A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian on November 24, 2019
2 Kings 22:1-10, [14-20]; 23:1-3
Next week we begin our Star Wars themed Advent series. Here’s a teaser:
As the intro video reminded us with a quick history lesson, 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.
There are lots of bad kings in Israel and Judah’s history. Manasseh is among the worst. The destabilization of war makes it difficult enough to live your life. Having your leader pony up to authoritarian strong men, throw out your religious practices, and abandon the ideals of your country—that makes it all even harder.
His grandson, Josiah, takes the throne when he’s only eight years old.
And Josiah, we’re told, is a good king. He turns neither left nor right, which is a biblical way of saying he is looking toward God, not distracted by the flim flam alacazam of political power, or fear of other countries, or the lure of false gods.
Josiah does a capital campaign to raise money to remodel the narthex and build the pastor a bigger office. Oops. I mean, he raises money to restore the House of the Lord, which his father and grandfather had let fall into disrepair.
He deals honestly with the laborers, and trusts they will deal honestly with him.
Josiah might have been seen as a great king in any era, but in contrast to his father and grandfather, you can see how the authors of 2nd Kings were happy to be able to report on a good leader. For a change.
And when the high priest says to the king’s secretary, “when we were cleaning out the attic, we found this scroll.” Shaphan read it and took it to the king. “Hey, Joe, the workers found this in the attic. Not sure what you want to do with it. Toss it when we recycle the old annual reports, committee minutes, and bulletins that were also up there?”
It’s an interesting moment for Josiah. When faced with a scroll of scripture that his dad or granddad had ignored, and that maybe a priest threw in the attic so it wouldn’t be destroyed by his reprobate grandpa, what was Josiah going to do?
Pretend it wasn’t important and get rid of it, trying to gloss over the sins of his father and grandfather, keeping stability for the kingdom at the expense of the truth?
Acknowledge the truth, share the information with everyone, repent, restore religious practice, and seek restoration?
Josiah isn’t the best king in the history because he was perfect. I’m sure he cut people off in traffic and went through the express check out line with 16 items on occasion, just like you and I might do.
Josiah is the best king because of the way he responded to an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth.
He offered no excuse.
He blamed nobody else.
He didn’t say, “my enemies planted this false scroll to make me look bad”, and call it a lie.
In a moment of “when you know better, do better”, Josiah did better.
He asked Huldah (the lady prophet!) what God need him to know about the situation he was in.
And then he led the people, all the people, through a public act of repentance.
I confess I’d love to have more kings like Josiah on the world stage, or even in more pastor’s offices, city governments, governor’s mansions, and congressional offices.
The way to be ruled by more Josiahs is, of course, to elevate leaders who turn neither left nor right; leaders who exhibit honorable behavior and concern for the welfare of other people.
The way to be ruled by more Josiahs is, of course, to be more like Josiah ourselves.
We don’t have to be perfect, but we should strive to be honest, and to own our mistakes, and to do better when we know better.
Josiah’s good behavior, and the people’s willingness to go along with his reforms, don’t magically fix things. They are still a small country right in the middle of a bunch of bigger countries wanting to destroy them. Spoiler alert—if you read the next chapter, you’ll see Josiah won’t die peacefully, old in his bed, surrounded by his family.
Josiah shows us a king who modeled for his people how to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.
He doesn’t restore religious traditions so he’ll become rich, or so God will forget the way the people abandoned God. Josiah restores religious traditions because it is the right thing to do.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. And while this text isn’t about Jesus, there is resonance between the two.
Jesus cared about truth. Jesus, in John’s gospel, even declared himself the truth. “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.
Jesus cared about connecting people to God.
The story of Josiah continues the theme we’ve been hearing from the prophets the past few weeks, about what kind of leadership God desires. Leadership that is honest, that is fragile like a shoot coming out of a stump, and that turns people back toward God.
If we declare Christ is King, we declare that no earthly ruler is king. It was a political claim in Jesus’ day, asserting God’s kingship over that of Caesar and Rome. It is a political claim in our day, no matter who sits in the White House or any palace in any other country—asserting that we follow a God who values truth more than power, love more than profit, neighbor more than division.
Like the people in Josiah’s day, or in Jesus’ day, we have the choice to turn back toward God, or to bow to the current version of Assyria, Babylon, or whoever is trying to invade and claim our loyalties today.
There is some uncertainty about just which biblical verses were in the scroll they found in the remodeling of the Lord’s House. Most scholars agree it was at least part of the book of Deuteronomy.
“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.”
You can imagine why Josiah wept as he heard that read.
They had not loved God alone, but had bowed to false gods of other leaders.
They had not kept God’s words in their hearts.
They had not recited God’s words to their children. I wonder if Josiah cried in part because his family had not recited the words to him, when he was a child.
I’ve alluded to this quote earlier in the sermon, but Maya Angelou wrote “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better”.
This sums up well who Josiah was, and it leaves us in a good place to move forward.
There will always be times when we’ll find out we were wrong, because we’d not been taught the truth. And we have a choice to continue in our wrongness, or to embrace the truth.
I’ve been trying to unlearn the racism I learned, growing up as a white child in 20th century America. My family was not in the Klan, and never set out to intentionally make me a racist. But I heard jokes that made fun of other races and cultures. I ate at a restaurant called “Sambo’s” that had terribly demeaning illustrations of people of color. I didn’t know many black people as a kid and was never taught to listen for the ways our stories and experiences were different.
I don’t use this illustration as a critique of my parents at all. They also taught me to love and welcome people, and they encouraged my mind and my questions. We were all swimming in waters of racism and because of our privilege, we weren’t aware of it.
So now, I’m reading books on anti-racism. I’m listening to black voices with more attention. I’m trying to notice my own bias when it shows up.
(Here’s an article that may be helpful for you, if you think you aren’t racist.)
And so now that I know better, I’m trying to do better. I can’t erase the 400 years of experiences with race that our country has lived through since the first slave ships landed on our shores in 1619. Josiah couldn’t erase Israel’s history either.
What we can do is re-commit ourselves to the truth, even when, especially when, it’s uncomfortable and convicting.
Next week we enter the season of Advent, a time of preparation for when God breaks into our world in new ways, and in the birth of a child, we’ll come to know love, hope, joy, and peace in new ways. As we enter Advent, may our commitment to the truth lead us through the season in meaningful and new ways.