Watching and Waiting: Prayer

by David Baer, November 27, 2016

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Text: Daniel 6:6-27

How do you survive as a captive? In the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, a British officer named Nicholson, and his men are prisoners of war, held by the Japanese army in Burma. Their captors press them into service building a bridge that will be part of the Burma Railway, establishing a supply line for Japanese occupying forces. (Nicholson is played by British actor Alec Guinness, whose flawless diction and upper-crust accent are unmistakable. Because I grew up as a child of the 1980s, I can never quite separate him from the character he played in Star Wars, Obi Wan Kenobi. Any time Nicholson gets into trouble, I find myself muttering, “Use the Force!”) Nevertheless, Nicholson insists to his men that there will be no sabotage, that they will resist their captors’ demeaning treatment of them by showing them their superior discipline and work ethic. Nicholson’s plan succeeds in keeping up their morale, but he gets a little too invested in the enemy project—so much so that, when Allied saboteurs arrive to blow it up on its opening day, he attacks them, and almost foils their plan. Now, real Allied POWs who were held captive in Burma have said that this is a compelling story, but that none of them ever willingly aided the Japanese war effort the way Nicholson did. Still, when you’re a captive, when your fate is not in your own hands, it makes sense that you’d want to hold on to the things that make you who you are. Nicholson, and his men too, held onto their identity as competent, capable soldiers and hard workers. Sometimes that’s what it takes to see you through.

Today we’re beginning the season of Advent. And as we look forward to the coming of Jesus at Christmas, we also have a sense that our world is not as it should be. Some of us struggle with chronic illnesses. Some of us grieve over loved ones who have died, or others who, though still living, are cut off from us. And we live in a country that is divided against itself, in a world where there is heartbreaking violence and injustice and need. Advent is a season about hope—that the coming of Jesus changes everything. But having hope in the future God promises us means being discontent with the present we have now. It means recognizing that we live in a state of captivity, like the POWs in the movie, like Daniel in Babylon in today’s reading. It means we are not yet home, not yet at rest. It means we need to remember and lay hold of who we are, according to the promise God has given us, if we’re going to survive in the present.

The book of Daniel is one of the last written books of the Bible. My seminary Hebrew is pretty good, but I get a harsh reminder every time I open my Hebrew Bible to Daniel that I can’t make heads or tails of this book, because although it uses the same alphabet as the rest of the Old Testament, it’s written not in Hebrew but Aramaic, the language that the Jews came to speak in the centuries before Jesus. It was written during a time when the Jewish people were ruled by a series of Greek kings who did everything in their power to stamp out the Jewish faith, going so far as to put an altar to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem, and banning the reading of the Torah. In a few weeks our Jewish neighbors will celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday that has its roots in a successful revolt that overthrew the Greeks and won freedom for the Jews. So the stories of Daniel speak to a people who are occupied, oppressed, trusting God and hoping for deliverance.

Do you remember the TV series M·A·S·H? It took place in Korea, but it was really about the Vietnam War. In the same way, the stories of the book of Daniel take place during the Babylonian Exile, but they’re really about the struggles of the Jewish people under their oppressive Greek rulers. By looking back at a time when their ancestors survived captivity and persecution with God’s help, they’re able to have hope for their own present time.

Daniel had lost his home. With a group of other young princes and nobles, he was taken from Jerusalem to Babylon, where he was kept as a captive. There he found favor with the king by being able to interpret dreams, and when Babylon was conquered by the Persians, he passed into the service of the new Persian king. Still, Daniel’s not free. He’s far from the land of his birth, far from the Temple of his God, and cut off from the people with whom he shares a faith, a language, and an identity. How does Daniel survive captivity? By holding on to the things that make him who he is. Although he was offered a share of the food provided to the king and his household, he refused it, choosing to eat vegetables rather than risk violating Jewish dietary laws. But in our story today prayer is what Daniel uses to hold on.

What did Daniel pray about? Later on in the book Daniel prays a long prayer that gives us some idea. In that prayer he praises God’s faithfulness and confesses his sin and his people’s sin. He asks God for help, for rescue, appealing to God’s mercy. The thread that holds together Daniel’s prayer is this one thing: he trusts that God is the one running things, that God holds the Jewish people’s future, and that God is going to be their only source of help. It may look like the conquerors that took them captive hold all the cards, but they’re just players acting in a story written by God. Daniel’s life of prayer carries him beyond the appearances of the historical events unfolding around him to a place where all these things are just a reflection of a relationship with a God who is gracious and trustworthy. Prayer grounds Daniel as someone who isn’t just a dry leaf blown around by the wind of historical forces, but God’s beloved.

In today’s reading, the villains who are jealous of Daniel try to get him by cutting him off from this hope. They convince the king to sign a decree declaring that, for a period of time, no one is to pray to any god except the king himself. This is staggering arrogance, but it’s in keeping with the way all Gentile kings are depicted in Daniel—they tend to be self-important, pompous, and not very bright. This is what the rule means: no longer will the king’s subjects be allowed to reach for help beyond the king’s limited imagination, limited power, and very limited goodness and mercy. They are no longer allowed to hope for anything greater than what King Darius can provide.

But Daniel, loyal though he is to the king, refuses to submit to the decree. He continues to pray three times a day, facing out of a window on the upper story of his house. His enemies denounce him to the king, and he’s thrown into the lions’ den. When he survives the night, the king throws Daniel’s enemies to the lions and makes a new proclamation—that all people are to respect the God of Daniel, who rescued him from the lions.

For Daniel, prayer is a tool of resistance. It keeps him anchored in God’s promises, even as his enemies come after him, as the force of law and government is turned against him, and as his very life is put in jeopardy. And God vindicates Daniel’s trust.

During the Second World War, certain brave men and women throughout Nazi-occupied Europe organized themselves in opposition to Nazi domination. They sabotaged the German war effort, provided intelligence to the Allies, and hide or rescued Jews and others targeted for genocide. These people were known as the “Resistance,” doing their part to act against the power that held their nations captive and used the mechanisms of industry and the state for evil purposes. But as necessary and right as these movements were, they would have been doomed to fail without the efforts of the Allied forces that invaded on D-Day. By tuning in to broadcasts from the BBC, for example, members of the Resistance could be reassured that they weren’t alone in their struggle, and the could even hear coded instructions for how to cooperate with the Allies.

Prayer is kind of like those broadcasts. As we enter this Advent season, watching and waiting for the coming of Jesus, we know all too well how deeply we and our world need a Savior. Last night ten people were shot on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.1 Refugees, especially members of minority religious groups like Christians, continue to stream out of war-torn Syria. Our own country is experiencing an increase in the rate of crimes and harassment against members of minority groups.2 And we continue to feel a need for wholeness and healing in very personal, individual ways. We inhabit a world that is held captive by fear, violence, exclusion, cynicism, selfishness, a false sense of scarcity, as well as natural brokenness like illness, natural disasters, and death. We know all too well our need to be set free. What we need is a sense that we’re not alone, that God is coordinating a massive liberation, that help is on the way, and that resistance is possible and necessary in the here and now. And the way we connect to all this is through prayer.

I want to encourage you, if you don’t do this already, to spend some time in prayer every day. Share with God your distress at all the brokenness you see in your life and in the world around you. But also ask God to open your eyes to the people who are fighting against hunger and hate, against sickness and injustice. Give thanks for those folks, and ask God to show you how you can take part in the struggle in your own way. Can you donate food? Reach out in friendship to a neighbor who’s feeling scared right now? And when you end your prayer, do it in the way the author of the final book of the Bible ends his. The way to end a resistance prayer, an Advent prayer is to offer your longing, offer your thanks, offer your help, recognizing that it all depends on the God who has promised to come to be with us. Now is a season for praying these words: “Amen. Even so, come Lord Jesus.” Shall we say them together? “Amen. Even so, come Lord Jesus.”

Footnotes

  1. Associated Press, “New Orleans Police Say Shooting Leaves 1 Dead, 9 Injured.” NY Times, 27 Nov 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/11/27/us/ap-us-new-orleans-shooting.html. Accessed 11/27/2016.

  2. Associated Press, “Governments, Elected Leaders Respond to Uptick in Hate Crime.” ABC News. 21 Nov 2016. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/governments-elected-leaders-respond-uptick-hate-crime-43700009. Accessed 11/27/2016.

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