Another fantastic message “The Beginning of the End (of the Kingdom of Israel)” by Rev. Toni Carmer continuing week 16 of a 31 week study of “The Story – The Bible as One Continuous Story of God and His People.”
The Beginning of the End
2 Kings 17:13-14, 22-23a
First United Methodist Church, August 6, 2017
Pastor Toni L. Carmer
Our reading this week, which includes Chapter 16 in The Story and 2 Kings 17-20 in scripture, as well as sections of the book of the prophet Isaiah, reveals a tumultuous time for the people of Israel.
In the opening verses, Hoshea has become king of Israel, and he's described as doing evil—but not as evil as the kings who came before him, which isn't exactly a rousing endorsement. The reason, it seems, that he holds a somewhat higher stature from the other kings is because Hoshea refuses to pay tribute to Assyria. The kings before him had paid tribute, literally paying the Assyrian king as a vassal to their authority, to remain "peacefully" in their land, and to maintain trade rights to the Mediterranean through their own land. Hoshea had turned to the king of Egypt, forming an alliance there, and felt strong enough at this point to defy Assyria. He would have had a stronger endorsement from the narrator of 2 Kings had he turned to God for help, but that's not what he did.
This refusal to pay tribute was an act of defiance and betrayal, so Assyria laid siege to the Northern Kingdom, and after 3 years they are overtaken. The capital city of Samaria falls, and Hoshea is seized and carried off to prison, while his people are taken to Assyria and resettled there.
The deportation of the people, who are scattered across a foreign land, effectively extinguishes the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Their leaders are scattered across this new place, so there would be minimal chance of reviving the spark of faith that had already grown dim. In the same way, other captured people are settled into the vacated towns and cities of Israel, to establish their own cultures and traditions. That resettlement doesn't happen so smoothly to begin with, we're told, as God sends lions among them and people are killed.
Though the interest was to bring peace rather than restore religion to the land, the Assyrians respond by bringing a priest that had been captured and relocated in Assyria back to Israel to teach the immigrant people the religion "required by the land." This is done, and the priest settles in Bethel. A form of Yahweh worship is established there, and the people there eventually become known to us as Samaritans.
So, the people of the nation of Israel are scattered across Assyria: they are the "lost tribes of Israel." They were God's people. God had given them a home, had offered them instruction, had sent prophets to re-direct, to call them back, but they chose to go their own way…to worship the gods of their choosing, and so finally God said okay. God allowed them to be who they were determined to be.
Now, the northern kingdom of Israel was the larger kingdom, which included the 10 tribes of Israel. The smaller, southern kingdom, the nation of Judah, sees all this…they hear word of what is happening. Hezekiah is the king of Judah during this time, he knows about the siege in Samaria, about Hoshea's capture, about the deportation of the people. Watching all this happen had to be intimidating, as Assyria now possesses the land just north of their borders. Assyria is a threat to Judah, as well.
Hezekiah is described as one who "did right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense on it. Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not stop following him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses. And the Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook."
Eight years after the fall of Israel, the king of Assyria attacks the fortified cities of Judah, capturing them, along with numerous open villages. In response, Hezekiah sends a message, humbling himself to the king of Assyria, saying "I have done wrong. Withdraw from me and I will pay you whatever you demand." He gives Assyria three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold in addition to silver and gold from the treasuries and the furnishings of the royal palace and the temple.
Assyria continues to press in on Judah. The Assyrian king sends three of his leaders to Judah to intimidate Hezekiah and his people, seeking to compromise his ability to lead. But it doesn't work. Hezekiah responds by sending his leaders to the prophet Isaiah, to hear the word of the Lord.
Isaiah offers a word of hope: The king of Assyria will return to his own country and be cut down there… But before that happens, the Assyrian king sends another message to Hezekiah, which basically says: "Do not trust what your God says. Don't you see what I have already done, destroying the gods of other nations? I will surely do this to you..."
When Hezekiah receives the message, he takes it to the temple, and spreads it out before the Lord. He offers a prayer of trust, he acknowledges that the gods the King of Assyria has destroyed were false gods—made only of wood and stone. He prays for deliverance that all kingdoms would know that God alone is God.
Isaiah sent a message to Hezekiah, telling him that God had heard him, that God will strike down the king of Assyria—and God does. That night we're told that the angel of the Lord put to death 185,000 soldiers in the Assyrian camp. When the people of Judah awaken, they find their bodies. So the king of Assyria withdraws, returns to Nineveh and stays there. And that's where he dies, murdered by one of his sons as he worships his god in his temple.
The Assyrians had seemed invincible. They had carried off Israel, and it looked as though Judah would experience that same fate. But what human beings can't do, God can. For now, Judah will stand.
At some point during this timeframe, Hezekiah becomes very ill and Isaiah tells him to put his house into order as he is going to die. But God hears Hezekiah's fervent prayer and he recovers to live another 15 years. As he recovers, messengers are sent with a gift and letters from the king of Babylon. In appreciation, Hezekiah shows the messengers all of the riches of his kingdom: silver and gold, spices and fine olive oil…
When Isaiah hears of the visit, he questions the king who tells him what he has done. Isaiah responds with the prophesy that the time will come when all that he has shown them, and some of his own descendents, will one day be carried off to Babylon—taken away. Hezekiah perceives this as good news: he thinks that means peace, that a treaty will one day come to be, but that isn’t the word. What Hezekiah thought he heard isn't what will happen.
So, what is the word that we have to learn from this morning's scripture?
Here is what I've been thinking about: As I read about the fall of Israel, scripture makes it very clear that it isn't Assyria or any other people who cause them to fall—it is God. Repeatedly we read that the people turn their heads from God, that they are stiff-necked, that they have done wicked things that arouse God's anger, that they worship other gods…and the Lord is angry with Israel and so removes them from his presence.
I have had to think through that hard, because I am convinced that God is present in all times and places, and that when we call on God, that God is with us.
But then, I think of this gift of free will that we've been given—and have we really been offered the opportunity to say no? And isn't our relationship with anyone—including God—best, when we freely and without coercion accept and receive the relationship, then work on it and grow it?
I think of all the years that passed, all the generations who were given opportunities, all the prophets that God sent to the people, and how they so easily and repeatedly turn away. So it seems, that at some point, when they truly no longer cared to be in relationship, God regretfully said, okay. Go your way. God didn't destroy them, but God removed them (or allowed them to be removed) to a place where they would live, in the way that they chose to live.
Martin Luther said, "Whatsoever your heart clings to and relies upon, that properly is your God."
So today, I ask you: To what do you cling to?
On whom do you rely?
Is it God?
And here are a few other questions to consider:
Are there warning signs that we should be listening to?
Ways in which we have gone astray?
Ways in which we need to refocus our minds, our hearts and souls—toward God—and no other?
Gracious and Almighty God, This is your day, and we gather together in this place to worship you…to hear your word…to seek guidance in our lives…to spend time with one another…and then to leave, to go back into our lives, ready to live as your people.
Along the way, in the things that we do, we remember you. We call upon you in our times of need…and we know that there are times when you give us the right words to say. You strengthen us when we’re feeling overwhelmed and you give us rest when we have a hard time letting go of the various responsibilities that we’re juggling. And yet, God, there are those moments when we don’t talk to you… when we aren’t ready to hear your word…when we wish you wouldn’t have heard ours. And yet we come here because we seek your forgiveness for those moments, and want to be in relationship with you. When we turn toward you, you’re always here, and ready to receive us. So, thank you, Lord. Thank you for the forgiveness you offer.
This morning we lift up to you, the needs of our world…our community…our church…our families and our homes. We pray for peace, for healing, for comfort. We thank you for the good news that you give us, and we thank you even when the news isn’t what we’ve hoped for, because we know that we always find our hope in you.
We lift up to you the persons who are listed in our worship folders, (we pray for)
and all of those we carry in our hearts and minds. We’re grateful that you never leave us alone and that you provide for us in ways that we can’t always see or understand.
All of these things we pray in the name of the one who taught us to pray together, saying…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.