Text: 2 Kings 22:8-13, 23:1-3
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In 1947 some Bedouin shepherds were throwing rocks into nearby caves when they heard a smashing sound. When they investigated they found ancient scrolls housed in jars of clay. They had accidentally stumbled upon the most important biblical manuscripts to be discovered in modern times—the Dead Sea Scrolls. These priceless copies of Holy Scripture had been hidden, unknown to man for nearly 2000 years. These scrolls were over a thousand years older than the Hebrew scrolls we had been using up until that time. If you can imagine the excitement surrounding this discovery, then you will begin to appreciate the excitement surrounding the incident our Old Testament text records.
A Timely Discovery
King Josiah was only 8 years old when he began to reign according to 2 Kings 22. But at a certain point, when he’d be king for 18 years, they were renovating the Temple because some serious repair work needed to be done. It was during these renovations that someone found in the house of the Lord, long forgotten, a dusty old scroll, the book of the Law of Lord. From its contents, it looks like it was the book which we call, Deuteronomy. The major emphasis of this book brought to Josiah, is the repeated stress on the exclusivity which the Creator God demanded in worship, and the dire warnings of imminent disaster and exile if the people failed to fulfil their covenant with God.
Imagine the excitement as the scroll was read, the growing awareness that this was no ordinary book, the final realisation that this was nothing less than the very Word of God. But along with excitement, the contents create two other reactions. When the priests and the secretary read this book, they were frightened and that is why they brought it to Josiah, and he, the King, was absolutely horrified. Their nation was plagued with a sickness that was destroying their spiritual and public life. The obligation to care for the less fortunate, the poor, the widows, the fatherless, to see to it that justice was done for all was thrown to the wind. The Lord was given lip service, but Baal and other gods were accepted as legitimate. The feast of Passover hadn’t been celebrated in 600 years. The Israelites were basically pagan at this point. And so Josiah knows that the Lord is angry at them because they had not paid any attention to his Word.
Along with this frightening word of warning, Deuteronomy also contains a word which hope. If they return to the Lord, repent of their idolatry, and begin to take God’s Word seriously again, then God will forgive their sins, and shower blessings upon them.
So, they have a consultation: what are they going to do? The crucial thing is Josiah’s response: this book is for everybody. It’s not just for a scribal elite, to do some study on and to write some footnotes for and have some disputations and arguments about what this or that detail might mean. This is God’s own Word for his people, and its a Word to which the people of God have been unfaithful. And Josiah does this great Reformation in chapter 23, where he directs that “all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem were [to be] gathered to him. And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord.” (23:1-2).
The public reading of Scripture in 2 Kings 23 is absolutely central to the whole question of what the people of God should be doing now that their spiritual life, their public life has been allowed to slide. Sadly, Josiah was succeeded by other kings who reversed what he had done, and who went from bad to worse. And by the end of the second book of kings exile had loomed, Babylon had come upon the horizon, and it was all downhill from there. And it’s only after that, do we get the prophecies about the New Covenant and the promises that God will restore his people despite this terror of exile.
A Timeless Truth
Today we celebrate the 502nd anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. Like the Reformation under Josiah, Lutheran Reformation in the the sixteenth century was incited by a commitment to what God’s Word says above all else. It was during his teaching and lecturing through God’s Word as a University professor that Dr. Martin Luther was able to see that the Bible taught that one is made righteous not by doing good works or by submitting to the teaching and traditions of the Church. No, one was declared righteous through faith, because of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
And when Luther was charged with being a heretic by the Holy Roman Empire and asked to retract, Luther was defiant:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.” (LW 32:112-113)
In the midst of his disagreements with the Roman Church, Luther insisted that what God said in Sacred Scripture had the last word. And he refused to take credit for the reformation. All he did was preach the Bible and God performed his work through the Scripture:
“I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and my Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.” Quoted in Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman, 1988), 53)
Throughout history the Bible has often been a lost book, buried and forgotten beneath the rubble of ignorance, tyranny, and unbelief. That’s the way it was before the reform of Josiah. That’s the way was in pre-reformation Europe, and tragically it is also true today when, in spite of the fact that it remains the world’s most widely distributed book, it is seldom read even by Christians and is regarded by many as mythical or outdated. Sadly, because this rediscovery of God’s Word is something which seems to have to happen in every generation, (and I think that is still true today), you can’t simply live on something that was done in a previous generation, or an earlier reformation. You cannot simply rely on your heritage. Their Israelite heritage did not help the people during the time of Josiah. The Christian heritage of pre-Reformation Europe didn’t prevent them from trusting in their own spark of goodness. Your Lutheran heritage won’t save you.
Part of the genius of Scripture as the gift of God, is that every individual in every generation has to wrestle with it afresh. Oh, we can stand on the shoulders of the great teachers and reformers who have gone before us. But in the new and challenging circumstances that the people of God face, each generation has to say, “Wait a minute, we have forgotten parts of this text! There’s stuff in here we’ve be missing out on. We have allowed ourselves to slide. We need to read the whole bible. We need to read Deuteronomy, we need to read the Gospels. We need to soak ourselves in them, and then we need to ask, what needs to be done now? Where have we failed to listen to God’s Word? Which promises from God have we forgotten? We need to rediscover God’s Word for ourselves.” And that doesn’t mean just reading God’s Word either. It also means coming to Church and hearing it preached, taught, discussed and studied.
We need to rediscover God’s Word for ourselves because like the people in the days of Josiah, and like pre-reformation Europe our problem has not changed. And God’s Word in our Gospel lesson tells us what ghat problem is. That problem is our slavery to sin. The root of all sin is letting someone or something take the place of the Creator God. That is the fatal disease has cursed us with a constant inclination towards sin. This is what we have inherited from Adam. We do not love God with our whole heart. We do not love our neighbour as ourselves. We do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. That is sin, and we cannot free ourselves from it, as much as we try. The works of the law cannot save anyone. We will never do enough to earn our salvation. But, although we were born slaves to sin, yet God has not abandoned us. In God’s Word we are told instead that Christ has set us free. Our Savior Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, by whose holy blood shed on the cross all of our sins were completely atoned for, frees us from the guilt and power of our sin. God justifies us, declares us not guilty, for Christ’s sake. God’s Word, from Genesis to Revelation declares to us repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus name. So, remember Jesus’ words: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” “If you abide–if you continue in–my word.” Josiah, the priests, and the people saw their need to abide in God’s Word. Luther saw the need to abide and stand firm in God’s Word. And we must abide in it today as well. That means holding on to God’s Word, never letting go of it. It means letting that Word sink deep into you, so that it becomes part of the fabric of your being. As the Apostle Paul tells the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” And so today, on this Reformation Sunday, may your own personal reformation in and through the living and abiding Word of God begin afresh and continue forward.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.