Pentecost XXIII (O. T. 32); November 12, 2017
II Kings 22:8-20
Here's the story. The Temple of the Lord had not received proper maintenance for many years, so young King Josiah decided it needed some work. Sounds familiar. So the King ordered the priests of the Temple to recruit carpenters and masons and other workers and to buy wood and stone to repair the Temple. And work got underway.
In the course of our work of renovation, we found an unpleasant surprise: asbestos tile in the Fish Bowl. So we had to shell out some extra money for the proper abatement process before we could lay the new floor. In the course of Josiah's renovations of the Temple, the workers also found a surprise, which turned out to be somewhat unpleasant too: they found a book, which the High Priest said was "the book of the law." Many scholars figure it was the book of Deuteronomy.
So the book was read to the King, who was horrified. His attitude was, "This is what the Lord expects of us, and we have not done it for centuries. Surely disaster will come upon us." But he needed to be certain, so he sent some of his officials to the Prophet Huldah to ask her if the book was genuine and if the country would face disaster because they had not been obeying it. And her message was clear: yes, the book is genuine; yes, the Lord will bring disaster upon the nation because they had not been doing all the Lord required; but since Josiah was humble and was doing his best in the Lord's service, the disaster would happen after he was dead.
Just so you know, that is how it turned out. Josiah reigned for about thirty years; during his time in office the Temple was restored, idols and altars to competing gods were destroyed, the Passover was properly kept, and other aspects of the Law of God were faithfully observed. All went pretty well. After Josiah died, there was a series of kings who were less faithful and whose reigns were shorter, until about twenty years after his death the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed and the kingdom was annexed by the Babylonian Empire.
What message does the Prophet Huldah have for us? I wonder what she would say to the Church of Jesus Christ of our time, and I wonder what she would say to the United States of America of our time. In her time, religion and state were the same thing, so there was one message. That is not the case for us, so she would probably have two different messages. But I know where to look to find it. It would be in the Book: the Bible.
Before you start in with your "Yes, but…" objections, please hear me out. And if I don't deal adequately with your objection, give me a call. Let's do coffee. Or something. Hear me out.
When I was in college, the church I attended had a lively ministry with us and we had a wonderful Bible study. I remember we were studying the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. It has a lot of difficult instructions, such as, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…" (Matthew 5:39-40) and so forth. I remember how much we objected to that. "You mean if someone hits me, I'm not supposed to hit back?" "You mean I'm supposed to let someone take my stuff?!" and so forth. We concluded that Jesus didn't really mean it, but that these statements were there to show us how fall short we fall from God's goodness and mercy, and to force us to trust in the goodness of God, since we could not be good.
Horsefeathers. Poppycock. And stronger words that I don't say in Church. I'm convinced Jesus meant exactly what he said, and that the force of these and similar instructions in Jesus' teaching is that those who belong to Jesus do not automatically follow our whims and our natural impulses. When things are difficult, we think about the most Godly way to respond. The people of Jesus are supposed to be different from other people: more peaceful, more generous, more compassionate and understanding. It's in the Book.
Since it's the time of year to talk about pledging to the Church, I will talk about something almost no one wants to hear: the tithe. A "tithe" is a "tenth" (I looked it up; that is its etymology and it means a tenth. Don't claim it can mean something else; it means a tenth. To say it can mean something else is like saying that "Tuesday" can be a day other than the one between Monday and Wednesday. It means a tenth.) and is the traditional expectation of one's giving to the House of God. I checked out the Biblical sources and giving a tenth of our income to the work of God is commanded in four different places (Leviticus 27:30-33; Numbers 18:21-29; Deuteronomy 14:22-29; Malachi 3:8-12), more places than the Lord's Prayer is commanded, and it is assumed in several other places. It's in the Book.
Okay, now that everyone is irritated at me, a comment on the "Yes, but" objections. Absolutely it is essential to take everything in the Bible with a careful attention to context. An example: recently Pastor Sara preached on a text from Romans and her subject was salvation through faith alone. The text included the line, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) and as she read the Scripture and preached I realized something: many Christians – not Pastor Sara; she did very well with it – misuse that line. They take that line out of context to prove to other people that they are sinners and they had better shape up. But in its context, this is what it means: God does not play favorites; since all are sinners, all are saved by God's grace. And you know God's salvation not by your good works, but by your faith.
So that is why churches have educated ministers who understand literary context, historical context, social context and the like to help us make wise decisions. We pray and study and listen and discern what the Prophet Huldah is saying to us. But really, the most important things in the Bible are not that hard to understand. So don't use that "Yes, but" objection; as Mark Twain said, "It ain't the parts of the Bible that I don't understand that bother me; it is the parts that I do understand." On the big, important things the Word of God is clear.
We misuse the Bible when we try to make it be about things it doesn't cover, such as biology or the age of the earth or the shape of the universe. We also misuse it when we take lines out of context and use them to beat up other people. But we likewise misuse it when we ignore the plain, clear voice of God because we don't like what God is saying.
The Bible will not tell you whether you should accept this job offer or that one, but it will tell you that you should do work that honors God and benefits your society. The Bible will not tell you whether democratic capitalism or democratic socialism is a better system, but it will tell you that the nation that is concerned only with power and security to the neglect of its people will be destroyed. The Bible will not tell you what name our church ought to have, but it will tell you that we are, above all else, the Church of Jesus Christ.
When Martin Luther faced the Imperial Diet at Worms and was ordered to recant – you remember this story, don't you? – he said he could take back only those things he wrote that Scripture proved were wrong. No one was able to counter anything he wrote using Scripture.
Since we are from the Reformed – or Calvinist – tradition, a word from our team. Calling a Church "Reformed" (as all Presbyterian churches are Reformed) is shorthand for "Reformed According to the Word of God." The Bible is our authority: not Congress, not church councils, not tradition, and not how you or I feel about things. We must always be willing to give up our own position if it is contrary to the clear light of Scripture, in those cases where the clear light of Scripture can be known. So when someone yells at me about something that is supposed to happen in worship, I ask, "Where is that in the Bible?" We don't ask what is popular or what makes the minister look good or what gets it over with as fast as possible so we can get to the buffet before the Methodists; we ask, "What does the Bible say?"
Worship, giving, national life, evangelism, peace and fighting with other people: there, I've managed to irritate everyone, I imagine. And if you want to express your irritation, be sure to show me by the Scripture where I am wrong. We are the Reformed Church, always being reformed (Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda), reformed according to the Word of God.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master