November 26 | Re-Reform





Text: 2 Kings 22:1–23:4
Speaker: Joel Miller

A number of years ago, church scholar Phyllis Tickle wrote a book called The Great Emergence, Subtitle: How Christianity is Changing, and Why.  Her big theory, as she describes it, is this: “Every five hundred years, the Church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale.”  What she means is that in its 2000 years of existence, the church has undergone four massive historical transitions, roughly 500 years apart. 

The first, straddling the year 500, saw the fall of the Roman Empire, the ecumenical councils, and the rise of monasteries.  The second, just a bit into the thousands, was the great schism between East and West.  The Eastern Orthodox Patriarch and the Roman Catholic Pope excommunicated one another for theological differences that mirrored the politics and economics of the day.  The third was the Protestant Reformation which began in the early 1500s.  Mennonites and other Anabaptists were considered the radical wing of that reformation and, sure enough, we’re just a little over a year away from celebrating our 500 year anniversary.   

Tracing this pattern, Phyllis Tickle proposes that the church is now in the midst of another massive transition.  Or, to go back to her original metaphor, the attic is once again cluttered, and it’s time to have a rummage sale.  She apparently doesn’t know that around here we accumulate things fast enough to have a rummage sale every year. For new folks we actually do have a church rummage sale every year. 

I thought of Phyllis Tickle and The Great Emergence while reading this story from 2 Kings. 

There are a number of details here that might stir our curiosity.  Like the fact that Josiah was eight years old when began his 31 year reign as king.  If there are any eight year olds here today, or close to that age, I wonder how you would feel being put in charge of an entire country.  Fortunately, the next verse mentions that Josiah’s mother was right by his side, Jedidah, daughter of Adaiah.   

I’m intrigued with how the passage talks about the contractors who will help repair the Jerusalem temple.  Josiah, now at the ripe age of 26, initiates a capital improvements campaign.  He has the high priest, Hilkiah, count all the reserve funds in the temple and give them over to the carpenters, the builders, and the masons.  They are to purchase the necessary supplies – timber, quarried stone, etc.  With the added detail that they don’t need to do any accounting for what they buy because they are entirely trustworthy.  I love the shout out to skilled manual laborers and the recognition of honest business practices. 

Then there’s the point where Josiah sends Hilkiah and other officials off to consult with a prophet on a matter of national importance.  Jeremiah is the best-known prophet from this period, but their go-to person is someone we meet only in this chapter of 2 Kings: Huldah, the prophetess.  It makes you wonder how many other women served as top advisors to the throne but didn’t get their own books of the Bible.  Maybe Josiah’s mother, Jedidah, had some influence in whose counsel was sought. 

These are all intriguing features of this story – the boy king, the skilled and reliable tradespeople, the prophetic consultant – but the key moment that makes this story so pivotal, one of those every-few-century points of reform, is the discovery of a scroll in the temple.  After collecting all the money for the renovations, perhaps checking through the back rooms of the temple to make sure no coin went uncounted, Hilkiah the priest declares to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.”  Shaphan reads it over. 

Supposedly these two leaders, and everyone else in Judah at the time, had never encountered this scroll, or its message.  Shaphan takes it to Josiah and reads it aloud for the king.  Upon hearing it, Josiah tears his clothes, which is what you do when you want to express your distress in public.  And that’s the point where they go and consult with Huldah the prophetess to see what in the world all this means. 

Given Huldah’s response, and given the reforms Josiah undertakes, scholars have concluded that the book of the law Hilkiah discovered was a portion of Deuteronomy.  Of the five books of the Torah, Deuteronomy is unique for centralizing worship in Jerusalem.  Local festivals like Passover as described in Exodus became pilgrimages to the one temple, in Jerusalem.  Household shrines and offerings under sacred trees were banned, as the temple became the only officially endorsed mode of worship.  Images of the sacred feminine, Asherah, were to be removed, confiscated, and destroyed. 

Deuteronomy has a list of blessings if these instructions are followed, and a list of curses if they aren’t.  The prophetess Huldah echoes these warnings, firming up the case that we’re dealing with Deuteronomy here.  Josiah implements all these changes.  Only rather than having a rummage sale, he has a big bonfire. It’s a major reform.

Scholars are conflicted on whether the book of the law discovered in the temple was actually an ancient copy of those portions of Deuteronomy, perhaps hidden away to protect it from unfriendly kings.  Or whether Hilkiah the priest, “discovered” a scroll he and fellow scribes had written themselves, which became part of the book of Deuteronomy, which served to justify all the changes Josiah brought about. 

What is a little clearer is that this isn’t just another story in the book of Kings and the long history of Israel, but it is the reference point through which all the prior history is being interpreted, the period during which this is all being written down as a coherent narrative.  Josiah, as a contemporary of these scribes, is hailed as the final righteous king of Judah before the Babylonians overrun the city and destroy the very temple this reform had sought to make the center of Judean society.  Such a devastating loss needed a theological explanation and the books of Kings and the prophets of the time have a consistent answer.  Because the previous kings – the leaders – had not followed the book of the law, Yahweh was bringing on them the destruction promised within that very book – whenever it might have been written.  This is a theme we’ve been addressing and wrestling with the last several weeks.  Scholars refer to this as the Deuteronomic History, a school of thought that runs from Deuteronony through 2 Kings as our Bibles are currently organized.  If you 7,8,9, and 10 year olds are still with me, that would be a good dinner conversation to bring up with your parents.  Mom, Dad, tell me again about the Deuteronomic History. 

It’s not the only school of thought in the Hebrew Bible.  Job, notably, is having none of it, refusing to believe that his suffering is related to a moral failing.  The lessons of Job easily apply beyond the individual to collective suffering like that of the exile.  Ecclesiastes isn’t quite sure much of anything  makes sense.  It settles on finding contentment in daily life, despite its likely insignificance.  The Song of Songs is an erotic love poem, but has also been interpreted as God’s relentless love for Israel which knows only passion and not punishment. 

Perhaps not coincidentally, this Wisdom literature, and more that didn’t make it into the Bible, comes to prominence at the same time the prophetic writings fade away.  Prophetic certainty of speaking directly for God became less prominent.  If you do this, God will bless you.  If you do that, or don’t do this, God will punish you.  Wisdom literature, which was just as comfortable with posing questions as providing solid answers, became more common. 

Wisdom literature recognizes hardships and suffering, but sees it more as a natural outcome of certain decisions.  Or it suggests that some outcomes simply don’t make sense or don’t have anything to do with what you did or didn’t do.  Wisdom looks to practical experience and draws guidance from the natural world.  It makes less God-claims and more creation-observations.  Wisdom can be comfortable with mystery, with unknowing.  Wisdom literature was not unique to Israel.  It was part of cultures throughout the whole ancient world.  And so the biblical Wisdom books are more participating in a larger stream than a solo river cutting through dry terrain.  

It’s not a perfectly clean break between the prophetic and Wisdom, but drawing some contrasts is setting up my point, so humor me. 

Josiah’s reforms and the period of Babylonian exile occurred roughly 500 years – more like 600, before the ministry of Jesus, which happened roughly 500 years before the first of those three historical transitions within the church I named earlier – the fall of Rome and the rise of monasticism, the East/West split, and the Protestant Reformation.  Which, springing forward 500 years, brings us to today. 

I’m going to go on a hunch that there are people in every generation who think they live at the hinge of history.  In this, we are not unique.  We may be in the midst of another great transformation as Phyllis Tickle suggests, or many many years from now there may be an entirely different way of interpreting history that has us in a less pivotal place.  It certainly feels like things are shifting under our feet.  Those who are paying attention to church dynamics across the country and world would generally agree.

Phyllis Tickle talks about something she calls “the cable of meaning” for what hold an age together, for what keeps a boat moored to the dock.  Imagine this cable with an outer, water proof covering.  This is the story of the community.  The grand narrative everyone agrees to live within.  Under the covering is a mesh sleeve which she calls the common imagination, or the consensual illusion – basically the agreement we all have about how the world works, and what’s important.  And then beneath that is a braid of three chords – spirituality, morality, and the physical structures and practices of a culture or religion. 

When the outer protective covering, the grand narrative, has a tear in it, it exposes the protective sleeve, the common imagination and agreements, to the elements of uncertainty and chaos.  Soon enough that three chorded braid of spirituality, morality, and structures is worn down, the cable of meaning snaps, and boat is adrift on the sea until the crew devises a new cable of meaning to moor it to a steady point. 

The point isn’t that it happens exactly every 500 years, but that this is a cyclical process, and its helpful to keep the cable of meaning in mind to consider where we are in our time, or perhaps even where you are in your own faith journey.

So maybe it was Darwin who broke the most recent outer sleeve of grand narrative that held the Christian world together.  What does it mean to be a person of faith in a very old universe where we are but one very newly arrived species on but one planet in but one solar system and galaxy amongst billions?  Maybe it is Christianity’s encounter with other world religions and our realization of the evils we’ve done over the centuries in the name of God.  Maybe it is the reemergence of the sacred feminine, Asherah rising from the ashes of Josiah’s bonfire, reasserting herself in human consciousness.  Maybe it is the blurring of previous sharp lines regarding human sexuality and gender expression?

Is the outer covering, the grand narrative, all but gone?  Has the mesh sleeve, the common imagination, torn into many pieces?  How badly is the three-stranded braid fraying? 

Or are we already starting to remake another cable of meaning?  Have we already found the shore, and the stake that keeps us from drifting out to sea?  Has the rummage sale already happened, with our spacious clutter-free attic ready again for imaginative play?

When the cable is coming apart, or when we’re scrambling to find the materials to make a new one, it seems like we are faced with the same dynamics that ran through the time of Josiah and the Babylonian exile with the God-ordained certainty of the prophets giving way to chastened more earthbound contemplations of Wisdom.  For some, religion is a refuge of certainty.  For others, religion is an invitation to mystery.  Those are two very different cables of meaning all the way from the outer covering down to that three-stranded braid. 

My hope is that we not fear the unraveling of the cable that has been mooring us to the wrong dock.  That we embrace the unknown and its many gifts.  That we find wisdom all around and within us.  And that we do the grace-filled work of constructing a cable of meaning that binds us firmly to the Divine Love which outlasts all of our crises, all of our rummage sales.