January 29, 2012
2 Kings 22:1-23:3
Imagine that you inherit a house–the house that your great-grandfather built. A once-beautiful structure that is now in danger of being condemned by the city. So you set to work. And by “work” I mean you hire contractors to come in and replace wiring, install new windows, reinforce walls, and whatever else the experts decide needs to happen for the house to be livable again.
A few days into the project, one of the workers brings you a worn book. They found it in the back corner of a kitchen cabinet. As you open the book and turn the brittle pages, you realize that the book is your great grandma’s diary. You never even knew this book existed and now here it is, in your hands. The words, as you read them, sink into your heart as images of your grandmother play in your mind.
In our society today, we are overloaded with written words–on billboards and computer screens, in books and magazines and signs and brochures. Still, even for those of us who can go to the library and commune with thousands of books any time we wish, there are those texts that are precious. Because of what they say or how they say it or who wrote the words. And discovering one of these precious texts is a holy experience.
How much more so in the time of Josiah, when the written word was rare; handwritten on large scrolls. And how much more so when the text discovered is not a brilliant philosophical study or a great poem or the diary of a beloved ancestor, but when the text discovered is the very word of God; the words of scripture from the heart of the book of Deuteronomy.
That is what is read to Josiah at the beginning of our biblical narrative for this morning. His secretary reads him the scroll that has been passed along by the priest. The priest had found this scroll in the temple, possibly thanks to the renovation work that Josiah had ordered for the much neglected building. The book of Deuteronomy is part of the Pentatuch–scriptures central to the Jewish faith. This book had been lost. No one had read or heard from Deuteronomy for generations. And now, suddenly, here it is.
It seems appropriate, as we are in the midst of the narrative lectionary–a time of learning about the story of scripture–that we come to this story about an encounter with scripture. And perhaps this story from 2 Kings can guide us in our own reading and living out of the biblical texts.
Based on this story of King Josiah, I would like to suggest that a full and faithful interaction with scripture consists of four movements: attention, reaction, interpretation, and response.
First, in our story, attention is paid to the text. I can imagine the priest finding this large, beautiful scroll amidst the rubble of temple renovations. He bends over to pick it up, then cradles the sacred text in one arm as he carefully wipes away the grime and dust. Then the moment of setting the scroll down and unrolling it to read the words written there.
After the priest reads the scroll, he passes it on to the king’s secretary, insisting that the words be read to the king as well. And the king listens to the words of the scroll. In the midst of all of his other kingly duties, he gives this text his attention.
I know that all of you are not aware of the details that go into planning a worship service–though some of you know all too well. One of the factors I consider each week is the length of the scripture reading. I don’t want the reading to be too long–I don’t want people to get bored. If the reading is somewhat lengthy, I often write it out in parts for multiple readers, like I did this morning, hoping the vocal variety will help people listen more attentively. Sometimes I even shorten the suggested reading; I cut off the first nine verses of the reading for today. If we are honest, most of us would admit that it is sometimes difficult to give the scriptures our attention.
Yet there is Josiah, the king, listening as his secretary, Shaphan, reads scripture from the scroll. Possibly Shaphan was a gifted actor who did different voices to liven up the text, but somehow I doubt it. I imagine a simple, straight forward reading of a text that probably consisted of what we have in our Bibles today as Deuteronomy 5-26. That is one long scripture reading.
In many ways it should be easier to give attention to the scriptures today because we have such ready access to them. I overheard a sixty-something woman talking at Panera about this young guy who pulled out his cell phone in church because he had the Bible on there. Can you imagine?
I can go to biblegateway.com and find every instance in the Bible of the word “love”–and then read those passages in over a dozen different translations. We can listen to the Bible, watch movies of the Bible, listen to any number of songs based on scripture.
This ready access gives us ample opportunity to pay attention to scripture. If we aren’t careful, though, the availability can lead us to take the presence of the scripture for granted and thus fail to pay it the sacred attention it deserves.
In our text this morning, Josiah first pays attention to the reading, and then he reacts to it. We are told that “when the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes.” He tears his clothes in grief and repentance. The words make him realize that he has not followed faithfully the path that God has laid out, and he feels bad.
I think it is important that we allow ourselves this second “movement” in our interaction with scripture. We should allow ourselves to have an immediate, emotional, gut reaction to the words we read or hear. And we must realize that there are no right or wrong reactions. We might feel warm and fuzzy, but often we won’t. Instead we may feel angry or sad or burdened or confused. Our reaction to scripture simply means that we are indeed paying attention; that we are letting the words soak in; that we are taking them seriously.
The danger of reacting, though, is that we end with reaction. We read a few words and go picket something. Or get a tattoo. Or remove a tattoo. Or send money to a TV preacher. Or we do any number of impulsive, feeling-motivated things that may or may not be a faithful response.
The reaction is not the response. Before we are ready to respond, we must engage in interpretation. After Josiah’s reaction of feeling remorse and tearing his clothes, he immediately sends for an informed interpretation of the words he has heard. He tells his secretary to “inquire of the Lord concerning this text.”
I really like this view of scriptural interpretation as “inquiring of the Lord.” It suggests that we ultimately seek the truth that God has for us in the scripture–as opposed to bending the scripture to fit our own ideas of truth.
The question, of course, is how do we go about interpreting scripture? What methods do we use? What books do we read? To whom do we listen?
In Josiah’s day, there were prophets living in the land of Judah. These were the people believed to speak on behalf of God. And so Josiah’s secretary goes to a prophet in his efforts to interpret the new-found text. It is interesting to note that the textual interpretation is the central piece of this biblical story. It stands at the literary center, and the most time is spent on it.
I think there are a couple of important aspects to the interpretation that occurs here. First, it is done in community. The secretary does not go off in search of interpretation alone. He takes four other people with him.
This was very Anabaptist of him. Our faith tradition understands the value of interpreting scripture together; the dangers of allowing only the elite few access to the sacred texts.
Another insightful aspect of this story is that the men sought help with interpretation from a trusted authority. They went straight to Huldah. Now you may never have heard of Huldah before this morning, but the priest and the secretary and those other guys had heard of her. They knew exactly who to find and where to find her when it came time to “inquire of the Lord.”
Huldah is one of the few female prophets mentioned in the Bible. This is the only story we have about Huldah–a story mentioned here and in 2 Chronicles. We know her name, who her husband was, even where she lived. Biblical scholars are fairly certain that she lived at the same time as some of the other prophets: Jeremiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, possibly Habbukuk. These names will sound familiar to you if you ever had to memorize the books of the Bible. All of these guys have their own book. But the king’s men did not go to any of these other prophets. They went to Huldah.
And I think this does say something about the authorities to which we turn when we are seeking to interpret scripture. It says, of course, that women can have as much authority as men. (You all knew that already.) But Huldah is interesting as a source of prophetic authority for other reasons–she seems to be living a normal, average life. She’s married with a little house there in the Second Quarter of Jerusalem. She does not have her own T.V. show or book. Based on the customs of the time, she was almost certainly not highly educated.
What Huldah had was a recognized connection to the Divine. She was known as one who spoke the word of God. That’s what we should look for when we seek to interpret the scriptures. Not the big names–the folks with books and TV shows and popular blogs and institutional clout. Just people living their lives in the awareness of God. Spiritual authority often does not look like authority from a worldly perspective.
After interpretation comes the final movement in our story of Josiah–the response. The response, you will note, is different from the initial reaction. The reaction is immediate, short-term, and fueled by emotion. The response is more long-term and comes after interpretation.
The response, in true Anabaptist form, is also done as a community. In Josiah’s case, this response is a recommitment to the covenant God has made with the people: “The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.”
I would venture to say that our response to encountering scripture will mirror that of Josiah–our response will always be some form of covenant.
Scripture reminds us of the incredible promises that God has made to us–even more so now that we have received the promise in Christ. Promises of love, of care, of protection, of guidance, of life–abundant and eternal.
Scripture also calls us back to the promises that we have made to God. To follow the law given to us through the word and manifest in the life and teachings of Jesus.
God’s covenant relationship with people did not end during biblical times. God’s promises continue for us today. And God continues to welcome our response; our commitments to the way of Jesus.
Let’s not take our access to scripture for granted. Let us cherish each opportunity we have to read, to listen to the sacred words. And I pray we can engage the scripture in ways that draw us closer to the Holy One: that we might pay attention, react, interpret, and respond to the Biblical text in ways that are faithful and life-giving.