November 29, 2020: Advent 1
You can find the worship service based on this text on the Peace Mennonite website. The video of the sermon is on YouTube.
Today, in addition to celebrating the first Sunday of Advent, churches around the world are observing an International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. I don’t have time to go into the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict or analyze the complex politics at play here. There are good resources available online, and I’ve including some maps in the worship service that show the loss of land Palestinians have experienced over the past decades. As Israel occupies Palestinian territories, walls have been built and checkpoints constructed, making it difficult for many Palestinians to travel school, work, and to see family.
Palestinians are losing land as Israeli settlers, with military support, move into areas where Palestinians have lived for years—often demolishing Palestinian homes and businesses to create space for the Israeli settlements.
Yassar Abu al-Kbash is a 48-year-old Palestinian shepherd who has lived in the small Bedouin village of Khirbet Humsah all his life. On Tuesday, November 3—probably not coincidentally our election day here in the US—Israel defense forces came to Yassar’s village with bulldozers and backhoes. They destroyed everything: tents and sheds used for housing and kitchens, animal sheds and pens, feeding troughs, even toilets and solar panels. Seventy-six structures were destroyed, leaving 11 families—that include 41 children—homeless.
For now, the village residents remain on their land, sleeping in temporary shelters or under the stars. But many Palestinians have been permanently expelled from their homeland—there are an estimated 7 million Palestinian refugees around the world today. The Palestinians are a people in exile.
As we celebrated Thanksgiving this past week, I have been thinking of the parallel story of Native Americans being driven off of their ancestral lands by European settlers on this continent. We tend to think of this as history, but today the U.S. government is pushing through a land transfer of Apache holy ground in Oak Flat Arizona to a copper mining company. The U.S. continues to exile indigenous people.
And while I in no way want to suggest that my experience or your experience is comparable to the violence and loss experienced by the Palestinians or Native Americans, I have been thinking about how we are experiencing our own sort of exile in these days of COVID.
Most of us aren’t physically displaced, but we are separated from family, friends, and activities we enjoy. It’s been over eight months since we have met in person for worship. Most of us had smaller than usual gatherings on Thursday for Thanksgiving. Our weekly schedules have changed; our day-to-day routines have changed.
For those of us who believe in science and want to help slow the spread of the disease, we are exiled from our lives as they used to be—at least for the time being.
Some of us are experiencing stress, anger, grief, lethargy in ways that are new—and concerning—for us. Our roles have shifted; our jobs or school participation may have shifted. Our sense of time is out of whack. . . . We are in exile from the selves we used to be.
The fact is that there are many ways to be in exile.
Including the ways that Daniel was in exile—his people defeated and captured by the Babylonians and him now living under—and working for—the Persian empire. Not only is Daniel unable to live in his homeland, but he is surrounded by people who do not share his culture or his faith. I imagine it was a constant struggle for him to maintain his own identity and yet still be able to maintain relationships with those around him.
Daniel, of course, is not the only person experiencing exile. Three chapters back we have Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego thrown into the fiery furnace. And there are many, many others who have been taken from their homeland and forced to live in a strange land.
It seems that one of the primary functions of the book of Daniel is to offer hope for people experiencing exile; to show that it is possible to remain faithful to God and to remind us that God will always remain faithful to us.
Now, I will grant you that this particular story (along with the fiery furnace tale) is a rather dramatic illustration of that point. No run of the mill oppression here—Daniel is thrown into a lions’ den! God closing the mouths of hungry lions is an amazing display of God’s protection; a story that has brought hope to many facing dangers in their lives.
For most of us, though, God’s protection is not shown in such dramatic ways. And for my own life right now, I’m actually drawn more to the earlier part of the story. The part that says: Daniel “continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise God, just as he had done previously.”
Daniel’s prayer practice is also, I would argue, a form of God’s protection for people in exile. Daniel is separated from his homeland, his family, the Temple where his people practiced their faith. And yet, Daniel is still able to practice that faith—even in a foreign land, even without a temple or priests. I imagine the habit of praying toward Jerusalem three times a day provided some normalcy and comfort in a difficult time.
It actually makes me think of churches during COVID. Those of us separated physically from each other and our building still have opportunities for prayer and worship. We create worship spaces in our homes, like Daniel. We continue going to God in prayer even as so much in our lives has changed.
I find as much—if not more—hope in Daniel’s prayers than in the shut mouths of the lions. But in both cases—in so many ways, big and small—God protects us. God is faithful to us and we are invited into ever deeper faithfulness to God.
In the midst of these positive examples of hope, Daniel’s story also offers a warning about misplaced hope. The story of Daniel reminds us that we should not, under any circumstances, place our hope in worldly leaders and powers. Empire will be empire and is not to be trusted—even when those in power seem to be on your side.
It turns out that the king was, as we should expect, really only on his own side. Even though he liked Daniel, he allowed himself to be manipulated into making a decree that stroked his ego: nobody could worship any god besides the king. And this ultimately led to Daniel’s arrest and slumber party with the lions. For all of his supposed power, the king could not—or at least did not—protect Daniel.
And then, there is the brutal ending of the story, the part they tend to leave out of the version we hear in Sunday School: “The king gave a command, and those who had accused Daniel were brought and thrown into the den of lions—they, their children, and their wives. Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.”
Maybe this is supposed to make us happy? Like the fulfillment of some kind of revenge fantasy? But I find it horrifying. And it further shows why we cannot put our trust in empire—because empire will be empire, even if it’s “on our side.” Empire will protect the powerful; it will guard its ego; it will resort to violence. So the way of Empire—even “our side’s” empire—is not where we should put our hope.
In the most recent Scene On Radio podcast, professor and racial justice activist Chenjerai Kumanyika discusses the November election. While he is happy the current administration is ending, he also has no illusions that our newly elected President and Vice President will usher in a utopia of peace, equality, and justice. He says that he didn’t vote for someone who could save us, he voted for who he would rather fight—under whose national leadership he would prefer to continue his work for justice.
The powers of this world are always, ultimately, for themselves. But the power of God is—amazingly, miraculously—for us. As we enter the season of Advent and look forward to the birth of Christ, we are reminded that God, in divine love, laid aside power in order to come to us and be in relationship with us.
And so our hope is not in the powers of this world, but our hope is in the mysterious power of God—God who nudges us toward faithfulness, God who shuts the mouths of lions, God who is with us in exile. Amen