Piety Does Not Save Us From Stupidity

Josiah was only eight years old, when he inherited the throne. His education and training then was given over to several priests and prophets. He grew up revering the temple and the God of Israel Yahweh. When he was 18, Josiah ordered a refurbishment of the Temple. Sort of like United Church they had a leaky roof, and the floor needed repair in places. One of the workmen found a loose stone in the floor, and when he lifted it up in order to put down mortar to hold it in place, he found a scroll under the floor.

The Chief priest gave the scroll to the King’s scribe Shaphan, who read it to Josiah. The scroll contained most of the content of our present book of Deuteronomy, and upon hearing the word of Moses Josiah was struck to the heart, and ordered a religious reform throughout the entire Kingdom. He banished the cult prostitutes from the temple. He removed all of the idols from Jerusalem, and proceeded to the cult center of Bethel, where he removed the golden calves that had been set up by King Jeroboam. Idolatrous priests who refused to worship Yahweh only were executed and their bones burned upon their altars in order to desecrate them. Josiah proclaimed that sacrifices could only be offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, an order designed to extend his control over the area formerly occupied by the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He removed the altars in the Hinnom Valley south of Jerusalem, where people had sacrificed infants as burnt offerings to the God Molech.

Josiah also ordered that Passover should be celebrated as provided for in the scroll of Deuteronomy. Under the reforms of Josiah the faith of the Hebrews began to look like a recognizable form of monotheism. When we read about the number of people, who were executed during Josiah’s reform, we might be tempted to believe that Josiah was narrow intolerant. But as we will discuss in the sermon, without the intolerance of Josiah, monotheism might never have been established among the Jews.

So in the history of Israel Josiah was considered to be a great King. But at the end of his reign Josiah did something really dumb. Judah had extended its borders from Beersheva in the South to Megiddo and the Jezreal Valley in the North. Now remember Judah was a very small country caught between two Empires. Egypt was South and West of Judah. Babylon was North and East in the Tigris and Euphrates River Valley. Egypt believed that the best defense was a good offense, so Pharaoh Necco raised an army and proceeded to march toward Babylon. He sent a nice note asking Josiah for permission to pass through the Jezreel Valley since that was really the only reasonable way to get from Egypt to Babylon. Josiah refused, and he raised an army and marched to Megiddo with the intention of cutting off the Egyptians.

Judah was much much smaller than Egypt. Josiah’s army was miniscule in comparison to Pharaoh Necco. Why? Josiah could have stayed safely behind his walls in Megiddo, but he marched his army out onto the flat plain of the Jezreel Valley to challenge the Egyptians. The Egyptian archers sent a rain of arrows toward Josiah’s chariot and he was mortally wounded and died. Thus ended the career of Josiah, the King the Hebrew chroniclers credited as one of the best monarchs most faithful to Yahweh in Israel’s history.

I believe the story of Josiah can offer us two important insights. First, and this may be a challenge for our tradition of tolerance at United Church, if Josiah had not been a little bit intolerant, monotheism, the belief in one God and one God only may never have taken root in Judaism.

We need to remember that idolatry had been ubiquitous throughout the history of Israel. When Josiah set about to end the worship of false gods in his realm, he undertook a major challenge. There were fertility cults, where the gods were worshipped by visiting cult prostitutes both male and female. Given human appetites for sexual diversity this was a really popular form of worship. Then there was Baal the god of wealth and prosperity – always a popular god even today. Many of the false gods worshipped by the Israelites are still around today.

There are the gods and goddesses of sex appeal so omnipresent in our advertising. Just look at the slinky model draped over the hood of a car and tell me sex doesn’t sell. Or in an era, when newspapers and news magazines are disappearing, the slick glamor magazine is still in publishing. And the gossip rags that appeal to prurient interests are still out there.

Then there is the god of prosperity and wealth that has even invaded parts of the church – prosperity religion. Just pray, attend worship, give your tithes and offerings and God will make you rich. Name it and claim it and wealth can be yours.

Then there are the gods of military superiority that entice us to spend billions on weapons and venture off into questionable foreign wars. Peace is our profession. Mike Stroud is always so faithful in reminding us of the enticements and spiritual dangers of idolatry.

So as we consider Josiah’s “intolerance” maybe we can ask ourselves whether or not we should be more concerned about idolatry in our culture today. Now let me be clear. I don’t think we should execute other people because they might believe differently from us. With the diversity of beliefs in this congregation we might take out over half the congregation. I don’t believe we should engage in street protests or picket the prosperity religion churches. What would that accomplish? We can refuse to purchase products that use exploitive advertising. We can identify racism, sexism, and militarism as forms of idolatry. We can raise consciousness about the spiritual dangers of the unquestioned idolatry in our culture. So let’s be conscious of the idolatry without becoming violently intolerant.

The second lesson I want to draw from the story of Josiah is to try to understand what drove him to challenge Pharaoh Necco in the Jezreel Valley. At least in hindsight this was so obviously stupid, what compelled him to adopt such a foolish course of action? I think the key to understanding the down fall of Josiah was intolerance. His “intolerance” may have helped to secure for us the heritage of monotheism, but his fanaticism contributed to his destruction. You see over time intolerance breeds arrogance, or perhaps intolerance arises out of arrogance. God is on my side, I must be right, those who oppose me must be wrong, and they must be punished.

Mixing pride and faith can lead us down the slippery slope of assuming God is on our side. Whenever we start to make the assumption that we know God is taking sides we need to remember the humility of Abraham Lincoln. When approached by a pious minister who said to Lincoln he “hoped the Lord is on our side,” the president responded, “I am not at all concerned about that…. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.” And in Lincoln’s second inaugural address we can see his understanding of God working in history was nuanced:

Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Pride and Piety remind me of a story Rabbi Miller shared with me. It was the day before Yom Kippur the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and getting ready for the important day the Rabbi was standing before the Ark of the Covenant bowing and repeating, “God I am nothing, I am nothing.”

Inspired by his example, Cantor who was walking through the sanctuary walked up next to the Rabbi and began bowing and praying, “Oh Lord, I am nothing, I am nothing.”

In walks the custodian and when he sees the Rabbi and the Cantor praying, he too begins to bow and say, “Oh God, I am nothing, I am nothing.”

When the Cantor heard the custodian, he lifted an eyebrow, nudged the Rabbi and said, “look who thinks he’s nothing.”

Humility can keep us from a multitude of sins. Piety can be a good thing, but when it becomes mixed with arrogance, it becomes the worst kind of self-righteousness. Remember Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector?

Two men went into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a Tax Collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed like this to himself. “God I thank you that I am not like other people drug dealers, punks, whores, loan sharks, or even like this tax collector over here. I fast twice a week, pray every day, why I even give tithes of all that I get.

But the tax collector would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast praying: “Lord be merciful to me a sinner.” I tell you, continued Jesus, it was the tax collector who went home at peace with God rather than the Pharisee, because the one who is confident of his righteousness will not be forgiven, but the one who humbles himself will find forgiveness.

Piety can lead to spiritual growth. Prayer, Bible Study, worship, in a couple of weeks we will talk about the role of praise in our spiritual lives, all of these things can lead to solid spiritual formation. But piety, that is overly concerned with the right belief, or correct practice, or being very observant about the minutia and details of the rules, can lead us into arrogance. I do it right, and any other way is wrong.

My guess is when Josiah went forth to challenge Pharaoh Necco in the Jezreel Valley he was tumbling down the slippery slope of assuming that God was on his side. Surely God was going to give him victory, because after all Josiah had been so faithful in following Yahweh and in opposing the idolaters in his Kingdom. Piety is not a substitute for using good sense. Never take a knife to a gun fight. If the other guy has a bigger army, sit down and count the cost, before assuming God will intervene on your behalf.

We must never assume we know what God is up to. Be faithful. Pray. Worship. Perform acts of kindness and charity expecting nothing in return. For God makes the sun to rise on the righteous and the unrighteous and his rain to fall on the bad as well as the good. And above all let your prayers be informed by good sense and a discerning mind.


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