[Note: These are the prepared notes for an offertory sermonette given to the United Church of God congregation in Portland, Oregon on the First Day of Unleavened Bread, April 6, 2023.]
Good afternoon brethren. I hope you all had a wonderful Night To Be Much Observed last night and that you are well rested today as we begin the Days of Unleavened Bread. One of the patterns that we can read in the Bible when we look at what is written in the books of 2 Chronicles and Ezra, most conspicuously, is that during times of religious revival in ancient Israel, the Bible emphasizes the worship practices during the Holy Days. Frequently, though not always, special attention is paid by the writers of these books to the ways that the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread were of key importance in showing the heart of the people of Israel and Judah as well as the priests and Levites and godly leaders during these times of religious revival in repenting of their wayward behavior and turning again to obedience to God, at least for a time.
We do not have the time today in this short message to cover this complete pattern in detail, but I would like to focus on lessons that we can learn about one such example of a time when Israel and Judah, at least temporarily, turned to God on the Days of Unleavened Bread. We find one such example of the repentance of Israel and Judah in 2 Chronicles 30, which records the memorable keeping of the Days of Unleavened Bread during the second month of the year during the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah, in time shortly after the conquest of Israel by Assyria. The reign of Hezekiah is, not surprisingly, one of the times of religious revival that took place during the Hebrew scriptures, and we can learn a great deal about how it is that God works during these times by examining what this passage has to say about how it is that brethren observed the Days of Unleavened Bread recorded here.
Let us begin our examination of this chapter in 2 Chronicles 30:1-12. 2 Chronicles 30:1-12 reads: “And Hezekiah sent to all Israel and Judah, and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, to keep the Passover to the Lord God of Israel. For the king and his leaders and all the assembly in Jerusalem had agreed to keep the Passover in the second month. For they could not keep it at the regular time, because a sufficient number of priests had not consecrated themselves, nor had the people gathered together at Jerusalem. And the matter pleased the king and all the assembly. So they resolved to make a proclamation throughout all Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, that they should come to keep the Passover to the Lord God of Israel at Jerusalem, since they had not done it for a long time in the prescribed manner. Then the runners went throughout all Israel and Judah with the letters from the king and his leaders, and spoke according to the command of the king: “Children of Israel, return to the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel; then He will return to the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria. And do not be like your fathers and your brethren, who trespassed against the Lord God of their fathers, so that He gave them up to desolation, as you see. Now do not be stiff-necked, as your fathers were, but yield yourselves to the Lord; and enter His sanctuary, which He has sanctified forever, and serve the Lord your God, that the fierceness of His wrath may turn away from you. For if you return to the Lord, your brethren and your children will be treated with compassion by those who lead them captive, so that they may come back to this land; for the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn His face from you if you return to Him.” So the runners passed from city to city through the country of Ephraim and Manasseh, as far as Zebulun; but they laughed at them and mocked them. Nevertheless some from Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem. Also the hand of God was on Judah to give them singleness of heart to obey the command of the king and the leaders, at the word of the Lord.”
There is a lot going on in this passage and in this chapter as a whole, far too much for us to go into detail about during the short time we have to examine this chapter today. Let us note, though, that this particular Passover was a second Passover. Rather than keeping the Days of Unleavened Bread in the prescribed manner, it was kept a month late. Two reasons for this are given. The first reason given is that not enough priests had consecrated themselves to lead the people in worship. The second reason given is that the people had not gathered together at Jerusalem. Both of these reasons are important. For there to be a religious revival, there must be a turning of the hearts of the people towards God, a turning that, as we read here, is provided by the hand of God giving the people singleness of heart to obey the command of the king and leaders, and this is the part of the revival that is the most obvious to us as outside observers. Many of us here have witnessed periods of religious revival where we attended church with many hundreds of people, and attended Holy Day services with thousands of believers in a group of local congregations, and we are all witnesses of times of backsliding where one may be fortunate to have dozens of people gathered together.
It is important to note, though, that it is not a large group of people assembled to worship God that is necessary for a revival to happen. What is necessary first, and that was lacking in ancient Israel and Judah at the time of Hezekiah until we read here is that, is that there need to be godly leaders who themselves have been well-prepared to lead the people in godly worship through their teaching and through their example. Without the hearts of the king, the leaders of the nation, and the priests and Levites being turned to God, they would not issue the commands to the people that would lead them in godly worship. When people are led by ungodly leaders, the commands of those leaders are predictably ungodly, and must be resisted and rejected by those who seek to turn to God. For there to be a revival, we first need there to be godly people whose hearts are aligned with God who can call the people to worship and provide instruction by both word and deed, and only then can God work through the commands of those repentant and godly leaders to bring a larger group of people to worship as He has commanded.
Let us also note briefly that the group of people who are worshipping here have witnessed God’s judgment and one of the factors that prompted their turning to God was a hope that God would be merciful to those who had gone into captivity and had faced the consequences of their generations of rebellion against God’s ways by being conquered by the Assyrians and taken away from their homes to a life of exile. We do not live in a time that has shared this perspective, but our reading of scripture and our reading of the temperature of the culture around us ought to inform us that we too live in a time where the expectation of God’s judgment is an entirely proper attitude to have.
Let us now continue with verses 13-22. 2 Chronicles 30:13-22 reads: “Now many people, a very great assembly, gathered at Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the second month. They arose and took away the altars that were in Jerusalem, and they took away all the incense altars and cast them into the Brook Kidron. Then they slaughtered the Passover lambs on the fourteenth day of the second month. The priests and the Levites were ashamed, and sanctified themselves, and brought the burnt offerings to the house of the Lord. They stood in their place according to their custom, according to the Law of Moses the man of God; the priests sprinkled the blood received from the hand of the Levites. For there were many in the assembly who had not sanctified themselves; therefore the Levites had charge of the slaughter of the Passover lambs for everyone who was not clean, to sanctify them to the Lord. For a multitude of the people, many from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the good Lord provide atonement for everyone who prepares his heart to seek God, the Lord God of his fathers, though he is not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary.” And the Lord listened to Hezekiah and healed the people. So the children of Israel who were present at Jerusalem kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with great gladness; and the Levites and the priests praised the Lord day by day, singing to the Lord, accompanied by loud instruments. And Hezekiah gave encouragement to all the Levites who taught the good knowledge of the Lord; and they ate throughout the feast seven days, offering peace offerings and making confession to the Lord God of their fathers.”
Let us note here that this passage is one of the most striking examples we read of God’s mercy towards those who have prepared their heart to seek God even if they have not technically followed all of the technical matters of obedience with regards to matters of ceremonial cleanliness. Especially at the beginning of a period of revival, when God has stirred the hearts of His people to repent of their backsliding ways and turn once again to obedience to God and following God’s ways, people may not always be fully ready to follow God with the level of knowledge and righteous practices that can be met when people have been following God for decades. Those who are relatively new in the faith, as we would call it, are often viewed with mercy by those who have been following God’s ways for longer, because we are all aware that it is not an easy thing to follow God and to know what to do and be able to follow God’s commandments in their entirety. What we read here is that the baby steps of someone who is first being called by our heavenly Father to follow His ways are encouraged, in the expectation that the walk of obedience will improve with time and practice.
We here are among those who have been called in training as God’s kings and priests, and have been called to follow God in these times where obedience to God’s commandments on any level is not popular or widespread. We also know that as we read in Hezekiah, so too in the future there will be times, not least in the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ, where God will again bring the hearts of a great mass of humanity who has survived His judgment–as the remnant in Israel had survived the judgment of God against their nation for its wickedness–to obedience and to proper worship. As was the case with the king and leadership in Judah and Israel as well as the priests and Levites, so too it will be our responsibility to lead the remnant in the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ in worship through our instruction and through our examples. Let us therefore prepare our hearts to seek God here and now so that God may work through us to bring others to an awareness of His ways both now and in the world to come.