A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
November 29, 2015
2 Kings 22:1-10, 23:1-3
As we talked about last week, God’s love song to us is long, and has many verses.
And we need all of those verses. As the intro video reminded us, Israel and Judah split, the Northern kingdom fell to Assyria. King Hezekiah instituted reforms, but those were erased when King Manasseh reversed the reforms and followed the power of the Assyrians, with their false gods and idols. The Temple was desecrated with Assyrian practices and people forgot Yahweh.
Today’s passage tells us of Josiah, who took the throne at age 8. Luckily for the people of Israel, Josiah, unlike the kings before him, was faithful to God and was good to the people. In light of the bad news we’ve seen recently from Beirut, Paris, released video footage from dashcams in Chicago, shootings in Minneapolis, violence in Turkey, rhetoric from the presidential campaign, and yet another shooting in Colorado Springs….in light of those stories, hearing the story of Josiah is a breath of fresh air. It is unicorns, puppy kisses, and the aroma of fresh baked bread, all rolled into one beautiful story.
Renovating and repairing the Temple after generations of mistreatment and neglect? Check!
Paying laborers a fair salary for their work? Check!
Discovery of a copy of the Hebrew scriptures? Check!
Instead of selling the old manuscript on Ebay to the highest bidder, a nationwide “fireside chat” where God’s word is read to the benefit of EVERYONE? Check!
A new covenant to the Lord, promising to obey statutes and walk in the way of the Lord? Check!
Inviting the ENTIRE population into living a faithful and obedient life? Check!
What’s not to love about Josiah? He’s dreamy.
I bet they put his face on t-shirts and fans followed him all over the country, causing him to have to enter hotels through the kitchen entrance to avoid the throngs.
He’s our NEW HOPE! He’s the one we’ve been waiting for! He’s on the cover of Teen Beat and Time Magazine. A leader everyone can get behind!
We have that tendency, don’t we? We want our leaders to be saviors. If only we could put our trust in _____________, everything would be better. I catch that tendency in myself. I’ve not gotten terribly fired up about any presidential candidates this election, but there are plenty of people who are convinced that one of the people running now is THE person to save us.
Many people speak of Pope Francis in King Josiah kind of terms. And while I am so grateful for the new way he is showing us of being pope—good poping, Pope!—I hear his statements about the role of women in the church and I realize he is not THE person to save us. He brings new hope, for sure. But he’s not THE hope.
Some of my friends talk about the new Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau in savior-like terms. He, with his winsome smile and his cabinet that is made up with 50 percent women and that includes representatives of minority groups because, as he said, “it is 2015”.
He brings new hope, for sure. But he is not THE hope.
Why is it, do we think, that we hang our hopes on a better world on someone else?
I’m a Star Wars fan. I’m excited about the new movie coming out at Christmas. And I’m grateful to Pastor David Hansen who put these Narrative Lectionary texts into a Star Wars theme for Advent sermons. “New Hope” is the name of the original film released in 1977, for those of you who aren’t nerds. I’m also grateful for Matthew Stultz, who shared the video he created that is listed at the top of the page.
And while it is a clever tie-in to a soon to be released movie, it is much more than that. In the original Star Wars movie, back when Harrison Ford was young, ok, back when everyone was young, a droid named R2D2 shows up with a message recorded for the reclusive Ben Kenobi. “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope”.
And so begins the saga.
I hate to spoil a 40 year old movie for anyone, but Obi Wan Kenobi was NOT their only hope. And neither was any droid, rebel fighter, or wookie. If there was any hope in the Star Wars movies, it was the hope that came when people came together to contribute to a better world, each of them using the particular gifts they’d been given. That’s not a bad thing, to be sure. It brings new hope. But it is not THE hope.
Here’s another spoiler alert—King Josiah wasn’t THE hope either. This is not to diminish his greatness. He is a king to remember. But he was just a king. And the problems of the world were not solved at the end of his reign.
As we’ve seen with the prophets we’ve read this Fall, Israel had the experience of understanding their political failures in light of their own misbehavior. They told a similar narrative, again and again—the people were wicked in the sight of the Lord and they met destruction at the hand of the Babylonians, or the Assyrians, or whoever. (Fill in the blank. They experienced plenty of dislocating destruction over the years). And then they would turn back to the Lord and things would be better for a time.
I’m not saying the prophets were wrong to use the destruction they saw around them as a call to repent and to return to a better and more faithful way of living. It can be helpful, when you’re in the midst of devastation, to look around and take stock of the way you have contributed to the mess you’re in.
This tactic does also have the unpleasant side effect of kicking people who are already down—“Yes, you are in exile and let me also point out that the fault is yours”.
It also serves to reassure the people that they aren’t where they are because God has abandoned them. God did not change his mind and get a new people. “You want to know who to blame for this mess you’re in?”, God seems to be asking them, “here’s a mirror.”
When you are in the midst of crisis, it helps to take stock of your responsibility, your agency. When you feel you’re hanging on by a thread, it can be helpful to figure out which part of the problem is within your control. What role did you play in getting here and what can you do, now, to get through the day?
While the Israelites couldn’t immediately change the reality of the crisis, they could start paying attention to justice and righteousness. They could take control of their own behavior. They could turn back to God.
The story of Josiah, however, is a somewhat cautionary tale to this pattern in the Hebrew scriptures.
Because Josiah dies. In battle. And they are overrun. Again. After being faithful. After doing what God had called them to do. Being faithful is not enough to save you.
The story of Josiah reminds us why no human leader will ever be our only hope, Obi Wan.
There’s an archaeological site in Israel that I visited in 2006 called Megiddo. And Megiddo was located on a plain in the middle of a trade route. And people wanted to own that piece of real estate. The archeological ruins show 25 different levels of construction. The city would be built, and destroyed. And rebuilt. And re-destroyed. People lived there from approximately 7000 BCE to 586 BCE. It was a ruin when Jesus was a boy, a mountain rising off the plain, a mountain of a city, layer upon layer upon layer.
You’ve probably heard of Megiddo by its other name. Armageddon. If you add the Hebrew name for Mountain “Har” to the name “Meggido”, you get “Har Megiddo” or “Armageddon”. And the legend of a final battle, where the good guys win, was a way to make sense of the fact that Josiah, the good guy, lost. They may have lost in the short term, but they were going to win in the end.
That became their New Hope. Something far off and distant in the future.
We are entering the season of Advent today, the beginning of the church year and the time when we prepare our hearts and homes for Christ’s birth again in our world.
And so it is good to pause, and to remember just exactly who it is in whom we place our hope. It isn’t Obi Wan Kenobi. It isn’t King Josiah, because not even our own faithfulness will save us from the mess of the world. Our hope is not in the big screen TVs you got on a great sale on Black Friday. Our hope is not in any of the people running for office. Our hope is not in a heavily armed populace or police force or in military might. Our hope is not in secured borders or big walls.
Our hope is in the birth of a baby born in Bethlehem. A child who will disrupt the order of the world by showing us, ever and again, that we belong to each other. A child who will take on the pain of the world and transform it into something divine, sacred, and holy.
One of the words we use a lot during Advent is “incarnation”. We speak of God becoming flesh and being born as one of us. It is in the incarnation where we see our New Hope, not in any earthly ruler, not in any final armageddon battle, but in the birth of a baby. As my friend Martha Spong wrote in a prayer last year:
We need the embodied God
who walked the earth
who healed the lame
who ate with sinners
who told his stories
and electrified the crowds
but alarmed the authorities
and turned the world upside down
without wielding a sword,
or carrying a gun,
whose life was an action,
political and spiritual,
but most of all human.
The embodied God walked the world as we do.
He knows the fear of terror, and sees it on our faces, as we become numb, as we become veterans to terror, and he brings hope by showing us another way to live.
He sees the violence we inflict on each other, and turns his cheek, with hope for peace.
He sees mothers weeping as their children are killed at the hands of the state, shot in the back, and he brings hope by standing with them.
He brings hope with his anger at the injustice that suggests that some lives don’t matter in our world, prompting us to call out injustice when we see it, offering hope to those under siege, letting them know their lives matter.
As you watch the news, as you prepare for Christmas, pay attention to the source of people’s hope. Are we living as if we are the new hope? Or is our hope in a God who would choose to be born, one of us, one with us?
As the poet Emily Dickenson wrote:
Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
May we never stop listening for Hope’s tune.