…the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the Lord with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant,which had been found in the temple of the Lord. The king stood by the pillarand renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant.
-From 2 Kings 23
Traditions rule this time of year. Even the most valiant opposer of the way we’ve always done it before stands aside as giant birds are brined and wrestled into ovens, as evergreen trees make their ways into our homes to be bedazzled, as garlands are strung and cookies are baked and stockings are hung on the mantel with care.
It’s been dark like this before, right? It happens once a year. We know how to get through it.
We sing our songs. We fasten twinkling strands around windows, light candles on the sills, gather around crackling fireplaces or screens glowing with Christmas movies to remind ourselves that it won’t last, that light will come pouring through these windows again in no time.
It’s cold and it’s dark, but it’s not going to last and in any case, we’re not alone. Our various holiday traditions are, at least in part, the way that we remind ourselves of this.
Today’s story from 2 Kings set in a time, much like our own, in which the people of the Kingdom of Judah had lost track of what matters most. Perhaps every time is like that- perhaps we are by nature creatures who in this life can only see through a glass darkly, never clearly.
But let me backtrack, here, to tell you the story of Josiah, king of the southern kingdom of Judah.
Josiah was eight years old when he became king, according to the book of Second Kings. (When I was eight, I had a bike with streamers and could do a pretty good somersault.) Josiah 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.
Josiah’s heart was in the right place, but the nation as a whole had a problem. Generations of kings had turned toward the gods of the neighboring countries, seeking earthly prestige and security. Generations of neglect had taken their toll, and the holy temple – the dwelling place of the God of Israel – was in serious need of repair.
So, when Josiah was twenty-six, he commanded that the temple of the Lord be repaired. Carpenters and builders and masons descended on the building with timber and dressed stone, trying to clean the place up.
As they were cleaning, they found a record of something that had been forgotten.
Ok, so maybe you’ve never had the job of cleaning out the one and only temple of the Holy God of Israel. You’ve cleaned out a garage, though, or a barn, or an attic, or a closet, right? You’ve been hauling boxes and sneezing through dust and wondering how many generations of grime are on that nasty window, completely focused on the task at hand.
And then, all of a sudden, you find the memory that you didn’t know you needed.
Josiah doesn’t go clean out the temple himself, of course. He has a staff for things like that. Hilkiah the high priest actually found the scroll, probably while sorting through the seventeenth box of old musty psalms and lists of lute players and inventories of sacrificial pigeons.
Imagine yourself in the role of Hilkiah, in this story- you go into a rundown temple, and tucked away between a few crumbling bricks you find a scroll containing the words that you most need to remember. What would that scroll say?
Anyhow. Hilkiah gave the scroll to Shaphan, the king’s secretary, saying momentously I have found the Book of the Law in the Temple of the Lord. Shaphan took the book to the the palace and read from it in the presence of the king.
When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. That’s the contemporary equivalent of a review in the New York Times demanding that everyone read your book. It’s even more than that, actually, because as king, Josiah could follow through on that demand.
After checking with the prophetess Huldah to make sure that this book was the real deal, King Josiah gathered with all the people of Judah and Jerusalem from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord.
Josiah didn’t stop with just reading the words, though. First the king, and then the people, renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord – they committed themselves to following the commands in the Book of the Law. Then, beginning in the temple and working out through the whole land, Josiah and his followers started burning everything that was associated with idolatry – with not loving God first and foremost.
So, we summed up the Law as Love God, Love People. King Josiah’s focus on removing the idols from the land fulfills the Love God part. What about the Love People?
Well, that’s why I started off this morning talking about holiday traditions, because it’s not enough to just kick all the idols out. You have to put something in their place to point people toward God, right? Nature does abhor a vacuum, and an idol won’t stand for it either. Give either a space, and they’ll be there at the speed of light, ready and waiting.
So Josiah burns all the sacred objects of Baal and Asherah that were in the temple, and he breaks down the shrines at the gates of the city, and he destroyed the place where people would offer their children to Molech. Then, in the place of all these idols, the king gave this order to all the people: “Celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.”
Do you remember what the Passover holiday is about? It’s a yearly celebration of God bringing the people out of slavery in Egypt into freedom in a new land, out of darkness into light. It’s a holiday that helps the people remember the God who rescued them.
In place of the idols and the shrines and the valleys of child sacrifice, Josiah offers a better alternative: celebrate the God who actually saves you. Remember the God who actually shows up for you. Josiah takes down the pagan altars, and offers in their place an opportunity to live instead inside God’s story.
In the coming weeks between now and Christmas, we have a similar opportunity to mindfully engage with our tradition- to use the trappings of Christmas to remember the essentials of our faith: We are not alone. God is with us. You are loved. Salvation is coming.
This is a powerful way to Love People, Friends: to remind ourselves and each other that the Christmas story is for all of us.
Okay, so the Book of the Law that Josiah’s friends discovered might have been our book of Deuteronomy, or it might have been an earlier version or a fragment of that book. Deuteronomy, for those of you who haven’t read it recently, is a restating of the law. The deutero part of Deuteronomy means second.
The idea here is that the Hebrew people are gathered on the edge of the Jordan River, waiting to cross over into the Promised Land, and the great leader Moses has their ear one last time. So, Moses is reiterating the things that are the most important for the people to remember.
The book of Deuteronomy contains some new stories that we wouldn’t have had otherwise, but it’s mostly a restating of various laws and ordinances and so forth. It even, in chapter five, reproduces with only a few editorial changes the entire passage that we know as the Ten Commandments- the passage that reminds us not to commit idolatry, to keep the Sabbath holy, to be faithful to our word and faithful in marriage, and so on.
Deuteronomy also contains, though, an idea that I find curious. In it, Moses repeatedly says to the people things like These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness and The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb (the mountain where the Law was given). It was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today.
This isn’t just some story from way back when, like Noah and the Ark or 99-cent gasoline. Moses is reminding the people that all of this really happened to them.
This is, as far as I can tell, not technically true.
Maybe you remember the story- the people had a powerful experience of God in the desert, at Mt Horeb, when they received the law and built the tabernacle to house God’s presence. They marched from there over to the Promised Land, where they lost their nerve and refused to go in.
Incensed, God sends them back out into the wilderness to wander until all the people who refused to trust God enough to go into the land had died off. Once they were done dying off, God brought the people back to the Jordan River.
That’s the point at which Moses is reiterating all these rules and stories before the second generation of people enter into the Promised Land. Which is to say: if all the generation of people who could have entered the Promised Land the first time have died off, then none of the people Moses is talking to could have been at Mt. Horeb when the law was delivered in fire and smoke and awe?
And yet, here is Moses saying, It was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today.
I don’t think that’s a discrepancy in the story. I think it’s intentional.
Look. You and I weren’t at Mt Horeb, when God wrote the law on tablets of stone. We weren’t there when Josiah rediscovered a scroll that summarized the whole law as Love God and Love People. We weren’t there when the Pilgrims, bless their hearts, decided that we all had to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. And we weren’t there when a scared teenage girl wrapped a baby snug and laid him in a bed of hay.
And yet, somehow, these stories become our own. They didn’t just happen for our ancestors. They happened for us.
The word remember is a funny one. We’re so used to the word that we don’t always think about the constituent pieces. Think about it, though: a member is a part, right? Your hand is a member of your body. You are a member of this meeting- whether that’s true on paper or not is beside the point, because you’re a part of our body.
So, to re-member something is to bring the parts back together.
That’s what King Josiah does. He finds something like our book of Deuteronomy, and it inspires him to do two things for his little nation. First, he fulfills the Love God part of the commandments by getting rid of all the shrines of the idols. Then, he fulfills the Love People part of the commandments by asking the people to celebrate the Passover holiday, which told the story of their salvation.
You know, when I think about fulfilling the Love People part of the law, I generally think about ethics. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Make sure that the poor have enough to eat.
As we head into the Christmas season, though, I’m thinking about how our holiday celebrations can be part of remembering how to Love People. Josiah asked his people to remember their own story, through the Passover story. I think we can do the same with our own holiday season.
I don’t just mean that you can use Christmas as an excuse to love people. You’re all great people, and you were going to do that anyway. I don’t doubt that.
I mean that as Christmas carols fill the air in every store and restaurant, and as glitter and tinsel take up their respected places in our decor, and as cards arrive and cards are sent, we can take this month to make the Christmas story our own.
Listen. It was not our ancestors to whom the Lord appeared in a manger, but to us, to all of us who are alive here today. That’s the story that we’re about to tell.
The sky is dark and the news is dark and sometimes even our own hearts are dark, but we’ve dealt with the dark before. We know how to get through it. We know that the light is coming. We feel that hope in our bones and gratitude in our hearts.