A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.

November 17, 2013                                                                        

2 Kings 22:1-10; Luke 10:23-28

Actors will tell you that it’s more interesting – and in many ways much more fun – to play the bad guy than it is to be the hero. There’s also a sense in which it’s more interesting – and in many ways much more fun – to preach about the bad guys. That’s certainly been true in our series on the kings of Israel.

When I was in high school, I decided one year to read through the Bible. When I came to the books of the kings and the chroniclers, I was fascinated by how many of Israel’s leaders did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord. It seemed to me there were more villains than heroes, and I wondered why so many of them were tempted to wander away from the faith. I’m still captivated by those who seem to have been so easily influenced by their pagan neighbors, and made such poor choices.

Thinking about that, I’ve done a count just of the kings we have considered so far. From Saul to Ahaz, the score is 1-3-2.

I guess I better explain that. The only clear-cut good guy in our series on the kings of Israel is David. I know, I know, even David had his moments of weakness. There’s that adultery issue, not to mention all the bodies that were left in his wake. David was, after all, a warrior. But all in all, according to the scriptures, he was known as a man after God’s own heart. In that light, he stood head and shoulders above all the rest who followed him. So when it comes to our score of good versus evil, David is the one, lone good guy.

There are three bad guys so far. Actually, there are four, but since we considered Rehoboam and Jereboam in the same sermon, we’ll count them as only one. That makes the score 1-3-2. What are the two? They’re the ties. We really have to count Saul and Solomon as ties because they both did good and they both did bad. So the score is 1-3-2. Got it?

Okay, enough of keeping score. Let’s just admit it: the bad guys give us a great deal more material from which to work. Take Manasseh for example. During his evil reign – fifty-five years, no less! – the LORD became so put out with Manasseh that he told the prophets, “I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such evil that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.” Kinda makes my ears tingle just to think about it after all these years. How about you?

When Manasseh died and was buried in the garden of his royal mansion, his son Amon, at the age of twenty-two, assumed the throne. It was a case of like father, like son. Amon also did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He was so bad, in fact, that after a couple years his servants had put up with about all they could take. They had endured the evil Manasseh and now they were going through the same kinds of things with his ill-tempered son Amon. Enough is enough, they figured. So they plotted together and assassinated the king. That left, as his successor to the throne of Judah, Amon’s young son Josiah. You would think that Josiah would simply carry on the evil ways of his father and grandfather.

There are a couple of reasons why you might think that. One has to do with his age. Josiah, the boy king, was only eight when he assumed the throne. You would think, then, that he would be easily influenced, no doubt governing Judah by means of a group of regents who served as his advisors. It’s for certain that his advisors weren’t those responsible for his father’s assassination, because they were all executed for their efforts. It begs the question… with an eight year-old king, who’s running the show?

We don’t know. But we do know this: Josiah did not inherit the evil ways of his father and grandfather. Something or someone turned him toward the good.

The other reason you might think Josiah would be evil is indeed his lineage. After all, Josiah’s example for behavior is not exactly exemplary. His grandfather Manasseh sacrificed one of his sons to the pagan god Molech, rebuilt the places of worship and sacrifice to the Canaanite pagan gods, and even placed altars to the goddess Asherah in the temple that Solomon had built for the LORD. Not content with simply building worship centers adjacent to the temple and letting the people choose which God they wanted to worship, he desecrated the house of the LORD with altars to gods that were no gods. From the perspective of scripture, it just doesn’t get any worse than that.

And, according to the scriptures we are told, as you might imagine, that God was not pleased. This is what God said to the prophets in regard to Manasseh’s legacy: “I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down” (2 Kings 21:13).

I have told you before of my late Uncle Chester Cole who was a Baptist minister here in Arkansas and later in Michigan. Uncle Chester would wipe his dinner plate clean with his bread, turn it over and eat his dessert off the bottom. I simply thought his behavior was due to his eccentricity. But now I wonder if this is where he got the idea. “I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.”

When Manasseh’s son Amon took over, it became obvious very quickly that he was simply going to do what his father had done… and then some. And that is why his servants conspired to kill him.

By the way, did you do the math? Amon was twenty-two years old when he assumed the throne of Judah. Two years later, he was assassinated by his servants. That means, of course, that his tombstone would have noted that he died at the age of twenty-four. He was succeeded by Josiah, who was eight. That means Amon fathered Josiah when he was sixteen! They did things young back then, didn’t they?

It would be natural, then, to assume that Josiah would behave in much the same way as did the two kings who came before him. After all, why would the people of Judah expect an eight year-old to know enough to turn things around completely from the way they were done before?

But he did. In fact, when the writer of 2 Kings refers to Josiah’s father, he does not mention Amon… or even Manasseh. He doesn’t even speak of Hezekiah, his great-grandfather who had done that which was good in the eyes of God. No, when reference is made to Josiah’s father, it is David who is mentioned. That means that Josiah had David’s heart… a high compliment indeed. “He did not turn aside to the right or to the left,” it is said of Josiah. “He did what was right in the sight of the LORD.”

Ten years after assuming the throne – he’s still only eighteen – Josiah sent his secretary to the temple. He was to go to the high priest and do an audit of the temple treasury. There was a renovation project going on (see, we’re not the only ones who do capital campaigns!). Presumably, the project had to do with rebuilding the altars and such to the LORD, and tearing down all the pagan places of worship that Josiah’s father and grandfather had built over the years. Josiah called for the audit because he wanted to make sure there were enough funds to pay the workers.

Somehow, during that first decade of Josiah’s leadership, a whole new spirit was given to the people, and they seem to have risen to the occasion. They freely gave their gifts to the renovation of the Temple to the point that they didn’t even have to give an accounting of it so they would get a tax deduction from the IRS. Josiah said to his secretary, “Give the money to the workmen who are at the house of LORD, repairing the house… But no accounting shall be asked from them for the money which is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly.”

What that means is, it’s a whole new day in the land of Judah during the reign of Josiah the king. The people are generous and honest, and apparently eager to do that which was right. Their good king Josiah was the kind of example on the throne that Judah had not seen in a long, long time, and the people responded most favorably to him.

Josiah’s secretary, Shaphan, on orders from the king, hustled over to the Temple and got an audience with Hilkiah the high priest. As the priest was handing over the temple treasury to Shaphan, he told him, “Guess what? We have made a discovery. In tearing down one of the altars to Asherah, behind the baseboards we found a book.”

“Oh? What book is it?”

“It is the book, the book of the law.”

“The book of the law? What law?”

“The law God gave to Moses.”

“Who is Moses?”

Now, don’t laugh. You see, after generations of pagan worship and influences, the people of Judah had lost touch completely with their religious roots. It doesn’t take long to lose one’s memory, even what is called institutional memory.

If someone of power were to come along and take away every Bible from our hands, and turn the churches into places of worship to other gods, see how long it would take for those who follow after us to forget about our faith. Remember how the Israelite slaves in Egypt had reached a point where they knew not Joseph? History was repeating itself. Now, Judah knew not the law. They had no remembrance of Moses. In fact, Judah’s collective memory was so bad they had not commemorated the Passover since the days when the judges ruled the tribes. That means that Passover had not been celebrated even in the days of King David. If we were to do away with the Lord’s Supper, it would not be long before future generations would forget what Jesus did on the cross.

Hilkiah, the high priest, says to Shaphan, “I tell you what, just take the book to the king. He’ll know what to do with it.” And so the secretary does just that. He goes before King Josiah and says, “The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.” Josiah says, “Read for me,” and Shaphan commences to read to King Josiah what was written there.

It is thought that the book was an early edition of the Book of Deuteronomy. Have you read Deuteronomy lately? I wouldn’t advise you to do it late at night when you’re sleepy. It’s not going to be the most compelling stuff you’ve read of late, nor does it  read as easily as a John Grisham novel. But it was like magic to Josiah’s ears. He had never heard this before, and when he listened to the words of the book, he was startled by how far the people of God had been removed from their faith.

Filled with remorse, not only for himself but for all his people, Josiah felt an immediate and emotional need to atone for their sins. He began to tear his clothes as an outward sign of despair (they did that sort of thing back in those days), and all the while his secretary Shaphan is standing there wondering, “What is the big deal? Why is King Josiah reacting the way he is?”

Josiah sends for the high priest and says to him, “Go, inquire of the LORD for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book…”

It is no secret that we are living in a present age that has less and less to do with institutional faith. There was a time when people flocked to church. No more. Fewer people are going to church and we often hear of those who describe themselves as SBNR’s, “spiritual but not religious.” You know what means, don’t you? It means they’ll do whatever faith they want on their own terms… when and where they want to do it.

It could very well be that, like the people of Judah, we will indeed pay for our sins. That may be true of future generations as well. But this we can count on: if we do not teach our children well, we will come to a point in time when they too will have forgotten the ways of those who came before them.

At the risk of sounding like an alarmist, I do believe we live at a crossroads, and the decisions we make – the lives we lead – will largely determine what will occur. But please don’t hear me pining for the good old days. It will do no good for us to want to return to that which used to be. Josiah, with good intentions, tried to do that and failed. Following his early death in battle, Judah was taken into Babylonian exile and ceased to exist as an independent state.

What we must do is move into the future with the hope and faith that God will be with us and will guide our steps. We may not appreciate this, but it is true. From a biblical perspective, God has always done his best work with just a remnant of the faithful. If we are to be that, we can do nothing better than place ourselves in the hands of the One who has come and given us the gift of life… a life we are called to share with others.

Let us covenant together this day that this is what we will do, confident that God will walk with us all the way.

Lord, help us to face the future with hope and faith, trusting in your mercy and grace to guide us. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

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