Scripture: 2 Kings 22:13–20 & 23:1–3
“Wake me up in an hour!” was the directive. It was Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. Also known as Preparation Day. Thursday was a full-out sprint for the cooks in the family, but Wednesday was an off-again, on-again day to get everything ready that could be prepared early. After the last dish from brunch was in the dishwasher, Mammaw announced that she was going to take a nap.
Two hours later, the cousins looked at each other and one of them said out loud, “this can’t be that hard, can it?” Mammaw was still napping. Most of the adults went on a final grocery store run to the IGA all the way in town, and the rest were asleep in front of the basketball game on TV. “I mean,” they said to each other, “I’ve had culinary class in high school. You took that class at the Mercantile last Fall. Let’s give it a try.” So they all went into the kitchen and looked at the Preparation Day list stuck on the fridge. On the very top: Red Stuff.
Ah, Red Stuff. Technically, it was called Strawberry Pretzel Jello Salad, but it didn’t actually have any pretzels in it, and it wasn’t really a salad. It was part of that elusive corner of the menu in which dessert items actually get included in the meal, like sweet potato casserole covered with marshmallows or Jello and Cool Whip that at least had some fruit in it! For years, the family just called it Red Stuff, and the cousins figured they could make it, just like Mammaw always did.
The recipe was on the counter, so they started gathering the ingredients. It didn’t say what kind of sugar, so when they found brown sugar in the cabinet, they figured it would work. They looked and looked for pecans, but couldn’t find any. “Here’s a can of Planters Mixed Nuts…should work, don’t you think? Make sure you get all those good salty crumbs on the bottom.” They couldn’t find the strawberry Jello box, so they figured that watermelon was about the same. The cousin in charge of reading the recipe was on his phone at the same time, so no one noticed when he told them that it needed sour cream instead of cream cheese. Distracted by arguing over whether cream cheese and sour cream were the same thing, they let the Jello set a bit too long before adding it to the dish, so it came out pretty clumpy.
The last hour of her nap, Mammaw was having dreams of tragedy and impending doom. She had no idea why, but she woke up in a panic. As soon as she got to the kitchen, she realized that her nightmares had come to fruition. Melted butter all over the floor. Flour in peoples’ hair. Congealing watermelon Jello in a puddle on the counter. Horrified by what she saw, she wasted no time in shifting into reclamation mode. She scraped out the sour cream and replaced it with cream cheese. She tried to mash up the mixed nuts the best she could, so at least there wouldn’t be entire brazil nuts at the bottom. She glanced up at the clock and saw that IGA had closed a half an hour prior, so she figured she’d have to make do with watermelon Jello. She did her best to save the day, but there was only so much that she could do.
That fun little parable tells the story of the monarchy of Judah, in a nutshell. Let me explain. Last week we read Isaiah, from somewhere around the time of the fall of the northern tribes to the Assyrian Empire. Maybe right before, or right after. But by today’s passage, we are definitely afterwards. About a hundred years later, and Assyria is still in play, as is a new player: Babylon. And throughout those hundred years, it has been a bit of a mess in the southern tribe of Judah. Around the time Isaiah was writing, there was a king called Hezekiah in the South. The Biblical narrative says that he was more or less a good king. He initiated some important reforms and strengthened the worshipful practices of the people. He protected them and did a lot of good things. If the Biblical record has anything to quibble with, it is the fact that he knew he was a good king. He was a bit arrogant about it, and failed to give God the credit where credit was due. But overall, it has good things to say about Hezekiah. Which is not the case about his son Manasseh or his grandson Amon. These were two of the worst. Manasseh took his father’s good worship practices and threw them out the window, adopting the religious practices of his neighbors, including child sacrifice. Amon wasn’t much better…just a couple of years after taking the throne from his father, his own officials and servants conspired to kill him. His eight-year-old son, Josiah, took over in his place. If you hadn’t figured it out, in the little Red Stuff allegory, these kings who want to do things their own way are a lot like the cousins, who figured they didn’t need to listen to anyone else. Which of course resulted in a total mess.
But that’s not the end of the story. You’d think that with these role models, Josiah would end up a hot mess, right? But to the contrary, right before today’s passage, the text introduces King Josiah, saying, “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” This is code for a king who was centered on the commandments of Yahweh, and not on the cultural distractions of greed and violence and arrogance. Josiah was about as good a king as Judah could have. Even for being a young king, he made wise choices about centering the focus of the people on God and God’s commandments. He removed the cultural-religious altars and entered into a renovation project for the Temple. Remember a few weeks ago, when Solomon built the Temple, he got into trouble because he basically used forced labor to get it done. To the contrary, Josiah paid the workers a fair wage. He engaged in economic justice, when so many of his predecessors didn’t.
In fact, that’s how we got to today’s story. In order to pay the workers a fair wage, he sends the priest and one of his officials to the Temple storehouse to get the money. And while they are there, they find this scroll that none of them had noticed before. It takes a bit for the narrative to reveal this, but it turns out that this scroll is a whole book of the Bible. Scholars think it was probably Deuteronomy. In other words, for who-knows-how-long, they had no idea that this was one of the books of the Torah, of their Scripture. No one in the administration had read it, or seen it, or even knew it was there. Unlike his great-grandfather before him, Josiah’s response was contrary to arrogance. With deep humility and repentance, Josiah tore his clothes in grief, because the people had ignored God’s words, and he had led them in that ignorance.
Which gets us to today’s passage. It takes us a minute, but we finally get to the prophet of the day: Huldah. A few things to notice about Huldah the prophet.
First, she is a woman. In the tradition of Deborah and Miriam, and Mary, who proclaimed the goodness of God with prophetic poetry the Magnificat. In some folks’ minds, the fact that she is a woman puts her in an inferior category. But the bottom line is that she is a prophet. In the same tradition of Elijah and Isaiah, and Jeremiah, proclaiming that bad news is coming for the disobedient people of God. Not a second-class category, by any means.
Another thing to notice about Huldah: the existence of this book did not surprise her. The Two-Way [sermon discussion group] found it interesting that all of the men in the story managed to ignore and subsequently lose an entire book of the Bible, but the only woman knew exactly what it was and what it meant. Now, it is easy for us throw these guys under the bus for losing a book of the Bible, but don’t get too carried away. At least I try not to, because, 1) I regularly lose my phone going from one room to another. I lose stuff all the time. And 2) we should ask if there are parts of the Bible that we have lost, or at least misplaced. We talked about this in the Two-Way, too. There are some passages that we know like the back of our hands. From the Gospels. Or Paul. But are there sections of the Bible that we ignore or have even lost? Sections of the Old Testament that ring with truth about mishpat and tzadiquah, justice and righteousness?
· You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.
· You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice.
· When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
· Give a tithe of your produce…to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns.
All quotes from the section of Scripture that the Israelites conveniently lost. When we say that we follow what the Bible says, do we mean the whole thing, or just the parts that make us feel better about what we are already doing? Huldah knew it was there the whole time. Do we?
A third thing to notice about the appearance and prophetic wisdom of Huldah: she knew that the damage had already been done. She tells the messengers that despite the king’s efforts and humility, the people will still be destroyed. We like to have a happy ending, don’t we? Josiah was a good king, so he inspired them to change their ways and they all lived happily ever after! But they didn’t. Within a couple of generations, the Babylonians will have destroyed the Temple that Josiah worked so hard to renovate. Just like Hosea…within a few years after he wrote, the Assyrians had taken the northern tribes to Exile. We have lived in a modern and mechanical world long enough to think that if we tinker with the right parts, we can fix the whole thing. But sometimes it is more like chaos theory…introduce enough destructive disobedience long enough, and not even the change agents can fix it. Not even Mammaw can put the watermelon jello back in the box. And when God’s people had long insisted on destructive disobedience to justice and righteousness, not even the best of God’s people can totally fix it.
A final thing to notice about Huldah and her influence. She knew that the end was coming, but she chose to live according to God’s commandments anyway. Scholars think that Huldah was a teacher at a Torah school, teaching younger prophets how to be holy dissenters to the brokenness of the world around them. Teaching them to live according to mishpat and tzadiquah. She knew that the damage had already been done. But she also knew that this was still the best way to live. It wouldn’t make all the difference. But it would make a difference. Josiah heard her words, and chose to read this newly found book to all of the people. Together, they tore their clothes. Together, they lamented and confessed. Together, they pledged to live according to the way of life named in the Torah. Just like Mammaw, if the people are willing to admit their mistake and accept some help, she can make it better. The red stuff might still be a mess, but at the hands of a skilled and creative chef, even a mess can be better than before. Josiah, inspired by Huldah, made his generation better than before. He reminded the people that God’s commandments are still better than the alternative. This is the best way to live.
This was the idea that the Two-Way played with last week. We had a hard time thinking that all of humanity is going to figure out justice and righteousness anytime soon. But there are humans who can. And even if it feels hopeless, or a waste of time, it really isn’t. Josiah became a city on a hill that later generations looked back to. Be that light. Be that city. Live according to God’s way of life. It really is the best way to live. Mother Teresa says it this way:
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful,
you will win some false friends and some true enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you. Be honest and frank anyway. What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give the best you’ve got anyway. You see, in the final analysis it is between you and God; it was never between you and them anyway.
May her prophetic wisdom be our call today, and all days.