Part 6 in the series “Bible Stories for Grown-ups”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
November 1, 2009
Daniel 6:1-24;1 Peter 5:6-11
Daniel 6:1-24 · It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom one hundred twenty satraps, stationed throughout the whole kingdom, and over them three presidents, including Daniel; to these the satraps gave account, so that the king might suffer no loss. Soon Daniel distinguished himself above all the other presidents and satraps because an excellent spirit was in him, and the king planned to appoint him over the whole kingdom. So the presidents and the satraps tried to find grounds for complaint against Daniel in connection with the kingdom. But they could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him. The men said, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God.”
So the presidents and satraps conspired and came to the king and said to him, “O King Darius, live forever! All the presidents of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions. Now, O king, establish the interdict and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed, according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be revoked.” Therefore King Darius signed the document and interdict.
Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously. The conspirators came and found Daniel praying and seeking mercy before his God. Then they approached the king and said concerning the interdict, “O king! Did you not sign an interdict, that anyone who prays to anyone, divine or human, within thirty days except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions?” The king answered, “The thing stands fast, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be revoked.” Then they responded to the king, “Daniel, one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or to the interdict you have signed, but he is saying his prayers three times a day.”
When the king heard the charge, he was very much distressed. He was determined to save Daniel, and until the sun went down he made every effort to rescue him. Then the conspirators came to the king and said to him, “Know, O king, that it is a law of the Medes and Persians that no interdict or ordinance that the king establishes can be changed.”
Then the king gave the command, and Daniel was brought and thrown into the den of lions. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” A stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, so that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel. Then the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no food was brought to him, and sleep fled from him.
Then, at break of day, the king got up and hurried to the den of lions. When he came near the den where Daniel was, he cried out anxiously to Daniel, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God whom you faithfully serve been able to deliver you from the lions?” Daniel then said to the king, “O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no wrong.” Then the king was exceedingly glad and commanded that Daniel be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God. The king gave a command, and those who had accused Daniel were brought and thrown into the den of lions–they, their children, and their wives. Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.
1 Peter 5:6-11 · Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
Of all the stories we’ve looked at over the past six weeks, this should be the one with the clearest message. The story of Daniel is a very familiar story and it would be hard to imagine how this story could be anything other than the tale of how a person is rescued from peril because he was faithful to God.
Daniel is thrown in a den of lions. He is sealed in with the king’s seal and the den is closed up for the night. When the den is opened the following morning, Daniel emerges with “no harm of any kind found on him, because he trusted in God.” It would be hard to imagine what else this story could be about except the vindication of Daniel as a faithful person.
Daniel is delivered from peril because of his deep and abiding faith. He is rescued from harm. And if we all have just enough faith, we, too, will be rescued from all harm.
Except that if that’s the lesson of Daniel, then it needs some work. Because we know that it doesn’t work out that way. In fact, on this particular Sunday, All Saints Sunday, we commemorate the great many who have died over the course of Christian history, many of whom experienced nothing remotely like divine deliverance from peril, no matter how faithful they were.
Christians are not saved from natural disasters. Nor are the faithful saved from catastrophe. Good and faithful people perish all the time at the hands of others, before nature’s fury, from disease, or for no good reason at all.
Our experience tells us that it doesn’t work out quite the way the Book of Daniel says it does.
II. THE HISTORY OF MARTYRS
The history of the Christian church is full of those who lost their lives not just in spite of their faith, but often because of their faith. Beginning all the way back with St. Stephen, stoned to death in Jerusalem.
We find many who were martyred under the Roman Empire because they refused to sacrifice to the Emperor. They were placed in situation of great peril, and unlike our hero Daniel, when they were thrown to the lions, it was not with a happy result.
Many were martyred by pagan Germanic tribes or by invading Muslim armies. Many were matyred because they spoke up for the truth against the Church itself.
Martyrdom followed wherever being a Christian put you at odds with the dominant culture. Wherever confessing Christ as your Lord meant denying some earthly ruler lordship.
Martyrdom certainly has continued in recent years. Dietrich Bonhöffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, all lost their lives because of their loyalty to something higher than the established social order.
III. OPPRESSION AND RESPONSE
So, if we know that the life of the faithful does not always mean deliverance from peril, then what is the Book of Daniel trying to tell us? For that, we need to learn a few things about the Book of Daniel itself.
A. The Seleucids
In the late 4 th Century BC, the armies of a young Macedonian named Alexander conquered all the nations from Greece to India. Alexander the Great sought to create an empire that would be a fusion of Greek and Persian culture, what was called “Hellenistic” culture.
When Alexander died without an heir a mere 11 years after beginning his conquests, three of his generals succeeded him and divided up his empire. They and there successors were committed to the same ideas of Hellenistic culture that Alexander had been.
In time, the Seleucid dynasty comes to be in control of that portion of Alexander’s empire that encompassed the land of Israel. Eventually, in the Second Century BC, one of the Seleucids, a king named Antiochus IV Epiphanes comes to power. Now, Antiochus couldn’t stand the Jews. He viewed them as a particular people, unwilling to adopt Hellenistic culture. Of course, the Jews weren’t big fans of Antiochus IV either, especially since he’d surnamed himself “Epiphanes” which means “a manifestation of the divine”.
Antiochus forbade the reading or study of the Torah. He forbade circumcision. All the things that made the Jews distinctive as a people. And then, in an act that would not earn him any awards for religious sensitivity, sacrificed a pig on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem, profaning the Temple.
Now, this situation exemplified a period of extreme oppression and persecution. One that bore two main responses. The first response was the revolt led by Judah Maccabees that would eventually through out the Greeks and restore an independent kingdom of Israel to the Jews. They would seize the Temple and rededicate it, an event commemorated by the holiday of Hanukkah.
But the second response to this persecution was the development of a special kind of literature. A genre called “apocalyptic”.
Apocalyptic is a strange kind of literature, full of strange visions, fantastical beasts, symbols, portents, numerology and other curious elements. Apocalyptic literature assumes that the world is so far gone, that it cannot be redeemed by ordinary methods. And so, apocalyptic literature is always of the same message: “Stand firm in your faith and endure. Be patient. God is coming soon.”
The earliest example we have of apocalyptic literature is the Book of Daniel. Oh, not the whole book, but beginning right at chapter 7, the chapter that follows this text, this story of Daniel and the lions. Indeed, there are two halves to the Book of Daniel: the first half is full of stories demonstrating the faithfulness of Daniel, and his pals Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It details their deliverance from the fiery furnace, the lions’ den, and other such perils.
The second half is an apocalypse, detailing the a vision had by Daniel, describing the advent of a mysterious figure referred to only as “one like a son of man (i.e., a human being)” who dispenses justice upon the kingdoms of the earth. It becomes clear that the kingdom that will be smashed the hardest, will be the kingdom of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It, like its New Testament cousin, the Book of Revelation, is a book about the victory of God. It exhorts the believer to stand fast in faith. To wait. And to watch the heavenly drama of God’s victory unfold on earth.
It is a story probably written in the 2 nd Century BC, during the period of the oppression under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It uses the stories of Daniel to build him up as an exemplar of faith, and then to be the appropriate vehicle for the vision of patient endurance.
The entire book of Daniel, then, is about staying firm in faith. A message to the Jews under Antiochus to remain fast, to continue to choose faithfulness in the face of peril.
IV. THE WILLINGNESS TO STAND FAST
And so for that reason, it’s curious that one of the oft overlooked verses in this text is the one that says, “Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open towards Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.”
The other presidents and satraps of the Persian Empire, jealous of Daniel’s prestige and authority, set a trap for him. They know he can’t be corrupted. They know he is blameless. So they determine, that if they are to get him, it will have to be on account of his Jewish faith.
And so they talk Darius into passing an edict that requires everyone to pray to him alone, with the penalty of being thrown in the lion’s den for anyone who prays to anyone besides Darius.
And the scriptures say “Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house…to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.” See, the power of Daniel’s story, the example that he is meant to provide, is not that he was faithful and therefore delivered from harm, but that he was willing to place himself in harm’s way in order to be faithful. Daniel had no foreknowledge that he would be spared death because he was pious. He risked being thrown in the lions’ den because he would rather risk death than betray God. That is the message of this story. That is the power behind Daniel’s example.
This is not a story about getting what we want if we’re faithful enough. It’s not a story of how God rescues the faithful from peril, for we have seen that that does not always happen.
This is a story about Daniel as an exemplar of faith, willing to stay true to his faith even in the face of great peril and persecution. One who stays true to his faith in the midst of great cultural oppression.
Are we in any different a state than Daniel in the Persian Empire? Or the Jews in the Greek Empire? Or the early Christians in the Roman Empire? Do we imagine that because we live in a country that is predominantly made up of Christians that somehow the country itself is Christian? Or that it’s culture is any less idolatrous than Roman, Greek, Persian, or Babylonian culture was?
Do we not find ourselves surrounded by idols all the time? Idols that demand our allegiance and worship no less than Darius did?
Are we not inundated by the idolatry of wealth or status or power? Do we not live in a city that is dominated by the lust for those three?
Do we not live in a culture fond of get rich quick schemes? In which one of our major sports remains popular precisely because of all the gambling that goes on around it? Do we not lure the public into passing referenda that permit slot machines and gaming by tempting them with quick riches?
Is not our culture overrun with the idolatry of fame? Where people obsess over the goings on of the celebrity culture? Who fret over the fate of Michael Jackson’s children while thousands of children go to bed every night hungry across our country?
Do we not live in a time where people pursue fame at every turn? Promoting themselves in a me-centered online culture? Or putting their children into weather balloons (or lying about their children being in weather balloons) for a shot at a reality TV show?
Is not our culture overrun with the idolatry of self ? The idea that we are the most important creatures in the universe? Completely self-sufficient, in need of no help from anyone else and not required to give help to anyone else?
Are we really going to pretend that Christian faith, grounded in justice, mercy, humility, charity, and community is not beset on all sides by a hostile culture?
Are we going allow this culture to shape our Christian faith–as it has for all too many already? Are we going to equate Christian faith with a faith that sides with the powerful, seeks our individual fame or wealth, and lifts up an every-person-for-themselves ethic?
Or will we continue to affirm ours as a faith that sides with the poor and the disenfranchised, that seeks riches that are more lasting than money, and that lifts up our life together as a community?
The saints whom we celebrate today, often chose to stay true to their faith rather than capitulate to the idolatries of the culture around them. They understood that the cause of justice, of love, of peace was greater than their desire to remain unharmed by the world.
The martyrs understood their commitments to faith to override concerns for their own safety, in order to stand up to power, to stand up to righteousness. They were jailed. Beaten. Murdered.
Would we even be willing to sacrifice our Sunday afternoons for righteousness and standing up to the idolatries of greed and power? Our grades? Our jobs? Our reputations? Our ministerial appointments? Our pensions? Far too many have given too much for their faith for us to capitulate so easily.
Daniel understood that if he remained faithful to God he would put his life itself in peril.
What are we willing to risk?