Sunday, November 12, 2006

D.Min Project Sermon Two

2 Kings 22
3After Josiah had been king for eighteen years, he told Shaphan, [a] one of his highest officials: Go to the LORD's temple 4and ask Hilkiah the high priest to collect from the guards all the money that the people have donated. 5Have Hilkiah give it to the men supervising the repairs to the temple. They can use some of the money to pay 6the workers, and with the rest of it they can buy wood and stone for the repair work. 7They are honest, so we won't ask them to keep track of the money.
8While Shaphan was at the temple, Hilkiah handed him a book and said, "Look what I found here in the temple--The Book of God's Law."
Shaphan read it, 9then went back to Josiah and reported, "Your officials collected the money in the temple and gave it to the men supervising the repairs. 10But there's something else, Your Majesty. The priest Hilkiah gave me this book." Then Shaphan read it out loud.
11When Josiah heard what was in The Book of God's Law, he tore his clothes in sorrow. 12At once he called together [those closest to him] and said, 13"The LORD must be furious with me and everyone else in Judah, because our ancestors did not obey the laws written in this book. Go find out what the LORD wants us to do."

The first step in getting help is admitting you have a problem. My son and I have a serious film problem, one that finds us most Wednesdays in a darkened theatre somewhere in Scarborough. To help wade through the vast number of films currently in theatre, I have invented the mini-review:

An Inconvenient Truth: A timely and deeply disturbing look at climate change.
Death Of A President: A controversial and disturbing film about the hypothetical assassination of the President.
Man Of The Year: Satirical and disturbingly accurate look at contemporary politics.
Marie Antoinette: Political intrigue and disturbing opulence in 18th century France.
The Queen: A disturbing look back at the events surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

If you can spot the trend, you might think we’re disturbed (by the films we see). My son and I favour films with social or political commentary, films that reframe events or pose a challenge to conventional thinking. I want to say a word about only two of these films: If you haven’t seen Al Gore’s documentary on climate change, don’t despair. I’m planning an evening once the DVD hits the stores to watch the film and discuss it. While the film may not resurrect his political career, it will certainly alter popular opinion on global warming.

The second film is The Queen. If you are interested the recent history of the royal family, see it. Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth is remarkable. And as I said above, it recounts an almost hour-by-hour look at the events surrounding Diana’s death and the aftermath. Director Stephen Frears shows us the interplay between the royal family, the media and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Some of the participants in the unfolding story come out looking good, some really good, and some down right awful. I won’t spoil the film, but I think you can guess who is who. I will give away some: only to say that Tony Blair is essentially the hero of the film, portrayed as the one who saves the monarchy from themselves. I found it disturbing. It was hard not to feel manipulated by a film that casts a now unpopular Prime Minister, so dangerously out of touch with his people on Iraq, as the true hero of contemporary British politics. I never like to leave the theatre feeling manipulated.

I also couldn’t help but notice that all the films I mentioned are about royalty or royal power, whether on some European throne or in the White House. Stories of royalty and royal power fascinate us, they draw our attention and always have. Who has power? Who is losing power? How are they using power? How does it affect the rest of us? These are timeless questions, questions that began the first time someone said, “I will be your King” and continue down to last Tuesday when the imperial throne began to vanish in Washington.


11 When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. 12 He gave these orders to those present. 13 "Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the LORD's anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us."

How is it that it took a major renovation of the temple to uncover a copy of the Bible? What was happening there before the work started if they didn’t have a copy of the Book of the Law? A quick walk through Second Kings will reveal the answer: Almost without exception, the kings did “what was evil in the sight of the LORD.” Almost without exception, the kings forgot about covenant promises and gave themselves over to foreign gods. The signs were everywhere: the sacred poles, the alters to Baal, Asherah and Molech, and all the other players on a all-star team of pagan gods.

Josiah, the good king, had other ideas. Like an ancient St. Francis, Josiah decided to literally rebuild the faith of his fathers stone-by-stone. He instructed his bureaucrats to provide for the workers and spare no expense. The work was extensive, and as always happens when you renovate, there were surprises. But, rather than finding a sinkhole as we did, the workers found a scroll.

What they found, scholars suggest, is Deuteronomy. Josiah, the good king, finds the words of the scroll so disturbing that he tears his clothing and sends for his leading prophet to read the rest of the scroll and find some meaning. God must be angry, he decides, and being the good king there will need to be reform.

What did he read? As they unroll this dry and dusty document, they glanced upon words that were wildly out of step with the day-to-day life of Josiah’s court. Was it the Ten Commandments? Was it the Shema?

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. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

In other words, surround yourself with the Book of the Law. Be sure that it is visible wherever you look, because the temptations that the Promised Land will present will require constant reminders of God’s presence and God’s law. Now, I remember reading somewhere that owning a lot of Bibles doesn’t make you a Bible-reader. It certainly made me look twice at my bookshelf. So maybe Josiah didn’t hear some general instruction (that was probably committed to memory anyway), but something more specific, maybe something especially for him. Maybe the scroll fell open a little further and he heard this:

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me’, you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17)

Good, long-tern advice, and set somewhere in the middle of all of that was a footnote that said “and don’t take a lot of wives and don’t surround yourself with silver and gold.” If Josiah the good king was in a panic, we can certainly imagine why.

Now, the story of a good king is far less interesting unless we contrast it with a bad king, in this case Josiah’s own son. Like a Shakespearean drama, the stories of Josiah and Jehoiakim unfold and we are left to make our own judgement, perhaps calling out from the audience “Read the Scroll” or “No Romeo, she’s not really dead!” In this case, Jehoiakim gets his own scroll, ink still fresh, with the kind of warning wayward people always fail to heed. What I love about Jehoiakim though, is the way he receives it:

Then the king sent Jehudi [his aide]to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary; and Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king. Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier. Yet neither the king, nor any of his servants who heard all these words, was alarmed, nor did they tear their garments. (Jeremiah 36.20ff)

I want to tell you that the responses of father and son resulted in a different fate for the people of Judah, but that is not the case. Neither being a good king nor a bad king had any bearing on the eventual fate that we know meant capture and captivity when the nation was overrun by Babylonians. Josiah’s own prophetess, Huldah said as much, warning the good king that all his last minute cramming for the finals would not avert destruction, only ensure that Josiah would die in his own land.

Before I leave these two kings, I have to admit that I’m drawn to Jehoiakim and his penknife and his flaming brazier. As much as we have given him the surname of “bad king,” you have to admit he knows who he is and he acts with some consistency. Villains are compelling because they are who they are and they usually don’t care. Three columns, four columns, and into the fire.

The “good king” designation falls to Josiah because he begins all sorts of reforms. He too had a fire, and burned everything from Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts. He smashed pagan shrines and burned sacred poles and demanded that all the sacrifice and all the offerings happen in the Temple in Jerusalem, the temple that he controlled, the temple of the court of King Josiah, the “good king.” Suddenly, in the spirit of reform, the coffers of the king begin to grow. Is this a pious response to waywardness or a cynical means to enrich the temple treasury and the court of the king. Would a leader manipulate the people using religion and gain greater power? Would a leader co-opt the heartfelt convictions of his religious citizens to further a political agenda? See the problem? Everything old is new again as certain leaders find certain religious groups and they push through a political agenda that is less about faith and more about safeguarding wealth and position. I was hoping to draw some lessons from the contrast between good king and bad king but instead I left the theatre of Judean politics feeling manipulated. Maybe we need to look elsewhere.


Last week I gathered with my Parish Project Group, the brave folks who are walking with me on this learning path, and we sat right here in the nearly completed chancel in the partly completed church and we pondered the story of Josiah the king. We searched for meaning amid the half-built walls and the broken piles of masonry and we found a thing or two. We didn’t find any scrolls (although Cathy reminded us about the racoon skeleton), nor did we find anything that said “this way to faithfulness” or “this way to ruin.” What we found instead (in good United Church fashion) were questions:

What makes this building different from other public buildings?
What makes this a temple?

I guess the answer to the first question may be another question: Why was it built? What did the good folks of the Congregational Church here in Birchcliff expect would happen in this place? How was it dedicated? What words were spoken, what verses recited that would set this place on a path of faithfulness? If we cracked open the cornerstone and uncovered a treasure trove, what would we see? Looking upon a dedication, perhaps we would find something like the most famous dedication of all: the day Solomon dedicated the temple. Let’s listen in:

27 "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 28 Yet give attention to your servant's prayer and his plea for mercy, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. 29 May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, 'My Name shall be there,' so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. 30 Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive. (1 Kings 8)

What makes this place different? God is here, but God is not here. God is all around us, but even the highest heaven cannot contain God. What matters is that this is a place of prayer. This is the place where we lift up our hope, where we lift up our cry, where we seek forgiveness and reconciliation and the reassurance that God cares. This is never a place where the Book of the Law slips from view or the words of scripture are not repeated. This is never a place where status or station or ability to pay dictate your place, nor a place where a monopoly on spiritual matters is declared. This is never a place for the powerful to reign, for official religion to operate or for leaders to seek legitimacy.

This is God’s house, and it belongs to those who need it most: those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, to the merciful and those who seek mercy, the pure in heart and those who mourn, and the poor, to whom the Kingdom belongs. The temple Jesus spoke of was his body. Forty-six years to build, but raised in three short days. What makes this building different from other public buildings? Built in 1923, rebuilt in 1959, and still being built today, it is a three-day project: it is the project of the one who hears our prayers and intercedes for us. It is the project of the one that made his body this church. It is the project of reconciling love that fills this and everyday with hope. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home