Cultural Distraction

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November 27, 2011. Pastor Penny’s sermon is on the ancestry and reign of Josiah, King of Judah, and how he achieved reforms and helped his people rediscover who they were after being culturally distracted. It is the same for us. It is so easy to be distracted by our culture. This Christmas, let’s not forget our story.


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We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


See if you can follow my line of thinking. What do all of these activities require in order to do them well: play video games, play laser tag, go deer hunting, bird watching, watching for falling stars, waiting for your parents after school when there are lots of cars, or as you’re driving to work making sure that you take the right exit from the freeway to get where you’re going. What do all those things require? Skill? Patience? You’ve got to be awake. You can’t get diverted. You’ve got to be awake and you can’t get distracted.


We heard from a long passage, which our lector Carol did so well with all those names, and it was about Josiah. It was a sliver in the life of the children of Israel when they were very distracted. For maybe more than a hundred years, they went through this period of being very distracted by this immense empire of Assyria that was sliding down toward them like some poisonous river. And first it filled up the Northern kingdom, which at that time was called Israel. And it took over, it conquered them and ruined their capital, Samaria. And then it slid down into the Southern kingdom, which at that time was called Judah. But it stopped short of Jerusalem. They could not conquer Jerusalem. So it receded back and the Assyrians let Judah become a vassal state. They didn’t really conquer them, but they had to pay money.


The strange thing is the king of Judah, a Jewish man, Ahaz, chose not only to be a political vassal, but to be a cultural and religious vassal of Assyria as well. He started taking on the manners and the language of Assyria as well as their gods. And many people did. He built altars to the gods of Assyria. Now when Ahaz died, Hezekiah his son ruled Judah and he had a small reform. He reformed his father’s ways and he wiped out the altars. But when he died, his son Manasseh was remembered as the most wicked king of Judah, because he fully embraced the culture and the values of Assyria. He had altars to their gods all over the land and even in the house of God in the temple in Jerusalem. He encouraged temple prostitutes, and most horrible of all he sacrificed his own son to the god of Moloch. When Manasseh died, another son ruled for two years and was killed. And then the powers that ruled put his son in place. His little eight-year-old son became the king of Judah, and that boy’s name was Josiah. And he was able to achieve reforms that none of his ancestors had. When he came into power he got rid of all the altars.


But the most important thing was later on in his kingship. He sent people in to repair the temple and they discovered a book — the “Book of the Law” it’s called — and experts have tried to figure out what that book was. And what they determined is that it was a big part of the book we have of Deuteronomy, the book of the law. Most likely it was the part that described how 500 years earlier, their ancestors had made a covenant with God. Moses had led them to make a covenant with God. God offered it first. God said, “I will be your God. I will protect you. I will bless you. I will make you the light of the world. Just live like my people.” And they said yes. Well, of course they didn’t all live that way. And certainly they weren’t living that way in this distracted time. But Josiah had called them back to be the people they were intended to be. You see, they had forgotten their story — the story of being freed from Egypt, the story of being led to the promised land. They forgot their story and who they were. They had become distracted, by a culture that didn’t share those values and didn’t know them.


Well, I think we live in a time with far more distractions than they lived in. I think we’re full of distractions, and it only gets worse before Christmas. There are so many things on our to-do lists — so many responsibilities, so many pressures — that it’s very easy for us to get distracted by our culture and to let our culture determine who we are and what we think about ourselves. You know, we are people of God who can look in the mirror every morning and say, “That person I’m looking at is a treasure to God. That person is valuable.” But our culture doesn’t always let us do that, because we have this huge list of things we’re supposed to be doing. You know, as people of God we should be able to look at our faults and our failures honestly, without excuses, to be willing to admit when we have said words in anger, to be willing to admit when we’ve dropped the ball and let people down, because we know that God still loves us, that God forgives us, and that God’s judgment on us is the only judgment that matters. Everything else is distraction. And when we are free not to worry about our image, not to worry about how we’re doing, not to worry about what we look like in the eyes of others, then we are free to see what’s happening around us, to sense the people that need our help, and we’re free to help them.


Last week Keith and I were at a workshop and we heard about a man (they changed his name, they called him Jerry) who worked for Merrill Lynch in New York City, and he was a manager. He has was highly appreciated and well-respected. But one day, upper management gave him quite a task. They said, “Take this group that you’ve been shepherding, that you’ve been managing. We want half of them to go across the river to Jersey City and be headquartered there, and the rest to stay here in New York City.” So Jerry thought well, that’s fine. It’s better for Merrill Lynch apparently. And it was going to be fine for those people that were going to go to Jersey City, because most of them lived across the river. So it would be a far shorter commute.


But they weren’t situated very long across the river before he began to hear complaints. “This building you have us in is sick. We’re all getting respiratory illnesses.” Well Jerry, being a problem solver, gets the engineers in there and investigates, and they said, “We can’t find anything wrong with this building.” Well after a little while there was another complaint from the group across the river. They said, “Parking is a problem here.” So, Jerry meets with the building manager and they work it out so that parking isn’t a problem. After a little while, Jerry gets a complaint. But it’s not from the group across the river. It’s from his boss. He said, “Jerry I need to see you.” And when he sat down in the office he said, “Jerry you’ve always been such a good manager. But what’s happened? This group over there across the river, they are unfocused and they’re not pulling their weight. They’re so unproductive. Now, I’m sending you to an executive coach and that will help you.”


So Jerry went reluctantly to the executive coach, sat down, and told him everything that had happened. And the executive coach could see that Jerry was demoralized. He was feeling bad about himself. He was feeling like a failure. He he was guilt-ridden. And so the coach did one thing. He said, “Jerry, tell me about everything that happened before this. Tell me how you got to be a manager at Merrill Lynch. Tell me what your accomplishments were that got you this job.” And then Jerry began to tell him, and it was a wonderful record of achievement. When Jerry left the coach’s office, he felt a lot better. And it wasn’t long before a light bulb came on in his mind and he understood the group across the river. He said, “You realize that the group across the river wasn’t upset because of the building or because of the parking. They were upset because they felt cut off, they felt exiled, they felt ignored, unappreciated.” So then it was an easy thing to fix. He simply divided his time between New York City and Jersey City. He had two offices. And when they had staff meetings, they alternated locations between the two. And he even orchestrated a party for those across the river river: “Welcome to Jersey City” party. Freed from his guilt and his distraction of worrying about his own ego, his own abilities, he was able to see the needs of others and to help them.


It is that way for us, and that’s what Jesus is telling us. It is so easy to be distracted by our culture, to let them name us, to let them guide us, to forget our own story, and therefore to forget who we are, the story of God’s love, an amazing love — starting at Bethlehem and ending on the cross, and then ending again as he rose from the dead. So this Christmas let’s not forget our story. Let’s be reminded of its glory, and therefore reminded of who we are. Let’s get out those Advent wreaths. And some of us just made some this morning. Let’s light a candle. Let’s find that Bible. And whether you’re alone or with a family, open it up, read it, pray. And let this Advent be a time when we are not focused on the distractions of our culture, but focused instead on the important story. Our story. The story that tells us who we are.




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2011, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, 2 Chronicles