Saturday, November 26, 2016

God-With-Us In All the Bad Stuff

Wild Rice Lutheran Parish
Aspelund Lutheran Church, Flom, MN
November 27, 2016/Advent 1
Daniel 6:6-27 (Narrative Lectionary)

The famous American theologian Wood Allen once said:  “I’m not afraid to die.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

True to form Mr. Allen (who is not a bona fide Lutheran theologian!) gives voice to some of our deepest anxieties.    He articulates our heartfelt desire to keep the awful, awful stuff always at arm’s length.

The only problem is that it never works out that way.  Bad stuff—both the bad stuff we bring upon ourselves and the bad stuff that just shows up—bad stuff has an uncanny way of finding us and  messing up our lives.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, God just lets it to happen.   Rather than wrapping us up in a cocoon of 100% guaranteed safety, happiness and good health, God allows the bad stuff to penetrate our lives.  

Surely God could prevent that.   Certainly God could shield us, God could inoculate us with a super vaccine that would ward off all the bad stuff…

…But God seems to have no interest in doing that.

So, as we see here in this long scripture reading, God’s faithful servant Daniel finds himself tossed into a den of famished lions—the entrance sealed like a tomb.

And how does such a thing happen?   

Daniel, after all, was a really, really good man!  

Exiled from his homeland in Judah, Daniel’s character and abilities were noticed and lifted up by those who held him and his people captive in Babylonia.

So Daniel—a foreigner in the Babylonian court—became the right hand man to King Darius.   

But when good things happen to someone, others become envious.  Some of Babylonia’s politicians thought that positions of leadership should be reserved for Babylonians not Jews.  Native-born persons, not exiles, should be in charge.

So these-green-with-envy fellows hatched a devious plotted against Daniel, concocting a way to trap him in his faithfulness to the God of his ancestors.   The conspirators lured King Darius into signing a decree that for a whole month no one in the land would be permitted to pray to anyone but to him, Darius the King.

When Daniel, man of integrity that he was…when Daniel was spotted breaking the King’s decree--praying three times a day, his face set toward his holy city Jerusalem--both Daniel and Darius were caught in a trap from which they could not extricate themselves.

So Daniel was served up as cat-food, tossed to the lions…and the God to whom Daniel faithfully prayed just let it happen.

The entrance to the lion’s den was popped open, Daniel was plunked down among the famished beasts, and the escape hatch was sealed up—lest some second century B.C. Delta Force “special ops” rescuers try to spring Daniel from this pit of death.

This sort of thing happens a lot in the Bible.  It’s a deeply disturbing pattern that we see, time and again.   

Even in this same Book of Daniel, it happened three chapters earlier when three other Jewish exiles were caught red-handed, being faithful to God of Israel.   Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, for the high crime of worshiping only the one true God, were hogtied and tossed like kindling right into the middle of the fiery furnace--an inferno so hot that even those executioners who dragged them to the furnace were scorched to death.

That sort of thing happens all the time in the Bible:  whether it’s the Israelites forced into slavery in Egypt….or whether it’s the prophets of God who were persecuted and murdered for speaking the truth….or whether it’s God’s chosen people being conquered by foreign tyrants and hauled off into exile….bad stuff just keeps happening to God’s precious ones….

….and God just keeps letting it happen, time and again.

If that were the end of the matter, the Bible would read more like the screenplay for a horror film than a holy book—not the kind of literature we’d want to read, especially to our children…

But fortunately all the awful, awful stuff that happens is never the end of the matter in the Bible.

For as surely as God allows evil to enter our lives, God makes sure that we’re never alone.  God insists on coming along, accompanying God’s people wherever they go—even if it’s right into the fiery furnace, down into the lions’ den, or overwhelmed by the agony of exile.

So, no sooner are the three young men in Daniel chapter three—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—thrown into the fiery furnace…but suddenly we behold a fourth figure with them—smack dab in the middle of the consuming flames!

And no sooner had King Darius arrived at the mouth of the den after his sleepless night of despair….than he heard the sweet voice of Daniel, declaring that he had not been alone among the ravenous beasts:  “O king, live forever!  My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me…” (v. 22)    

And that same wonderful, healing, hope-restoring, saving pattern also plays itself out—again and again—down through the pages of the scriptures:   God permits evil into the lives of his people, but only (it seems!) so that God can be there with them, “in the same soup,”--accompanying, rescuing and saving them.

Which brings us, my friends, to the way this beloved old Sunday School story of Daniel in the lions’ den intersects with us, today, on this First Sunday in Advent!

For truth be told, you and I do not live shielded, inoculated, cocooned lives of health, happiness, safety and unfailing trust in God.   The bad stuff catches up with us, time and again—and God just lets it happen…..but only because God is never distant, never aloof from what we’re experiencing.

Quite the contrary:   God permits sin, sickness, despair and death to mark our days…..but only so that God can be there with us, rescuing and restoring us every step of the way:  forgiving sin, healing sickness, beating back despair, defeating death.

So, on this First Sunday in Advent, the whole church traditionally prays this great prayer:   “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come.   Protect us by your strength and save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”

Because we sin, because sickness comes upon us, because death catches up to us….we never outgrow our need to cry out:  “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come….”

And thank goodness, God never wearies of replying to our prayer:  “Surely, I am coming soon.”  (Rev. 22:20)

In a world where sin, death and the power of the devil never leave us….thank goodness, God also never leaves us.   The watchword of Advent and the Christmas soon to come is this:  Immanuel, God-with-us, through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, son of Mary and son of God.

That’s the fullest, widest, deepest pattern that shines through the Bible…..not just that bad stuff finds us, but that God in Christ finds us, pitching his tent among us, now and forever, making you and me and all things new.

A foretaste of that new creation peeks through at the end of our reading from the Book of Daniel:     Daniel is drawn up from the tomb of the lion’s den, his false accusers are prevented from doing further harm, and miracle of miracles the pagan king Darius becomes an evangelist—a proclaimer of the Good News: “to all peoples and nations of every language throughout the whole world:  ‘…I make a decree that in all my royal dominion people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel:  For he is the living God, enduring forever.  His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end.  He delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth….’”

Let us pray:  Gracious God, you have promised to be with us in all the trials and troubles of life.   As you rescued your servant Daniel, as you resurrected your beloved Son Jesus, so also draw us up out of every pit we find ourselves in.   As you make us and all things new in Jesus Christ, shape us into the flesh-and-blood proof that you have always been and will always be Immanuel, God-with-us.   Make us bold like King Darius to witness to your unfailing love, free us like Daniel to worship you without fear, and fashion us to be the living images of your forgiving grace and your liberating truth. In Jesus’ name.  Amen.”

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