“These Ruins Are Inhabited” – Returning to the Word

2 Kings 23:1-13; 2 Timothy 3:15-17

One of the things I’m most excited about for my renewal leave this summer is the chance to spend two weeks studying theology at Christ Church College in Oxford—the very same college where John Wesley studied. I’ll be taking courses in the Psalms, the theology of St. Paul, on baptism, and reading the early church fathers. For a history and theology nerd, this is a vision of the kingdom come on earth as in heaven!

I had a chance to be in Oxford for a day in 2006 and was just taken aback by the depth of history and old architecture that is everywhere. Something that is “old” and “historic” here in the US (particularly here in the west) might be decades or a couple of centuries old. There, something that is “new” could have been built in the 15th century!

It reminds me of a story I once read about an American professor who went to Oxford for a year as a visiting academic. When he and his wife arrived they were looking around at one of the older parts of the university with its imposing stone and Gothic look. Amid what appeared to them to be the ancient ruins of a stone building, his wife spotted windows with curtains in them and people inside going about their business. “Honey!” she exclaimed, “these ruins are inhabited!” The wife, Muriel Beadle, would go on to write a book about that year in Oxford, titling it These Ruins Are Inhabited.

When people blow the dust off their Bibles and randomly begin to read them, they seem to have a similar experience to Muriel’s. For many people, the Bible seems like a jumble of writing cobbled together like piles of old stone—a bit of poetry, some history, some long and boring passages about law and ritual, a bit of ethical instruction, and strange stories about even stranger people. For them, reading the Bible can seem like wandering around an old courtyard where people once lived a long time ago—but then, just when you’re tempted to put the whole thing aside as an artifact of a time long past, you discover that there is movement and life inside—like a light left on or the glimpse of a living, breathing person. Maybe it’s inhabited after all. Maybe it has life!

The story of the discovery of the Scripture scroll in the temple in the time of King Josiah is very much like that. Remember that last week we read that while the temple was being renovated, the high priest Hilkiah discovered an old scroll tucked away in a back corner somewhere, blew the dust off it, read it, and then made sure to get it to the king. It was the book of the law of God—the Torah, the foundational Scriptures of Israel that had been lost for decades. Things had gotten so bad that the people of God had lost the book of God in the temple of God.

When Josiah heard what was written in the scroll, it was very much like what Muriel Beadle experienced—shock and surprise—these ruins are inhabited! This was not just some dusty artifact, but a living and breathing document that told the story of God’s people—Josiah’s people. It was a story so compelling that the King responded by tearing his clothes in repentance and then going to seek the living Word of God from the prophetess Hulda. He would learn that his reforms would not save the nation, but the words of this book and the preaching that would surround it would make it the living heartbeat of the people in exile. It still is for God’s people today—these ruins are inhabited!

It was not enough for Josiah to hear the word of God, however. He knew that his people needed to hear it as well. Josiah realized the reason that the people of God had followed their previous kings into paganism, idolatry, and sin was that they had lost their story—the foundational story that gave them their identity, their mission, and the purpose for their lives. That story had been pushed aside as an old relic in favor of what is new and hip—the latest gods, the latest fad religions and ideas. Josiah realized, however, that it was the old, old story that was the only one that mattered—the only story that would save his people.

In response to Hulda’s prophecy, Josiah gathered all the people of his kingdom together in the temple and he personally read aloud the scroll that had been found in the temple in their hearing. After finishing the reading, Josiah rolled up the scroll and there, in front of the crowd, made a promise to God and to his people:

“The king stood beside the pillar and made a covenant with the Lord that he would follow the Lord by keeping his commandments, his laws, and his regulations with all his heart and all his being in order to fulfill the words of the covenant that were written in the scroll.”

In effect, Josiah is leading his nation in a Bible study—he is taking them back to their roots, to their foundational story. As the leader, he realizes that the reform begins with his own obedience to Gods’ covenant and his own place in God’s story. And in doing so, Josiah doesn’t fudge on the hard stuff—this isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to require a complete reordering of life. It will require getting rid of things that don’t conform to the way of God; it will make those who are comfortable with the status quo uncomfortable; it will upset the prevailing wisdom of the culture and challenge its worldview. It will push the people to inhabit a very different story and way of living—a costly way of living.

And despite the difficulty, the text says, “All of the people accepted the covenant.”

Within just 50 years, the temple and the city in which Josiah and his people now stood would become an uninhabitable ruin. The Babylonians would destroy it all and take many of the people into exile in a faraway land. But the promise of God is that one day those ruins would be inhabited again—this time by a people who had been sustained by the story that told them who they were. It was a story that would be copied and studied during the exile (where much of the Old Testament was compiled); it was a story that would give the people their identity in the midst of a foreign land; it was the story that would give them hope that God’s true king, promised in the Scriptures, would come and set them free forever.

We began this series by saying that real reform begins when people recapture their first love. How can we do that? Josiah’s model reveals that it begins with repentance and it continues in the second stage when God’s people return to God’s Word. In the midst of a world that has forgotten its foundational story, the call is to return to the Scriptures—to dust them off and realize that these ruins are still inhabited.

These days, much of what is written and said in our culture is an attempt to suppress the Scripture and confine them to the realm of relics and myths. Even within the church there is a movement in some corners to want to trim the Scriptures to make them more palatable to the prevailing wisdom of the culture. In the days of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson took a pair of scissors to the text and cut out the parts he found fanciful or offensive. In our own time, the Jesus Seminar and other scholars have attempted to do the same thing—to cut out the parts that seem out of step with the secular progressive worldview, which we’ll talk more about next week. They see the Bible as an old ruin that has some historical value and interest, maybe a bit of moralistic teaching, but certainly not the foundational story that explains the relationship between God, creation, and humanity.

In times like these—in times like that of Josiah, and Luther, and Wesley—there have been those among God’s people who have stood and said no—this is the story, this is the covenant, this is the way to life! Josiah claimed he would live according to the book and called the nation to follow him; Luther held up sola Scriptura—the Scriptures alone—as the way to life.

John Wesley read a lot of books and had an intellectual curiosity that was a product of his Oxford education. But one mattered to him more than all the others. It reminds me of a quote from an interview with the philosopher Jaques Derrida. When a reporter looked at his huge library, she asked him, “Have you read all the books in here?” Derrida replied, “No, only four of them. But read those very, very carefully.”

Wesley read one book very, very carefully. In his preface to his standard sermons (required reading for every Methodist preacher) he wrote this:

I want to know one thing the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be “homo unius libri.”

One book. In that, Wesley was following in the footsteps of his spiritual ancestors like the apostle Paul, who wrote to his young apprentice Timothy that he, too, should be a “man of one book:”

“Since childhood you have known the holy Scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.”

You don’t have to have been in church long to know this—that the Scriptures are vitally important as the foundation of faith. And yet, I talk to people all the time who struggle with reading them and learning them. If returning to the Scriptures is a key to revival and reform, how might we be better equipped to be people of one book? 

My friend J.D. Walt offers some advice in what he calls “Five Ways to Love God’s Word.” This list grew out of what one of our mentors, Dr. Ellsworth Kalas, wrote in J.D.’S Bible years ago: “Love God, love people, and love the Word with a passion.” It’s a list that’s easy to remember because every point begins with the letter “R:”

First READ God’s Word. We live in a visual culture where everything is communicated in images, but we forget that it is what we hear that we most remember. Our sense of hearing is one of the first things we experience as infants—we hear the spoken word of our mothers even as we are in the darkness of the womb. Indeed, many scientists now confirm that reading something aloud actually promotes better memory than if we just read silently to ourselves. Josiah read the word aloud to his people, and we do well when we read it aloud as well. Interestingly, the practice of the pagan Canaanite religions that Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh had promoted was about seeing the idols. Judaism and Christianity are based on hearing. Read the Word of God daily, and practice doing it aloud!

Second RUMINATE on God’s Word. In Psalm 1, the writer says that those who “meditate day and night” on the Word of God are like trees planted by streams of water—they grow deep roots. When modern people think of “meditation,” we think of it as emptying the mind. The Hebrew idea of meditation is quite the opposite—it’s filling the mind with God’s Word, and continuing to chew on it. We need to spend time with Scripture like we would with a great meal—as something to savor.

Next we REMEMBER-IZE God’s Word. Yes, that’s a made up word, but it expresses something beyond simply memorizing verses. We used to do that as kids, but unless you continually engage the text those memory verse are consigned to short-term memory and fade with time. “Remember-izing” one the other hand is about living with the text for a long time, reading it over and over. Coming back to it again and again. Like looking at the beauty of a cathedral, the more you look the more you see. Daily reading of the Scriptures helps us to remember-ize it over time. It’s not about mastering the text but about being mastered by the text.

Fourth, we RESEARCH God’s Word. To “research” means to “look at it again.” We read commentaries and the witness of other readers in order to confirm our own reading, ruminating, and remember-izing. We engage in Bible study with others to learn new insights and challenge one another. God’s Word is worthy of an investment of the rest of our lives to study it. To help you in that way, our Lenten study this year is going to be a look at Galatians, but even more so it’s going to be a chance for you to learn how to study the Bible. Research is a key to deeper understanding of the text.

And lastly, and most importantly, we REHEARSE God’s Word. We do what it says. Remember Jesus’ story about the two builders—one who builds on solid rock and the other on sand. The one who builds on the rock hears the Word of God and does it, while the one who hears the Word of God and doesn’t do it is destined for collapse. As James puts it, we must be doers of the Word and not hearers only.

Josiah will not only read the Word of God to his people, he will go about doing it. Next week we’ll see how his practical application of the Bible leads to a real rummage sale—getting rid of that which is not part of God’s Word and retaining what’s most important.

Josiah discovered that the ruins were inhabited when he discovered God’s Word. When we discover it, too, we will discover new life in the midst of a broken world. That’s a key to reformation!

Sources:

Walt, J.D. “Five Ways to Love God’s Word.” Lecture at the Newroom Conference, 2017.

Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (London: SPCK, 2004), 119.

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