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2 Kings 22:8-13; 23:1-3
A sermon for Wednesday, June 26 (feria)

A sermon preached by The Reverend Canon Dr. David Anderson at St. Jude’s Anglican Church, Oakville, on Wednesday, June 26, 2024. Text: 2 Kings 22:8-13; 23:1-3

I speak to you in the name God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I have always been fascinated by today’s Old Testament reading. I admit that as far as Old Testament stories go, this one is somewhat obscure. Indulge me please. The Twenty-second Chapter of the Book of Second Kings tells us that the events that occur in this passage happen in the eighteenth year of the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Josiah had become king when he was only eight years old. He was now a man of twenty-six years when he ordered the Hilkiah the high priest to use the tax money that had been collected from worshippers coming to the temple over the years to renovate and restore the temple. A great work had begun. The temple was to be cleaned up and things put back into order. Josiah ordered specifically that the money was to be handed over to the workers in the temple who were repairing the house of the Lord. Josiah is very specific that the money go “to the carpenters, to the builders, to the masons, … to buy timber and quarried stone to repair the house” (2Ki 22:6). He also—somewhat oddly, I think—ordered that “no accounting shall be asked from them for the money that is delivered into their hands, for they shall deal justly” (v. 7). Josiah seemingly wants there to be no bureaucracy overseeing the work, only to let the workers to get on with it as they see fit.

As ill advised as this plan might seem, something unexpected and quite remarkable happens, but not with the administration of the money. Hilkiah is going about his business in carrying out the king’s orders and is clearing out the temple treasury. Presumably he is gathering all of the money that has been collected over the years in order to deliver the cash to the workers as the king had commanded. But in this clearing out, he finds something other than the money. He discovered a scroll. What is this dusty old scroll that he has found in some dank corner of the temple treasury, seemingly forgotten there for years? This is where this morning’s first reading picks up the story. “The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD’” (2 Kings 22:8).

I’ve always been astounded by this. They found it. They were not even looking for it, but they found it. Apparently, they were not even aware it was lost. It makes you wonder what they had been doing in the temple all this time that they were not even aware of this text. What instruction were the people receiving? One must wonder how all this time the temple, the centre of religious life and the place where people were meant to encounter the Lord their God, could have functioned without the critical text that described their very covenant relationship with God. They found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.

So, what happens is that Hilkiah the high priest who has found the book gives it to Shaphan the secretary. Something even more astounding then happens. He reads the book! And apparently his reading was impactful because Shaphan then reported all of this to the king.

I find this next part of the story quite humorous. I suppose one must be careful how one presents news to kings. Presumably, the first thing that kings want to hear is the assurance that their edicts are being carried out. So that is where Shaphan begins. He reports to the king, ‘Yes my lord, we have been carrying out all of your orders with great diligence and care so that everything has been done as you have commanded.’ “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” (v. 9). … ‘Oh, and by the way, we happened to find a book’ (v. 10). Talk about burying the lead of a story! Shaphan makes no reference to what book as been found. ‘Oh, just a book that we found in the treasury.’

But this book is about to turn everything upside down. King Josiah seems interested in this book and has Shaphan the secretary read it aloud to him. And so we are told, “When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes (v. 11). To tear one’s clothes was a sign of grief and repentance. Hearing the words of the book of the law, Josiah realized that something critical to the life of the nation had been lost and had been missing all this time. Josiah concludes, “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” (v. 13). Josiah commissions several of his leading ministers of government to make inquiries. “Go, inquire of the LORD for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found” (v. 13).

In the portion of the story that we didn’t read this morning, these inquiries take the ministers of the crown to the prophetess Hulda who gave them assurance that the book was the real deal. Huldah confirmed that the judgments foretold in the book for non-observance of the law would indeed come to pass, but not during the reign of Josiah himself. Hulda explains thus,

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” (2 Kings 22:19-20).

All of these words the king’s ministers report back to him.

With this, Josiah begins the work of his reforms beginning with instructing the people in the law of the Lord. The king orders that all the people of Jerusalem, the great and the small, should gather. He the king himself will read to them “all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:2). The king read the words to the people and the king stood in the temple and made a covenant to follow the law with all his heart and soul, and so did all the people join in that covenant (v. 3).

This is quite a remarkable story of our spiritual ancestors losing their way and finding it again. It is a powerful story of God working through human agency, not to allow the refurbishment of the building of the temple, without a kind of spiritual renewal and restoration to accompany that work. It is a story of redemption. It is also a cautionary tale about how easily a faith community can lose its way.

It would be wrong for us to think that such a story can be construed to be encouragement to place copies of the Ten Commandments in prominent places in our public spaces as we hear some legislators are seeking doing in the land to our south. This is not a story of getting the outward appearances correct. Quite the opposite. The truth of that is borne out in a sort of sequel to this story that we can read in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah.

We met the high priest named Hilkiah in today’s reading. Hilkiah had a son who became known to us as Jeremiah the prophet. Jeremiah began his ministry during the reign of King Josiah and continued during the reign of Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim.

Josiah’s reforms happened. The temple was restored and the people returned to worship in the house of the Lord. It seems however, that while people took pride in their temple attendance, they continued to worship other gods and continued also live their lives without justice in their relations. Still, they kept to the outward appearances of worshipping the Lord in the temple, going through at least the motions of covenant-keeping. But God was not fooled. God instructs the prophet Jeremiah to stand at the gates of the temple and say, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD’” (Jeremiah 7:4). The Lord continues,

Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:8-11)

And yet, still there is hope. “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (Jeremiah 7:3).  God continues,

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

So we are again reminded that as beautiful as our churches may be and no matter how well we care for them, our faith is not in bricks and mortar, or slate roofs. We worship a God who desires to be in relationship with us and who invites us to share in the divine live. Josiah made a covenant to worship God with his heart and soul; in this Eucharist may we again renew our own covenant and welcome the grace that empowers us to live lives that are pleasing to God.