November 24, 2013 Deuteronomy 26:1-11
This morning, I’m preaching on Deuteronomy.
I chose Deuteronomy, because I thought it would be appropriate to preach on first-fruits, since Thanksgiving is this week, and I like to think of Thanksgiving as a time to enujoy our first fruits and celebrate the abundance of the harvest.
But sometimes, it can feel like when I pick a passage to preach on, and it goes with a holiday or a current event, it can feel a little like I’m proof-texting, or just trying to make the Bible say what I want it to say…
So, I’m preaching on Deuteronomy, but I wanted to give it a little background first.
To do that, I’ll also be using 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34.
See, 2 Kings talks about a boy named Josiah.
Josiah became king over the land of Judah when he was 8 years old.
Is anyone here 8 years old this morning? (have them stand up)
Now, in the 18th year of Josiah’s reign, that is, when Josiah was 26 years old, he sent Shaphan, the grandson of the Royal Secretary, into the house of the LORD.
He told him “Go up to the high priest Hilkiah, and have him count the entire sum of the money that has been brought into the house of the LORD, which the keepers of the threshold have collected from the people;
(these keepers of the threshold were kind of like sacred doorkeepers. They lived and worked at the temple, it was their job to open and close the doors on time, keep unclean people from entering the sacred space, and they were in charge of collecting the offerings that people would bring to the temple).
But I digress…the story goes on with the words of Josiah, saying
“have the high priest, Hilkiah, count the entire sum of money that has been brought into the house of the LORD, which the keepers of the threshold have collected from the people; let it be given into the hand of the workers who have the oversight of the house of the LORD; let them give it to the workers who are at the house of the LORD, repairing the house, that is, to the carpenters, to the builders, to the masons; and let them use it to buy timber and quarried stone to repair the house.”
In other words, Josiah gives a royal, kingly command to have the high priest count all of the money that has been offered to the temple.
He is supposed to count it, and then give it to the overseers who are supposed to in turn pay the workers and buy building supplies to continue their restoration of the place of worship.
The subtext in this story is that the temple had been neglected for a good, long time.
Their main place of worship had fallen into disrepair.
And when you read the rest of the story…when you read the preceding chapters in 2 Kings, it’s no wonder why.
~The preceding kings did not remember their story.~
They did not remember their God.
Time and time again in the preceding chapters in 2 Kings, we are introduced to one king after another who “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD”.
But Josiah comes along, and 18 years into his reign he starts to ask some questions. Actually, if you read the same account in 2 Chronicles, you get a little more detail. In 2 Chronicles we’re told it was 8 years into Josiah’s reign; when he was 16 years old, that he began to seek the God of his ancestor David. It’s apparent that he had some kind of conversion experience, or in some way he started taking God seriously when he was 16, or 8 years into his reign.
And then ten years later, he gives these commands concerning the restoration of the temple.
That’s why it appears that here in 2 Kings, there was a renovation underway…its because there was a renovation underway!
They had been working on the temple, maybe already for a few years by then, trying to bring it back up to snuff.
Keep in mind, if you’re thinking of “the temple” like you’re thinking of “a church”, then you’re way off. This thing was massive.
We’re talking like a complex more than a building. I imagine plenty of rooms, plenty of buildings, plenty of places for things to get lost, forgotten, put aside and not picked back up.
(this happens right here in our little church house…imagine like a dozen or more churches put together!)
So it’s enormous, but it had also been neglected for generations. Josiah wanted to fix that.
So to make a long story short, as Hilkiah counts up the money at this stage of the restoration project, he finds a book that had been lost, probably a scroll, actually.
In 2 Kings it’s called ‘the book of the law’, and at least a few scholars agree that it very well could have been what we know as Deuteronomy, or at least an early version of it.
Shaphan takes the book and reads it to King Josiah, and when the King hears it and finds out what it was, he tore his clothes.
Have you ever wondered why it seems like people are always tearing their clothing in the Old Testament?
It’s a symbolic gesture with a couple of different meanings; one is to demonstrate your grief in the face of death, or the act of mourning a significant loss…or it can also be a symbolic removal of authority!
Remember when David grasped Saul’s robe in the cave, and tore off a piece?
That was like a fore-shadowing of the kingship falling away from Saul and coming to David.
Or we can think of the temple curtain being torn asunder, as the King James puts it, when Jesus died on the cross.
The authority, or the power symbolized by the temple itself was torn in that action.
So Josiah tears his robe, a symbolic action that could have been equal parts mourning, as well as acknowledging that in this forgotten scroll there was a greater authority than he was willing to claim as king.
It was an authority that had been laid aside, forgotten…lost.
The book had been neglected, just like the temple.
And the only right thing to do, once it had been recovered, was for Josiah to tear his robe and start making some changes.
One reason I like this story so much, is because what Josiah did is so uncommon today.
Basically, he refuses to play the blame-game; he doesn’t pass the buck to the generations before him; the ones who were actually responsible for losing the book of the law.
He doesn’t puff himself up and hide behind his position. He doesn’t blame the high priest, or the rest of the Levites; he doesn’t try to avoid the moment that had come to him, even though as King he could have done that a hundred different ways.
Rather, He tears his clothes.
And then he does his best to restore the memory of God’s people.
So, what’s any of this got to do with Thanksgiving?
What’s any of this got to do with Deuteronomy, or first fruits, or Millersburg Mennonite?
Well, I’d like to suggest this morning that most of us have a little bit of selective amnesia when it comes to the Thanksgiving Holiday that we look forward to celebrating this Thursday.
I’m not a killjoy; I’m not trying to make us feel bad about feasting, or taking a day to celebrate our abundance with our friends and our family (especially when you’re going to run it off on Saturday as we cruise to victory over Berlin Mennonite and Martins Creek Mennonite-right?! there’s still a few days to sign up if you haven’t yet!).
I’m not saying we shouldn’t feast, or celebrate the harvest with family and friends.
But I do want us to remember our story as we do so.
Deuteronomy, this book of the law that lay forgotten for generations, collecting dust in some dark corner of the temple treasury, bears witness to a people who had to remember their roots.
They had to remember their story.
Religious institutions can get so wrapped up in the flow of people and offerings that come in and out of the doors, we can get so wrapped up in the day to day activities that fill our time, that we neglect and even forget the story that gives it all meaning.
But that’s not just true about religious institutions like churches and temples.
It’s just as true of our families and the time we spend together in small groups of friends.
It’s easy to get caught up in managing the doors, keeping the thresholds, maintaining order within so that eventually it all becomes an end in itself.
Or that Sunday School Class.
Your holiday celebrations.
It’s all good stuff.
But there is a deeper meaning to all of it that’s so easy to neglect.
That’s why the people are commanded to recite their story when they make their offering; “A wandering Aramean was my father. He went down to Egypt and became a great nation. They humiliated us, so we cried out to God, who saved us, and brought us here, to this place of abundance!”
God wants our first fruits, not the leftovers.
If we’re talking turkey, God wants the whole bird, not just the sandwiches.
But even those first fruits, even the whole bird, if it’s not accompanied by the story that gives it meaning, after awhile it turns into clutter, chatter, white noise.
I’m at a point where December has turned into clutter, chatter, white noise.
I look at the last two weeks of December, and I see a list of things that need to be done.
That’s not how it’s supposed to be.
There is a story to be told as we gather with family around a table heavy-laden with the choicest of food, there is a story to be told as we relax on a leisurely afternoon, letting the triptophan in the turkey lull us to sleep. There is a story to be told as we rouse ourselves from that leisurely slumber to head out in the waning light to begin our quest for Christmas goodies, blitzing towards the hap-hap-happiest time of the year.
But what part of the story is being forgotten?
What parts are we leaving out whether we mean to or not?
It wasn’t Josiah’s fault that the book was lost.
But he didn’t waste his time assigning blame or passing the buck.
He accepted the responsibility that found him, the responsibility to tell the story, to guard the story, to remember the story, to re-connect his people to the meaning of their lives.
How might we do the same?
Over the past couple months, we’ve celebrated 60 years as a church.
The timeline has been on the wall, with important bits of our story attached to it.
I hope you’ve found that as meaningful as we have; a visible reminder that we are connected to a story that is bigger than any one of us.
But the timeline itself is limited, for it can only go back.
And we’re caught in a quandry; for we can only go forward.
The trick is to learn from the past, honor the past, remember the past, even try to make ammends for the past…all the while knowing that we can’t go back there.
We have only the future.
Like Josiah, we might have inherited a legacy of abundance that’s been built on neglect or outright idolatry. We don’t need to play the blame game. We don’t need to hide.
But we do need to deal with those things, not unlike Josiah.
Thanksgiving means re-imagining family. It means re-imagining feasting.
Thanksgiving is a lens through which we view the world, not just an event we participate in once a year.
So celebrate well this Thursday, but Remember well also.
Do not forget the God who created you, who called you, who saves you in the moment of your distress.