Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jedidah, the 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 accounting 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.
When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes.Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying,“Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”
So the priests Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to the prophetess Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah; she resided in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter, where they consulted her. She declared to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the Lord, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants—all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard,because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord.
Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.”
They took the message back to the king.2 Kings 22:1-22 (Reader’s note: If you made it all the way through this passage, very good for you!)
How well do you know your story … your family story, or maybe even the Bible’s story? Can you imagine not knowing where you come from? How about this; can you imagine finding something that tells you some new things about who you are and what you are to do with your life?
In some sense our scripture this week is a history lesson and also an ‘everyman’ story— a universal tale that tells how someone can lose touch with the past, reconnects, and then moves forward in life.
This storyline sounds like it comes from a lost script of a Stephen Spielberg movie, maybe a remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But the truth of all of this is more real than we know.
The kingdom of Judah (the southern kingdom), was in a time of transition. Old King Manasseh died. He’d been the longest reigning king to date, and perhaps the most evil. He readily allowed for the worship of idols, the building of foreign temples, the practice of child sacrifice and other acts commonly regarded as ‘ungodly.’
Young Josiah then became king; just eight years old when he took the throne. Now in this passage he is a teenager, 18-years-old, when he decides it’s time to repair the temple. Years before, disaster had befallen the Northern Kingdom (Israel) that Solomon left to his son, Rehoboam. Today’s episode takes place in the city of Jerusalem, in the Southern Kingdom, Judah.
King Josiah decides to have the Temple repaired. For whatever reason, it’s time to spruce up the place (you know how that goes!) He orders stone masons and carpenters to renovate. In the process of the renovations, a book, (most likely, a scroll) is found. (This was likely portions of the Book of Deuteronomy- chs. 12-26, the ‘second law’, details of YHWH’s words to Moses.) The priests present the book.
Josiah hears what it says and wants to have this document verified. Interestingly, his scribes are not the final authorities to rely on. Instead, he orders a group of them to go and consult a prophetess- Huldah (what the bulletin cover for today is all about), to verify the authenticity of this scroll. How Huldah knew that this was the ‘real McCoy’, I don’t know, but she affirms that this is authentic scripture, the word of the Lord. (Also, importantly-there is absolutely no mention of Huldah being a woman; which means that it was simply taken as a matter of course that there were women prophets around and she was a reliable witness to the work of God in their midst.) Josiah’s heart is turned, he rips his clothes (a dramatic sign of the importance of the message), and he decides to lead his people in a new direction.
What was once unknown to him, but was somehow always ‘written in his heart’, comes to life in a surprising and unexpected discovery.
Stories can carry varying amounts of power with them, depending on who’s telling them and what they are about. Family stories especially can carry power to affect one’s life forever. It took me a while to begin to learn about the stories of my family, of who’s who, who did what, tales shared at gatherings, filling up the yearbooks and scrapbooks I’d rummage through when I was growing up. I guess that my extended family is fairly large; both my Dad and Mom are both from families with six children, plenty of aunts and uncles, each with very different stories…some very adventurous, some not so much, some very successful- some not so much; engineers, farmers, plumbers, some in the oil business, and an attorney here and there.
Because my Dad died when I was very young, I sought to learn more about my family history than my other cousins. I had no ready ‘go-to’ source of information, so in a time before cell phones and computers I searched out family history via microfilm and the US mail. Letters took weeks. Library visits happened over the holidays.
Maybe it was because I started my work with a blank slate that when the answers came, my understanding of my family was shaped more by stories than by personal influence. Since I didn’t have the chance to hear the stories on my own, but rather had them revealed one by one through the years, they took on a new and special importance.
Eventually I developed a good sense of the family dynamics of both sides, and now I’m the one who is the source of family stories, many unknown to other cousins.
There is a sense of a similar but much more dramatic epiphany that happened to good King Josiah. When the Book of the Law was found and read to the young king he discovered his identity and that of his entire people. In the blink of an eye the king gained an understanding of who he was and how he was to live… he rent his clothes, realizing that he had not been living the life he should.
He knew then and there that he had been ignorant of all too much, and change needed to happen, soon. After this being confirmed, again by the prophetess Huldah, Josiah called his people together— shared what was discovered, and it forever changed the way they saw themselves, how they believed and how they acted. Sacrifices to idols ceased, especially child sacrifice!, and idols and accompanying places of worship were destroyed. Ritual practices were ended and renewed faithfulness was instituted. This wasn’t instantaneous but it was revolutionary. It renewed a conviction to follow the Lord and not to ‘mix and match’ religion at whim.
At first, we wonder how this could have happened—how could someone misplace ‘the Book of the Law’? When you realize that Josiah lived some 300 years after the construction of the Temple and all that transpired with the division of the kingdom and the parade of different kings before him—many corrupt— we realize that even things as precious as this scroll could easily have been lost, misplaced, even purposefully hidden. That happens with stories of the past, as you may well know. Stories can be ‘misplaced’, forgotten, dismissed because of their insignificance, or even because of their significance.
Of course, the core message of this scroll was not totally new for the Hebrew people- it had been around since the days of leaving Egypt and crossing the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. These words once guided Moses, David and Solomon. But it was new for this generation.
And as they renewed their original covenant, they felt at home, as if they knew it all along, somehow realizing, deep in their bones and in the depth of their being, that this was the right thing for them; that it felt right, that they were worshipping with their whole selves- that it wasn’t just ritual ceremony, checking off items on a ‘spiritual to-do’ list.
There is a story from another tradition that I think relates to this well; through which we can perhaps better understand this chapter of ancient Hebrew history. It’s about recognizing truth in one’s life, in spite of outward appearances. Try this one on for size…
A Tibetan teaching story tells of a man who met a famous lama passing through his village and decided, then and there, to devote himself to the pursuit of enlightenment. He asked the lama what he should do to achieve a state of perpetual holiness and peace. The holy man, sensing his sincerity, gave him a special prayer to chant, saying that if he practiced this every day -coordinating the chanting with his breathing- he’d surely find what he desired.
The man determined to achieve this state of holiness and peace. He went to a cave to meditate, devoting himself with all of his powers to the task he’d been given. But nothing happened.
For twenty years he stayed at his work, doing everything he’d been told. Yet enlightenment, perfect holiness and peace, eluded him.
When the lama finally came through the village again, years after his first visit, the man rushed to see him. “What’s the problem here?” he asked. “I’m still not enlightened and for twenty years I’ve been doing everything you told me to do.”
“Oh,” said the lama, “I forgot what I told you to do.” The man repeated the chant he’d been prescribed. “I’m afraid that I told you the wrong thing,” the holy man responded. “That won’t help at all. I’m sorry; there’s nothing I can do for you. It’s too late to start over; you’ll never be enlightened now.”
The man walked away, overcome with frustration, anger, and despair. Not knowing what else to do, he went back out of habit to his cave. Thinking, “Well, there’s nothing left now and I’ve gotten used to it anyway,” he crossed his legs, closed his eyes and began to pray as usual; this time without any hope of attaining enlightenment. And immediately his eyes were opened, piercing through the veil. At last he understood that it was his grasping for enlightenment that had kept him from achieving it all along. In the silence, he thought he heard the lama’s distant laughter drifting toward him on a high mountain wind.
What he found, not by plan but almost by accident, came to give him new life…
There are things that are good and right and true that we all too often dismiss. In our own age of over-information we are easily sidetracked by all of the materials available to us. Our iphones and mobile devices—even though they may contain a Bible app—too often simply distract us and the built-in guide that we have gets lost, buried under a digital deluge.
When one revisits the story of Josiah, there is an irony present well worth remembering. On the one hand, it a story about how the people of God didn’t know their story, because the story remained locked up behind Temple doors. On the other hand, ironically, almost no one today knows this story, because the story remains simply ignored under the weight of tradition.
On this Christ the King Sunday we again open our eyes to who we are and whose we are; part of a faithful gathering of those called together by the Holy Spirit to worship and serve. Committed to be together, to share of what we have for our work, worship and mission together, we gather to retell the stories of love and sharing. In this early week before Thanksgiving, we celebrate our togetherness and the blessings we share.
So, today, tomorrow and forever, remember to seek the truth and do not shy away from it. Because, as they say, even as Jesus said, the truth shall set you free.