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December 13, 2020 Sermon, Jesse Tree – Josiah: Returning to God

December 13, 2020 Sermon
“Jesse Tree Sermon 3 – Josiah: Returning to God”

1st Scripture Reading – 2 Kings 22:3-11

3 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, 4 “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; 5 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, 6 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. 7 But no accounting shall be asked from them for the money that is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly.”

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. 

2nd Scripture Reading – 2 Kings 23:1-3

23 Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. 2 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. 3 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.

“Jesse Tree Sermon #3 – Josiah: Returning to God”

About 15 years ago, I started writing my own Bible study curriculum for leading congregations on a study through the whole Bible.  My plan was to start with the very beginning – the book of Genesis in the Old Testament – and work my way through to the very end – the book of Revelation in the New Testament.

In my journey of studying and preparing to make that curriculum, I, myself, learned many nuances of the scriptures that I had not discovered previously.  So often, it seems my previous studies had led me to the same books over and over again so that my primary encounter with so many books of the Bible came from what I’ll call casual reading and also devotional reading…but not study.

One of the most memorable things I discovered during the early days of making this curriculum concerns the book of Judges, and I’ve mentioned this to you a few times in sermons through the years.  I’ve got a biblical commentary that describes the book of Judges as presenting God’s ancient people, the Israelites, as going through something that commentary calls “the Cycle of Sin”.  To simplify, the cycle is about God’s people:

  • turning away from God’s ways and toward their own ways…
  • which leads to God’s people  being overtaken by an adversary…
  • which leads to God’s people crying out to God for help….
  • which leads to God sending a deliverer in the form of a Judge…
  • which leads to God’s people being delivered from their adversaries by that Judge and returning to God’s ways…
  • which after a period of comfort and prosperity – and the passing of the Judge – leads God’s people to straying from God and starting the cycle all over again.

Why is this “cycle of sin” so memorable to me?  Ever since I read about it, ever since I started prayerfully reflecting upon it, it seems I keep finding this cycle every time I open my Bible; it doesn’t matter which part of the Bible I’m reading, I find the “cycle of sin”:

  •  I find it in Genesis with Adam and Eve and continuing to the time of Noah.
  • I find it in the Exodus story; even as God gives the commandments to Moses, the rest of God’s people, in their newfound comfort away from Egypt, drift away from God;
  • I find it in the forty year journey to the promised Land and, once the Israelites conquer the Promised Land, I find the cycle in the book of Judges.  But it doesn’t stop there.
  • There’s a reason the Israelites ended up being overtaken and exiled, which means the story of the histories found in Kings and Chronicles are stories of this cycle, as are the books of the prophets, that reveal something of what was happening from God’s perspective throughout the cycle.
  • And then there’s the New Testament.  By the time of Jesus, a new deliverer was needed BECAUSE of the continuation of this cycle.  The reason Jesus needed apostles and a Universal Church to continue his ministry was ALSO because of this cycle, and so the early history of the Church – the book of Acts – and also the letters from various Apostles to the early Church all reflect this cycle.  Even AFTER the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the cycle continued.

And very likely, the cycle continues today…with God’s people – US – repeating the pattern of moving away from God and needing deliverance…only to stray again once we’ve been delivered.

(PAUSE)

During the sermons this Advent season, we’ve been looking at some of the people mentioned in the genealogies of Jesus found near the beginning of the gospels of  Matthew and Luke, trying to figure out what God was trying to tell us through these ancestors of Jesus…because God must have chosen these ancestors of Jesus very carefully (or God wouldn’t have led Matthew and Luke to write their names down in the gospels)…and because Jesus’ ancestors are also OUR spiritual ancestors and therefore have quite a bit to teach us about God’s desires for us and all the world.

(PAUSE)

Today’s ancestor of Jesus is Josiah, one of the kings mentioned in the Old Testament histories.  In looking at the list of kings who comprise Jesus’ ancestors, none represents what should be our response to Messiah better than Josiah, I think. 

Consider the biblical account we read today from 2 Kings. The book of the law had been lost; the people were worshipping other gods, led by priests who were SUPPOSED to be priests in the religion of God but who seemingly didn’t know any better.  The book of the law had been lost, but then, by what appeared to be an accidental discovery, the high priest found the book of the law, the book of God’s covenant made with God’s people through Moses.  Shortly after the high priest discovered the lost book of the law, the book made its way to the king, Josiah.  And what did Josiah do?

Y’all, Josiah’s legacy – how we remember him, why it’s so important that he is one of Jesus’ ancestors mentioned by name in Matthew’s genealogy – it all hinges on what Josiah did next.  

Maybe even God’s decision to include Josiah in the ancestry of the Messiah depended on what Josiah did next.  I suppose he had quite a few options, including:

  • Josiah could have ignored the find…just pretending like the book of the law was never found.  Nothing to see here.
  • Josiah could have turned the kingdom AWAY from God in response to finding the book – just deciding the people should go in some other direction than God’s way.  Somewhere along the line, that’s what Josiah’s ancestors had done.
  • Or Josiah could have announced the discovery of the book of God’s law and turned the kingdom BACK toward God.  Which, of course, is the response Josiah took.  

Notice that the changes Josiah implemented were NOT small and were NOT incremental.  Josiah changed EVERYTHING, their whole way of life, and he did it almost instantaneously.  He gathered the ENTIRE kingdom of Judah, went to God’s temple, and READ the entire book to them.  Right after reading the book of the law, Josiah made a covenant with God to keep the commandments, providing an example that the people of the kingdom followed.  We didn’t read what happened next in 2 Kings 23, but I can summarize it easily: Josiah ordered the removal from the temple and the kingdom of EVERYTHING that went against God’s law, and Josiah implemented the observance of all the feasts and rules that were commanded by God’s law. In other words, Josiah changed EVERYTHING about the way those people lived…and he did so immediately, not giving the people any time to work to get acclimated to this new way.

Changing the daily lives of a whole nation of people is how Josiah responded.  Returning to God is how Josiah responded.  And returning to God with a complete change of life is how God calls US to respond to the Messiah, how God calls us to respond to Jesus, how God calls us to respond to Christmas.

But, what have we got that needs changing?

Perhaps we can look at our story from 2 Kings to get started in answering this question…by considering what was happening in the kingdom of God’s people BEFORE they found the lost book of the law, which means when they were NOT focusing on God’s desires and keeping their covenant with God but were instead focused on something else, even worshipping foreign gods.   You might expect the people of God were neglecting the temple and the temple treasury…since that building and its financial viability were bound up with the religion of God, but quite the OPPOSITE was going on.

At the very same time that God’s people were NOT focused on God at the beginning of 2 Kings 22, they actually WERE focused on the temple and on the collection for the temple – what we today would call “the offering”.  

Let’s start with the temple treasury, with the offering.  From 2 Kings 22:4, we receive King Josiah’s orders to his secretary:

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…

Isn’t it interesting that God’s people were STILL focused on the offering and the finances of the temple…even when they weren’t focused on God?

That can happen, right?  I’m not suggesting there’s inherently something wrong with making sure our church finances are ok…but today’s story does demonstrate that we can focus on our finances in a way that does NOT fit in with a focus on God.  It’s possible.  I would suggest it’s MORE than possible, actually.  When we start to focus on our finances for the sake of the finances, even for the sake of financial solvency, instead of for the sake of MINISTRY, we start falling into the trap of worshipping our finances as if they were a god.

I remember serving as an Associate Pastor early in my ministry and watching as tht congregation’s Board decided to spend a year getting their finances in order.  I don’t think there was any sinister intent, any intent to remove focus from God and ministry for Christ, but I can tell you that’s what happened.  That year, the finances most definitely were brought into order, much moreso than they had been in a long time.  Every ministry committee made sure expenses were categorized properly, every committee made sure that not a dime more was spent than was absolutely necessary, and the Stewardship committee called and received a pledge from every member of the congregation that year.  AND…that very same year saw the cratering of ministry in the congregation.  So much time and energy was being spent on getting the finances in order that many of the leaders no longer had energy left over for the non-financial ministries of the congregation.  Even worse, since so many of the leaders were required to put quite a bit of focus and energy into the financial side of their ministries – and these were not people who received energy from focusing on finances – a bunch of the leaders just GAVE UP – quit – during and right after that year.  My friends, when we divert Christians’ focus from whatever it is they’re gifted to do and energized to do and passionate about doing for Christ and we force them to focus on the financial side of things  (or ANYTHING else, really), we LOSE sight of the power of the gospel in the process; we LOSE our covenant the same way those ancient people lost their book of the law.  And we need a change.

But an unhealthy focus on finances over ministry, over covenant, wasn’t the only thing those ancient Israelites were doing that needed changing.  Look at what Josiah directed the high priest to DO with those finances, those funds, once they were counted:

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, 6 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.

It’s fascinating: instead of using the money in the temple treasury to correct injustices in the land – to help poor people and others in need, which we learned through the prophets is what God actually desired – Josiah poured all (or at least most) of the money for God into the building.  Y’all, this is what happened when Josiah was NOT focused on God and God’s desires…because Josiah had no idea what God wanted.

Which gets me thinking about modern congregations.  Before I responded to God’s call on my life and entered the ordained ministry, I served on a committee of my local congregation tasked with creating a long-range plan for that congregation.  As part of our work to discover where we were at, a banker on the committee shared some charts comparing the budgets of several congregations in the town, including our own.  What we looked at wasn’t the total dollars but rather the percentage of the total budget spent in certain areas.  And the congregations that were struggling, they spent almost all – at least 80% and often 90% – of their budgets that were not for personnel on their BUILDINGS and less than 20% on their MINISTRIES.   I’ve been fascinated with those charts ever since…because so many of the congregations I’ve served have struggled with the exact same thing but haven’t been willing to do what was necessary to make a change.  I would suggest we need a change, much like those ancient Israelites and much like so many modern congregations in our denomination.  God’s desires as revealed through the book of the law and then through the prophets and THEN through the Messiah – is for God’s people to perform ministries of love and justice…NOT ministries focused on a building…or finances.

By the way, a focus on building and finances aren’t the ONLY things we’ve got that could use changing; they’re just the ones that correspond to what was going on in the time of Josiah.  We should be on the lookout for more.  We should ALWAYS be on the lookout for more.  

Remember, when Josiah discovered the book of the law, he evaluated EVERYTHING the Judeans had been doing against God’s law, and he called for a CHANGE of everything those Judeans were doing that wasn’t consistent with God’s law.

As one of Jesus’ ancestors, as OUR spiritual ancestor, Josiah calls upon us during this Advent and coming Christmas season to evaluate everything we do as individuals and as congregation against what we learn from Jesus.  Josiah calls us to take our celebration of Jesus’ birth each year as an opportunity to consider in what ways Jesus is like our lost book of the law.  Are there things we’re doing that Jesus calls us to stop doing?  Are there things we are not doing that Jesus calls us to do?

(PAUSE)

I began this sermon by mentioning the Cycle of Sin presented clearly in the book of Judges and found throughout the scriptures.  This Advent season, I suggest to you that our reading from 2 Kings and our encounter with Josiah reminds us to consider how we participate in the same cycle.  And our reading of Josiah’s response to the discovery of the book of the law calls us to remember that Jesus is our deliverer.  Our deliverer arrived 2,000 years ago in the form of a baby lying in a manger.  Jesus is our deliverer, the One who can deliver us from whatever ways we are stuck in the cycle of sin, the cycle of turning away from God’s desires of love for all the world.   And so, my friends, I encourage you to do just that as we approach our celebration of Christmas this year.  Search your life – search our corporate life together – for the ways you/we have turned away from God and how Jesus calls us back.  Consider your response during this season of Advent and the coming season of Christmas…this year and every year…so that you may spend as much time as possible living as one who has been delivered, one who experiences all the abundance and prosperity God desires for you…and for us.

Amen!