Tuesday, October 18, 2011

While We Wait

Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. (Daniel 10.12-13)

Gateways to the Ineffable

My mom occasionally warns me about overthinking Scripture. “Let It speak,” she says, “and then give yourself time to let what It’s telling you sink in.” There’s more to her counsel than a mother’s concern her son’s too busy burning up brain cells to get the point. The real wisdom buried in her advice reminds me approaching God’s Word purely on an intellectual level often erects barriers to hearing what It wants to me know, because modern mentality isn’t always amenable to accepting what It says.

Certain aspects of Scripture defy human comprehension. They always have and always will. Yet the Bible is also crammed with supernatural events—visions, miracles, out-of-body experiences, and natural disasters—practically begging us to debunk them with scientific and literary analysis. We don’t need much to get really smug really fast. We pity our forebears for naïvely taking these tall tales at face value. We look down at those who ignore common fact and theory to believe everything in the Bible occurred exactly as recorded. That’s tough for many of us. For example, it’s a stretch to concede the sun and moon actually halted in the sky, as Joshua 10.13 says, to give Israel extra time to win a battle. It may be the crude account of a solar eclipse, or a clumsy metaphor for God’s intervention. We’re good with whatever it is, as long as it saves us from taking it as written. If what Joshua reports truly transpired, it would have hurled the planet into deep space. Since it obviously didn’t, it’s obviously not what happened, and it’s a joke to imagine it did.

If we’re not careful, though, the joke will be on us, as we fall prey to the same fault we disdain in illogical literalists by imposing literal logic on everything we find in the Bible’s pages. Implicit in my mom’s advice is a wise precaution to know when Scripture invites us to forget facts so faith can appear. Its incredible tales shouldn’t discounted as no more than big-fish stories—including the big-fish story of Jonah for which fantastic yarns are named. The Bible’s mind-bending accounts are given so we’ll discover something greater than ourselves. They’re gateways to the ineffable, that mysterious space where God lives and moves in our behalf. Doubting their accuracy or granting them poetic license is fine, if doing so moves us past logic that cripples faith. Getting hung up on Biblical impossibilities defeats their purpose, however. It bars us from entering a place of illumination with no other means of access. And whether or not the stories are real, where they take us is as real as real can be.

21 Days

Logical literalists won’t find very much to digest in the Book of Daniel. The straightforward narrative portions read like fairy tales. Daniel starts off as a young Hebrew captive in Babylon whose prophetic gifts vault him to heights of power and favor. Envy drives his rivals to plot his demise. They throw him to lions, toss him into a fiery furnace, and constantly test his scruples in ways that might anger the king. Yet Daniel survives every attempt unscathed. Those unable to swallow his outrageous exploits won’t have a clue about what’s going on when the book kicks into high gear. It turns out that Daniel’s a true-blue mystic, and chapter after chapter relates his visions and encounters with celestial beings. It’s like he’s in a perpetually altered state that opens his eyes to a secret dimension. Is all of this legit? Or is Daniel an excitable crackpot? Either way, he’s pretty spooky. But if we can get past trying to figure him out, where his story takes us is amazing.

Chapter 10 takes place after Cyrus the Great conquers Babylon and frees the Jews to return to Israel. Having quit government service not long after the liberation, Daniel chooses to remain. (He’s older by now and Babylonian life is all he knows.) He’s swept up by a puzzling vision of a great war that he desperately prays to decode. When no answer comes, he goes into mourning, limiting himself to a subsistence diet and basic hygiene. This lasts for three weeks. Then, while standing at the Tigris River, an otherworldly figure appears to him. No one but Daniel sees him. The messenger says he’s come to explain Daniel’s vision. But first, he explains what took him so long to show up. “Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them,” he says. “But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days.” (Daniel 10.12-13)

Between God and Us

I’d venture it’s better to find all of this incomprehensible than not. And despite scholars doing an ingenious job of working out the vision’s meaning, verifying its legitimacy with historical events that soon followed, this episode opens a gateway that, for us, has very little to do with history. The key is the messenger’s comment about why he’s late. God hears Daniel the instant he prays for understanding and dispatches an emissary to answer his prayer. Between God and Daniel, however, the messenger runs into interference from a malignant force—“the prince of the Persian kingdom,” i.e., a celestial being determined to foment multinational war. He struggles with the prince for 21 days to reach Daniel, who has no way of knowing that the answer is on its way. From where he sits, it appears no answer is forthcoming. So he mourns a tragedy he senses, yet can’t fully understand.

If we’re too smart about Scripture, we’re apt to rule out the reality of wickedness that wedges itself between goodness we pray for and God’s response. While we wait, conflict erupts in the ineffable, invisible realm across which our answers and explanations must travel. That’s what Daniel’s story wants to tell us. As Paul writes in Ephesians 6.13, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Delays that disillusion and frustrate us have nothing to do with God or us. We’ve not done anything so wrong that God would abandon us—the very idea refutes all we know God to be. Nor have we presented God with a problem too big or impossible to handle. If just one human dilemma or crisis fit that bill, God wouldn’t be worthy of our faith and trust. When tempted to blame God or ourselves with delayed answers to prayer, we resist by acknowledging there’s more going on than meets the eye.

There are powers of darkness in our world. There are forces of evil in heavenly realms. Entering the ineffable—letting Scripture speak and giving It time to sink in—frees us from logic-bound literalism that would dismiss this truth as myth and metaphor. It’s as real as real can be. Thus, Scripture overflows with admonitions to cling tenaciously to faith that God hears and answers prayer. “I waited patiently for the LORD,” Psalm 40.1 says. “God turned to me and heard my cry.” If we made of list of every prayer we’ve prayed, we could check all of them off as “answered,” though we’d also mark many “TBD” in the “Date” column. Daniel teaches us why surrendering our confidence and hope to powers we can't see is not an option while we wait.

We come to You, O God, fully confident You hear us and move for us without delay. Open our minds to know delayed answers to prayer are neither Your nor our fault. Increase our patience and tenacity to wait. Amen.

Malignant forces wedge themselves between our prayers and God’s answers, causing delays that have nothing to do with God and us. Realizing there’s more going on than meets the eye enables us to wait patiently and confidently.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


They sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for You do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22.16-17)


Although I’m fairly sure the rule no longer applies, it’s often said three topics are taboo in polite American conversation: sex, politics, and religion. Lord knows, we should be eager and at ease to discuss all three, as they inform much of what contributes to our national distress. Meanwhile, Parisian friends confess they’re often perplexed and always amused to see how eagerly and easily we’re scandalized by subjects we should have put to rest long ago. “Here, sex and politics are the first things we talk about,” they say. (As devoutly secular people, the French seldom mention religion, which isn’t to say it’s off-limits.) It took several years, but Walt and I slowly discovered Parisians have a few taboos too, the greatest being money. What one earns or owns simply isn’t discussed. The reason may not be what you suspect. They don’t think money is too personal to talk about. It’s too impersonal. Financial worth has no bearing on friendship.

Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22.15-22) brings to mind American and French conversational taboos, with three of the four shaken together into a nasty cocktail contrived to do Jesus in. Only sex gets left out, and had the devious mixologists who serve up the noxious frappé—the Pharisees—found a way, they’d probably have tossed it in. They do a swell job as it is, distilling a vindictive brew of politics, religion, and money into a trick question they hope will knock Jesus senseless. Their audacity to confront Him with these topics has nothing to do with taboos, though. All three subjects are widely discussed and, in fact, routinely figure into Jesus’s sermons, parables, and conversation. The lethal scheme laced into the Pharisees’ cocktail is what makes it offensive.

This Is It

All along, the Pharisees and other sects have tried to stump Jesus with cleverly devised brainteasers. But such tests are customary in rabbinical circles, with Jesus’s adversaries employing them to refute one another as well. This one is different, because it seeks to destroy, not merely discredit, Jesus. The whole thing reeks of conspiracy; every detail is calculated to belittle Him and erase all doubts about the Pharisees’ endgame. The leaders who poison their proposition don’t even show Jesus proper respect to present it personally. They ship it via their followers, backed by a cadre of Herodians. Their sole agenda is protecting the dynasty of paranoid puppet-king, Herod the Great, whose son (and Israel’s current ruler), Herod Antipas, beheaded John the Baptist.

While the overtly displayed hostility escapes no one, least of all Jesus, the question poses the gravest insult to His intelligence. It masks politically volatile ingredients with sweet talk and tangy religiosity, as if Jesus is too thick to detect what’s really going on. Not only is He savvy to the set-up. He’s played a major role building up to this showdown. Since His triumphant arrival in Jerusalem for Passover, He’s done nothing but humiliate His detractors with lacerating criticism and stupefying challenges. The air hangs thick with “give it your best shot.” Once Jesus gets a whiff of the Pharisees’ concoction, noting they’ve arranged for plenty of loyal onlookers to testify against Him when He chokes, He knows this is it. As the Herodians lean in to catch every word, the underlings spill the question. No doubt all involved naïvely expect it to go exactly like they rehearsed: flattery first, then the fall. “Teacher, we know that You are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for You do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22.16-17)

Everything they say about Jesus is true, of course. But coming from their mouths, it’s a lie that exposes the deceit swimming beneath the question’s surface. If He approves paying tribute to Caesar, He’ll be vilified as a traitor to His people; they’ll run Him out of town and that will be that. The alternative is worse. Suppose Jesus takes the popular religious stance, insisting Jewish Law forbids idolatry—which imperial taxation basically amounts to, since the Romans worship Caesar as a god. The Herodians will pounce on that, declaring Him an insurgent. The king will see He’s delivered into Roman hands by sundown; by sun-up, the Baptist’s fate will look like a cakewalk compared to what He’ll face. To His inquisitors’ amazement, Jesus refuses to swallow one drop of their venomous swill. First, He calls them on their treachery. “Why are you putting Me to the test, you hypocrites?” He replies. (v18) Then He asks for a coin. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” He demands. (v20) They answer, “The emperor’s,” to which Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (v21) Foiled once again, they walk away.


The incident speaks volumes to our duty to honor obligations as believers and citizens. And it’s often cited as clear-cut doctrine supporting separation of church and state. Most of all, it depicts the deviance people knowingly resort to when their beliefs are threatened. As long as the Pharisees call the shots, provoking Jesus is no big deal. It’s another story when He turns the tables with challenges they can’t answer. Then they put their heads together to mix up their mash of tasty controversies and make a point of lengths they’ll take to regain control. They have no business teaming up with Herodians. Pharisees are all about God’s Law. Herodians are all about placating Roman power. It makes no sense.

We observe similarly mismatched mixologists in our time. It astounds us when vehemently professing Christians join ranks with political groups that directly oppose the Gospel of compassion and peace. We can’t imagine what causes them to think we’ll swallow their toxic cocktail. We’ll never figure out why they don’t realize we smell and taste the venom in their love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin sweet talk and boldly bigoted religiosity. Not that it matters, since we’re not Who’ll ultimately demand an explanation for their treachery. What we’re asked to take from this story is a keener grasp of severe panic set off by any threat to their beliefs. We hear it in cries to “take back” America and “return to God.” We see it in resorting to sin as the only means to defeat sin. We sense it in desperate alliances forged with extremists. It’s a sad, sad sight to behold.

It only takes a penny to turn down their yeasty cocktail. What’s God’s is God’s, what’s Caesar’s is Caesar’s. But there’s a far more troubling question we have to answer. Can we follow Jesus all the way to the cross, look into the faces of those who desire our destruction, and pray, “Forgive them. They know not what they do”? That calls for selfless sacrifice at a price we must be willing to pay.

Most holy and righteous God, we’re forever grateful for spiritual discernment to detect poison laced in devious challenges to our faith. Now grant us the discipline to repay evil with good, malice with mercy, and intolerance with grace. Amen.

Like the Pharisees, many who perceive threats to their beliefs will concoct ridiculously obvious and contradictory arguments to eliminate their challengers. Dismissing their ploys is easy. Forgiving them isn’t.