Sunday, December 16, 2018

The King and His Blunder: A Sermon on Matthew 1:9 (Fallen Leaves from the Family Tree of Jesus)

Over twenty-seven hundred years ago, in the great house in Jerusalem, a king waited, drumming his fingers on the arm of his throne. He needed news, news, good news. Then, the messengers came, bowing low. The king reminded himself to be patient. He asked what news they brought. His heart thrilled as he saw a tired smile on a messenger's face. “Long live the king! Sire... they're leaving. They're gone. It's over. The siege is over.” The king hardly waited for the messengers to withdraw. He leapt to his feet and, just as suddenly, sank to his knees. Stretching out his hands toward heaven, he whisper-shouted praises to his God who had delivered him – as the king knew his Heavenly King would. It had been a long journey. It had been a hard fight. It would take a few years to rebuild, but they would get by. The God of all mercy would give them a new day at last.

In his joys, maybe the king took the opportunity to think back over the story of his life. It all began just under forty years before. A little baby was born in the palace to a teenage prince and his slightly older bride. That prince – a junior-partner king, really – was 15-year-old King Jehoahaz, the son of 35-year-old King Jotham. That bride was Abiya, the daughter of Zechariah. And the little baby, on the eighth day, they named 'Hezekiah' – “Yahweh strengthens.” A good, fine name. The year of his birth, a major change came over the kingdom of Judah. Baby Hezekiah's great-grandfather Uzziah was still technically the senior king, but an invasion by a rising empire called Assyria forced Uzziah – already weakened by leprosy – to pledge tribute and make Judah a vassal-state to the Assyrians. A bit of an ignominious end to his glorious reign. King Uzziah couldn't bear it – he died later that year, in his late sixties, leaving his son Jotham and teen grandson Ahaz in charge, with a baby.

Hezekiah, in later years, couldn't remember Uzziah, of course. He just knew he was sorely missed. Because in the eyes of many, neither Jotham nor Ahaz could live up to Uzziah's legacy, and Hezekiah struggled to himself. Well, Grandpa Jotham continued Great-grandpa Uzziah's work on the towers, gates, and walls of the capital city – and, when Hezekiah was about five, Grandpa made his Dad a real equal, not a junior partner anymore. They were the two kings. Hezekiah didn't really remember that. Some of his early memories were about the next year, a dreadful year. Hezekiah was six when his dad got in some pretty hot water. Two nearby countries were desperate to get free from Assyrian influence, and their kings – Rezin of Damascus and Pekah of Israel – were none too thrilled that Ahaz didn't want to join. So Rezin and Pekah attacked Judah, hoping to replace Ahaz with another king unrelated to the line of David. Dangerous days. Prisoners were taken. Even members of the royal family died. In desperation, Ahaz sacrified Hezekiah's little brother in the fire. Dark days indeed.

Those were some of Hezekiah's first memories – not so much of that, of the killing, of the fear, as of a man who would be hugely influential in his life. Isaiah – a few years older than Hezekiah's dad – came to visit. Hezekiah grew up alongside Isaiah's kids – he was younger than Shear-jashub, but this happened when Maher-shalal-hash-baz wasn't even born yet. Isaiah came to Ahaz and told him it'd all be fine, that he needed to trust, that God was willing to give him a sign. And Ahaz said no – no, he'd already made up his mind what to do. Still, Isaiah talked about a day to come, a sign for the whole House of David, that a baby would be born. Immanuel. The real, honest-to-God Immanuel – “God with us.” Hezekiah never forgot, as a six-year-old boy, hearing that.

Well, Hezekiah's dad didn't trust God. Instead, he reached out to the distant Assyrians, bribing them with gold and silver to come trounce his enemies for him. And they did. Tiglath-pileser, a former general who'd seized the Assyrian throne five years before Hezekiah was born, made ready to march. Isaiah warned Ahaz that there was no containing Assyrian – like a flood, they'd eventually surge against Judah, too; but Jerusalem shouldn't fear them, since God would keep the Assyrian flood on a short leash and punish them the same.

Hezekiah was eight by the time his dad left on a trip, to go meet Tiglath-pileser in conquered Damascus. He'd sent a letter back from there, with instructions for the high priest Uriah to build an Assyrian altar and rearrange the temple courtyard to accommodate it. And he did. Dark days. The next year, Hezekiah's grandpa Jotham died, just forty-four. His dad Ahaz was in his mid-twenties and left in charge. Two years later – Hezekiah was about eleven, he reckoned – Ahaz appointed him junior king, ruling alongside his dad. By this time, a friendly tie to Assyria was bringing economic benefits for the grain merchants, at least. Prosperity for all the land.

Hezekiah was eighteen when he heard the news. Up to the north, Pekah's successor Hoshea had rebelled against Assyria. And in retaliation, Tiglath-pileser's successor Shalmaneser had come and laid siege to Samaria. And it fell – the capital of Israel fell. The country was no more. Over 27,000 Israelites deported, and foreigners were settled in their place. And refugees streamed over Judah's borders, swelling the population of land and city. The whole affair reaffirmed Ahaz's desire to never get on Assyria's bad side. But for teenage Hezekiah, it awakened a rather different attitude. The next year, Shalmaneser's brother Sargon had Shalmaneser killed and took the throne for himself; he finished the attack on Samaria and then defeated Hanno, king of Gaza. Hezekiah was by now paying attention to every news report from the region. During Hezekiah's early twenties, Sargon went on campaigns in the area, but saw no reason to bother Judah so long as docile, cowardly Ahaz held power. It was maybe around this time Hezekiah married his wife Hephzibah.

Hezekiah was twenty-five when his dad died. King Ahaz was no more. Leaving Hezekiah in charge, so very early in the year. And he wasted no time. For years he'd been heartsick over his father's idolatry and promotion of Assyrian worship. No more! Hezekiah had heard Isaiah's messages loud and clear. He immediately ordered the temple reopened – had the doors fixed, the priests reconsecrated, the temple purged of all the pagan misuse his dad Ahaz left behind. On the sixteenth day, it was rededicated with great ceremony. And he urged Levites to take up their instruments again, and play and compose and sing to the Lord. The Assyrian altar was gone. In the next month, Hezekiah invited the whole country to break its silence and celebrate Passover, like in the good old days. He even invited the people of what used to be Israel, though not many came. Hezekiah's missionaries did their best, though, and those who did come celebrated a double-feast for sixteen days. When it was done, Hezekiah sent everyone out with his blessing to tear down any pagan cult shrine they came across. Down came the high places, down came the standing stones, down came the Asherah poles, down came the bronze serpent Moses made but Ahaz perverted! Hezekiah spent his days with the priests, planning worship, organizing them into twenty-four efficient divisions. He sent word to all the people to start tithing again – to collect their grain, their resources, and send them to Jerusalem. So much came in, Hezekiah had to build storehouses to hold it all! The landed gentry weren't happy, to see wealth flowing from their estates toward the capital city, centralizing power with the king. But Jerusalem swelled with stockpiles.

The next year or two, Hezekiah began work on building a secret network of anti-Assyrian alliances. Isaiah in his prophecies warned local nations that Hezekiah would be rougher on them than Ahaz had been, and Hezekiah lived up to the prophecy. He annexed portions of Philistia and compelled Gaza to submit, and he expanded his influence over Edom and the Negev desert, resettling some of the tribe of Simeon there. It inspired the Philistine king of Ashdod, a man named Azuri, to withhold tribute from the Assyrians. So when the Assyrians replaced him with his brother Ahimiti, Ashdod's citizens rebelled and replaced him with a foreigner, Yamani. That was when Sargon marched down from the north and laid siege to Ashdod and Gath, resettling them and forcing various local powers – even Hezekiah's Judah – to submit and send him horses and tribute. Hezekiah was... well, rather chagrined. As for Yamani, he ran away to Egypt for refuge but was extradited to fearsome Assyrian custody. What happened to him then, Hezekiah preferred not to guess. That was the year, though – Hezekiah remembered this – when Isaiah began walking unclothed around Jerusalem, a sign that the Ethiopian rulers of Egypt would be exposed as naked and defenseless to Assyrian power.

Hezekiah's thirtieth birthday came and saw him biding his time, waiting for Assyria to get distracted. By the time he was thirty-one, his wife Hephzibah was giving birth to their son Manasseh. It was during these years that Hezekiah made the tough call to demote his palace manager Shebna, who'd been wasting royal money on a private tomb for himself and his family. Hezekiah made Shebna the chief scribe – no fiscal responsibility there – and raised up Eliakim as palace manager instead. Hezekiah was thirty-five when he heard Sargon had died, leaving the throne of Assyria to his son Sennacherib, a man Hezekiah's own age. At last, a fair fight.

Over the next few years, throughout his later thirties, Hezekiah wasted no time getting ready to square off with Assyria once and for all. As he faithfully worshipped God, he began reaching out to the kings of other small local countries to form alliances. Hezekiah traded letters with Chemosh-nadab, the king of Moab. He traded letters with Melek-ram, the king of Edom. Meanwhile, he kept stockpiling food in his city, and as years passed he sent it in ration jars to strategic points around the country. He ordered his teams to cut a tunnel 1,748 feet long under Jerusalem, to redirect the Gihon Spring's waters into a big reservoir in the city itself. He repaired Jerusalem's walls and ordered a thicker extra wall built around Jerusalem and around the other big fortress town of Lachish. A new style of wall, designed to withstand Assyrian battering-rams. Jerusalem's was twenty-three feet thick, stretching around the temple, the palace, the western residential suburbs, and the reservoir; but some houses had to be torn down to make room, and Isaiah was quick to report his dissatisfaction with that. Still, Hezekiah went ahead. It formally tripled the size of the city to 150 acres – more than enough room for all the Israelite refugees and earlier residents of Jerusalem, too. Hezekiah finally worked on getting an alliance with Sidqa, the king of the Philistine town of Ashkelon. Together, Hezekiah and Sidqa cornered another Philistine city, Ekron, into surrendering their king Padi and replacing him with someone friendlier. Hezekiah took Padi to Jerusalem as a hostage, and then made alliances with the Phoenician king Luli from Sidon and Pharaoh Shabaka from Egypt. And now, Hezekiah thought... now, we're ready. Best of all, he told the people: “With [Assyria] is an arm of flesh, but with us is the LORD our God, to help us and to fight our battles” (2 Chronicles 32:8).

Hezekiah got sick around this time, but recovered through prophecy. He even formed ties of alliance with some to the distant east, a rebel king Marduk-ipla-iddina in Babylon – about which Isaiah had some choice words. But then, all in unison, Hezekiah and his allies withheld their yearly tribute – and waited for the Assyrian king Sennacherib to react. React he did. Eager to punish Hezekiah and friends, he swept up around the Fertile Crescent, descending from the north on the western coast. He attacked Phoenician first, forcing their cities into submission. King Luli, not so brave after all, ran away to Cyprus where he died, and Sennacherib replaced him with a more Assyrian-friendly king named Ethba'al. Seeing that, Moab and Ammon and Edom all gave up the fight in terror and submitted. Sennacherib gave credit to his god, Ashur.

Sennacherib moved against the Philistines next. Hezekiah's ally Sidqa in Ashkelon didn't stand a chance; the Assyrians took Ashkelon and deported Sidqa and his whole family network, never to be heard from again, and replaced him with the old king's son Sharru-lu-dari. Sennacherib laid siege to other Philistine cities, but when he got to Ekron, they called down to Egypt for help. So did Hezekiah, even though Isaiah warned him not to. “Stubborn children, who carry out a plan but not mine, who weave a web but not of my Spirit..., who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction! … Egypt's help is worthless and empty,” he prophesied (Isaiah 30:1-7). It would only end with Jerusalem cold and alone, he warned. Hezekiah didn't listen.

In the plains at Eltekeh, the remaining Philistines joined the Egyptian advance force and a contingent of Judah's soldiers. And lost badly. Sennacherib conquered Ekron and brutalized it. Then he turned his eyes on Judah, devastating the countryside. Over forty walled cities were besieged and destroyed. All the villages near them, all but wiped out. The Assyrians killed unnumbered Jews and deported tens of thousands. A prophet rose up in the countryside. His name was Micah, and he had some hard things to say: “Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height” (Micah 3:12). Hezekiah was, needless to say, demoralized. Everyone was so afraid, they stayed trapped in their walled cities when they should've been planting crops – and then what's to eat next year, even if they live through this?

Hezekiah watched from a distance as Lachish – the big fortress city near Micah's village, the big city with the double-wall and a chariot training facility and mighty defenses – was next on Sennacherib's hit list. Assyrian soldiers, square of beard and pointy of hat, built a massive siege ramp southwest of the city; they used two or four battering-rams on the walls, and although the people of Lachish built their own ramp to reinforce the wall, though their defenders stood on the walls and hurled boulders and flaming torches down at the Assyrians... still the city fell. Over 1,500 were tortured to death, and the rest deported.

Hezekiah's heart sank when he heard Lachish had fallen. Lachish controlled the main road into the heart of Judah. It was the one city he'd aimed to make Assyria-proof. By now his attempts to rebel – which Isaiah had warned him against – had cost thousands and thousands of Jews their lives, and even more their homes, sent off into exile. The guilt was crushing for a king not quite yet at his fortieth birthday. In desperation, he tried to buy off Sennacherib, sending toward Nineveh over a ton of gold and over eleven tons of silver, and more, even releasing Padi from custody. But Sennacherib was unappeased. Staying at Lachish with his main camp, he sent part of his army to surround Jerusalem, trapping Hezekiah and the people there like panicked birds cooped in a little cage. It was around this time Micah, walking forlornly through desolate countryside, preached that God would one day replace Hezekiah's failures with a stronger king from David's hometown roots in Bethlehem.

Three Assyrian officials – the commander-in-chief, or turtannu; the chief cupbearer and advisor, or rabshaq; the chief eunuch, or rabsaris – made their way toward Jerusalem's walls to talk. (Sennacherib, for his part, wanted to end this quick, without the delay of a long siege.) Hezekiah sent three officials of his own: his palace steward Eliakim, his ex-steward and now-scribe Shebna, his royal recorder Joah. Despite his best efforts, the people crowded atop Jerusalem's walls to watch and listen. Hezekiah heard the report when his officials returned. The Assyrians had taunted them, tried to belittle them, had spoken plain Hebrew so as to sway the hearts of the people away from Hezekiah, urged that Judah's God was no match for Assyrian power that had throttled so many gods, so many kings and lands. The rabshaq said Egypt couldn't be trusted; that God had deserted Jerusalem as punishment for Hezekiah's reforms; that Hezekiah was too weak to compete. Better give in now, let the people of Jerusalem be resettled in a better land far away.

Hearing this, Hezekiah tore his robes at the Assyrian blasphemy, put on sackcloth, and rushed to the temple to worship. He sent Eliakim and Shebna to go find Isaiah, beg him to pray to God. And Hezekiah waited. As they came back to him at the temple, they relayed Isaiah's message: Don't be afraid; God will make Sennacherib hear a rumor and run back home to die there. And, hearing this, Hezekiah worshipped God. By this time, Sennacherib had already started retreating, moving north from Lachish to Libnah to gain distance from rumors of the pharaoh's brother Tirhaqa. Hezekiah soon found Assyrian messengers approaching his palace, bringing a letter from Sennacherib himself. Now Sennacherib exposed his real thought: Given how many gods Assyria had overcome, “don't let your God in whom you trust deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria” (2 Kings 19:10). And Hezekiah thought to himself, Sennacherib's right about one thing: Now, the Lord is indeed Hezekiah's God in whom he trusts. Dismissing the messengers without a return message, he took the letter to the temple and unrolled it there. And Hezekiah prayed. “O Lord, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God – you alone – of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O LORD, and hear … the words of Sennacherib that he sent to mock the living God. … Save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone” (2 Kings 19:15-19).

Hezekiah spent hours in the temple, praying, worshipping as the enemy forces swelled outside the city walls. In time, there came a sound. A messenger, sent by Isaiah, to tell a prophecy. God had heard Hezekiah's prayer, and would answer it. Sennacherib would never enter the city. He'd never even raise a siege ramp or shoot an arrow at it. He'd be sent home the way he came. And Hezekiah, with relief, went home and slept. The next morning, he woke up to the news. In the stillness of night, an angel spread a plague through the Assyrian camp beyond the walls, devastating the enemy army. Sennacherib sent messengers, offering to withdraw in exchange for just a little more tribute. Hezekiah indulged him. He knew how remarkable this was. No king withstood the siege engines of Assyria, no king rebelled and stayed on his throne. But Hezekiah had. Not because he was mighty or wise, but because God heard his prayer and kept him safe. No wonder Hezekiah rejoiced.

But rewind the clock, to before the siege. The Bible tells us one more story, about a not-yet-fully-sanctified Hezekiah. The one sick with a fatal disease, warned by Isaiah in the palace that he'd die. Immediately the king turned to the wall and started praying, praying with single-minded desperation of heart: “Now, O LORD, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight” (2 Kings 20:3). And he broke down in tears, the king did – not yet forty and terminally ill. He cried out to God. And before Isaiah had even left the palace, God made him turn around and reverse the prophecy – just because Hezekiah had asked it! And then, when Hezekiah was flustered by the quick response, Isaiah offered a sign, shifting the shadows on the staircase of Ahaz back and promising another fifteen years for Hezekiah's lifespan. And sure enough, by following Dr. Isaiah's prescription, Hezekiah got better, and he wrote a weary poem: “Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back” (Isaiah 38:17).

Those were then the days that Marduk-ipla-iddina, the Babylonian rebel, saw Hezekiah's recovery as the perfect pretext to smuggle a message to him. He sent messengers with gifts to Jerusalem, but also with a letter offering a secret alliance. Hezekiah was astounded – the thought that he'd become so great, even distant Babylon wished for his friendship! Proud that they'd come all that way, he gave the Babylonian diplomats a grand tour – all the treasure, all the storehouses, the entire armory, he showed them everything, aiming to impress them. And Isaiah was not happy. Once they'd left, the prophet confronted the king, warned the days were coming when Babylon would take everything from Hezekiah's house, even his own descendants, captive in chains.

And we'd expect Hezekiah to object here. We'd expect him to pray for God to undo the prophecy, just like he'd undone the prophecy about Hezekiah's death. If there's anything Hezekiah had seen in his life, it's this: When he prays, things change. His dad had been given the chance for a sign, but refused. He himself had prayed about his own sickness, and it changed. Later in the year, he'd pray for an end to the Assyrian siege, and God would act on it, just that one humble prayer. When Hezekiah prays, things happen, so we'd expect him to pray here... but he doesn't. He accepts the prophecy. “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good,” he says (2 Kings 20:19). He doesn't care what happens after he's gone; he's only focused on peace and security in his days. For all he was learning about faithfulness, about trusting in the God of the prophets, he was intentionally shortsighted – selfish, even – in not caring beyond the moment. And so Hezekiah, whose prayers God heeded and cherished, didn't bother praying. And a hundred years after his death, almost to the year, Isaiah's prophecy was fulfilled, and the people of Jerusalem – Hezekiah's descendants among them – were carried to Babylon.

It stuns me that Hezekiah – the man whose story we've heard – could be that shortsighted about the future. He was there, as a little boy, to hear the prophecy about Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14)! He was probably a bit older when Isaiah spoke of Hezekiah's descendant who'd be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Hezekiah would, after this point, hear the contrast between his reign and the much greater reign of a new king born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). And yet he chose to neglect the future so far as it didn't seem to affect him personally. It's Hezekiah at his worst. A great king, but a great blunder, too.

Are we like that? Or do we keep a perspective beyond the needs and concerns of the moment? How far do we care to see? Do we care beyond our days, beyond our reach? And if we do... do we pray? Brothers and sisters, our prayers are by no means ineffective! Hezekiah wasn't the only one who could pray and see things happen. So, if we're faithful, can we. Because the one Hezekiah had been hearing about all his life – Immanuel, Prince of Peace, Ruler from Bethlehem – well, that descendant of Hezekiah came and lived among us. And now we live in him, in Jesus Christ, who gives us greater access to God than we ever dreamed. But somehow, we can still be just as prone as Hezekiah was to not care much beyond what we think will personally affect us. We hold back from the needy, we don't plan for the future, we don't soak the world in prayer, even when we can.

But we're told to pray. Oh, how we're told to pray! But will we listen better than Hezekiah did, and will we trust God like Hezekiah learned to? This Advent, reflecting on the story of King Hezekiah, a story Hezekiah's descendant Jesus knew so well and learned from, I'd invite you to purify your lives like Hezekiah purified the temple. I'd invite you to invite people to God the way Hezekiah invited people to the Passover. I'd invite you to grow in faith in Jesus Christ, the living face of the God Hezekiah knew. And I'd invite you, most surely, to pray. 
This Advent, care, pray for things beyond the moment. Not just illnesses or present threats, but things too far in space and time to see. Pray for rulers in authority – presidents and leaders of every nation. Pray for the church in distant lands. Pray for the well-being of your great-great-great-great-grandkids. Pray for the return of our Immanuel to earth, bringing with him a New Jerusalem that can never be breached or conquered. Don't be led astray by the Assyrias of the moment, those pressing concerns that dominate our view. Pray, to be sure, for God can and will deal with them. But pray farther. Look centuries beyond, eternally beyond, and pray for what will in those days have now mattered most. Pray. Pray for distant, far-off things. Pray in love for what you could easily dismiss as another age's problems. Pray in faith. And trust that, in Immanuel's hands, our days – and days beyond us – are secure in him. Amen.

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