With other communities here in Western Pennsylvania, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are experiencing the “next stage” of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve entered the “Yellow Phase” of our struggle with this virus. 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 on May 17 included Daniel 4:18-37 and Acts 17:24-28.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player immediately below. There is a link to the YouTube recording of the entire worship service posted at the end of this blog entry.
Imagine that you are hosting a few guests from another country. Let’s say that you are looking for opportunities for your friends to experience your culture, and so during their stay, you immerse them in all manner of places and events. And let’s say that you’ve been invited to a wedding, but at the last minute you can’t go. Because you really want them to have the experience, you send them anyway. When they gets home, they’re very impressed, but have a few questions.
Your friends ask you about the part where the announcer called all the people in the room to form a circle, and then how everyone began acting very strangely. Your guests say that people began to wave various body parts at each other. You think and you think and you think and finally it hits you. They were watching the crowd during “the Hokey-Pokey”. It wasn’t a random waving of body parts, but rather a choreographed sequence of motions: “You put your left hand in, you take your left hand out, you put your left hand in and you shake it all about…”
In this case, you can tell your friends that there is really nothing unusual here – it’s just a dance. Now it would be unusual, you think, if you went to a wedding and there in the middle of the vows someone jumped up and started doing the Hokey-Pokey, or if off in the corner there was an odd person doing it alone. But in our normal context of weddings and dancing, there is nothing odd about it because, in spite of the song’s claim, the Hokey Pokey is not really what it’s all about.
You may be asking yourself what all this has to do with the Bible and our current exploration of the life of exile. Well, the answer is simple: Daniel 4, and indeed all of Daniel, answers the basic question, “What is the reality of history?” Do we experience our lives, do families and cultures and nations come and go by chance? Or are we in some sort of a dance? Is our world shaped by random, and therefore meaningless events, or are we participants in a choreography that has a final conclusion and promised end?
This is precisely the presenting issue here in Daniel 4. Who calls the shots? Who is in control?
A reminder that last week we heard Daniel 3, which began with king Nebuchadnezzar punishing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for worshipping YHWH – because the king said that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not, in fact, a real god. And Daniel 3 ends with Nebuchadnezzar praising these three young men, and saying that they have in fact shown him that YHWH is a god – or at least, one of the gods. Here in Daniel 4, we see Nebuchadnezzar take the next step: the chapter ends with the pagan king saying that at the end of the day, he has come to realize that YHWH is not just a god, but THE God, the Most High God. How did he learn that? Through a means we’ve seen already in this story – the interpretation and fulfillment of a dream.
You have heard the dream. Like much of the book of Daniel, it’s repeated in a couple of different ways so that the hearers can soak it in. This is a long chapter, and I’ll encourage you to read it all. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is a prediction of the king’s punishment with insanity and loss of reason, leading to his humiliation and eventual restoration.
Let me invite you to look at the reading, and in your own bibles go ahead and circle verses 17, 25, and 32. Here we see the refrain of this story chorused again and again: “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings.” Time and time again,Nebuchadnezzar (and we) hears this profound theological statement – a statement that reminds this great king that he is not who he thinks he is – he is not the most powerful, the most wise, the most authoritative person in this story — God is.
Daniel gets that theme. Daniel understands! And in verse 27, Daniel pleads with the king to change his behavior, to adjust his life, so that he will not receive the punishment of which he’s dreamed. Daniel says, “Look, King, it’s not too late. Start over. Maybe you can make this punishment only a bad dream…”
It’s interesting to note that Daniel has not only a bit of counsel for the king, but he has a strategy. God wants the king to know who is deserving of glory and praise – only God. And this message from Daniel to the king seems to indicate that the correct response for those who know that God is in control is to act with righteousness and to show mercy to the oppressed. There is something about recognizing God’s position in the world that ought to compel us to treat others rightly. When we recognize that we are not almighty, we have the opportunity and responsibility to treat others with mercy and humility.
But, of course, the King doesn’t get it. Take a look at verse 30. A year later, he’s walking through the palace and it hits him — he’s done all right for himself. “Look at my palace, my city! I made it myself. It’s great – and it displays my honor and my glory! I’m all right!” And before the echo from the marble pillars and golden statues dies down, Nebuchadnezzar receives the fulfillment of his dream. He is punished in one of the worst ways imaginable – he is driven from human society and away from reality. The mighty, powerful king finds himself eating grass; his hair is as long as an eagle’s feather and his fingernails are like talons. I mean, you thought the “stay at home order” has been tough, but…
And some time later, God relents and Nebuchadnezzar is restored. He blessed God and moves, as we have said, from being obsessed with his own power and glory to extolling the one true God. And the end of the chapter describes Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance and the ways that he yields to God’s greatness and power.
Friends, the book of Daniel calls the question: Who is in control? Who calls the shots? Only God. God is, in the words of our reading from Acts, the one in whom we live and move and have our being. The prime mover. The unmade maker. The Ground of all being. There are lots of ways to describe this truth – but it is foundational to our understanding of life, and it is profoundly Good News for Hebrew exiles. The proud Empire that conquered Jerusalem is not really in control.
A theological way to talk about this idea is called the doctrine of “Providence”. That is to say, human history and existence has a meaning and a purpose. We are not simply here on a roll of the die or a spin of the wheel, but rather we believe that somehow God, who sits outside of human history, is ordering that history towards a particular end. Another theological expression that might be applicable here is the one that we call “Election” or “Predestination”. Over the years, Presbyterians have taken a bad rap on this one, because people have said that the idea of predestination means that God, before the foundation of the world, decided that you, me, and your mother in law would inherit life forever no matter what, and that your sister, my brother, and my mother in law would go straight to hell, no matter what.
While I resist these individualistic understandings of belief systems anchored in the idea that God, not me, is sovereign, I like what Karl Barth has to say: that the doctrine of election or predestination is more binding on God than it is on humanity. That is to say that before the invention of time and before the beginning of the world, God elected to bind God’s self to humanity through Jesus of Nazareth so that humans might receive life. Barth points out that when folks talk about election and predestination, it’s almost always about individual people being sent to heaven or hell – but that the act of reconciliation that Jesus accomplished was to bring the children of God to the throne of grace. God is in charge, moving through history so that everyone – kings and peasants – will know that fellowship with God is the purpose of life.
Friends, the notion of God’s providence and sovereignty over the creation can be seen as either a threat or a promise. For those who are unable to see themselves, their plans and desires, and their authority as anything less than central, well, this notion causes difficulty. And so I would suggest that the first word that we can hear in this text for today is one of caution.
As we find ourselves in the first “yellow phase” of our lives, many of us are tired and irritable and, frankly, just about over this whole coronavirus thing. We are ready to get back to normal. We want to take that vacation, we need to get our hair and nails done, and we bristle at any so-called “authority” who tells us what we ought to do in a reality we no longer want to inhabit.
When I have those thoughts, I wonder… how much of that comes from a place of humility? How much of that is rooted in an awareness to God, and not me, rules over creation? When I sit out on my porch and work myself up into a state over what “they” (whoever “they” are) are trying to do to “me”, am I any different than Nebuchadnezzar strutting across his balcony preening in his own power and authority?
And you might respond, as I hope that some of you do, that there is not just a need for a word of caution here, but of compassion as well. After all, we read that one of the prime complaints against Nebuchadnezzar was his unmerciful behavior toward the oppressed. And, for all I know, some of you may be yelling at your TV screen now saying, “Look, Carver, you chowderhead! I don’t want to go out because I’m all that – but people have got to get back to work. I want to support the folks in the restaurant industry and the hair stylists and the hotel workers.”
The word “compassion” comes from two Latin roots: pati, meaning “suffer”, and com, meaning “with”. We stand at a place in history where we have been extended an opportunity to offer compassion to our neighbor. To enter into their suffering. And I get it: maybe you really do want to get out because you want to help people feed their families.
Can you do that today? Do you want to help your hair stylist feed their family? Then give that person a Giant Eagle card – not because they cut your hair, but because they are suffering. Don’t let your pride (“Uh, well, I would do that, Pastor, but then that would just make it weird between us…”) get in the way of your ability to live with compassion. Offer what you can to the people who are in your field of vision. Give of yourself. Compassion.
And lastly, there is a word here of encouragement. Remember, I said a few moments ago that the idea of God’s providence implied both a threat to the proud and a promise to the humble.
So remember this, beloved: there is good news for the people who heard the story of Daniel for the first time. Consider the context of this story! Do you remember the situation in which the first hearers of this story found themselves? They were being persecuted. Their children were murdered. Their holy objects were profaned. An evil king was tearing apart those who would be faithful to the Lord. But here, in Daniel, they hear something different. They hear the story of a pagan king who turns to God. They hear of an evil tyrant who is punished and repents. They hear a story that cannot help but fill them with hope that somehow, their suffering might have meaning.
God is in control! That’s not just good news to an unknown crowd of Jews a couple of thousand years ago. There is good news for today.
There’s good news for those who are caught in the economic crisis of this pandemic. You, or someone you love, may have lost a job or some savings because of the climate of greed and irresponsibility that has typified this nation for a while. The truth that this morning’s lesson brings to each of us is that none of us is in “free fall” right now. At the end of the day, we are not at the whim of China or the President or a bail out or even a virus. We are not living in a chaotic world where we have to deal each day with the luck of the draw and are subject to chance in every area of our lives.
You are living in a world where God has chosen to be a partner in your life. God has willed – God has elected – to be active day by day. We are dancing with the Lord. Now look, I didn’t go to the Mary Pappert School of Music at the Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit like some people I know, but I understand that when our friend PJ was learning to play jazz piano, he came to understand quickly that while he may have some mad skills, he is not always the composer or the director. Sometimes he’s given a sheet of music that’s in a particular key and carries a certain time signature and he’s expected to do his best to improvise within a chord structure that he didn’t choose.
That’s us. I know that there are times when we simply cannot see the purpose and our lives look a whole lot like a mishmash of one thing after another. Yet I am convinced that the Book of Daniel is here to point to the Gospel truth that we will one day know the full depths of the Composer’s love for and presence with us. You belong to God, and are headed to God. It is in the very heart of God that you live and move and have your being.
My prayer for you is that you would believe this. That you – wherever you are – will begin to understand yourself first and foremost as a disciple of the Christ who has come to establish fellowship between God and humanity. And when you think of yourself as a disciple, for goodness sake, don’t do it the way we do so many things – by dabbling around but not really investing ourselves. So often we go part way. We put our left arm in, or we put our right arm in, but we don’t really take it seriously. Friends, follow God in this dance of discipleship and belief; listen for the rhythm of God’s movement in your life and in your world any place you are… and then, beloved, put your whole self in. Shake it all around. That’s what it’s all about! Thanks be to God! Amen.
 See The Theology of Karl Barth, by Herbert Hartwell (Westminster, 1964) p. 105ff.