Sunday, November 29, 2020

Phil Kniss: Hope and power

Advent 1: HOPE
Daniel 6:6-27

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This morning no one can accuse me
of having an irrelevant sermon topic: “Hope and power.”

Right our nation, our political structures, indeed our culture,
is in a massive struggle over power.
The two major political parties in our country
are walking a knife’s edge
to determine who has just enough power
to make decisions to shape our common life.
Right now the fight is over who will own a tie-breaking vote.
In the Senate, the House, the White House, the court system,
every branch of government is trying to sort out who has the power.

At the same time, those outside the political power structures
are trying to make their voice heard.
They are using the power of the pen, the megaphone, the internet,
and in some extreme cases, lethal weapons.
In various ways, from top to bottom, from left to right,
we are in the middle of a wide-spread struggle for power.

And I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t struggle for power.
This is how oppressive systems break down—
when the cost of holding it all together
is greater than the cost of letting it fall.

So I’m simply naming what is.
This is where we are right now in our society,
and yes, in the church.
We are in a struggle for power.

And then the other word . . . hope.
Is that not relevant?
Who of you doesn’t struggle with maintaining hope.
We are still in the middle of a pandemic.
Daily deaths are going up instead of down.
The political chasm is getting wider and nastier,
with no reason to think that will soon change,
even with a new president in office.
Racial injustice is out in the wide open again,
and we see how little has changed.
Around the world dictatorships are getting stronger, not weaker.
The climate is changing faster than we thought.

All of this, at a time of extreme social isolation,
is causing irreparable harm to the mental health of all of us,
and especially the young and most vulnerable.

Sure, we know this will end someday.
We will move past this dark time in history.
But we don’t know what WE will be like on the other side of it.
We are grasping, blindly,
for hope that we are moving toward a better future.

So . . . hope and power.
These are twin concepts.
Joined at the hip.
They occupy the same space.

When I feel powerless,
I will tend toward hopelessness (and resignation).
On the other hand,
when I have some power, some self-determination,
or . . . when I know that the one with power
has my wellbeing at heart,
then I can find a reason to hope.

Which brings us to the prophet Daniel.
Daniel is a fascinating book in the biblical narrative arc.
It’s hard to pin down in terms of actual history and authorship,
and seems to be a two-part collection of various material.
The first half, chapters 1-6, is a series of so-called court tales,
stories about virtuous Hebrew characters
finding themselves in the courts of foreign kings,
and navigating life in a pagan empire.
The second half is a series of apocalyptic visions,
that read a lot like the book of Revelation.

Taken as a whole,
this book is an encouragement to God’s people,
to put their trust in God’s power,
and to find hope in seemingly hopeless situations
of persecution, of exile,
when everything is stacked against them.

The book of Daniel pokes holes in the power of kings and emperors,
who . . . when held up against moral power, or divine power,
they turn out to be tragically, and comically, weak.
So . . . relevant and contemporary, no?

Even when I was a little kid, age 6 or 8 or around there,
I remember being confused about King Darius’ power.
I listened to this story about Daniel and the Lions over and over
on a 12-inch vinyl record with a yellow and black cover,
called “Great Stories of the Bible.”
I know my brother Fred, if he’s listening, remembers it well.

Let me play a short sample from that record,
the part that really confused me as a kid . . . [play audio]

I heard that and wondered, how does a king, who makes a law,
not have the power to change the law to save a trusted friend?
Yet, the moment God delivers Daniel,
the king suddenly has the power again to un-make the law.
Didn’t make a lot of sense to me then, and still doesn’t.

But that’s really not our puzzle to solve.
This story shows how the power of God,
unmasks and shames the ego-driven power of human rulers.
It urges us to examine whose power we trust,
and where we place our hope.

Even though Daniel lived in the courts of the king,
even though he had the formal power
that went with being a king’s counselor,
even so, he did not ultimately trust that power.
That is not where he placed his hope.
He placed his hope in the God
to whom every human authority figure has to answer.

Granted, that might sound a little simplistic,
and it’s not always easy to distinguish and discern
between heavenly and earthly power.

But it’s always worth asking the question . . .
“In whose power are we placing our hope?”

In the middle of another presidential transition,
we are, as always, liable to misplace our hope.
Being caught in the various power struggles going on right now,
we are in danger of letting our hope—
our deep, undergirding hope—
rest on which way the political winds are blowing.

Believe it! . . . or not . . .
the powers of this world still answer to a higher power.

God does not micro-manage human political systems
when they act like they’re in charge.
But God is nevertheless enthroned, and observant,
and working out God’s cosmic purpose
of justice and righteousness and peace and shalom.
And God invites us, like Daniel,
to play active roles as partners in that mission of shalom.
Those who work against God’s purposes,
no matter how much they bluster or bluff their way through now,
will someday answer for their deeds,
and will answer for their use of power.
And it might not look pretty.

In the Daniel story,
it’s not only the ones at the top being held accountable.
It’s Daniel’s peers, his rivals,
those middle-echelon power figures,
the satraps and administrators,
who have just enough power to want more,
and to misuse the power they have.
We are the ones most like them, if we’re honest.

And in the story,
they were the ones who ended up as dinner for the lions.

King Darius came out looking pretty good,
because he acknowledged his own limitations,
even if it was after the fact.
I don’t know where else in scripture
a pagan king sings a song of praise
about the kingdom of the living God
being greater than his own.
But here we have it.

All that aside, there is something to learn here about hope and power.

Let us not misuse our power, or misplace our hope.
We have the power to do good or ill to those around us,
and to the world.
And we are given access to even greater power,
as servants of the living God.
Knowing that should both
make us humble about our own power,
and give us an unshakable hope.

So let us together, confess our sin.
You will find the confession in the order of worship.
Please join by reading the bold print . . .
and in the moment of silence

one Merciful God, we humbly confess our sin of misplaced hope.
We fail to trust you fully.
We put our hope in things of our own making,
We put our hope in people or systems
we bend toward our advantage.
all Forgive us, Lord, help us place our hope fully and only in you.
one We confess that our misplaced hope leads to hopelessness.
We lose faith—in ourselves, in others, in you.
We believe the worst about ourselves, about others, about you,
We sink into the darkness 
and we cannot find our way back to your light.
all Forgive us, Lord, help us place our hope fully and only in you.
one Restore our hope, O God. 
Strengthen our weak knees. 
Lift up our eyes.
Show us your light and your salvation.
one Children of God, we are forgiven, we are loved.
The Lord is our light and our salvation – whom shall we fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of our lives – 
of whom shall we be afraid?
all We believe that we will see the goodness of the Lord 
in the land of the living.

—Phil Kniss, November 29, 2020

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