October 4, 2020
Community Baptist Church of Gay Head (Aquinnah)
Sermon, “Renewing Our Vows”
+Scripture Reading: 2 Kings 22:8,10-13 Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it…Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”
In the Bible we have so many great examples of people wrestling with God that can help us as we wrestle with God. And that is what we do indeed, when we go about trusting God, because in hard times it sure feels like we’re wrestling with Him!
The people of God in the Bible were named after a man who wrestled with God. Jacob, the great patriarch of the Hebrew people, wrestled with God, and earned the name Israel, which means “he wrestles with God” in Hebrew. The Hebrew nation took his name. And much of the Bible talks about the nation of Israel, and Israel’s relationship with God.
But the Bible tells us that Israel was more than just God’s wrestling partner, Israel was God’s bride. The Law of Moses was a marital covenant. Prophet Isaiah says, “For your Maker is your husband— the Lord Almighty is his name.”
The marriage of Israel and God was not always “shalom in the home”. There were rocky times. At one point, God accuses Israel of adultery, when the people worshiped other gods and broke the Law of Moses. Ezekiel says: “Surely, as a wife treacherously departs from her husband, So have you dealt treacherously with Me, O house of Israel, says the LORD…not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; my covenant which they broke, although I was a husband unto them, said the LORD.”
Time and time again, the people of God break the covenant with God. The story of Israel is a very sad story, actually. It is a very rocky marriage. But over and over again, we learn the same lesson. When things get rocky, in the words of Waylon Jennings, “maybe it’s time we got back to the basics of love.”
Today’s reading is from a very revealing story in the Old Testament, taking place in the time of King Josiah, a righteous and good king. Now we might remember from the story of Samuel and Saul that God was not very supportive of having kings over his people, but we also learned from that story that God is willing to compromise. Like a good spouse!
And indeed that compromise was lasting. King Josiah, King of Judah, was the 15th generation from King David. Israel had had almost 500 years worth of history living under kings! But it was no happy compromise. By that time, Israel had split into two Kingdoms, the North which kept the name Israel, and the South which was called Judah, where Josiah was king.
This split happened precisely because so heavy were the burdens placed on the people by the first three Kings, Saul, David, and Solomon, that ten of the twelve tribes of the House of Israel broke away.
They divorced each other.
Not so much shalom in the home.
So in the Bible, when we read about Israel, sometimes it refers to the whole house of Israel, all 12 tribes. Other times, it refers only to the northern Kingdom, while the southern Kingdom, where King Josiah reigned from Jerusalem, is called Judah.
What we learn in this story about the times of Josiah is so revealing. King Josiah was a very upright man. We are told “He did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the ways of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.”
And yet — we learn from this story that the actual book of the Law of Moses had by that time been completely lost, for almost 60 years. When Josiah hears what is actually written in the Book of the Law, he tears his clothes! He is mortified, and he is terrified, since he has not been living by the words of the God’s Law, which promise curses on those who do not.
Could you imagine living in a world in which the Bible had been completely lost, thinking you’re worshipping God, and one day, you find a Bible only to find that you’re doing it completely wrong? I got my daughter a kitchen playset for Christmas last year. Every time I veered from the complicated instructions, I ended up screwing something in backwards or upside down and had to backtrack. I raised a heck of a ruckus. This is how Josiah must have felt.
And yet it is noted, Josiah was a righteous man and king.
Let’s ask a question. How is it that Josiah could not know the Law, and yet was considered righteous and good by the God of the Law? Hm. We’ll come back to this question later. The answer is important for us!
So, the king convenes a great assembly of “all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of 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.”
So, the wife of God renewed her vows.
It sounds like that’s it, the story is over. If this were a Hollywood movie, right there is where it would stop — the happy ending.
Cue the music.
But that’s not how real life works. Anybody who’s gotten in a fight with a sibling or a friend or a spouse knows that those fights that end with a new set of rules to follow never turn out to be the last fight on the matter. Chances are, that fight is going to come back, and those rules are going to come back to bite you. You’ve just brought a little law into your love, which does not necessarily help restore shalom in the home.
In the story of Josiah, we learn that this approach really was all for nought.
Righteous ole’ King Josiah dies in battle. He is succeeded by two evil kings. The LORD sets himself against the people of God, because even in spite of Josiah’s reforms, the people are faithless. God sends the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar to conquer and take captive Judah. This leads us to one of the saddest eras in the history of the people of God.
It is during this Babylonian captivity that the prophet Jeremiah reveals something that God told him during the reign of righteous Josiah. “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every green tree to prostitute herself there. I thought that after she had done all these things, she would return to Me. But she did not return, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. She saw that because faithless Israel had committed adultery, I gave her a certificate of divorce and sent her away. Yet that unfaithful sister Judah had no fear and prostituted herself as well. Indifferent to her own infidelity, Israel had defiled the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. Yet in spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to Me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the LORD.”
Jeremiah is saying that God had already divorced the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and Judah was acting like she was next in line! What did divorce from God look like for Israel? Hosea, predicting the Assyrian captivity of the northern Kingdom of Israel that happened just before the Babylonian captivity of Judah, tells us: “I will put an end to all her exultation: her feasts, New Moons, and Sabbaths— all her appointed holidays. I will destroy her vines and fig trees, which she thinks are the wages paid by her lovers. So I will make them into a thicket, and the beasts of the field will devour them. I will punish her for the days of the false gods, when she burned incense to them, when she decked herself with rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers. But Me she forgot,” declares the LORD.
These other lovers, they are false gods, they are ungodly ways, all the sins against the old covenant. The beasts of the field are the other nations who came to trample God’s country underfoot.
But God does not make this divorce final. Hosea continues, “Therefore, behold, I will allure her and lead her to the wilderness, and speak to her tenderly. There I will give back her vineyards and make the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope. There she will respond as she did in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. “In that day,” declares the LORD, “you will call Me ‘my Husband,’ and no longer call Me ‘my Master.’ For I will remove from her lips the names of the false gods; no longer will their names be invoked. On that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that crawl on the ground….So I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in loving devotion and compassion. And I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will know the LORD.”
So we see that this divorce is not final for Israel. Their captivity to the Assyrians would not last. Nor would divorce be final for Judah, whose divorce took the form of the Bablyonian captivity. Ezekiel, calling Judah by the name of Sodom and northern kingdom of Israel by the name of its capital Samaria, says, “I will restore Sodom and her daughters from captivity, as well as Samaria and her daughters. And I will restore you along with them…And your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to their former state. You and your daughters will also return to your former state.”
Then, he says something that would have been remarkable to the whole house of Israel: “I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you…So I will establish My covenant with you, and you will know that I am the LORD, so that when I make atonement for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your disgrace, declares the Lord GOD.”
God will remember the old covenant, but establish a new one, an everlasting covenant. He was giving them a second chance, and not just a second chance, he was changing the terms of their marriage so that it would be everlasting. Is there any divorce in an everlasting marriage?
Will it surprise you if I say — this prophecy, all its talk of marriage and divorce and adultery and prostitution, is a prophecy about the coming of Jesus Christ?
Jesus and weddings go together like water and wine. Jesus’ first public miracle took place where? At a wedding. Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding feast. John the Revelator writes about the great marriage supper of the Jeus the Lamb, the climactic moment after God “condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries” — now that adulterous woman should be quiet familiar to us, right? — and “[avenged] on her the blood of his servants.” John writes:
“Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”
“Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!”
Are we beginning to see some connections between the language of the Old Testament Prophets and the language of the New Testament prophets, and Jesus Christ himself? Wife, husband, bride, bridegroom, marriage, adultery, harlotry, divorce.
I want us to consider these connections so that we can have that blessed assurance of salvation that is in Christ. Because it is a truth that breaking the commandments of God, in the old Law, would bring about divorce and damnation. Same God then as now. Different covenant. This old covenant is what St. Paul called the ministry of death or the ministry of condemnation.
If we read through the Old Testament, we’ll see a lot of ups and downs. This old covenant between God and Israel wasn’t the best relationship. Israel was just rarely willing — or able — to fulfill her end of the bargain. And not only did that mean she became liable for the awful punishments of the Law, but also, she forfeited the rewards that God really wanted to give her. Israel sought after that reward, the reward of life, but just never quite got it.
In our own personal lives, we’ve probably experienced how our relationships can go up and down based on expectations and communication, trust. In marriages, it’s no different. Married folks might be very familiar with the kinds of problems that can come up when there are issues with expectations and communication, and trust gets stretched or broken. Many couples and families have some basic ground rules to help prevent these problems. But the goal isn’t to just live by the rules alone — the goal is to have a loving, fruitful marriage.
Well, God was showing Israel that a living-by-the-rulebook marriage wasn’t working. It was killing the marriage. Because as St. Paul discovered, the commandment of the Law “that was meant to bring life actually brought death”.
God says through Hosea that “when Ephraim spoke” — that is, the Northern Kingdom of Israel, another nickname — “there was trembling;’ — that is, he was so great a nation that people were afraid of him — “he was exalted in Israel. But he incurred guilt through false gods, and he died” — and again, he says, “You are destroyed, O Israel, because you are against Me”.
But he answers all this, saying “I will ransom them from the power of the gravel; I will redeem them from Death. Where, O Death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your sting?”
But what does death and resurrection imagery have to do with marriage and divorce? Bear with me here and I will show you!
Ezekiel speaks of the valley of dry bones, that is, dead Israel. He is speaking to all those who are in exile. He says, “O My people, I will open your graves and bring you up from them, and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, My people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.”
Then Ezekiel is instructed to take one stick, call it Ephraim after the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the other stick, and call it Judah after the southern Kingdom of Israel, and tie them together. God says, “When your people ask you, ‘Won’t you explain to us what you mean by these?’ you are to tell them that this is what the Lord GOD says: ‘I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel associated with him, and I will put them together with the stick of Judah. I will make them into a single stick, and they will become one in My hand….My servant David will be their prince forever. And I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be My people.”
This is about Israel’s resurrection. And in speaking of Israel’s resurrection, he speaks in the same breath of the reconciliation of the two kingdoms of the whole house of Israel, and refers to the everlasting covenant which elsewhere he described in marital terms.
Do we see how similar all this talk of death and resurrection is to that talk of divorce and marriage? And when they prophesy about the ultimate resolution, marriage or resurrection, they are both talking about the same thing: the new covenant of Jesus.
You see, the divorce of God from the Northern Kingdom; the captivity of the house of Judah, the southern kingdom; these are the punishments God gave out according to the old covenant, the ministry of death. But in the new covenant, brought by Jesus, rather than a relationship based on rules, Israel and Judah are reconciled, all Israel is saved as Paul promised, united under one King, resurrected from death, reconciled with her husband, a new marriage, a new life — all based on faith rather than law.
And not Israel only, but all those who have faith in Jesus, may enter into this covenant of promise. And let’s meditate on this fact, that the old covenant based on law did not last, because it couldn’t, but out of it came the new covenant based on love, and that covenant of love is everlasting.
This covenant of love and grace is what God desires for His creation, for its salvation and for the healing of the nations — and for the healing of the home, the building block of the nation! Sprinkling a little law into the love might not bring shalom in the home, but if you make your law the law of love, well we all know that even little bit of love goes a long way when the chips are down.
Remember our question about King Josiah? How was it that he was righteous in God’s view, and yet did not even know the Law? How do you think this was possible?
What should really strike us is this stunning duality: the most precious gift that God had yet given to his people at that time, the Law, was completely forgotten by those to whom it was entrusted; and yet in spite of the absence of a Law by which to live, some people such as Josiah indeed lived in such a way as to be reckoned righteous by God anyway.
How is this possible? Because what matters to God is faith working through love. When we put our faith in Jesus, we are entering into a new covenant wherein there is no condemnation. As Paul tells us “I am not ashamed of the good news: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes…For therein is revealed a righteousness of God by faith unto faith: as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’” And while Jesus Christ had not yet walked the earth at the time that King Josiah, born under the Law, was reckoned righteous without the Law, nonetheless Josiah did by nature was right according the Law even though he did not have the Law.
He was a law unto himself, as St. Paul calls it.
I always find it so incredible how even in the convoluted history of the nation of Israel, which is full of tragedy and calamity and confusion and wonder, even some of the most obscure stories all point to Jesus, and they can instruct us in the ways of eternal life. It’s incredible that these stories, thousands of years old, can teach us how to live fulfilling and abundant lives in these times of ours. What a resource we have in this Good Book, and especially in the Holy Spirit of God who inspired it, and who dwells with us through faith. Come, holy Spirit, come!
I want us to leave today looking at the world somewhat like how Josiah did that moment he read the Law for the first time. Because our Christian life is like that, new revelations of God’s beautiful plan for our lives opening up to us every time we open up the book and get into the word, and especially when we pray pray pray. Much like how Josiah’s world lost the book of the Law, the world around us for all intents and purposes has long lost the Book of Life, but we as Christians can be God’s living epistles, dedicated to the hearts of our neighbors, written not with ink but with the Spirit of God, not on tablets of stone but on the tablets of our hearts.
The world is a beautiful place, but there is not always shalom in the home.
Maybe it’s time we got back to the basics of love.
Let us pray.
May we renew our vows with God, with one another, to live under amazing grace and in deep love, to do all things to the glory of God and in the spirit of faith working through love. Amen.