Called by God

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches  
Ezekiel 2:1-7
August 29, 2021

At the beginning of worship

John Knox, the reformer of the Scottish Church, from which came the Presbyterian Church, drew from the book of Ezekiel. His book title, The First Blast of the Trumpet, drew from the prophet.[1] Like Ezekiel, God gave Knox a message. He knew he must deliver it regardless of the danger it brought upon himself. Today, in our sermon, on this Scottish Heritage Sunday at Bluemont, we’re looking at Ezekiel’s call as a prophet. I will compare it to Knox’s call as a Reformer. 

Before the reading of Scripture

Before we delve into the text, let me tell you a bit about Ezekiel. He was a young Hebrew priest exiled to Babylonian in 597 BC. He’s a lot like Daniel, who was exiled in 605 BC. Ezekiel’s exile, seven years later, was the second of three exiles. It occurred ten years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the massive exile. 

Those who were exiled early appear to have two functions. Some, like Daniel, were groomed for Babylonian official work. Others served as guarantee that Jerusalem would behave and pay tributes to Babylon. Ezekiel, a priest, may have been selected for deportation to serve as a religious advisor to the Hebrews in Babylon. 

The book of Ezekiel begins with a vision of a divine chariot. Seeing it, Ezekiel falls to his face and hears someone speaking to him. In Chapter 2, we hear Ezekiel’s call. 

Read Ezekiel 2:1-7

The Call of John Knox

In the late 1550s, John Knox settled into a comfortable life in Geneva.  He was the pastor of an English-speaking congregation, which consisted mostly of religious exiles the British Isles. These exiled left England under the reign of Mary Tudor, also known as “Bloody Mary” (a name earned not because she liked tomato juice and vodka, but because she had so many Protestant leaders killed). She attempted to bring England back to the Catholic fold. Knox was Scottish, but served a church just south of the border, when he found himself along with others fleeing for their lives. 

Then, while still in exile, Knox made a dangerous trip back to Scotland. Love has a way to lead us to take such risks. He went home to marry Marjorie Bowes. While in Scotland, he couldn’t help but do some preaching and meeting with Scottish leaders, many of whom were ready for a change of the church. This was a time of great uncertainty; Knox knew if he wasn’t careful, he could end up being roasted at the stake. 

Once safely back in Geneva, with his wife who soon became pregnant, things looked up. He enjoyed pastoring the church and studying under John Calvin, who was at his prime. BUT THEN he received a letter.

The letter, signed by several Scottish nobles, was brought to Geneva by a Scottish merchant. They encouraged Knox to come back to Scotland. They were not able to promise him safety or a comfortable life, but they did promise a willingness to jeopardize it all—their lives, their wealth, their estates, and their titles—for God’s glory. 

This troubled Knox. He shared the opportunity with his congregation, as well as with John Calvin and other pastors in Geneva. Everyone agreed. Knox had no choice. He was being called back to Scotland and if he refused, he would be rebelling against God.[2] So much for safety and raising his son by Lake Geneva.

Our calling

When we are called by God, we’re often called out of our comfort zones.  We’re called to take risks. God’s call changes us. No one who answers it will ever be the same. When we are called by God—and this doesn’t just apply to the clergy for we all have callings—our lives no longer belong to ourselves, as Knox and Ezekiel learn. 

Ezekiel’s call

Hanging out with the other exiles by the river Chebar in Babylon, Ezekiel sees this incredible vision of the heavens opening. Out of the north comes a storm with weird creatures and a chariot. Sounds psychedelic, doesn’t it. Read the first chapter of Ezekiel to get the idea of what he experienced. Overwhelmed, he falls on his face. By the way, this is a proper response if you ever find yourself face to face with the Almighty. Bow down, duck, hide! Don’t hesitate, or you may be french-fried! 

With his face in the ground, Ezekiel hears the command at the beginning of chapter two. “Mortal, stand up.”  Many versions use the more literal translation, “Son of man.” Either way, Ezekiel is identified for who he is: a man, a mere creature, one with limited powers.[3] He’s just like you and me. God never goes out and finds the strongest man to do his bidding. Ezekiel is weak; he can’t get up even though he’s commanded to do so. When God’s spirit enters him, he’s rises. When standing, he hears his calling.  

Ezekiel call is to his own people. He’s called to address those who have rebelled against God. Ezekiel doesn’t even have the pleasure Jonah did, of going and pronouncing doom on Israel’s enemies.[4] His message, like Knox, is to his kinfolk, his family, and his neighbors. He won’t be very popular. He may even be considered a traitor. But God calls him. God expects him to do this. 

Will they listen?

Notice, too, unlike Jonah who feared Nineveh would hear his message and repent,[5] there is nothing suggesting this will to happen to Ezekiel. Rebellious and stubborn, they’ll probably not listen. The way God evaluates Ezekiel’s faithfulness isn’t by how many converts he gains or how big of a following he has. The same goes for us. 

Ultimately, what’s important is how faithfully he proclaims the word. God warns Ezekiel. He may not be liked, but regardless, he’s to give the message. It’s not his message, its God’s.  

Although Ezekiel is given a tough assignment, God protects Ezekiel to make sure that the message gets through. With Jeremiah, who was a prophet back in Jerusalem while Ezekiel was working in Babylon, God’s protection may appear dubious. After all, Jeremiah was thrown in a well[6]. In Ezekiel’s call, his hearers will be mad, but the prophet is going to be protected. 

Brer Rabbit? Protection in the briar patch

One scholar points out that a better translation of this passage isn’t to see briars and thorns and scorpions as a part of the angry crowd, as some interpret it. Instead, they protect Ezekiel. The prophet, like “Brer Rabbit,” happily runs through thorns to escape those who seek to harm him.[7]

God never promises us an easy time! After all, Jesus’ call is to take up our cross and follow.[8] Those who hear Ezekiel may not like what he has to say. However, God ensures the message is heard so they know that a prophet has been among them.  

God calls those with impediments 

As one commentator on this passage points out, an impediment is a common characteristics of a call in the Old Testament.[9] Moses stuttered, Gideon was considered a weakling, Samuel was young, and Isaiah had unclean lips.[10] But in all cases, God makes the difference.  Here, with Ezekiel, we see the prophet-to-be can’t even stand up. But as a quote attributed to Knox goes, “a man with God is always in the majority.” Ezekiel’s task is to take a message to a less than enthusiastic crowd. Only with God’s helps can he deliver. 

Another commentator, working with this passage makes this observation: “Certainty of call can be a wonderful thing, but certainty of call can also be a terrible thing.”[11] When we feel God’s call, especially to a task like this, we must be careful. Is it God giving us the strength to carry it out? Or is it our own ego? The call of God should always humble us.  

Ezekiel’s role in helping the Hebrews understand

Ezekiel’s call involves taking a message to the Hebrews in exile. He’s to help them theologically deal with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. It’s not an easy assignment. No one likes hearing that they (and their disobedience) are the cause of their current troubles. 

The sins of the past led to consequences

Think about us, as individuals or as a nation. We don’t want to hear about how actions in the past cause current problems.[12] But Scripture is clear. Sins of the past can cause consequences for later generations.[13]Ezekiel’s call helped shape God’s people as they came to understand their responsibility for God’s judgment.  

We should consider Ezekiel’s calling. We need to remember that like him, we’re not out to win a popularity contest. We’re called to do what is right. We’re to seek out God’s will. For our Elders, they’re also to seek out God’s will for our congregation’s life. In the end, we’re judged not on how people like us or on how elegant the words we use, or even how many converts we make. We’ll be judged on how faithful we have been to God’s word and to his work.  

Prophets remembered

I am sure when Knox set sail for Scotland in 1559, he had no idea the impact his ministry would have on the Church in Scotland. It continued to Ireland, and over to the Americas and Australia and New Zealand. Knox work continues to influence the church in places like the Sudan and Malawi, Brazil, and Korea… 

As John heard in his vision on the Isle of Patmos, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, says the Spirit.  They rest from their labors, and there works follow them.”[14] The impact of Ezekiel’s words can be felt thousands of years later, and Knox’s work still bears fruit nearly 500 years later.

According to the ways we think, Ezekiel was an unlikely candidate for a prophet. He wasn’t even strong enough to stand before God. He required energy. He was humble. Likewise, Knox was an unlikely candidate for a Reformer as a marked man with a babe in arms. But God called both Ezekiel and Knox. 

God can use you!

Don’t ever think that God can’t use you because you are weak, because you are not elegant with speech, because you are not religious enough, or because you have other obligations. Those are the kind of people that God uses to make a difference in the world. Amen.

The Scottish Isle of Iona

[1] See Ezekiel 33:3ff. 

[2]Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2015), 129

[3] Jesus refers to himself as “Son of Man,” too, drawing on Daniel 7:13. The use of the phrase in Ezekiel (not capitalized as in Daniel) refers to his humanity.

[4] Jonah 1:2.

[5] Jonah 4:2.

[6] Jeremiah 38:6.

[7] Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 40-43, 50.

[8] Luke 9:23

[9] Daniel C. Fredericks, “Diglossia, Revelation and Ezekiel’s Inaugural Right,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 1998). 

[10] Exodus 4:10f; Judges 6:15f, I Samuel 3, and Isaiah 6:5-7

[11] John C. Holbert, “Lectionary for July 5, 2009, Ezekiel 2:1-5” in “”

[12] Consider how some state legislatures attempt to ban teachings about racism in society. 

[13] Exodus 20:5, 34:7, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9, Luke 11:50.

[14] Revelation 14:13

Three Books: Baseball, Africa, and a Theologian

In the past two months, I’ve read a dozen books, but haven’t published any reviews. While I don’t review every book, I am way behind.  Part of my reason for such much reading comes from my two weeks in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, when I had lots of time to immerse myself into books. Here’s three reviews: 

Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer

(1971, revised in the 1990s, audio book 2009), 15 hours, 11 minutes. 

What a delightful book. I knew about this book for years, but recently decided to listen to it when driving back from Michigan. Kuhn drew me in with his memories of growing up in Brooklyn. At the age of 24, he started covering the Dodgers as a newspaper sports reporter. He worked with the team for just a few good years. They won the National League pennant but lost the World Series to the Yankees during Kahn’s tenure as a reporter (they’d later win the World Series and soon afterwards move to Los Angeles). 

After telling of his love for baseball (with a father who also loved the game and a mother who wanted him to immerse himself in poetry, music and the classics), he provides insights into the key players during his time with the Dodgers. This was the team that broke the “color barrier” with Jackie Robinson. At the point Kahn begins to cover the team, Roy Campanella and Joe Black, both African Americans, joined Robinson on the team. Sadly, these three greats had rather short major league careers as they had spent many years playing in the Negro Leagues. Many of the others (including some of the African Americans), had shortened careers due to serving in the military during World War II. 

The other players who consisted of the team’s core include Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Cox, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Preacher Roe and Carl Erskine. While Kahn spends a lot of time with Robinson, I got the sense he especially appreciated the goodness of Pee Wee Reese, a southerner who befriend Robinson and who had a generally good attitude on life. 

This book was written in 1970, as Kahn looked up each player and interviewed them about their years in baseball and their life since retirement. It was noted that ball players often retire when their childhood friends are just beginning to build a life for themselves as they enter middle age. They all took different routes. There was a lot of sadness, too. Jackie Robinson’s son tragic death after having beat addiction and of Roy Campanella’s car accident that left him paralyzed at the end of his career are two examples. There were also failed attempts at business while others did well. I remember reading a biography of Campanella when I was probably in the 5th or 6th grade. It covered his accident, but I don’t remember anything about his terrible divorce in which his wife said he could no longer ‘satisfy’ her. But he did remarry and seemed to have a good life and certainly maintained a good outlook on life.

Kahn updated this book in the late 90s. At this time, many had died. Like Robinson, Kahn also lost a son to drugs. In the later addition, he draws upon Shakespearean themes (which would have made his mother proud) as he speaks of each generation needing to step aside for the next. He also noted his risk on this book. By the time he finished writing it, he was down to just over $200 in his checking account. Then, he immediately was offered of advances of $100,000, one for paperback rights and the other for a Book of the Month selection.

If you like baseball, you’ll enjoy this book.  Another book I enjoyed about the Dodgers in the 1950s, before moving to Los Angeles, is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s, Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir. 

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

(1994, audible 2008) 15 hours 34 minutes

I have had this on my TBR pile for some time. I finally listened to the audible recording of the book, finishing it up on my drive to Michigan. It is a gem. The author illustrates the turmoil and changes coming to the Congo at the end of its colonial period. Kingsolver draws this picture by telling the story of the Price family from Georgia. Nathan Price, the father, moves his family (against the advice of his denomination) to the Congo in the waning years of the Eisenhower administration. He has visions of baptizing the natives in the river (which the natives know is filled with crocodiles and aren’t exactually interested in baptism). Humor seeps through the pages as Nathan attempts to learn the local language but missing some inflection points. Instead of saying “Jesus is the Beloved,” he shouts, “Jesus is the poisonwood tree.” He doesn’t find success. 

But this book isn’t really about religion or even though Nathan’s inability to understand African customs. In a way, he’s set up as a caricature of flawed missionary efforts. Ultimately, the book is about Africa and ways the West have attempted to deal with the continent. 

The story is told through Nathan’s wife, Oleanna, and his four daughters: Rachel, Adah, Leah, and Ruth May.  Each of the women are changed by Africa and each (except for the one who dies from a poisonous snake bite) finds a way to survive. As the Congo erupts into violence toward the end of Belgium rule, and as most non-African residents flee, Nathan is determined to stay when he feels he’s been placed. In the end, the girls discover bits and pieces of how their father became disconnected with reality and dies.

After the death of her youngest child, Oleanna decides to flee with her daughters and find a way back to America. Along the way, she loses her oldest daughter, Rachel, who runs off with a South African pilot. It turns he’s not just involved with ferrying people around and, as they suspected, illegally transporting diamonds. He’s also working for the CIA. Seeing him and his plane as her ticket out, she flees. She eventually leaves the pilot for an embassy official, and then him for a wealthy resort owner. Her last husband dies, leaving her with the property. Rich in an improvised land, she provides one insight into how Africa is viewed as she continues as a white “colonizer” who despises the natives.  

Leah, another daughter marries an African man whom she befriended. Idealist, she attempts to understand the culture and to help the people as she and her growing family struggle to survive. While she has a struggle, she is also American. As a result, her family can travel to the states for educational opportunities and vaccines. Adah returns to America with her mother and becomes a medical doctor who studies tropical viruses and diseases. The mother grows flowers. 

I liked how Kingsolver was able to use different characters to provide us with different points of view. However, I thought the Nathan character to be too unrealistic. It should be to the credit that the mission board who discouraged him becoming a missionary, for it was obvious he had no business being there. We learn a little of his backstory (a World War II wounded vet). It appears he a past to overcome and a need to prove himself. I found it strange that he often quoted from and even taught and preached from the Apocrypha, books which are not in the Protestant canon. I can’t imagine any Baptist Church allowing a minister to use these texts that are not within the (Protestant) Bible. 

Kingsolver story kept me engaged. I appreciated how she connected to the conflict at the end of the colonial period. In the last half of the book, she quickly covers then next thirty years which showed the conflicts and failures of the troubled continent.  A worthwhile read or listen.

Christiane Tietz, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict

 Victoria J. Barnett, translator, (German edition 2019.  English edition: Oxford, UK: Oxford Press, 2021. 

I’m in a clergy group that reads theology and then gets together once a year to discuss the readings. This year, we’ve been reading Karl Barth. It’s been 30 years since I read Barth, reading his Commentary on Romans a few years after graduating from seminary. When I was a student in seminary, I had the sense that Barth’s influence on theology was beginning to wane. This didn’t bother me for I often found Barth so wordy that it took him forever to make a point. Yet, a review for this newly translated book convinced me to read it. 

Barth was Swiss, but found an early following in Germany, where he studied and became a distinguished professor of theology. In the years after World War 1, he broke with the 19th Century liberal tradition and began to embark on a new direction of theology. This brought him attention around the world. Critical of human ability to understand God, he insisted that only God could speak for God (364). He placed high regard for Scripture. While Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church, the church access to God through Christ is from Scripture.  

Then came the rise of Nazism. Barth denounce the Nazis. He involved himself in the Confessing Church movement that challenged the mainstream church who either supported or remained quiet as the Nazis solidified their power. The book goes into detail about Barth’s role with the Barmen Declaration that declared that God alone is owned our allegiance. Early in the Nazi movement, pastors and professors in Germany had a “pledge allegiance” to Hitler. This offended Barth and he refused. His thoughts and actions led to his removal from Germany and his honorary doctoral degree being revoked (It was reinstated after the war). 

Returning home to Switzerland, he continued to keep an active role what was happening in Germany. For a former pacifist, he even joined the Swiss version of the National Guard and trained for a potential German invasion. At the end of the war, he sought to make peace with Germany and to help both the Jews and the Germans who suffered so much. He also strove to ease the conflict that existed between Eastern Europe and the West. I would be interested in reading more of his thoughts about how the church should conduct itself when under a hostile government as many of the Eastern Europe Churches found themselves as these countries came under communism control. Would Barth provide an insight into how the church might continue in a world that is more hostile to its mission? 

I knew Barth was Eurocentric. He certainly carried on a dialogue with European scholars but seemed to ignore American and even British theologians. In another book I have been recently given by Barth on 19th Century Protestant Theology, he limits his survey to the continent. I suspect Barth’s Eurocentric focus has led to his decline in status as voices from theologians from around the world became more available. It wasn’t till after the war that he made it to the United States (where his son Marcus was teaching). Later in his life, his thoughts even influenced Catholic theology and Vatican II. 

While I have not read other biographies of Barth, what I suspect makes this book stand out is the access Tietz had to personal papers and letters between Barth, his wife Nelly, and Charlotte von Kirschbaum. Kirschbaum served as Barth’s secretary, but they developed a 40-year relationship (“Notgemeinschaft” was the term they used to describe this relationship). Of course, this put great strain on his marriage, his family, and his teaching. This conflict peaked in the early 30s, as Barth was consumed with the rise of Nazism. While Tietz covers this factually, I found myself playing “psychologist” and wondering how the stress of the world may have led to this relationship which seems to cast a shadow on the remaining decades of Barth’s work. Yet, would Barth had been able to complete his massive “Church Dogmatics” without her aid? 

I would recommend this book to those interested in 20th Century Theology. 

God’s Wisdom vs. Human Wisdom

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
August 22, 2021
Daniel 2 

Sermon recorded outdoors at Mayberry Church on Friday, August 21, 2021

At the beginning of worship

Today we’re continuing our look at Daniel. Daniel, as we will see, is like Joseph. If you go back to Genesis, you may remember Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams allowed him to gain favor in Pharoah’s household.[1] Daniel’s ability, through prayer and God’s guidance, allows him to grow in statue within the Babylonian court. Daniel makes it clear. He’s not the one making things possible. It’s God working through him. We should always give God the credit. 

Before reading the Scripture 

I want to provide an overview of the entire chapter. We must handle this chapter as an entire piece, but I won’t read it all. It’s too long. You might go to sleep. And there is some repetition. I encourage you to go home and read it for yourself this afternoon. 

The chapter opens with the Babylonian king having a bad dream. It’s unsettling and he wants to know what it means. He doesn’t tell anyone the dream. Maybe he forgot. I’ve had those kinds of dreams, where I’m troubled, but can’t remember just why. Or maybe he assumes that if his magicians, astrologers, and wise guys can tell him the dream, their interpretation will be spot on. However, not knowing what the dream is about, their hands are tied. The king is ready to have their heads. But Daniel steps forward. After praying with his three friends whom we met in the first chapter, he asks to see the king. 

The king dreamed about a giant statue. The head was gold, and as you worked down the statue, each part was created from a less valuable material. A chest and arms of silver, a belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet and toes of iron and clay. In the dream, a rock struck the feet and the statue crumbled and was blown away. 

Daniel interprets the dream in this manner. The head represented the king. He probably set up a little on his throne hearing that. But kingdoms don’t last forever. Inferior materials make up each kingdom following Nebuchadnezzar’s. They became less glamours. Then, the rock that no hand has cut destroys it all. Humans built the first four kingdoms. After these human kingdoms vanishes, God establishes an everlasting kingdom.  

The king is pleased, despite the fact his dream indicates that his kingdom won’t last long after his death. He promotes Daniel and the heads of all Babylon’s wise guys remain safely attached… He also, through Daniel, acknowledges and honor’s Daniel’s God. However, there is nothing to indicate that the king is converted. Instead, it appears he adds the Hebrews God to his list of Babylonian gods. 

We must remember, that’s not good. Our God is a jealous God!

Read Daniel 2 (1-6, 24-28a, 31-35)

After reading scripture

Concern for everyone

On Monday morning, while scanning through my Twitter feed, I came upon one a tweet that hit home. I had just read through Daniel 2. A woman complained that her church, last Sunday, made a big deal out of praying for the Christians in Afghanistan. She commented that only a fraction of the population there is Christian and suggested we should be praying everyone in that troubled nation. 

She’s right. If we are followers of Jesus, who teaches us to pray even for the wellbeing of our enemies,[2] we should lift the entire region in prayer. I hope you’re doing this. I think our friend Daniel, as we will see in this text, would agree. 

Human and God wisdom

Chapter two of Daniel illustrates that human wisdom is limited and will always fall short. Human wisdom calls for us to pray for Christians in Afghanistan, but that should only be a part of our prayer. Instead, we’re shown through the story that unfolds in this chapter to depend on God’s wisdom. The wisdom of God demands that we love the world God created, and all who are in it. 

Our story

Our story begins with an unhappy king. When the king is unhappy, everyone is unhappy. One commentator describes the situation as what happens when you combine insecurity, anger, and power.[3]

The king wants an interpretation of his dream, but he also has another demand. He expects his interpreter to also tell him the dream. His regular advisors, which include all kind of astrologers and fortune tellers, find themselves stunned at this request. They get something right. The knowledge to know what the king dreamed can only be revealed by someone divine. They’re in a pickle for the king is ready to do away with them, if they are not able to do what he demands. Of course, if they can accomplish this task, they’ll be richly rewarded. 

Then Daniel, whom it appears would also be executed, steps forward. He offers to take this problem to his God. He buys some time and gathers his friends. The four commence to pray. We used this prayer in our call to worship this morning.[4] Daniel is given the answer and goes straight to the king, pausing long enough to have the king’s executioner stop sharpening his ax. 

This is the point I made at the beginning, of our need to be concerned and for praying for everyone. For you see, Daniel doesn’t just save himself, he even saves his enemies. These guys not only worship other gods, they will also later attempt to trap Daniel and his friends.[5]

Daniel’s interpretation of the dream

Daniel both describes and interprets the dream. The giant statue has to do with a succession of kingdoms starting with Nebuchadnezzar’s. There appear to be four distinct kingdoms which historically have been interpreted two ways. One interpretation of Daniel’s interpretation has the four as Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Another has the four as Babylon, Media, Persia, Greece.[6]

The everlasting kingdom

But the interpretation of this dream isn’t what’s important for the story. Instead, we see the inability of human efforts to create a lasting kingdom. What’s important is God’s work in the present and into the future. At some point, beyond these for realms, we have an eschatological vision of the everlasting kingdom. This kingdom is not made of human hands, but by God. In other words, humanly established kingdoms will all end, sooner or later. Only that which God establishes lasts forever. It’s a message we see throughout scripture.[7]

The king’s response

Our chapter ends with the king of Babylonian, bowing as in worship before Daniel, as he offers incense and grain. We may wonder why Daniel didn’t reject such adoration. When Paul and Barnabas were in Lystra, after healing a man, the crowd thought the missionaries were Zeus and Hermes, Greek gods.[8] But unlike those in Lystra, the king recognizes that it’s not Daniel, but it is his God who has the wisdom necessary to interpret the dream.[9]

Need for a close relationship to God

Having successfully identified and interpreted the dream, Daniel and his three friends are rewarded by the king. This part of the story, like what we saw from chapter 1, is part folk tale showing Daniel besting the wise men of Babylon. Such stories would, no doubt, delight the ears of the persecuted Hebrews. However, we must remember that the folk tale part of the story is just the surface meaning. The deeper meaning is that Daniel’s God, the God of creation, is far more powerful than the pantheon of Babylonian gods. 

We should learn from Daniel the need to have a close relationship to God. When in trouble, he prays. Not only did he pray, but his friends join him. He knows if there was an answer to be had, it can only come from Almighty God. Daniel, while well educated in Babylon, was wise enough understand such knowledge wasn’t going to help the king’s court interpret the dream. So, he goes deeper. He seeks God for help. We should do likewise. 

Knowledge is good, but a close walk with God is always better.

Thankfully, for those of us who live on this side of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, we can have an even closer relationship with God. Having come to us in the flesh, we know that God knows what our lives are like and what we need. Our task, as followers of Jesus, is to nurture such a relationship in prayer and in study, so that when the need arises, we will have the wisdom of Daniel.  Amen.


[1] See Genesis 41.

[2] Matthew 5:44.

[3] Alistair Begg, Brace by Faith (The Good Book Company, 2021), 33.

[4] Call to Worship and Opening Prayer. (From Daniel 2:20-23a)

Pastor “Blessed be the name of God from age to age,
    for wisdom and power are his.
People: God changes times and seasons,
    deposes kings and sets up kings;
Pastor: God gives wisdom to the wise
    and knowledge to those who have understanding.

People: God reveals deep and hidden things;
    he knows what is in the darkness,
    and light dwells with him.
All: To you, O God of our ancestors, we give thanks and praise, for you have given us wisdom and power. Amen. 

[5] See Daniel, chapters 3 and 6. 

[6] For a detailed account of each of these theories, see Robert A. Anderson, Daniel: Signs and Wonders (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 20-25.

[7] As an example, see Isaiah 40:8, Revelation 1:8.

[8] See Acts 14:8-20.

[9] See Daniel 2:47.

Photo of a puffin taken by the author in Scotland in 2017

Daniel’s God provides growth and strength

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
August 15, 2021
Daniel 1:8-21

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, August 13, 2021

Introduction at the beginning of worship

Last week we learned how Daniel and friends, the cream of the crop of the young men of Jerusalem, were taken to Babylon roughly 600 years before Christ. This was before the great exile that occurred in 587 BCE. These young men were put into a three-year training program so that they might serve Babylon. While a great opportunity for them to study under top-notch scholars and to learn the Chaldean language and literature, it also created tension. How can they worship and be faithful to their God in such a pagan setting?

Today, we’re continuing with the first chapter, as we learn of their resistance to the Babylonian way of life. Daniel and his friends decide to forgo the king’s table for a vegetarian diet. And we learn that God blesses Daniel. Despite their “lightweight diet,” they prosper in both knowledge and strength. While this is the book named for Daniel, like all scripture, it’s not just about Daniel. It’s really about God. Today, we see God at work behind the scenes. 

 Read Daniel 1:8-21

After the reading of Scripture

Stories of resistance

Some of you may remember North Korea capturing the American spy ship, the USS Pueblo, off its shores in 1968. The crew remained POWs for a year and during that time they were constantly tortured. When North Korea also wanted to use them in propaganda, they would clean up the crew for photos. The sailors resisted by giving the middle finger to the camera. When the North Koreans asked for an explanation, they informed them the middle finger was a Hawaiian “good luck” sign.[1]Of course, later, when the Koreans learned otherwise, the men were again tortured. But the symbol allowed them to defy their oppressors. 

There are many stories told by slaves in the days before the Civil War who sought to maintain their dignity while living as property. One such story was told by a man owned by a stingy master who gave no meat to his slaves. If they wanted meat, they had to trap opossums and other wild game. This policy encouraged thievery. This man wanted pork and became skilled at stealing from his master’s pig pen. When the master came to his cabin to question about the loss of pigs, he was in the middle of cooking one. 

He told the master he was cooking “possum stew.” The master wanted to try some. Knowing the master would know the difference between possum and pork, he told the master he’d serve him some when it was done cooking. It wasn’t quite ready. Stirred the pot, the slave mumbled under his breath about how good the stew smelled. He suggested it must be all the spitting into the pot. Hearing this, the master asked, “Spitting?” “Yes sir,” he said, “us black folks always spit into the pot. It makes the meat good and tender.”[2] The master lost his appetite.   

Daniel’s resistance

Daniel and friends are in a situation like the men of the Pueblo or the slave. They don’t want to be in the situation they find themselves. Babylon isn’t their home. They certainly would prefer not to be a flunky in the court of a foreign king. They are proud of their faith. Jerusalem is their home. They love the temple. 

But now they are in a faraway land and will probably never saw their homeland again. How can they resist? After all, the king is a powerful man. As we see in the story, his servants, who are Babylonians, fear the king. They understand that if they don’t do what the king wants, their head are destined for the chopping block. Yet Daniel, trying to find a way to resist, decides to turn down the rich food the king gracious provides them. 

More than being kosher

Now, we might immediately think that Daniel and his friends are just being kosher. After all, as good Hebrews young men, they don’t want anything to do with pork or with shellfish or another of the other prohibited foods of the Old Testament. But that might be too simple of an explanation. After all, the Hebrew people in exile accepted their diet would be “defiled. The prophets Ezekiel and Hosea acknowledge this.[3] Jeremiah goes as far as to encourages those sent into exile to accept and work for the well-being of their new city.[4] Furthermore, the food laws of the Old Testament did not demand a vegetarian diet, nor did it require abstinence from wine. They could drink and eat beef, lamb, or chicken and still be kosher.  So, what’s up?

Maybe they are picking their battles. If they directly defy the Babylonians, their life span could be greatly reduced. The defiance of the king’s edict around food isn’t something done in the open. Look at the care taken by Daniel to do this behind the scenes. They are doing this for themselves. Their actions remind them that life doesn’t come from the king of Babylon, but from God.  

The purity required of the Hebrew people went beyond food. There were all kinds of things they should avoid, including Gentiles. And who do you think populated Babylon? Gentiles. They can’t exactly avoid Gentiles, but they can stay away from the king’s table. Eating there, implies you’re in the king’s good graces. By avoiding the table, they maintain a certain amount of purity without flaunting it.[5]

Private piety, not showy

Sometimes we feel we should wear our faith on our sleeves and show the world that we’re Christians. But Daniel takes a different tack. His food discipline is done privately. This is kind of like what Jesus said about prayer. Don’t make a big deal about it.[6] Do it privately, for its between you and God. Likewise, Daniel and friends exercise their piety privately. And they open themselves up to where God can work through them so they can become the top of their class. 

Not a story for those in Babylon

We must remember that this is not a story for the Babylonians. It’s a story for God’s people. It’s not even a story about Daniel as much as it is a story about God. This story encouraged those who lived years after Daniel, who heard about this and were reminded about the strength of their God even at a time when it appears God is absent. From the second verse from last week’s reading, we heard that God, who is behind the scenes, like a director of a movie, controls everything. God lets Jehoiakim fall into Nebuchadnezzar, God allows Daniel to receive favor from the palace master, God gives Daniel the knowledge and skills to exceed.[7]

Underground stories exist anytime you have oppression. When you can’t resist outright, we find other ways to resist. On one level, stories such as this, create Daniel and friends into folk heroes who best the king of Babylon. In this way, their story is like the men of the Pueblo or the slave stealing pigs. But, as I just suggested, if we look closer, we realize that this isn’t just about Daniel, it’s mostly about God. God has authority, even over the greatest empire of the age. While it may appear that Babylon and her gods are successful, the Hebrews listening to this story know otherwise.[8]

Another kernel of truth: Babylon won’t last forever

I should say one more thing about the first chapter of Daniel. It begins with the date of 605 BCE, with Jerusalem’s first defeat at the hand of Babylon. It ends with an acknowledgment that Daniel continued working in Babylon until the first year of King Cyrus. He had a long career. Cyrus was a Persian. His army defeated Babylon. This means Daniel served the entire period of the exile. Those hearing this story long after Babylonian ceases to be a threat are also reminded that foreign oppressors do not have the final word.[9]

A message of hope

What can we learn from this passage? Like Daniel, we too live in a culture that can be toxic for our faith. Like Daniel, our ultimate loyalty is to our God, not to some pagan king or human politician. However, we must live in this world. Until we are called to our true home, this is the only home we have. Jesus said we’re like sheep in the middle of wolves.[10] It takes courage to be a sheep. At times, like Daniel, we must go along with the flow, doing what is required of us. But at other times, we can show independence and remind ourselves that this is not our true home. In that way, Daniel serves as an example for us living as a disciple of Jesus in a world that seems at best, disinterested, and at worst, hostile.  Amen.  



[2] Roger Abraham, editor, Afro-American Folktales (New York: Random House, 1985), 265. 

[3] Ezekiel 4:13 and Hosea 9:3.

[4] Jeremiah 29:7.

[5] Most commentators admit there is no clear reason why Daniel decided to draw the line here. But he did and this isn’t a story about drawing the line as much as its one about God providing. See . Sibley Towner, Daniel Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), 28 and  Temper Longman III, Daniel: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 51-54. 

[6] Matthew 6:5-8.

[7] Daniel 1:2, 9, & 17.  See Alistair Begg, Brave by Faith: God-Size Confidence in a Post-Christian World  (The Good Book Company, 2021), 25. 

[8] Robert A. Anderson, Daniel: Signs and Wonders (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 8.

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Matthew 10:16.  See also Longman III, 68-69.

Sunrise this morning, August 15, 2021

Introduction to Daniel

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
August 8, 2021
Daniel 1:1-7

Recorded under the picnic shelter at Bluemont Presbyterian Church on Friday, August 6, 2021

Introduction at the beginning of worship

This Sunday I’m going to begin another series of sermons, this time through the Book of Daniel. This is an interesting and somewhat controversial book within what we call the “Old Testament.” While the Jewish Bible contains the same books as our Old Testament, they are arranged differently. While we think of Daniel as a prophet, the Jewish Bible has him as part of the writings, that include books like the Psalms, history, and wisdom literature.[1]  

There are other controversies. Daniel is not the most accurate historian. His dating of events is, at times, in conflict with other books in the Old Testament.[2] He also gets some details confused. In today’s readings, we’re told of King Nebuchadnezzar siege and defeat of Jerusalem. At the time, Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t king. He was the crown prince, but shortly thereafter became king. But this is a minor fact. 

There is also a debate among scholars on the dating of the book.[3] Was it written in Babylonian or later, probably in the second Century before Christ? Or, as I tend to lean, was the book written at a later day collecting stories that came from Babylon. 

While the dating of Daniel is uncertain, what’s certain is that the book involves how one might live faithfully when society challenges one’s faith. When we consider the book in this light, there is much that we can learn and apply to our lives today. Daniel offers hope, for we learn that despite what happens, God is still in control and working to fulfill his plans.

Read Daniel 1:1-7

After the reading of Scripture

As you know, I spent two weeks away, one of which was study leave. I settled into a house overlooking the St. Mary’s River in northern Michigan. This is where the freighters make their way to and from the mills along the shores of Lake Michigan, Huron and Erie, to the mines along Lake Superior’s shores. I was armed with a stack of books for the times when no ship was in sight. In addition to the Bible, my books included a couple of commentaries on the Book of Daniel, Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, and a brand-new biography of Karl Barth that has just been released in English. 

On the surface, it may seem that these books have nothing to do with one another. Thurman, who was a classmate of Martin Luther King, Jr’s, father, wrote for to the African American community in the 1940s. Barth, a Swiss theologian who had taught in Germany, found himself exiled back to Switzerland in 1935 for his criticism of the Nazis. And then there was Daniel.  

I found a thread that ran through all these books. I sum it up with this question, “How do we live faithfully when we have lost almost everything?” Growing up in South Florida in the first half of the 20thCentury, Thurman addresses this topic for his readers who were oppressed. In a way, they never had much to lose, except for their dignity.[4] As for Barth, he was forced from a prestigious chair of theology and even lost the distinction to be called, “Doctor” when the German university revoked his title.[5] But both found there was something more important than even than life itself. What’s important is to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. God must come first in all our lives.

The Book of Daniel begins at the low point in Israel’s history. Israel has been defeated. Part of the temple treasury now sits in the temples of Babylonian gods. 

The first to be exiled to Babylon

Some of her brightest and most promising young men are hauled away into exile. This was the first invasion by Babylon, in 605 BC. Jerusalem would be attacked and defeated two more times by the Babylonians, the last resulting in the destruction of Solomon’s temple in 587 BC. That attack resulted in a large majority of the people being led into exile. But that would come later. 

What happened to Jerusalem when first defeated is that Babylon, to force compliance in its conquered territories, took some of the leading young men for training in Babylon. On one level, they were hostages. But these dudes were also lucky. They were sent to an elite school, provided with good food and living quarters, and taught by the best teachers. 

This is an old strategy still in use. The Chinese Communist party pulls some of the most promising students from their ethnic minorities, often from western China, and relocates them into the eastern part of the country to educated them into the ways of the Han Chinese. Our nation did this with Native American youth, who were relocated to the “Indian School” in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. 

The hope of such a strategy is that these “educated” students will become leaders within their communities and encourage everyone to adopt the dominate culture. In Babylonian’s case, it was also to have trained interpreters who could speak and write in both languages, which were quite different.

But the problem with such a system is that something is always lost. Those who are taken lose their connections to their families and heritage and, in many cases, their religion. 

In the case of the Hebrews taken during the first and second exiles, which included not just Daniel and his three friends, but also Ezekiel,[6]they lost their connection to their homeland. In a way, it seems, they’ve lost their God. For you see, in the ancient world, a nation’s deity was seen as having power only where the people lived. When you were defeated in battle, it was easy to assume your enemy’s god was stronger than your god. 

God’s in control and practices “Tough Love”

However, Daniel makes it clear that the God of Israel, who is the God, with a capital “G”, is the God over all gods. In the second verse, we’re told that God allowed his own people to be defeated, giving them to the Babylonians. 

Obviously, God practices “tough love.” We should remember this! 

This was a secret for the Hebrews in exile and for those in later generations. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of all creation. Nebuchadnezzar could think he was in control. He seemed to have the freedom to steal from the temple in Jerusalem and to give those objects to his own gods in Babylon. But he didn’t know that this didn’t reflect badly on the God of the Hebrews. Even though he didn’t know, Nebuchadnezzar was used by God for a purpose larger than even his kingdom. 

Jerusalem finest youth

So, the Babylonians haul off some of Jerusalem’s finest young men. We’re not told their age, but they’re at the point in life that they are considered wise and capable of serving in the king’s palace. My guess is that they were in their late teens or early 20s.[7] They are young enough they can still grasp another language, but old enough to have mastered being in the king’s service. Now they’re entering a three-year program to serve a new king. 

The significance of new names

One of the first things that happens when they get to Babylon is a name change. No longer will they go by their Hebrew names. They now have Babylonian names. In a way their identity is stolen. When someone assigns you a name, outside your parents, they are attempting to show their control over you. These Hebrew young men no longer have control over their own lives, as we’re going to see over the next month or so.[8]

Roger Kahn, the great baseball writer, wrote about having lunch with Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the major leagues. This was a few years after Robinson had retired from baseball. Robinson invited Kahn to lunch to discuss his autobiography. 

While eating and chatting, a man came up to their table and said, “Could you be a good boy, and give me your autograph.” Robinson blew up, “What did you call me?”  

Shaken, the man backed away, and asked again, more politely. “That wasn’t what you said,” Robinson yell. Then he asked who the autograph was for. When the man said it was for his grandson, Robinson agreed to sign an autograph. 

Afterwards, Kahn asked Robinson if he wasn’t being too hard on the man. Robinson laughed it off and said, “That’ll be the last time he calls a black man a boy.”[9]

When you have the power to name, you have power over what you name. This is a Biblical concept that we see in the beginning of Genesis, where God gave Adam the right to name the animals.[10]


Over the next few months, we’re going to see more of our four Hebrew friends that we meet in the opening verses of Daniel. They serve as examples of how to live when society attempts to change us in ways that will deny our faith. Daniel is a good book for the church to explore at a time when we have lost influence in the world. From this book, we learn that even though we may have lost influence, God is still God. In the end, what matters is our faithfulness to God. 

And the question we’re left with, the one we all must answer, when we like Daniel have lost all that is important, is this: is God enough?  Amen. 

[1] A case can be debated as to where Daniel belongs. If one sees apocalyptic chapters (2, 7-12) aligned with Israel’s prophetic tradition, it makes sense for Daniel to be a prophet. However, the first six chapters are more “historic” than prophetic and there is also those who like Israel’s apocalyptic writings with wisdom literature. With Daniel, you also have prayers. Taking these ideas into account, a case can be made for it to fit within Israel’s writings (history and wisdom). For a detail discussion, see the Introduction to Robert A. Anderson’s Daniel: Signs and Wonders (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), xiii-xvii.

[2] W, Sibley Towner, Daniel, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), 22. 

[3] Anderson, 2-4

[4] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

[5] Christiane Tiez, Carl Barth: A Life in Conflict (Oxford, 2021), 

[6] The opening of Ezekiel places him in Babylonian before Jerusalem’s final fall. See Ezekiel 1:1-3. Also chapters 4-10. 

[7] At this point, I disagree with Bill Creasy and his Bible study on Daniel (that Mayberry’s Sunday School class is using). Creasy thinks Daniel to be much earlier, around 12, but I am not sure a 12-year-old would have been at the level in their training to be considered wise and capable of serving in the king’s court. 

[8] Another book that I read while gone was Gregory Orr, A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry (New York: Norton, 2018). He devotes an entire chapter on how some poetry, to bring order to chaos, uses naming. The one who names claims a certain about of power. See chapter 8 (pages 160-182).  

[9] This recalled from memory from Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (1973). 

[10] In Genesis 1, God gives the man and woman dominion over creation. In the creation story in Genesis 2, this dominion is shown by giving the man the right to name. See Genesis 2:7.

The lighthouse and foghorn at Whitefish Point, MI

Reflections on my time away

Detour Reef Light

It was great to get away and it’s good now to be back home. Most of my time away was spent reading and relaxing. Daily, I would take long walks, enjoy coffee on the porch with a book and an eye out for freighters. In the evening, after returning from a walk I would do the same with a bourbon.  The air remained mostly cool and even the days of rain felt good. I preached twice at the Union Presbyterian Church in Detour Village. 

Reading while away

My stack of books (I didn’t get to them all)

My reading varied greatly. I spent a lot of time with the Bible and a couple commentaries on Daniel in preparation for preaching on the book this fall. I finished reading a wonderful book on reading and writing poetry (Gregory Orr’s, A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry). This book had many exercises, some of which I did, leaving notes in my journal such as the poem I printed below. 

I also enjoyed Casey Tygrett’s As I Recall: Discovering the Place of Memories in Our Spiritual Life. Like Orr’s book on poetry, this book had many exercises, of which I did most as a way to ponder memories. Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, was eye opening. Thurman was a classmate and friend of Martin Luther King Jr’s father and this short book written in the 1940s captures the meaning of the gospel for those who lived in a segregated world with many opportunities denied. Another book that I just finished yesterday is Christiane Tiez’s  Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict (Victoria Burnett translator) Barth, probably the most influential 20th Century theologian, best known for his opposition to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, provides an insight into how the church should behave when oppressed. This reading fed into my thoughts that arose from my study of Daniel. 

I also read some poetry along with the first half of Richard Lischer’s memoir, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery. 

Sandhill cranes dropped in for a visit as I read under a tree in the yard

Traveling to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and around the area gave me plenty of time to listen to books on Audible. I began with Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, John Ketchmer, Sailing a Serious Ocean; Sailboats, Storms, Stories and Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Sea, and Carl Hiassen, Tourist Season. Having read many of Larson’s books, Isaac’s Storm lived up to my expectation as he captured both the event of the Galveston hurricane of 1900 along with providing insight into those involved in the storm and into how such storms are created. Ketchmer’s book is a first. I enjoyed it and it provided me with a refresher before sailing.  Hiassen is another favorite author. I have read or listened to eight of his books. This was his first novel and while not as funny as some of his later ones (Skinny Dip remains my favorite), it’s still good and has humorous moments. 

Sightseeing and other activities

I spent two days sailing with a friend in Grand Traverse Bay. We left out of Northport harbor on the Leelanau Peninsula. The first day was rough with 20 knot winds. It was scary when I couldn’t get the main reefed quickly as the lines were dry rotted. Finally, I was able to get it secured and we sailed for a bit that afternoon before enjoying a good meal on the town. On the second day, it was lovely with winds in the 10 to 12 knot range. We sailed out passed Mission Point and up the east side of the bay toward Leelanau Point before coming back to the marina. 

While in the UP, I spent one day on Drummond Island.  There, I enjoyed a morning hike in Maxton Plains.  The plains are an “alvar” landscape, which consist of flat limestone pavement with little soil to provide growth for plants. In the cracks are many different species of grass and flowers along with paper birch and spruce trees. Next time I visit here, I need to bring a bicycle so I can explore more of the plains. After lunch and a visit to the island’s museum, I enjoyed a shorter but refreshing walk under the beech trees of Clyde and Martha Williams Nature Preserve.  To reach to Drummond Island, I took the ferry which was just a block from where I was staying. 

Whitefish Point light & fog horn

I also took another trip to Whitefish Point, a place that many know about from Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”  

The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.

          -Gordon Lightfoot

Leaving the UP, I visited friends from Skidaway on Mullet Lake, then old friends in Grand Rapids and Hastings. There’s never enough time to see everyone.

A poem I wrote in the UP

The freighter
rides low in the water
its screws pushing 70,000 tons of ore
southbound toward Gary or Cleveland.

Behind the stern trail
angry ripples of water, 
a turmoil of whirlpools
and danger for small boats that cut behind too close.

There are people like the freighter,
those who churn the air
and leave a path of emotional distraction.
Like the ship,
they’re best given a wide berth. 

A 1000 foot freighter heading south (go here to see a photo of an older style freighter)

Jesus: The Bread of Life

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Church
August 1, 2021
John 6:25-40


Sermon recorded at Mayberry Presbyterian Church on Friday, July 30, 2021

At the beginning of worship:

      I want to thank Libby Wilcox and Mike Nyquist for preaching the last two weeks. The texts they used—from Matthew and John’s gospel, both spoke of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude. In John’s gospel, there is a follow up to this story. When word spreads about Jesus having free bread, crowds multiply. 

       Jesus wants to teach a deeper lesson. He equates bread with God’s word. This isn’t anything new. It’s in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy, we are reminded we live not by bread alone, but by the word of God. Lady Wisdom in Proverbs invites all to come and eat of her bread and drink of her wine. The prophet Amos speaks of a coming famine. But he’s not talking about a shortage of bread, but of the word of God.[1]

Bread is an appropriate symbol of God’s word. Bread made of grain sustains our bodies; bread as the word of God sustains our lives. Bread that is old becomes stale; it needs to be constantly refreshed. So does our faith, which is refreshed as we study God’s word.

Read John 6:25-40

After the scripture

Jesus wants to give the crowd so much more than a few crumbs which will soon be consumed or mold. But the crowd, some whom benefited from Jesus’ dramatic feeding of the multitude the day before, don’t get it. They want food. 

The climax of this passage comes in verses 34 and 35. Then the crowd asks Jesus to give them bread always and Jesus responds, “I am the bread of life.” These guys are talking to Jesus, God incarnate, and all they can think about are their stomachs. 

Coming down hard on the crowds

It’s easy to come down hard on the crowd. Yes, we know, they’re greedy. But then, are we any different? When I consider my prayer life, I know how I’m much more likely I am to pray when I am in need or trouble. “Lord, I just want…, Lord, I just need…” Am I any different than the crowd? Are you? If I’d been there, not only would I have wanted such bread, I’d wanted it hot and fresh and with a tad of butter and a bit of jam? Out taste buds draw us in. 

Jesus attempts to pound through their heads that bread, made of flour and water, isn’t what’s most important. Bread molds. Remember, Jesus’ advice about not worrying about storing up riches that rust or can be stolen?[2]  Ultimately, things aren’t important. Jesus is important. Jesus Christ, God incarnate. Jesus gives and sustains life. But the temptation to think otherwise is overwhelming! 

When you’re hungry and your stomach is gnawing, a loaf of bread looks pretty good. When you’re feeling blue, the idea of feasting on a rich meal or drowning your sorrows in well-aged bourbon or rich ice cream is tempting. We all suffer from a spiritual hunger and try to fill this void with stuff.[3] On TV we’re told, in not-so-subtle terms, that new cars and certain beverages will help us to enjoy life to the fullness. But it doesn’t work; we end up even hungrier.      

       Yes, it’s too easy to come down too hard on the crowd. Sure, they’re greedy. But we are no different!  It’s just that the economic scales have changed. We no longer crave simple bread; we’d want a croissant or at least raisin bread with a tad of peanut butter.  Think about it. Bread is such a basic food; we take it for granted. 

For us, bread is cheap

How many of you don’t eat the end pieces of a loaf? Let’s see hands. At best, I bet, we crumble them up and feed them to the birds. At worst, they end up in the landfill feeding the seagulls. And why should we eat the end pieces when we can run to the store and pick up a fresh loaf. 

Bread is cheap. Even someone making minimum wage earns enough to buy a loaf in 15 minutes.

       Now, I’m neither an economist nor an anthropologist, but I’d venture to guess those in the ancient world labored a lot more than a quarter of an hour for their daily bread. Think of all involved. The planting and harvesting of wheat, the grinding of the grain by hand, the mixing and kneading and shaping of the dough, and building of the fire in the oven, the proofing and baking. They couldn’t rush down to the store and buy a loaf using the spare change lying on their dashboard. Bread had value. They’d seen Jesus break a few loaves of bread and fed 5,000 folks. They’d feasted at Jesus’ table and wanted more!  

My bakery experience

       I worked in a wholesale bakery for five years. It started as a summer job between my first and second year in college. They liked me. When promised to work with my college schedule if I stayed on, I agreed. For the next three years, I went to school in the mornings and went to work in the afternoon. 

I still remember the first time I entered the plant and was overcome with the aroma. The smell of yeast bread baking seemed heavenly. It didn’t last. Pretty soon, I didn’t notice the smells anymore and the excitement of watching the loaves rise and bake waned. It became a job; I took it all for granted, kind of like the crowd taking Jesus’ miracles for granted.

       I quickly worked up the ranks and during my senior year of college, I was also a production supervisor. With seven employees and a lot of modern technology, I oversaw the production of 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of bread an hour. A lot of dough! 

If you figure a ½ pound of bread a person, technology has caught up with one of Jesus’ great miracles. Jesus and the disciples fed 5,000 people—we could have done the same in about twenty minutes. Of course, we needed a few ingredients like a rail car of flour, tank cars of sweetener and shortening, pallets of yeast and salt along with lots of electricity and natural gas. In Jesus’ day, it would have taken quite a production to produce that much bread which makes his miracle even greater!   

       One of my claims to fame as a baker was throwing away more bread than anyone else in the history of the plant. In one hot summer afternoon, we threw away 24,000 loaves of pound and half bread—that’s 36,000 pounds or 18 tons. 

The bread this day rose nicely in the proof box. But when it came onto the conveyor between the proofer and oven, it dropped flat as a pancake. By the time we realized we had a problem and checked everything, we had all the loaves for that batch in the system. The only thing to do was to bake the bread and then dump the loaves out of the pans, by hand, for they were too small to be picked up by the depanner. As the loaves accumulated on the floor, a forklift equipped with a scoop, picked it up and took it the loading dock. 

It was humbling to watch that much bread go to waste. This was especially true for me, the guy in charge. I had no idea what the problem might be. We tried everything. Finally, after nothing helped, we did something radical. We changed all our ingredients, going to new manufacturing lots. This meant hauling pallets of fresh ingredients from the warehouse and changing the silo from which we drew the flour. After six hours, the bread returned to normal. 

I could finally breathe a sigh of relief even though a cloud hung over my head. It took a few days, but after having a lab test our bread and the ingredients we were using, the mystery was solved. The enrichment, those vitamins and stuff you add to flour to replace that which is lost in the milling and bleaching process, had way too much iron. 

The extra iron was the problem. My neck was saved. Our ingredient supplier reimbursed us for the cost of the wasted bread—I suppose you could say he brought dinner for thousands of hogs in eastern North Carolina, as that’s how we disposed of most of the bread.[4]

We take bread for granted

Bread, for us, is not as special as it was for our ancestors. They couldn’t image throwing away that much bread! To the ancient ones, bread was considered a gift from God. It was to be used and not wasted. For some Jews, you don’t waste even a bite of bread. This custom has its roots in the wilderness experience where they had to depend daily upon God’s manna from heaven. 

In our modern world, we need to consider the work that goes into bread and cherish it as a gift. Like Jesus conversation about water in John 4, here he takes a common item and makes it holy. God is encounter through the ordinary!  

Encountering Jesus in the ordinary

Kathleen Norris has a little book titled The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work.” Quotidian is a sixty-four dollar word that means ordinary. In this book she brings out how the divine can be encountered through ordinary events of the day. Quoting another author, she recalls an “Ah-ha” moment: “I had never thought about the obvious fact that preparing a meal can be a sign of caring and loving communication because food just has never been an avenue of communication for me.”[5]

Jesus uses the bread to communicate a more sustaining truth about himself! Norris goes on to suggest that our daily ordinary tasks, if approached reverently, can save us from the trap that religion is merely an intellectual exercise of “right belief.”[6] Our God is Lord of all and therefore concerned with all aspects of our lives.

 Even though bread is so common for us that we take it for granted, we should not lose sight that it’s not that way for many people in the world. Bread, in the form of tortillas, is still the basic food of survival in many countries to the south of us. Watching women make tortillas in Honduras, a daily task, reminds us that we’re to pray for our daily bread.  Even though bread may represent only a fraction of our budgets, we need to consider its value and treat it with respect. 

Seeing bread as a valuable gift, we link the bread that sustains our bodies and the bread that sustains our lives. One loaf nourishes our bodies and the other our souls. Both are ultimately from God. Together they make us whole and for both we should give thanks

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we thought of Jesus throughout the day, whenever we encountered bread? At breakfast as we butter toast, we give thanks. At lunch, as we slather peanut butter and jelly between two slices of bread, we give thanks. At dinner, as we chew on freshly baked biscuits or yeasted rolls, we give thanks.

 If we could just pause a moment before consuming another slice of bread, and think about Jesus, we’d begin to appreciate bread and all the hands that go into making it. And we’d also begin to sense just how important Jesus is to our lives… Amen. 

Making tortillas in Guatamala 2018 Photo by Jeff Garrison

[1] Deuteronomy 8:3; Proverbs 9:5-6; Amos 8:11ff

[2] Matthew 6:19-20.

[3] Craig Barnes addresses this spiritual hunger in many of his books.  See especially Yearnings: Living Between How it is and How It Ought to Be (Dowers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1991) and Sacred Thirst (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

[4] I provide more details of this fiasco in this blog post:   

[5] Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work.”(New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 73.

[6] Norris, 77.