2 Kings 23:21-23; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
We have come to the fourth stage of King Josiah’s reform this week, which we read about in 2 Kings 23:21-23. It’s a few short verses but some of the most powerful in the story. In this stage, Josiah re-institutes the Passover festival as an ongoing practice for the whole nation of Israel.
It’s an important step, especially given how Josiah’s reform had unfolded to this point.
Remember that we began by saying that reform usually launches when someone is encountered by God and begins to see that something is wrong with the world around them and that something is wrong with themselves. Josiah’s reform began when he encountered the Word of God written in an old dusty scroll discovered in the temple. That set him on a road to personal transformation which, in turn, would lead to reform for the whole nation.
In the second stage, Josiah read the Scriptures to all the people, bringing them back to God’s Word and saying that this is the book by which we are going to order our lives. Every successful reform movement in the church’s history has been a product of returning to the Scriptures as the basis for life and faith. Josiah committed himself to live by the Book, and the people followed his lead.
The third stage, which we explored last week, involves purging the beliefs and practices that do not align with the Word of God. For Josiah, that meant tearing down the Canaanite gods that had become Israel’s fascination during the decades of his grandfather Manasseh’s reign. He rejected the pagan worldview and called the people back to their identity as people made in the image of God for God’s purposes. In our own time, reform and revival will take place when the people of God challenge the prevailing secular worldview and recapture the biblical worldview—that we are embodied in the image of God, endowed with God’s purpose—and, therefore, we are!
Having had this personal transformation, instituted a return to the Word, and purged the pagan influences, Josiah now turned to re-engaging the people in practices that would keep reminding them who they are. For the people of Israel, the Passover meal was the primary festival that retold and reenacted the story of their liberation from slavery in Egypt by the hand of God. It was the meal that reminded them, year after year, that God had rescued them from death and given them a divine purpose. They were to be “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” that lived out their purpose in the image of God. They were to be the nation that represented God’s will and way to a world still enslaved by sin and death.
2 Kings 23:22 tells us that the Passover like Josiah instituted had not been practiced in Israel since the time of the Judges. In fact, it was the first centralized celebration since the days of Joshua, when the Israelites had first entered the Promised Land (Joshua 5:10-11). One of Josiah’s reforming predecessors, King Hezekiah (who was also a reformer) had tried to restart the practice, but it was in a somewhat limited capacity as a few of the tribes of Israel laughed it off (2 Chronicles 30:10-11). For most of Israel’s history, the Passover had been a private family celebration. Josiah was now calling for a national holy day for which people would make an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was a collective celebration to remind everyone who they were.
This was an important move by Josiah, for he realized that if reform was going to be sustained there needed to be a constant returning to their identity—an annual mini-Reformation, if you will. The Passover was a sustainable practice that had the potential to keep the people on track and keep them from reverting to the pagan worldview once again.
But it was also a ritual in which the people actually became part of the story of their ancestors. Rather than a folk tale from a dusty scroll, the Passover brought the past into the present. Even today, when Passover is celebrated in a Jewish home or synagogue, the meal begins with the youngest child asking, “Why do we celebrate on this night?” And the answer begins with, “We were slaves in Egypt…” In other words, here now in the present we are still living this story.
Jesus enacted a very similar form of remembrance with his disciples, taking some of the imagery of the Passover meal and interpreting it through the lens of his own sacrifice on the cross as the lamb who takes away the sins of the whole world. Here is a festival of liberation, reminding the church that we have been set free from slavery to sin and death and given new life through the grace of God.
The early church practiced this meal every time they gathered, not just once a year. And like in the days of Josiah, returning to this sacramental meal was a key in reminding people who they are. In our New Testament lesson, the apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthian church, which was struggling with division and the reemergence of some pagan practices and sexual brokenness. Rather than eating together as equals—men and women, rich and poor, slave and free, all equally made and purposed in the image of God—the Corinthians were divided by class. The rich often arrived at the weekly meal first and ate all the good stuff, while the working poor showed up later and had virtually nothing. Paul reminded the church that the purpose of the meal was to bring the whole body together to remember who they are.
Notice how he instructs them: “I received a tradition from the Lord, which I also handed on to you…” (1 Corinthians 11:23). For Paul, engaging in the sacrament is the same as engaging in the meal that Jesus gave to his disciples. In breaking the bread and drinking the cup, Jesus was saying, “Remember me.” Like the Passover, to “remember” is to embody and become part of the story. As Paul says in verse 26: “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes.” Past, present, and future are all bound up in this sacrament. It brings us back to the story that defines who we are in Christ Jesus. Indeed, we gather in the presence of the risen Christ when we gather at the table.
Josiah intended the Passover to be a sustainable practice that would keep the nation on track in obeying God’s covenant and being the people God created them to be. Paul intended the Lord’s Supper to be the sustainable practice that would keep the church on track in remembering and proclaiming the saving activity of Christ on their behalf and on behalf of the whole world. If we are to see a reformation in our own time, we need to reengage sustainable practices that continually remind us who we are as opposed to the constant drone of messages to the contrary that we get from the secular culture.
That’s one of the reasons we celebrate weekly communion here. Like Paul and like Josiah, John Wesley saw Holy Communion as an important sustainable practice or, as he put it, a primary “means of grace.” If it’s the meal that reminds us who we are, and who Christ is. We gather at this table to be reminded that all of us are sinners in need of the grace offered by the broken body and shed blood of Christ. We gather as men and women, young and old, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, as the people of God. As the liturgy says, this practice reminds us that we are to be “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”
I believe that any revival we will see in the church begins at the table. Monthly, quarterly, or annual communion won’t cut it. We need this to be the centerpiece of our identity—it’s here that we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
But it’s not the only practice we need to reengage in order to have a sustainable revival. Wesley saw communion as one of the principle means of grace, but there were others. Like Josiah, Wesley believed that reading and studying the Scriptures was essential. Regular prayer and fasting are also practices that keep us focused on God. Gathering with the community for regular worship, for sharing and accountability, are also vital. When the early Methodist movement was at its peak of revival, all of these things were not considered to be optional—they were required to sustain the movement.
Wesley believed that those sustainable practices could be divided into a couple of categories that express Jesus’ commandment to love God and love neighbor in practical ways. We recently shot a video for our web site describing how this works:
John Wesley defined a Methodist as one who “has the love of God shed abroad in [his or her] heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him.” They are disciples of Jesus who love and serve God and neighbor. It’s pretty basic stuff, but it’s in that basic stuff that sustainable revival begins. We need to reengage these practices if we are to see a revival in our day.
When those practices fail, however, the movement begins to drift along with the winds of secular culture. We read the exciting movement of Josiah’s reforms, but the sad part is that they only lasted about 12 years. Josiah would be killed in battle against the Egyptians at Megiddo. His kingdom would be taken over by the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco, and Josiah’s sons would do what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Within a generation, the disaster that the prophetess Hulda had predicted would come upon the nation. The Babylonians would invade, Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed, and the people carried off into exile. Things looked pretty bleak.
But Josiah’s reforms had a longer lasting effect than we might imagine. The preaching of the prophet Jeremiah, born out of this revival, would endure through the nation’s collapse and exile, paving the way for a return not only to Jerusalem, but to faithfulness in following God.
The people of God will get through any dark night of the soul, or the dark days of this present age, because they can remember the story of what God has done. And they will remember that story because they practice it and live it out every day.
What sustainable practices are you engaging in on a daily and weekly basis that shape you a disciple of Jesus? How does you life reflect the story of God versus the story that the culture wants you to embrace? Are you ready for a revival, both personally and corporately?