“Saying No to Say Yes”

“Saying No to Say Yes”
Daniel 3:1-18;
Luke 4:5-8
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
January 15, 2023

The very first Sunday of Advent this past year – Sunday, November 27. The prelude played. I welcomed us all. Gary Nelon and Jana McCown opened us with the Advent liturgy and then lit the first Advent candle. And then Monica began playing the first notes of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as were to sing just the first verse of that hymn right after the candle was lit.

Do you remember what happened on the very first chord that Monica played? Everyone stood. But…do you remember what was in the bulletin?

We’d even talked about this briefly in our worship planning committee meeting as that service was put together and I said, “Let’s remain seated for that. It’s a short, reflective verse of music – why not just remain seated and then we’ll stand of course at the first full hymn which comes just a few moments later.”

So, in the bulletin…there was no star indicating that we all stand. It did not matter in the least. One chord and you all were up, and even though I knew the plan was to stay seated…can you imagine if had just sat there? No way.

And I think you all were right. We stand for that truth – Come, Emmanuel. Come, God, to save us. We changed the bulletin for the following Sundays of Advent so it was clear: you know what, let’s stand for that part.

But that first Sunday- that is the power of music and repetition. Come to church long enough, you know that you hear that first chord of music on the organ after the welcome – and we’re standing to sing. That’s how it goes. And if the bulletin says otherwise? Does. Not. Matter. And there can be something wonderfully beautiful about that – as was the case with what you all did on November 27, and we’ll come back to that.

Of course, many are the ways this sort of thing gets harnessed, as we see in Daniel 3.

Quick Context: Daniel chapter 1 tells how King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon plunders Israel, takes captive Israel’s best and brightest people and then begins working to assimilate them into Babylon and their ways, their gods.

Here in chapter 3, King Nebuchadnezzar is doubling down on his effort to make sure all are lockstep with his him, his kingship, his empire.

And so, he has made this enormous golden statue – in terms of our measurements, 9 feet wide by 90 feet tall. We’re not told much about the look of the statue was exactly, and that’s probably the point. Anything can become a massive idol. Something that calls for our allegiance. Our devotion.

And this statue is built on the plains of Dura – Dura is a word that means ‘generations’ as if to suggest such a golden statue could not only be anything, it happens in each generation. Everyplace and time knows of golden statues.

And you heard the command: every time the people hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble …they are to fall down and worship the statue. Or, be thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. You will feel the heat if you do not bow down.

4x in our passage that long list of instruments is repeated…almost like the author wants us to feel this liturgy. The same music plays – and again and again – and who could not know exactly what to do each time that first chord plays?

(snap) Fall down and worship.

It’s seems like a circus reading this story thousands of years later but…but it invites us consider: does the music ever pick up in any arenas of our time?

  • Music that -when it begins to play – our hearts are almost instinctively drawn to worship, to follow, to elevate something else besides God?
  • Music that maybe we follow because we are aware of the heat we will feel if we don’t?

For some of us, I think Mondays are the day that the same instruments began playing at the same time. We may declare on Sunday, I’m stepping into this week centered, at peace, trusting God one step at a time. But then the music plays in the form of all the emails, the meetings, the texts, the Slack messages, the sudden need for something to be completed earlier than expected, the sudden need to cover down on something that’s not working properly… …every week is a little different but also every week is essentially the same really fast music that reflexively invites us to bow before what Barbara Brown Taylor calls our

“idol of exhaustion” where we both lament the exhaustion but also can’t help it because it’s such a badge of honor and value for ourselves before others.

In this case, we bow before this idol by moving at the speed of light to do all the things.

Wait, but we have some weeks where we declare on Sunday that we’ll take a breath and do it differently. But then music plays… And honestly, if we somehow found the wherewithal to not jump into the busy fray and do our part – can you imagine heat we would take from others for now bowing down? For not racing around and helping out as much as everyone else is doing?

For some of us, the music picks up in the political arena – much as it does in our passage this morning. Yes, we gather in church and remind ourselves that Jesus is Lord and our first allegiance above any party or country. We remind ourselves to love one another, to love our enemies, to be careful with our words, to be humble in confessing our failures, to be generous with our prayers, to advocate for those on the margins.

But then the music plays in the form of the latest, unprecedented news moment where can you believe this “Red-side” leader did and said this, this “blue-side” leader said-and-did this…

…and the cacophony of back-and-forth is a music that invites us to bow reflexively before the idol of team.

In this case, we bow by throwing out humbleness, kindness, and love and joining in unflinching lockstep with our people. Wait, but we said we’d love our enemies and confess our own sides’ failings and…. But then the music plays.

And honestly, if we somehow found the wherewithal to not jump in and proudly take up our side and disparage theirs…can you imagine heat we would take? Can you imagine if we were to call for some political self-critique just how hot our seat would get?

(As an aside – One way we can know that we are messing with an idol of some sort: we are acutely aware that as we think about following the way of Jesus and we begin to recognize the heat we will feel for doing so. Idols always have a fiery furnace behind them because they fear is the primary way they keep everyone in line.)

One more thought on the music that plays and gets us in line…

For a number of years now, over Martin Luther King Jr weekend I try and find time to read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – a piece of writing that I find to be a marvel philosophically, theologically, politically…but also in terms of sheer courage.

Because he’s writing from jail and most definitely facing an intense heat. Why? Because he and his followers are calling out the music, which is to say, the unspoken sociology of how racism and segregation work.

At one point in his letter, he writes this:

“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” And then he explains why it is quite difficult to hear those words, “…when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television…when your first name becomes “N-word,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”

In this part of the letter, King is calling out the very specific notes of the music of racism. Notes like theme park rules. Notes like the exact words society uses to talk to one another and about one another. You face fire for messing with idols.

And yet the truth is, Idols are everywhere. They are part of the invisible fabric of every society, every heart – and most anything can be an idol. Usually they are good things that get elevated to utmost importance that there is no compromise.

When the music plays all the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces (and us) are to get in line with the music.

Any other ways you hear the music play around us? In your life? Idols of magnetism that keep us in line by way of their music and the threat of heat?

Honestly, it is easy to go along with the music. It’s got its own momentum and all you hardly need to do a thing to get caught up in it. Plus, since going against it, pointing out any discordant notes, brings about all kinds of heat…it just works better to go with the flow.

And yet…

  • Ever heard post-WW2 testimony of Germans who went with the Nazi music?
  • Deathbed reflections from people who spent their life fearful or doing anything to upset the music that ended up carrying them throughout their days?
  • People who flamed out with all kinds of health problems trying to give the idol of exhaustion everything it wanted?
  • People with everything and profound anxiety that they don’t have enough and need to get more?
  • People who did nothing when the wrongdoing or abuse was happening in the family or school or workplace or faith community?

Idols ultimately destroy us. We get a glimpse of another way before an impossibly large idol by way of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they are called before the King about the fact that they are not bowing down when the music plays. And what a fascinating, telling response: “we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter.”

“No need to defend. Explain. Just not even part of this story.” And then they explain what gives them that level of courage: “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Notice – they don’t say: “God is going to save us from the fire because God is faithful and rewards those who are faithful in just the way we want. They say “God may save us and God may not…and either way we follow God and we will not bow down.”

Talk about Worshiping the Lord Your God alone.

They exhibit not only courage…but this stunning level of freedom. “We’re just not going for the story. And we’re at peace with how the chips fall.” It’s a sentiment echoed many years later by Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of going to the cross and facing very real fire: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

In other words – “whether you deliver me from the fire of this cross or you do not…I’m with you. Your way. The way unto the utter depths…the way unto utter love (cross).”

The reason the cross is empty in our sanctuary is because what we proclaim every Sunday when we gather is that to follow the way of Jesus unto the depths of love and forgiveness – even at great cost – is to follow the singular way that is not destroyed.

That ultimately rises and gives life.

Every other statue and idol – those eventually just take our life. Divide our life. Break our life with fear.

There is a singular way unto freedom… “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” A singular way unto rising. Wholeness. It is the way of Love. For love has no fiery pit behind it. Love alone will not coerce, will not employ fear…Love alone never fails.

Dare we follow the lead of Love in every facet of our lives? In the face of all the music?

Maybe that’s why you all stood on November 27. It was the body and the soul doing what we ache for all of our words and actions to do beyond these walls – seek for Emmanuel, the God of Love, to come.

Maybe it’s why we keep coming back for worship each week. Because we know the gravitational pull of all this other music baked in fear.

And we recognize the need for spaces where we can arrive with hearts out of tune and beholden to so many other rhythms and music, and amidst that we are given space to pray lines like we did in last week’s service:

Tune my heart to sing thy grace.

Tune our hearts again to your music. And if it on this particular day – we feel that prayer working on our hearts. We feel the tuning. And we feel how difficult it is to let go into the way of love no matter what happens…that’s natural. That means the fire is near – not the fire of judgement and fear, but the refining fire of love melting away 90 feet of gold… and returning us to the way of life. Amen.

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert