartford. That’s our legal name: Second Church of Christ. Still works out to be SCC! Our first meetinghouse, the first place we gathered, was down on the corner of Sheldon and Main, and a facsimile of it is on the front of your bulletin.
That’s what our very first meeting house, based on descriptions, looks like. Our second one was in 1764, that was smack dab in the middle of the intersection out there where the traffic lights hang, and this is our third meetinghouse, 1827. The same day that they voted to form this church in 1670, they also voted to call the Reverend John Whiting to be their first pastor.
Now, what we’ve been able to find out about John Whiting is most likely he was born in England in 1635. He graduated from Harvard in 1653. Now do the math: born in 1635 (didn’t know there was going to be a math quiz this morning, did you?), born in 1635, graduated from Harvard in 1653. How old was he? Wow. HAHA. Eighteen! Graduated from Harvard at 18! We grew up a lot quicker back then. For a while he preached in Salem, Massachusetts, where he married a woman by the name of Sybil Collins, who was the daughter of Deacon Edward Collins of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Together, they had, count them: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 children. Then she died. I don’t know if it was related, but Sybil did pass away. In 1673 he married Phoebe Gregson of New Haven, Connecticut, with whom he had more, count them: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 more kids. Right? So all of us parents, right, nowadays it’s really funny, I do get a kick out of it. Nowadays parents have a baby, it’s like, “My life is over! I can’t do anything else!” They had 14 children. Think about that. Go home and say to your little one, “Thank you Jesus, you’re just one!” In 1675, Reverend Whiting was in the King Philip’s War. He served as a Chaplain for the British Army. Then on May 13, 1686 he was asked to preach what they call the “election sermon” in Hartford.
Election day sermons were an interesting custom in colonial America, mostly New England, and they are exactly what it sounds like. Before every major election a wise representative of the people, usually a clergymen (we used to be thought of as a wise representative of the people), would be asked to speak to the people about the privilege of choosing their elected officials, and their responsibility would be to remind voters of the sacred duty that they have in preserving liberty by choosing only those who reflected the ideas and the values of that which made the country great. We are blessed in this country to be able to choose our elected leaders, and I would never tell you who to vote for, but I think it is an absolute shame if we do not exercise that gift. There are so many places in the world where they don’t get a choice, so next time there’s election, please, be thankful for the freedom that you have and get out there and vote! If you do not, I don’t want to hear you complain. Not one word. Anyway, commercial done! Sermons would usually be held in churches because churches were the buildings where the largest gatherings of people would assemble. Churches also reflected the role that clergy had in the community, it was our job to warn people of any dangerous trends that might be happening in society. So Reverend Whiting was asked to preach the election day message in 1686, and he entitled it, “The Way of Israel’s Welfare; or An Exhortation to be with God, that He may be with us.”
OK. I thought, as we were coming up on our birthday, I said, “You know what would be cool? Maybe, since it’s our birthday it would be kind of neat to look back and listen to what he had to say all those years ago,” because that sermon does still exist, you can still access it. Reverend Whiting’s text was 2 Chronicles, 15, the first 4 verses. Let us join in the unison prayer as we get ready to study the word of God. Let us pray. Lord, upon the pages of this book is your story. It is also our story. Open our eyes that we may see, our ears that we may hear, our minds that we may understand, and our hearts that they may be transformed. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
So, 2 Chronicles, chapter 15: Then the Spirit of God came down upon Azariah son of Oded, and he went out to meet King Asa as he was returning from battle. “Listen to me, Asa!” he shouted. “Listen, all people of Judah and Benjamin! The Lord will stay with you as long as you stay with him! Whenever you seek him, you will find him. But if you abandon him, he will abandon you. For a long time Israel was without the true God, without a priest to teach them, and without the Law to instruct them. But whenever they were in trouble and turned to the Lord, the God of Israel, and sought him out, they found him.
Now, Reverend Whiting was focusing on verse 2: The Lord is with you while ye are with him, in the Geneva Bible. And he wrote, this is his sermon:
To make a way to these words with what is intended in and from them, I will only mind you of some remarkables the holy story mentions concerning Asa, King of Judah. Number 1: that he was sincerely Godly, a perfect and upright man. Though he had his faults, as there is no man that sineth not, in fall surely sundry ways towards the close of his time as may be seen. Yet it is said of him in way of commendation, nonetheless, the heart of Asa was perfect in all his days. Not only did he do that which was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, but he did it like a saint, as did David his father. And thence, also it stands recorded concerning Jehoshaphat, his son and successor, that he walked in the way of Asa his father and departed not from doing that which was right in the eyes of the Lord. Number 2: that as an effect and evidence of Asa’s sincerity he was engaged in the good work of reforming state and church, or a diligent endeavor to mend what was amiss in religious or civil respects…
Now, you all know I hope, by now, how much I love history. Specifically the history of this church. And I had a plan when I was putting this message together, which became very clear to me as I went through Reverend Whiting’s sermon that birthday or no birthday, most likely you would not be interested in 36 more pages of that! Am I right? Can I get an Amen? So, rather than read to you a 1686 sermon from South Church’s first pastor, I thought, hmm, I would take some time and look at the same biblical text, and offer you a 2018 message from South Church’s sixteenth pastor instead: Me! (referring to image projected on screen) Yes, that’s me! You wanted clothes that look like 1970? There it is! 1972! My older brother George on the left, my younger brother John in the middle, and there I am, in all our glory, 1972, in bell-bottom pants my mom made for us!
So, if you want to look that silly, choose the 70s as your decade to do your play!
So, the Spirit of God came down upon Azariah son of Oded. Well who the heck was Azariah and Oded? They were father and son, they were both prophets of God. Asa was the third king of the southern kingdom of Judah after the split of the kingdoms into two following Solomon’s reign. And at the beginning of Asa’s reign, there was an initial decade of peace and prosperity. Then, later, came enemy threats and invasion. But in all of those crises up to that point, Asa trusted in God, he was with God. And because he stayed with God, God stayed with him. And God defeated all those who attempted to divide, to conquer, or to destroy Judah. Asa also cleansed the land of Pagan shrines and places of worship that his mother, Maakah had set up. So he started off on a good foot. He was a good guy in the beginning. And Azariah cried out to him, The Lord will stay with you as long as you stay with him! Whenever you seek him, you will find him. But if you abandon him, he will abandon you. That is the text that Reverend Whiting focused on the most: The Lord will stay with you as long as you stay with him!
Times have changed. That’s not a really profound thought. Not just headwear, but times have changed, and unfortunately today, I believe, we seem to have entered into an age of victimhood. No one wants to be held accountable for anything anymore. This is a common phenomena among teens. It is, right? How many times, parents, have you heard, “It’s not my fault!I didn’t do it! I was just holding those cigarettes for a friend, they’re not mine.” Why do we know that happens? Because we did the same thing! We were teenagers once! We like to tell the stories of old, “Oh yeah, George Washington, he could never tell a lie, he said ‘I can’t tell a lie, I chopped down that cherry tree!'” Hogwash! I bet he said, “Ben Franklin did it! I saw him! He had an ax! Go talk to him!” That just seems to be how we’re wired when we’re younger. Usually we grow out of it. But for some reason it seems to have gotten a foothold in our culture today. Adults today too often claim to be victims. Right? In high school, I didn’t get a good grade on that test because the teacher didn’t like me! It has nothing to do with the fact that I didn’t study at all or read any assignments. The teacher didn’t like me! That has morphed into an adulthood where the reason that I didn’t get that promotion, or the reason I got fired is because the boss didn’t like me! When I was in grade school I always got picked last for the kickball team because I was chubby (which was true, I was… I am again. History repeats itself, what are you going to do?). That has turned into I didn’t get this, that or the other thing because I’m white, because I’m black, because I’m Puerto Rican, because I’m poor, because I’m a man, because I’m a woman, because I’m too young, because I’m too old… the list goes on and on and on. There is an entire grievance industry just waiting to sue someone on your behalf, because somehow you have been wronged. I didn’t get that job because I was just too young! It has nothing to do with the fact that you showed up to the interview twenty minutes late, you were covered in tattoos head to toe, you have a nose ring, both your ears are gauged, you didn’t graduate high school. No, none of that had anything to do with anything, it was because you were too young! Yeah, that’s it. I get it. I get it, I do. Nick does. Because we were there too.
Most of you know that I was in a band for fifteen years and I was trying really hard to be a famous rock and roll drummer and to travel the country, right? Well, I used to give you a thousand reasons as to why we never made it big. The reality is, we didn’t want it bad enough. We didn’t want to work hard enough. That’s the truth. I could tell you, “Oh, yeah, well our band came out the same time punk was coming out, and we weren’t punk so we didn’t fit in. Our band didn’t make it because you really have to know somebody, you have to have a connection in the industry nowadays…” I could give you a litany of reasons. The reality is, I got married, I had children, I wanted to do that! All my friends in the band, they all got apartments, and cars that come with car payments and insurance payments and responsibility. What we should have done, we should have all piled into Jack’s van, we should have driven to New York, or out to LA because that’s where all the bands were really getting discovered, and really gone for it. That’s the truth. We didn’t want it that bad, apparently. No more excuses. Why wasn’t I famous? Because of my hair. No. Because we didn’t want it bad enough. But the age of accountability, it seems, has passed us by. You want to know who it hasn’t passed by for? God.
God still believes in accountability. And sometimes he’s pretty tough. He says in Jeremiah, chapter 11 verse 13: “Look now, people of Judah; you have as many gods as you have towns.” Pop quiz: First commandment “You shall have no other Gods but me,” just one. “You have as many altars of shame – altars for burning incense to your god Baal – as there are streets in Jerusalem.” And then God says this: “Pray no more for these people, Jeremiah. Do not weep or pray for them, for I will not listen to them when they cry out to me in distress.” God believes in accountability. He doesn’t believe in excuses. He was even tougher in Isaiah. In Isaiah he was picking on them for what you’re doing right now, for your worship, because it wasn’t sincere, it wasn’t real, it wasn’t from the heart. It was just for show. He says, “What makes you think I want all your sacrifices,” says the Lord. “I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me! I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals, they are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you lift up your hands in prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.” That’s tough stuff. But God’s all about accountability. He’s not about excuses. And if you think it’s just the old testament, because I know the old testament God can be a little harsh, it seems, let’s not leave out Jesus. In Matthew chapter 7, Jesus says, You know what? (I added that) You know what? “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.” I’m not into talkers. I’m into doers. “On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.'” God’s into accountability.
Now, his love, his mercy, his grace is unconditional. And it is always readily available to a repentant heart, to someone who is sincerely confessing their sins and admitting accountability for what they have done wrong. As soon as we do that, he opens his arms and he welcomes us home. That’s the whole story of the prodigal son. The prodigal son is out doing everything he wants to do, and makes all kinds of bad decisions. And even though he spent all his inheritance and he’s behaved improperly, when he decides to turn around finally, penniless and starving, to go home, his father is there to welcome him with open arms and throws a party because his son once was lost, but now he’s found. God’s all about mercy and forgiveness and grace for people who are accountable. Not for people full of excuses. Even he has a tipping point. And this whole “but my dog ate my Bible!” ain’t gonna work. Especially with those of us who proclaim to be Christians. Reverend Whiting was emphasizing 300 years ago, The Lord will stay with you as long as you stay with him! Sadly, later in his reign, Asa did not do that. He abandoned his trust in God and when the prophet Hanani spoke to him about it, held him accountable to it, Asa was livid and threw Hanani in prison in chains. He didn’t want to hear it. He had all kinds of reasons to do whatever it was that he was doing. He didn’t want to be held accountable. You see, it’s not a new thing. Actually, we began that way, didn’t we? Back when there was two people on earth. Two, right? One rule. Two people, one rule: Do not eat from that particular tree. That’s it! That’s all you gotta do. What did they do? Eat from that particular tree. God comes to Adam, he says, “Did you eat from that tree?” Did Adam say, “Oh, yes Lord. I’m so sorry, please forgive me, please forgive me.” Is that what he said? No. He said, “She did it!” Right from the beginning! And God says, OK, OK, maybe I’ll do better with Eve. So he comes over here, he says, “Eve, why did you give Adam the apple?” Or whatever it was. “The fruit?” And she dropped to her knees and confessed, and asked for his grace and mercy and forgiveness, right? Nope. “The serpent gave it to me! He tricked me!” We have been pointing fingers since the Garden of Eden, and we all know there were consequences to Adam and Eve which we are all paying for. Still, to this day. Because we’re no better than Adam and Eve. We’re still…
After Asa abandoned God, God abandoned him, and for the last years of his life, Asa was ill. He had a disease, an intestinal issue. But even when his disease became life threatening, he still didn’t seek the Lord’s help. Only from his personal physicians. This is the Way of Israel’s Welfare: The Lord will stay with you as long as you stay with him! That message hasn’t changed for three centuries. The message of if we do stay with him hasn’t changed either. What about, I love the story of Gideon. How many times have I shared the story of Gideon? “Gideon, take your 300 warriors and you go out and face 135,000 Midianites and give them the business!” And what did he do? He gave them the business. Because he stayed with God. And God stayed with him. David, David wasn’t much older than you, and he said, “Cameron, you go out and face this nine foot Philistine giant! It’s ok, here’s a sling and some rocks.” And Cameron said, “OK Lord, you and me. Let’s go.” And he takes down Goliath. He stayed with the Lord. And the Lord stayed with him.
It’s why Paul reminds us in Philippians 4: I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength. Yes, we will be held accountable, all of us, but the Lord will stay with us as long as we stay with him. He will love us. He will defend us. And like Gideon and David, there is absolutely no enemy, no individual, no army of problems, no situation, no circumstance that you cannot overcome. As long as you stay with the Lord. That’s our goal. Can you imagine: 348 years ago, South Church’s first pastor said, As long as you stay with the Lord, the Lord will stay with you. 348 years later, South Church’s sixteenth pastor has the same message. It doesn’t go out of style. Stick with the Lord and he will stick with you. If we abandon the Lord, I want to say God help us, but he won’t. Would you stand and pray with me?