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A Church Reforming
The Reverend Krystal Leedy
August 13, 2017
II Kings 22:1-2, 8-11; 23:21-27
The books of 1 and 2 Kings were originally one book, and they tend to follow a pattern. After Solomon reigned over Israel, the Kingdom split into two parts, Northern Israel and Southern Judah. Both had enemies that would eventually take both kingdoms into exile, but we begin before the exile in Southern Judah. Throughout Kings, the kings of both kingdoms are set up with criteria for what make a good king: do they worship the God of Israel alone? Do they rid Israel of idolatry, and are they faithful to the covenant? None of the kings in the Northern Kingdom fit the bill, and only eight out of 20 (40 percent) in the Southern Kingdom pass the test. Obviously, the kings were not working out too well for the people of God. So, as we say often, because the rulers of the nations were not leading people back to God and the people rebelled, God sent prophets who speak on God’s behalf, and they were making sure people are following the covenant, calling out idolatry and injustice, and challenging people to repent and follow the Law. In the Southern Kingdom, Manasseh was a terrible king that brought in household idols and instituted child sacrifice. And despite the words of the prophets, Manasseh did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord. So, here we are, in the Southern Kingdom, where a few people have warned that the people of God are past the point of no return, and Manasseh has just completed his reign of terror.
II Kings 22:1-2, 8-11; 23:21-27
Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned for thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath. 2 He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.
8 The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.’ When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. 9 Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, ‘Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the Lord.’ 10 Shaphan the secretary informed the king, ‘The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.’ Shaphan then read it aloud to the king.
11 When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes.
21 The king commanded all the people, ‘Keep the Passover to the Lord your God as prescribed in this book of the covenant.’ 22 No such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, even during all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah; 23 but in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the Lord in Jerusalem.
24 Moreover, Josiah did away with the mediums, wizards, teraphim, idols, and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, so that he established the words of the law that were written in the book that the priest Hilkiah had found in the house of the Lord. 25 Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.
26 Still the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. 27 The Lord said, ‘I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel; and I will reject this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.’
Josiah was eight years old when he reigned over Judah, a boy who is not finished growing, sitting on a throne with a scepter that maybe is twice his size and a crown hanging around his neck instead of on his brow. For the first eight years of his life, he appeared to live in chaos. First King Mannasseh, the worst of all kings, reigned over his kingdom, followed quickly by Amon, who wasn’t much better. They cluttered the temple with idols, hopeful that these idols would make a difference. In the hopes of favorable weather or fertility or wealth, the idols stood in the place of the altar. The people would pray to them and just hope they didn’t do anything that would tick off one god or another. The people would even sacrifice their own children to please the gods. It’s amazing that Josiah himself survived the fire.
The altar of the God of Israel was defiled, and it seemed as if God was absent or at least really giving a good silent treatment. The Israelites had lost their way. As the boy-king took the throne, it was uncertain at first about whether this leader was going to be any different. The last generation only knew chaos brought on by the clutter of things that ultimately mean nothing. Time passed and Josiah grew, and Hilkiah, the high priest, apparently did his own CRUD week of sorts. He was reorganizing the idols and setting up the altar. And as he headed to the candle cabinet, he found a Torah scroll, rolled and stuffed into the back corner of the temple. As he blew the dust off of it, his eyes lit up. I remember this, he thought, and he knew he wanted to get it into the hands of the king. He handed it to Shaphan, who also read it, and Shaphan brought it to Josiah, who at this point is in his twenties.
For the first time, Josiah heard the words of the Lord in the Old Testament, “I will make you a nation as numerous as the stars.” and “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” Josiah heard the heroic tale of Moses standing up to pharaoh and how the people of God passed through the Red Sea. He heard the hope that the people of God had in the God of Israel and how they constantly wanted to be in God’s presence, even while they wandered in the desert. The people of God had priests who could intercede for them, purity laws that would help make them clean in the sight of God, and rituals in God’s presence. And getting to that final section, where Moses addresses the people of God, giving great wisdom before he dies, he speaks those famous words, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.”
I imagine that while this epic story is being told from Genesis to Deuteronomy, Josiah’s heart is broken open. For perhaps he feels like the people are wandering in the wilderness again or maybe he recognizes the covenant between God and God’s people makes sense to him like never before. For some reason, he felt the presence of God, needed to respond, and so tore his clothes. It is at this point in the story, where a ritual is held: the Passover. It’s been a while since they worshiped God in this way, and I can’t imagine that the re-chartering of this ritual actually went all that well. In the presence of the idols, the Passover was observed, with lamb for everyone. And after the blood on the door frame had set, the idols were tossed, thrown into the garbage from whence they came. As a Judean who had just rediscovered this ritual of Passover, which was so important that they wrote down the date it was re-instituted, I would have to think that everything was going to turn out okay. The prophets who had announced the exile of the people of God after Manasseh were going to eat their words because the people had finally found the right God, the ritual was meaningful, and they were holding up their end of the covenant again. But, the sin of the previous generation was too much for this one ritual to make up for, and they were sent into exile anyway.
I opened my phone yesterday to a series of news headlines that looked like they were from another time. Charlottesville is in a state of emergency and people are dying at the hands of domestic terrorists. People are being bused into an area to hold up idols of men who wanted to enslave people. These white supremacists are calling for sacrifice of non-white bodies. White supremacy is a sin and it has permeated our culture. And I have the privilege of putting my phone down, as many do and many will, because I just can’t seem to get it out of my head that this is not my fault. I can look at the picture of a white man who murdered people by driving his car into a crowd and think, “I’m not at fault here.” I can see the torches and I can think to myself that they look a lot like the torches of a previous generation. I can go about my everyday life thinking that God has redeemed us from the evils of racism by bringing us out of ignorance, and because I am enlightened, that somehow makes everything okay.
I can think that, but it doesn’t make it true.
Because a black person on the east side of Austin can’t think that. An immigrant who fears for their life every day, every time there is a knock on the door, can’t put down their phone. Any non-white person in America doesn’t have that privilege. For when they see that the sinful ideology has sparked violence not only resulting in a civil war long ago, not only resulting in the Civil Rights movement, not only in Ferguson, Missouri but in Charlottesville, Virginia, they don’t have the privilege of putting down their phone because they don’t know when and where the violence is going to end. Enlightened people have not stopped the violence.
I do not believe that God is punishing an already oppressed people, nor do I believe that God is punishing the oppressors, or those sitting idly by. I believe that God is wondering when we are going to look to prophetic voices instead of putting our phones down.
When we don’t pay attention, we forget. We forget that there are people who must endure this violence every single day.
When a twenty-year-old barreled through a peaceful people in Charlottesville, he hit a few cars as well as killing one person and wounding 19 others. One of the cars that he hit had a personalized license plate that read, “God keep me.”
And I have to wonder about the end of that sentence. God keep me what? God keep me the same? God keep me safe? Well, that would be ironic; the license plate is dented and the trunk is mangled. What are we asking God to keep?
We are asking God for change, to reform so much. God, please reform our government, for they have gone off the deep end. God, please reform our church, because we are losing numbers. God, please reform our human race, because we have gotten so far away from where we need to be.
We want something novel, we want something new, we want a new way to deal with those difficult problems, because, for my generation, this seems like something that we should already be past. The YouTube video looks like something from another era, but it’s not. The oppression of one people group by another people group is as old as the story of Moses. And while we should be asking for reform in our society, for new voices to emerge, we have also been sent prophets for a long time, and from a long time ago, whose voices are still crying out for justice. Even though the scripture seems like an old dusty scroll that we have shoved in a closet, if we look at our history, we may find the voices of prophets that are speaking to us now.
So, instead of ‘God, keep me the same,’ or ‘God, keep me safe,’ perhaps, it’s ‘God, keep me listening, even to the old prophetic voices. Keep me listening to the prayers we pray in worship. Keep me listening to the voices that cry out for justice, even if it feels like we ourselves are being attacked. Keep me listening, God, to you. For sometimes I can’t hear you for all the talking heads. Keep me listening deeply, because I can get so distracted by those idols.
When King Josiah realized what was happening, when Josiah realized that God had been speaking throughout the generations, and that the people had simply ignored it, he tore his clothes. He repented. He did exactly what good kings are supposed to do; he got rid of the idols, and he followed God alone. He, like generations before, had priests who could now intercede on behalf of the people, purity laws that would help make the people clean and right in the sight of God, and rituals to once again bring them into God’s presence. And they kept the Passover for the first time in ages. And this ritual was life changing because they heard it with fresh ears.
When we experience a ritual in its fullness, when we experience worship in its fullness, something happens within us. When the ritual is something more than simply going through the motions, our hearts are broken, and our vision is changed.
True repentance looks like this: the hearing of a prophetic voice, a throwing out of idols, and a filling in of the true worship of God, for we are made in the image of God, we are reformed. And even though they were exiles still, the mercy was that they would survive the exile, and they would have the identity of a people of God. They might be beaten down by the sins of generations ago, but they would survive the exile, and they would survive because they could always come back into the real presence of God, knowing that God would never leave them, even in the face of violence.
There are voice crying out for justice today. There are prophets among us that need to be heard. There are prophets among us who need to say something. We must repent of the systemic sin that we are perpetuating. And I don’t know what approach we will take, and how we will destroy those idols. I don’t know what creative ideas God will give us. But I know that we will not be able to come up with a white flower-type moment without listening to God first. Without confession, without proclamation, without our gathering together. I don’t know how else we can listen to the voices of prophets.
The Word was in the beginning with God, and it was creative and beautiful. And it is the same Word that is read today. For we must find our identity not in statues, but in God alone. Listen to the words of Moses, listen to the Word of God with fresh ears:
Hear, O Israel:
The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
You should love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your strength.
And that same God who cared for us, even in the exile, also spoke these words:
You should love your neighbor as yourself.
Having heard these words which were spoken centuries ago, the hope of their effect still remains:
That our hearts are broken by this news;
That we topple the statues, the idols of white supremacy that unrepentant people are still trying to hold up;
That we keep listening for those voices of prophets that are among us.
God, keep us listening. God, keep us loving in your presence. God, keep reforming us into your likeness.
In the name of that God.