The Thirty-Ninth Day of 2023

Gentle Reader,

Another throwback for you today. I guess I find myself reflective as I move toward the seminary finish line. What you read below is a sermon preached on September 13, 2020. I’m amused by how long it is and how it reads an article or essay. But that’s okay. You only get better at something the more you do it, and that’s certainly true with me and preaching.

I pray you are blessed with a unique sense of God’s love for you today.

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Jesus is altogether different.

Jesus’ way of being, doing, living, thinking, and loving is totally, completely, radically different from the way that any of us are naturally wired.

In their book Participating in God’s Mission, Craig van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile write:

“An operational individualism still lives deeply within American culture and continues to inform much of American church life, including its mission practices. In contrast, the common worldview of many cultures of the majority church in the global South is shaped around understanding of community and identity that would rephrase Descartes’ [famous] maxim [of ‘I think, therefore I am’] to: ‘We are, therefore I am.’”

– p. 27

How does that quote hit you? 

Do you see yourself solely as a “you,” or also as “we?” Is it “me,” or is it “community?” 

Keep that question in the front of your mind.

We’re taking it back to the Old Testament today, so the first thing I want to do is make it clear that we, the people of God right now, are not the same as or replacing the people of God as narrated throughout the Old Testament. We live on one side of the cross, where national and political identities are not markers of belonging to God. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ transcends those boundaries, creating a holy collection of glorious misfits all around the globe. The people we read about today lived on the other side of the cross, at a time when God chose to work through and within those national and political identities. (Additionally, I do not believe that God has abandoned God’s original covenant people). We must be wary of unconsciously assuming that our circumstances are directly parallel to those of the ancient people of God. We cannot just insert ourselves and our context into their narrative. Our world is not their world. Our country is not equivalent to their country.

This does not mean, however, that we can’t learn and draw principles from the poems, prayers, songs, and stories scrawled across the pages.

In the book of Daniel we find one of those prayers, the first half of which we’ll be looking at today. These are the words of a priest and prophet living far from home. The words of a man whose life did not follow the trajectory common for his class or culture. The words of a servant, who chose, more than once, to surrender his life to God. Daniel teaches us to face what is, and to reach for what could be.

Then I turned to the Lord God to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying,

“Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.

“Righteousness is on your side, O Lord, but open shame, as at this day, falls on us, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them because of the treachery that they have committed against you. Open shame, O Lord, falls on us, our kings, our princes, and our ancestors because we have sinned against you. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, but we have rebelled against him and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.”

– Daniel 9:3-10 (NRSV)

In order to understand the contents of this prayer, we need to go look back at the first two verses of the book.

In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord gave King Jehoiakim of Judah into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and he placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods. 

– Daniel 1:1-2 (NRSV)

We have to ask: Why would God let God’s people suffer at the hands of an invading army? Deuteronomy 28:15-68 lists the specific consequences that will flow out of God’s people choosing a path that takes them away from God. If they decide to start worshipping other gods and begin behaving like the nations around them – oppressing the poor, engaging in unjust economic practices, leaving the widow and the orphan to fend for themselves – then God will remove God’s hand of protection from them, and allow them to experience what those same nations experience in ongoing warfare with each other: deportation, exile, enslavement, and even death.

God chose Israel as God’s people, not because they were so wonderful, but because God wanted to. God never planned to leave the world to its own devices. God’s intention is always to renew and restore. Israel is meant to be an example for others of how good and right it is to be in relationship with God. They are supposed to be different. Set apart. And they are to be this way in order that others may come to know and serve God.

The descent into this destruction that opens the book of Daniel begins with the cycles of increasing violence threaded throughout the narrative of the book of Judges. Again, God does not leave them to do as they please, happy to watch them walk away. Whenever they call out to God in repentance, God sends them a deliverer. And when they don’t have the sense to call out to God in repentance, God sends them prophets. The main function of a prophet was to call the people back into relationship with God. Some of these prophets write these messages down, in the Old Testament books that bear their names. Over and over again God invites God’s people back into the rhythm of loving obedience, a space of safety and healing, where they can flourish as the people God created them to be.

While some respond positively, the group as a whole chooses to reject God’s gracious invitation.

The raid on Jerusalem that sweeps Daniel away from his home occurs in (roughly) 605 BCE, and the city falls to its Babylonian invaders in 586 BCE. This means that Daniel, taken to Babylon during the first wave of deportations, lives in exile for nearly twenty years before the final destruction of his homeland. Twenty years living in the space between hope and resignation. Hope – perhaps something will change. Maybe God won’t have to carry out this discipline of God’s people, and maybe he will be able to go home. Resignation – nothing changes. The books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, as well as the closing chapters of 2Kings, tell the story. Jerusalem falls. The Temple is ruined. Families are separated from each other forever. 

Taken from his home and family, thrust into the space between hope and resignation, where all is painful and unfamiliar, Daniel doesn’t run. Daniel doesn’t hide. Daniel doesn’t write long paragraphs demanding his rights be acknowledged. He finds a way to go on and makes a life for himself. He and his friends decide to devote themselves to living as faithful God-followers in the midst of this foreign context. The book does not explicitly state this, but it is evident the decision is made before they refuse to eat foods sacrificed to idols and refuse to worship the ridiculously obnoxious statue the king builds for himself. Daniel faces what is, and, by the grace and wisdom of God, charts a course through the chaos, always reaching for the something better that God has to offer, the better that comes only through an open, humble relationship with God.

This prayer, recorded and preserved for us, comes near the end of Daniel’s life. Daniel is paying attention. He sees what’s happening around him. Beyond that, he is paying attention to the words of of the prophet Jeremiah. He believes the end of the exile is close. He believes, though his age will probably keep him from being among their numbers, that his people are soon going home.

And so he prays.

That, right there, is the first and probably most important lesson we can take from this passage. During times of change and turmoil, whether the change is something we long for or not, what are we most prone to do? I think if we’re honest, most of us don’t immediately drop to our knees and cry out to God. Scrolling through social media or tuning into rapid-fire cable news channels tends to be our preference. Now, of course, we do pray. Eventually. But at least for me, that option often comes to the forefront of my mind after I’ve already worked myself into an emotional frenzy via the consumption of sound bites. And granted, maybe Daniel struggled with this, too. We don’t have his whole story. But honestly, I think he’d been in relationship with God for long enough, and had seen enough of what happens when people don’t seek God first, that he knew better.

And that’s the second lesson for us, coming in the form of a question: When will we know better?

Let me tell you, God hit me across the face with that one. I’m not going to stand up here and pretend that we aren’t living through a pandemic and a contentious election season. We all know it. But what will we do with that knowledge? Will we keep beating each other up? Will we keep erecting boundaries between “us” and “them,” even when the “them” is found among the “us?” Will we keep insisting that adherence to temporal ideologies, ideologies that are often contrary to God’s ethics as outlined in Scripture, are somehow a sign that a person belongs to God? Will we continue to allow the discomfort of confronting sin, both personal and corporate, to keep us from the bittersweet pain of repentance that allows us to move forward in holiness? Will we persist in looking down on those who are different from us, in subtle but present self-righteousness? Will we cling to our own ways of doing and being, rather than asking God to show us the better way, and empower us to follow that way?

Again, I point no fingers at you. I read Daniel’s prayer, and I am prompted to face what is – the what is of the community around me, and the what is of the struggles within me. And as I do so, I see that what has been, cannot continue to be what is.

This is what Daniel’s prayer invites us to do: to face what is, to own our part in it, and to reorient. He doesn’t approach God from a position of celebration or triumph, which, if we think about it, would seem to be the logical way to go. The exile is about to end! They’re about to go home! Instead, Daniel comes to God from a position of mourning. He fasts. He wears clothes that tear at his skin. He sits in ashes, and occasionally throws some into the air, the dust covering his head.

He says: We have sinned.

We have rebelled.

We have turned away.

Daniel confesses. Perched on the cusp of return and renewal, he remembers what has been. He doesn’t make excuses or attempt justifications. He agrees with God. He responds to the awareness and conviction of God that God lovingly stirs up within us when we have gone astray. Daniel models for us an important part of the repentance process: confessing exactly, even bluntly, what we have done.

That’s the third lesson to take from this prayer: We. Daniel was probably a young teenager when he was taken to Babylon. It’s unlikely that he even had a chance to participate in any of the things that his people were doing that led them to the place of destruction and exile. Yet he doesn’t separate himself from them. He doesn’t see himself as standing apart from his people. While he doesn’t take on a sense of personal responsibility for atoning for things that others have done, he understands that his identity is more than simply that of the individual. He belongs to the community, and the community belongs to him. 

Is that how we see ourselves? 

Once more, God has been hitting me hard with every question I pose here today. I don’t always like being part of a community. I don’t like having to acknowledge that there are people out there who do and say things that I vehemently disagree with, yet are still people that belong to me, and I belong to them, because of our shared confession of faith. Just like everyone else, I find myself tempted to think that it’s “Jesus, and…” that indicates a person belonging to the family of God. Jesus and thinking and doing exactly as I think and do. Because I’m the arbiter of morality and the smartest in the room, of course. 

And there’s the momentary “ouch,” beauty, and freedom found in “we” kinds of prayers: “We” prayers arise from a correct view of the self and the self’s propensity to arrogance and a compassionate view of others. I’m not better than you, and you’re not better than me. When we remember that we are we, and not just me, or you, and that’s how God intends it to be, we are forced to remove the “I’m so awesome” blinders from our eyes and realize that we probably irritate that person just as much as that person irritates us, and that we probably don’t have it any more “together” than they do. In that realization, we get to choose, again and again, the Jesus-kind of radical love that empowers us to keep choosing each other instead of drawing battle lines.

My friends, we have to choose this love. We have to do the work of tearing down the walls between us. I’m not talking about the healthy emotional, mental, and physical boundaries that we all need to establish for ourselves. No, I’m talking about us getting down off of our high horses. About us finally living out the fact that our Savior said that the world would know we belong to God by the love we have for each other – not by who we vote for, not by how quick we are to go to war with each other over differences of opinion, not by our willfully turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cry of the oppressed, not by how we sweat and strive to achieve the “American Dream,” not by the hours of Tucker Carlson we consume.

By our love.

I think that love sometimes begins from a place of sorrow. It starts to transform our hearts when we say, like Daniel: we haven’t listened. Haven’t listened to God. Haven’t listened to each other. And let’s just admit that this is very difficult for us to do. We don’t want to face what is, both within our communities of faith and the wider community around us, and within ourselves, because we’re then forced to reckon with extreme pain, alienation, injustice, loneliness, and oppression – and sometimes we’re the cause of those things for others. We don’t want to own our part in erecting walls and maintaining systems that cause others to suffer. We don’t like to think that we aren’t special because of where we were born. Of course we don’t. It’s hard. It hurts. Humility is not an easy state to achieve.

But what if this is our moment? What if this is our time to sit in the ashes, together, and find the strange freedom that comes through hot, honest tears? Through tightly grasping the hand of someone we’ve fantasied punching? What if God meets us there?

God will meet us there. Remember that. Let’s turn our attention back to verse nine: “To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness.” Daniel’s people get to go home not because they are amazing, but because God is. Just as God chose them as God’s people in order that the whole world would come to know God, so, too, does God end their exile so that the whole world will come to know God. God is faithful both to allow them to experience the consequences resulting in their refusal to obey God, and to forgive them for that refusal. 

Just as God is faithful with us.

But we must understand the times we are in. We must seek that forgiveness. And it must be we. There is no more room for individualism. For competition. For not listening to the voices of those who have been hurt. For not owning and repenting of our greed, our spite, our arrogance.

As Daniel Hill writes in his book White Awake, there is no more room, time, or excuse for an:

“American Christianity…[that] has…lost sight of a holistic understanding of the gospel. [A Christianity that emphasizes] proclamation of the good news [but is disconnected from] demonstration of that good news. [A Christianity that emphasizes] loving God as expressed in the Great Commandment [but is disconnected from] loving neighbor. [A Christianity that emphasizes] being reconciled to God through Christ [but is disconnected from] being sent into the world by Christ as ambassadors of reconciliation.”

– p. 92

The disconnections must end, and we are the ones who must end them.

I hope you’ve heard me clearly throughout this message. I’m not better than you. I don’t have it all figured out. I’m not advocating for a demolition of absolutely everything we’ve ever known and done. I’m not pushing any political position. What I am saying is that I believe God is drawing us into a place of confession, repentance, and renewal of community. Daniel knew that his people could not return to Jerusalem and just pick up where they left off. They had to let go of all the habits and routines that drew them away from God. So must we.

Can you imagine what it might be like for us to not only learn how to agree to disagree, but to actually love each other in and through disagreement? To begin embracing the “other,” and maybe even going so far as to refuse to classify anyone as “other” in the first place? To really and truly take the radical message of the Gospel seriously, knowing that the ground at the foot of the cross is level, and all are equal? What if we stopped swinging fists and slinging words? What if we choose to listen, to God and to each other? What if we choose to believe that all truly belong at God’s table? What if we sit, with Daniel, in complete honesty, facing what is, letting it go, and reaching for what could be, by the power and grace of God?

GRACE AND PEACE ALONG THE WAY,
MARIE

Image Courtesy of Shane Rounce

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