Sunday April 6, 2008
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
All Ours as Gift
The stories in the book of Daniel are delightful; they charm us with details sometimes exaggerated, with beautiful unusual words repeated incantation-like; and on top of that, they are darn good stories. One can easily imagine the pleasure people took in telling these stories from generation to generation, passing them down through the ages and finally to us.
The fourth chapter of Daniel is the story of the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar. (What a delicious word to pronounce, “Nebuchadnezzar.”) This chapter is written as if it were a letter from the king telling us first of his greatness, then a dream he had, then the madness that God sent upon him, and finally his restoration to his right mind. At the beginning and again at the end of the letter, the king praises God for the signs and wonders which he wrought in the king’s life; for God, he now acknowledges, is the true King, the King of heaven; all his works are right and his ways are just.
It is a story, this chapter is, of a powerful proud man brought low by God to learn a lesson; lesson learned, the man is restored to his former glory. It is a story, we might say, with a happy ending. The proud Nebuchadnezzar learns that true glory belongs only to God; Nebuchadnezzar gets his glory back, but only because he learns to think of God and indeed to thank God as one whose ways are just and who is able to bring low those who walk in pride.
So it is a delightful story for its deeply satisfying symmetry with the happy ending where the initial situation is restored but in right order. It has too the charm of exaggerated detail. Nebuchadnezzar writes as if he were the king for everyone! King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth! There is too the charming exaggeration, which comes in the part of the chapter reserved for tomorrow and Tuesday’s reading, of the scene twelve months later when Nebuchadnezzar seems to have learned nothing from the dream, but is walking on the roof of his royal palace; he looks out and declaims, Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power? That is the very moment when a voice speaks from heaven, and immediately Nebuchadnezzar takes on the life of a beast, eating grass like an ox, sleeping on the ground, his hair as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws. Finally, after seven years, he returns to sanity, recovers all he had lost, and, as I’ve already said, praises God.
What is true about this story is that God is indeed the one and only King of the whole world; other rulers serve merely under him and only for limited areas for only limited times and with limited powers only. Yet there are features of this story which, taken by themselves, are not the whole truth about God; and the danger, here as with many stories which charm and delight, is that we will stop short and not probe more deeply into the ways of God with us.
Let me say a few things about the way Nebuchadnezzar first learned of his problem. God did not send a wise man or a prophet to him to tell him to shape up, learn humility, or be humiliated: God sent, it seems, a dream. And even that was not enough to do the trick; despite the king’s being troubled by the dream, and despite the difficulty he had in gaining an interpretation, he nonetheless did not follow Daniel’s advice that he break off his sins and practice righteousness and show mercy to the oppressed. Nebuchadnezzar’s predicament was so serious that he could not learn better: neither by direct speech nor by the indirection that comes from hearing a good and interesting story, which is what his dream was. The question for the careful reader is obvious. Might we not be in a predicament so serious that we cannot learn better, either from direct speech or by the indirection that comes from hearing a good and interesting (delightful and charming) story? If so, what could that predicament be?
Not every dream in the Bible is sent from God, but many dreams are. Dreams from God are, it seems to me, like personal parables, stories which aren’t really allegories so much as (to repeat) indirect speech, ways of showing us things we don’t want to see, or perhaps can’t see any other way. I think Jesus uses parables and performs signs because there is no other way for him to get through to us. And I think that God sent Jesus to us because only by sending a human being could God get through to us.
The disturbing message of this charming Nebuchadnezzar story is that it is in fact very hard to get through to us. We can smile at Nebuchadnezzar’s exaggerated pride and self-importance; but on the edge of our smile, is there not a hint of (a slightly disturbing) self-recognition?
Another man, in another book of the Bible, in another great story, says when calamity falls upon him: The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the Name of the Lord. What happened to him—a complete economic and personal catastrophe—was not a message from God. His friends famously claimed that it was; they said, Job old man, this sort of catastrophe only comes upon a person who has sinned; you need to repent. But Job—it is the key to the story—is not a sinner. Catastrophe falls upon the righteous man, and we hear him say, The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the Name of the Lord.
This, I deem, is the deeper truth of the story of Nebuchadnezzar. Yes, he loses it all because he does not recognize the true kingship of the Lord. But even for those who do know the Lord as king, the truth is, the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.
It happens every day. It is so common we almost never think about it. But look: the day begins. It is God’s gift to us. This is the day the Lord hath made—this day, like every day. We rise from bed and we give thanks to God—if we remember! And some days are great days, spectacular days. Yesterday afternoon I took a dear friend to Central Park. The daffodils are blooming everywhere. There are about a million people there—friendly, walking, amorous, athletic, speaking about 40 different languages—it was so exciting. A woman pushes a stroller with a girl in it, and beside her a very short boy pushes a tiny stroller with Curious George in it. But then it comes to an end. The sun sets, and the day is over. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. And we give thanks—if we remember.
Curious George will, perhaps, make it through a few seasons. That very short boy who pushed Curious George yesterday will grow tall, and perhaps some day we may find him pushing a larger stroller. He may later push a wheelchair. At length there will come the season when he no longer can take that walk. And then it will be over. Will he remember? Will God get through?
It is all ours—the earth, the flowers, the children, the excitement, the joy, the sun, the moon, and the stars. Not ours as Nebuchadnezzar thought, standing on the roof of his Babylonian palace, as his making—but ours as gift bestowed. Do we recollect that? And they will all be taken away—the smells, the sights, the touch. Will we give thanks as they depart?
Nebuchzdnezzar is a charming story of a powerful man who had to learn God was his ruler. Behind it is the awesome story that God is our creator. In the giving, God is trying to get through to us. And in the taking away, God is trying to get through to us. The righteous man, with faith, sees always gift—and praises the giver, who lives—beyond the daffodils, the cries, the stars, beyond even the grave: for he is indeed the living God.