Finishing Well

Read Genesis 49:29-33, 50:22-26.

Is everyone familiar with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Even if you’ve never actually read it, or if it’s been many years since you have, it is of course a very well known book. It is the best known book from The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which is a series of seven books about people from this world who travel into a different dimension, into a land called Narnia. Perhaps you’ve read only the first book, or just a couple of them. Perhaps you’ve read them all. They come highly recommended.

I would give you a cautionary note, though, about the last book, entitled The Last Battle. It’s, how can I say it, it’s odd. I remember reading it when I was much younger, and finding it dark, somewhat disconnected with the other stories, and frankly, dissatisfying. While the Narnia books are allegorical fiction, and certainly not a text for Biblical instruction, The Last Battle also implies some rather questionable theology. It is not a strong end to an otherwise superb series.

That’s not unusual, though. There are a great number of stories, of trilogies in particular, but as mentioned this also can apply to longer series such as Narnia, where the conclusion is not great, where it falls short. What began with such promise, such potential, ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. This applies to other creative works as well, it happens with movies probably even more so than books. I could give you a list of examples, from John Christopher’s tripod trilogy to the Matrix movies, and you can no doubt think of some on your own, of things you had read or seen or heard that started strong, but ended poorly.

We live in a society that puts much stock in beginnings. We value that which is new, that which is innovative and disruptive and progressive. We like to see things started. We appreciate good beginnings, and we heap praise on that which is called ‘overnight success.’ We give awards to best new artists. I’m not saying that these things are wrong, but there is a misplacement of values. Think of Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare. The story goes that the consistent but unexciting reptile wins the race due to his even pace and continual effort, and we all acknowledge the truth of that. We think that is a virtue and we praise it. But do we actually value it? As a society we might say that we do, but I believe we tend to prefer, and to emulate the rabbit. We find the rabbit far more interesting and exciting than the tortoise. Slow and steady may win the race, but fast and flashy gets the million dollar endorsements with Nike.

If you are wondering what does this have to do the verses we read to start, well, we see in those chapters the conclusion of the lives of two men, Jacob and Joseph. Both had long lives, filled with many challenges and obstacles, with great moments of success offset by tragedy and misfortune. I don’t think that anyone in their right mind would like to sign up for the life journey that either of them went through. There were many tears and great loneliness endured by both father and son. But in both cases, despite the hardships and the challenges and struggles that they endured, both ended well. We see in those verses that they died surrounded by family, not in a tragic or unexpected manner, not with great suffering and pain, and neither left chaos and confusion behind them. They passed into eternity in a manner that anyone with any sense at all would seek to emulate. They finished their lives well.

This is the final day of 2017. Finishing well seemed an entirely appropriate subject for my sermon this morning, because while we are good at starting things, many of us are not so adept at finishing them. Well, we finish things all the time. We finish meals, we finish books we are reading, we finish putting on our socks when we get dressed in the morning. We also fail to finish things all the time, or we do not finish them adequately or completely.  How many of us have started a project that has dragged on far longer than it should have? At home we have a wall that we’ve removed the wallpaper from and I’ve done some patching and filling, but it’s waiting for some sanding and then primer and paint before we can call it finished. I’m writing a novel, I’d like to finish it next year. Will that happen? We’ll see. We probably all have things we would like to finish, things that we feel bad about not yet finishing. Or things that have not been finished as well as they should have been.

This is not a sermon about getting to the bottom of your to-do list. That is an admirable objective, to be sure, and some of us are better at it than others. But task lists tend to get replenished; as we finish one project another comes up to take its place. That is not what I’m concerned with today. We all have things we need to finish, and we will continue to have those things, until our days are done.

That is one thing that we all will finish some day. I doubt that anyone here is especially likely to live to 110 as did Joseph, and we can safely say that none of us will die at the age of 147 after blessing eleven sons and two grandsons, as did Jacob. But we will all die some day, unless the Lord returns before our time should come. We do not generally get to choose the time and place of our death. We may anticipate it due to age and health concerns, we might see it coming a mile away. Or it may be sudden and completely unexpected. Nine years ago this month I was in a car accident, and while I walked away from it with hardly a scratch, had things played out just a little differently, had the oncoming truck been going a little faster, had the telephone pole that my car came to rest beside been located a few feet over, I might have not walked away at all.

We don’t choose how and when we die. But we do choose how we live.

Let’s take a look at the two men about whose deaths we read to start. Obviously, we don’t have time to do an in-depth study of the lives of Jacob and Joseph, not in the context of a single sermon. I would imagine most of us are fairly familiar with their stories. In case anyone needs a refresher, Jacob was the second son of Isaac, and he did not get off to a particularly good start in life. He schemed his way into the birthright by swindling his brother Esau and deceiving his father, then went into exile to avoid vengeance. He was then out-swindled by his father in law, was manipulated by his wives, and fled with his family to avoid conflict. Jacob fled more than once, he feared for his life and his family on several occasions. Speaking of that family, he had a dozen sons who schemed and fought amongst themselves, culminating in the faked death and sale into slavery of their brother Joseph. That is not an auspicious beginning, nor for that matter, does it sound like a solid mid-life. It was not until after Jacob met God, when he wrestled with a man in the night, that he really began to turn a corner. Or perhaps it was not until his favoured wife Rachel died in childbirth and his favoured son Joseph was gone that he realized that he had been too selfish to appreciate what he actually had, and that he had undervalued and ignored those around him. When he lost what he had prized most, then I believe he followed his God far more diligently for the rest of his days.

Jacob was largely a product of his choices. He made many decisions in his life, many of which were poor ones, self-serving ones, which brought him suffering, pain, and long-term trouble. It was not until he let that part of himself go, and started making better choices, not selfish ones, that things turned upwards. Not that they were always wonderful from then on, certainly not, but that change in his behaviour, in his direction, brought him to the point where he was able to finish his days in honour and peace.

His son, Joseph, the favoured son, he had a different path. He did not choose many of his situations in life. They were already selected for him. After all, the tenth son is not a prized birthright, but the first son of the beloved wife, the doted-on, and potentially spoiled child, given a coat of many colours, that’s another story. He was a lad who had wondrous dreams even in his youth, and was maybe too naïve to realize the jealousy this attention would inspire. He did not deserve to be sold into slavery and be unceremoniously carted off to Egypt, but he was. In Egypt, he did not deserve to be accused and imprisoned for a misdeed of which he was innocent, but imprisoned he was. And in prison, he did not deserve to be forgotten by the Pharoah’s butler, a man who he had helped, but forgotten he was. Through all of this we are never told of any point where Joseph bemoaned his fate or rejected his God. He was a man who did not lose perspective on the situation. Even when the choices of others pounded him into the dust, Joseph did not lose hope, he did not forget who he was and where he came from.

Likewise, when Joseph was called from prison to interpret Pharoah’s dreams, and when he was elevated to the lofty position of prime minister, that was not something he had sought out or had in any way pursued. He was given a place, he was given a position, and he served to the best of his ability, to the best of the abilities that God had given him, just as he had in prison, and in Potiphar’s house before that. Joseph was the product of his situation, but he was also very much the product of his decisions. His attitude, his humility, and his obedient, servant heart allowed him to endure and to rise so very highly. It also allowed him to live out his years in an ideal manner, to the point of seeing his great grandchildren. He had a rough ride to begin, but he finished exceedingly well.

Jacob and Joseph both reached the end of their lives in an ideal manner because of the choices they made, and because they looked to God even when it was not the obvious thing to do. There are others in scripture, men with much promise, men who also looked to God, at least to start, but who did not end with the same sort of results. Let’s turn to the book of 1 Kings to take a look at one of them now.

Reading in chapter 2, we will look at King Solomon, wisest man who ever lived. He began his reign by asking wisdom from the Lord, wisdom in order to help him rule effectively and well. I’ll read a couple of verses from there to establish that, because the way his request was stated reveals much. From chapter 2, verse 7 And now, O LORD my God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father: and I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in. 8 And thy servant is in the midst of thy people which thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered nor counted for multitude. 9 Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?

Such a request already shows a good measure of wisdom to start with, but Solomon was granted more, much more wisdom. His request also reflects humility. It would be easy, it would be natural to be proud when one has been anointed as the new king, but Solomon recognized his place and the heavy responsibility that he had been given. He recognized that he was not ready for this, not on his own. If we read down the rest of the chapter, we would see that God granted him the needed wisdom, and in addition, God granted him great honour and tremendous riches, and Solomon’s reign was met with unprecedented success. He had a great beginning, with a spectacular rise to prominence and power. He began with wisdom, and with selfless concern for his people. He wished to be a good king, to take care of the heritage that he had been given. That is an ideal way to start. If we looked at the chapters that follow, we would see a history filled with impressive accomplishments, skilled management, and many great success stories. Solomon had such promise, with a great beginning and an impressive mid-life. But skip ahead to chapter 11 to see how he ended.

1 But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; 2 Of the nations concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love. 3 And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart. 4 For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. 5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. 6 And Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD, and went not fully after the LORD, as did David his father. 7 Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon. 8 And likewise did he for all his strange wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods. 9 And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the LORD God of Israel, which had appeared unto him twice, 10 And had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods: but he kept not that which the LORD commanded. 11 Wherefore the LORD said unto Solomon, Forasmuch as this is done of thee, and thou hast not kept my covenant and my statutes, which I have commanded thee, I will surely rend the kingdom from thee, and will give it to thy servant. 12 Notwithstanding in thy days I will not do it for David thy father’s sake: but I will rend it out of the hand of thy son. 13 Howbeit I will not rend away all the kingdom; but will give one tribe to thy son for David my servant’s sake, and for Jerusalem’s sake which I have chosen.

Do you ever use coupons when you shop? I do so on occasion, especially if it’s something that I would want to buy anyway. Save a dollar on the brand of toothpaste that we usually buy? Why not use that? But have you ever gone to the store, intending to buy something and use a coupon, and when you get home you realize that the coupon is still there in your pocket, unused? You had it, and you could have used it, and gained whatever benefit it offered, but you failed to do so?

That’s basically what we see with Solomon. He may have been wise, but one can be wise and still act foolishly. The man had 700 wives. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like too many. It sounds like 699 too many. Even if you accept that polygamy was the standard practice for kings in that time, having 700 wives is ludicrous. That sounds completely unmanageable. But if that wasn’t quite enough, he had another 300 concubines. And what do you know, all those women turned his heart away, just as God had warned, so we read at verse 3.

Now, you can say that Solomon was prudent from a political standpoint to marry all these foreign women in order to forge alliances with surrounding nations. You could say it was a smart thing for him to do in order to ensure peace with his neighbours. And while it may have bought him a certain measure of peace and quiet as far as foreign wars go, going to such lengths to obtain security shows a lack of trust in God. Solomon was working things out himself, and it appears that he decided that the best way to do that was to ignore what the Lord had commanded when it came to marrying foreign women. He didn’t just ignore that, he threw it out the window. He married hundreds of them. Did he marry some Israelite women as well? No doubt he did, I don’t know that there would have been 700 foreign princesses available, there were only so many neighbouring kings and they could only have so many daughters. But that doesn’t even matter, because while he was granted more wisdom than anyone ever had been before him, he did not use it effectively when it came to his bedchamber. To marry that many times goes beyond the sensible or reasonable or even rational, it’s like a desperate coin or stamp or baseball card collector trying to get a full set, or to use more modern terminology, wives might as well have been Pokémon and Solomon was trying to catch ‘em all.

Of course they turned his heart away. They followed foreign gods, so while Solomon probably did not believe in any of them, he allowed the worship of idols to exist right under his nose, and he allowed high places to be built for them. I’m not going to go into an analysis of all the foreign nations listed and what in particular was wrong with each one, although I’m sure that would be an interesting and enlightening study. I will mention this, one of the nationalities listed was Zidonian. If a king of Israel marrying a Zidonian princess rings a bell, it should. There was another king who married the daughter of a Zidonian king, we could see that if we turned over to chapter 16. Her name was Jezebel. I’m not saying that Solomon married anyone quite so evil as that, but certainly he set down the pattern for future kings to follow.

What do we learn from this? We see that Solomon began his reign with selflessness, humility, and wisdom, but he ended in selfishness and pride. He got what we wanted for himself — power and peace and more women than he knew what to do with, but in doing so he set the stage to fracture his kingdom, damage his legacy, and push his people into idolatry. This was not a good ending.

When Solomon stopped trusting in God and starting trusting in himself, that is when things started going downhill. It probably was not obvious at the time, he probably thought everything was fine, but once his heart was turned away from God he was on that slippery slope, even if the incline was ever so gradual.

We can see this so many times, in scripture as well as in our own experience. We take our eyes off God, and we look to the world around us, or we look to ourselves, and we begin the slide. It might be gradual, it might be abrupt, but it is inevitable. And it doesn’t even need to be something specifically bad, as was the case with Solomon and his many idolatrous wives. We can make poor choices even in seeking to do good things. Turn please to the book of 2 Chronicles, chapter 26, to see another king who went off the rails, and who did not finish well.

3 Sixteen years old was Uzziah when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty and two years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name also was Jecoliah of Jerusalem. 4 And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father Amaziah did. 5 And he sought God in the days of Zechariah, who had understanding in the visions of God: and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him to prosper.

We’ll skip ahead from there, the next verses details the various victories and successes that Uzziah experienced, as well as his military might in general. He followed God and he did very well, he was a strong king. It says in verse 7 And God helped him against the Philistines, and against the Arabians that dwelt in Gurbaal, and the Mehunims. God helped Uzziah, and he prospered and had great success. It’s easy to look at someone who serves God and who has seen things go well and to say that God has blessed them. But it’s also easy, when you are in that position yourself, to think that you are a self-made man and that you are the architect of your own success. It’s easy to let pride take root. Let’s read some more about Uzziah, picking up in the middle of verse 15 And his name spread far abroad; for he was marvellously helped, till he was strong. 16 But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the LORD his God, and went into the temple of the LORD to burn incense upon the altar of incense. 17 And Azariah the priest went in after him, and with him fourscore priests of the LORD, that were valiant men: 18 And they withstood Uzziah the king, and said unto him, It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the LORD, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary; for thou hast trespassed; neither shall it be for thine honour from the LORD God. 19 Then Uzziah was wroth, and had a censer in his hand to burn incense: and while he was wroth with the priests, the leprosy even rose up in his forehead before the priests in the house of the LORD, from beside the incense altar. 20 And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests, looked upon him, and, behold, he was leprous in his  forehead, and they thrust him out from thence; yea, himself hasted also to go out, because the LORD had smitten him. 21 And Uzziah the king was a leper unto the day of his death, and dwelt in a several house, being a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the LORD: and Jotham his son was over the king’s house, judging the people of the land.

What a sad end after such a strong start. What makes it all the more tragic is that Uzziah did not set out to go and worship idols or commit other sin. He did not violate any of the Ten Commandments here, he was not led astray by a multitude of foreign wives. In fact, the only wife we know of that Uzziah had is mentioned in the next chapter, Jerushah, the daughter of Zadok, and while we don’t know the identity of that particular Zadok, he may have been a priest, Zadok was a common priestly name. Uzziah did not have the same issues as Solomon. But he still went astray.

Uzziah wanted to serve God, which is a good thing, but he wanted to do that on his own terms. He wanted to burn incense, which sounds like a small thing to us, but something that was clearly set out for the priests to do. It was not his role to do that, but in his pride he went ahead and did it anyway. He ignored Azariah the chief priest, in his pride he stubbornly tried to push ahead, and God punished him immediately for that foolish decision.

Sometimes things go wrong slowly and gradually. They drift, think of being at the beach, playing down near the water’s edge, and the wind and the tide are perhaps nudging you along and after a while you look up and see that your towels and beach blanket are a long way down the beach, and that you’ve moved quite a distance without even realizing it. This was not like that. Uzziah was struck with leprosy, and he was cut off from his role as king, from his family, and from the house of God. Did he realize the error of his ways? Probably. He may well have regretted and repented, but he remained a leper until the day he died.

I can’t imagine that Uzziah looked back on his life and was pleased with how it ended. He had a great beginning, but when he was strong, when he was lifted up with pride, he stopped trusting in God, and decided that he knew best. He may still have wanted to serve God, but not as he should have. He tried to have things his own way, and it did not work. That never works, not in the long term.

Looking to the New Testament, Uzziah was not able to look back like Paul and say, as Paul wrote in 2 Timothy chapter 4, verse 7 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing. Paul did not have a good beginning, when we first saw Paul he was consenting to the martyrdom of Stephen, and then Paul went on a persecution spree against the church. He started poorly, but after God found him, confronted him, and changed his path, Paul obeyed, followed, and he finished so very well.

We did not see this for Uzziah, nor did we see it for Solomon. Solomon in fact, may have more in common with Demas, of whom Paul wrote at verse 10 For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica.

Demas made a choice, and while we don’t ultimately know what became of him, this is the last word on him in scripture. Did he later rethink his decision? It’s nice to think that he may have, but we have no evidence to suggest that. He loved this world, he loved it more than he loved God. He chose the world instead of remaining with Paul.

When we love this world, when we care more about what this world has to offer, and what it thinks of us, then we will not follow God, not as we should. We will go off track, and we will find ourselves far from where we should be. Our choices will lead us there.

We make choices every day that have results which play out in our lives. These might be minor, or they might be major. Sometimes it’s obvious, but sometimes it’s not noticeable at the time. The big decisions we make are apparent, we can appreciate those will make major alterations in our lives. Who we marry, where we live, what career we choose, those are obviously decisions where we put much consideration, where we invest much thought.  Those are of course important choices and will have great impact in our lives. We can’t forget about other decisions, though. The smaller, day to day choices, though, those are perhaps the ones that are more likely to lead us astray. Do we choose to follow God today, or do we choose to go our own way? Solomon did not set out to let idolatry get its foot in the door, but that is where his choices led.

Those small, day to day decisions, though, they are also able to bring us closer to God. As we saw earlier, Jacob, once he chose to stop trusting in himself and start depending on God, he changed to a better path. Joseph, no matter how dark and how unfair his circumstances were, chose to trust God and to serve Him, even in a prison in a foreign land.

We might like to blame our circumstances, but we are the product of our choices. As 2017 draws to a close, it is good to remember that while we may know the last day of this year, we do not know the last day of our lives. If we seek to finish well, we need to remain on track, and not drift this way or that, intending to come around at some point. We all should know where good intentions will bring us. We need to choose to trust in God, and not in ourselves. We need to give Him the priority in our lives, and not the petty things of this world. We need to pick our path carefully, or we will end up stuck in the ditch. We may finish poorly, or we may finish well. That is a choice of our own making.