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Sermons

The High Places of the Heart

March 23, 2003

Bible Reading

In the twenty-seventh year of Jeroboam king of Israel, Azariah son of Amaziah king of Judah began to reign. He was sixteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for fifty-two years. His mother's name was Jecoliah; she was from Jerusalem. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father Amaziah had done. The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there.

The Lord afflicted the king with leprosy until the day he died, and he lived in a separate house. Jotham the king's son had charge of the palace and governed the people of the land.

As for the other events of Azariah's reign, and all he did, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah? Azariah rested with his fathers and was buried near them in the City of David. And Jotham his son succeeded him as king. . . .

In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for twenty-nine years. His mother's name was Abi daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)

Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses. And the Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him. From watchtower to fortified city, he defeated the Philistines, as far as Gaza and its territory. (2 Kings 15:1-7; 18:1-8)

Sermon

The kingdom of Judah, where King Azariah and his great-grandson Hezekiah ruled, was the southern division of the Holy Land. It was more isolated than the northern kingdom of Israel, which lay on the historical trade and invasion routes between Egypt to the southwest and the Fertile Crescent powers of Babylon and Assyria to the northeast.

Judah's relative isolation made it more resistant to, but not immune from, the influences of the pagan religions that flourished in the Levant at that time. You may remember that it was King Solomon's interest in pagan gods that led the Lord to divide the kingdom into two in the first place.

One of the pagan practices of the area, however--which predated the Exodus--had a large following in Judah: the practice of worshiping in high places. The Canaanites, whom the Hebrews drove out of the Holy Land under the leadership of Joshua, had built mounds where they sacrificed and burnt incense to Baal. Baal was not one god but many gods, called collectively Baalim, each of which controlled the fertility of a given region.

These gods, or Baalim, were thought to remain with the land no matter which tribe or nation controlled that land. They were therefore different than the tribal gods, who moved with a people as the people moved. Yahweh, or Jehovah, was the tribal God of the Jews. He went with them into captivity in Egypt, and returned with them in the Exodus. The other people of the region each had their own tribal gods as well.

It is important to realize that the Jews of this period were not monotheists. They believed that their God was first among all the gods, but they did not believe that he was the only God. The first of the Ten Commandments reads, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). This implies that Yahweh was to be the chief God, but that there were others.

Let us now look at the difference between the ways that King Azariah and King Hezekiah worshiped their chief God.

King Azariah sought to serve Yahweh, but did not put his full faith in him. The Biblical record does not tell us whether this was because he feared the reaction of the people or because he feared the reaction of the Baalim. But we do see that even though he ruled for fifty-two years, he never grew in his faith enough to destroy the high places and serve Yahweh alone.

King Hezekiah, on the other hand, destroyed the high places, and served Yahweh with all his heart and with all his strength and with all his mind, so that the Bible tells us his like was never seen in Judah before or after. What does this mean to us?

If we look at the correspondence of the lives of these two kings, we see two paths that we may walk. The high places are external worship--or if you will, just going through the motions of worship without getting to the great internal awareness of God's love for us.

The leprosy that King Azariah suffered from symbolized the profaning of truth. King Azariah did not see God in his worship, and therefore it was easy for him to hold worship in contempt, and to profane whatever he found there. His failure to grow in the knowledge and experience of his God led him to give up all that he had, as well as all that he might have had.

King Hezekiah, on the other hand, grew in his faith. He destroyed the high places of the Canaanites, just as we must destroy the high places of our hearts. These "high places" are the things that lead us to leave our religion in the church on Sunday, when we should be living it each and every day of our lives, in everything that we do and say, because it is a part of us. These are the things that make us think that we know God well enough, and that we have no reason to go on in our quest for his love. These are the high places of our hearts that we must destroy as surely as Hezekiah destroyed the high places of the Canaanites.

As we go from here, let us all seek to level these high places within ourselves, and to recognize that the quest to know God is eternal. Let us pledge that we will support our neighbor's quest as well as our own in the ministry of this fellowship. And let us march together into the Holy City New Jerusalem, singing the praises of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in our hearts.

Prayer

O Lord our God, we confess that we have often become lifted up with pride. We have cultivated high places in our hearts that are devoted, not to worshiping you, but to adoring our own ideas, our own righteousness, our own superiority. You have commanded us to level all these high places of pride and ego; yet we hold onto them, not willing to devote ourselves entirely to you.

O Lord, we now humble ourselves in your presence, recognizing our need for your wisdom and guidance. Give us the firm resolve to level all the high places of our hearts, and to set up instead the tabernacle of your presence. Place in our hearts the Ark of the Covenant, containing your eternal, divine guide to life: the Ten Commandments. Amen.

Rev. Carl Yenetchi