Moving Forward in Transitions

All Saints Sunday

2 Kings 18 & 19




This morning, as we are once again gathered in this sanctuary, this place of safety that has been a home to our ancestors in the faith for more than a century, our spiritual home that has housed hundreds of baptisms and confirmations and weddings and funerals and thousands of worship gatherings—this morning as we gather here, we appreciate the past and anticipate the future. Beautiful and good and healing things have happened here in the past, and on this All Saints Sunday we look back and celebrate and remember. But we also say with confidence that we haven’t peaked yet, that the best days in the life of Zion United Church of Christ are still ahead of us. We aren’t just lighting candles to honor the past; we are also lighting torches that guide us into the future. 

As we have been acknowledging together for weeks, this is a season of transition: fall is a transitional season, our society both local and global continues to be in a state of transition, our personal lives are in transition, and this congregation, all of us together, are at a transitional moment. So this morning, before we welcome new members and celebrate communion, I’d like for us to spend a few minutes receiving the trust and hope that it takes to move forward.

Once again we turn for inspiration to our sacred text. Last week we heard the story of Solomon’s efforts to build a glorious temple for God. The kingdom of ancient Israel was unified and all the political and religious activity was centered in the holy city of Jerusalem. Unfortunately that doesn’t last. Despite Solomon’s wisdom and wealth and causing the temple to be built, his legacy is less than shining. He’s very hard on the people and he openly promotes the worship of foreign gods. When he dies, his son Rehoboam ascends to the throne. But there’s another possible king named Jeroboam who has been anointed by a prophet of God. Under the leadership of these two men, civil war breaks out. Jeroboam leads the 10 tribes in the north who secede and become the new Kingdom of Israel. Rehoboam leads the one tribe left in the south, which takes the name of the Kingdom of Judah and retains Jerusalem as its capital city. And things just get worse from there. Both the north and south take up ways of life that do not honor God: usually these fall into the categories of greed, violence, and religious hyprocrisy. This is what the prophets are always railing against. The books of First and Second Kings cover 400 years and jump back and forth between kings and events in the north and the south. And finally, in 2 Kings chapter 18, the northern kingdom is invaded by the country of Assyria and destroyed. At this point the king in the south is Hezekiah, who was one of the kings who actually did follow God. Ten years after he witnesses the destruction of the northern kingdom, King Hezekiah is faced with the threat of invasion by Assyria, the same country that destroyed the northern kingdom, and that’s where we pick up our story today. I’ll be reading to you selected verses from 2 Kings 18 and 19. Honestly I’m jumping around quite a bit because the story jumps around, but these selections get us where we need to go.

In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them.

So Hezekiah king of Judah sent this message to the king of Assyria: “I have done wrong. Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me.” (He’s willing to pay protection money to be left alone.) The king of Assyria exacted from Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver (which is 11 tons!) and thirty talents of gold (which is 1 ton). So Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace. And he stripped off the gold with which he had covered the doors and doorposts of the temple of the Lord, and gave it to the king of Assyria.

(But bribes never last; once you find out you can extort money from someone, you keep going.) The king of Assyria sent his supreme commander, his chief officer and his field commander with a large army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. The field commander said to them, “‘This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours? You say you have the counsel and the might for war—but you speak only empty words. On whom are you depending, that you rebel against me? Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this place without word from the Lord? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it. Do not listen to Hezekiah, for he is misleading you when he says, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Has the god of any nation ever delivered his land from the king of Assyria?”

When King Hezekiah heard this, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and went into the temple of the Lord. He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary and the leading priests, all wearing sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz. 

Then Isaiah son of Amoz sent a message to Hezekiah: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I have heard your prayer concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria. This is the word that the Lord has spoken against him:

“‘He will not enter this city or shoot an arrow here.He will not come before it with shield or build a siege ramp against it. I will defend this city and save it, for my sake and for the sake of David my servant.’”

“This will be the sign for you, Hezekiah:

“This year you will eat what grows by itself,
    and the second year what springs from that.
But in the third year sow and reap,
    plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
Once more a remnant of the kingdom of Judah
    will take root below and bear fruit above.
For out of Jerusalem will come a remnant,
    and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”

2 Kings 18 & 19 selections

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

As I was thinking about what to say this morning, I went hunting in the Bible for some inspiration. Truly I had never read these verses before. And I’ve read a lot of the Bible. But as I was reading these jumped off the page to me. You know how that happens sometimes? As I read it, I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is where we are.” Let me tell you what I mean.

Our way of life has been threatened by a force much stronger than we are, not an invading army but an enemy just as difficult to repel. And we initially did not have the weapons to fight it. We have given up a lot in the attempt to avert disaster. We have sacrificed things that cost us dearly, both in actual dollars and in emotional and spiritual wellbeing. We have had to deal with those who say that God sent this invading force, that this is somehow God’s will and we are powerless to stop it. And we have narrowly averted total societal destruction. Sound familiar? Anyone else feel that? The uncertainty. The fear. The sense of loss. That’s all here in this story.

And we’re not really out of the woods yet, are we? I mean, things are better, objectively actually better. It hasn’t been as disastrous as we were afraid it could have been. And the threat could come back. But we’re also still not in fully hunkered down mode. We are trying to figure out how to move forward.

And that’s where this text really got me. Now let me say clearly, I know this is an ancient story and does not actual refer to what’s happening right now. And yet, for those of us who receive inspiration from this sacred text, sometimes it speaks to us in ways that resonate so clearly and strongly that it feels like God is speaking directly to us. Rachel Held Evans, who I know some of you read, she said, “The Bible was not written to us. But it was written for us.” Even though these verses weren’t written about our situation, they can still speak to our situation. 

Here’s what I want us to hear this morning: 

“This year you will eat what grows by itself,
    and the second year what springs from that.
But in the third year sow and reap,
    plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
Once more a remnant of the kingdom of Judah
    will take root below and bear fruit above.
For out of Jerusalem will come a remnant,
    and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”

Do you hear it? Two years of just surviving. Just eating what grows on its own; just doing what you have to do to get by. Just get through it. But we can’t live like that forever. So in the third year, it’s time to plant. 

Friends, beloveds, we have survived 2020 and 2021. As a congregation, we have survived. We have given up a lot that was dear to us. We have lost loved ones in the midst of it. We have been afraid. But we have survived. We didn’t give up. We kept meeting as best we could. We adapted. Financially we took a hit. We did take a PPP grant, but we did not have to tap into the endowment. For two years, we have survived.

And now, it’s time to begin planting. We already have. Today we will welcome in seven new members and two children, which makes fourteen new members and five children this year. We had two baby dedications this year. We are in the testing phase of two new ministries: weekly jail Bible studies and monthly community breakfasts. We are starting to scatter seeds. But dear ones, I believe it is time for us to begin planting and sowing in earnest. The ground has hardened in the past two years, and together we’re going to break it up again. A zillion Zoom meetings and virtual church services have made us accustomed to being passive and distracted. Knowing that everyone is having a hard time has made us less likely to ask for help when we need it.

So we have some skills to relearn. Because real community is not passive and distracted and hesitant. Real community is engaged and focused and present and honest and vulnerable. Together we will relearn the skills of service and what my friend Heather calls “real-ationships.” We will relearn the skills of connecting in person instead of only scrolling Facebook or Instagram, actually texting or calling or meeting instead of just “liking” and “caring.”

It’s like we have gotten used to drinking enough water that we don’t die of thirst, but we are still dehydrated. Psalm 42 says “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you O God. My soul thirsts for the living God.” As the psalm goes on and the writer continues to grieve, do you know what he remembers? He remembers community. He says, “these things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I went with the congregation and led them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.” 

Our souls long for a real experience of the living God and our souls long for real-ationships with other humans. And through church, we get both! This day is such a big deal because we long to be with God in community and with community in God. We can be spiritual alone, but to be truly Christian, we must be in community. Because Christianity is not just about our relationship with God; it’s just as much about our relationship with others. Which is why it is so exciting for us when this congregation grows.

Becoming a member of a church is not like becoming a member of a club; it’s like becoming a member of a family. When a family gets a new member, like a new baby or someone who marries in, that new member doesn’t just assimilate to the family’s way of doing things. The family actually changes because of this new member. So while our new members today will learn some of our family’s traditions, we will also be changed by our new members. We welcome their different perspectives, we will listen to their wisdom, and we will grow and change because of their gifts.

Church membership is not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about who wants to be in a real-ationship. When church is done right, we share life with people who are different from us: theologically, politically, racially, economically, sexually. And by choosing to be together, even when we disagree, we all grow in grace and love and humility. We become more spiritually mature, not just by interacting with God, but by interacting with one another in ways that honor God. This is the beautiful invitation of church membership. Amen.

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