November 24, 2019

“Responsive Hearts”

2 Kings 22:1-23:3

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

November 24, 2019 (Reign of Christ Sunday)


Friday afternoons are prime time for strange calls to the office.  I don’t know why, but the crazy calls usually come in late in the afternoon when I’m by myself, I’m tired and trying to do final preparations for Sunday.  Maybe it just seems like the crazy calls come in on Friday afternoons when they probably come in the rest of the week, and Carol intercepts them for me.  One afternoon a few months ago, the phone rang and I answered it.  The person calling asked, “What version of the Bible does your church read?”  It was a question that kind of threw me off.  I wondered why that was important to the caller.  I told him that we usually read the New International Version in worship.  


That was the WRONG answer.  Then the rant began.  “Pastor, you are using an ungodly, sinful translation of the Bible.  Did you know it’s missing Mark 7:16, and by using this version of the Bible you are leading your people astray?”  He didn’t pause at all to let me answer him, and when I tried to get a word in edgewise he yelled at me, “You’re not listening to me!” and he went on with his prediction that we were all going to hell for using the wrong version of the Bible.  I tried again to respond to his rant, and when he wouldn’t stop for a moment to let me speak, I told him that I was hanging up.  His voice got louder and more frantic.  Then I hung up.


What I wanted to tell this man was that we worship God, not the Bible.  And while we value the Bible as God’s word to us, it does us no good if we don’t follow through on one of its important messages by loving our neighbors—no matter which translation we use.  It made me wonder how the caller’s reading of the Bible was informing his life.  


In our Scripture reading, King Josiah allowed the Scriptures to inform and shape and challenge his life and his reign.  After what seems like a long period of reading stories from the Hebrew Scriptures about Israel and Judah’s disobedient kings, we are finally reading about a good king, a king who, like David, wanted to do good and follow the ways of the Lord.  Yay for King Josiah!


To set the context for today’s reading from 2 Kings 22, the two kings who immediately preceded Josiah had completely ignored the covenant between Yahweh and the people of Israel.  Manasseh “did evil in the eyes of the Lord,” and built altars to Baal, and encouraged the worship of Asherah (see 2 Kings 21).   Amon reigned only two years, but he followed in his father’s footsteps, worshipping all the idols his father did. 


After Amon was assassinated, Josiah ascended to the throne and ruled Judah.  Unlike his father and grandfather, Josiah was determined to follow Yahweh as his great-grandfather Hezekiah had done before.  Josiah was one of the few good kings, a bright star among the kings of Judah who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and walked in all the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left” (v. 2).


In the 18th year of King Josiah’s reign, when he was 26 years old, he began a renovation of the Temple.  The fact that he did not require receipts from the contractors who were doing the work because they were “acting faithfully” (v. 7) shows the healthy relationship King Josiah had with his subjects.  He trusted his workers, and they served him honestly.


During the renovation, a scroll containing the Book of Law was found.  It seemed like it was almost an afterthought that Hilkiah the high priest mentioned to the king’s secretary that he found it.  “By the way, look at what we found during the renovation.…”  Some scholars think that the scroll may have been hidden away during Manasseh and Amon’s reigns.  With the scrolls hidden, it was easy for the king and the people to ignore Yahweh.  Out of sight, out of mind.   Another possibility is that faithful people hid the scroll, concerned that the ruthless kings might destroy it if they knew it existed.  No matter why the scroll had been hidden, it was now found!


The recovered Book of the Law was read to the king.  And when he heard it, Josiah immediately recognized the importance of the words.  He tore his robes, which was a sign of repentance and mourning.  He realized that he and his people had been disobedient to God.  He quickly sent some of his officials to inquire with the prophet Huldah about the consequences for his predecessors’ and the people’s worship of other gods.  Huldah confirmed that Yahweh was going to punish the people for forsaking the covenant.  Disaster was indeed coming to Judah.  


But because Josiah was repentant and humble to seek Yahweh, he was told that he would be spared from seeing the upcoming disaster.  “Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the LORD…” (v. 19)  Josiah was responsive to God’s word.  He didn’t just read the scroll.  He didn’t just read the Scripture and say, “Hmmm…that’s interesting…”  He allowed the word of God to change his heart, and he did something about what he had read.


Josiah didn’t keep this word from the LORD to himself.  He gathered all the people, “from the least to the greatest,” including the priests and prophets and the Book of the Covenant was read to all.  Everyone needed to hear Yahweh’s covenant with them.  Everyone needed to know about their special relationship as a nation to Yahweh.  And then they all promised to keep the covenant that Yahweh had made with their ancestors.


Then Josiah got busy.  The rest of 2 Kings 23 describes how he destroyed all the altars and worship sites for all the false idols built by his father and grandfather.  There were many altars to other gods, and he had them all brought down. 


After cleansing the country of the foreign idol worship, Josiah ordered the people to celebrate the Passover.  The Passover feast was a huge part of the identity of the people of Israel because it celebrated their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, which was the defining event in their relationship with Yahweh and the establishment of their identity as a people.  The Passover was what made Israel, Israel.  So when the Book of Law was rediscovered, it was important for them to remember the Passover and to celebrate their relationship with Yahweh. “Not since the days of the judges who led Israel, nor throughout the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah, had any such Passover been observed” (2 Kings 23:22).  


Josiah spent his reign ridding his kingdom of the worship of false idols and foreign gods.  He sought to fulfill the covenant with Yahweh.  “Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses” (2 Kings 23:25).  Josiah lived in response to reading and hearing the word of God.  His heart was responsive.  


Josiah lived according to the Law of Moses even though he knew that his people were doomed.  God’s mind would not be changed, and Judah would be destroyed because they had forsaken God.  That was Huldah’s message, and God’s mind would not be changed.  The only little bit of good news was that Josiah would die a peaceful death before Judah would be destroyed.


Josiah responded to God’s word by removing all the altars and high places used to worship Baal and Asherah.  He destroyed all the infrastructure that had been built to support the worship of foreign gods.  It was actually too late for his people to be saved from God’s wrath, but Josiah stopped the worship of other gods in Judah.  In spite of the coming destruction, he promoted the right worship of Yahweh.  


This made me wonder whether my heart, our hearts are responsive to God’s word?  Would I do what is right in the sight of God, even if it didn’t stop the consequences of my disobedience?  Would I try to put into practice what I heard from God, regardless of its impact or lack of impact on coming punishment?  Could I be obedient to God for its own sake, apart from any mercy or reward God would grant to me?  It seemed that Josiah didn’t care whether God would hold back the destruction of Judah due to his grandfather’s and father’s disobedience.  All he wanted to do was restore the proper worship of Yahweh among his people.  He didn’t try to bargain with God.


Sometimes we can become transactional in our relationship with God.  We think that if we do one thing that God asks of us, God will bless or reward us.  So we pray, expecting that God will do what we ask for, because we prayed.  Or we serve or give money to the church, expecting God to bless us for our generosity.  Surely if we are faithful to God, God will protect us from calamity.  Well, maybe not.


I think what God really wants is for us to do God’s will, live in God’s ways, follow God’s commands because they are the right thing for us to do.  They are the way God intends for us to experience life, and blessings, though they do come, are beside the point.  


Another person who had a responsive, humble heart towards God was Lilias Trotter, who was born in England in 1853.  As a young woman, she learned from teachers like Hannah Whitall Smith and D.L. Moody that intimacy with God always shapes and prepares us to share God’s love by serving others.  She got involved in the YWCA in London, serving the poor.  


Lilias was also a very talented watercolor painter, and studied under a famous artist, John Ruskin.  He offered to make her into England’s greatest painter.  Lilias immersed herself in prayer, asking Jesus what He wanted her to do.  Her request was answered: “I see clear as daylight now, I cannot give myself to painting in the way [Ruskin] means and continue to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.’”


After hearing about Muslim people in North Africa who had never heard about Jesus, she felt called to go to serve there.  Her application to the North Africa Mission board was denied because of her health, but she went anyway, using her own personal resources.  She and her friends went to Algeria, found housing in a poor neighborhood and began to learn Arabic.  For forty years, she ministered to the people of North Africa.  


The biographical article about her said, “Over the span of her ministry, Lilias worked vigorously to do all that Jesus put in her heart to do, which is why it was difficult to understand the apparent lack of results.”  There were many roadblocks to ministry, and in the end there was very little to show for all the love she and her colleagues poured into their efforts to share the love of Jesus—no schools, hospitals, or churches.


And yet, Lilias remained faithful, trusting God, living by faith and not sight.  For Lilias Trotter, obedience to God was its own reward.  She had a heart that was responsive to God.


This is what God desires of us:  responsive, humble hearts, ready and willing to do whatever God calls us to do.  Josiah was indeed a good king because he responded faithfully to hearing God’s word by focusing his people’s worship on Yahweh.  Lilias Trotter sought first the Kingdom of God, forsaking a career of fame and fortune as a painter and instead choosing to share the love of Jesus with the poor of North Africa.  


God continually speaks to us through God’s word, regardless of the translation we use.  God also speaks to us through the movement of the Holy Spirit, through conversations with others, and even through circumstances.  How many times have you read the Bible and heard God tell you to reconcile a relationship, show love to someone in need, call a friend, make a friend, or offer help?  And have you responded?  Have you taken the step of putting into action what you have read or heard.  God’s word has been given to us so that we can respond to it, so we can act on what God has communicated to us.  May God grant us the courage to respond to God’s word.  May God give us responsive hearts.