It’s one of those texts and one of those Sundays: There’s too much in the text and there’s too much in the world. So every now and then you get these kind of intersections where you have to discern what sermon to preach. You only get one, and making more than one into one makes a bad one. Today I preached about the “long night” of Advent. It’s a thing. But there was something else deep in my heart around this text that I chose not preach today, because, as I said, you only get one, and you have to trust the Spirit on which one to preach. So here’s what I didn’t preach today, but which is still aggressively trying to climb out of me:
Today we looked at Daniel 6, which is where Daniel gets thrown into the lions’ den for praying to his god. Here’s the scene: Israel is in exile. They have been conquered and sent into exile and are thoroughly in the grips of another regime. But, as can happen, some Israelites find favor with power and are called to serve the regime in prestigious ways. Daniel is one such fellow. The problem is, well, that pesky thing called humanity. His peers get jealous and threatened by his success. So they set a trap for the ever faithful Daniel. They convince King Darius to pass a law that prohibits the worship of anyone or anything but King Darius. We can only speculate as to why Darius passes this law. Perhaps flattery? It doesn’t matter.
So what happens? Well the obvious. Daniel’s peers go to him just at the time when we faces his holy, sacred land- the city of Jerusalem- to pray to God. They catch him, bring him to King Darius and demand that he be thrown into the lions’ den as the law dictates. Darius regrets this law and does not want to do it, but he must. So into the lions’ den Daniel goes. An angel tends to him there all night by shutting the mouths of the lions, Daniel is saved, and Darius passes a new law that all must worship Daniel’s god (why he didn’t do that before putting him in the lion’s den, I don’t know, but that’s not the point). It’s a happy ending (except for that small little detail of the entire nation of Israel still being oppressed and in exile).
What strikes me is this: Daniel’s response to oppression. He is a faithful Jew, living in oppression and says nothing in this whole story until after he is saved from the lions. The only time it’s even mentioned that he says anything at all is when he is in prayer. Daniel’s response to oppression, even in a seat of power, is prayer. It’s among the most famous stories in the Bible, and when we read it we credit Daniel as faithful and wise just as the text does.
Yet at the same time, today, right now, and for months, another people have responded to oppression in prayer. The people of Standing Rock represent just one tribe of many native peoples who had their land stolen and were led into a kind of exile- an exile on their own land. Someone arbitrarily decided where their land would end and where it would begin, and like Darius and his conspirators, they keep changing the rules to work in their favor. As a black snake plows forward through their holy and scared land to threaten their very source of life, the people of Standing Rock face increased oppression. We may not be comfortable with that word but that’s what it is. They live- and have lived for centuries- under the exiling oppressive arm of the United States of America. What has been their response?
They turn toward their holy land to pray. And, like Daniel, the king’s conspirators have them thrown into the modern day lions’ den of hand cuffs, dog kennels, pepper spray, water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and who knows what else may come as they threaten to evict the Oceti Sakowin camp within the week. The “Biblical values” on which the United States were supposedly founded are not found coming from the king’s throne in Washington, but are found on the camps of Standing Rock.
But this time there appears to be no angel shutting the lions’ mouths. The hand of God seems to be absent, mute, and impotent. But what if the hand of God isn’t absent? I would argue that it’s not. But it is mute and impotent. Advent is the season in which we wait for God to come here and dwell with us. It is when we cry out in our desperate moments for God to meet us here in the flesh. And God did. God came in the flesh as a man called Jesus who is also called “Emmanuel”, which means “God with us”.
But where is this Jesus now? Where is this God in the flesh now? It’s a fair and necessary question. As the story goes, Jesus leads a radical revolution of turning the establishment on its head, is crucified for it- that is, has his body was broken for it- is buried, rises from the dead in wholeness, and then ascends to Heaven. And as this “God-in-the-flesh” ascends, he says, among other things, that we are the ones to go and be (in a sense) God in the flesh in the world. This is why we pray whenever we come to the Communion Table, “pour out your Spirit on these gifts of bread and wine that they may become the body and blood of Christ for us that we may be the Body of Christ for the world.“
Beloved, the Church- by the power of the Spirit within us- is the hand of God in the world. We are the ones who are to fulfill the prophet Isaiah’s word that Christ took on as his mission in Luke 4 to, “bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61:1). We now are the Body of Christ for the world- that charge is ours.
The people of Standing Rock are Daniel in the lions’ den right now, and there is a raging lion manifested as a black snake waiting to devour them. It is our job to do what we can to show up and shut that snake’s mouth. The people of Standing Rock are embodying the faithful, while the Church has largely been mute and impotent, too distracted by what’s happening with the king’s castle and crown.
As we head into Advent, the stakes are high, and we need to remember that when it comes to oppressed people throughout the world, we are to stand up for them. It doesn’t always fit nicely into our shopping, cookie exchanges, and office parties, but it’s what our call is. If we want to put “Christ back into Christmas”, our task is not to say “merry Christmas” at the checkout counter at Target; our task is to embody Christ by standing in solidarity with those on the margins of society. Or in this case, those whose own margins society continually shrinks down until they have none. So, come, let’s stand together as the very presence of God in the world- as emmanuel- to do the hard work of shutting the mouth of the black snake.