Rev. Teri Peterson
2 Kings 22.1-10, 23.1-3
29 November 2015, NL2-12, Advent 1 (Giving Voice to God’s Promise)
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. 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.
In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, the king sent Shaphan son of Azaliah, son of Meshullam, the secretary, to the house of the Lord, saying, ‘Go up to the high priest Hilkiah, and have him count the entire sum of the money that has been brought into the house of the Lord, which the keepers of the threshold have collected from the people; let it be given into the hand of the workers who have the oversight of the house of the Lord; let them give it to the workers who are at the house of the Lord, repairing the house, that is, to the carpenters, to the builders, to the masons; and let them use it to buy timber and quarried stone to repair the house. But no account shall be asked from them for the money that is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly.’
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. 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.’ Shaphan the secretary informed the king, ‘The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.’ Shaphan then read it aloud to the king.
Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.
This fall, a church in Wales got a new pastor. As many new pastors have done, he spent some time poking around and cleaning out closets—we all know how dangerous that can be—and he found a first edition of the KingJames Bible, printed in 1611, tucked away in a cupboard.
Every parish church was required to have one, in order to enforce some sense of uniformity on the fledgling Church of England by ensuring that everyone was hearing the same authorized words. So it isn’t surprising that the church would have one…and it’s not entirely surprising that it would have been put away in a cupboard, either for safekeeping or because they got a new one as the technology of typesetting improved, making books easier to read and more portable.
But to still be in the cupboard 300 years later? It gives whole new meaning to the joke that church people never throw anything away.
The same thing happened to Josiah—he was a young man, probably new to reigning on his own without a regent or other adviser calling the shots. He ordered the Temple be cleaned out and rebuilt…and tucked away in a closet was a copy of Deuteronomy, the telling of God’s story and law. Deuteronomy begins with a recap of all the things God has done, and then commands us to love the Lord our God with everything we have and everything we are. It then proceeds to detail exactly how and why to do nearly everything, from planting crops to making lunch to taking over the promised land from the people who already lived there. It is meticulous in its instructions in taking care of the poor and the immigrant, in creating the new economy, and in what can and can’t be eaten. The book ends with a description of what will happen if God’s way is not followed…let’s just say that the word “curse” is used repeatedly.
This is the book that was fished out of the back of a cupboard in the falling-down Temple. When Shaphan the secretary read it to the king, and Josiah heard the story of God’s grace and the requirements of God’s law for the first time, he was immediately changed. He knew that he, and everyone else, needed to repent—to turn away from their path and follow God’s path instead. He didn’t waste a single minute in finding out what to do next—he sent messengers to the prophetess Huldah, who explained the text and what it meant for the nation and for Josiah. He told the builders to hurry up with the Temple repairs. And he called for a worship service.
Did you notice that’s what happened at the end of the story today? It is the classic Presbyterian service: Gather, Encounter, Respond. He called all the people of Judah, small and great, priest and commoner, and they went into the Lord’s house all together. They gathered in God’s name and were as one community with one purpose and one focus. He read the word to them—the whole book, from the story of what God had done through the instruction and the consequences. Together they listened for the word of the Lord. And then, having heard God’s word, they responded by making a covenant together to follow God’s way, to obey the instructions in the book and to be faithful only to God. It says that they promised to follow with all their heart and soul—to give everything to God.
It’s amazing what can happen when God’s word is heard.
In the next chapters, Josiah goes around the country taking down those golden calves that Jeroboam built in the story we heard a few weeks ago. The people destroy the altars and statues of other gods. All of the money, sex, and power that went into worshipping those other gods is destroyed—the gold is ground up and thrown away, the house of temple prostitution is burned, the priests are driven into hiding. The widows, orphans, and immigrants are cared for. The whole fabric of society is adjusted to this newly rediscovered reality. And all it took was for people to listen, and then to act on what they heard.
What would we hear if we listened to God’s word anew, as if for the first time? What would happen if we acted on what we heard?
God’s promise is the same throughout the whole story. Every scene begins with God’s action, loving and caring for creation and for people who never deserve it. And every page asks something of us—to listen, to speak, to persevere, to trust, to act. We have 65 more books than Josiah had, so it might take us a little longer to read, but the reality is that the story is the same: God loves, God creates, God calls, God saves, God commands, God helps…repeat. At each step, we have a choice: to listen and follow, or not.
The most crucial part of Deuteronomy comes right near the beginning, and the rest of the book is commentary on it: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
The Hebrew word “hear” also means “obey”—if we truly listen, we cannot help but act.
Which is perhaps why we often resist listening. If we hear the story of the Other—the person who is homeless, the person with a disability, the person of a different skin color, the person who practices another religion, the person from another country—or the people that Deuteronomy would call “The immigrant, the orphan, and the widow”—in other words, the outsider, the powerless, the vulnerable…if we listen to them, we might actually hear them. And if we hear, we cannot help but act. The voice of God speaks through the stories of people, calling us to be faithful to the command to love our neighbor and our enemy, to give of ourselves without expecting anything in return.
It is hard to listen. To hear the word of God in scripture, the word of God among us, the word of God within us—this kind of listening requires relationship. It requires that we listen without preparing our response. It requires time. And it requires willingness to be changed.
It is a challenge to hear the voice of God through the advertising, the demagogues, and the lies of our time. We live in a nation that shoots first and asks questions later…maybe. While we’ve been eating mashed potatoes and pie and playing games with our families, the news this week has been one horrifying day after another, from gunmen creating terror in Minneapolis and Colorado, to disbelief that enforcing the no-smoking-inside-the-restaurant rule would get a waitress killed, to seeing firsthand the callous way our neighbors, especially young men, have been treated by authorities. Discerning the Spirit in the midst of a culture that values some people more than others, tells us we are what we own, and has abandoned truth in favor of fearmongering is a full time job.
What would happen if we listened, as if for the first time?
We might hear God’s word in the cries of our brothers and sisters of color, whose pain echoes across centuries, begging for recognition as part of God’s beloved family, worthy of care.
We might hear God’s call in the pleas of our neighbors across the globe, longing to know if the children of Abraham will be blessed to be a blessing, or will keep the blessing for ourselves.
We might hear the taunts of enemies, trying their best to get us to abandon God’s commands and give in to their desire for fear and violence. And we might hear the voice of Jesus, commanding us to love our enemies, because they too are made in God’s image.
We might hear the Spirit, speaking to the church from the dusty cupboard where we’ve put her away for safekeeping, calling us to both hear and obey.
We might hear Love, calling us together as one community, focusing our attention on God, and giving us the courage to respond as faithful partners in God’s covenant.
We might hear commands that make us uncomfortable, that make us want to hide our pocketbooks and our calendars, because they will betray our true loves.
We might hear, over and over again, the encouragement to Be Not Afraid.
This Advent season, as we live in a world that values talking and bluster, we might just find that God’s promise is made new through the very act of listening.
May it be so.