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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Dire Straights

We are reading about King Hezekiah at Morning Prayer. He was highly thought of by the author of 2 Kings 18 "He trusted in the that there was no one like him among all  the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him."  (Though it is noteworthy that Josiah is praised similarly in 2 Kings 23:25 "Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all  his heart"). Typically the kings who ruled in Israel or Judah get less glowing assessments. If we sometimes feel bereft of good leadership it is fair to say that this is consistent with the biblical record!

In 2 Chronicles, which provides a parallel "history" (much like the Four Gospels), chapter 30 makes mention of a Passover celebration. We are told that couriers went from city to city inviting the people of Israel to come celebrate at the temple in Judah. Many were called but few responded positively (30:10 they laughed them to scorn) and the language recalls Jesus' parable of the wedding feast. What is interesting is a large number of those who showed up were not cleansed, yet they ate the passover otherwise than as prescribed. The king intervened and prayed, "the good Lord pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the Lord the God of their ancestors, even though they are not in accordance with the sanctuary's rules of cleanness." There were other times in the past when God smote those who were not in accord with expectations. It is a pure mercy of God to allow those in His presence who are not cleansed and in a proper state. While we may think this shows that God does not care about the trifles of liturgical worship or Jewish ritual purity, such an interpretation would be an error. The prophetic record makes it clear that God's wrath is showered on those who are not in accord with His expectations. We do well to appreciate God's mercy but not to presume it or take liberties in light of it.

The story continues with the threat of King Sennacherib of Assyria. He had successfully overthrown Israel and dispersed its people across his kingdom. The "lost tribes of Israel" refers to those people who were placed in pagan lands and disappeared as an identified group. [The truth seems to be that a people can lose their identity before God, something the Christian peoples of western culture seem hellbent on doing right now.] The Assyrian emissaries tell those in Judah that there is no hope for them in their God. Instead, the king says, "trust in me for food and life." He employs language which in other places is used of God. Clearly, he is being set up as a false deity (and a model for Apocalyptic portrayals of the enemies of God). Over and over he warns not to trust YHWH to deliver and calls God a false hope and a deceiver. The Assyrian king's arrogance is grounded in reality. He asks, "Who among all the gods of the countries have delivered their countries out of my hand that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?"

As I prayed over this text I find myself wondering who was my Assyrian king? Who threatens me? What threat appears unstoppable and what does the data tell me of hopelessness. I found several. These are not the best of days for a traditional churchman or Christian. I know how the story will end, we will read it tomorrow I assume. But enough to face the threat today.

Sometimes our own uncleanness can get in the way of true and pleasing worship. Other times enemies emerge who make threats which appear viable. Sometimes, through our own fault or the agency of another, we find ourselves in dire straights. Sometimes it looks like hope is futile, that there is no way out. It is times such as these that our faith must sustain us. Perhaps we will be smitten. Perhaps we will be overrun. Perhaps all will turn out badly. But even then God is God. Even then God reigns. Even then, in death, there can be new beginnings and resurrection. But sometimes God makes an early entrance. He wipes us clean and allows us to celebrate in His presence. He wipes away the threat of the king of Assyria--in whatever from that takes in your life. Whatever God chooses to do, we can be confident it is for the best. So trust and be of stout heart!

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