This past week (July 4-8, 2011), our Cross Trainers summer campers listened to the stories about Daniel and his life of faithfulness to God. As I thought about all the stories associated with Daniel, I was struck by the ways that his life had integrity from start to finish – he was always growing. Our texts for the morning include the introductory material from Daniel (below) and Luke 2:36-38
1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god… 21 And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus. (Daniel 1:1-2, 21, NIV)
When I say that the subject of the Bible Stories and skits this week at Cross Trainers was Daniel, what do you think of? What are some of the parts of Daniel’s story that stick out in your memory?
– kidnapped from Jerusalem and brought to serve the King
– chose a unique diet to stay pure
– interpreted the dreams for the various kings
– had some of the most confusing prophecy in the Bible!
– Was put into the lion’s den
– watched his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be cast into a furnace because they would not compromise their faith
Like Moses last week, the story of Daniel contains a lot of episodes, doesn’t it? Although this book is just a few pages long, it covers a lot of ground. And whereas when we talked about Moses, we weren’t quite sure about the dates and the timing for everything, the book of Daniel is pretty specific about chronology. Most of us don’t realize that, however, because not everyone keeps time in the same way. Oh, usually now, around the world, we have a common calendar, and so when I want to make sure you know when my birthday is, I say June 22, 1960 (if you forgot this year, it’s not too early to start planning for next year). That’s another way of saying the twenty-second day of the sixth month in the one thousand nine hundred and sixtieth year after Christ’s birth.
But I could also ask you what event happened on the eleventh day of the ninth month of the first year of George Bush’s presidency, and you would say that was the day that terrorists attacked the USA and used hijacked planes to destroy American lives and buildings.
The book of Daniel opens with a reference to a calendar event: in the third year of King Jehoiakim, King Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem. You may not have heard of either of these kings, but historians tell us that this event took place in about 605 BC. Verse 4 of chapter one tells us that Daniel was a “young man” at the time – a Hebrew word that is generally used to describe someone who is between the ages of 13 and 15. And Daniel chapter 1 ends with a note that he remained in Babylon until the first year of King Cyrus. Again, that may not mean a great deal to you, but the records indicate that to be in about 538 BC.
"Daniel's Answer to the King", Briton Riviere (1890)
Let that sink in for a moment. Daniel was taken to the palace in 605 BC to serve this foreign king when he was, say, 15 years old. And 538, when he was 82, he was still there. The dates are sprinkled throughout the book. He rose to prominence as a young man – he was probably still a teen when he interpreted the king’s dreams. Later, he watched his fellow captives be thrown into the furnace for refusing to compromise on their faith. How old do you think he was when he was put into the lion’s den? Would you believe he was in his 80’s? Daniel was prophesying and having visions well into his 80’s. Can you imagine that? Seven decades of seeking to be faithful in a place that was not his home. Nearly seventy years of trying to serve God while facing challenges that nobody in this room can even dream of.
If Daniel’s career were put into our lifetimes, it would be as if he came over to the USA and began to work with Franklin Roosevelt and served every president since then.
And that leads me to Anna, the subject of our Gospel reading for today. Luke tells us that she was 84 years old and still going to the Temple every day. What did she do in the Temple? She was fasting and praying.
Rembrandt van Rijn, "The Prophetess Anna" (1631)
I want you to get a picture of Anna in your head now. This is an ancient woman – particularly by standards of 2000 years ago. And she’s had a hard life – a widow for decades. And she goes to the Temple, not to memorialize everything beautiful that has come before her time; not to lament or weep over the past in which she was handed a raw deal. No – she is going to the Temple because she is eager to see the new thing that God is doing. When she sees the baby Jesus, we learn that “she began to praise God and speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
In other words, the people who were hoping for something that had not yet happened were listening to Anna. While a big part of her story may have been to remind people of where they had been, she also kept them looking towards where they were going. Do you see? Anna (like Simeon, just a few verses earlier), is presented by Luke as a wise elder who is looking into the future for signs of God’s presence and activity.
These people about whom we’ve read today – Daniel and Anna – are good examples of the fact that the Biblical expectation is that a faithful life is a long-haul adventure. Being alive in relationship with the Lord is a journey that takes many twists and turns and the norm is for that journey to last a lifetime.
Last week, we talked about Moses. Do you know how old he was when he saw the burning bush? About 80. And he led God’s people for at least another forty years, according to scripture. David was anointed as a young boy, but died an old man. John was called by Christ to come and follow him while he was still a teenager and died in Ephesus decades later. The Apostle Paul was raised in the Jewish faith, but came to embrace Christ and spent years and years leading people to a new appreciation for the ways that God was at work in the world.
All of these people, and others like them, remind us of the notion that a healthy spiritual life is one characterized by growth, vibrancy, and even change. There is give and take in the lives of each of these saints. For them, and countless others, a life of faith was a vocation that was lived into each and every day – their practices and beliefs were always evolving; their capacity to know and be known by God was always deepening and growing.
And all of that leads me to remembering a conversation I had with a member of this church about twenty-five years ago. Some of you will remember Margaret Irwin, who when I met her asked me to call her “Nana”. I never knew her as a young woman, but understand that she was a stickler for certain things around here. She was, may I say, a commanding presence. I was about twenty-five years old and we were just getting the idea of the Open Door off the ground. As you can imagine, there were a lot of problems and uncertainties. Some people were nervous about a new venture like this.
One afternoon I received a call that summoned – not invited, but summoned me – up to Nana’s home on Cumberland St. for a cup of tea. When I got there, she had a list of questions about the youth ministry, the Open Door, and a number of other ideas I’d been talking about. Then, this woman – who must have been at least 85 years old at the time – looked me in the eye and said, “How are the old people treating you? The old people down at the church – are they giving you any trouble?”
I didn’t quite know what to say – and so I didn’t say anything. She looked at me as if I were a complete idiot, and asked again: “Well? What are they doing? There are way too many old people at that church!”
At this point, I felt like I was in a different universe. I didn’t think I knew anyone older than Mrs. Irwin. Without even knowing what I was saying, I said, “Well, Nana, um…aren’t you…well, one of the old people at church?”
Without missing a beat, she said, “Of course I am. I am 85 (or however old she was at the time), but you and I both know that’s not what I’m talking about. There are some thirty year olds down there that are older than I’ll ever be. I’m not talking about old bodies. I’m talking about old minds. About people who have become stiff.”
Nana knew something of the biblical expectation that our faith is alive and growing. And she was right – that growth is not something that is always recognized or valued in our culture. Too often, we see life as a series of milestones that are reached – and then forgotten.
For instance, do you remember when you got your driver’s license? One day, you couldn’t drive. The next day, you could. Really? Well, as far as the Commonwealth of PA and the people at your insurance company were concerned, that’s how it happened. The reality of course, is different. You are a different – and hopefully better – driver than the day after you sat for your first photo at the DMV. But that’s not how you saw it then, is it? Nope. You could drive. Stay off my back, Dad. I have my license!
What about the people who work hard to make it through High School or college, and then never read another book? You know that there are people in our community who believe that education is something that is only for the young. When you get older, you know the answers.
But it’s not just about education or training. Think about politics. What happens if someone runs for office and happens to mention that she is all for the rights of left-handed people to wear miniskirts in public – but then her opponent comes out with an interview from ten years ago where the very same person said that she thought it was a bad idea for lefties to have anything above the knee? In politics, if you change your mind, it’s a sign of weakness. You’re waffling! You’re a flip-flopper!
Look, I’m all for consistency, but we have to realize that sometimes, we learn things along the way that allow us to change our opinions or behavior, right?
What would happen if we lived our relationships like that – expecting that they are static and unchanging? Years ago there was a television program called The Newlywed Game. Bob Eubanks, the host, would ask four young couples questions about each other, and the couple who appeared to know each other best won prizes. One week they had a special series about couples who had been married for at least fifty years, and I’ll never forget one of the questions. Eubanks asked the men, “When is the last time you told your wife you loved her?” And one of the senior members said something to the effect of “June 12, 1928 at about nine in the evening.” Eubanks expressed some incredulity at the precise memory, and the man explained, “After all the fuss of the wedding, we got ready for bed, and I sat her down and said, ‘Well, dear, you should know by now that I love you. If that ever changes, I’ll let you know.’ So far, nothin’s changed.”
It was funny television…but a sad relational lesson. In fifty years, the you that married her has changed. The she who married you is different. The relationship has grown and deepened, right? Please say yes! You’re not the same as you were on your wedding night!
If we are to be faithful disciples, we are to be growing. We are sure to be growing older…but we’ve got to make sure we’re growing in faith, too. And that brings me from Daniel, to Anna, to Nana, to you.
What questions are you asking now? Where are you growing? Where are you getting a little antsy in your faith? What do you question now that you were sure about ten years ago? What are you sure about now that you questioned ten years ago? Where are you alive and moving? Where are you stiffening? How are you growing and encouraging someone else?
Most of you, at one point or another, stood in front of the room and answered the questions of faith: Who is your Lord and Savior? Do you trust him? Do you intend to be his faithful disciple, to obey him, and to show his love?
And when you stood here, you gave the right answer. And probably, you’d give the same answers if I asked you again today. But somehow, your YOU would be different, right? Is your faith alive and growing as you age, or would you simply be parroting an answer you knew to be “correct”?
Here in Pittsburgh, we have two remarkable institutions. If you came with me to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, we could walk past a display of birds from all over the world. You could see them close-up. We could explore the different kinds of feathers, the sizes of their eggs, and the shape of their beaks. It’s easy to do at the Carnegie, because all the birds there are dead. They won’t move a bit. They are laying there on the shelf – the same shelves they’ve been on for fifty or a hundred years, slowly fading, slowly rotting.
But if you came with me to the National Aviary, you’d also see hundreds of really cool birds from all over the world. Some of them, of course, would be difficult to see. They move fast, and they don’t come that close. Sometimes they hide in the trees. It’s loud. Usually, at least one of them poops on me. But every bird we’d see at the Aviary is alive.
Crested Turaco, PIttsburgh Aviary
Here’s the deal, folks. When it comes to faith, no matter how old I get, I want to stand with Daniel, Anna, and Nana. I want to say that I hope my life and my faith always looks more like the Aviary than the Carnegie.
I know that means that there are days where it will be loud, and confusing, and messy. There’s a lot of poop that you just can’t avoid. But I know that biblical faith is alive. And alive is how God made us to be.
Will you join me in looking ahead in faith? Let me encourage you to think now about one step you can take that will help you to deepen your walk with the Lord in the year to come. A new study. A book to read. A conversation to share. Change your lives, people. Not because they’re necessarily bad now, but because if you don’t or can’t change, you might be dead. God’s church is a living and breathing entity, not a museum. Thanks be to God for faithful witnesses who help us remember that across the decades, the centuries, and the millennia. Amen.