It's Not How You Start; It's How You Finish
It's Not How You Start; It's How You Finish
I once read an article that listed some of the greatest comebacks in sports history. The list included the 2004 American League Championship Series in which the Boston Red Sox became the only team in baseball history to come back from a three-games-to-none deficit. It also included the University of Minnesota's football team, who once squandered a 31-point third quarter lead and allowed their opponents to come back and win in overtime. In a 1974 game against Duke and North Carolina, North Carolina came back from an 8-point deficit with only 17 seconds left in the game. They went on to win the game in overtime—after Duke allowed them to come back, yet again, from a 4-point deficit.
There is a clear lesson here for our spiritual life: it's not how you start; it's how you finish. It's easy to start well and then lose your focus and spiritually collapse. It's easy to lose your passion. In the church circles I inhabited as a teenager, we used a specific word for this phenomenon: backsliding. It's a dated word, but it's an accurate one. Backsliding suggests that we were making progress but then we veered off track and started sliding backwards in our spiritual life. Remember: it's not how you start the spiritual journey; it's how you continue and how you finish.
Second Chronicles 24:1-23 is a sad story about losing passion for the most important relationship in the universe: a relationship with God. It describes a man who had everything—riches, power, influence, a rich spiritual upbringing, meaningful work to do, and a good track record with the Lord—but threw it all away. Like every part of the Bible, this story is here to lead us to Christ. It's here to share with us a Gospel that declares we are worse off than we've ever dared to admit, but we are also more loved than we've ever dared to imagine.
Restoring Worship: Starting Well
Our story starts out on such an upbeat note. In verse 1, Joash becomes king at the age of seven, and he remains in office for the next 40 years. You're probably wondering how a 7-year-old child runs an entire nation. Joash probably had plenty of help as he was groomed and trained to assume his kingly duties. Spiritually speaking, Joash started out on the right foot. Second Chronicles 24:2 says, "Joash did what was right in the eyes of the Lord all the years of Jehoida the priest." Joash attached himself to a spiritual mentor named Jehoida. As long as he submitted to Jehoida's guidance—as long as that relationship was alive and growing—Joash was right in the eyes of God. As soon as Johoida died, though, Joash's spiritual life started to unravel and there were disastrous consequences.
We need others to help us live the Christian life. It's dangerous when we don't have spiritual mentors or brothers or sisters to speak truth and encouragement into our lives. We need also to be open to be a mentor to someone else. Everyone needs mentoring relationships—no exceptions.
According to 2 Chronicles 24:4, Joash decided to restore the temple of the Lord. The key word in this passage is the word restore. This word serves as a bookend to the first section of the story in verses 4 and 12. Whenever restoring the temple is mentioned in 1 and 2 Chronicles, the author is really talking about restoring a life of worship. It's a push toward placing worshiping together at the center of our lives. We shouldn't just engage in worship when we feel like it or when we like what's happening. It means we should be excited about worshiping together because God wants to meet us in our worship. It means we must come with an attitude of openness, humility, and repentance.
Real worship has very practical consequences. It isn't just about singing nice songs, being with our friends, and receiving new information about God. Throughout the Bible Israel's worship life was supposed to be a witness to the nations of the earth. Real worship makes us step out in radical and daring faith, driving us deeper into the world that Christ loves.
I once read the story of a church that ministered during the riots and protests of the Vietnam War era. They were located near the Berkley campus, which became a hotbed for riots. The president sent the National Guard in to restore order, but the protestors kept coming. Situated right in the middle of this chaos and upheaval, this church could have moved or ignored the rioting. Instead, when it became necessary for them to remodel their sanctuary, they made sure that they designed their sanctuary so that everyone could see inside. Rather than build thick brick walls to keep the world out, they built windows so that the world could see inside. They knew the biblical role of the worshiping community: we are a light to the nations of the earth. Our worship drives us into the world and not away from it.
On one level this story is about worship restoration. Joash starts well by restoring worship and placing it at the center of his life and the life of the community. We know that worship restoration was happening, because they restored the place of their worship—the temple. Joash ensures that the temple gets fully restored. It should reflect something of the glory, beauty, and excellence of God. In other words, worship restoration leads to property restoration.
We sometimes say things like, "The church is not the building; the people are the church." That's true, but people need to meet somewhere. We need walls and the walls need to be painted and decorated. The walls need a floor to stand on, those floors need carpet, and the carpet needs to be maintained and cleaned. These are deeply spiritual activities. They are acts of worship—offerings to the living God. Someone who volunteers to clean the toilets, pick up trash by the door, and weed the garden is involved in activities that are every bit as spiritual as the sermon or the solo.
Second Chronicles 24:8-11 goes on to show us that real worship changes the way we handle our money. Joash sets up a huge chest and makes an announcement: Come and fill up the chest, so that we can rebuild the temple.
Worship changes our level of financial giving. That's why problems with our church budget aren't just financial; they're spiritual. Issues of finances are worship issues.
Real worship also changes our attitudes. It makes us want to serve God with diligence, passion, and enthusiasm. In 24:10, the people bring their money gladly. There wasn't any guilt of manipulation or sermonizing; they did it because they knew it was important. When various craftsmen were recruited to complete the job, the craftsmen worked diligently.
Do you see how practical real worship is? It speaks into all the nitty-gritty aspects of our lives. When we stay open and humble, we get excited about who God is and what Jesus has done for us, and it changes everything about us.
Forsaking the Lord: Finishing Poorly
Joash starts well by restoring worship, but all of that will unravel in 2 Chronicles 24:15-18. Here we encounter another key word in our story:forsake. Rather than do what is right in the eyes of God, Joash turns his back on God. His spiritual life collapses, and he starts to backslide.
After the death of Jehoida, a group of officials came from Judah to flatter the king. Joash listens to their words, and together they abandoned the Lord and worshiped Asherah. Asherah was a Canaanite fertility goddess and the wife of the pagan god Baal. Worship of Asherah involved sexual orgies and religiously-sanctioned prostitution. Her symbol was a wooden pole, which was used as an object of worship.
This seems strange to us, but idolatry always lurks in our hearts. It's the chief means by which we backslide. The Bible calls idolatry the sin behind every other sin. According to the Bible, worshiping idols is at the top of God's list of no-no's.
The best definition of the word idol that I've ever heard comes from the great theologian Rocky Balboa. Rocky once told his girlfriend why he had to fight: "I have to go the distance or else I'm nothing but a bum." An idol is anything or anyone of which you say, "I have to __________ or else I'm nothing but a bum." An idol moves to the core of your identity; you become it's slave, and it becomes your master. What's especially sad about idolatry is that God has promised to deliver us from slavery. God told us to put him first—not only for his glory, but also for our own good. God wants us to be supremely satisfied in him so that we don't have to be enslaved by idols. Every idol enslaves and diminishes us. In John 10:10, Jesus said, "The thief comes only to steal and kill; I have come that you might have life." Christianity doesn't diminish your passion for other things; it unleashes your passion. Once we place our friends, spouse, children, career, or hobbies in their proper place and allow God to be the deep satisfier of our heart, God unleashes a river of love and passion for those other things.
How does God deal with us when we abandon him? He isn't happy about it, but he doesn't give up on us easily. He pursues us. Second Chronicles 24:19 says that God sent prophets or messengers "to bring [Joash and the others] back to him." Isn't that kind and patient of God? God always gives us a wake-up call
When you check into a hotel, you can call the front desk and say, "I'd like a wake-up call for 7:00 am." They could say to you, "Are you kidding? Why should we give you a wake-up call? We put an alarm in your room, dummy. Just set the alarm!" But they don't, because they want to serve you. They run a grace-filled hospitality.
God doesn't have to give us wake-up calls. He's given us a conscience to "alarm us" when we need to wake up. But because God loves us and offers us his grace-filled hospitality, he gives us free wake-up calls for our spiritual lives. The key phrase in verse 18 is "to bring them back to the Lord." God is always giving wake-up calls to his people, saying, "Wake up! Turn your life around and come back to me, because you're on the wrong track."
I hope you see how kind and patient God is to us. I meet people who think that God is a some celestial Big Bully. They're convinced that if they say, "God, I surrender to you," God will make them utterly miserable. But in the Gospel, we meet a Savior named Jesus who is always saying: I am the Lord your God, and I want to set you free from slavery. I want you to find real freedom—freedom from fear, the stupidity of pride, sin, selfishness, and the fear of death.
In his goodness God is always trying to get our attention. Sometimes it's a whisper; sometimes it's a heart-to-heart talk; sometimes he shouts to us through the megaphone of pain.
Notice what happens, sadly, when God tries to get the attention of Joash and the officials of Judah: "they would not listen." Will God now zap them with justice? Will he annihilate them with his wrath? No! In 2 Chronicles 24:20, God gives them another chance to repent, sending a prophet to warn them of the consequences of their actions.
I've seen this happen in my own life, over and over again. God sometimes gives me dozens and dozens of wake-up calls. They often come through relationships. That's why we have to be in community, allowing people to see into our lives. Once someone knows you—your struggles, sins, hopes, dreams, blessings, and gifts—they can speak life into your heart. Sometimes they bring a prophetic word that stings, cuts, or burns. Sometimes they bring a prophetic word that blesses and encourages. Regardless, the purpose is always to heal, build up, and give life.
The message for Joash was very direct: if you're not walking with God—if there is blatant sin in your heart—you will not prosper. Joash was told that he wouldn't get ahead by ditching God; he would always slide backward and never forward. The second part of the prophetic message for Joash is that if he forsakes the Lord, the Lord will forsake him.
How does Joash respond to God's wake-up calls? He shoots the messenger! Right outside the beautiful temple that they've just finished repairing, Joash kills the son of his former mentor in cold blood. How did Joash fall so far? He started out well, but now he's orchestrated the murder of God's wake-up call. The answer is simple: Joash suffered from backsliding. Most of us don't plan on falling so far; we just slip into it.
The sad reality is that there are consequences to our sin and our backsliding. As Joash kills the prophet, the prophet offers a dying prayer: "May the Lord see this and call you to account." Is this vindictive and unforgiving? Not necessarily! God is a God of justice; there are always consequences. This story ends on a tragic note: Joash dies alone and abandoned—just as he had abandoned the Lord—bearing the consequences of his sin and his backsliding.
The Gospel: A Better Ending to Our Story
Our story doesn't have to end the same way. The God of grace-filled wake-up calls has provided a way for us to forsake our forsaking of the Lord. We can "forward-slide" after our backsliding through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel of Jesus says that Christ has already born the consequences for my backsliding heart. I don't have to shoulder that sin, because I can't bear it alone. Christ bore my sins in his body when he died on the cross, and now we can all approach God as his sons and daughters.
When God gives a wake-up call, it's a call to return to my Father's love. When the wake-up call comes, we have a choice to make: heed the wake-up call, ignore it, or even kill it. More often than not, pain is what stops us from heeding the wake-up call. It hurts to admit that we're wrong—that our lives are off-track after starting out so well. It's embarrassing to admit that we're backsliding from God. But the pain can turn to joy and new life. We simply have to face the pain, walk through it, and say to God, "I've been backsliding for a long time, God. I started out so well, but now I'm sliding backwards."
Listen to the good news of the Gospel: there is a better way than backsliding; there is a better way than living in guilt, fear, shame, and spiritual failure. Don't let your pride get in the way of the Good News. If God is giving you a wake-up call, heed it today. Don't ignore it or kill it. Instead, know in your heart that the living God is offering you a new start. Accept his grace today, and by that grace, finish well.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.