The Book of Hope

At a time when all seems bleak, where do we find hope?

Yesterday we started a re-watch of the Star Wars movies, with the real *first* movie, Episode IV, A New Hope. It’s been almost 40 years since I first saw it, since I watched the iconic credits roll and heard the soon-to-become famous lines spoken by the actors who will always be associated with their characters. The people who lived a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away were in trouble, and they pinned their hopes on a young man who had only just learned about The Force, Luke Skywalker.

Manasseh sacrifices his son.
Manasseh sacrifices his son.

I suspect his story is better-known to most of us than that of the central character in our readings today, although his tale could make its own interesting chapter in an epic movie series. Josiah came from a long line of mostly wicked kings who ruled in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh was the Emperor Palpatine of Judah; he reigned 55 years and “did evil in the sight of the Lord,” shedding much innocent blood. Josiah’s father, Darth Amon, was so terrible that his own servants killed him and put an 8-year-old child on the throne in his place.

Somehow, despite the evil of their leaders, there were still people who wanted to follow God, who wanted something better. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they thought there was a possibility of change. They looked at the child, Josiah, and somehow they saw a new hope.

In a world of confusion where do we find answers?

In the trailer for the new Star Wars movie, which was all over TV this weekend, you hear the presumed heroine say, “There were stories about what happened.” After a moment’s pause, a voice responds. “It’s true. All of it.” Of course we feel relieved to hear the familiar voice of our old friend, Han Solo, and to see his face, offering her these assurances. Why, it’s only been thirty years, if I’m reading the ads the right way! Are you telling me people don’t know what happened?

Yes. Yes. Somehow the story has been lost, but it is not lost beyond all hope. Surely if they remember the story, things will get better, right?

Josiah became king at age 8, and scripture tells us he did what was right. The description of him says “he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.”

He was unusually faithful, and his supporters must have been, too, or it’s hard to imagine he would have survived to adulthood. We meet him eighteen years later, when he decides it’s time to rebuild the Temple. His grandfather let it fall into disrepair; this was one more thing to set right.

Josiah sent his secretary to visit with the High Priest, to give him all the money that will be needed to repair the damage and rebuild what cannot be fixed, and the High Priest, a kind of Obi-Wan, tells him that he has found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.

Now, it sounds strange to us that the book of the Law might have been missing, and it’s not clear whether it was actually lost, or whether the high priest has been keeping it safe until a trustworthy king came along again. But whether by strategy or accident, the book of the law has been lost. There were stories, but were they true?

It’s easy to forget in our age of information that stories were lost, and that history was written by the winners, that treasured documents might be hidden away carefully and not seen again by human eye.

Josiah hears the words of the Book of the Law.
Josiah hears the words of the Book of the Law.

Josiah had been on the throne for 18 years. It took that long for the high priest to risk it. We believe that scroll held the core of the book of Deuteronomy, the laws carried from the wilderness into Jerusalem and kept in the Temple. The laws warn at length against idol worship and pagan practices, set up dietary restrictions, establish the practice of tithing and marking the Passover, give justice into the hands of priests and judges and set limits on the power of kings, and institutes some measure of fairness in dealings with family members, neighbors and enemies, as well as some measure of brutality that we would consider primitive today.

The results were dramatic. Josiah tore his clothes, a sign of repentance. He realized that although he was a good person, with the best intentions for his kingdom, he was completely ignorant of God’s commands. This discovery could change everything!

Josiah called together his advisors and sent them to a prophetess for confirmation. Then Josiah brought together all the elders in his kingdom and went to the Temple, and he read them the words of the book of the law, and together they affirmed their covenant with the Lord. Josiah would depose all the idol-worshiping priests and bring about the first real celebration of the Passover since before the first king ruled in Israel. He hoped this would make things right.

This is where I would like to say “The End” and bring down the curtain on a scene of the refurbished Temple. (Sort of like the party with the Ewoks.) But Josiah died in battle, and his son, Darth Jehoahaz? Did evil in the sight of the Lord. Things got darker for the people of Judah, until a few kings later, they lost their struggle against Babylon. The Hebrew elite traveled to exile, while the less interesting and valuable stayed behind to live in occupied Jerusalem and witness the dark day when the Temple was destroyed.

In a world of darkness where do we find light?

See what I mean about a movie? Josiah seems like a perfect hero, but instead of overcoming evil forever, he dies a mortal death. Sometimes one good guy – or gal, it looks like it’s a gal in the new Star Wars movie – but sometimes one good guy isn’t enough.

Well, really, one good guy is never enough unless that guy is more than human.

We have a tendency to put our hope in each other, to make heroes out of mortals, and to engage in our own desperate and wrongheaded idol worship. Whether they are megachurch pastors, popular speakers, athletic prodigies, billionaire businesspeople or winning politicians, our society often puts its faith in whatever looks shiniest at the moment.

Everything is a popularity contest, with polls and surveys and statistics used to determine agendas, styles and flavors. It’s a vicious circle.

The Hebrew people had their own vicious circle. They didn’t like the results they got with God, so they worshipped other gods. If there was no rain, they worshipped Ba’al. If one sacrifice didn’t work, they made a bigger one. They made their situation worse with each terrible decision.

I’ve stood here a lot of times in the past year and said words to the effect that things can’t get much worse, but I imagine they can. Our general disregard for one another, our obsession with weapons, our prejudice against people who look different or think differently continue to collide until we cannot listen to the stories anymore. The stories get lost, because there are so many of them.

We see these cycles play out again and again. Josiah ruled for thirty-one years out of 347 years of kings of Judah. Eight were good, and he was the last of them. He could disrupt the cycle, but he couldn’t end it. The people of Israel and Judah fell out of relationship with God; no one person could fix it.

And there is no one person, male or female, who can get us out of this mess in which we seem bent on breaking every kind of code God has set down for us, for treating our families, our neighbors and even our enemies.

There is no one human person who can do it.

A new hope?
A new hope?

At a time when all seems bleak, where do we find hope?

Our hope is in the Lord.

And every Advent we hope – WE HOPE – that the cycle will be disrupted. We practice anticipation. We wait for the One who is coming, God breaking into the world, the Word of God, coming into the world to save us from isolation and despair, to show us how to love each other the way he loves us. And that sounds good, but it is not enough. Those words, the ones meant to guide us, are already written down. We are not waiting for a new story this Advent; we are being prodded to behave as if we have already heard the old one, to put down our weapons and outgrow our fears and remember the stories and gather together as one people, God’s people.

The Living Word, Jesus Christ, is our Book of Hope. It’s time to renew our covenant with him.

In the name of the One God coming into the world, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen.