Saturday, 25 August 2007

Remembering God

2 KINGS 23:1-23

Last week we were looking at bad King Manasseh

This week we are looking at good King Josiah

Josiah was Manasseh’s grandchild.

As an aside, that is very reassuring. Evil is not hereditary. It does not run in families. If a grandparent or parent mess up, it does not mean that you are condemned to mess up.

But our reading today tells us of Josiah’s reforms.

REDISCOVERY

It all begins with the discovery of the book of the covenant in the temple. It is the rediscovery of what, for us, forms most of the Old Testament of our bible.

So many works of God in our lives begin with a discovery – or rediscovery - of the bible.

There was Sally. She had had a child. She suddenly became very conscious of both the privilege that had been given her, and the responsibility. She became aware of her need to do things right. But she didn’t know what was right. So she started to read the bible – and God got hold of her

Or there is the young man who began to come to church because his girlfriend wanted him to. He started to read the bible, and was grabbed – not by the book, but by the God who speaks through the book

Or there was Frank. Frank was in his 80’s. He’d been coming to church for many years. He’d heard the bible read. But one day something happened. Instead of hearing words, he heard the message. And he met, probably for the first time in his life, with the Jesus who loved him. Three days he died.

Or there was the 17 year old who went to church, was involved in the youth group, who had made a commitment to Christ. But he started to read the bible: and that was when things changed. That was when he started to meet with Christ.

Of course for the people of Israel in the time of Josiah, the bible had always been there. It had just been hidden away in a corner, forgotten, neglected.

But then – you know how it is – a new boss, a cleanout and someone finds it. They start reading. They think, “Hey, this is big”. So they take it to the boss, the king. He says, ‘Find someone who can tell us what this is all about. So they go to Huldah, the prophetess (who, by the way, is Isaiah’s aunty). And it begins to make sense.

And it is significant that it is called the book of the covenant, or testament.

Because this is the book that tells us how God has made a covenant, an agreement, a promise to the people of Israel. God has said to them that he has chosen them to be his people. They have done nothing to deserve it. It was simply that in his love God has chosen them.

The great phrase, and it is repeated 15 times in the Old Testament, is that God says to the people of Israel: “I will be your people and you will be my God”. This really was the ultimate special relationship

Revival, renewal, new life begins when people discover the message of grace that is found here.

The Old Testament tells us of the covenant, the promise that God gave to the people of Israel.
The New Testament tells us of the new covenant, the new promise that God gives to all people.

Because just as God said he had chosen Israel, so because of Jesus, that choice is now extended to all people, whether Jew or non-Jew. And the message of grace is the message of God’s love: that God forgives and accepts and invites us to become his people and to walk in relationship with him. It is the message that God offers intimacy; that he speaks to us; that he offers us new life and a new identity and a new purpose. He offers us freedom and uniqueness. It is the message of hope.

And virtually the last chapter of the last book of the bible has these words, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God”.


DEDICATION

God offers people a covenant: he offers a relationship: “I will be your God and you will be my people”

It is God’s initiative. It is God’s offer.

But we have to respond. We can say ‘yes’ or we can say ‘no’.

Bad king Manasseh didn’t consciously say ‘no’. He simply forgot the covenant; he ignored it. He acted as if it did not exist. He did not want God to be his God.

Josiah however says ‘yes’
In verse 3, Josiah pledges himself to follow the Lord, and to keep his commands with all his heart and soul

And for us, God offers us a covenant, a relationship. God makes an offer: “I will be your God and you will be my people”.

And for that covenant to become active, to become real, we have to receive it – we have to say ‘yes’. God is not going to force anyone to come into a relationship with him. He loves us too much for that. We have to choose to opt into it. At some point, (and I don’t think it matters whether it is a conscious or an unconscious decision), we have to stand beside Josiah and the people and we have to pledge ourselves to the God who offers us a covenant: “to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all our heart and mind”. Or as we repeat in our communion service, “To love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength”.


RENUNCIATION

If God is to be our god, then there is no place for other gods.

For Josiah, it meant there was a lot of clearing out to do.

Out went the shrines, private altars and the high places.
That was because many of them were dedicated to false gods; and even those that were dedicated to God were still not right because God had said that the temple in Jerusalem was the only place where he was to be worshiped.

Out went all the stuff that was dedicated to other gods – even stuff in the temple: the Asherah pole, the male shrine prostitutes, the horses and chariot dedicated to the sun.

And for us if God is to be our God then there is no place for other gods.

Some stuff, some behaviour has to go.

When people became Christians in Ephesus, many of them had been involved in occultist practices. So they had a bonfire, and they destroyed their books about the occult and witchcraft.

And Jesus tells his listeners that if their eye causes them to sin, cut it out.
He is not, I trust, wishing to be taken literally. But what he is saying is that if what you are looking at is causing you to sin, cut it out. If a magazine or TV programme, or website, or book, or particular association or place is causing you to sin, cut it out.

And sometimes even things that have been helpful for us can get in the way. A particular set of bible notes. A routine for praying. Something that we use to pray with. I’m not saying that routines, or candles or prayer chains or crosses or bible notes are wrong. They can be incredibly helpful. The problem is when they take the place of intimacy with God. And if that happens, we need to get rid of them.

The desert fathers were very strong on this dimension of renunciation. They used to say to new monks, “Flee women, world and bishops” – which was a dramatic way of saying, have nothing to do with sexual immorality, with the ambition to have or get more, or with status and power. There was something that Tony Blair said in the speech when he announced his resignation that I thought was very profound: he said, “Sometimes the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down”.

And Paul writes to the Colossians (ch5, v3ff)

“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
.. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

And elsewhere we are told, you cannot serve both god and money. If money gets in the way of our relationship with God, get rid of it! That is why tithing is such a good spiritual practice. If we don’t think we could do it, money has too much of a hold over us.


CELEBRATION

Many people think that Christianity is simply about negatives. It is not. God offers his people life. He offers us freedom – freedom from sin, freedom from stuff. He offers us uniqueness – an identity that will survive even death.

We see that from here.

There is the honouring of the memory of the prophet of Judah (vv16ff): Josiah honours a man who has been faithful to the word of God, to the message of the covenant.
There is the celebration of the Passover. “Neither in the days of the judges or of the kings of Israel or the kings of Judah had any such Passover been observed”. It was a real celebration.

And that is significant. The discovery of the message of the covenant; the dedication of lives to God; the renunciation of things that destroy life, lead not to "silly devotions and sour faced saints", as Theresa of Avilla used to call them. I was watching Midsummer Murders on Friday, and again getting so frustrated about how religious people are portrayed by the media.

We are talking here about life. The Passover was a party: they had good wine, they had good food. And they celebrated.

They celebrated:
Ø the work of God in the past: how he rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt;
Ø the presence of God in the present
Ø covenant that God offered them.

We are aware that the Christian life is about dedication and renunciation. We are probably not as good at remembering that the Christian life is about celebration.

We have a God who loves us, who desires us. He offers to be our God and invites us to become his people. He offers us life. The Christian life is about walking the cross now; it is also about anticipating the resurrection now.

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