Thursday morning I was sitting on the dock across the street. It was raining so I was holding an umbrella. A duck paddled past, then I watched a shell leave the boat house at the south end of the lake and head my direction. As it got close I could see it was being rowed by five or six women. I glanced at my phone. 5:56 a.m.
Wow. That’s dedication.
Every morning they are out there early, working on their stroke, working on their coordination, developing their strength and stamina. Preparing for the final test: a race.
Our Old Testament reading featured four guys preparing for a final exam, Daniel and his friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The text says,
God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature. They became remarkably wise. And God gave Daniel the special ability to interpret the meanings of visions and dreams. Daniel 1:17.
How do you think God gave these guys knowledge and wisdom? How did God give them mastery of all kinds of literature?
I’m going to guess they read books. Lots and lots of books. While other students were getting drunk, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishel, and Azariah were hitting the books. Babylon had a huge library. These guys wanted to read it all.
They studied math and philosophy and Babylonian religion. They studied multiple languages. I don’t know what kinds of science they had in those days, but they knew how to build massive walls and impressive bridges. They had agricultural science and astronomy. These guys studied all that.
For three years they hit the books. They studied. And studied. And studied. My guess is Daniel was something of a coach. He’d quiz his buddies. If they didn’t know as much as he did he’d push them to read the book again. Go over that list of formulas once more. Study that vocab list for a few more hours.
Then comes the exam.
If this were a movie we would watch as several of their buddies were quizzed by King Nebuchadnezzar. We’d wince when students stumbled, when they didn’t know the answers or worse when they confidently gave an answer which turned out to be wrong. We can imagine the king jumping on one of the students who had slacked on his studies.
“I spent three years of education on you, and this is the best you can do? How did you get into this program any way?”
The king was a hard man. He expected a return on his investment.
Finally, it was Daniel and his friends’ turn. At first, the guys answered slowly, carefully. They did not want to get anything wrong. They mulled over every question before answering, making sure they understood what the king was asking, making sure to answer the question fully.
But as the interview proceeds, we can see them becoming more and more confident. They’ve got this. They have been studying non-stop for three years. They have been quizzing each other. They know the material, all of it. They are ready. The king asks questions and they answer, smoothly, calmly, confidently.
The tone of the questions changes. It begins to sound more like a conversation. Instead of merely asking the questions listed on the guide in front of him, the king asks questions about their answers. The king explores what they know, asking questions that he himself doesn’t know the answer to because he wants to know the answer, and he figures these guys will know.
Finally, it’s over. Daniel and Friends are ten times smarter than the next highest student. They were dazzling, crazy smart.
And God was happy. This was a perfect first chapter in the story God intended to write. This story is going to reach its grand climax when the King of Babylon becomes a devotee of the God of Israel. And the story is going to happen because of the fantastic scholarship and integrity of Daniel and his friends.
If we were watching a movie of this scene, our bodies would tense when we saw a student hesitate. We want them to succeed. We want them to know the answers. We cannot help ourselves. In the moment of that movie our happiness gets linked with the success of the students.
In the Gospel, there are two parallel stories. One features a mother and her daughter, the other features a father and his son. In both stories the children are horribly ill, and in both stories the kids don’t say a word. In both stories it is the parents who live at the center of the drama.
In Mark 9, a father brings his son for healing. “Master, I have a son with terrible problems. He is possessed by an evil spirit that won’t let him talk. Whenever this spirit seizes him, it throws him violently to the ground. He foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid.
How long has this been going on?” Jesus asks.
“Since he was a child. Sometimes he is thrown in the cooking fire. Sometimes the demon throws him into an irrigation canal or the lake and he has nearly drowned. So please sir, if you can, have compassion on us and help us.”
What do you mean, ‘If I can’?” Jesus asked. “Anything is possible if a person believes.”
“Oh sir, I do believe. Help my unbelief.”
We could paraphrase the dad’s words: Don’t let my unworthiness get in the way of healing for my son. I will do anything, believe anything, say anything. Just heal my son. He is my whole life. Heal him. Please, please, please.
In Matthew 15 we read the story of Jesus on vacation. Along with his disciples, he had headed north up into the neighborhood of Sidon where no one knew him, looking for a little down time. But somehow word leaked out and a mother showed up at his door. The minute he steps outside she starts following him begging for help.
“Have mercy. Please have mercy. Teacher, help me. Have mercy. For the love of God, have mercy.”
Her clamoring annoys the disciples and they ask Jesus to get rid of her, to send her away. Jesus stops and explains to his disciples that he can’t send her away. She’s a mother, after all. The only way to get rid of her would be to give her what she needs, to heal her daughter. But Jesus was not supposed to help people like her. She was a Canaanite. Jesus’ mission was to the Jewish people. She was not Jewish. So he wasn’t supposed to help her which meant he couldn’t get rid of her.
As Jesus was explaining all this to his disciples, the woman pushed through the circle of disciples and planted herself in front of Jesus. “Please sir. Please. Help me.”
“Look, lady,” Jesus said, “it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
“True,” she answered, “but even dogs are not begrudged the crumbs. Please help me. Please, just speak the word so that my daughter who is home can be made well.”
“Wow!” Jesus says. “Wow!” Your faith is amazing. May it be according to your will.”
Twice in the Gospel, Jesus places his will in second place. Jesus allows another person to overrule his declared intention. In the story most often cited in church, Jesus yielded to God. When he was in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified, he asked to be spared the agony of the coming crucifixion. Then said to God, “nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.”
The other time Jesus bends his declared will to that of another is here when Jesus says to this mother, “Not my declared will (to be true to my mission to the Jewish people) but your will be done.”
Obviously, as believers, we regard this as theater. We know how the story is going to end from the very first sentence. If someone’s need is brought to Jesus’ attention, we know that Jesus is going to meet that need. But if we jump to that conclusion too quickly we miss the force of the story. Jesus said no, then said yes in response to the bold pleading of a mother. The mother’s desire becomes the clearest, purest expression of the will of God because God is like a mother.
When our children are sick, our deepest, sharpest desire is their healing.
When our children are doing okay, our deepest, sharpest desire is for them to do even better.
When our children are doing fantastic, our deepest, sharpest desire is for them to do even more fantastic.
It is our conviction that God’s desire for humanity is mirrored in the hunger we have for the triumph and success of our children.
When God watched Daniel and Friends acing that test in the court of Babylon, God was pleased to no end. God was thrilled. That is why the story of their triumphal exam is part of the Bible story.
Kids, when you act kindly, you make God glad.
When you practice helpfulness
When you work to master a skill, God smiles and says, “That’s my girl. That’s my boy.”
When you follow your curiosity and become an expert on chickens or the planets
When you build a really cool project
When you practice the piano or practice pitching a baseball or shooting a basket ball or kicking a soccer ball
When your words are courteous and respectful
When you tell the truth
When you do your best
You make God glad.
And then count on it, God and your mother will urge you to do even better.
On Thursday morning when I was watching the girls in the boat . . . they were followed by a motorboat. In the launch a woman was standing, I could hear her shouting as they rowed. “Sit deeper. Reach. Watch your teammates.” She would call different rowers by name and tell them to do something or stop doing something. She kept up a constant commentary.
She wanted the girls in the boat to do better. Yes, they were on her team and that was something. They had showed up at 5:30 in the morning to practice. That was something. They were strong and motivated. That was good. But the coach’s job was to help them do better, so they could taste the excitement of winning.
Kids, on behalf of God, we—the mothers and fathers, the grandmothers and grandfathers, the aunts and uncles—but especially the mothers—we urge you on.
Please hear all this exhortation, all this urging, as a vote of confidence and as an expression of how deeply you live in our hearts. We, together with God, love you with all our heart. We cannot help ourselves. At every point in your lives, whether you pass or fail, whether you’re first or last, we treasure you. And beyond every triumph and every success, we can only dream of greater things.