We're going to play a word game this morning. I'm going to say a word, and what I want you to do is to shout out the first thing that that word makes you think of. So, for instance, if I were to say "Sky", you might want to say "Blue", or "Cloud" or "Satellite" or something like that. Ready?
You get the idea! So I wonder what you would think of if I said "Tax-gatherers or, if you're used to the older version, "Publicans" I don't know about you, but I find I almost automatically think "Sinners". And, similarly, when I hear the phrase "Scribes and Pharisees", I tend to automatically think "Hypocrites". Which is really very unfair on the poor Scribes and Pharisees, since although some of them undoubtedly were hypocrites, the vast majority of them simply wanted to be God's people the best way they knew how.
Unfortunately, they didn't make a very good job of it. They thought that if you were God's person, you would show this by the way you lived. Which was all right so far as it went, ut sometimes they thought it was the only way of being God's person. And that, of course, was where they went wrong.
In our first reading, the people of Israel were told that they were to obey God's commandments. However, the thing about the book of Deuteronomy is that it first came to light just after the people of Israel had gone through a really bad time. Actually, only the people of Judah were left; the "ten tribes" of Israel had been carted of into exile, and have never been heard of since. It was probably only a matter of time before Judah was similarly carted off, but for the time being they had come to an accommodation with the King of Assyria, who treated them rather as a colony, with only a limited amount of self-rule.
And, of course, that included in matters religious. There went on being a temple in Jerusalem, and the priests there went on serving God to the utmost of their ability, but politically it was expedient to worship other gods in there, too. Ordinary people tended either to follow the Assyrian gods, as was the politically correct thing to do, or not to care too much about these things at all. And the kings of Judah tended to set them a bad example, by becoming thoroughly Assyrianised.
However, in 621 BC, the then King of Assyria died, and his successor was a much weaker person altogether, who had more than enough to do to hold on to his own kingdom, never mind fuss about Judah. So the then king of Judah, a very young man called Josiah, decided it might be safe to paint the temple, and generally rescue it from the dilapidated state it was in. And lo and behold, what should the High Priest Hilkiah find in a cupboard, but a book which scholars think was part, if not all, of the book of Deuteronomy.
They think it must have been written during the reign of Josiah's grandfather, and hidden away until a more sympathetic king came to the throne.
You can understand why they did that, can't you? If the king didn't worship God, and didn't encourage his people to worship him, and if the temple was being used to worship other gods, it's not too surprising that one priest decided to write down all the stories he had learnt about Moses and God in case he didn't get a chance to teach his successor. It would be terrible if these important teachings were lost because nobody had written them down and the last person who knew them had been killed.
So Hilkiah took the book to Josiah, and read it aloud to him.
3. What did the story say?
The book of Deuteronomy turned out to be like nothing Josiah had ever heard before. The central theme of the book, how God wants his people to be, is of course that famous passage that begins "Hear, O Israel, The Lord is God, the Lord is One". We are to love God with all of our being, and to keep all the commandments, decrees and ordinances, says the book of Deuteronomy. The rest of the book is an expansion of that theme. You look after your neighbour, especially if your neighbour is an Israelite. Refugees or "sojourners" who have settled among you are also to be treated with kindness and compassion, since you were once sojourners in Egypt. If you have slaves or servants, you must give them the opportunity to go free at the end of six years, and give them some capital to help them make a new start. You mustn't give it grudgingly, either, since you've had work from the slave for six years, and no way could you have got a hired servant so cheap. If your slave runs away, people are to assume that you were a cruel owner, and the slave won't be returned to you. If your paid servants need it, you must pay them daily, and don't you dare cheat them!
You don't fancy military service? Well, you don't have to go if you are about to get married, or have just got married, or if you've just built yourself a house or planted a vineyard, or even if you are afraid. Fighting is the Lord's work, and we don't want anyone who isn't whole-hearted about it. If you do go to war, the camp must be kept clean and hygienic at all times - please go right outside the perimeter when you need to "go", and use your trowel afterwards. And when you fight, give your enemy every chance to surrender first.
Above all else, the book of Deuteronomy is concerned with rooting out idolatry, forcefully if necessary. The thing is, the whole system of worship is being changed. From now on, you can't sacrifice to God where you please, but only in the Temple in Jerusalem. No more popping into the local shrine. Now, obviously, this is going to cause some upheavals, and the authors have made provision for this.
Firstly, you ask, what about your dinner? If you've been in the habit of eating your share of the sacrifice, what do you do if you can't sacrifice any more? Have you really got to go hunting every time you fancy some meat?
No. From now on you may butcher your own meat, or have it butchered for you, so long as it is done in a certain way. It doesn't have to have been sacrificed first. Secular meat is quite OK.
Bur what about me? I'm a Levite, a descendent of Levi. I've been used to working in the shrines and keeping myself on part of the meat brought as sacrifice. What am I going to do now? Well, you get given charitable status, along with widows, orphans and sojourners. Henceforth it is the duty of all religious Jews to support you.
Well, OK, that's fine, you say. But how am I going to worship God? It's three days' journey to Jerusalem; I can't go gallivanting up and down each week. What am I to do?
The answer to that one has repercussions to this day! What they did was, they set up a system of praying with psalms and readings that gradually developed into the synagogue worship that persists even today. What's more, we Christians adapted it, and in various forms it became the Benedictine Daily Office, the Anglican Matins and Evensong, and even has echoes in a Methodist preaching service such as this one! All because those who wrote Deuteronomy felt it would be better or that God was saying, if you prefer it said that way to have sacrifices made only in the Temple in Jerusalem so that an eye could be kept on what happened. There was too much worshipping of other gods going on.
The other thing that shows God's hand in all this, of course, is that the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Suppose the Jews hadn't had an alternative form of worship to fall back on? And what would we have done without it? Jesus rendered Temple worship obsolete, because he was, as the old Prayer Book has it, "a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world." God is clever sometimes!
4. What did Josiah do?
However, that's by the by. What is not by the by is the effect this had on Josiah. He could have just listened, and nodded, and said "Oh yes, how very interesting", and let it flow over him. But he didn't. Josiah really wanted to worship God properly, so he rooted out all the shrines to God that were sometimes used to worship other gods. He decided he was going to put the book of Deuteronomy into practice - if you're interested, you can read about it in 2 Kings 23, and a slightly different version in 2 Chronicles 35. He rooted out all trace of worship of other gods in his kingdom, and he required his subjects to worship God alone, and to celebrate the Passover. The Bible tells us that that first Passover, in the eighteenth year of Josiah's reign, so in about 621 BC by our reckoning, was unique: "No such Passover," it says, "had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah."
The point is that Josiah really meant it about worshipping God, and when he was confronted with the Scriptures, the book of the Law, he allowed them to change his life.
But, of course, by the time we get to our second reading, over six hundred years have passed. And the Pharisees had got so absorbed in keeping the law, down to the tiniest minutiae of what was and wasn't right, that they were forgetting about love, and justice, and seeing to it that widows and orphans got a fair deal.
The worst thing of all, for the Pharisees, was that they were so absorbed in getting it right that they failed to recognise Jesus when he came to them. It was the people that the Pharisees despised, the ones who couldn't afford to "do it right", who flocked to Jesus. Because Jesus told them that God loved them anyway, no matter what they did. That they could be acceptable to God just for the wanting, that washing your cups and plates and fruit from the market was a matter of hygiene, not religious ritual. And so on.
But it occurs to me that the six hundred and fifty-odd years that separated the Pharisees from the finding of that book in the Temple is almost the same length of time that separates us from the Reformation. And I think that a very great deal of the time we, too, are as hypocritical as the Pharisees were. We, too, go through the motions, we do the right things. Take coming to Church. Could any of you, truthfully, say that you have never arrived at church seething with exasperation at one or more of your family? Do you always come running, joyfully? No, me neither!
And the same goes for the rest of our Christian life. If I tried to tell you that my life always measured up to what I preach, well, not only would I know I was lying, but Robert would soon jump up and contradict me! And ditto me him, if that makes sense. And the same goes for any of us, I shouldn't wonder. We are all hypocrites, in that sense. Our lives don't measure up, at least, ninety-nine times out of a hundred they don't, to what we say we believe. John Wesley, I know, believed that if you walked with Jesus for long enough you would end up being more and more nearly perfect, and he could well be right. But most of us don't seem to aspire to those heights. We are content with being who we are, with trying to walk with Jesus, with knowing we are loved anyway.
And that's okay. It doesn't matter. We don't have to feel guilty about it, and work ourselves up into paroxysms of repentance that don't go anywhere. What we do need to do, though, is recognise it. You remember the story Jesus told of the Pharisee who boasted in the Temple how righteous he was and the other man, who just said "God, have mercy on me, a sinner". We need to remember that, when all is said and done, our lives don't match up to what we would like to think they do.
The point is, I think, confession isn't so much about being sorry, although that too, as about recognising who we are. If we know we are lazy, or untidy, or apt to be less than scrupulous about the truth, or even apt to rather ignore God unless we are in Church or at our prayers, then we need to admit it to ourselves. God already knows! But we have to admit it, accept that we are that sort of person, and, if necessary, ask God to help us change. Or even, admit that we don't really want to change!
I've gone on for far too long this morning, but that is really what I want to leave with you. That whoever we are, God still loves us but for us to be truly Jesus' people, we need to admit what we are like. And accept ourselves, just as God does. Amen.
Return to sermon index
Return to home page