Psalm 125; Daniel 2:34–3:18; 1 John 4:1–16a

Psalm 125: In this simile, “Those who trust in the Lord/ are like Mount Zion never shaken,/ settled forever.” (1) the opening verse of this psalm suggests a longing for Mount Zion, and the hope that like Mount Zion, the people of Israel will one day also be “settled forever.”  Alter suggests that this psalm may have been written during the exhilic period.  We can almost feel the psalmist’s  fond remembrance as he recalls, “Jerusalem, mountains around it.” (2) And that once again, “the Lord is around His people/ now and forevermore.”

As always, there is the strong bifurcation between the righteous and the wicked: “For the rod of wickedness will not rest/ on the portion of the righteous.” (2: 3a) And that thus spared the “rod of wickedness,” the “righteous [will] not set their hands to wrongdoing.” (3b) And therefore, since the righteous folks have avoided wrongdoing, God will bestow his favor on them: “Do good, O Lord, to the good/ and to the upright in their hearts.” (4)

And to preserve symmetry, he also asks that “those who bend to crookedness,/ may the Lord take them off with the wrongdoers.”  (5) What’s interesting here is that there seems to be a distinction between those “bending” or inclined to do wrong and full-blown wrongdoers. There’s no room for even an inclination to “crookedness,” those who bend are already in the other camp. To be considered righteous, one cannot stray even for a moment from the strait and narrow. Once again, we can see where the Pharisees found justification for their unrelenting rigidity.

It seems to me that the effort to be righteous on our own leads too quickly to self-righteousness.

Daniel 2:1–3:18: King Nebuchadnezzar has a series of bizarre dreams and he demands an interpretation on pain of death for the court magicians and seers. For their failure or unwillingness to interpret his dreams he court prophets are condemned by an angry king, who has “commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed.” (2:12) Daniel bravely steps up. Of course he has a direct line to God as “the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night, and Daniel blessed the God of heaven.” (19)

In another sign of his courage which arises form his complete trust in God, he tells the king that “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries,” (27, 28) And that it is God himself, “who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days.” (28b) So, the dream is predictive of events to come. Moreover, Daniel humbly observes that “this mystery has not been revealed to me because of any wisdom that I have more than any other living being,” (30) So, he commences with the interpretation of what has to be the most complicated–and controversial–dream in the Bible.

First, Daniel tells the king what his dream was: the huge statute whose body parts are made up of different substances. Each substance of decreasing value–gold, silver, bronze, iron and the famous feet of clay. Each metal stands for a kingdom–and Nebuchadnezzar, represented by gold, being the greatest, naturally. Each subsequent kingdom will be sequentially inferior. Books have been written about this dream, with some interpreters seeing the “iron” part as Rome, and then I even recall one interpreter asserting that the empire “will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay.” being a united Europe. Which given recent events amy not be all that outlandish a theory.

As for my sense of this God-given interpretation through Daniel, it’s no question that it’s a wonderful story. But I really have to let it go at that. The lesson is that Daniel was connected so closely to God that he effectively became God’s messenger–just as the prophets before him had.

We come now to the famous story of the men in the fiery furnace. The king commissions a statue of himself –made of gold, naturally–and then issues a decree that everyone in the kingdom, including the Jewish exiles bow down and worship it. There is this wonderfully alliterative, almost musical passage (that I used to read  aloud each year when there were Easter Vigils at Saint Matthew.) The music is played and everyone has to bow down.

But Daniel’s three companions do not bow down and the boldly tell the king that they have faith that God will deliver them from the fiery furnace, but even if not, they are willing to die because “be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (3:18)

I’m struck here that even though they have faith that God will rescue them, they also know that if God does not will rescue for them, they are nonetheless willing to die. That is the operating definition of unconditional faith; the faith of the martyrs. Were I ever called into such an awful situation would I be willing to die for my faith?

1 John 4:1–16a: John advises us that skepticism is perfectly acceptable, especially when we’re hearing others preach: “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1) This of course, is discernment. Too often we are captivated by an eloquent speaker who promises great things only to be led astray. Discernment seems a lost art these day. Not just in the church, but in politics as well.

We come to John’s great passage on love and to the absolute center of God’s love, the greatest loving act in all history:  “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” (9) John makes it crystal clear that this loving act of sending his son was not the result of our love for God. Quite the contrary. It is nothing that we did. God did it all: “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (10)

However, this incredible act of love must have consequences. Our true response can be only one thing: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” (11).  In fact it is this love that makes up for none of us having actually seen God. All it takes is one thing: “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (12)

And then perhaps the greatest equation–what the mathematicians call an ‘identity’– of all: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” The secret to knowing and having God abide in us is incredibly simple and incredibly difficult.  What a challenge! Why is it so hard to love one another? Because our self-centered wills keep getting in the way.

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