Scripture Passage: Josiah Renews the Covenant

The king stood by the pillar and 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. – 2 Kings 23:3

It’s the end of the world, Friends. We’re in the last days. 

The planet is on fire. The Nazis are back, for some godforsaken reason. Our economic and health care systems are broken. The ice caps are melting, and if you don’t think that’s serious, then you might not have loved ones in a swamp state like Florida, like I do.

And just in case all of that doesn’t do us in, we’ve got enough nuclear weapons to destroy the whole planet and everything on it. It’s always good to have a backup plan, right?

It’s always the end of the world, of course. 

The Quaker movement within Christianity started during the Interregnum period of British history, after King Charles the First had been executed and before anyone had any sense of what was coming next. Apocalyptic movements started popping up all over the country, including this one that said that getting to God through the legally-approved church structure was unnecessary because Christ had come to teach his people himself.

There are lots of Biblical ends of the world, even aside from the day and hour being unknown and the stars falling from the sky and the blowing of the trumpets, and other familiar apocalyptic images.

One of the most obvious is the Noah story; everything and everyone is swept away in an unimaginable disaster, and the few survivors are deposited on a foreign mountain to begin again. You could think of the end of the creation story this way, too… a perfect world is described, and then taken away.

And, of course, there’s the story of the crucifixion, with the disciples gathered around watching the end of the world. The cross is at the core of the story that we tell about who God is because it shows us God participating in the end of the world, not as the cause of it but as one who suffers. 

Those are big-story versions, but they’re far from the only ones. Ashley talked about one last week: Isaiah picturing the coming end of David’s kingdom as a stump, mown down, all the life removed. That’s the end of the world, for a tree. Isaiah was seeing it as the end of his world, too.

Isaiah was a prophet in the time of King Hezekiah, who was a good king in the southern kingdom of Judah. Because Hezekiah led with righteousness, he and his people were protected when the Assyrians came to town and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. 

Hezekiah was followed by his son, Manesseh. Manesseh overturned his father’s religious reforms, reverting to the worship of local idols.

It’s not hard to imagine why he might have wanted to diversify his worship; he was the ruler of a tiny kingdom trapped between the superpowers of Egypt and Babylon. Manesseh could see how his world could come to an end, in a hurry.

So if you think that worshiping a god gets their attention, and that there may be multiple gods willing to listen, then you hedge your heavenly bets. You spread the love around. You worship Yahweh in the temple, but you build a statue there for Asherah as well, just in case she might be listening.

It’s worth it to compromise a little bit, if it keeps your world intact.

So, Hezekiah was a good king, and then Manesseh was absolutely evil; that’s how the Biblical authors classify the decision to mix idolatry into worship. Manesseh’s son, Amon, was also pretty terrible. And then Amon was succeeded by his own son, Josiah.

Josiah was a good king, but he didn’t remember the world of his great-grandfather Hezekiah. He didn’t remember a nation in which Yahweh alone was worshiped. He became king when he was eight years old, and it wasn’t until he was twenty-six that he got a glimpse of the world that had ended before he arrived:

In the eighteenth year of his reign, King Josiah sent the secretary […] to the temple of the Lord. Josiah sent his secretary out with an eye toward financial matters, since the temple was being repaired and the money collected for that purpose needed to be spent on the workers.

When the secretary got to the high priest, though, their conversation was about more than just paying contractors. Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it.

Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: “Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the Lord and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple.” Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.

So remember, this is the first King Josiah is hearing of this. The Book of the Law has been ignored since his great-grandfather Hezekiah’s time. He’s never heard all of these laws about how to treat one another, how to remain ritually pure, how to come into God’s presence, and how to celebrate holy seasons together.

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He sent a team from his court off to meet with a prophet, a woman named Huldah who lived there in Jerusalem, saying, “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”

They went off to speak to a woman named Huldah, a prophet who lived there in Jerusalem. 

She said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’

Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.’”

So they took her answer back to the king: everything will be destroyed by the unquenched anger of Yahweh, because the covenant between God and the people of God has been repeatedly violated. But, because of King Josiah’s faithfulness, this won’t happen during Josiah’s reign.

This is where today’s reading started, with King Josiah’s response to hearing Huldah’s prophecy. I wanted to give you the backstory so that you could hear the thing that would have been utterly obvious to the original tellers of the story: this isn’t going to work. Josiah is going to try to move his country away from idolatry and unfaithfulness and toward the covenant that their ancestors had with their God, and it isn’t going to be enough. Destruction is coming.

At most, Josiah’s faithfulness will postpone the coming disaster. It moves the minute hand on the Doomsday clock from Two Minutes Till Midnight back to Seven Minutes Till Midnight. It’s a stopgap. It doesn’t solve the problem.

What does faithfulness look like, when the world is ending?

If you’re King Josiah, you call the people together. You read the Book of the Covenant, filled with ancient promises about lovingkindness and fair measures and Sabbath rests. You pledge yourself to that covenant, heart and soul. You lead the people under your care to do the same.

You do that knowing that it won’t, ultimately, be enough. And then, you go into the temple and you tear out all the idols.

This piece of the story is mind-boggling to me, because King Josiah has just been told that Yahweh plans to destroy everything no matter what they do. And in response, he goes into the temple and tears out every source of false hope, every statue that they might be tempted to offer prayers to. King Josiah burns it all down, faithfully.

King Josiah desecrates the place where people had been offering child sacrifices to Molek… and if child sacrifice seems barbaric and ancient to you, bear in mind that the second leading cause of death in this country for children aged 10-14 is suicide. We’ve got our own way of laying children on the sacrificial altar.

Josiah destroys chariots that had been dedicated to the sun and gets rid of the horses who had dedicated and paired with those chariots. Chariots were advanced military technology, at the time. This is a substantial disarmament, for a nation trapped between two superpowers; a radical choice to prioritize faithfulness of worship over military might and security.

Josiah tears down the high places of idolatry that had been built all the way back in the time of Solomon. That’s generations prior to his own great-grandfather, Hezekiah. Those would have seemed like ancient parts of the landscapes, unchangeably and unquestionably embedded in the way we’ve always done it..

All for what? A generation more? A little more time for life to bloom? Because when Josiah goes, all of this protection goes with him. It’s just a postponing of judgment.

Maybe that’s enough. Maybe preserving one generation more is enough, for faithfulness.

Or, maybe the proper response to the story is a what if game? What if Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, had similarly committed himself to the preservation of one more generation? Could judgment have been postponed indefinitely?

Perhaps the Babylonian Conquest never needed to happen at all.

Part of why this story fascinates me is how richly layered it is with images of God’s presence among a people who aren’t listening for God.

You start with the temple, meant to be the meeting point of heaven and earth, the place where the Creator God is enthroned amid creation. It’s in disrepair, though. It’s the same grand building that Solomon built, but it doesn’t seem quite so glorious. It’s housing enough other gods to qualify as a multi-purpose facility. 

But temple stories are always about worship in spirit and truth. They’re about how God is revealing the Divine Self to humanity, and how we are bound to respond to that revelation. 

Doesn’t matter if the temple has been neglected a bit. It’s not really about the building. George Fox could have told you that. It’s about the worship: acknowledging something greater, feeling reverence… but more importantly, acting reverently.

It’s within this temple, within the place of worship, that the Word is found. In this case, it’s the Book of the Covenant: ancient promises meant to keep the people flourishing in the land they were given.

I don’t expect that any of you will find a scroll appearing under your pew cushion, during waiting worship, but it works the same here. The Word speaks to us in surprising ways, garbed in hymns and prayers, in the vocal ministry of another Friend, or in the quiet Presence known within. The Word transforms us, recreates us, just as it did King Josiah. It roots us in the ancient promise that our flourishing is tied together, that to bless one another is to invest in our own well-being, that our ultimate security lies not in our military might but in our willingness to be faithful to our Creator and to each other and to all of creation.

The king himself is also an image of Divine presence, you know. He’s righteous not just because he’s personally doing the right thing, but because he’s leading the people in covenant faithfulness. He didn’t find out that disaster was coming and then cut out for Egypt.

The king stays with his people, guiding and directing them.

Submission isn’t a popular word among Friends, but when we say that Jesus is Lord, submission is exactly what’s called for. When the king says, “this is the way that we’re going to live, with mercy and justice and open hearts,” you obey. You follow directions.

And you don’t just obey because it makes sense, or because you think it’ll work in some practical sense. You obey because you’re being ruled, because it’s a command.

All sorts of unpopular words, there! That’s what it means to have a king, though. Christ is present with us, now, as exactly that kind of teacher and leader, one who suffers the end of the world with us and shows us how to meet it not with bravado, or with despair, but with faithfulness.

Have you been following the story of the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven? Let me share with you an excerpt from a profile in the New Yorker, to give you the gist:

On April 4, 2018—the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a native of Georgia—the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven, as they are now known, cut a hole in a security fence and entered the base, singing and praying, and recorded the action with body cams. They hung banners and crime-scene tape, spray-painted slogans, pounded a display of a Tomahawk missile with a hammer, and poured human blood on an official seal of the base, depicting a missile crossed with a submarine. One of them left an indictment against the United States; another left a copy of Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book “The Doomsday Machine.” A third read Pope Francis’s statement denouncing the possession of nuclear weapons. They were all arrested, jailed, and charged with conspiracy, destruction of government property, depredation of a naval installation, and trespassing. Four were released on bail after two months; the others remained in jail for more than a year.

On October 21st, the seven went before a jury in a U.S. District Court in Brunswick, Georgia. They pled not guilty, maintaining that they had entered the base not to commit a crime but to prevent one: “omnicide”—the destruction of the human race—by nuclear weapons. Three days later, the jury found them guilty on all counts. They will be sentenced early next year.

In many ways, the Kings Bay Plowshares action was unremarkable. The tactics were typical of the movement’s previous actions: all have involved intended damage to property (a symbolic “disarming”); none have involved injury to people. The purpose, too, was the same: to bear witness to the existential peril posed by nuclear weapons. And, like the others, this action had no direct effect other than to get the participants arrested. Yet, as L. A. Kauffman, an activist and a historian of protest movements, told me, the Kings Bay break-in, which was approximately the hundredth Plowshares action since 1980, reflects a remarkable fixity of purpose. Plowshares (alongside the United Nations, the War Resisters League, and religious movements such as Pax Christi and the Fellowship of Reconciliation) has helped keep the nuclear-abolitionist position visible and, in the process, has rendered it tenable, enabling others—including now, perhaps, the Pope—to embrace it.

Seems like a lot to risk, just to keep a conversation alive. It’s really no different than those chariots dedicated to the sun, though. These seven activists were drawing attention to a contemporary instance of deep-rooted idolatry that hasn’t really changed shape since humans first invented pointy stabbing sticks. Some will trust in horses, and some will trust in chariots, and some will trust in massive nuclear arsenals, but we are called to trust in the name of our God.

The activists involved in this demonstration described their actions in a number of ways, but this is the one that stood out most to me: a woman described her choice to protest the nuclear regime of death as an “enfleshing of the Gospel.”

This summer at Yearly Meeting sessions, those of us who attended got to be part of a blessing ceremony for a cross that had been at the Peace Resource Center at Wilmington College. That cross had been at the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, which was destroyed by the nuclear bomb we dropped. It was here as part of Friends’ public witness against the evil of nuclear warfare, and it was returned to the cathedral this summer.

Pope Francis is visiting Japan now; the first papal visit to Japan in thirty-eight years. There, he has declared the possession of nuclear weapons to be “immoral.” It’s not hard to see the connection between the dogged decades-long of keeping nuclear abolition in the news and the pope’s statement. It’s not hard, with news like this, to envision a shoot growing out of the mown down Stump of Jesse; it looks dead, but new life is coming.

Life in that holy presence will lead us to do things that don’t make sense on the surface, just like Josiah did, and just like the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven did. I find a comfort, though, in how evident God’s presence was with Israel, there at the end of the world. and I’m challenged and convicted by stories of people responding to the Living Word with fearless faith.

I don’t know what the end of the world is for you, this morning. Maybe it’s climate change or the threat of nuclear destruction. Maybe it’s a more personal kind of apocalypse. I think the questions for us remain the same, though: Are we obedient, when we hear the surprising Word of God among us? How do we develop the necessary willingness to change course and live in faithful love?