Preached January 27, 2013
Text: Daniel 6:6-27
The Story, Ch. 18
Daniel in the lions’ den. There are few stories in the Bible more familiar than this one!
This is one of the stories that we learn growing up in Sunday School, but I would guess that very few of us know its place within the larger story of the Old Testament. That’s one of the reasons we are reading The Story together – to revisit these familiar stories and place them in context within the larger story of God’s relationship to human beings throughout history.
So where does Daniel fall in this larger story? Both Israel and Judah – the divided kingdom – are now under foreign rule. God’s judgment has been carried out against his people; the promised land has been ripped from their hands and the Temple torn down. The people have, for the most part, settled into the “new normal” of life in exile. They lived as the diaspora, the scattered ones.
The Jews (who were, incidentally, first called Jews here because they were people who came from Judea) during Daniel’s lifetime lived in a time of constant upheaval. The Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires all battled for control of the region, and power changed hands frequently. But for the Jews – and most of the other residents of the land – life was probably pretty uneventful. They lived out their days planting crops, tending the fields, raising their children and making their homes. They were not free, but neither were they particularly oppressed. Mostly, they were probably ignored.
Mostly, that is, except for a few especially competent young men like Daniel. Daniel – and his famous friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – were chosen by the king to be trained for service in the royal palace. They spend three years reading the literature of the Empire, studying its art, learning its language and its customs. Through their training, they are systematically assimilated into the dominant culture of the land. They are likely more learned in its ways than most native people – like naturalized citizens who have studied long and hard to gain their citizenship.
Daniel himself is a particularly quick study, and like his ancestor Joseph, he advances quickly up through the ranks. When Darius the Mede becomes king, Daniel is promoted to be second-in-command, running the whole kingdom.
His rise to power was too quick to go unnoticed, though. His colleagues became angry and turned on him, tricking the King into issuing a decree: whoever prays to anyone except the king, for 30 days, shall be thrown into a den of lions.
The officials are taunting Daniel, and they know it. They are like the boys gathered around the school yard triple-dog-daring Flick to stick his tongue to the pole in A Christmas Story. They go after his honor, with stakes so high that there is no possible way he could ignore them.
And like Flick, Daniel is now stuck. He is above reproach in his service to the king; he can’t be blamed for negligence or corruption. But there is one thing Daniel absolutely will not do: cease his daily prayer to the Living God.
Flick lost some taste buds as a result of standing up for his honor, but Daniel – he lost much more when he stood up for his God. Or at least, he would have, had his God not come to his rescue. You know the story: the Living God whom he worshipped closed the mouths of the lions and kept Daniel safe until King Darius rolled the stone away the next morning.
I don’t generally preach the traditional three-point sermon, but I think Daniel’s story is a story of three things: promise, priorities, and practice. (And, I even used alliteration!)
As children, we hear this story primarily as a promise that God will protect us. As adults, we need to hear that promise – but we also know enough to know that some lions still eat their prey. Not everyone who stands up against injustice – even in the name of the Living God – will be miraculously saved. So how do we hear this promise without it sounding hollow and false?
We hear it, I think, by remembering the character of God. God’s most basic identity in Scripture is God-With-Us. Immanuel. Not a god who lifts us out of every difficult circumstance, but a God who hears our cries and bears our burdens in the midst of the difficulties. Not a god who avoids the dark valleys, but a God who walks with us through them.
The promise of Daniel is not that we will be spared the lions’ den – but that our God bears us through the lions. God does not abandon us even in the most hopeless of circumstances.
That is the truth that Daniel knew, and that King Darius learned. “Daniel,” the king calls after a sleepless night. “Daniel, has your God been able to deliver you from the lions?” (6:19-20).
“Was God able?” the king asks, and Daniel answers with a witness to God’s character: “My God sent his angels and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me” (6:22).
And the king responds with a hymn of praise to God –
The God of Daniel…is the living God,
His kingdom shall never be destroyed,
and his dominion has no end.
He delivers and rescues,
he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth;
for he has saved Daniel
from the power of the lions. (6:26-27)
This is a conversion story – not only has Daniel experienced the power and protection of God, but the King comes to know God’s true character through Daniel’s witness. The trials Daniel endured – while not caused by God – were used by God to draw people into relationship. The king came to know God as the God who keeps promises.
So Daniel’s story is a story of promise. It is also a story of priorities.
Daniel finds himself living at odds with the priorities of his world – and he suffers the consequences. But he doesn’t do so just to make a point. In A Christmas Story, Flick stuck his tongue to a frozen flagpole to defend his own honor and pride. Daniel chooses his battles more carefully. He willingly submits himself to the king; he voluntarily adopts a diet of vegetables and water; he doesn’t even put up a fight when his religious freedom is denied by the king’s new edict. Daniel does nothing to defend his own honor or pride.
But when it comes to his relationship with God – that Daniel would not compromise. He places obedience to God above his own comfort (turning down that prime cut of beef he’s offered earlier in the story). He places it above his responsibilities at work. He even places obedience to God above his loyalty to his friends (again, see that vegetable episode – when he volunteers his friends for a vegetarian diet against their will).
Daniel’s priorities were clear: he worshipped God first, and served the king second.
Those priorities were only maintained through the third p: a faithful practice of prayer. Prayer was a daily habit for Daniel that sustained him even under the threat of death.
I doubt that any of us will ever face a literal lions’ den. But we all have moments when the values and priorities of the culture around us clash with the values and priorities of God. Our faithfulness to God in those moments depends, just as much as Daniel’s did, on the day-in-and-day-out habits of faith that we have established in our lives.
Daniel did not pray as an act of defiance against the king. His prayer wasn’t some public statement against the injustice of a law that took away religious freedom. Daniel prayed because it was his habit to pray; because he prayed three times every day, turning to God in the good times and the bad times and the boring in-between times, building the practice that would sustain him when threatened with his very life.
We often ask ourselves, when we hear stories of great sacrifice for God, whether our faith is strong enough that we would stand up for what is right too. We wonder if we would have the courage to stand up for God when the consequences are so great.
I think the better question, though, is whether our faith is strong enough to sustain us in through the normal, everyday days when habits are formed and strengthened. Do we love God enough to schedule time spent in prayer, in conversation with God, into our days? Do we love God enough to nurture habits of prayer and praise in the midst of everyday life?
Daniel’s story is a story of promise – believing that God walks with us through the hard times; and a story of priorities – placing faithfulness to God above our own rights and responsibilities. But I think it is mostly a story of practice – a reminder that the habits we form and the practices we make time for every day of our lives are the ones that will sustain us in the most difficult moments.
Daniel’s witness didn’t come from fighting for his own religious liberty or defying the law of the land; it didn’t come from confronting the king when the king was clearly in the wrong. Daniel’s witness came from quietly continuing his habit of prayer even at the threat of his life. And Daniel was able to continue that habit in the face of such a dire threat precisely because he had built the habit through many normal days, when no one noticed but him.
Will we have faith and courage enough do the same?