“God with Us”
The following is a sermon manuscript from what seems like a long time ago. I would probably preach it different today, but this is what it was then and so I leave it so. I’m posting it today because today my sister Sally is having brain surgery again to replace her shunt. She has a very rough winter, as have her children – also diagnosed with mitochondrial disease. This goes out to all those who suffer, from disease, loneliness, depression, guilt, shame… you are alone – but you are also not alone. We all suffer. Alone, and with you, and God with us all.
“God with Us”
Rev. Andrew Kukla
15 November 2009
Daniel 12:1 – 8
At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 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. But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.”
Then I, Daniel, looked, and two others appeared, one standing on this bank of the stream and one on the other. One of them said to the man clothed in linen, who was upstream, “How long shall it be until the end of these wonders?” The man clothed in linen, who was upstream, raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven. And I heard him swear by the one who lives forever that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished. 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.
I’m going to step out of the pulpit for a moment to tell you about one of my enemies. I grew up with three sisters. My two older sisters are 9 and 6 years older than I am. My parents had stopped having children after they had two. That’s right: I’m an accident. Now a lot of people over the years have gotten concerned when I say that and they tell me: there are no accidents in the eyes of God. (They say that in just that tone of voice too!) I’m not going to debate that with them… it’s beside the point – because to my parents I was very much an accident, which is just a reality which never changed the fact that I was always loved… but having had an accident, my parents didn’t want me to feel like the younger child who got left out of things so they had a fourth child: an intentional accident! My younger sister is only 15 months younger than I am and her name is Sally. For years I have joked with my parents that they could have stopped with me, I would have managed just fine. In middle school I even did a school photo project that introduced my sister Sally as “the enemy”. We’ve had our clashes, and like any siblings whose lives are lived so close together – we’ve always been each others best critics.
However, today – I don’t mention Sally to tell you about an enemy – but about how she is one of my heroes. That she is for me a wonderful witness of faithfulness, strength, and hope. You see, my sister Sally, and her two children have mitochondrial disease. If you do not know what that is, don’t worry – almost no one else does either. It reared its ugly head in my sister’s life during her pregnancy with her first child, a son named Callum. It wasn’t diagnosed until about four years later, and in the mean time she was treated for a whole onslaught of problems she never really had. She had upwards of ten brain surgeries for pseudo-tumor cerebri… a condition they couldn’t fix because she didn’t have it. She was told by countless doctors, and even friends, that this was all just in her head. She was even investigated by the Department of Children and Family Services for making it up and creating symptoms in her children. All the while, life for her got harder and more depressing, when it should have been at its best.
Let’s take a step back for a minute so I can tell you bit more about Sally. In a family that enjoyed athletics — tennis, gymnastics, golf, skiing — she was always the best of us. She was a junior Olympian gymnast – she was always the strong and capable one. One thing that gave her even greater joy than sports was children. She loved children and spent every free hour babysitting. In fact, my parents actually worried that in high school she would get pregnant just so she could always have a baby around. She was a born mother. She brought home animals to care for, she cared for other people’s kids all the time – she was like the consummate baby sitter, and she even made friends with a teenage mother and brought that mom and her 6 week old son to our house to live with us. She was just born to be a mom – and she was, and is, great at it… on a good day. But here is the crime. She doesn’t get many good days. And her bad days are really bad. And here when her life should have been fulfilled with all she wanted it to be – life instead became an every day battle for enough energy to climb out of bed, eat, and make it through the day.
She’s had her validations – like when they discovered the actual chromosome that had mutated in her genetics and started her family’s battle with mitochondrial disease. And it wasn’t an empty victory – because it’s always good to confirm that you were right and so many others were wrong… and wrongfully accused you, and dismissed you. The victory, however, doesn’t come with solutions. There isn’t a cure for mitochondrial disease. It’s a disease that robs your body of its ability to correctly turn food and oxygen into the energy your cells need to correctly function. This happens differently in everyone who is affected by the disease – but generally it creates a body that is slowly – and sometimes quickly – degenerating and losing its ability to function. A child under the age of 5 who is diagnosed with the disease has only a 20% chance to live to the age of 20. This is the horrible reality my sister has had to face. That every day she wakes up and she has every reason to believe it will be worse than the day before. That any given week will likely involve a visit to the emergency room. That each of her children needs to attend several therapy sessions a week, and sometimes even in a single day. That her two year old daughter still needs to have a permanent feeding tube in order to get enough nourishment to live – let alone grow. That every room in her house looks like a medicine closet. That in a life without enough energy to do basic functions she somehow needs to summon enough energy to go through superhuman efforts on a daily basis to attempt something like a normal life.
In the words of fellow mitochondrial disease sufferer, Brittany Wilkinson in her song, Energy for Life, “Every single day I live gets harder than the day before, every step I take hurts just a little more. Every breath I make feels like it takes a breath away, every thought I have is trying to stop this endless pain, but I’m still here – and I’m still strong. This body may be breaking but my heart still beats on, I’m still here so I’ll still fight, with a never dying spirit that provides my energy for life.”
You can find the song on the internet… its now as much a tribute as a song of awareness and testimony, because Brittany died on September 6th of this year. And I know that my sister must, on many days, wake and wonder if today is her day – or her son Callum’s day… or her daughter Calleigh’s day… And yet my sister is my hero because, on her good days, she – like Brittany – has a never dying spirit that provides energy for life.
I do not share this with you to make you weep for Sally – though that would not be a bad thing. I do not share it with you to simply share some of my pain on behalf of a family member. I share them because we all have a Sally in our lives – and some of us are Sally. We all can, when we think about it, when we allow ourselves to, actually feel and acknowledge the pain and injustice and recognize the harsh, horrible, not-the-way-its-supposed-to-be reality of a life lived in knowing that each day has less hope than the day before… that the journey seems to be nothing more than a journey to death…
We all are Sally, or know her – in one way or another… and if you think you don’t – then you need to open your eyes and your heart a little wider… because there is more pain and more brokenness in the world than we are willing to admit. Your Sally looks different, struggles and suffers differently, fights a different battle… maybe its cancer, or depression, or dementia, or life changing injury, or economic struggles and debt… it may, it will, manifest differently – but the darkness and the difficulty of seeing any hope: the despair is the same, and the questions that they provoke are identical.
And this is exactly what the book of Daniel is all about. Written amidst a series of oppressive empires, in the wake of exile the Jews still scattered about the earth away from home, the Jewish people know more pain and despair than hope. The temple destroyed, and rebuilt, and desecrated again by another foreign empire… the people of Israel and the scattered Jews find themselves in the time of Daniel wondering how they can claim God’s sovereignty, how they can claim hope and goodness, how they can find strength in a world where every day seems to bring more darkness than the day before?
In response to this, the book of Daniel gives us stories and heavenly and apocalyptic visions and angelic visits. And as you travel through the words and worlds and experiences of Daniel, there is a constant, clear, and abiding answer: yes, God is sovereign, yes, God is in control. And then equally important – yes, God loves us and seeks our well being. But Daniel also invites us to understand that while God is in control, that control is contested: forces of evil, forces of sin, even – as Daniel prays – our own inability to ponder God’s truth. The book of Daniel is quite honest – the world IS NOT as God intends it to be… and yet – that God will establish God’s kingdom where all is as it was created to be is not at all in doubt.
The journey is contested; the destination – for Daniel – is not in doubt.
This is what we get in chapter 12 that we read today when it begins saying that at the time of the end – the angel Michael’s victory over evil and oppression – we will see the resurrection of the righteous. We get an assurance that all that is broken will be restored, the injustice will be righted – that resurrection, real and bodily present, will occur on earth in our very midst. In God’s resurrection kingdom, Daniel chapter twelve tells us that those who are faithful and wise – that is, all the people who somehow managed to hold to God in the darkness of their lives – will, in God’s kingdom, shine bright like the stars… in Daniel’s language that makes them essentially like angels on earth. Here Daniel offers a vision of wrong made right – of heaven on earth – of paradise restored.
And that’s nice… but I hear that and think – that’s not the hope we were looking for… that feels empty, a hollow next to all the broken human suffering… to the Sally stories of our world. The claim that all will be made right – as it ought to be – in the end, that all will be right when God defeats sin and evil in the world… in otherwise, at the end of the story – just doesn’t seem to give us hope for our own lives… our own struggles.
Yet this was powerful testimony that worked for Daniel, that worked for the Jews… and so I’m convicted to go back and seek in Daniel what was and is the powerful claim of hope for the living of our lives – here and now. Encountering these life giving and life attesting texts is what I think the voice of Daniel claims, and really is hope for us all – now.
First of all for Daniel, with its place in apocalyptic literature, starts by naming in real and powerful ways for us the contested nature of the world. There are real forces operating in the world: some human, some systematic, some evil – that seek to visit despair, and death and separate us from God. We have to – HAVE TO – name them, to help take away their power. To name what is not “our way”, to name what is not “right” in the world, to name injustice and powers of death for what they are is essential and a first order of business. They are contrary to God – and God is fighting against them, but if we refuse to name evil as evil – then we give it unchecked power in our lives.
Secondly, we have to claim that this is all beyond us: that we are not in control, and we cannot even understand it. We have to embrace humility and know that neither we, nor any human empire or institution, can make justice – can control our fates – can make the world right.
Thirdly, that in naming brokenness and embracing humility, we truly ponder God’s truth and God’s way, and God’s presence in our lives. We talk about this as if it’s easy stuff – but it isn’t. We talk about it as if prayer and assurance of God’s presence is the starting point, rather than the sum content of the whole journey. Deep prayerful attentiveness to God’s presence takes daily practice… it takes difficult heart-exposing, heart-wrenching honesty… and it takes readiness to hear things we may not want to hear – because claiming God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean we get what we want, or even what we are pretty sure we need. Claiming God’s sovereignty means that God is ultimately unbound to any one person’s, or all peoples, wants.
It is here in this third point I also feel we find the strong message of hope. For if we give up making God be present in the ways we wish God were present – we may just be able to find other ways God really is present, and present in some amazingly wonderful and life giving ways.
This helps me to understand that while Daniel does offers us the hope of a known end to all misery and pain… it also offers us another very real hope: the hope of a faithful journey with God – a God who desires to be powerfully present to us even in the midst of pain and brokenness. Let us hear from another part of Daniel – at the beginning of the final vision that led into our text from today.
Daniel 10:8-12: So I was left alone to see this great vision. My strength left me, and my complexion grew deathly pale, and I retained no strength. 9 Then I heard the sound of his words; and when I heard the sound of his words, I fell into a trance, face to the ground. 10 But then a hand touched me and roused me to my hands and knees. 11 He said to me, “Daniel, greatly beloved, pay attention to the words that I am going to speak to you. Stand on your feet, for I have now been sent to you.” So while he was speaking this word to me, I stood up trembling. 12 He said to me, “Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.
The idea that apocalyptic literature like Daniel only makes claims for the end of time is a false reading – it is not the whole story. Yes, the claim of God’s kingdom realized at the end of time is made – and it’s a powerful claim of a powerful God. But Daniel is no more interested in leaving hope to some end times completion than we are… and what Daniel claims is the power of God who stands with us, who places hand to our bent and grieving shoulders and says, “Do not fear… your words have been heard, and I have come to you.” What Daniel understands is a God who is present, giving strength and hope for the journey, or in the words of Brittany – is an everlasting spirit providing the energy for life.
It isn’t a God who will answer all our distress with a nicely fixed brokenness – burdens removed. But neither is it a God who leaves us alone in our despair. God is God… and so we do not understand all that is and all that is not yet… but that doesn’t remove the hopeful reality that God is God… and God claims us as God claims all creation.
So we return again to the end of the book of Daniel – for the parting word of hope, and when Daniel asks, “My lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” By which he is asking – how will all this evil and despair get sorted out. The angelic representative of God says, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end… But you, go your way, and rest; you shall rise for your reward at the end of the days.”
Go your way… the answers are beyond us. Fixing it is beyond us. Trying to look at the whole picture – the whole journey… is too much for us. That way only leads to despair. So God says, don’t try. It is mystery… but simply go your way – live this day, knowing that you are loved, and that I am here – hand on your weary shoulder, and the community of faith is here – ready to sing and pray and praise and lament on your behalf… and do the best – whatever you can summon – to live this day.
And that is what Daniel did… that is what Brittany Wilkinson did… that is what my sister Sally does. Somehow – when she ought to wake in despair every day – most days she somehow wakes with hope, and strength – a strength that doesn’t come from her wrecked and broken body… but comes from deeper – and beyond. A strength that has long since given up control… a strength that recognizes that sometimes you just absolutely have to be carried along the journey.
Go your way, and rest knowing you are not alone… this is not in vain… you are loved… and God is with you… and God’s power is real.
Go your way, God’s way… and rest secure amidst terrors. Not secure that tomorrow won’t be dark, but secure that you do not meet the darkness of tomorrow alone… you meet it with a real and powerful God giving you energy for life.