The sermon that day was on a particular portion of the book of Daniel. I knew the stories, but had never heard anyone preach on them before. The stories were carefully set in the context of the Babylonian exile, and the problem of continuing to remember and to worship Israel's God when you are not in Israel anymore. The stories were carefully set in the context, but the point was contemporary -- the point of the sermon was the pride that leads us to forget that it is really God who is in charge, God who both appoints and rejects rulers. The ruler in question was, of course, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon: his offending words are "Is this not a magnificent Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?"
The verse that the preacher wanted us to pay attention to is from Daniel 4:17, and it is, actually, just a part of the verse. He had us repeat the verse with him, as it recurs several times in Nebuchadnezzar's morality tale. Nebuchadnezzar is going down, says the prophet, until "all who live may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will."
The point? Don't be proud. How can you be proud? If you have anything, it is not because you are so great, it is only because the Most High is sovereign; he gave it to you for his own purposes. Also: be a good steward. Use what you have been given for God's purposes. That's why you have it, anyway.
So, not bad, really, I thought. Except that I couldn't get something out of my mind, which was the end of verse 17, which doesn't end with "he gives it to whom he will."
Actually, the complete verse ends, "he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings."
Somehow I kept thinking that this makes a difference; this changes things. It's not just a stewardship sermon, not just a morality tale any more. It's not about power, but inversion of power; it's not just about pride, but it's about looking at the world from upside down and inside out. It makes me think: if the idea of my life is to use what God gave me for God's purposes -- well, what are God's purposes, anyway?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to led the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
This being advent and all, I couldn't help thinking about the lowliest of human beings, the one who came, the one we are waiting for, the one who is here, but incognito. It's just this small fragment of a Bible verse, but for a moment I thought about the lowly one set over me, the one who guards my life, who has given me his, to use for his purposes. I thought about the Lowly One set over the world, the prince of a different kind of peace, and what it would mean to live according to his purposes.
What are his purposes, anyway? A world turned upside down.
It is what I am waiting for.