a homily on 2 Chronicles 35 for Grace Anglican Church, upon the 4th Sunday in Lent 2016
We’re a “bottom line” kind of culture. We want to know the “basic requirements.” Tell me what I need to know, don’t waste my time on unnecessary details. In many cases this has had a negative effect on Christianity as we have repeatedly tried to simplify our teaching and worship and message. There is a fine line between “boiling it down” and “watering it down.” But some things are able to summarized in short and sweet statements. For example, to the question of how to know if a local church is a real church, the Protestant Reformers said “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered” (Augsburg Confession, Article VII).
This dual dynamic of Word and Sacrament continues to be a significant factor governing the worship liturgies of many traditions to this day, including our own. But it also seems to be a significant factor in telling the story of King Josiah. Last week we read of his positive handling of God’s Word, and today now we hear of his positive handling of the Passover, which is essentially a Sacrament in the Old Testament – it was a means of grace: participating in that meal meant you were a member of God’s covenant community.
Today we’re looking at chapter 35 of 2 Chronicles, in which there basically are two stories: first is the great Passover celebrated in King Josiah’s time, and the second is the story of Josiah’s death. The first story is about Josiah’s relationship with God’s Sacraments, and the second is a re-visitation of his relationship with God’s Word.
The story of Josiah’s Passover has four movements to it: the preparation, the provision, the offerings, and the obedience.
The preparation for the Passover, described in verses 1-6, give us several hints that this is very similar to the Passover that King Hezekiah had brought back nearly seventy years earlier. Like his forebear, Josiah encouraged the Priests and Levites to be faithful to their duties, and referenced the authority of God’s Word especially through the mouths of Moses and David and Solomon. It’s interesting to note that the King made a point of encouraging these ministers; they were following God’s word and will, and still needed encouragement. How true this is for ministers in every age, and indeed all Christians, as we strive to follow in the Narrow Way of Christ!
The comparison with Hezekiah’s Passover is also met with a significant contrast: verse 1 identifies the date of Josiah’s Passover to be the fourteenth day of the first month. This is the correct date! You may recall from chapter 30 that Hezekiah’s Passover was a month late. He had an emergency Temple rededication to perform. Josiah, however, was more prepared, and ready to get things going on time.
Next comes the provision for the Passover. Like in previous instances of this sort of story, the King set the example for everyone else by giving generously. Other leaders and officials followed suit, and eventually even ordinary people were giving lavishly to the Temple for the proceedings. If you compare the numbers of animals and amount of grain and oil being provided here in verses 7 through 9 with the numbers in chapter 30, you’ll find they’re almost double what they were before. Hezekiah’s Passover was a huge breakthrough for the kingdom of Judah, but Josiah is blowing that out of the water!
Then verses 10 through 16 direct our attention to the offerings for the Passover. You may recall that the Passover was supposed to be celebrated with a lamb to be eaten by each household, and yet there are other offerings involved here too. That’s because originally, the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover were two different holidays on consecutive weeks, but over time they got merged into one big holy week. What’s important to note in this story is that verses 10 and 16 both declare that “the service had been prepared.” This is a particular phrase in Hebrew that was the Chronicler’s way of saying that the requirements of God’s Law were met. Everything was prepared properly, and everyone did their proper tasks.
An interesting change to note is that instead of the Passover lamb’s blood being sprinkled on the doorposts of the peoples’ homes as directed in Exodus 12, the blood is instead sprinkled on the Altar in the Temple. This shift from household religion to Temple religion is a result of God’s revelation to His people that they are His people. Instead of talking about “the houses of Israel,” they could talk about “the house of Israel.” In the same way today, we don’t emphasize “the churches of Jesus Christ” as much as we emphasize “the Church of Jesus Christ.” This is especially important with the Passover, as it was one of the primary means of covenant participation – eating that lamb meant you were part of God’s people. And it’s the same with the Christian Passover, the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion or the Eucharist or the Mass – eating that bread and drinking that cup means you’re a part of God’s people.
Plus, one fun fact that I’ve been meaning to point out for a while, but have been waiting for an opportune moment, is about the clean-up after everyone has eaten. Just as the Passover meal was commanded to be eaten in full and leftovers were to be burned by nightfall, so too do we take care to consume the consecrated bread and wine, and clean the paten and chalice of crumbs and wine drops. It’s one of the many Old Covenant / New Covenant parallels in our ritual actions, and I thought it’d be fun to share that with you as a quick explanation.
Anyway, finally, this Passover story concludes in verses 17 through 19 summarizing the obedience of Josiah and his people. Verse 18 specifically declares this to have been the greatest Passover celebration in the entire history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah! Plus, when you combine the statement that “all Israel and Judah” came and participated with the enormous numbers of offerings for this Passover, one can conclude that this event drew an even bigger crowd than the great reformation and Passover events under King Hezekiah. This was the most Law-abiding Passover at the Temple ever!
After such a great happy story, it may be jarring to read on through the end of the chapter. Verses 20 through 27 tell the brief story of Josiah’s untimely demise. But this story is not just a sad or tragic story, it is also riddled with some very clever irony.
Again following in the footsteps of King Hezekiah, the happy reign of Josiah eventually runs into trouble, and again it involves complex international politics. The Assyrian Empire, so powerful in previous generations, had continued to decline; by this point it was in deep trouble. They no longer ruled over Egypt, they’d been forced to move their capitol city, and one of their easternmost cities was rebelling. Interestingly, that city was the same place that had sent some ambassadors to Jerusalem during Hezekiah’s reign, and he proudly showed off his wealth to them. That city was called Babylon, and we’ll hear more about them next week at the conclusion of this book.
In the present story, Josiah doesn’t have to worry about Babylon or Assyria. Instead it’s the Egyptian Pharaoh, Neco, who has shown up. He was traveling North with his army to help Ashur-uballit, the Assyrian King, fight against a Babylonian uprising, and that meant he had to travel through Judean lands to get there. Josiah doesn’t trust him, however, and insists on fighting him rather than granting safe passage. Neco invokes God’s word, saying “What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day, but against the house with which I am at war; and God has commanded me to make haste. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.” We don’t get any details of why, it’s clear that the Chronicler expected Josiah to have been able to recognize the prophetic word of God. God did, after all, speak through foreigners from time to time (the King of Tyre in chapter 2, the Queen of Sheba in chapter 9, and King Cyrus of Persia in chapter 36 are other examples just in this book). Whateverso, Josiah engages Neco in battle, is wounded, and dies when he returns home. And, as I said before, this story is riddled with irony.
- Previously, Josiah was incredibly faithful to God’s word, and suddenly this one slip-up does him for good.
- When Hezekiah was threatened by Sennacherib, the enemy army was much larger, and yet Hezekiah survived and Josiah was defeated.
- Pharaoh Neco was on his way probably to fight against a Babylonian uprising, and Josiah fought Neco instead of the Babylonians – a decision that will come back to bite Judah in the very near future.
- Even though Josiah disguised himself in battle, he was still mortally wounded. And even more bizarre, the exact same thing happened to Ahab, the most wicked King of Israel. Several details are identical: the disguise, the injury from an arrow, the cry “I am wounded,” being propped up in a chariot, and dying soon after.
Unlike the story of King Ahab, though, Josiah survived until he got home, so he could die in Jerusalem and be buried in the tombs of his fathers. Despite that wound in battle, he had a peaceful and honorable end to his life befitting his life of faithfulness to God, and in accordance with the prophecy of Huldah in the previous chapter.
And when you think about it, the Gospel of Christ is also full of irony.
- The Jewish religious leaders mostly disbelieved Jesus, while the poor and the sinners often did.
- Gentiles poured into the Church while many Jews rejected the Gospel.
- Jesus’ kingly Triumphal Procession into Jerusalem, led to his death.
- Christ, the Lord of life, was killed.
- Jesus’ death on the Cross was actually a victory over death.
- Our victory over sin is found in surrender to Christ.
- We’re brought out of death into life by dying.
Let it never be said that God doesn’t have a sense of humor.
The Last Verses
The story of Josiah concludes in verses 25 through 27. He is lamented by his people, including by the Prophet Jeremiah. Don’t confuse this with the book in the Bible called Lamentations – those are laments written for the destruction of Jerusalem. Josiah was also remembered for “his good deeds according to what is written in the Law of the Lord.” What a great legacy to be remembered by! Should that not be an epithet we all hope to have attributed to ourselves someday – that we were faithful to God in life, anticipating his faithfulness to us in death?
And this memory of faithfulness is the lesson that I want us to think about as we finish the story of King Josiah. The kingdom of Judah had been going downhill for two or three centuries. Its northern counterpart, Israel, had already been conquered by the Assyrians. Idolatry and paganism were rampant among God’s people, and all sorts of sinful behavior went along with that. Hezekiah and Josiah were moments of relief in a long succession of failures.
In a number of ways that is the situation we see around us today: Western societies and culture has been on a steady decline for the past hundred years. Appreciation for the arts, literature, music, and so on was one of our first losses in the early 20th century, cutting us off from much of our cultural heritage. Next went our ideologies and values as societies polarized into Fundamentalists and Modernists, paralleled by our political situation of Republicans and Democrats being at each other’s throats, both parties become a caricature of what they once were. Churches have split, first over doctrines like creation and end times, then over the nature of the work of the Holy Spirit, then over the nature of ministry, and now even over things like worship forms and musical preferences.
The Church’s response to this has often been to engage in “culture wars,” fighting to restore the place of Christianity in public discourse and our way of life. But it’s been a spectacular failure, both in Europe and in America. It’s not for lack of zeal that our attempts to change the world have failed, but for lack of priorities. The lesson of the books of Chronicles is that the people of God’s first concerns should be the service of God. Rather than looking to the organization of political events, we are to look to the organization of worship. Rather than rebuilding the palace, we are to rebuild the Temple. Rather than re-discovering the national governing documents we’re called to rediscover our religious documents – the Bible. Rather than investing our identity in a political party, we are to invest our identity in God’s Word and Sacraments. Hezekiah and Josiah were great lights of faithfulness in their days because they put first things first. Political and social change followed religious revival, and as Christians today we desperately need to learn that lesson. It is good to engage in politics and engage with society with an eye toward their improvement, but unless they’re outflows of devoted lives of worship, they’re only going to go as far as any other earthly endeavor.
First Things First
Consider the Gospel story of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus didn’t want his disciples to focus on the food that they didn’t have, but to distribute just the five loaves and two fish. They didn’t have the means to address the needs of five thousand hungry people. Neither do we. The Church can’t solve world hunger, or cure AIDS or Ebola, or find the perfect presidential candidate. We can do a lot of good things toward those ends, but the bottom line is this: all we really have to offer is the Gospel. Lined up against the many problems of the world, it seems like we only have a couple fish and a few breadloaves. Certainly in the eyes of the unbelieving world the Gospel looks quite useless. But we know that it is the power of Christ we offer. The Bible is God’s Word written and the Sacraments are God’s Word enacted. They don’t look like much on the outside but spiritually they are the most powerful things in all of creation. Like the boy whom Andrew brought to Jesus, King Josiah focused on what he had: the Book of the Law and the Passover Meal, and he did his best to be faithful to God with those things.
To us, this is both a comfort and a challenge. It’s a comfort because the call to faithfulness is actually a lot simpler than we sometimes fear it to be. Here is the Bible: hear it, read it, learn it, study it, take it into your heart and mind. Here are the Sacraments, receive them, participate in them. In both Word and Sacrament, receive them by faith, and open yourself to the work of the Holy Spirit within you. They are God’s most powerful tools to transform you. And that’s also the challenge. Do you trust that what God has provided is actually enough? Is the Bible sufficient for telling you about God, or would you rather rely on other writings? Are the Sacraments sufficient for putting you in connection with God, or would you rather rely on other experiences? Christians of every tradition struggle with these challenges in one way or another. Josiah was a good example of someone who trusted in them, though he did make mistakes at times. Jesus, of course, is the perfect example; even though he redefined them for us, he also trusted in God’s Word and Sacraments. He was the Word of God, yet he learned the Bible. It is his death and resurrection into which we are baptized, yet he himself was baptized.
Do you trust that what God has provided is actually enough? His grace is indeed sufficient for us, and he has shown us where to find it. Come to the throne room with Josiah and hear the Book of the Law read to you. Come to the Temple, and participate in the Passover with God’s people. Come to the Church, not because it is a club for holy people, but because it is a hospital for sinners. And there you will find that the prescriptions are the Bible, and the medicines are the Sacraments. Come, let us be healed and strengthened by Christ; only then we can go and do likewise for others.