April 10, 2018 Daniel, the Lions’ Den, and God Wins- Daniel 6:16-24

daniel lions' den

Then the king commanded, and Daniel was brought and cast into the den of lions. The king declared to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!” And a stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel. Then the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no diversions were brought to him, and sleep fled from him.

Then, at break of day, the king arose and went in haste to the den of lions. As he came near to the den where Daniel was, he cried out in a tone of anguish. The king declared to Daniel, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to deliver you from the lions?” Then Daniel said to the king, “O king, live forever!  My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm.” Then the king was exceedingly glad, and commanded that Daniel be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.  And the king commanded, and those men who had maliciously accused Daniel were brought and cast into the den of lions—they, their children, and their wives. And before they reached the bottom of the den, the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.  Daniel 6:16:24 (ESV) 

Most of us are familiar with the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. On one level it is an encouragement for us to trust God and follow Him even though we may face extreme consequences for doing so. The Book of Daniel is of a genre known as apocalyptic literature, which means it is telling or revealing events that will occur in the future.

Merriam Webster- definition of apocalypse-

1 a : one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.

The important thing to remember about the apocalyptic Books is that the point is always that no matter what the disaster, no matter what the challenge, no matter what the gory imagery, they point to the victory that Jesus has won over sin, death and evil.

Daniel trusted God instead of simply paying lip service to the king. Trusting God and doing what God wants can get us into plenty of trouble here on earth. It is easy to follow the ways of this world and chase after all the things the world tells us are important. It is not as easy to stand for things that please God when they conflict with the world and its demands. The world makes demands on our time, our resources and our loyalties. As much as we would like to think we put God first in our lives, if we are honest we realize that we are easily distracted and we don’t stay firmly focused on God no matter how hard we try.

We aren’t even able to trust God in any way apart from His grace. The story of Daniel tells us and encourages us that God is faithful and all-powerful. Was the angel who shut the lions’ mouths a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do to save us from certain eternal death? It does point us in that direction! Jesus saves us from sin and death and the penalty we deserve as surely as God closed the mouths of the lions for His servant Daniel.

God is faithful. Even in the face of hungry lions.

November 2, 2017 – White Robes, Apocalypse, and God Wins- Revelation 7:13-17, Mark 13:32-37

white robes

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;  for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:13-17 (NRSV)

Revelation is one of the books of the Bible that some people find confusing and intimidating. Apocalyptic (meaning “of the end times”) literature uses extreme imagery and symbolism to get the message across. Its purpose as written to its original audience (Romans living in the province of Asia in the late first century), however, is one of encouragement. The people to whom Revelation was addressed were living in a time when believers were routinely persecuted and killed for following Jesus. The perspective of Revelation is one that states that today might be really terrible, and there might be even more really terrible stuff happening in the near future, but the end of the terrible stuff is near, and the end turns out good for those who persevere. The graphic imagery that can be found in Revelation makes for some good pop fiction (remember the Left Behind novels?) and cheesy end of the world movies, but the message of Revelation has a much deeper purpose and meaning for those who follow Jesus.

As for the people robed in white, they are the ones who have gone before us in heaven. They are living in what is for us, the “not yet.”  We can take hope that no matter how bad things get here on earth, that the bad things going on here and now aren’t the final reality for us.  God’s plan for humanity and for the universe He created is one of redemption and restoration.

The caution that should be taken from apocalyptic literature is that the imagery used isn’t always meant to be literal. The imagery is supposed to make sure that the truth of the story sticks in one’s mind. When Jesus is referred to as “the Lamb of God” throughout Scripture, it is not meant that He is a sheep, but that He is the one perfect sacrifice made for all of us for all time.

There is a temptation in having the knowledge that “today is not forever” to give up on making things better where we are. That is not the intent behind the message of Revelation.  We aren’t supposed to give up on the here and now.  While the End of Days (or the end of our own personal days) can occur at any moment, only God knows the hour and the time.

(Jesus said): “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13:32-37 (NRSV)

So the take away here is that we should be ready for any contingency, knowing that we know the end of the story: God wins. In this assurance we are free to embrace the ongoing work of bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth. We have the knowledge that the best is still to come.

August 14, 2017- Apocalypse, Eventually- Revelation 15:1-4

god is everywhere

Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.

And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands.  And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:

“Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.

All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.” –Revelation 15:1-4 (NRSV)

Lately the lectionary has been taking us through the parables in the book of Matthew, in which we see the humanity of both the disciples and of Jesus. Now we come to a rather dramatic passage in the apocalyptic book of Revelation. Here we see Jesus revealed as both divine and supernatural, glorified as a king.  Confusing?  It is, but remember that Jesus is both fully human, and fully God.

Apocalyptic literature is somewhat difficult for 21st century Westerners to understand, because it uses bold imagery and metaphor. Here are a few of Merriam Webster’s definitions of the word apocalyptic:

  1. forecasting the ultimate destiny of the world : prophetic apocalyptic warnings
  2. foreboding imminent disaster or final doom : terrible apocalyptic signs of the coming end-times
  3. wildly unrestrained : grandiose
  4. ultimately decisive : climactic an apocalyptic battle

None of these things sound regular or common. Ultimate destiny, imminent disaster, wildly unrestrained, and ultimately decisive all sound like final things- big and scary things.

The apocalypse is not something to be feared, in spite of the dramatic metaphor and sometimes gory imagery used by the writer of Revelation. The apocalypse is a completion.  It is an ending of the paradox we have lived our whole lives in which we have one foot in each kingdom. The heavenly kingdom comes into its completeness and fullness, while the earthly kingdom passes away.

In Christ we are given the privilege of having our sinful nature wiped away, and we become saints to live and reign with Jesus forever. Until that day we are in the process of being transformed- a little bit more saint, a little bit less sinner, by the grace of God.

In the process of becoming fully a part of the heavenly kingdom we may have to figuratively (and possibly literally) go through the fire, not as a punishment, and not because we have anything to earn or deserve. The grace of God in Christ cancels out any old notions that we can earn brownie points with God or that we “deserve” anything from Him because we try to be such “good children.”  Many people question, “How can a good God allow His people to suffer?”  There is no really good answer to that question.  Sin (anything that goes against God’s will) has been a part of the earthly kingdom since the Fall, which was when we humans got the insane idea that we have a better way to do life than God does.

Jesus followers have a different perspective on suffering. We may not understand why we suffer, or how suffering could ever be considered a good thing, but we can only trust that He uses our trials and suffering to mold and shape us, and to get rid of what is not of Him, to prepare us for life in the heavenly kingdom where there is no sin or decay or entropy. Good and bad things happen to “good” and “evil” people alike, just as the rain drenches the fields regardless if the owner is good or evil. (Matthew 5:44-45)   Everyone who lives on earth is equally subject to tragedy, disease, pestilence, decay, etc. because those things are part of the earthly condition (entropy).  Earth and everything in it at this point, is temporary and is waiting to be remade.

Humans allowed sin to enter in to the earthly kingdom, which is also a question for God that we really can’t answer. Why did God allow sin to come into the world to begin with?  We may never know the entire answer to the purpose of sin or suffering other than to know Jesus shares in our every suffering. We have been given the promise that God in Christ takes away our sin, He is beyond our suffering, and there is life in Christ beyond the suffering of this world.

This passage also talks about judgment, which is a squirmy subject for Lutherans, because we tend to (and I believe rightfully so) focus on the grace of God. We aren’t really into scary talk of hellfire and brimstone, and ultimately people are won over by the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of God, not by fear. While grace is not earned or deserved, and God pours His grace out on everyone, for grace to be effective it must be accepted and applied to our lives.  Judgment enters in when people refuse to accept God’s grace, and when we insist on having our own way even when it is damaging ourselves and others.  A wise pastor once said that if you are saved it is all to Jesus’ credit, but if you are damned, you chose that yourself.

Repentance is nothing more or less complicated than “doing a 180-“ seeing that what we are doing is not pleasing to God, and turning away from that thought or behavior. It’s not always easy, and that is why God gives us His grace, so that we can keep on coming back to Him so that He can transform our hearts and minds to conform to His will. (Romans 12:2)

Our salvation is not at all reliant on how well we “do life,” but on how we trust Jesus to refine and transform us.  Salvation is not a one time event, but an ongoing process, a transformation that occurs as we grow in our relationship with Jesus. He walks with us.  He’s been there.  He is Holy God, but also one of us.  The world as we know it is going to end.  This world will pass away.  Things are going to happen that are tragic, painful and destructive along the way.  The good news is that in Christ we are never alone, and the best is yet to come.