Psalm 126; Daniel 3:19–4:18; 1 John 4:16b–5:5

Psalm 126: This psalm, written in captivity, looks forward to the restoration of Israel, anticipating the joy of that day: “When the Lord restores Zion’s fortunes,/ we should be like dreamers./Then will our mouth fill with laughter/ and our tongue with glad song.” (1,2a) It is difficult to imagine a more apt description of pure, unfettered joy. And for us in the here and now, it is the joy that we can experience in and through Jesus Christ. This also must be one of the verses that inspired the Westminster Catechism that says we are to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

The psalmist goes on to tell us the singular source of this joy: “Great things has the Lord done with these./ Great things has the Lord done with us.” (2b) One senses that the intensity of the joy here transcends mere words. And so with us: in the end, God is the source of true joy. Oh, we may feel happiness arising from human experience and relationships. But pure unadulterated joy comes straight from God. Notice, too, that joy is both external: what God has done with “these things,” which here is doubtless the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. But it is also an internal personal joy: “great things the Lord has done with us.” More than just a passing emotion, joy is truly transformative.

The latter half of this psalm speaks of this anticipatory transformation form sorrow into joy in agricultural metaphor: “They who sow in tears/ in glad song will reap.” (5) We who “walk along and weeps/ the bearer of the seed-bag” will one day “surely come in with glad song/ bearing his sheaves.” (6) In other words, even if we are in sorrow now, God promises us joy to come.

Daniel 3:19–4:18: The fiery furnace is so much more than a mere Sunday school story.  We have always assumed that the fourth person is the pre-incarnate Christ, although Nebuchadnezzar identifies this person as an angel, who is not subject to the ordinary laws of physics.

I think it’s significant that it is Nebuchadnezzar himself who sees the fourth man in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The miracle of the furnace causes him to realize that for the people who believe in this “God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” that he is not quite the greatest human who had ever lived after all, his enormous self-statue of gold notwithstanding. There is a moment of humility there. The king is each of us. His statue of gold is the metaphor for our self image and for self-esteem run amok. The furnace is our attempt to deny God and attempt to destroy this relentless sense that there is Someone greater than we. We can consign the three men who represent our “God-shaped vacuum” into the furnace, but the effort will always be futile. God cannot be quenched.

When we really truly look inside ourselves in honest self examination, we come to realize that there is a fourth person there: the Holy Spirit. Will we be like Nebuchadnezzar and admit that there is someone greater than ourself and turn off the furnace?

The second half of this reading is Nebuchadnezzar’s other great dream: the tree at the center of the earth that “grew great and strong,/ its top reached to heaven,” (4:11) But “there was a holy watcher, coming down from heaven.” (13) that comes and chops it down. And worse, the person at the center of this dream will have “his mind be changed from that of a human,/ and let the mind of an animal be given to him.” (16) Moreover, this is a judgement: “The sentence is rendered by decree of the watchers,/the decision is given by order of the holy ones,” (17a) The king commands Daniel to interpret it.

I’m struck by the term, “watchers.” The clear message here is that we are under observation. No matter how much we display ourselves in public (social media!) or how desperately we attempt to hide or actions, our actions are know in heaven. There is no reason to assume that the watchers only watched Nebuchadnezzar. If God knows the actions of a single sparrow, we must assume God is watching us. The question is, would a deeper awareness of this “watching” change my behavior? I think it should.

1 John 4:16b–5:5: John just cannot stop talking about God’s love. It envelops his entire being. And in this world that seems more dangerous and disordered than ever, he gives us perhaps his greatest take on God’s love: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (4:18)  Last evening we heard form an Israeli and a Palestinian who both made it clear that the greatest barrier to the reconciliation of those two nations is fear. Only after mutual fear is diminished can we hope for any coming together or resolution of that long, long conflict.  I think we forget just how deeply fear can rule our own lives: fear of insufficient resources; fear of disease; fear of other tribes and races; fear of those who are unlike us. The list is endless.

But until love casts out our fear we are incapable of truly loving our bothers and sisters. And here’s the real challenge that John lays at our feet: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (20) That seems awfully clear. And awfully difficult. We cannot truly love God without truly demonstrating that love to those around us. And this is not just an option; it’s a commandment: “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (21)

So, the next time I make a judgement about someone I know, or also someone I don’t know–or an entire group of people, I do not have the right to love God without first loving those persons. And that is perhaps the most difficult task of all. It’s so much easer to claim to love a God I cannot see than to love the person down the street or the Muslim across the world. Which of course was Jesus’ point in Matthew 25 when he distinguishes between the sheep and the goats.

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