Reinvent Advent: God’s Edict

At First Presbyterian, we are having a Bob Dylan Advent, in which a Dylan song and its themes will be featured in worship. This is the selection for the First Sunday. 

Too many Christians misunderstand Advent. It has morphed into preparation for Christmas, like so many sale of the season events. It is capitalistic penultima, Advent is; the sitting on Santa’s lap of religious seasons. My Christian Socialism shows most during Advent. I lose Facebook friends because I decry the rank hypocrisy of White, Evangelical Protestant, American Christianity turning a Middle Eastern Jewish communalist with a penchant for radical insurrection into a blonde-haired Aryan with a rifle in one hand and the GOP Platform in the other. A message of financial rebellion and dedication to higher pursuits has been replaced by teaching kids that you know Jesus loves you more because Santa brought you an iPad while the kid in the ghetto gets a bullet through the window. I see American Christmas as being a skosh more classist than it is racist, but that’s a race won by a hair not a hectare.

The first Sunday in Advent is very special to me. I begin my assignment at First Presbyterian on the First Sunday of Advent, 2013. If I were a president, I would be entering the final year of my first term. A lot has changed since the early years of my Administration, if we are going to extend the metaphor; while it is Year A once more, I have given up the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in favor of the Narrative Lectionary (NL), for reasons I’ve written about previously. For those who are not familiar with the patterns of preaching life, this would be the first year I could actually go back and mine previous sermons and notes to make sermon writing a bit easier; most preachers I know rarely, if ever repeat sermons from the previous cycle. It has been three years since said sermons were written, and one would hope that the preacher ain’t the same, because the congregation sure isn’t. But I know that as I have gotten deeper into my preaching career I have looked at previous sermons I wrote when I was not preaching regularly; sometimes it would hapen by accident: I would go to save a document and realize that I had a sermon from when I was an intern. Generally I just laugh at those, but sometimes there is good historical material contained therein.

But by going to the Narrative Lectionary for Year A, I am committing myself to fresh starts for each sermon. If I were really smart, I’d have all my files tagged and cross referenced so I can call up themes and scripture passages, but all I to say is

Yet, Advent is Advent is Advent. It is the start of a new year. A reset. A fresh set of downs. So earlier this week I opened up my Narrative Lectionary, put on my pince-nez, and ran my finger until I saw it: Daniel 6:6-27.*

I was like, “Daaaaaaaamn, NL. You’re bringing the heat with the First Sunday of Advent.”

The Book of Daniel is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misused texts in all of the Tanakh.** For the duration of my academic training, I was assigned material that situated the Book of Daniel as a text aimed at Antioch IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid leader whose edicts inspire the Maccabean Revolt and led to the Hasmonean Dynasty, but by utilizing language explicitly mentioning a different period of Jewish history. We were taught that the Daniel is an apocalyptic text employing coded language by setting a contemporary manifesto into a story world of the Babylonian Captivity. For nearly a decade, I have taught the history of this period with the assumption that the edict of Cyrus that allows the people to return (and results in Cyrus being called the Christ in Isaiah) was regarded as almost universally positive by the Jews; Persian occupation has been treated by scholars as a largely benign period, until recent exegetes like Smith-Christopher have been challenging these assumptions. While too much to summarize here, I strongly recommend reading his “Daniel: Introduction” in the New Interpreter’s Bibleas it has been enough to convince me that I need to rethink my entire hermeneutic of Daniel. Half of it is written in Aramaic; the other half in Greek. It does not seem to come from a unified time period; it containes clashing theologies. An already complicated text that I thought I had bedded down to be able to teach and preach on has once again become almost unknown to me.

Thanks, NL. Thanks a lot.

The historical setting is key; the framers of the NL have us skipping the opening half-dozen verses of Daniel 6, but such is unwise. They provide us important clues: Daniel is depicted as a one of three presidents overseeing 120 sartraps. Extant historical literature cannot confirm this number, but the political system did exist during the time of the Return; the Book of Daniel itself gives no information as to how Daniel, a Hebrew, was able to secure his position; scholars point out that an edict mandating that all worship none but Darius is not attested to in any extant source, and most historians find its plausibility nil, given the likelihood of the Persian leaders being Zoroastrians. It seems clear that what we have in Daniel is folklore; the question then remains, folklore of what folk and what lore?

To find out what we don’t know, let us look at what we know.

The Aramaic word translated as decree or edict, according to scholars, would have the same cultural understanding as “papers” or “orders.” As in, “Show me your papers, or I have orders to take you in.” In our story world, Darius issues an order that never really happened, but the folkloric detail is setting up a larger issue: Living in a condition of near-slavery is still living in slavery. There are still edicts that come from Man, not God that are life-crushing. Limiting. Oppressive. What scholars once thought was coded language regarding how to live under the brutal slavery of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (the tyrannical leader of the Seleucids who sought to eliminate the Maccabees), may actually be not-so-coded language to occupied Jews about how to not accept the half-slavery of the Persians. If that is true, the Book of Daniel is not some oblique, surreptitious wink written to contemporaries by those opposing Seleucid oppression, but rather evidence of nonviolent resistance during the time of Persian rule written about during the time of the Persian rule.

This seems to be what is indicated in Daniel 6:10-11, in which Daniel flings open his window*** and continues his practice of thrice daily prayer. Historically, this was not a practice required of Jews and seems to have existed only for a brief time amongst Hellenized Jewish communities, that is, communities impacted by Greek culture, such as those now under Persian rule. Again, scholars are divided but we’ll go with the assumption that this is correct. Either way, Daniel is not being targeted because of a practice widespread among Jews, but rather because of one utilized in specific communities. Regardless, his act of prayer is political and defiant.

Darius, when pushed by the other presidents, seems reluctant to seek Daniel’s arrest; Christians will hear echoes of Pilate, but like Pilate, Darius’ true character is more complicated than that attested to in a few lines of scripture. The whole of the Book of Daniel paints a sinister and violent view of the Persians (as well as the Babylonians and Greeks). The message seems clear: resistance is required, no matter how benevolent the foreign rule.

Daniel in the lion’s den is a potent symbol, and has found its way into popular imagination and lore for generations. However, it seems that we might have misunderstood it all along. We tend to think of Daniel being imprisoned, but such punishment was not utilized much, if at all in the ancient world. People may be held for periods of time, but there is no record showing that imprisonment as we use it today was employed in any significant sense. Scholars emphasize the use of the word “pit,” which most often is associated with the underworld or with a condition of being contained. Here, it seems, that Daniel is meant to represent the exiled people themselves. We should notice that the pit is sealed with a stone and the king’s insignia–much like Matthew will describe Christ’s tomb after the crucifixion–but let us not project Jesus onto a text in which he does not appear, lest we miss the symbolism. The people are sealed in a pit by a foreign State power, thrown in with lions that wish to savage them. Yet as a result of innocence and upright character, Daniel–Jewish people living in exile or under occupation–emerge unharmed.

In the story, Darius is very much a sympathetic figure; he fasts, he abstains from pleasures, he feels himself connected to the fate of Daniel. In the morning he runs to the pit and is overjoyed to see Daniel alive; those who plotted against the hero are punished to their deaths, and God is glorified even by the king who was to be worshipped as a god. All’s well that ends well, right?

Except it doesn’t end well. It rarely does. The Darius of the story is not an historical figure; he is depicted as living from the time of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king that destroys Jerusalem in 587/6 BCE, until the time of Cyrus the Persian, something virtually impossible (and if it occurred, where is the extant record?). And this period was not benevolent for the Jews. Why, then, have scholars seemingly been so wrong? In short, because we have believed ancient political propaganda and did not listen to the testimonies of the people. Sure, the theology of the piece is pretty easy: God is good; those that stand against God will ultimately get theirs. But people don’t believe in God because they are stupid; people know that if you are thrown into a pit with lions, chances are you are going to be eaten.

So we must ask: what does it mean to be eaten?

There is not a single or easy answer to this question, and I think too often preachers act as though there is; yes, we can certainly say that there will be edicts that attempt to keep us from worshipping God and if we follow them, we will be eaten by lions. That, in my opinion, is the “persecuted White, American Christian” answer and I am sick of those answers. I think others are as well. Certainly, the story is about how to live in a world hostile to you, but it is not a missive about religious freedom. This is not a tract from the American Enterprise Institute. This is a subversive story aimed at persecuted people; it is a resistance narrative. It is a letter from a Birmingham jail; it is a call to nonviolent resistance. It is a text that says a stronger weapon than the sword is the faithful heart. One quarter slave on your mother’s side is still a slave, and God wants us free, the text says. If you aren’t free, act like you are; refuse to let them enslave that which makes you, you. Here, in the story world, that is devotion to God. That is praying with the window flung open.

We face the same thing in our lives, friends. Sadly, too many Christians see themselves as Daniel and don’t realize that they are Darius, or one of the co-presidents trying to bring Daniel down. I believe strongly that if the Church is to survive the next 100 years, it needs to understand the Book of Daniel as a resistant text. As we start our Advent, we start with the theme of hope. But we also know that these are changing times. We have government leaders who are trying to get us to be grateful because we are “mostly free.” Or that things won’t be as bad for us as it is for them provided we follow the edicts. if we just fulfill the decree, it’ll be okay. Not great, but okay.

Welcome to the new edict: The issue is not praying three times a day with the windows open, it is praying five times a day anywhere.

This Advent, what are we as a Church going to do to extend hope to those who need it the most? While the times may be a’changin’, God’s requirements of God’s people are not. have not.

This Advent, what are we as a Church going to do to extend hope to those who need it the most?

*Actually, none of that happened. The NL is online, I try not to touch the screen of my iMac, and on a round face like mine pince-nez look like glasses that had the stems fat-blasted off them.

**I’m not an expert, I just play one on this blog, so I want to recommend Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third WorldDanieland literally anything by Daniel L. Smith-Christopher.

***The Aramaic text uses the passive voice; the Greek, Ethiopic, and Latin all use active, which I privilege because it fits into my sermon and this is my blog, dang it.

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