I see lots of articles and blog posts written by pastors to “the Church” about their relationships with their pastors. I sometimes agree with them, sometimes don’t, and something think they hit the nail on the head. But I rarely, if ever, share them. And though I would love to write a whole slew of […]
“There is no Death in God”
Isaiah 11:1-9 Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24
By Rev. Dr. Andrew Kukla
at First Presbyterian Church, Boise, ID
July 1, 2018
(the following sermon can also be viewed on YouTube by clicking this link here.)
We go from a very familiar text of “and a little child shall lead them” and “the lion shall lay down with the lamb” to this next text that I would bet almost none of you out there even know exists. For sure you won’t find this in your pew Bible. This comes from The Wisdom of Solomon. It’s in the Apocrypha which is part of the Catholic Bible but considered deuterocanonical. Duetero meaning second, so it literally means the 2nd canon. It’s not scripture… but it’s the next closest thing.
The historian in me wants to tell you a little about where this is coming from so a bit of prelude to the reading. When the Jews lived in diaspora, that is scattered from Israel throughout the Greek-speaking world, they circulated a Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. It was added to it in circulation. The Catholic Church used the Septuagint in the formation of the Latin Vulgate and considers those added books to be the secondary canon and includes them in their Bibles in what we Protestants call the Apocrypha. Protestant church stuck to the Masoretic text and the official Jewish canon in the Hebrew Bible. So we do not have, as second canon, such books as Bel and the Dragon, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, and Susanna. And of course, the Wisdom of Solomon – or just Wisdom, from which we are reading today.
When Wisdom of Solomon came us an alternate reading in the lectionary I thought, “why not?” And in a moment, I think you will understand exactly why it came up to me, but before we go there a little more background. This was probably written between 100 BCE – 50 BCE… it was among the diaspora Jews, it was written to a Greek world with very good Greek rhetoric to Greek-speaking Jews reminding them not to lose their Jewishness in this very Greek world. Remember even Rome’s philosophy is Greek. Greeks were the culture people and the language of the intellectual. Rome was the great bureaucracy, but even Rome is Hellenized and part of the Greek roots of Western Civilization. So, the author is writing about the value of staying true to the “wisdom of Solomon”, or the wisdom of their Jewish heritage, and not losing that to the Hellenized culture in which they live. In that backdrop we read this, from chapters 1 and 2:
Because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal.
For God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.
–Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24
This is… a word akin to the Lord’s? Thanks be to God.
I mean, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say there – they don’t teach you that in seminary when you are reading something we don’t claim to be canonical. That’ll have to do… a word akin to the Lord’s.
How does the Holy Spirit work?
We Presbyterians are not known for being Holy Spirit people. We get skeptical of the Holy Spirit. We like reason and rational thought. We like science. We are academic theologians… and we wear our clergy robes to reflect that. So, what do we do with the Holy Spirit?
I remember when I first came here sitting with one of our members with coffee and he told me, “Andrew, I like going to church. And I like coming here. But I don’t go in for all that miracle stuff.” He is a doctor, a scientist of a sort, and he was on board with me so long as I don’t get too mystical. And for the most part, and most of the time, I would probably stay in line with that thought. But for today – I just can’t avoid it.
The Holy Spirit is tying things together beyond my knowledge. Carol just sang Amazing Grace for us. For weeks upon weeks upon months, Carol was asking me to find a Sunday where she could sing that piece and it would be tied into what I was preaching. And for weeks upon week upon months, Andrew didn’t do that… and she just picked a date. But it’s the right date – the Holy Spirit picked this date.
If you looked ahead at the Affirmation of Faith, and who doesn’t look ahead at worship to see how long worship will go over…so, when you looked at it, you saw it and thought, “Oh no… Andrew put this one in again. We did this last week too, and it didn’t work then so why does he have us doing it again?” I used it last week because I thought it worked well with a nuance of the relationship between David and Saul but then I cut that part out of my sermon, so it didn’t relate at all.
But this week as I caught up in this idea of death not being a part of God’s will and purpose… and how awesome and fitting that the Affirmation of Faith speaks about the commandment not to murder as really about a commandment not to pursue vengeance and anger and the various emotions that lead to murder. The Holy Spirit wanted me to keep that Affirmation of Faith even though I may have thought it was me that chose it.
If that freaks you out… I’m okay with that. Because it freaks me out too.
The Wisdom of Solomon, which says some weird things that make me understand why it’s not in our Bible… also has put this very profound and important thought on my heart this week: that God has created everything for life, not death. Everything. For life. Not death.
So God wills death… for nothing. And if there is a more radical biblical strain of thought… I’m not sure what it is. Even the biblical text struggles to keep that strain prevalent… that God does not will death for anything God created. God desires death… for no-one… for no-thing.
I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois. Most of you already know that… some of you have been to Wheaton. Wheaton is the home to a strong evangelical Christian college. And that feeds the culture of my hometown and one of the interesting things I have noted from that is that many of high school friends have – in rejecting that strict evangelical backdrop – rejected Christianity as a whole. More than Christianity… they rejected God. (Christianity and God not actually being synonymous.)
I was talking with one of my friends a couple years ago and she said she doesn’t believe in God because she doesn’t want God controlling her life… but her second and bigger issue (and certainly she is tapped into general complaint far bigger than her) is that God doesn’t kill bad people before they can harm good people. Now for me, this is a fascinating argument. You want freedom from God in your life… but you want God to control other people, so they don’t do bad things. And… that doesn’t work.
That’s the rub. We are all sure we are good… so we can be given full and free will. But other people? They aren’t trustworthy, so control and stop them.
I always want to be a father of daughters… which is good because I have three of them. And I remember this moment when Elizabeth was young (before the other two were born) and we were at a playground. And in the space of a moment I lived an entire lifetime – this happens to most parents I believe –an entire lifetime as if Elizabeth had been kidnapped when through my head. And I could hear, literally hear, her screaming voice on the wind crying out for me and wondering why her dad doesn’t come and rescue her. Look, I’m crying now recalling this and it never even happened. But I could feel like it was deeply true and if felt like I was living that horrible helpless despairing reality… and then I had this weird epiphany. God is the creator of all that is… all life is from and of God. So, when any life is lost to God, God is hearing that voice on the wind crying, “rescue me. save me. Please! Where are you God that you haven’t helped me?”
Anytime we bring harm to anyone God is hearing voices on the wind. People we cannot even stand… are still voices on the wind. People who appear anathema to God are STILL voices God hears on the wind saying, “rescue me… rescue me.” And God’s heart breaks for them… because they are God’s.. and God wills no death for anything that has life.
Last night. Violence erupted close to home. 9 people, 6 children, stabbed by a madman out of the night. Their safety and celebration robbed and violated in an act that echoed violence that erupts and has erupted in our world time and again, over and over and over. Voices on the wind for us… and for God.
The trained philosopher reacts to that moment by naming that people who want to close our borders or build high walls are making a very rational argument. My philosophy professors in college always urged that in a debate we had to frame our opponents’ argument as they would make it. Not the strawman argument. Not hyperbole and a one-dimensional argument that is easy to refute. But granting them the same nuance and complexity we give ourselves. So I force myself to acknowledge that while I disagree with them on what is good and right to do, the person who wants to close down the border, build high walls, keep outsiders… outside, is make the more rational and logical argument.
It’s just not a biblical argument.
It is right to want to seek out safety. What should Jesus have done on this night? (point to the set communion table) What should Jesus have done when he knew they were coming for him? He should have run away… he should have locked the door. He certainly shouldn’t tell Peter… put away your sword.
We are called, not to a rational way of life, but to a way of life that acknowledges that everyone and everything was created by God for life. And that means that we are willing to put ourselves in jeopardy to foster life. We put to rest violence and vengeance, we put rest hard-heartedness, we put to rest the idea that we seek safety at all cost.
I fail to do that. I lock my door at night. And I would tell you if someone off the street asks for a ride you should not put them in your car and drive them somewhere. I literally failed to be “the good Samaritan” all the time in service to my own safety. But when I make that argument I know that I’m failing my biblical calling. And somehow, we are called into that tension. We are called to recognize that we are all, everything is all, God’s. We either live for everyone, or we live against them. And when we live against them… we live against God.
And I cannot do that…
But love the idea of it. I need the idea of it.
I could not imagine what it is to hear the voices of millions of your children on the wind calling for help… but you cannot help them, because your other children don’t want them to be helped.
There is no death in God… even though we wish it. And we do, we wish that God would deal death to those we see as opposed to God – those who ARE opposed to God…. but death is not of God. And God wills no death for God’s creation. God is radical, eternal, steadfast love. God is life. We are not saved so much by the cross – a death – but the resurrection, a life. And that life is stronger than death… and choosing to die in order to promote life… is the better part.
I cannot live that… without you… helping me to do that. And the Holy Spirit helping to empower us all by lacing up these fragments like Amazing Grace and the weird Wisdom of Solomon and last nights horrific violence on our doorstep. And tying them up in a single loving knot. And saying its all related. It is all of me. Love it. Love me.
This is the word of our Lord, thanks be to God.
There is a thing we call the Prosperity Gospel. You know it, maybe not by that name, but you know it. It’s a brand of Christianity that sells the idea that if you do the right things, pray the right way, and worship God… you will be rewarded with material success… you will “prosper”. The Prosperity Gospel arose out of the ashes of WWII as an off-shoot of the revival movements, but truly came to fame with the Televangelists of the 1980s who were really good at having very white teeth, good hair, and telling people what they were hoping to hear. And this tradition is alive and well in many guises of American religious culture today.
You have seen the story recently of a gentleman down south asking the supporters of his ministry to fund a new 54M dollar private jet to replace the third one they bought that their ministries have worn out preaching the gospel. And I’m imagining that he will succeed one way or the other… because we buy-in for prosperity.
Peter Rollins, a favorite theologian, once remarked that we talk about the downturn of Christianity in the 21st century. But that is a misnomer. Christianity is still a billion dollar a year best-selling business. At least… a certain type of Christianity is the type that gives people what they want and tells them what they want to hear. They want a faith of absolute certainties given them from a strong righteous exemplary leader who promises them that faith is rewarded with material blessings and hard-working, Bible-believing, God-fearing people will become financially successful and live “blessed lives”.
That idea? That idea can still fill football stadiums.
So, what’s the problem with that? Jesus for one. And today? Paul for another.
In fact, the problem is actual bible reading Christianity.
Look closely with me at this description of our Christian lives from (slightly paraphrased) Paul’s letter to Corinth (2 Corinthians 4:6-12):
We are afflicted in every way… just short of being crushed;
Perplexed… but not driven all the way to despair;
Persecuted… but not left to rot alone;
struck down… but not out for the count;
always tangibly carrying in ourselves the death of Jesus,
so that the abundant life of Jesus may be visible in through us.
Paul makes this out to be of divine purpose… because God has chosen not to put God’s power in the strong and mighty – the palpably prospering – but in earthenware vessels, in that which markedly common and easily broken. Mainly? Us.
God did this literally in the incarnation as God revealed God’s self in the fully human (and very fragile infant) Jesus… God did this literally in turning Paul’s zeal to destroy the church into a passion for spreading it. God continues to do this – literally – as God uses us to share God’s power and vitality in the world. Not through our strength, but in fact, through our fragility… our struggles… our doubts. God provides perseverance, not prosperity. The gospel is not about overwhelming might – but persistent grit. A light that won’t go out… but plenty of darkness it has to shine through.
This becomes, for Paul, more than simply a promise of gritty faith, but nothing less than the call to be willing to let our fragility be seen. That we are willing to let God’s light shine forth from our brokenness… our failures… our struggles… our weakness… our doubt.
I mean its bad enough God won’t take that all away. God wants us to show people how messed up we are?? This is not filling football stadiums. It’s not marketable… it’s a not a growth strategy. This is foolishness.
But that’s how God has always worked… from Abraham to Moses… from Rahab to David facing Goliath…. From Jesus to fisherman disciples… God has always chosen the least and the lost not simply as the people to be saved (though surely we are all that)… but as the LEADERS of God’s saving power through the Gospel. God’s transforming, gritty, freedom-granting gospel isn’t stored in mighty vaults and thick safes – or even 54 million dollar jets – its stored.. in us! Its made known through us. We house the very power of God and it spills out daily from the cracks in clay lives.
And while it’s easy to point fingers at TV evangelists and jet-strutting millionaires… this is also very much contrary to how we want to live. We still want to put on our Sunday best. We put on our Sunday best because then you don’t know that I didn’t make my bed this morning… and that at my house if you go around the side yard, out of the sight lines of the street, my grass goes from being 3 inches long to 13 inches… you don’t know that yesterday I took a two-hour nap in the afternoon so my kids didn’t end up getting to go to the park like they wanted. If I put on my Sunday best I can cover up all that and I’m not perplexed, crushed, afflicted… barely keeping my head above water. I look good. And that is how we want to be seen by each other.
We preachers struggle mightily with this… we get caught in the trap of believing you need us to have it all together! We are contractually obligated to be solid in our faith. We imagine that our strength is necessary to keep other people strong. Strong and unshaken. We too are scared to model fragility. And we excuse ourselves that struggle by claiming our leadership requires it. We hide behind robes and liturgical furniture… and the office they represent, to keep from leading out of the very fragility Paul calls us to model.
So what would it this kind of leadership from fragility look like? How do we take this kind of fragility from being a nice concept to something we can actually do???
I heard a great example of this during the past week. I attended a training on how to work with children when someone they know is dying or very sick. The trainer who works in family counseling told us not to “teach the kids” how to respond.
You need to work with the kids by modeling how to respond. So you might say to the kids, ‘I keep getting emotional and find myself crying and I don’t even know why? Why do I keep crying? And I thought about it and realized its because I’m sad about what is happening with my dad and I don’t know if he is going to be ok.’ You don’t tell them how to respond, but lead with your fragility that gives them permission to be fragile as well.
And that, friends, is the gospel at work. Strength through vulnerability. Because when we are all fragile together we are very beautiful, and become very strong, and we can change the world. One fragile risk after another, thanks be to God.
This post is an abridged version of a sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho on June 3, 2018. A video of the full sermon can be viewed here.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Andrew Kukla at First Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho on Easter Sunday, April 1st, 2018. You can find the video of the sermon here.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
It doesn’t happen very often that April Fool’s Day is on Easter…. And when I saw this one coming I groaned. I told myself – we are going to see a lot of bad Good Friday into Easter jokes about “Jesus died… April fool’s: he’s alive.”
And as a pastor, I will admit I become a bit of a grumpy old man about telling the story wrong… take for instance last night. Someone shared a funny text story about Easter morning. It was a video tracking a group text conversation from the women at the tomb. Mary begins, “He’s gone.” And then the disciples say, “Who’s gone?” Mary, “Jesus.” And then all respond about how they know its hard to believe he did die. That it is real. They too want to imagine its wrong… and she has to interrupt them and say they aren’t getting what she means, his body is missing from the tomb. And I laughed at the interplay until… I saw that one of the “disciples” in the group text was Paul. And I literally stopped watching. Seriously? I mean, come on people. Paul doesn’t come into this story for another ten or fifteen years at best. He wouldn’t have been in this text chain, you can’t mess that up! Get the story right.
So, when it comes to April Fool’s and Jesus death, I would have to call foul yet again. Because… here is the thing: Jesus really did die. The only April Fool’s, as we noted last week, was Palm Sunday – when Jesus allowed them to believe for a moment that he was coming to be crowned the new King of the Jews – the next David here to kick out the Romans. That was the April Fool’s joke… but Jesus death was all too real. So real in fact that the women aren’t at all prepared to hear good news.
Jesus was dead, dead, dead… and worse yet they couldn’t even give him a full and proper burial.
In the Jewish way of reckoning a day, each day begins at sunset. Jesus dies as the night falls and the sabbath has begun… so they don’t have time to do the full rites and they basically grab a bunch of those car air fresheners – you know the little trees that dangle from your rearview mirror – and lay his body in a tomb with them to await proper burial. Our text began early in the morning on the first day of the week after the sabbath was over and they going to bury him. They are going to get their closure.
And… he’s not there.
Talk about your frustrations upon frustrations, failures building on failures, despair constantly finding you a new and even lower low than what you previously thought was the worst things can get. First y,ou imagined a coronation parade and final rise to power for the King of the Jews… and instead J,esus starts up again about dying and tearing down the temple and… then one of his best friends betrays him. He gets arrested. Another of his bff’s denies that he even knows him so that he doesn’t get swooped up in the house cleaning of this religious and political revolution… the crowds turn on Jesus too, and before anyone can wrap their heads around these multiple betrayals… Jesus is beaten, falsely tried, convicted… and killed in the most shame filled way possible.
Imagine being his mother in that moment.
Imagine asking to see the body and she cannot. “No, we have sealed him away.” Can you imagine spending a day – a day of worship even, a day of sabbath in which you can do nothing but sit in the knowledge that Jesus had died. Your child, your friend, your savior, your Lord… the one whom you had turned your entire life over to… is dead. An entire day spent worshiping the death of hope.
And now. Now that they finally get to go cry over his body and find closure and reality to all of this… the body is gone. And you know what? They cannot believe it. And its not even surprising to me that they cannot – I wouldn’t, I don’t, believe it either. Told Jesus is alive… they shut down, they run away, and they tell no one. Because. The resurrection isn’t real to them: they are unable to imagine it. So, in this resurrection story, we see and hear and experience no Jesus. The end. The story dies with their fear…
Sometimes we just aren’t ready to hear good news.
Last night I was, well cooking hotdogs if you want to know, and I was texting with my family. My family has been through a rough couple of years – not all that different than the story of the Mary’s – every time it feels like we might get some good news we find a new low, and its not just my family, I know many of you are going through similar things. And then we look around at our country and we see division, death, and death and division over how we solve the problems of death and division… and I don’t see how Easter is possible. I texted my family “I don’t feel Easter…” Maybe the Gospel of Mark in our lectionary cycle had Spirit timing for me. I feel like I need to just sit in good Friday for longer, the world feels far more Good Friday to me than Easter, so how do you get up in front of a bunch of people who came to hear “He is Risen… he is risen indeed”… when you aren’t sure its true or real, or that it is the prevailing truth of our lives. I’m not in the mood for Easter.
And then, standing over my grill last night it occurs to me… that is exactly when Easter gets proclaimed.
We don’t need Easter if everything is going well.
We don’t’ need Easter if Jesus doesn’t die.
We don’t need Easter if Rome isn’t a problem.
We don’t need Easter if there aren’t hungry people on the street.
We don’t need Easter if there aren’t people who can’t get housing.
We don’t need Easter if we already are living together in peace and harmony.
We don’t proclaim Easter if everything is ok.
Easter is Easter, Resurrection is Resurrection, because what we expect when we walk into the tomb is that everything we care about is dead or dying.
In First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul… (this is real pick me up sermon isn’t it? If you are a Christmas and Easter person who chose to come here today you came the wrong Easter) “For the message about the cross,” Paul writes, “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ … God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation (of Mary and Mary and Salome’s proclamation…), to save those who believe…. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
This is no April Fool’s joke. It is an everyday fools’ joke. For we are those called to follow in the way of the one who is mocked as a king on a cross… and three days later became a king in a way we can’t even believe. We are called to be people of a proclamation that is so unbelievable that the people who are in the best position to believe it went home and told no-one… because they were afraid.
What a fool, God, to trust us with such a story.
What a fool, us, to trust and imagine that God has really done it.
And yet, both are true.
Somewhere between their frozen fear and doubt. Those women did tell the story. How do I know? Because I know. I mean, you know the story, I know the story, we didn’t need to read the story. We already knew the story because they DID tell the story. Just not at that moment. If they had persisted in telling no one then we wouldn’t know the story today, the great story, the great mystery of faith: that Christ has died, Christ rose, Christ will come again. They did tell that story. They just had to marinate in the death and doubt and fear a little longer… because, like me, they just weren’t ready for Easter. Like us, they couldn’t imagine that God’s weakness could be that world changing powerful.
The corollary to “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” is this:
We couldn’t believe, we came to believe anyway, and that belief can change the world.
We are called to be God’s everyday fools.
In the mid-60s of the common era, A.D. for those of you who went to high school before the ‘90s., in the 60’s there was a Jewish uprising against Rome. The very one people hoped Jesus was starting on Palm Sunday. They rose up to use violence, tools of war, and nationalistic pride to throw down Rome and become a sovereign nation again… do you know that story? I imagine you do not. Its left to folk like me, historians of forgotten times and places to know such stories. And what happened? Rome did not fall. Rome returned in all its terrible power of death and destruction. They put them to the sword, tore down the Temple, and dashed their dreams.
You cannot defeat empires using their weapons.
You cannot defeat death by dealing out death faster than the next person.
But long after Rome was only a dream… we are still telling this Easter story. This story that was so unbelievable so impossible and so.. foolish. This foolish story that empowered the few remaining followers of Jesus to change the world. A story that for nigh on to 2,000 years people have lived out so that others who are experiencing oppression have had people come alongside them and witness that life is stronger than death and the empires of this world will come and go but God’s kingdom will stand true.
Christians went into plague towns and tended the ill – and they lost their lives for it – but they had found something worth dying over: life and love. And the story traveled, here are a people who are willing to die alongside you because they are so foolishly in love with abundant life they KNOW it transcends death.
When the Roman Empire was decaying and falling apart Christianity was one of the things Rome turned to in order to try to re-bind their people together. The very empire that tried to destroy it, now tried to use it to save its life.
When the Church is true to its calling it is God’s sign to the world of what God’s kingdom is called to be and we reject violence as an answer to promote life, we seek justice as the sum of our being, and we trust that love can turn around any heart – no matter how hardened.
And when we do that we proclaim that he is risen, he is risen indeed. We proclaim resurrection – that life can come up from places of death. We reject making the world a tomb and make it a testament to life.
For this he died. For this he rose. For this he will come again:
that life is a better way of life than death. And love makes the world turn.
For this he died. For this he rose. For this he will come again:
To proclaim that he is risen. He is risen indeed. And we will too.
This is the word of our Lord, thanks be to God.
“Offering Our Whole Selves”
A sermon by Rev. Dr. Andrew Kukla
January 14, 2018
1 Samuel 3:1-9
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
1 Samuel 3:10-20
10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
The first text (more truly the first half of the single text) that we read today is likely to be quite familiar to you. We like that text. It speaks truths we already wished to claim before we ever opened the book to read– it confirms our hopes. We wish to celebrate youth, the importance of a child’s role, AND the ideal of a dutiful student focused on every word of both his master and his Lord with syrupy sweet attention. Samuel is the kid you wished was your child, and we celebrate his readiness, his innocence, and the steadfast faith of his statement, “here I am, ready to listen and obey”.
But… then we stop. Traditionally by lectionary reading or personal choice, the first verse of our second reading is where we end: Samuel – now knowing its God, not Eli, calling him – proclaiming his intent to hear the Lord’s word to him.
But that word the Lord gives him, we would rather not listen. We don’t want to travel to the stories vision… it does nothing for our preconceived hopes and dreams and opinions and so…we simply stop reading. This innocent boy, the fulfillment of his mother Hannah’s heart-wrenching hope to have a child and now given to the priesthood, has come into that role in a time of great transition and not-just-a-little messy internal political drama.
Eli has been told previously that his unwillingness to curb his son’s philandering and abuse of priestly power, his “keep the peace” mentality with his sons, has profaned the name of God and that cannot be tolerated to go on anymore and so the High Priest Eli’s household must be removed from office to make way for one who will restore prophetic integrity to the office.
Basically – Eli and his household are going to die.
Samuel is now told this same thing. It’s like getting your dream job, the one you have been training for since BEFORE you were born, but you will only get it because your only friend in the world, your father figure whose household you grew up in, and the mentor and teacher, is getting fired in the harshest way possible. You don’t get excited about that – the way you get the job negates the joy before it even starts… and Samuel is petrified, lying awake all the night and morning terrified of what he will say when his master asks him what the Lord had to say in the morning.
How often have you laid awake on just such a night? How often have you found yourself weighing your words? What questions are running through your head:
Did I hear right? Do I tell him?
How would I tell him? Do I hold some of it back?
Do I weaken how sure I am that this is going to happen?
What will he do to me? Is it even safe to tell him?
In April of 1963 the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a joint series of sit-ins and marches against racism and segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Throughout the rallies it was a group of dedicated, trained, and non-violent protests to blatant oppressive injustice and, predictably Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as many others ended up in jail. This was not a surprise to Dr. King. What came as a shock to him was one of the things that happened next.
A letter was issued a week later by a group of eight clergymen who agreed that social injustice existed but argued against the protests and “King’s methods” of non-violent protests with what they called “A Call for Unity”. Their newspaper letter’s call for unity centered on the sense that King’s protests, while non-violent, caused violence and undue hast to change the acknowleged oppressioin. They urged him to slow down the move to justice and give the oppressor time to get comfortable with it all… as if the last hundred years wasn’t enough time. This spurred the writing of one of my favorite pieces of literature: Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham jail in response to them. He wrote it, first on the edges of the newspaper article, and latter on paper the guards were allowed to give hm. I read the letter every year at this time and it timely matches up with Samuel and Eli’s story… and with our call to prophetic integrity. I recommend you read it in whole but here are two paragraphs that hit me particularly this year:
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
(…continuing further in the letter…)
There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.
King is incensed at the idea that we would see injustice and stand-by… or ever worse, publicly cry out to people to stop pushing for justice and righteousness because the oppressors “need more time” to get comfortable with idea of abdicating their unjust power and control. For King – the Church is nothing if not the body of individuals called to root out injustice everywhere. And hard word or not – it is our obligation as those called to the way of Jesus Christ to preach the gospel at all times. No matter how Samuel wants to answer that lists of questions that worries him in the night the answer is made clear by none other than Eli himself, who must know what is coming – God had previously told Eli through another unnamed prophet that it was going to happen eventually. Eli knew his mistakes and furthermore for all his mistakes and failings he makes a great teacher in this moment. His message: don’t do what I did, Samuel, don’t be a bystander to injustice. Be an upstander to the powers and principalities when they make our neighbors into less-than-human fodder to their whims and plans. Tell the whole truth and nothing by the truth, for all your days.
And he does.
Samuel stands as the last the judges and the first of the non-literary prophets. He stands as an example of all time one who would stand up and not let his words fall to the ground (unspoken) in the interest of “calls to unity” but would give his whole self, the truth as he saw it, regardless of how that might make himself and others uncomfortable. In a world – as the text says – without vision. Samuel trained in seeing, hearing, and speaking. And we must do no less.
We must answer Eli’s charge to Samuel, and Dr. King’s charge to the generation that came before us and set aside our comfort in the name of extreme love and justice. We must be prophetic in our ministry or our ministry has lost its vision, its purpose, and any point at all.
Here we are, speak Lord, for your servants are ready to listen.
This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.
Kukla Christmas Letter 2017
Greetings from the Boise Kuklas!
Its that time of year – I sit down and decide I cannot delay the Christmas letter one more day (though last year I wrote it on the 22nd so apparently, I actually COULD delay one more day this year). But since I am not, let’s move along already…
Boise Kukla Family Picture 2017
Warren is running cross country, playing soccer (a little less this year but still his favorite), preparing to explore Track and Field, on the Science Bowl team (and loving science in general) … and he is playing in three different bands both alto and tenor saxophone. The kid keeps himself busy but mostly he is relishing the diversity of middle school and all that it offers.
Elizabeth continues to play soccer and piano, but I think her true love is theater – she writes, directs, set-designs, and performs all manner of home theater productions. She is also the mother of the house and every bit as capable of running it as Caroline and probably quite a bit more so than me. She had some strong opinions about the 2 months it took me to actually fix the light in her room.
Meredith is doing gymnastics and violin, and quite happy to be a hermit. She has an incredible self-reliant streak to her and a force of will without equal (and that’s saying a lot in any branch of the Kukla family). My favorite memory of Mere’s year is when night rolls in and its pre-sleep reading time she picks about a dozen books… and she will read every single one of them if you let her.
Danielle is playing soccer and watching her is like listening to The Flight of the Valkyries. She is ready for kindergarten, and we are really ready for her to be in an environment that will tire her out more. (No, I’m not joking. REALLY ready.) This is a year of willfulness (alongside her exuberant joy). The whole family is committed to breaking her will… er, was that comment too real?
Caroline and I are plugging along. I knew in early fall that I was going to work too much this next “program year” and Caroline has handled that with flying colors – how she keeps the household running, the kids at everything on time (actually we have maintained being that family that gets places early somehow – a credit to Caroline), homework done and tests studied for (gotta love spelling lists), working full-time still at Allstate, and volunteering in multiple places… I don’t know. Maybe she has one of those time turners like Hermione Granger. Maybe it’s Maybelline. Mostly I think its just that she is awesome and I’m grateful to be partnered with her in all things.
So as this winds down what I find myself reflecting on this year is responsibility, hope, interconnectedness, gratitude… inputs and outputs.
Not one of us is a product of ourselves. Every single one of us is who we are because of people around us, investments that have been made in us by family, friends, community, government, creation as a whole that feeds and breathes us (flashes poetic license to avoid being arrested by the grammar police). We often say phrases like “it takes a village”. And that is when we think about how we raise a child. But today I’m thinking about how that means we are beholden to a village. Thousands (millions) of people past and present (and plenty still to come) have done things that have gone into forming who we are and what we know and what we capable of doing. We have been invested in by members of this thing called life. Inputs into our very make-up from soccer coaches and music teachers, playground companions and your annoying little brothers, the street sweeper, the mail carrier, and the police officer. People all over the place are making efforts on your behalf, and while we carry no literal debt to them… we are indebted to them. Family, friends, teachers, co-workers, neighbors, strangers. The multitudes of hosts – earthy and heavenly – who have helped input into us our character, skills, and the very stuff of life.
So, what do we with all of them? Given all that input… what are our outputs? Given all that people have done – seen and unseen, knowing and unknowingly, on accident and with intentionality – how are we grateful and how do we live from that gratitude as actions (our outputs) become their inputs?
This is what I think about… because in three days I will celebrate a child who is born among us. A child I will call God-with-us whose life is ENTIRELY dependent upon us. And whether or not you make that same faith claim at the beginning of that thought, we all have to make that claim at the end of the thought. Life depends on us, as much as we depend on life. In all its myriad facets and factions and fascinating interconnections: we are all both deeply in debt to life and deeply responsible for fostering it. And in and through that all is woven gratitude. So this is what I reflect on as something of my “grown-up Christmas wish”.
I am grateful for my village – and my children’s village. I am grateful for you. May I choose in this year to come to live from that gratitude for you and with you.
Merry Christmas to all – and to all… a good year.
Grace and Peace,
Andrew and The Boise Kuklas
Actually… no. But yes.
If you are like me you have seen a lot of statuses popping up saying Me Too. They are from women acknowledging that they too have been sexually harassed or abused. The idea behind the viral trend is to help demonstrate the extent of the problem. Each of us might define that problem differently but as I hear/see/understand it the problem is this: a ubiquitous sense that is ok for the male gender to treat women as sexual objects. The women, across the spectrum of race, culture, social status, economic class, and gender heteronormativity have experienced abuse and objectification by males who think its ok… its normal… its men being men, to see women as sex objects.
As I watched the Me Too’s begin to spread I will admit… I wasn’t on board. I don’t mean I didn’t agree with them. I need no convincing. I agree (heartbreakingly) that this is almost universally true. I am not in the least surprised about the extent of the “me too” and I’m not a doubter that men behave/think this way. I’m a white, heteronormative male who doesn’t largely like what society makes (and has allowed) it mean to be a white, heteronormative male. I think we generally are possessive, objectifying, entitled, narcissistic… because our culture has taught us that this is what it means to be a white heteronormative male. Though in this case, I could collapse this to simply be: male. And I think we men are good at not hearing what we don’t want to hear. Whether that is my wife telling me to bring the laundry down when I come to dinner… or marginalized society telling us its past time to work toward a more just status quo.
I didn’t agree with the Me Too then, not because I don’t share the sentiment, but because I didn’t see it accomplishing anything, and certainly not accomplishing its objective (if I have, in fact, correctly named at least the primary objective). Those who want to toss it off as “overly sensitive women” would still do so no matter how many times they see “me too”. Those who want to imagine it’s the problem of a “few bad apples” will still imagine that most men don’t do this and the “me too” is making a mountain out of a molehill. Those who want to cite cultures who have the problem worse than our own will still use that to excuse our own sin. And those who have found counter-examples will still use counter-examples (a female teacher who sexually abused a student… a girl who used sexuality to “skirt” accountability… and, of course, the decades-old “I’m being oppressed because I’m a man” when they take away all my unfair abusive power) to make it so they don’t have to acknowledge that all those things being true, it is still ALSO true that we have a cultural issue of male possession of women.
I was already debating writing these things down and sharing my thoughts and perspectives… but then I thought, no. No-one cares. No-one will change their mind. I will simply get in another round of arguments with people not willing to see what they do not want to see. There is no point. I realized in that moment (and not for the first time) that I’m overly cynical. I called myself that in my head while driving into work this morning… and then prepared to move on to my day already overly filled with last week’s checklists. And then… I came across this on Facebook. Tacked onto a “me too” declaration:
My Facebook feed is full of “Me too.”
Yes, I have been sexually harassed on and off, in professional contexts, since I was in college. In my self-understanding, I distinguish that harassment from sexual abuse, which I have never had to endure, and so I find myself deeply saddened by the indications of that suffering. Also, deeply angry-frustrated: is there a word for that?
I have learned in the fight against racism that white people committed to justice must teach white people, rather than expecting people of color to forever be teaching me, bearing that burden. Racism will not go away because of people of color – we white people need to dismantle our oppressive systems, especially those of us who are disciples of Christ.
Likewise, men must teach men. Men must hold other men accountable for behavior. It is the good men I am talking to here, the ones who have been shocked by the presumption of other men who have harassed me when they have heard my story and believed me. This means rocking the boat and finding ways to do it fruitfully. And it will take rocking the boat: the calmness of the current sea depends on submerging the damaging experience of so many women (and men as well) who have been hindered, impaired, stifled by the notion that it is ok, when one has power, to turn another person into a mere object to which one can do anything. The seas will get rougher before they become tranquil: not just on the surface, but deep down.
These words, from Michelle Bartel, hit me and I realized – cynicism be damned – I would write my thoughts anyway. And I will use another popular post going on to demonstrate one of the ways I see the problem.
There is a comedic post about a lifehack to decide if you are about to sexually harass a female. The trick is to replace (in your mind) that female with Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson (a former football player, professional wrestler, action movie star, and maybe future politician) and decide if its something you would say to him. If you think it would get you squashed…. don’t say/do it. The post is humorous. I laughed at it even while it made me uneasy. It is funny, but the thought behind it IS the problem. For some people to see the problem we need to turn a woman into a man – as if only a man has enough worth to be treated correctly. Seriously? No. And not into your sister, your daughter, or your mother either. You do not need to become an overprotective father to learn that sexual abuse of women is problematic. We do not need any of those to know that objectifying a person is wrong. Presuming a female wants to be your sexual object is wrong. Living in the illusion that she can’t help but find your unwanted advances complimentary are wrong. Not taking no – even and particularly an ambiguous no – as NO, is wrong. Imaging that an initial yes that became a no still means yes is wrong. Using power and privilege to put her in a compromised (doing something she would not otherwise be willing to do) position is wrong. Blaming a person for “enticing” you to act boorishly is wrong.
And yes, it would be wrong to do all these things to a man too. But mostly, we already get that. So stop it. Take responsibility. Force others to take responsibility. And stop treating women as “less than”, and as objects, and as causes of your misbehavior. This shouldn’t be a hard sell. But it has proven so… for millennia. Its woven into the fabric of our sacred stories, our political myths, and our “family values”. Its reinforced by the seemingly benign practices, and rituals, and traditions… and we need to root them out and let them go.
I ask you then to do this: pay attention. Pay deep, reflective, non-defensive attention. That is hard. But it is necessary. We need to become diagnosticians of our behavior and messages to each other. We need to learn the harmful (intentional and unintentional) consequences of those behaviors. And then we need to change them. And changing them requires that we change them in our own hearts, minds, words, and actions – and in our neighbors because that is the only way to systemically dismantle oppressive structures.
We do not do this work because we don’t like our society, our culture, our traditions, our way of being. We do this work exactly because we love all these things and we need to separate out from them the insidious fabric of harm. And to say its past time to get this done is the understatement of all understatements. So….
I ran into this quote the other day:
“When a great ship is in harbor and moored it is safe.
There can be no doubt.
But that is not what great ships are built for.”*
I love the thought on many levels, particularly as I nurse a well-earned finger injury (from white water rafting) that is making typing this a bit challenging… that and being in the passenger seat of our car after two weeks and five thousand miles on the road. All of which is worth it because time won’t remember the pain from the injury… or the frustration from long car days. It will remember the country we have seen, the shared memories of family experiencing adventure, and the wind in our faces and the salt in our hair (so to speak).
I think these kinds of thoughts every time I watch Meredith (kid #3 of 4) scamper up the side of a cliff (something she has uncanny good skill at doing) and I’m struck by equal parts admiration and fear. At age 5 she was already able to climb places that I cannot, and I know I won’t be able to save her if she gets in danger. More than once I have worried that the very skill she has may be the death of her… but I don’t want tame children. I do not wish to raise a harbor dwelling family. They were born for the open ocean. At a very early age, I remember we started flipping chairs to keep her from climbing up them… and she found other things to climb, so we put them back and figured we might as well let her get good at it.
I love the thought of not staying in safe harbors for my children’s sake and a desire to parent them in a way that invites them to sail the seas and not be moored at harbor for the sake of my fears.
But this is not where my mind stayed as I reflected on that thought. I quickly began to think about safety and “open water” for the Church. (Vocational hazard… you should have seen that one coming, though the reflection will certainly apply much farther afield.) In seminary, I remember discussing in Christian Education classes the need to create safe space for education. The general argument is that if space wasn’t safe people were less receptive to learn… or venture thoughts that enhance the conversation (becoming the “teacher”). And I bought fully into the argument. (I still do… sort of… but you should have seen that coming as well.)
My sense of ecclesiology (reflection on what it means to be church) incorporated the idea that we needed to be a safe space. In this sense, our Sanctuaries really are a sanctuary where people feel safe and can breath deep freed from many of the fears they experience in other settings. Here we create a space that invites vulnerability, sharing of diverse opinions, and honest hard reflections about our lives while trusting in the grace and love of God and the community that follows in the way of Jesus.
But then I got caught up. I got caught up by that last phrase: follows in the way of Jesus. If a church models itself on discipleship than we take Jesus as more than a model of what it means to be God, or what it means to be human, but also how we go about forming our lives in his way. And Jesus…. wasn’t a harbor dweller. Jesus did ministry on the move. Jesus didn’t go looking for conflict (well, not all the time) but didn’t avoid it either. And Jesus didn’t hold back his thoughts because they would make people uncomfortable, or even unsafe. In fact, paying attention to the early “followers of the way” it was decidedly unsafe. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Annie Dillard:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Our lives aren’t lived in the harbor. And while there is a time and place for rest… we all need rest now and then, and people to care for us and love us if we are going to learn to walk the way of Jesus we need learn to walk that way in an unsafe world. Artificially safe spaces may not actually prepare us in helpful ways for the world. Which probably has a lot to do why Jesus wanders around the world waiting for teaching moments to present themselves. Feeding the five thousand is not a hypothetical moment… and the storm tossed boat is a far cry from a simulator exercise. The very gritty, decidedly unsafe school of Jesus created apostles who – despite their humble beginnings and struggles throughout the Gospel accounts – became great ships standing stall, harnessing chaotic winds and sailing the entire world with good news… in the way of Jesus. I quote A. B. Bruce often in this regard when he remarks, in The Training of the Twelve, that the Sanhedrin marvels at the audacious faith of Jesus’ disciples, now become apostles. They had become people of strong nerve who risked failure in change and were not easily daunted. They were people of rare courage (all of sudden… or maybe not so sudden) “till at length they could do what was right, heedless of human criticism, without effort, almost without thought.”
This is the life we in training for… the Church is in the business of building just such great ships to sail the chaotic waters of life. And safety may have its place… but if it’s our top priority then I would argue we will not fulfill our mission. The Church in its gathered state must be a proper training ground in the use of crash helmets and life jackets so that the Church in its scattered state can overcome fear to be authentic, vulnerable, grace-filled agents of God’s truth and love. We will need to put the chairs back on the ground so we can get good at climbing.
If we cannot speak the truth in love to one another, how will we claim our prophetic role and speak truth to power?
If we cannot risk speaking our doubts out loud and wrestling with what we truly believe – and not just what we feel we are supposed to think – then how will we be a resource for hope to people who feel lost… let alone find ourselves willing to risk talking to them at all?
If we cannot be challenged by people who think we are wrong or confront different opinions in passionate disagreement and still remain in a covenantal relationship as the people of God, how can we claim to be honest about who we are? How can we follow the one who – on the cross itself – offered forgiveness to the very ones who killed him for what he believed?
If we are not going to get our hands dirty, and tire our legs, making “good theology” go to work in our pews and classrooms AND our neighborhoods and communities… then what ARE we doing… enjoying free music and some benign pop psychology masquerading as the Gospel?
We are meant to be in the business of letting God build us into great ships and set us to sail in the open waters of life… we are co-workers in THAT kingdom. So let’s get to it.
FYI I think this applies as well for school classrooms and job internships and… basically everywhere. 🙂
As for the quote which I *’ed, in searching the internet I found the quote attributed to Clarrisa Pinkola Estes and I found it in a post from her you can see here: http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=548
As for if she is using it or “wrote” it I do not know, it seems like it links back to the briefer quotation, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” This quote, according to the following article, is best attributed to John Shedd in a 1928 collection of sayings. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/12/09/safe-harbor/
I started a short morning devotional idea of putting to my words a thread from a Psalm each morning in a short six-word phrase. Obviously, they capture only a part of the voice of the Psalm (each Psalm itself only a voice in a large chorus) but it makes me listen to what thread feels “most important” to me this day. I could do the same Psalms over and over again with a new phrase because there are infinite threads in the tapestry… and so could you. I’m not always happy with what the phrase claims, but the discipline for me is about let’s six words speak without a need to try to say all that should be said. I recommend – after spending a time with the short phrase – making sure to read the whole Psalm to understand its full voice.
Here is the first third of the Psalms from 1 to 50.
Psalm 1: “Roots mirror their soil; plant wisely”
Psalm 2: “Nations seek greatness; steadfast love endures.”
Psalm 3: “God’s dead, they say… Alternative facts.”
Psalm 4: “When all is deception; seek silence.”
Psalm 5: “Sigh! Cry! Plead! Marinate in Love.”
Psalm 6: “Dry-heaving tears without end… God?”
Psalm 7: “Not just what, but how, matters.”
Psalm 8: “Everything is awesome; keep it so.”
Psalm 9: “Be a herald of steadfast love.”
Psalm 10: “God, you need to adult today!”
Psalm 11: “God examines the heart for violence.”
Psalm 12: “We follow vileness and it proliferates.”
Psalm 13: “My soul bleeds unbandaged… how long???”
Psalm 14: “We are consumers of each other.”
Psalm 15: “Deeply root in self-giving not blaming.”
Psalm 16: “What god are you following today?”
Psalm 17: “Save us from hearts without pity.”
Psalm 18: “God does as you do… infinite-fold.”
Psalm 19: “Wherever there is, God is. Wonderful.”
Psalm 20: “Personal strength and independence inevitably fail.”
Psalm 21: “God’s strength inspires praise AND fear.”
Psalm 22: “God, You gave me more than I can handle.”
#Ibroketherules #sodidGod #forsaken
Psalm 23: “Stop! Lie down! Rest! You’re welcome.”
Psalm 24: “We don’t own, we gratefully steward.”
Psalm 25: “Don’t forget yourself, God – be love.”
Psalm 26: “My only companion is my self-righteousness.”
#thisPsalmdoesntworkforme #stillspeakstohumanexperience #elderbrother
Psalm 27: “God overcomes fear… ‘God, …overcome fear?!?!’”
Psalm 28: “God perpetuates reform, breaking and building.”
Psalm 29: “God speaks more powerfully than calamity.”
Psalm 30: “Hell is God’s favorite fishing hole.”
Psalm 31: “Literally, nothing goes right. But love.”
Psalm 32: “Silence is fertile soil for sin.”
Psalm 33: “God frustrates us to good end.”
Psalm 34: “Peace is cultivated not simply found.”
Psalm 35: “God, make karma a real thing.”
Psalm 36: “God trips up self-flattery and deception.”
Psalm 37: “Give abundantly; care passionately; eschew violence.”
Psalm 38: God. Life is royally #^@%*& up.”
Psalm 39: “We are motes of self-important dust.”
Psalm 40: “Living love out loud is worship.”
Psalm 41: “God helps those who help others.”
Psalm 42: “God: tuning fork for my soul.”
Psalm 43: “Hope is knowing the next step.”
Psalm 44: “Our military power cannot save us.”
Psalm 45: “Royal pomp reflects (overtakes?) God’s glory.”
Psalm 46: “God is fearfully powerful. For peace.”
*Psalm 47: <This Psalm is ancient praise music.>
I broke the rules this day, the Psalm is very repetitive and felt happy clappy so my take away was that it struck me as ancient contemporary worship music.
Psalm 48: “God wraps us in protective love.”
Psalm 49: “Death shepherds those who please themselves.”
Psalm 50: “God needs nothing but desires gratitude.”
What does it mean to call Jesus “the Son of Man”?
I am doing a summer sermon series where people had a chance to write in questions that would form all the sermons this summer. Some are theological questions, some are about particular biblical texts, and some are about our own sense of discernment and spirituality. The above question was one that was asked but I was not able to shoe-horn into the sermon series itself and instead thought I would write an “answer” to it in blog form. And that is what you are reading right now!
I’m going to answer this question in two ways: first I will write up a new engagement in brief form, and then I will paste in a paper I wrote in 2009 for a doctoral class on the Book of Daniel which is lengthy, dry, and detailed but completely on point to this question and… what else does one do with old papers they wrote once upon a time??? 😉
The term “Son of Man” is used extensively in the Gospels and in Acts of the Apostles and Revelation, though the term in its Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament) form is found nowhere else. This has led to a lack of consensus in the scholarship of its origin and exact meaning. It is often understood loosely as being a counter-point to “Son of God” where one focuses on the divinity of Christ and one on the humanity of Christ.
I adhere to the belief that the trail to understand the meaning behind “Son of Man”, walked backward, leads to the Book of Daniel and its use of the language “one like a son of man” in the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7. This figure, less a savior figure and more an inheritor and representative figure, is seen as weak and lowly, and yet given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:14) This kingdom is eternal, given by God, and lead by those who have remained faithful after the “Ancient of Days” sat in judgment on the throne and struck dead the four beasts whose kingdoms all failed making way for the eternal kingdom of God.
The contrasts set up here are that the beasts were strong, violent, and fed (devoured) the world around them, whereas the “one like a son of man” (or even pitiable human) is seen as a corporate/representative figure of a remnant of those who stayed faithful when it was hard to do so, one whose faith is strong but not his stature, more enduring than powerful, more wise than “flashy”… namely, he isn’t typically one we would expect to gain dominion. In fact, he doesn’t gain it, earn it, or win it… he is given it. The Kingdom then, is God’s, and any dominion that is to be had is only ever a gift from God for God’s people.
The Gospels’ use of this figure would seem then to place Jesus in the line of this thinking. Jesus is not a warrior. Jesus is not flashy, charismatic, or traditionally powerful. Jesus is, rather, pitiable, all-to-human, and unassuming. And yet, Jesus is possessed of great reserves of patient endurance, resistance to being tempted out of faithfulness, and deep recesses of wisdom which lead us as a caretaker of all people and not for his own gain. Jesus is not – then – a singular messianic figure of a particular people, but a representative of all humanity living as the image of God to foster the goodness of all creation for all people. This, I believe, is what the Gospels claim when they have Jesus self-reference as the Son of Man. And this, I believe, is the way of life that Jesus demonstrates for us to follow him in living. That we are, quite literally, the Body of Christ living as “one like a son of man” – that is to say: a corporate inter-related being whose strength lies in faithfulness to God and one another and a calling to live for, and with, each other accountable to the “way of Jesus Christ” in God’s Kingdom.
I hope that is helpful. It is a right answer, not the right answer.
Want to dive deeper? Keep reading, but you have been warned. 😉
The paper I have included here (the footnotes didn’t import so if you want to know what any of them are just ask) is old so there are things I would change today, there are a couple of scholarly errors but I will again leave the errors because – hey – I’m human and make mistakes and will let those mistakes stand, and it could have read tighter at times – but then, that is true of EVERYTHING I write… so I would probably only make it worse. 🙂
Rev. Andrew Kukla
In the nearly two thousand years since the last canonical book of the Bible was written much of Christian writing has been spent in apologetics. Particularly it has been spent in the area of Christians attempting to convince non-Christians of the existence of God and the “rightness” of Christian faith. Strangely this apparently captivating agenda is not a predominate agenda of the Bible. It is almost non-existent with a few minor Pauline exceptions. Jews did not attempt to convert Pharaoh, or the Assyrians, or even their Canaanite neighbors in the “promised land”. The New Testament is perhaps more complex in establishing such agendas. We know at least that Jesus struggles to even comprehend an agenda outside of those already “of the faith”. Outside of Paul and Barnabas, the vast majority of the first Christians are equally interested in staying inside the faith tradition. Paul’s own mission to the Gentiles may have stayed on the borders of those who were already believers, rather than moving to Christian apologetics to those completely outside the tradition. We do of course have stories of Paul like that of the unknown God, and so I do not entirely discount such Christian apologetics within canonical scripture. However, I believe that much of our time and energy has been spent in a direction in which biblical writers were just not interested. Regardless of the truth of that claim what is equally convicting to me is that one of the main agendas of scripture goes largely ignored, or greatly reduced, in our own conversations: that of examining our own faithfulness and our Christian discipleship.
There are always exceptions, prophet voices that continue to call our attention to God and our neglect of keeping our lives turned toward God. One such person who did not ignore the task, and was largely ridiculed, mocked, and ignored for it, was Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard boldly said of himself that he endeavored to convince the cultural Christians of nineteenth century Denmark that they were not in fact Christian. Only having recognized that their assumed Christianity was not in fact true Christianity would they be able to engage life-transforming faith with greater intentionality and, in fact, follow Christ. Other voices over the centuries have also continued the long established prophetic tradition of calling us to faithfulness. As the audience of such prophetic voices who are interested in learning and following the ways of God revealed in Jesus Christ we become disciples: those who place ourselves at the feet of truth to learn how to live in accordance with that truth. Amidst the multitude of biblical voices of discipling prophets one that goes largely ignored is that of Daniel. Daniel sits in the confused mix of wisdom tradition, prophet, and early apocalyptic. As a historical apocalypse, the book provides stories one can resonate with, but then moves to grand visions rich with mythological imagery that confuse and leave the reader curious as to what is being said or intended on our behalf. Skeptical of the apocalyptic, and with a wealth of other places to go, mainline Christianity largely turns a deaf ear to the wisdom of Daniel.
This trend in our reading, study, and preaching is, unfortunately, a big loss. Daniel has much to say to our own practice of discipleship and much in common with our contemporary ministry context. Written in the midst of Hellenization, post-exilic Diaspora, and empire, the book of Daniel is a call to identity awareness and assurance of the sovereignty of God, as well as a call to faithfulness in the “way” – God’s way. Thus Daniel, in story, vision, and prayer, serves as a call to faithfulness and a rich foundation for Christian discipleship two centuries later. The community of Daniel shapes the theological groundwork for first-century Jewish-Christians whose major struggle will also be counter-cultural identity formation and assurance of the presence and power of God in their lives. Daniel’s call to second century B.C.E. Jews is a fertile ground for understanding Christ’s call to Peter and Andrew, James and John, you and me. I intend to develop this foundation of discipleship in the book of Daniel by looking at three features within the book: the figure of the “one like a son of man” in the vision of Daniel 7, the role of the hasidim and maskilim, and the central and grounding function of Daniel’s prayer of confession in Daniel 9.
The One like a Son of Man
“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.” (Dan 7:13, NRSV)
Daniel 7 is the first, most important and influential of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions. It also provides us with one of the most used (and abused?) phrases in the entire book. The appearance of the “one like a human being”, or more often referred to as the “one like a son of man”, is open to varied interpretation and is quickly grabbed up by some Christian readers and interpreters to be a prophecy of Jesus Christ. In the vision of Dan 7 following the introduction of the four beasts representing four kingdoms we have a heavenly court scene and the “Ancient of Days” pronounces judgment and removes dominion from the beasts. While not of prime importance for this study it should be noted that there is never a need for actual battle in this judgment scene. Simply sitting on the thrown and pronouncing judgment ends the reign of the beasts. As well the “one like a son of man” who shall shortly make an appearance is not here shown as the savior. This figure didn’t win or even fight a battle against the beasts. Rather the figure appears to sit in judgment before the “Ancient of Days” just as the beasts did, only this one will be reckoned righteous and given dominion over an eternal kingdom of God. The fallen “beastly” kingdoms replaced by eternal “human” kingdom. This is still God’s kingdom, but that kingdom has also been given over to “human” stewardship.
There are many better places to trace the various interpretations of this particular line and the continued use of it in the remainder of Dan 7, particularly the references to the “holy ones” in Dan 7:18, 22, 25 and the “people of the holy ones” in Dan 7:27. J.J. Collins provides a good analysis in his article, The Son of Man and the Saints of the Most High in the Book of Daniel. There he argues that the best interpretation is, “that the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel 7 symbolizes primarily the angelic host and its leader but also the faithful Jews in so far as they are associated with the heavenly host in the eschatological era”. Such an interpretation fits with reading “one like a son of man” as one who stands as a single figure representing a larger corporate identity. This figure thus understood is less a single messianic figure as it is the host of faithful ones who will inherit dominion from the “Ancient of Days”. While Collins stresses that it seems to make sense that the “holy ones” are angelic beings, he also allows that they are identified through Dan 7:27 with the faithful remnant of Israel. I push further than Collins and say that rather than angelic hosts it is primarily faithful Israel as led by the wise, the remnant, that Daniel understands to be represented by the “one like a son of man”. Even Collins notes that the language of Dan 12 pushes us to a fair reading in this direction because, “we have seen in Dan 12 that the just would be elevated to join the stars after the final judgment, either interpretation may appear appropriate. In either case, the people share in the kingdom of the angels, and so the interpretation in Dan 7:27 is merely a spelling out of the human dimension of the more complete reality mentioned in the vision in verse 22 and in the interpretation in verse 18.”
Furthermore, as I will continue to develop, I think Daniel is intending a prophetic call to faithfulness. As the “one like a son of man” stands before God’s throne, Israel stands in judgment before God. As this figure is given dominion, reckoned righteous before God, so will Israel, or her faithful remnant, be given dominion. Here the very language of Genesis is repeated as humanity, mixed in with a fair bit of Danielic heavenly host, again becomes steward of God’s kingdom. Of prime importance, however, is that this text reads as a call to make sure that the reader is on the path of righteousness. In a world of beasts: be human. In fact, the very humanized imagery of angels throughout Daniel seems to be a glorification of humanity, in so far as humanity aspires to truly be human. One is reminded of Nebuchadnezzar.
While the words were still in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven: “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: The kingdom has departed from you! You shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the animals of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, and seven times shall pass over you, until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he will. (Dan 4:31-32)
Nebuchadnezzar aspires to be more than human and so is struck down and becomes less than human. To take this argument a step further for those who stress the angelic nature of this “one like a son of man” I would note that if this is in fact the intended reading this figure is a rather plain angelic figure for Daniel. Contrast the descriptive language of angelic visitor in Dan 10, “I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.” (Dan 10:5-6)
On this point Eugene E. Lemcio notes that in the old Greek language of Daniel a proper translation gives us more a sense of “frail human” then simply human being. “Rather, it is an idiom of choice for conveying the specialized meaning of ‘frail human’ or ‘vulnerable human’. Although some have argued that ‘son of man’ in 7:13 refers to an angel, this is definitely not the case in 8:17. However, even if the former is an angelic figure, the question remains, what kind of human features did he have?” Lemcio’s argument has a flavor of authenticity in that it is, as he notes, “the theological point that it is to people in such circumstances that God grants political power and prophetic insight.” The theological point made is that this figure does not get dominion because of person strength, but through righteousness and because “God gives”.
The “one like a son of man” comes into the court, stands before the throne on behalf of Israel, and as Israel inherits God’s kingdom. This one is now the one to whom God gives, only now it is eternal kingdom. Daniel calls out to his people to not simply take heart that God is Most High and Sovereign God of all creation, but also to take heart and live accordingly so that they worthy of representation in the “one like a son of man”. Compare for instance the language of Zechariah and the high priest Joshua coming before the throne for judgment and being cleansed of his “dirty clothes” and reckoned righteous in the eyes of God. He is then told, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here”. (Zech 3:7 NRSV) Daniel’s scene takes a similar role but now the call to “walk in my ways” is for the whole remnant of Israel who shall share in the dominion of the “one like a son of man”. Daniel speaks out to his people amidst a succession of human empires and now with social, financial, and political pressure to conform to pluralistic Hellenized society Daniel offers a different testimony. He offers a figure of righteousness that advocates for, and represents, Israel. As such Daniel encourages his fellow Jews not to turn away from their essential identity as people of God – “people of the holy ones of the Most High”.
Hasidim and Maskilim
“He shall seduce with intrigue those who violate the covenant; but the people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action. The wise among the people shall give understanding to many.” (Dan 11:32-33a)
If Daniel is speaking most directly to the Jews under the Seleucid Empire under the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, than he is not only speaking to a context of Hellenization. He also speaks to Hellenizing efforts that involve violent attempts to convert the Jews away from their Jewish identity. Daniel speaks to outright contest of faith, to a people witnessing yet another desecration of the temple, and some of the first religious persecution as Antiochus seems to desire to get Jews to stop being Jewish. In response to this dilemma C.L. Seow notes that two particular responses emerged for faithful Jews were practiced. One is that of the hasidim. This group of people are linked to a group within the Maccabean revolt and are likely the referent of Daniel 11:32 as those who “stand firm and take action.” The hasidim are mentioned three time in 1 and 2 Maccabees and were likely “a party of scribes (1 Macc 7:12-42) whose motivation was strict fidelity to the law (1 Macc 2:42). They were prepared to fight for the law, when necessary and when permitted by the law itself… they were prepared to lay down arms at the prospect of a legitimate high-priest who could remove the religious abuses of the Hellenizers.” Thus the hasidim, while a part of the Maccabean revolt, are a party that seems to take up arms only in the face of true identity crisis and were quick to lay down arms when identity was no longer at stake.
An alternate approach, and the group for which Daniel likely speaks, is the maskilim, the “wise among the people”. This group appears to offer counsel for fidelity to God, and takes strength in God’s sovereign presence, but stops short of violent response. This is noted by Seow who concludes “insufficient evidence is available to conclude that these people were strictly pacifists, but they did seem to respond to the crisis not with force but with quiet manifestations of faithfulness.” And of them Collins notes:
The mythological symbolism of the visions of Daniel is designed to inspire active but non-militant resistance. The maskilim are not said to fight. The warfare is left to Michael and to God. The maskilim play their part by their suffering and teaching. In ch. 7 the entire conflict is resolved by judgment. The symbolism of the visions does not encourage zealotry. Rather, it provides a framework within which the wise man does not need to fight, but can express his resistance to the power of the king by non-compliance with his orders, and endurance of whatever suffering results. The mythic patterns assure the wise man that there is a meaning in life even in the darkest crisis.
Thus the hasidim and the maskilim prove to be two groups whose focus is on fidelity to God and God’s way – the way of wisdom. They differ in that the hasidim appear willing, in moments permitted by the law, to take up arms. The idea of the wise as faithful Jewish remnant figures prominently throughout the book of Daniel. The first six chapters of historical court stories serve almost as a prelude to establish the wisdom of Daniel. In Daniel is found one who is the epitome of the wise. In Dan 1 he stays true to his Jewish identity. In Dan 2 he is wiser than wise, through the power of the Most High, as he reveals both dream and interpretation. In Dan 3 his friends show willingness to die for their faithfulness. In Dan 4 Nebuchadnezzar relates his own experience and while we see Daniel as agent of wisdom here Nebuchadnezzar is also offered as counter-point to wisdom – the folly of hubris. In Dan 5 again Daniel is praised for wisdom but even more to our point Daniel is not only able to interpret but willing to give damning interpretation in the very court of the King whose demise he reveals. In Dan 6 it is now Daniel who is willing to put life and limb on the line for his fidelity to God.
Wisdom is the key attribute for Daniel. The emerging character trait of wisdom is a recognition that in God alone should trust and faith be placed. This is true even, and especially, in a world in which such trust leads at best to ridicule in the courts and at worst to a sentence of death. Furthermore in a world of competing voices, of temptations from the Emperor himself, the wise give understanding and point the way to turn to, and back to, God. And so in the culminating eschatological event of Dan 12 it is the wise that again get mention as, “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Dan 12:3) The wise are prized for their role in leading others to wisdom and righteousness. However the dilemma remains, do the wise actually risk faithfulness?
On this point the best work I have encountered and find as an essential insight to reading Daniel is Richard Horsley’s book Revolt of the Scribes. Horsley’s approach and thesis is that “apocalyptic” is a scribal resistance to imperial power complicated by their status as “in the middle” between a priestly aristocracy and the masses to whom the scribes bear responsibility as holders of the traditions and covenantal faithfulness. “Prominent priestly aristocrats had not only acquired a desire to participate in the broader Hellenistic imperial culture, but they had learned how to maneuver in imperial politics for position and power.” In this system a middle class of scribes found themselves financially dependent to the priestly aristocrats. These scribes were very learned “wise men” of the Jews, but torn between their responsibility for covenantal faithfulness and the well being of their lives and status of living. Horsley contends that in such an environment a way of faithfulness became the development and use of apocalyptic voice. That apocalyptic literature is in fact these scribes speaking to one another, and their fellow Jews, in texts like the book of Daniel exhorting each other to faithfulness. There are many convincing ways to understand Daniel as operating in this way. I will digress for a moment to note an example of how such a reading works with the book of Daniel.
In the history section of Dan 1-6 a reading in line with Horsley’s thesis appears to be very authentic to the voice of the text in these continuing court dramas. While kings play roles in the six encounters experienced by Daniel and his three friends, equally prominent is the consistent antagonistic presence of the Babylonian wise men: the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans. The audience of Daniel is not one of Babylonian exiles, and the court intrigue of those exilic times is not what is at stake. If we read this with Horsley’s thesis in mind – that these are stories to promote faithfulness in the tension of covenant identity in opposition to prosperous imperial life – it would be an easy jump to imagine that a scribal reader could see in these court contests illusions to their own situation and tensions. This seems clear in Dan 1 and his resistance to eating the food of the Babylonian court. Daniel is willing to undergo Babylonian education, receives a Babylonian name, and yet says that there is a line that he and his friends, out of faithfulness, cannot cross. I immediately read this and imagine the scribes of second century Jerusalem being asked to consider where that line is. Furthermore later court intrigue stories will offer encouragement that standing one’s ground on the “right” side of the line offers support from God and even triumph over the opposition.
As well if we look at Dan 5 and the interpretation of the writing on the wall we can ask the question do the wise men of Babylon know the meaning of the writing or not? There is nothing particularly cryptic to the translation as presented in the vision. The jump from the meaning of the words and Daniel’s resulting interpretation is large, but not I would imagine insurmountable for this collection of Imperial wise men. If we take the opinion that they may have known the meaning, why does no one but Daniel speak? Again the reality of personal well being rears its head. Speaking means telling the king that he is unjust and his kingdom is about to come to an end. Speaking likely means losing favor with the king and quite possibly worse. However, Daniel is rewarded as was promised, despite his protest earlier not to receive reward. Daniel the humble, the wise, and the faithful wins yet another court contest. The message is delivered to the wise – seek not your own well being but the well being of Israel and covenantal faithfulness to our God.
Read thus we can see that a strong and constant agenda for Daniel is calling the very teachers of wisdom to faithfulness. The lifting up of the wise and their righteousness is as much a point of rhetoric saying in almost Pauline fashion, “if we will stay true to God and give faithful voice to God in our counsel and the day-to-day living of our lives then we shall lead others to righteousness with us, and we will inherit God’s kingdom being raised up even from death as angel’s in God’s eschatological kingdom.” In such a reading the ambivalence of Daniel to the way of the hasidim versus the way of the maskilim makes sense. Both ways are ways of wisdom and we are not in an argument about non-violence, but an argument and exhortation to faithfulness. It is as if Daniel speaks to the other wise men of the Babylonian court (and as such I mean his fellow Jews) saying, ‘when you see the writing on the wall you have to interpret its meaning for the world, even when such an act leads to suffering or death.’
Prayer and Confession in Daniel 9
“We did not entreat the favor of the LORD our God, turning from our iniquities and reflecting on God’s fidelity.” (Daniel 9:13b, NRSV)
In Dan 9 the prayer sits at the heart of the book, and Dan 9:13 sits at the heart of the prayer. This prayer is our window into what truly troubles Daniel. However scholars have long debated the authenticity of the prayer. Daniel’s prayer is found in Dan 9 in the second half of the book which is commonly understood to be the apocalyptic half following the court stories. This half contains visions and dreams and now Daniel, the interpreter of such events in the first half, requires heavenly interpreters for his own visionary and dream encounters. The ninth chapter sits between the first two revelations and the final revelation unit contained in Dan 10-12. Within Dan 9 the prayer sits bookmarked between two events. Prior to the prayer is a recounting of Daniel reading of Jeremiah’s prophesy for the restoration of Israel in the seventieth year while he is himself located in the reign of Darius (more likely Cyrus of Persia) the Mede. Following the prayer is a visitation with the angel Gabriel who brings a word of interpretation about the seventy years. This locates Daniel still in exile for while it is no longer the oppressive exile of Babylon it is nevertheless not home, and in the court of a foreign power and it was at a time that would have been either near, or passed, the date of the predicted restoration of the temple.
Many scholars have long said that this is prayer is a departure of form within the larger book. We have no vision, dream, or heavenly journey as would be expected of apocalyptic literature but rather we have a lengthy prayer of confession followed by a revelatory interpretation. The style of the Hebrew is more regular and pure than that of the surrounding material in Daniel, the Hebrew of Daniel has many “aramaisms” that denote either an author equally conversant in both languages whose Hebrew has adopted Aramaic ways, or that the material might even be Aramaic originals translated back into Hebrew.
Without going into too many details C. L. Seow makes some excellent arguments that while the quality of the Hebrew is different the wording and thematic movement of the prayer, Dan 9:3-19/20, are consistent with the material of Dan 9 surrounding it Dan 9:1-2, 21-27 in ways that are unique to this chapter of Daniel. The actual naming of Jerusalem, the use of the words for supplication, desolation, the admissions of iniquities and promised atonement, and finally the oath and decree of being “poured out” all exists in both the prayer and non-prayer sections of Dan 9, but not in other places in Daniel. This suggests either originality of a whole, or that the prayer was clearly in the mind of the author while writing Dan 9.
In a separate way of addressing the issue, and even more convicting in my opinion W. Sibley Towner says of the debate on the prayer’s originality.
This, in fact, a number of scholars have done. (Made the case that the prayer is not original to the text.) Von Gall was the first to argue the case against the authenticity of the prayer, and he has been followed by, among others, Baumgartner, Heaton, Bentzen, Charles, and Ginsberg. Although I tend to agree with the formal arguments of Plöger and the rhetorical and stylistic observations of B. W. Jones on behalf of the originality of the prayer, it is not necessary that I take a position on the question because I am interested primarily in the internal dynamics of the canonical biblical text as it now stands. The fact is that someone (whether the writer of Dan. 7-12 himself or a later editor) saw a significant relationship between the penitential prayer of Daniel and the eschatological midrash on Jer. 25:1 which occupies the rest of ch. 9.
Lastly, the whole coherence of the book of Daniel as one literary unit is under question. Since it is not determinable that any of these chapters are original to each other the whole idea that Dan 9 would be an addition, and that this would be a unique problem, is of strange concern to an informed reader of Daniel.
With questions of authenticity aside it becomes even more important to address the complaint that this is the wrong prayer. That if Daniel is confused or dismayed by what he has read in the first part of the chapter he ought to pray for illumination, not a prayer of confession. I always find it interesting when we decide biblical writers, or even redactors, did something wrong. Do we presume to know God better, them better, or their context better than they did? Sitting in Daniel myself I am struck that in a book entirely about the sovereignty of God juxtaposed to the false pride of empires and kings confession is the natural and right environment not only of every prayer, but of every act and state of being.
Elaborating on this trajectory it has been noted that the prayer is largely ignored by the angel and the theology of the prayer denied both by the response in the later part of nine and throughout the book of Daniel. The idea that the prayer is ignored seems unfounded. If Daniel was formulaically apocalyptic it would be imagined that it would be ignored as irrelevant to a fixed course of history. However I do not find that this is what the text suggests,
He (Gabriel) came and said to me, “Daniel, I have now come out to give you wisdom and understanding. 23 At the beginning of your supplications a word went out, and I have come to declare it, for you are greatly beloved. So consider the word and understand the vision: 24 “Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city: to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. (Dan 9:22-24)
The angel has heard the prayer, and while the response predates the hearing, Daniel’s penitence is noted and loved, and God is clearly addressing transgression, sin, and righteousness as well as the turning of God’s face to the temple. Elsewhere in Daniel while the focus is on God, the faithfulness of the “people of the Holy Ones of Israel” is, as I have already noted, not a forgotten element. Particularly looking back to the vision of Dan 7 with its vision of the heavenly court and the figures of the beasts, the “one like a son of man”, the “Holy Ones of the Most High”, and the “people of the Holy Ones of the Most High” all of whom either directly (or by association) stand in judgment before the “Ancient of Days”. As well, faithfulness is relevant in the vision of Dan 11:32-35 with its talk of those who are seduced to iniquity in contrast to the hasidim and maskilim. And lastly in Dan 12:1-3 we get a sense of judgment with an evaluation of the “righteousness” of humanity which would seem then to greatly encourage, not just Daniel to pray confession before the Most High, but all peoples.
In Dan 7 we spoke of the “one like a son of man” as representational for the faithful of Israel. In this prayer it seems it is now Daniel that serves as exemplary figure. Daniel demonstrates the position of the wise and the righteous. Rodney Werline notes that the prayer is not in fact very clear about what sins have been committed, with one particular exception. “In the confession in v. 13, the author lists a specific failure: the people do not “ponder” God’s truth… “to ponder” is a key term in Daniel. Other passages in Daniel employ the noun form of this word in order to identify the Danielic apocalyptic circle; the member function in the role of maskilim.” At prayer Daniel models faithful response to contested sovereignty, turning to God and pondering God’s truth. And just as the “one like a son of man” stood in place for all of Israel in Daniel’s prayer it is Daniel who stands in our place. Here is what we are to be, and are to do. In open and honest reflection Daniel bears his heart before God, he bears the heart of Israel before God. “Incline your ear, O my God, and hear. Open your eyes and look at our desolation and the city that bears your name. We do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies.” (Dan 9:18)
Walter Brueggemann makes two additional and important claims of the text. The first is that the prayer turns in the second half to ask God’s mercy since we will always fail to keep covenant. Thus even in the prayer of confession there is not the sense that we make ourselves right through confession but an entreaty to a sovereign God to make it right for us, since we cannot. So rather than wait for us to turn back to God, God is asked to turn back to us. And it is done so in bold hope. “Thus the prayer proposes that for Israel to have a future, YHWH must be willing to relinquish the past that is such an affront to YHWH. Daniel prayed in daring faith, but of course he did not know of the divine response he would receive, because YHWH is not an automaton. YWHW is a free agent, and so Israel prays always in hope.”
In a book of grand cosmic vision the prayer brings us back to the ground, and in it we cannot help but be placed “in the thick of things”. This is not simply cosmic battle, but people’s lives. This is not simply priestly theological dilemma but the stuff of the lives of everyone from king to priest to merchant to farmer to slave. Placed “on the ground” apocalyptic fervor doesn’t simply become about “the kingdom that is coming” but the “kingdom that is here”. As Sibley Towner puts it:
focused not on judgment but upon the nearness of the Kingdom of God. My treatment of the status of the concept of divine retribution in Dan. 7-12 suggests the possible existence in first century Judaism of a line of thought which, though full of eschatological enthusiasm, rejoiced less in the judgmental aspect of the eschaton than in the conviction of its (God’s Kingdom’s) nearness and greatness.
I have growing conviction that when you read this text in light of the passages mentioned earlier (the court scene of Dan 7, and Dan 11; 12 with its talk of the workings of the hasidim and maskilim) this prayer sits very naturally in an agenda of Daniel to exhort his people to faithfulness. If the “one like a son of man” stands in judgment as representative of the people of Israel to be judged as fitting or not to have a dominion without end then the people, “people of the Holy Ones of the Most High”, must “turn back” to their God. This is the call of the prayer, it is the answer of the purpose of the 70 years (weeks of years) that Gabriel brings to Daniel, and it is the exhortation of Daniel over and over, through court stories, kingly humiliations, and final declarations of Israel’s patron angel Michael, “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Dan 12:3)
“I heard but could not understand; so I said, “My lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be purified, cleansed, and refined, but the wicked shall continue to act wickedly. None of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand.” (Dan 12:8-10)
The book of Daniel’s later half gives us grand and confusing images, impossible and yet intriguing numbers, and dire portents and predictions. Daniel, the utmost of the wise, is left unable to understand what he has seen. Daniel, the figure of faithful strength is sent not simply to his knees but lying face to the ground. “Then I heard the sound of his words, I fell into a trance, face to the ground. But then a hand touched me and roused me to my hands and knees.” (Dan 10:9-10) God picks Daniel up, God gives Daniel strength and vision and interpretation. God gives. This is the two fold window into the world the book of Daniel offers. That God gives and God is sovereign over all creation. But also that God’s gift is received by those who are attending to the presence of God in their lives, to those like Daniel who “ponder God’s truth”. From the heart of the prayer in Dan 9 and moving out in revelatory circles we see the wisdom of God’s way, of God’s Kingdom, come to the forefront of a book that is not ultimately about eschatological kingdom, but the faithfulness of God’s people for their stewardship (dominion) of God’s Kingdom.
The way of the wise then becomes the way of discipleship, forever pondering God’s truth and God’s presence. When the angel responds to Daniel’s question by saying, “Go your way”, the angel is saying forget all these numbers. Forget everything. Remember only that God is in control and the end of evil and human brokenness is set in God’s time just as the fully revealed establishment of God’s Kingdom is not in doubt. But for Daniel, this is too much. For Daniel the angel simply says, “Go your way.” And we know Daniel’s way. Daniel’s way is a way of penitential prayer. Daniel’s way is the way of wisdom, of standing true to God when the world around seeks to entice you to turn away. Daniel’s way is way of Israel as God’s people, God’s holy ones who have been set apart as a witness and testimony of God’s power and might, and God’s mercy and love. So it is no surprise that Luke and other Gospel’s will follow Qumran traditions and begin to read the “one like a son of man” as a messianic figure, and for their own confessions and proclamations, as Jesus Christ. I hardly have to note the dominant trend in current scholarship that now understands that what Daniel meant generically to say “human being” in this line “one like a son of man” was used in later apocalyptic and near-apocalyptic texts as title for a role, Son of Man. This title becomes picked up by the Gospel writers. In the Gospels the savior, the messiah, is the Son of Man. But this savior is also one who represents true humanity; one who neither attempts to ascend to heaven in God’s place nor descend to the “animal” as less than God has created us to be.
Maurice Casey provides us work that would make it quite reasonable to claim that even as the Son of Man has become messianic title, there is still a working understanding of the corporate identify of the “one like a son of man” in Jewish circles at the time of Jesus. So even as we note the way Jesus will inherit a title of the Son of Man that has altered the Daniel phrase from its original intent, it also still makes sense to think that early Christians could draw on the idea of Jesus as standing in judgment as representative man on behalf of all humanity, or at the least faithful believers. So the move then to understanding the faithful as the Body of Christ has theological foundations available to it in Daniel’s vision, just as the concept of dominion in God’s eternal kingdom in the book of Daniel provides ground for Jesus sayings about the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. Israel is represented in “the one like a son of man” and so too are Christians represented in Jesus. And just as God is known by those who “bear your name” and God’s kingdom is ruled by “people of the holy ones of the Most High” so is Christ known by those who make up his body, who bear his name: Christians. I do not here make a claim that Daniel serves as predictive prophesy. I do not think it is, and I do not read Dan 7:13 as talking about Christ. It does however provide fertile soil for understanding Christ in the faith tradition of the first Jewish-Christians. It also provides us an important resource for understanding our own discipleship to Christ.
Daniel has pointed us to the way of faithfulness in exile. And the similarities of our own contemporary context of discipleship and Daniel’s day are many. Kierkegaard believed that his fellow Danish Christians, and all of Christendom, were living a lie. He believed that their lie need to be unveiled and revealed from within in order that they might be able to see their lack of faith and turn back to God. Kierkegaard follows, in his own way, the footsteps of Daniel. He ponders God’s word, he reveals our “empires” for the fallen kingdoms that they are, and removes the masks from our own lives. Then like Daniel, in his own way, he endeavors to similarly unveil God’s kingdom, God’s way, that we might faithfully turn and follow it. Like Daniel, and Kierkegaard, and the progression of prophets whose tradition they belong to, we also have some unveiling to do.
We too are exiles, not from Jerusalem but from God’s kingdom. We are those who long to be at home in God. In Daniel we are offered a way to just such a home. God’s kingdom which isn’t only eschatological but exists in contested ways even now is available to those who ponder it, follow it, dare to live it. And while it is without a doubt that doing actually doing this is beyond our ability, it is also true that for those who endeavor to faithfully attempt it, God gives.
We too live in a time of empire. Here our situation is reversed, for the vast majority of us are not mere participants in Empire, but we are the Empire. This presents us with a challenge. There is nothing necessarily anything inherently evil with empires. The Bible never says all kingdoms are bad. In fact in Daniel we are given witness to a kingdom that is good – God’s kingdom. The problem is that all our current empires, time after time in the biblical narrative, end up that being oppressive and turning from God’s way. Empire’s end up being less than human as they take away from human dignity and covenantal faithfulness. This is even true of the kingdom of Israel. However, Daniel does not invite us to cast down empires. He participates in Babylonian empire. He follows in the advice of Jeremiah, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer 29:7) But he also reminds us that we must take care not to do this in ways that comprise our identity as God’s people. In our lives social, economic, and political advancement places us “in the middle” in just the same way as second temple scribes. On a daily, even hourly, basis we are tested with choices of identity – shall we eat the food of the Babylonian court? We are tested with fidelity – shall we trust in God rather than our own strength to secure tomorrow? We are tested with truth – are we willing to proclaim the writing on the wall? Not at church, mind you, but at home, at work, at school, on the football field, at the city council, in foreign policy, and at play with our friends in the backyard. Pondering God’s truth is hard enough; living by it is beyond us. And once again we are reminded, God gives.
We too are subject to forces beyond our control. Human sin, evil, broken creation, all of these rain down suffering and pain on our lives. We know what it is to be reduced to lying prostate face to the ground before the horrors of this world. We know the struggle of proclaiming good news, God’s sovereignty and God’s love when the overwhelming testimony of the world is to darkness and despair. In such times affirming that God is in control, pondering God’s truth, feels hollow, dangerous, and hurtful. It is beyond us. And yet, we are reminded, God gives.
This is the message of Daniel. God is in control. God is loving and powerful. And God has called us to faithfulness; God has called us to inherit stewardship and dominion of God’s kingdom. We, like Daniel before, must answer that call. We must ponder God’s truth. In very practical ways this means we must sit at the feet of truth, sit at the feet of God’s word, sit at the feet of Christ. In pondering these things, in living in the text, in deep conversation with God, in following in ways of Christ, being Christ we live into our identity as God’s good creations and God’s holy children. When we live in, and out of, our true identify in this way many of the hard choices of our lives disappear. The way forward becomes clear. We have no choice but to say no to the food of our own Babylonian courts. We have no choice but to speak truth with Daniel to the powers that be. We have no choice but to stop with the Samaritan and love our neighbor – even when our neighbor looks conspicuously like those we have chosen as enemies. For this reason Daniel sits, at the heart of his message, in fasting and sackcloth and having pondered God’s words and perceived a truth, moves to deep conversation with God. And it is in these deep conversations with God that Daniel discovers, time and again, that God gives. And as Daniel has done before us, we must turn to God, ponder God’s truth, attend to God presence and power, discover God’s gifts, and then “go your way”, God’s way, the way of the wise, the way of Danielic discipleship.
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