November 7, 2016

Little Horn Bigmouth

God blesses those whom the world judges to be outcast, pitiable, and weak. This truth is the essence of Jesus’ life and ministry. It is a useful lens through which to view who Jesus is and what Jesus says and does. It’s also a concise summary of his most famous sermon.
Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, Jesus declares that the poor, hungry, and weeping ones among us are blessed.

We do well to acknowledge that this wasn’t a new idea.

The sacred stories of ancient Israel repeatedly display God’s concern for and action on behalf of the dispossessed and hurting. The scripture speaks of the Holy One who heard the cries of a people enslaved in Egypt, steadied the nerves of a young shepherd named David in his showdown with a giant, and set a new path before a traumatized mother named Hagar.

This is the Holy One to whom the Psalmist prayed,

Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.

Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.

From Genesis through Revelation, the Bible reveals God as the One who blesses those whom the world judges to be outcast, pitiable, and weak. The Book of Daniel underscores this point, too.

Daniel’s seventh chapter is a fantastic and mind-bending passage of scripture. In it, readers encounter a dream haunted by a series of strange beasts that rise up from the sea to torment and wreak havoc upon the people.

The description of the fourth and final beast is illustrative.

After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.
Daniel’s seventh chapter is an example of apocalyptic literature, a genre forged in times of trouble and persecution for God’s people. Unfortunately, in our time, people usually do one of two things with scriptures like these. They either ignore them completely or they twist and pull at them to give them a symbolic contemporary interpretation.

“I don’t know who the arrogant little horn with a big mouth is, but it’s obviously some politician that I don’t like,” they seem to say.

Both popular approaches leave the Church wanting.

Instead, reading the passage with the conventions of the genre in mind leads us through its oddities and strangeness to a place at which we encounter Good News, a message that meant something powerful to a put-upon and hurting people long ago and that resonates with our experience, too.

The best scholarship regarding the passage at hand tells us that its author lived in or near Jerusalem during the violent reign of King Antiochus Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire about 170 years before the birth of Jesus. The Seleucid Empire was one of the Hellenistic states that emerged in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death and the subsequent partitioning of his Greek Empire.

The tension between Jewish and Greek values turned violent in Jerusalem during Antiochus’s corrupt reign. When Antiochus accepted a bribe to appoint a man named Menelaus to the highest religious and political position in the Judea, traditionally-minded Jews revolted.

Antiochus’s response to the revolt was savage. Not only did he restore Menelaus to power, but he outlawed Judaism.

It was termed a capital offense to worship as Jews, to have a copy of the Torah, or to circumcise one’s children. A statue of Zeus was erected in the temple, and a pig was sacrificed on the altar there! (Effird, 20-21)
This was the horrifying context in which Daniel’s author lived. To write the words we’ve read this morning was, in essence, to sign one’s order of execution, but our writer put pen to paper, nevertheless, and gave us a history lesson for the ages. That’s what we’ve read, after all, a history lesson.

Those beasts from the sea? They’re the foreign powers that had ruled over Jerusalem for centuries; Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece.

The ten horns? Those are the kings who filled the void left by Alexander’s untimely death.

And the little horn with a big mouth? That’s Antiochus.

Using his apocalyptic tools, our writer crafts a story for a longsuffering community about the series of world powers that rose over and then fell upon them. Their religion now banned and their holiest site desecrated, all evidence pointed to more and increased suffering, but our writer didn’t see it that way at all.

He saw the God of Exodus moving through the scene; the Holy Giant-Slayer and the Divine Comforter of grieving mothers and hungry children everywhere.

In that painful moment, our writer heard an answer to prayer and took hold of an eternal promise.

He wrote,

Kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.
Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, but the love of God goes on and on.

Seasons of sorrow and suffering tarry, but God’s mercies endures.

In Daniel’s seventh chapter we encounter the same truth Jesus embodies; despite the evidence to the contrary, God blesses those whom the world judges to be outcast, pitiable, and weak.

And if this is true—if the psalmists and the prophets, and Jesus and the saints saw reality more clearly than those who would exclude and harm and denigrate, then we, as people of faith, must take up our mantle to expose the lies that would fracture God’s beloved community.

“They’re poor because they’re lazy.”

“They’re suffering because they deserve it.”

“They’re inferior because of their race, stupid because of where they come from, prone to violence because of their immigration status, cruel because they’re conservative, or immoral because they’re liberal.”

Lies! These are some of the lies that we allow to have power over our hearts and in our communities. These are some of the lies that threaten to undo us; the lies that God’s Word exposes by declaring blessings, not curses, for those we would judge, cast out, and deny mercy.

God blesses those whom the world judges to be outcast, pitiable, and weak by uprooting lies with the truth of a Savior’s love.

“In all [the horrible stuff of life that we’re tempted and pressured to believe defines us] we are more than conquerors,” declares Saint Paul, “through him who loved us.”
In the introduction to the 1997 edition of his esteemed book of theology, God of the Oppressed, Dr. James Cone shares a memory from his childhood in the Jim Crow South that brings the Gospel truth home.

Remembering the liberating effect that the Gospel had on the people of his hometown, Cone writes,

[The black women and men of Bearden, Arkansas] affirmed their dignity as human beings against great odds as they held on to faith in Jesus’ cross—the belief that his suffering and death was for their salvation. For them, salvation meant that they were not defined by what whites said about them or did to them, but rather by what Jesus said about the poor in his teachings and did for them on the cross. (Cone, xvii)
God blesses those whom the world judges to be outcast, pitiable, and weak.

This is the truth, and if this is true—if the psalmists and the prophets, and Jesus and the saints saw reality more clearly than those who would exclude and harm and denigrate—then we, as people of faith, must take up our mantle to expose the lies that would fracture God’s beloved community.

We must expose the lies and rejoice in the truth.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, Jesus declares that the poor, hungry, and weeping ones among us are blessed.

This is the Good News that gives us and the Church's life.

This is the Good News for which we give thanks.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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