Waiting for the Truth
All those names in our lesson this morning! Bozkath. Huldah. Hilkiah. Shaphan. Achbor. Beyond the advanced Hebrew pronunciation exam, there is a story at the heart of our lesson. Josiah, who rules in the southern part of the now divided kingdom, is in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. He is really the last gasp of faithfulness in the long line of kings before the final descent into destruction and exile. It is on Josiah’s watch that this ancient scroll is rediscovered in the temple, at which point he sets about instituting a lot of reforms. He orders all of the altars and pillars and places of worship dedicated to other gods destroyed, centering the true worship of the one true God back in the Lord’s temple. Since David’s time, the overall trend has been away from such centralized, monotheistic adoration. The gods of other nations have made their way into Israel and Judah, and the people have forgotten about their covenant with God, the one that was a two-way promise of devotion.
Josiah’s reign is the final effort to bring the people back to the God who set them free. It is just a few more generations until Babylon lays siege to Jerusalem, levels the temple, and takes the people into exile. From there, it is a long, long season of longing…of desire…of waiting…
It’s that time of year again. Advent begins today, with Christmas lying just around the corner. As the title of our worship series implies, this is a season of waiting. There is the season of waiting that our society has built up around Advent and Christmas, mostly having to do with purchasing and spending. We mark the ancient season of waiting, the four hundred years that passed between the last of the writings of the Hebrew prophets and the arrival of the Christ child.
And, perhaps most importantly, we recognize that we are still in a season of waiting. Christ was born, lived, served, died, and rose again, and so we see glimpses of the kingdom, of the world as God desires – but imperfectly and partially so. And so we wait, ultimately, for God’s perfecting.
That’s not fully true, though. Waiting implies passivity. It brings up images of waiting rooms, where time is water down a drain. And if all we are doing is sitting around, it frees us of any responsibility. Life, then, becomes a commodity to be consumed – and the secular interpretation of Christmas is actually quite faithful. Jesus is coming, and will fix this mess. In the meantime, let’s shop!
But waiting isn’t nothing. Waiting, faithful waiting, is active. Waiting requires patience. Waiting demands that we pay attention. And waiting takes practice.
Patience. Paying attention. Practice. These three are the bedrocks of faithful waiting.
Patience. How many of you would describe yourself as patient? Wait – don’t raise your hands yet! Patience does not come naturally to many of us. This is particularly true in our quick fix, buy it now culture. There’s a reason it is said that patience is a virtue. If it were easy, there’d be no virtue to it.
In Arabic, the word “patience” and the word “cactus” come from the same root. That may be all we need to know about patience. The cactus, of course, patiently waits in the desert for the rare rainfall, soaking it all up and storing it for the long dry season. Cacti manage to stay green and bear fruit, even when the world around it appears dead.
That may be overstating things a bit, but I know there are times when it feels like we are in long, spiritual dry spells. At least, that’s how it feels to me. There are times in my life where it seems like God is knocking on the door and practically beating me over the head with signs about what is coming next. And there are other times when it feels like there is this deafening silence. “What now, God?” Nothing…
If I’m honest, though, the truth is that this “nothing” has more to do with my distracted attentions than with any kind of deserted soul. The truth is not that God is absent; it’s that I haven’t really been patient. It’s like the prayer: “Lord, give me patience, and give it to me now!” I’m not really waiting. I’m trying to force it, to move it forward of my own accord.
That’s what gives me sympathy for the people of Judah in the time of Josiah. They, too, were looking for that quick fix. And when Yahweh, the God of their covenant, wasn’t “doing it for them”, they started looking for others who might give them what they wanted rather than what they needed.
We may not believe in gods in the same way, but the truth is that we have plenty in our lives that we treat like a god. If you drive through my neighborhood this time of year, you would be forgiven for thinking that the flags boasting the big letter “G” would be for “God”. The “GT” would be, what – God’s Temple?
The point is that God is at work. God is close by. God’s time is not our time, so God does not hurry. But God does not tarry, either. And so, just as patience is key to faithful waiting, so is paying attention.
Patience. Paying attention.
There is an image that comes to mind of the patient person: the monk meditating in solitude and quiet, with eyes closed, serene and oblivious to the world around. But faithful patience is far more tuned in. If you’ve ever sat outside for any period of time, you know exactly what I mean.
At first, the world seems to be still. The breeze might rustle the leaves on the trees. There might be the distant, quiet sound of a birdcall. But look carefully, and the world is alive! Ants and little critters rush about. Birds circle overhead. Chipmunks dart around in the underbrush. There is more to life than initially meets the eye.
The same is true of paying attention to the world around us at any time. We know this, don’t we? If we are talking to a friend and ask them, “How are you?” And they respond with a curt, “fine”, with arms crossed protectively up around their neck, we know enough to know that there might be more than first meets the eye.
And that’s the kind of paying attention for which we can strive. When we do that, we will notice that God’s signs are all around us, all the time – just waiting for us to open our ears and eyes and hearts.
In our lesson this morning, Josiah orders that the temple offerings be entrusted to the workers. No sooner does this happen than word comes that the Hilkiah, the high priest, has discovered the scroll of the law. Shaphan reads the scroll to Josiah, who then sets about restoring the narrow focus of Judah’s spiritual desires on Yahweh.
It is almost as though Josiah’s order to them to turn over the money allowed them to pay attention to the things that mattered, such that this so-called lost scroll was rediscovered.
Patience clears the path. Paying attention watches where our feet land. And practice brings it all together in trust.
Patience. Paying attention. Practice.
The only way to pronounce some of these Hebrew names is practice. And even then, you might not know for sure if Josiah’s mother’s name was Jedidah or Jedidah.
This whole life of faith is somewhat unnatural. We are wired from birth to worry, first and foremost, about ourselves. From there, we are trained and urged to care about slightly widening circles: our parents, our immediate family, our extended family, our tribe.
And yet, faith – faithful waiting – calls us beyond our tribe to the whole of God’s family. And, faith also calls us to the very heart of God’s self! And yet, the only way we can even conceive of this possibility is to practice it.
We grow in patience by practicing it. We learn to pay attention by practicing the art of it. And in that practice, we will be drawn into the heart of God and God’s desires. It is these desires that will spur us to action, knowing that we will not be able to finish what it is that God alone can finish – and yet, we can be a part of what it is that God is building!
What is it that God is building at the moment? What is it that this moment in this world is calling us to be and do as people of faith? Everywhere we turn, it seems, there is violence, and much of it supposedly fueled by religious zeal. The latest was the fatal shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic on Friday night – one of the dead was an officer who was also a pro-life leader in his church.
Our airwaves – and, by extension, our hearts – grow polluted with extreme, violent rhetoric. And though most of us may never act out on these destructive thoughts, the truth is that words matter – more than we think we allow them to affect us.
Words become flesh. That’s what Christ shows us. And just as promises come to reality, so do threats.
This brings me to a little commercial: next Sunday, at 2pm, just around the corner at Mercer’s Atlanta Campus, is an event entitled “We Refuse to Be Enemies.” The event will feature Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious leaders and is part of an ongoing effort to confront the violence and extremism of words and actions while also increasing partnership and connections.
If you are interested in finding out more about this event or even attending next Sunday, just let me know.
You see, even in a world where it feels like we are pulling further and further apart from each other, there are those places and glimpses of where God is already at work. We just have to be sure we are patient and paying attention so that when the opportunity arises, we can jump in and get down to practice.
And then, and only then, can we begin to understand the truth of the God whom we seek.