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"Unscaled Heights of Empathy"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 11, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Daniel 2

"And how was your flight today?" the rideshare driver greeted her. It had been one of those days in the airport. She had a two-hour delay for her first flight, then a mad dash to catch the connecting flight, one and a half hours sitting on the tarmac, waiting for thunderstorms to pass. And to top it all off, at the end of the day, you guessed it, lost luggage. She was about to unleash this litany of trials on her rideshare driver, but then she took a breath and thought better of it. His accent suggested Africa to her. So instead of complaining about her day, she said, simply that it was fine. And by the way, where was he from? "Africa," he said. "Northern Africa?" She asked. "Why, yes."

And soon they were somberly discussing the tragic events that had led him to take refuge in the U.S. And it occurred to her that she had almost whined about lost luggage to a man who only months earlier had watched his family be murdered before his eyes. That story is shared by author Janet Bennett. It came to her through a colleague, and it illustrates the power of empathy. Empathy involves stepping outside of yourself. Empathy is as one ancient writer put it: "rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep." Empathy is imagining yourself in that person's exact situation to see what they see, to feel what they feel, to imagine what it would be like to be in his place or hers.

What do you say you and I step outside of ourselves for a moment and practice some empathy. Let's step into the cross-cultural experience of a young person who lived 2,600 years ago. His name is Daniel. He's a Jew. He was raised in Jerusalem. And when he was a young man, probably just a teenager, a king—a hateful violent man named Nebuchadnezzar—king of Babylon, invaded his city, and took him hostage along with some of his friends to be slaves in Babylon. In Babylon they were taught the language and the learning of the Babylonians so that they could be advisers, wise men, for the king's court.

Last week we listened to the first chapter of Daniel's story. This week we'll listen to chapter two. And as you listen, see if you can empathize with Daniel, and listen to how he practices empathy for others. These are excerpts from Daniel 2.

In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had a dream and it troubled him in his spirit and he couldn't sleep. So he summoned the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and astrologers for them to tell him what he had dreamed. When they had come in and stood before the king, he said to them, "I have had a dream that troubles my spirit. And I want to know what it means."

The astrologers responded to the King, "Your majesty, may you live forever. Tell your servants the dream, and we will explain its meaning to you." The king said to the astrologers, "This is what I have firmly decided. If you cannot make known to me the dream and its meaning, I will have you cut into pieces, and your houses turned into piles of rubble. But if you reveal to me the dream and its meaning, you will receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. So then you tell me the dream and make known its meaning." The astrologers said to him, "Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will explain its meaning." And the king said to them, "You have conspired to tell me false and misleading things, hoping that the situation will change for you. So then, reveal to me the dream. Then I will know that you are able to reveal its meaning."

The astrologer said to him, "No one is able to do what the king asks. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods. And they did not dwell among mortal flesh." This made the king so angry and enraged that he ordered the execution of all the wise men in Babylon. So the order was issued that all the wise men were to be put to death. And men came to look for Daniel and his friends to put them to death. When Arioch, the chief of the king's executioners, came to put the wise men to death, Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact, or we might say with empathy. He said to the king's officer, "Why did the king issue such a harsh decree?" And Arioch explained the matter to Daniel. And Daniel went to the king, and he requested that he appoint him a time for him to make known the meaning of the dream. And then he went to his home and explained the matter to his friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, so that they might seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery so that the executioners would not put to death Daniel and his friends, along with the wise men of Babylon.

During the night, the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision, and he praised the God of heaven. Then Daniel went to Arioch who had been appointed to put to death the wise men of Babylon. And he said to him, "Do not execute the wise men of Babylon, bring me to the king. And I will reveal to him the meaning of his dream." Then Arioch brought Daniel before the king at once and said to him, "I have found a man among the exiles of Judah who can tell the king what his dream means." And the king said to Daniel, "Are you able to tell me what I saw in the dream and to make known its meaning?" And Daniel said, "No wise man, no enchanter, no magician, no astrologer can reveal it. But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in the days to come. You looked, O King, and there before you stood a large statue, an enormous dazzling statue, frightening in appearance. Its head was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its shins of iron and its feet, partly of iron and partly of clay. And as you were watching, a rock was cut out. A rock cut out, but not by human hands, and it fell on the statue and smashed its feet of iron and of clay. And then the iron, and the clay, and the bronze, and the silver, and the gold were all broken to pieces. And the wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain that filled the whole earth. This is the dream. You, O King, are that head of gold. And after you will arise three other kingdoms inferior to yours. And then the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that cannot be destroyed, nor will it be given to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will stand forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of the mountain, but not by human hands."

Then Nebuchadnezzar fell face down before Daniel, and paid him honor. And he said, "Truly, your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries because you have made known this mystery." And Nebuchadnezzar promoted Daniel to an exalted position. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon, and put him in charge of all of its wise men. And at Daniel's request, he also appointed his friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, also called Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He made them administrators in the province of Babylon, while Daniel himself served in the king's court. It's the Word of the Lord, Daniel 2, excerpts.

Daniel displays unscaled heights of empathy. He could have taken credit for the solution. With his newfound power, he could have seen to the elimination of all his rivals. But instead, he put himself in their place, because he knew that he was no better than them. He was a sinner in the hands of a righteous and merciful God. And so he pleaded for their lives. Listening to Daniel's story does something to me. It elevates my empathy, but that's not the only reason that we listen to the book of Daniel. That's part of it, but there's more. We listen to the book of Daniel because it's true. That vision that Daniel had of the statue and the rock that became a mountain, it's true. All of it, it happened. It's happening.

Daniel saw the promise of the coming kingdom of God. He saw the promise of the Messiah. And the New Testament is a collection of books—books that collectively reference the book of Daniel 50 times. The New Testament is that collection of books that bears witness to the truth that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. He is that King for whom Daniel was waiting. Jesus was crucified. He was crushed under the clay and iron feet of the Roman Empire. But God raised Him bodily from the dead to make Him that King of a kingdom that will never pass away, a kingdom that will fill the earth like a mountain.

I believe this. And I have become part of a movement of followers of Jesus who live to tell this story and to announce this Kingdom, not because we believe we're better than others, but because God in His mercy pulled us out of the pit of our own self-centeredness and set our feet on the rock. And God is calling you to this mountain. He's calling you not only because it is coming like an avalanche to crush every other kingdom in its way. It is, and it will, but that's not the only reason He's calling you. God is calling you to this mountain not only because it is stable and indestructible and will never pass away. It is, and it will, but that's not the only reason He's calling you. He's calling you because He loves you. He sent His Son Jesus for you. Jesus willingly stepped down from His elevated place and into the pit with you. Jesus became a human being for you to see what you see, to feel what you feel. He embodied empathy for you.

There was a time in Ann Atwater's life, a time when she was almost incapable of feeling empathy. Ann Atwater was the youngest of nine children born to parents who scraped out a living, sharecropping in the rural South.

As a child, Ann remembers being mistreated by some white people in her town. Later Ann said, "I thought that all white folks were bad people." She said, "I had that hatred in me all along, even though I grew up in the church, carrying the Bible. I still thought that they thought that they was better than me." As an adult, Ann's growing monument of hatred was mostly directed toward one man, the Grand Cyclops, the president of the local chapter of the KKK. Years later, Ann explained in an interview, she said, "I met this Klansman. And the Klansman's name was Claiborne Ellis. We called him C.P. Ellis. He acted like he was the meanest man in the whole world."

Ann Atwater hated C.P. Ellis, and the feeling was mutual. C.P. Ellis was born the son of a broke alcoholic textile worker. When he was only in the eighth grade his dad died, so C.P. had to quit school and start working. He said later in an interview, "All my life, I had work. Never a day without work. Worked all the overtime I could get and still could not survive financially. I began to say that there was something wrong with this country." And that's when the hate started to build in his heart, hatred he directed toward the black people in his community, hatred he hardened and honed by joining and eventually leading the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. This hatred in Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis' hearts was as tall and terrifying as Nebuchadnezzar's statue. But because of Jesus, because of Jesus, one day, it all came a tumbling down.

Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis' story is described in a 1996 book titled, Best of Enemies by Osha Davidson. Through an unlikely turn of events in 1971, Ann and C.P. ended up co-chairing a series of talks in their community, talks that lasted 12 hours a day for 10 days in a row. Their assignment was to make a grassroots plan for desegregating public schools in Durham, North Carolina. At the end of the talks each day someone suggested that they sing. They sing Gospel music, church hymns. And one day, Ann noticed C.P. over there, off by himself, and he was patting his feet to the music. And Ann was clapping and she was singing, and she noticed that C.P. started clapping, but she said he was clapping on an offbeat.

She said, "So I went over there, and I grabbed his hands and I tried to help him clap along with us." The more Ann and C.P. talked, the more they saw what they had in common, that neither was better than the other. We're all sinners in the hands of a righteous yet merciful Father. After the talks, they went on to lead the desegregation effort together. C.P. left the Klan and never returned. Years later Ann said, "I look back at it through my Bible, through God's work." She said, "God had a plan for both of us." When C.P. died in 2005, his family invited Ann to speak at his funeral. On the day of the service, the funeral director questioned Ann as to how she knew the deceased. And she said simply, "He was my brother."

God once used the Jewish teenager named Daniel to intercede to save the lives of the people who are complicit in the system that enslaved him. God once used the life, death, and resurrection of a Jewish carpenter to elevate Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis and all who trust in God to unscaled heights of empathy. And Jesus can do the same for you.

Would you pray with me? Lord Jesus, You are our rock. Your kingdom has brought to an end all the monuments that we make in our self-serving and insecure fear. As You came to put Yourself in our position, so also raise us up out of the pit, out of ourselves to live for others, because You live and You reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.

Reflections for October 11, 2020

Title: Unscaled Heights of Empathy

Mike Zeigler: I'm visiting with Dr. Andrew Steinmann. He's the professor of theology and Hebrew at Concordia University, Chicago. Dr. Steinmann has authored a dozen books, including a commentary on the book of Daniel, a resource for which I am grateful as I prepare these messages for our series for Daniel. Thanks for joining us, Dr. Steinmann.

Andrew Steinman: Well, always good to be supporting Lutheran Hour, so I'm glad to be here.

Mike Zeigler: I remember when my parents were driving me to drop me off at college. My dad said, "You should read the book of Daniel. This is a book for you that you need to think about as you set off on your own in a new place."

Andrew Steinman: Especially the central vision of the book of Daniel, which is so very important for Jesus and His identity and what He says in the Gospels is important to grasp, to get a deeper understanding of the New Testament claims about Jesus as the Messiah.

Mike Zeigler: I was surprised when I was reading your commentary, you mentioned that the New Testament, or you show how often the New Testament, quotes Daniel, and it was something like over 40 different times. I didn't realize that.

Andrew Steinman: Yes, and I think it's in many ways easy to overlook, because the other places that the New Testament quotes in the Old Testament, like the book of Genesis and the book of Isaiah stand out as so prominent, that it's easy to overlook Daniel. But Daniel was centrally important. I would hold centrally important with Jesus calling Himself by the title "Son of Man," which is right in the center of the book of Daniel, again in chapter seven in his vision. So although it's often overlooked, I think it's a key Old Testament book for the New Testament writers.

Mike Zeigler: In our context in the United States, we have our presidential election coming up in the next month. How would Daniel's book have us view human governance?

Andrew Steinman: The book of Daniel tells us that God actually is in control even when things seem to be chaotic and out of control. That He is the power behind human governments, and although that doesn't relieve us of our responsibility in a democracy to vote and to be good citizens, nevertheless, it reminds us that ultimately what happens in history is not our controlled decision, but God's decision. And He never loses control of the situation no matter how chaotic it might appear to us nowadays with riots in cities, and in my own city here, the greater Chicago area, we've had all kinds of civil unrest.

Yet the book of Daniel reminds us God has not lost control. This is not an out-of-control situation from His viewpoint. Daniel offers us comfort in the midst of uncertain times because it tells us God has a bigger plan. He reveals that plan in chapter two, as He gives this dream to Nebuchadnezzar and its interpretation to the prophet Daniel. It shows us that God had planned out far beyond Daniel's day, what He was going to do to bring His kingdom into the world.

It reminds us that God has all this planned out for the good of His people. So those of us who know Christ and have this relationship with God that he established in our Baptism, we can rely on that to know that no matter what happens to us, God is in control. Even if we should lose our lives because of what's out of control, we haven't lost anything because we are always in the hands of a loving God who has everything arranged for our needs and for our good through Jesus Christ.

Mike Zeigler: So regardless of what happens this next month in our presidential election here in the United States, how does Daniel help us—and his big picture that he keeps in front of us—how does that help us live in that hope?

Andrew Steinman: Well, it helps us live as Daniel and his companions did. Many Christians serve in our government or in governments around the world. It can be an example to us of how we can serve in government faithfully and yet also have the courage, be encouraged, to have that type of attitude that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to say, "No, we won't do this. We won't go along with governments that will try to draw us away from Christ and draw us away from His Word."

I think that's a very important message for Christians of every age, but especially in our age. I think it gives us the insight to say we know that we have a God who will resurrect us from the dead. So what can a government do to us if we stand up to it? The worst it can do is take our life in this world. But that's nothing because we know we have eternal life in the resurrection to come.

Mike Zeigler: Well, this is a very helpful perspective as we look forward to the next month. We'll have you back again here soon, and we'll talk more about the rest of Daniel as we continue. Thanks for joining us.

Andrew Steinman: Okay. Well, thank you. That'll be great. I'll be looking forward to it.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"A Multitude Comes from the East and the West" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

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