Monday, June 20, 2016

The Story 17. The Kingdom's Fall

Readings: 2 Kings 22:1-20, 2 Kings 25:1-12, Lamentations 1:1-12, Ezekiel 37:1-14
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 19th, 2016

Today I want to talk about “Survival Strategies in the midst of Calamities” This year as a church we have been exploring a book called “The Story”, a chronological Readers Digest version of the 66 books of the Bible. Over the next 5 weeks we hope to complete the Old Testament section.

We have reached chapter 17, titled “The Kingdom's Fall.” In terms of Hebrew history this is a moment of great catastrophe. The Northern tribes of Israel have already been conquered and assimilated into Assyria. The Southern tribe, Judah, are about to experience defeat and be sent into exile in Babylon. Around them are mighty empires. The scattered Hebrew tribes cannot match their stealth.

They have lost their spiritual center. They have fallen into the kind of unfaithfulness and idolatry they once despised. At the start of chapter 17 we are introduced to one of Judah's worst ever kings, Manasseh. Among things Manasseh is remembered for is desecrating the temple, sacrificing his sons to pagan gods in the fire and shedding so much innocent blood that it ran through the streets of Jerusalem. Scriptures testimony is that “Manasseh led the people astray. He did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites.” (2 Kings 21:9)

It's time for a reboot. It's time for the nation to be taught a lesson they would never forget. God hadn't given up on them. But it was going to take drastic means to set them back on the right path. The chilling word that comes to them during Manasseh's reign is found in 2 Kings 21:13-14 I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will forsake the remnant of my inheritance and give them into the hands of enemies.

So that's the setting. Collapse. Everything that could go wrong is going wrong. Terrible times and disastrous days. Maybe today we know people who are experiencing difficult days or we are personally facing unexpected trials. Maybe we feel the church has lost it's way, or the nation, or even the whole world.

So... I return to the theme for today, and it doesn't matter if you have read the chapter or not, it's a topic we can all relate to; “Survival Strategies in the midst of Calamities.” In the story of the Kingdoms fall, three characters stand tall. There are three individuals who have the capacity to stay on track when everybody else is derailed. And they each have a lesson to teach us.
  • A young faithful King, called Josiah, points us to the importance of Scripture.
  • A prophet called Jeremiah recalls us to the discipline of totally transparent prayer.
  • The prophet Ezekiel teaches us never to underestimate the power of God's revival Spirit.
Josiah was only 8 years old when the mantle of King fell upon him. The verdict over his reign is found in 2 Kings 22:2 “He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and followed completely the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.

The particular thing that happened during the reign of Josiah is that the “Book of the Law” is rediscovered. When he is eighteen years old Josiah sets about restoring the temple which had fallen into disrepair. As the workmen get busy they discover some discarded scrolls which they take to the priest. The priest knows what they are. God's Word. So the priest takes them to the Kings secretary, who takes them to Josiah.

“So” asks Josiah “What's it all about?” As the scrolls are read folk become involved. The prophecy is given that the nation will fall. Josiah is devastated. He calls the people together to fast and pray and seek God's mercy. His faithfulness is rewarded.

He receives the message “Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people--and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.'" (2 Kings 22:19-20)

Josiah discovered that when you take the words of Scripture with the seriousness that they deserve, everything changes. For many people today the 66 books that make up the Bible are a closed book. Unread. Unstudied. Unacted upon. The Bible has been described as “The least read best seller in all of history.” That's why we are doing this “Story” program. Biblical illiteracy is at epidemic proportions. Even among church going folk.

In the face of biblical neglect we can do two things. We can be like everybody else and just say, “Oh, its just a sign of the times.” Or we can be a Josiah. We can get hold of that book, dust off the covers, and start trying to live into the ways of the Kingdom that Jesus pictures for us.

To do that we have to have the faith that the Bible is indeed God's word for today. I get it. Many people question that. Many people don't accept that. Many people say, “Oh, it's so hard to understand.” But if you allow the words of Scripture to become God's Word to your heart, you will be blessed.

I'm not talking about study for studies sake. I'm not talking about bible reading as an intellectual discipline. I'm talking about reading scripture prayerfully, in conversation with and in the presence of God, seeking the illumination of God's Holy Spirit.

If you feel like you are the only person in your household, in your family, in your street, in your community, or even in your church who's doing that, then take courage from Josiah. He was the only one who treated God's word right and through him, his faith community, his geographic community, his family and his household were blessed.

After Josiah died another unfaithful King took his place. So for sure, Josiah's dedication only lasted a season. But it was a good season. A time of peace and growth and blessing. Even in the midst of unfaithfulness, those who seek God can find blessing. Which brings us to our next character. Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was a bullfrog. At last he was in a song by Three Dog Night, but that's not he Jeremiah of Scripture. If Josiah speaks to us about the discipline of Scripture reading, then Jeremiah's life points us to the value of transparent prayer.

What do I mean by transparent prayer? Jeremiah told it as he saw it. He didn't flinch from asking God the hard questions, nor from proclaiming to the people uncomfortable truths that they did not want to hear.

Jeremiah's call begins with a godly conversation. God tells him, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." (Jeremiah 1:5) Jeremiah's first reaction is to say, “I'm way too young to serve you and anyway... I never got the memo.”

The he tells us, “But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, “I am too young'. You must go to everyone I send you and say whatever I command you.” We read, Jeremiah 1: 9, “Then the Lord reached out His hand and touched my mouth and said to me, "I have put My words in your mouth.”

Despite his youthfulness, despite his concern that he really didn't have anything to say, Jeremiah finds comfort in these statements. First of all, his age was irrelevant, God was sending him, so he had to go. Secondly, he didn't have to conjure up some inspirational message out of nowhere, the Word he had to proclaim was God's Word!

It's no different for us. Firstly, it does not matter how old or young we are, we are somebody called to share God's love with others. Secondly, the message we share is not one we have to manufacture for ourselves but the message of God's love we find in the Scripture.

Jeremiah has to say some difficult things, but behind every proclamation is the idea that God will have mercy on God's people if only they will come to their senses, stop trying to get along without God's help, stop filling their lives with empty junk and idols and worthless pursuits and get with the program God wants for their lives. The only thing they have to lose, is God's blessing. Because if they kept living in ways that pushed God out of their lives, that was not the place blessing was found! He tells it like it is.

But did people listen? Of course not! They went their own way. They ended up being defeated and carted off to exile in Babylon. So that was it, right? Game over. Never say never when it comes to God! Because our third figure is the weird and wonderful, Ezekiel.

Ezekiel's call is like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. Ezekiel 1:4-6 “I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north--an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings.” And it just gets weirder! And I'm not going to spend time right now exploring all of that, you can read it for yourself.

What I am going to offer you is this. Never, ever underestimate the power of God's revival Spirit. Despite the example of Josiah, who called people to get back to God's word, despite Jeremiahs call for people to get on their knees and pray, they still went their own way and it looked like the nation would never recover.

Then along comes Ezekiel with his vision of skeletons, his vision of dry bones, that, by the mighty Spirit of God, come back to life. Ezekiel 37:4-5 "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, 'Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.”

The church in our day is going through a time of transformation. You may see dry bones. But I hear God's call. I believe that it's not about what we can do, it's about what God can do. Sometimes things get worse, before they can get better. In God's time, dry bones take flesh and live. That is the work of God's revival Spirit. Never underestimate what God can do.

So today I offer you three faithful characters who offer to us “Survival Strategies in the midst of Calamities.”
  • A young faithful King, called Josiah, points us to the importance of Scripture.
  • A prophet called Jeremiah recalls us to the discipline of totally transparent prayer.
  • The prophet Ezekiel teaches us never to underestimate the power of God's revival Spirit.
To God be the glory for all God's faithful servants. Amen and Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

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