Being Faithful and Rooted in the Exile

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually on April 26, 2020 to continue the celebration of the season of Eastertide.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation.  Our texts this week included Daniel 2:25-49, and we also heard from Paul to his friends in Rome, Romans 12:3-5

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.  Note that there is a link to the YouTube broadcast of the entire service at the end of this blog.

So at the Ash Wednesday service, the congregation prepared for the usual prayer of confession.  The preacher started off as usual, but apparently got so caught up in the moment that he stepped away from the elegant pulpit, threw himself on the chancel, and began to weep loudly.  As he did so, he cried out, “Nothing, God, nothing! Before you, I am nothing!”

The congregation was visibly moved by this show of humility, and in a moment the leader of the worship team throws herself down next to the pastor and begins to imitate him, wailing, “I’m nothing, Lord! Before you, I am nothing…”  After a moment, there’s a bit of a stir in the back when the town drunk steps into the aisle and kneels, and cries out, “O Lord, before you, I am nothing!”

While the congregation stares, the worship leader nudges the pastor and says, “Well get a load of this! Look who thinks he’s nothing!”

This morning, I’d like to talk about who we are, who we think we are, how we understand ourselves, and the notion of humility.  And as I start I’ll confess that this is a difficult message because the more I talk about humility, the less you’re convinced that I have any of it.

“Daniel Interprets the Dream of King Nebuchadnezzar”, William Brassey Hole (1846-1907)

We are continuing to read in the Book of Daniel, listening for ways in which God’s presence and truth was revealed to a people who were sent to a place they didn’t want to go, held by a power they didn’t acknowledge, and asked to define themselves in ways that they couldn’t understand.  Last week, we read about the fact that King Nebuchadnezzar had had a vision in the night and he was just about ready to slaughter every one of his advisors before young Daniel announced that, with God’s help, he knew the dream and its interpretation.  He rushed to tell the executioner, Arioch, that God had given him the answer and that the wise men’s lives could be spared.

Did you notice what happened in the reading today?  Arioch leads Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar and begins by saying, “I have found a man who can solve your problem, O King.”  Seriously? The only thing Arioch did was to not kill Daniel – but he wants the king to associate whatever success Daniel has with Arioch himself.  Not what I’d call a lesson in humility.

Then, as you heard, Daniel tells the truth.  That is, he not only reveals Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, but he interprets the dream.  It’s a long and complicated vision, and, quite frankly, not the point of this morning’s sermon.  If you’d like to talk with me about the four kingdoms and the ways in which they may or may not be representative of various historical realities, well, give me a call and maybe we’ll both have had enough of the Coronavirus boredom to make that an interesting conversation.  But the emphasis for today is this – that the king puts an apparently impossible demand in front of his lackeys and Daniel is the only one who brings him any satisfaction.  Nebuchadnezzar accepts Daniel’s explanations and our text indicates that he worships Daniel.

When many of us gathered for our Wednesday night Bible study this past week, we talked about the word “worship”, and how it is a natural attribute of humanity.  When we “worship” someone, we usually use that word to mean a celebration of someone’s strength or other attributes, or an adoration of that person, or pointing to the power or accomplishments of the individual. I say this because when the Bible says that the king “worshiped” Daniel it is not implying that the King somehow “accepted Daniel into his heart” or began a new religion.  Rather, it’s a way of saying that the king acknowledged that Daniel was a great guy who told the truth.

The king goes on to acclaim Daniel’s God, YHWH, as the God of gods and the Lord of kings, and he promotes Daniel to be, essentially, vice-king.  He also elevates Daniel’s other companions to offices of respect and power.  I assume you got that from the reading today, right?

Question: did any of that sound vaguely familiar?  Look at the arc of the story: a young man is taken away from his home and his family and sent to the capital of the Empire.  While there he is imprisoned, threatened with harm, and attempts are made to convert him to the Empire’s way of thinking and style of life.  The king, however, experiences a disquieting dream and, against all odds, the young captive from Israel is brought in to interpret the dream.  The grateful king celebrates the wisdom of this outsider and elevates him to a position of great rank and authority in the Empire, recognizing his wisdom and the superiority of his God.  Have you seen this movie before?

Of course you have!  Isn’t that the story of Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt but rising as the vice-chancellor to save the people?  This type of an account, which might be called a “court story”, is central to the Old Testament narrative.  In fact, we’ll see it again next week as we walk into the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Why are these stories important in the Bible?  I’d suggest that there are at least three things that the court stories do.

First, they serve to remind everyone – the people of God, mostly, but the whole human family in general – that God is sovereign.  That is, they affirm the truth that the great I AM is the one true God.

Secondly, it would follow from this that those who learn from YHWH and who are faithful to YHWH have access to a wisdom that is superior to wisdom that comes from other sources.

And thirdly, these court stories are told and re-told to remind those who follow and serve YHWH that they can be encouraged and even hopeful in the midst of situations that might be otherwise untenable.  As Andrew Lloyd Webber put it in his musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,

Close every door to me,
Keep those I love from me
Children of Israel
Are never alone
For we know we shall find
Our own peace of mind
For we have been promised
A land of our own

These court stories inform the collective memory of the people of God in such a way that nurtures and sustains hope, especially when things look dire.

All right, so if that’s what we’re looking at when we consider this story from Daniel – a “court story” that reminds us of what is true even when our own immediate experience might suggest something else – then what are to do with it?  In what ways can we apply Daniel’s experience to our own?

Well, how does our brother Daniel behave when he finds himself facing a traumatic event in his own life?  As we’ve noted, Daniel is uprooted from his normal routine, taken away from his regular school or work, given a new diet, forced to learn a new language, expected to participate in a reality that is not of his choosing…  How does he respond?

One key aspect of Daniel’s personality that shines through here is his remarkable humility.  You heard it a moment ago – several times when the king is seeking to praise him, Daniel deflects and says, essentially, “Look, it’s not me or any other human; it’s YHWH.”  You could argue, correctly, I’d say, that Daniel does not get into a deep kind of self-abasement or lowering; he does accept the king’s gratitude for the role that he played.  Humility is like that, isn’t it?  As Paul says, it’s a proper assessment of who we are. We take an honest look at who we are and we think about how the gifts we’ve been given equip us to participate in what God is doing.

Frederick Buechner writes about humility, saying

Humility is often confused with the gentlemanly self-deprecation of saying you’re not much of a [card] player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship.  If you really aren’t much of a [card] player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly.  This kind of humility is a form of low comedy.  True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else.  It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.[1]

A few weeks ago I suggested that we could learn something from Daniel when it comes to living in the age of Coronavirus.  What would it look like for us to practice humility during these times of social distancing and virtual community?  Well, I can think of at least three things.

I don’t know what your screen time has been like, but 76% of us are reporting an increase in smartphone and tablet use during the lockdown.  47% of these folks say that their use of social media has increased significantly.[2]  Do you know what that means?  It means that you’re more likely to come into contact with fools.  It’s not a mystery, and it’s not a shocker.  The internet is full of idiots, half-baked ideas, and misinformation.  One aspect of humility is having the strength to avoid arguments with fools.

Look at what Daniel did.  He was surrounded by people who mocked him for his belief, who belittled him for his diet, or who couldn’t pronounce his name.  His continued faithfulness was not demonstrated by trying to prove to these guys that what he knew was superior to what they knew; instead, he went about his business and focused on being the person that God was calling him to be.  In fact, as we saw last week, not only did he refuse to get sucked into anything with the idiots around him, he actually saved their lives!

Another way in which we can see Daniel demonstrating humility is his refusal to compare himself with those around him. Again, last week we saw him drawing near to his colleagues, inviting them to pray with him and to seek the power and presence of YHWH.  You don’t hear Daniel pointing out how either Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego have it somehow better than he, or how his suffering is more or less than the others.  He recognizes that they are in this together.

One of the temptations in our current reality is for those of us in some areas of the nation or world where the effects of the virus are not as pronounced is to look at other people and say, “Suck it up, buttercup!  It’s not that bad.  Quit being such a baby!”  And yet when we do that, we diminish the real pain and suffering in those communities where death has been a too-frequent visitor and the danger of infection is a matter of critical importance.

And finally, one of the most significant lessons we will learn and re-learn from our brother Daniel is that God, not we ourselves, assigns our identity.  Imagine this: that Daniel went into the bedchamber of the most powerful man in the universe and said, “Look, your majesty, you’re pretty big – I’ll give you that… but even you live in a universe that is governed by the God that I worship; that God is the one who raised you up and that God is the one who knows when you’ll fall.”  Daniel consistently points to a God who is sovereign over human history.

And if there is anything that sounds un-American in the Bible, well, that is it.  We are raised to think of ourselves as self-determining.  All around us these days are people who are proclaiming, in the name of something called “liberty”, that they, and they alone, will determine if they’ll go to the Target, if they’ll wear a mask, if they’ll respect social distancing… because, well, freedom.  “Nobody tells me what to do,” we say.

Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas were college professors when their book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony was published.  They write,

Our culture has perverted “liberation” to mean freedom from the demands of others in order to be free to follow the demands of the self… Why do you think that we’re all here at the university?  To get liberated!  To stand alone, on our own two feet, autonomous, liberated!  And when we finish…here at the university… you will not need mother, father, husband, wife, children, God, anybody.  We call it “education.”
…It’s tough out there.  Paganism is the air we breathe, the water we drink… Paganism defined as the worship of false gods who promise us results.  [As a person of faith], You better not go out there alone, without comrades in arms… So we must gather on a regular basis, for worship.  To speak about God in a world that lives as if there is no God.  We must speak to one another as beloved brothers and sisters in a world which encourages us to live as strangers.  We must pray to God to give us what we cannot have by our own efforts in a world that teaches us that we are self-sufficient and all-powerful.  In such a world, what we do here on Sunday morning becomes a matter of life and death.[3]

Beloved, know this: that if there is one thing of which this lockdown has reminded us, it is that we are no more self-sufficient or all-powerful than was Nebuchadnezzar.  We, no less than Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are interconnected, interdependent, and belong to each other.

We need each other.  We have the ability, in some cases literally right now, to save each other’s lives.  We have the ability to crush each other’s spirits.  How will we treat that portion of the creation with which we’ve been drawn close?  How will we treat those around us?  May we have the grace and wisdom to learn humility from our brothers Daniel and Paul and live with it onscreen and in real life, to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.  Thanks be to God, who rules and reigns forever.  Amen.

Here is the YouTube recording of the entire worship service:

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper San Francisco, 1973) p. 40.

[2] https://thenextweb.com/growth-quarters/2020/04/24/report-most-important-data-on-digital-audiences-during-coronavirus/

[3] Resident Aliens, p. 153-154.

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