by David Baer, November 29, 2015
Have you ever tried to make someone apologize? You find yourself in the middle of two people in conflict, maybe children or—heaven help us—grown adults, and it’s clear to you that someone has really crossed a line and hurt the other person. You hear yourself saying, “I think you owe her an apology.” And maybe you hear the words, “I’m sorry,” uttered through clenched teeth, or from behind a façade of apparent sincerity you’ll never be able to see through. And you begin to realize, “I might be able to change the direction of this situation. I might be able to change the behavior of these two people, to stop them from hurting each other. But I can’t make them feel remorse or sympathy. I can’t make them become friends. I can’t change their heart.” A change of direction isn’t easy—sometimes it can take a lot of work and make a real difference. But a change of heart is a miracle.
The Hebrew Scripture lesson this morning is a story about a change of direction. King Josiah brings a change of direction to his kingdom. It’s a change of direction that is very badly needed. But is it enough?
In the Biblical books of Kings, each king gets a report card, a summary of how well he did fulfilling God’s commandments. And Josiah gets an A+. The scripture says that he did what was right, and not only that, but that he did not turn aside either to the right or the left. That’s a remarkable record. Not even the revered King David could say that he never once slipped up. But that’s the assessment of Josiah. He gets an A+. And this was a significant change, because his father Amon and especially his grandfather Manasseh got failing grades for their reigns as king over Judah. They worshiped every idol they could get their hands on, and they even had statues of other gods set up in the Temple in Jerusalem, encouraging the people to join them in turning away from the exclusive worship of Yahweh, the God of their ancestors. What’s more, we’re told that Manasseh “shed very much innocent blood, until he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another.” These were really bad kings, but Josiah brought a new direction.
First of all, he launched a repair project for the Temple, which had fallen into disrepair. He expresses such confidence in his contractors that he announces that he won’t be auditing the books for this project—I’m not sure how wise that was, but it shows he was a trusting sort of guy, and there’s no evidence his trust was misplaced. He sends his secretary Shaphan to the temple to deliver his instructions for the repairs. Now, it’s not clear how it happened, but the high priest Hilkiah has turned up a book of scripture. Did the workers uncover it while they were cleaning the place up? Had it been stashed in a closet to keep it away from King Amon and King Manasseh? Or does Hilkiah know what the scroll says, and has he been keeping it on his shelf until the right sort of king came to power? In any case, it’s a neglected book of scripture, a book of the law, we’re told. From this we understand that it spells out all the commandments God gave to Moses, the commandments that the people were supposed to follow.
Shaphan, the secretary, is a man of letters and learning, so he reads the book. And he’s got to know that it’s not good. Biblical scholars have debated exactly what this book was, but the best hypothesis is that it’s a version of what we call the book of Deuteronomy. And if you’ve ever read Deuteronomy, you know that not only does it have a whole list of commandments. At the end there’s this section of blessings and curses. If the people follow the commandments, then all kinds of good things are supposed to happen. But if they don’t follow the commandments, there are a series of terrible curses—plagues, natural disasters, invasion and conquest by a foreign army, and finally the scattering of God’s people in exile from their homeland. This is not good news for the Kingdom of Judah, after two generations of idolatry and injustice. They haven’t just broken the commandments. They’ve set them on fire and danced on the ashes. To say that Shaphan is reluctant to share the news with the king is an understatement.
Shaphan holds back until the very end of his audience with the king. It’s only after he makes his formal report about getting the work started that he tells King Josiah, almost casually, “Oh yeah, I should probably mention this old book that turned up in the Temple.” And then he braces himself and reads the book to the king.
The king is absolutely devastated. He tears his clothes, a sign of distress and grief. He sends a delegation of his top officials right away to consult with the prophetess Huldah. (It’s probably worth pointing out, just as an aside, that this story shows that in ancient Judah, women, as well as men, were gifted with prophetic insight, and that rulers sought them out for advice and for a word from God.) Huldah confirms what Josiah heard in the book of the law: disaster is coming upon Judah because of the faithlessness of its rulers and its people. But Josiah’s personal faithfulness has made a difference. “Because you heard me,” says God, “I have also heard you.” The disaster is being held back while Josiah lives.
Now, Josiah was so profoundly affected by what he read in the book of the law that he launched a major reform. He purged the statues of other gods from the Temple and fired their priests. He suppressed the worship of Molech, a god who seems to have required his worshipers to make their children “pass through fire as an offering”—we’re not sure exactly what it means, but it may have been human sacrifice. He restored the celebration of Passover, which had been neglected by all the previous kings of Israel and Judah. This was a major change of direction for the Kingdom of Judah.
But it wasn’t enough. A change of direction isn’t enough when you’re on the edge of Niagara Falls. Sometimes you can’t make right something you got wrong.
In Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement, Briony, a young girl jealous of the attention her older sister Cecilia is getting from a man named Robbie falsely accuses Robbie of assaulting their cousin. In spite of his innocence, Robbie goes to prison and later to France with the British Expeditionary Force during the opening days of World War II. Years later Briony, now grown up, goes to Cecilia and Robbie, who are now married, to beg them for forgiveness, but they refuse. At the end of the novel, the girl is an old woman, and she reveals that Robbie really died at Dunkirk, and Cecilia died in London during the Blitz, without ever having seen each other again. But they deserved to be together, she thought, and so she created a story where they could be. We want so badly for things to turn out right, especially when we are the ones who have made them wrong. But is it enough to fantasize about happy endings that might have been? Does storytelling undo the hurt inflicted on others, and does it unburden the guilt we ourselves feel? Sometimes we’ve knocked Humpty Dumpty of his wall, he’s shattered into a million pieces, and we just don’t know how how to put him back together again.
Today is the beginning of the season of Advent in the church year. Advent is a time for preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and part of what we do to prepare, part of what is going to make Christmas so utterly joyful and astounding, is recognizing our need for a Savior. You know and I know the wrongs we just aren’t able to put right, the hurts that are too deep and painful for us to heal from on our own. And we’re born into a world already awash in lingering injustices—nobody alive today is personally responsible for the enslavement of African Americans, but much of the harm caused by slavery is still with us, and people of all races live with that harm. What do we do with that hurt, that sighing and longing for healing, as we wait for the coming of Jesus?
Josiah’s story reminds us that it is in our power to do tremendous good, and to struggle mightily against an inheritance of injustice to great effect. Josiah was pained by the gap he saw, the vast distance between the world as God intended it to be and the world as it actually was. He channeled that grief into prayer and into actions that changed the history of his people, that spared them from disaster while he lived. Josiah changed direction, and we can too. We can offer and ask for forgiveness. We can purge our homes of the stuff, and our schedules of the commitments, that keep us from hearing and honoring God. We can stop hurting others, and stop supporting institutions that harm our neighbors. We can change our direction. Advent is a season for changing direction, or, to use a more traditional word, “repentance.”
But if it were in our power to heal ourselves and our world, Jesus would not have needed to be born. He would not have needed to walk among us, full of grace and truth. He would not have needed to lay down his life for us. A change of direction is not enough. And God promises us something greater. God promises to give us a new heart and a new spirit, to set us free on the inside and the outside (cf. Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 31:33). We can’t give ourselves a new heart. We can’t perform spiritual surgery on ourselves. Only God can do that.
What I hear in today’s text, though, what I hold onto, is this: God says to Josiah, “You heard me, and I hear you.” Things have fallen apart, and it’s not clear how they’re going to get put back together, but let’s keep talking to each other, says God. Let’s keep listening to each other. Listen to my heartbreak, listen to my vision for what your life and your world are meant to be, and listen to my lament at how far we have to go. Listen to me, and I will listen to your sorrow, your deep hurt, your confession, your eagerness not only to find a new direction, but to receive a new heart and a new and right spirit within you. I will keep listening to you, you keep listening to me. Where there is conversation, listening, an eagerness to hear and be heard, there is hope.
Listen for God’s voice this Advent. Listen for the ways your life needs to change direction. But also let God know your hurts, your longings, the need for healing only God can meet. Listen, watch, and wait… Jesus is on his way. Amen.