A Sermon on the Old Testament Lesson for the Second Sunday in Advent
Sermon on the Old Testament Lesson
for the Second Sunday inAdvent
2 Kings 22:8-10; 23:1-3
by William Klock
The Old Testament lesson we’ve heard this evening is the one specified for today in the English prayer book, and it’s a lesson that complements very well the lessons we read this morning and the general theme of the day. Advent is all about preparation—it’s our annual reminder that just as Christ came in the flesh to establish his kingdom at his First Advent, he will come again at his Second Advent to consummate his kingdom. In the meantime he calls us to prepare the way. Today, the Second Sunday in Advent focuses our attention on the Scriptures as the foundation of our preparation. As long as we forget, ignore, or plug our ears to the Scriptures, we will never be prepared. We’ll be like the lost puppy I talked about this morning. We may have good intentions. We may have a love for Jesus and be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, but without the guidance of Scripture, we’ll end up wandering from one thing to the next, our attention drawn to whatever new and exciting or interesting thing happens to get our attention. We’ll have no focus, no goal, no plan and we’ll never be truly prepared for our Lord’s return. And this goes for us as individuals, for our parish, and for the Church as a whole. The lessons today remind us that God gave us the Scriptures and gave them to us for good reason and we ignore them to our own peril. Our lesson from 2 Kings gives us a dramatic illustration of this. It’s an excerpt from the account of the life and ministry of King Josiah.
If we back up to the beginning of Chapter 22, we see that Josiah became king when he was eight years old. A little more than halfway through is reign—after he’d been on the throne for eighteen years—this man who had a love for God and who wanted to follow him, noticed that the temple was falling into disrepair. So Josiah sent one of his men to the temple. The priests had been collecting money for years for the upkeep of the temple, but apparently they’d just been sitting on it. Josiah gave direction for it to be put to use—to hire workmen and to repair the temple. The next thing we’re told is that Hilkiah, the high priest found “the book of the law”. We don’t have the details, but the account would suggest that this book was found as the temple was being cleaned and restored. There’s been plenty of debate about what this book was, but the language used in the Hebrew is pretty clear: it was the book of the torah—the five books of Moses, the Penteteuch. This was the Bible those people would have known—and apparently it had been completely lost!
When we read this, suddenly everything falls into place. As we read the accounts of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah it’s appalling to see the sin and apostasy these people fell into and it leaves us wondering how it could have happened. Here’s the answer. They lost the book of the law; they lost the Bible. And it doesn’t sound like it was just the “original” manuscript that was lost—the one that was kept beside the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle, or even a special copy for the temple, sort of like our pulpit Bibles we have in our churches. Undoubtedly there were other copies. Although this was before the day when the laypeople had access to their own personal copies of the Scriptures, the king almost certainly would have had his own and so would the priests, but the most important one—the one in the temple—had been lost. And this illustrates for us just how important is for our church leaders—our priests and pastors—to keep their hands on God’s Word. If the Scriptures are ignored by our pastors, preachers, and teachers they will eventually be at first ignored and then lost by the people. The story here certainly suggests that what Hilkiah found was completely new to everyone—it had been lost, first by the priests, and then by the people. If the Bible isn’t important to the pastor, the people may have their own copies at home, but eventually those copies will simply end up on the shelf collecting dust. And the longer that goes on, the more the church and the people will stray from God and from his ways and eventually not only fail in their mission, but will cease to be the church at all.
This is exactly what Josiah realised when the book was read to him for the first time. He was so upset that the tore his clothes—a typical way for people of that time to show mourning. Josiah, whom we’re told was a good king who desired to follow after God, had no doubt thought that he was doing all the right things and that he had his nation on the right track. We can often feel like that too! And yet when the standard of the Word of God was shown to him, he could see just how desperately off-track he and his people really were—despite all his good intentions. From his response we can gather that his attention wasn’t just on the standard of holiness he read in the book, but that the curses for those who failed to follow the precepts of God sank into his heart too! In verse 13 he says, “The wrath of the Lord…is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the word of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” No doubt all the trouble Judah was in with the surrounding pagan empires now made sense; the people had failed to follow God and this was his judgement.
So in Chapter 23 we’re told that Josiah called all the people of Jerusalem, along with priests and the government leaders together to hear the book read. And when it had been read, Josiah covenanted “to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments, his testimonies and his statues with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book” (2 Kings 23:3), and that the people joined in this covenant.
The rest of Chapter 23 gives us an idea as to just how bad things had become as it gives the details on the reforms that Josiah and Hilkiah implemented. First they removed all the vessels that were in the temple for the use of the worship of Baal, Asherah, and other pagan gods. He deposed the priests who made offerings to pagan gods at the high places that had been built throughout Judah and then destroyed all those pagan altars. They removed a large wooden pole from the temple that had served as an idol of the Canaanite fertility goddess, Asherah, and burned it outside the city. He destroyed the houses of pagan cult prostitutes that were on the grounds of the temple. (The worship of these pagan fertility gods and goddesses usually involved sex and the worshippers would hire these prostitutes as part of their worship—and they were doing this in the temple.) He defiled the altar at Topheth, which was where the people worshipped the god Molech by burning their own children on his altar. He got rid of the stable at the entrance to the temple where the earlier kings had dedicated a herd of sacred horses to the sun god. He got rid of the fortune-tellers and the sorcerers, and had the people get rid of their household gods and idols that were seen throughout the land. We’re also told that with the newly recovered book of the law in hand, Josiah reintroduced the Passover—the most important of the Jewish feasts that God had instituted as a reminder of his covenant with them. The text says that it hadn’t been kept since the time of the judges, hundreds of years before.
Chapter 23 is a real eye-opener as it shows us just how bad things had really become, and they’d degraded to that level because God’s Word wasn’t known by the people. It had started with the leadership, with the kings and priests, but their attitude towards the Word guided the people and before long the entire nation had sunk into a morass of idolatry and filth the likes of which are hard for us to imagine: idols and prostitutes in the temple itself and the people sacrificing their own children to false gods! This story also reminds us just how fallen we are and of the lows we can sink to without the grace of God.
Brothers and sisters, we may think that we can’t fall that low. The primary difference between us and the people of Judah is simply that our idols and false gods are different. Consider that there are today some parts of the Church that make no distinction between the Holy Trinity and other gods, that see no difference between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the means of salvation offered by other religions, that welcome all sorts of sins, call them virtues, and condemn many of the biblical virtues that Scripture points us to. And, in fact, more and more many of these churches are not simply indifferent to false gods and religions, but invite them into their worship while corrupting the Gospel itself and preaching false understandings of the true God. How did it happen? Because the tradition in which these churches stand rejected the authority of the Scriptures a century-and-a-half ago.
And we’re seeing today that traditionally “conservative” or “evangelical” churches aren’t immune from the same sorts of problems. The story isn’t playing out the same way it did in the historically “liberal” churches, but similar things are happening. (The enemy has a lot of tricks in his bag.) Many churches pay lip-service to the Scriptures, but what they practice tells us something different. Many have come to elevate personal experience and what they think are private revelations above the Scriptures. Preachers twist Scripture to say things that it was never intended to say and then call it “prophetic interpretation”. Christians base their lives not on the unchanging Word of God, but on things that they think God told them. Friends, God will never tell you something that contradicts the Scriptures! What often disturbs me most is that so many of these people who claim to hear God speaking to them are so ignorant of what the Scriptures teach that they simply aren’t able to evaluate what they think they’re being told, to know if it’s from God or not. One person even once told me that they didn’t need to read the Bible, because God spoke to them directly. Brothers and sisters, that’s from the Pit! If you don’t know the Scriptures, you have no way to know if what you’re being told is from God or not. Certainly anything that directs you away from them is definitely not from God. Other people simply base their choices on what they feel: “I don’t feel that it’s wrong, so it must be okay.” Again, we are fallen creatures. We can’t rely on what we feel. We must rely on the Word of God. All of these things will lead us away from the Scriptures and it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be lost.
Many evangelicals and conservatives are headed down the same path because they’ve taken a smorgasbord approach to the Scriptures. Much of what’s called the “Church Growth” movement has done this, but they’re not the only ones. Again, they pay lip service to the Scriptures, but in the end they pick and choose what they want: lots of love and grace, but no sin, no wrath, no judgement—because those things might turn people away. The “Emergent Church” movement has whole-heartedly embraced Postmodern philosophy and thrown out any concept of absolute truth—and once you’ve done that you’re only a few steps away from where the traditionally “liberal” churches are.
No matter how we get there, the end result is that we will not be prepared when Jesus returns to consummate his kingdom. If we haven’t lost the faith and our own redemption altogether, we will have become so ineffective at fulfilling our mission that we’ll have squandered the time we’ve been given. We need to be grounded in the Word. Like Josiah, we need to put it at the centre of our life, and let it speak to us. We like to hope in its promises, but there’s no point if we don’t also obey its precepts.
And so let us pray: “Blessed Lord, who caused the holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may so hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them that through patience and the comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the joyful hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”