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  • Writer's pictureRev. Christopher Tweel

This Way to the Future

It’s tradition at the new year to make resolutions. Those promises to ourselves and, in some cases, to our social media following, that are our wish for a better tomorrow. I actually don’t take part in making those kinds of resolutions, but I do take a minute to review the year, to take stock and think about what the coming year might hold.

It’s possible that we feel a little gloomy about the past year when we look back at it. It’s possible that when we consider the future, we are indeed a little nervous and uncertain about what the new year will bring for us, personally, nationally, globally.... If we are reading the news about wars and conflict, or watching the membership trend of our denomination, hearing about the violence in Chicago, or wondering about the looming refugee crisis in Europe and the counterpart we see in our own immigration concerns. It is, perhaps, easy to slip into fearful depression.

Which brings us to the lessons at hand. This morning, we are reading about two periods of great fear in the life of God’s people on earth, and we get a view of how we are instructed, either by example or Christ’s request, to deal with those climates of fear.

The book of Daniel, an apocalyptic tale, is filled with the climate of fear. It drips from every page and from the entry into the story. In the first line, we see that Babylon has Jerusalem, and that God has delivered the king and some of the temple treasures into the conquerors’ hand. Babylonian custom degreed that some of the royal and noble Israelites come to stay in the foreign kingdom to act as human shields, as bargaining chips and as a means to integrate the conquered culture with the conquering one--something that conquering rulers did for centuries to come.

And it is here that we meet our cast: Daniel, Hananiah, Misheal, and Azariah. The last three of whom we know only by their Babylonian names: the famous Shadrach Mesach and Abednego. Which is sad, because those names are given to them as a measure of control and to encourage their forced assimilation into the conquering culture. Daniel, which means, “God is my Judge” is changed to Belteshazzar, which mean “Treasured of Bel.” Abednego translates into something like “Servant of Nego.” These names had the point of “forget your God, you serve a new god now.”

This is a brutal entry into a story. All hope is lost. Jerusalem is fallen. People’s names, their very identity--and in metaphor,their connection to God--has been altered. This is not a short stay--this is a three year training and orientation, after which, your lifetime of service in the new kingdom begins.

This is a place of fear.

Yet, our troop of friends manage to find quiet hope and create opportunity for God’s relationship and care for them to continue. They find something that they can devote to God in a time of pain and spiritual warfare: how they eat.

The food coming from the king's table in Babylon was most likely offered to the babylonian Gods before they ate it. Getting food from the king's table means you are getting food already consecrated to a foreign God. Something, certainly, that would pollute the bodies of the Jewish nobles who are trying to cling to their faith and strict purity practices that tie them to Godly relationship.

Who are these faithful brothers in a climate of fear? Ascetics who seek to solidify their own connection to God in the presence of utter turmoil. They do not seek to kill or be killed. They do not meet violence with violence.

Daniel as a leader is not a talking head, using fear to command his friends.

John 16 begins with Jesus’ affirmation to his followers: “the point of all this is so that you will be encouraged to stay with it.” But the picture he paints is bleak: You will be thrown out of church, killed, and more that just that. In the Greek there is a nuance to the word killed that I like. It’s found in other uses of the same word, and means in those places, “you will deprived of spiritual life. You will be made to dwell in a living hell.” Further he says that the people who are doing this to you are going to think that they are serving God. Jesus says, those people are going to be wrong. They think they serve me but they don’t even know me. They don’t know God.

That’s a very disheartening word from Jesus Christ. One that is filled with death and ruin and life as an outcast.

But there is surely a word of hope, and it is hope that is not found in the action of the disciples and apostles. They aren’t commanded to do anything in this moment, but the hope and the alteration of the world is coming because of God's Holy Spirit, and it is an upending of their faith system. It will be a reversal of what they know about sin, an upheaval of the things they thought about righteousness, and a flip on the expectation of judgement. The world’s view will be proven wrong.

And I say “the world,” but I have to clarify, because we can get too wrapped up in the church’s anemic vision of who “the world” is. It does not mean the secular jogger outside these walls on a Sunday morning. It does not mean the infidel across the ocean. It means all those who do not know Jesus. Those who don’t know God. Those who think they are doing a service to God, but who are actually making life a living hell for the children of God. And Jesus does not mean-- standing on the street corner handing out tracts “Do you know Jesus?” kind of knowing. He means know me. He is talking to his Hebrew followers. He means ”do you know me?” Peter do you love me? Do you know what I am about?, do you know who I am?, what I have been trying to tell you this whole time?, do you know how to treat each other?, support each other? Do you know me?, do you know the one who sent me?

Who is Jesus in a climate of fear? He is someone who builds the people back up. He tells them about the truth of what is to come, yes, but he builds it up with the hope of the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, that which will come in the heart of this bleakness.

Jesus is not a fear monger.

Jesus does not try to scare his friends into action. He does not try to impress on them a cosmic boogey man who lives at the end of wrong action. He does not suggest they arm themselves to keep from being killed. He does not tell them to strike first against all those who don’t know God.

In a climate of fear, these passages, Old and New Testament, refuses to support actions that follow fear and it’s close companion violence. Nor does the scripture shy away from the harsh realities that the world has to offer: There is much to fear. The world is full of conquerors, people who want to change your name, the fundamental relationship you have with God, people who want to kill you, who will tear you down from your social position. But there is a way, there is a path, in the midst of that fear, a method to greet each new year.

The Bible does this because it knows, as God knows, who we are as humans. It knows we are prone to fear and stupid actions because of it. As we leave the season of Advent and Christmas we remember hearing it over and over in the readings. “Fear not, fear not, fear not.” Nearly every time the voice of God is heard on earth, it starts with that phrase. God knows that we become cruel when we are afraid. That we forget the God of love when we are afraid, that we cause each other harm, that we alienate God’s people, that we talk about internment camps, and buying gold, how those people are responsible for the poor state of the nation or the church. God knows we are gross and fearful people who listen too much to gossip, and worry far more than we can trust. We think that communication, listening to the news, reading the papers and journals will advise us. Allow us to fear the right things, to hear the right message, but fear isn’t a communication problem it’s a human one. Fear has never been based on facts and never will be.

The facts of our world are these: War is on the decline. There is more democracy. Fewer deaths and longer life. More people wanting peace.

According to research done by Steven Pinker, a psychologist, scientist and linguist, recent data shows that the number of people who have died in wars over the past 50 years has sharply declined. In 203-14, there were only 4 conflicts that killed less than 10k each. None of these were active wars between countries, but civil and local conflicts. The number of claimed victories have fallen, which means that there has been a rise in negotiated ends to conflicts. These peaceful ends have risen by 40% in the last 14 years. Pinker also finds that even “the worldwide rate of death from interstate and civil war combined has juddered downward…from almost 300 per 100,000 world population during World War II, to almost 30 during the Korean War, to the low teens during the era of the Vietnam War, to single digits in the 1970s and 1980s, to less than 1 in the twenty-first century.”

The PCUSA’s declining membership follows the national population trends of people who have become non-affiliated with religion in general. Evangelical Protestants and Catholics too are not immune and have dropped membership numbers over the last seven years as well. Most of the PCUSA churches the denomination has closed or dissolved in the last five years have been rural churches of less than 100 members. The new worshiping communities and churches that the PCUSA has started in the last seven years use metrics of participation and not membership which makes counterbalancing growth in terms of new and refreshed believers hard to track.

In the world of health, Angus Deaton, a Princeton economist who look at global health issues stated, “There is not a single country in the world where infant or child mortality today is not lower than it was in 1950,”

Homicide rates worldwide have been declining in 75% of the world since 2008 when the number of homicides was just 289, 000. That number was down from 490, 000 in 2004. ( Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development) And it’s not more incarceration that’s responsible. While the United States and Britain have dramatically increased their prison populations, others, like Canada, the Netherlands, and Estonia reduced their incarceration rates and saw similar declines in violent crime. The same thing is seen state-to-state in the United States; New York imprisoned fewer people and saw the fastest crime decline in the country.

The Washington Post recently backed the claim made famous by the economist: that out of 750,000 refugees resettled in America not a single one had been arrested on domestic terrorism.

The world is safer, less violent, more eager to work together, more equal, and more peaceful than it ever has been -- possibly in human history -- and certainly in the last 400 years. And yet. Turn on the news programs and the podcasts and speeches from the lecterns and we hear people capitalizing on our capacity for fear. Many of them think they are doing it in the service of God. But Jesus from the Gospel of John has a word to say about them, those people who commoditize our emotions. They don’t know Jesus or his Father. Those people, who do not know God, are using our fear to elicit a specific reaction from us. That is not the way of Jesus Christ. That is not what he does in John, that is not what the nobles from Jerusalem do in the Old Testament. Look back at those passages:

Daniel and the other nobles don’t even try to change the Babylonians. They make a way for God to be a part of their lives, which in turn influences change around them. At every turn this apocalyptic story says, stay true to who you are, entrench your love for who God is, and the world will change and unfold around you. They don’t hide a sword in their back pocket with an intent to end someone. And what is the outcome of that story? Daniel and his friends are blessed for three years of training and are hand-picked to have the ear of the king. They advise and shape the rule of Babylon.

Jesus doesn’t tell his followers to put up walls and institute safety measures to keep their new religion safe from outsiders. He could have. They were going to die and be thrown out of church, he could have outlined a few practices to keep them safe. Instead the focus on living a life without obedience to fear. Instead he responded with encouragement--don’t fall away!--and he responds with the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. Something is coming to fill you in this dark time. What is the end of that story? A church, vibrant and strong that against all odds marches out of obscurity and into a foundational religion of the world.

We look to a new year, one that I trust we will see as something filled with hope and trust and encouragement. It will be a hard year. It will be filled with death, and with people trying to take our faith away from us. People who say they are coming in the name of God will try and hurt us. But we know better. Because we know Jesus and his Father. We know how they would act, and what they would expect from us when faced with death and a life that is a living hell.

God expects us to encourage each other. To draw on the Holy Spirit's interpretation of sin, and not what we interpret to be wrong, to draw on the Spirit’s definition of righteousness, and not the people we believe to be righteous, to listen to the Spirit’s word about Judgement, instead of our own need to condemn in others what we see in ourselves.

We are told in the new year to make a way for God in our lives. To trust that relationship will carry us through the persecution that we will face. To know that fear has no place in our lives as true Christians, and to act as encouraging witnesses to Jesus Christ that we know.

This is a good world. It is a blessing to be followers in this time. Be encouraged. Be faithful on the way. Look forward to the future.

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