Sunday, February 11, 2018
I open with a question: “Decades from now, what will be written about the public testimony of the American Church in the early 21st century?” This question requires some explanation. Fifty years from now, when the writers of history look back at the years 2000-2020, what will they remember about the church in the United States? In Chapel Hill, North Carolina? What will be said about the way the church in our day represented God and trusted in God?
It’s an odd way to think about things. Imagining people fifty years from now as they remember us: who does that?
That is what we do when we read Daniel. We remember how the chosen people of God, ancient Israel, lived out their faith while they were exiled in Babylon and then Persia, when that empire overran Babylon. We learn about faith by seeing how Daniel stayed true to God even when Persian religious leaders tried to corrupt his faith. We learn about dedication to God by seeing how Jews in Jerusalem in 164 BC were inspired by reading Daniel and thus stood up to the horrible persecution wrought by Antiochus Epiphanes IV.
In the days of Daniel, people of faith, Daniel and his friends, gave witness to the goodness and authority of God before powerful Pagan rulers. In the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Jerusalem Jews gave witness to their faith in God by rebelling against the tyrant who declared himself a god.
In our day, what is our faith saying? What is our exercise of faith saying about us and what are we saying about the Kingdom of God that, in Jesus, has invaded the present day and has confronted present day governments? How does our faith speak?
Daniel chapters 1-6 are examples of “martyr stories.” The Greek word ‘martyr’ actually means witness. We have taken it to mean one who dies for their faith, but in fact, it means witness. To follow Jesus is to be a witness, one who has seen and received the salvation Jesus gives. All Christians are witnesses. Is our witness strong enough that we would live up to the modern day definition of ‘martyr’ if that were called for? One commentator describes Daniel as a man with “unflinching faith.” When future generations talk about the way we represented Christ, will they look at us and say, ‘When they were challenged to deny Christ, they stayed true and did not flinch?’”
By the time we are in Daniel 6, Daniel has survived several tyrant-rulers of Babylon. In fact, he outlasted the Babylonian empire. Daniel was among a group of young, talented Jews who were essentially kidnapped when Babylonian forces defeated the Southern kingdom of the Jewish people, Judah, and overthrew the capital, Jerusalem. They brought the brightest and best of Judah’s young people back to Babylon to indoctrinate them in Babylonian court life. As the ultimate humiliation, they intend to take these young people, Israel’s future, and turn them into loyal Babylonians.
It didn’t work. In spite of multiple death threats and execution attempts, Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, stayed true to God. Now, in chapter 6, Babylon has been replaced by Media-Persia, ruled by Darius.
As he did under the Babylonian monarch, Daniel thrived under Darius, distinguished himself, and rose in prominence. He was so impressive, Darius planned to install Daniel as the primary administrator for the entire Persian Empire. Of course this did not sit well with other administrators, called “satraps” (v.1, 2). These Persians, Daniel’s political rivals, knew they had no chance of matching Daniel’s wisdom in governing. However, they held two trump cards.
First, they understood the connection between Persian law and Darius’s ego. Under Persian law, no one, not even the king, can go against an established edict. Once it is written and sealed, it must be observed. The only way to overcome a hastily enacted law is to enact another that will override the first.
We see this in the book of Esther. The anti-Jewish schemer Haman convinces the king to write an edict that will effectively wipe out the Jews. The feeble minded king allows himself to be manipulated into legalizing genocide. Once Esther reveals the wicked plot, the only recourse the king has is to write another law that allows the Jews to arm and defend themselves. Even though he is king, he is powerless to overturn an established law.
The satraps around Darius in Daniel chapter 6 know this. And they know Darius’s ego will render him short-sighted. So, they convince him to enact a 30-day law. For 30 days, no one in the Persian Empire may pray to any god other than Darius himself. Darius, in his heart of hearts, knows he cannot answer prayer. He does not have that power. He knows this.
But, he think to himself, “This will be cool. For 30 days, everyone will worship, only me. How awesome!” So he signs it into law. This is where the satraps play their second trump card. They know how loyal Daniel is to the God of Israel. Darius knows it too, but he didn’t consider the consequences of his actions. He was enamored with the idea of people bowing before him, but he didn’t stop to think of whom the law would affect and how it would affect them.
The plan devised by the satraps goes perfectly. As scheduled, Daniel goes to his open window in his upper room, faces Israel, and begins to pray. They got him! He’s praying to God, not to Darius. They run over each other as they sprint to the king’s chamber to report that Daniel has violated the edict.
And we see just how powerless this king is. He’s passed a law requiring people to pray to him. Not only can he not answer anyone’s prayers, he cannot even overturn the law to save the life of one he likes and trusts - Daniel. He tries! But the nefarious satraps say, “Know, O king, that it is law of the Medes and Persians that no interdict or ordinance that the king establishes can be changed” (6:15). He to whom the Persians must pray is a slave to the law he himself established. Daniel must face the prescribed punishment for violating the law. He must be thrown into the lion’s den.
It was an underground cave, with a stone over the opening in the top; a very inhumane existence for the lions. But we know the ancients did this sort of thing. Roman, Persians and other ancient peoples would keep what are meant to be wild, free-roaming beasts, lions and other big cats, in captivity. They kept the beasts hungry, so when a gruesome execution was called for the predators would be eager to devour whatever fell through that hole.
Because of Darius’s irresponsible edict, Daniel was what went through the opening. As he was lowered to a certain death, Darius desperately cried out, “May your God whom you faithfully serve deliver you” (6:16). And the hole was covered with the stone and the king’s wax seal was affixed so that the hole could only be opened at the king’s command.
Then, Darius spent the night violating his own law. It says he did not eat or sleep all night long. Everyone in the Persian Empire was mandated by law to pray to this guy. Praying to anyone else led to a date in the lion’s den. And here is Darius praying to someone else - the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Verse 18 only says that he fasted, but he had just proclaimed, as Daniel was lowered in, that Daniel’s God could save him. That kind of faith statement leads me to think he spent the night in prayer, asking God to save Daniel from his, Darius’s impulsive foolishness.
Darius was up at daybreak. He had obeyed the law. Now he would break the seal, open the hole, and see if his prayers were answered. “Daniel,” he called, “has your God delivered you” (v20)?
“Daniel then said to the King, ‘O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless. ... I have not done no wrong” (v.21-22). God, unlike Darius, is not subject to any law. Daniel technically did violate the king’s edict by praying to God.
Sometimes that’s the call of faith. Church goers get uncomfortable when politics shows up in sermons, but if we seriously engage the stories of the Bible, it is impossible to avoid politics. In Acts chapter 6, the early church appointed seven of those early Christians to be the first deacons, charged with church administration. One of them, Stephen, was also a preacher.
He was working miracles of healing and exorcism, and he taught that Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses. Enraged synagogue leaders rallied the temple high council of scribes and elders and a gang enacted a people’s arrest. They dragged Stephen before the council who interrogated him about his preaching. The entirety of Acts 7 is Stephen’s sermon. The basic content is a recounting of the Old Testament story that leads to a climax of accusation. Stephen accuses the temple leaders of executing God’s prophet, but not only a prophet; the Holy One of God, the Son of Man, Jesus.
For Stephen, to stay true to God, meant to openly oppose those who possessed political power - the temple leaders. To preach the gospel meant to participate in subversive politics. The same was true for Daniel 500 years earlier and for the Jews under Antiochus 200 years earlier.
The temple leaders stoned Stephen to death. When we are faithful in the face of oppression and challenge, there is not a guarantee that God will spare our lives. Sometimes our witness brings suffering. Look at Stephen who died a horrible death by stoning. Look at Christians today in North Korean and Iranian prisons. Why was Daniel miraculously spared? Why was Stephen and many other executed? Why are our brothers and sisters in the faith in other countries today persecuted and imprisoned? Much of the time, only God knows the answer to the “why” questions.
Not always knowing the “why,” we can answer the “what?” What will future generations remember about how we represented Jesus and spoke the Gospel truth to our generation?
I pray they will remember that we were clear: God and only God is all-powerful.
I pray that they will remember we shared hope: in Jesus Christ, there is life. All are sinners, but he offers forgiveness and in him, we have a right relationship with God in spite of our sins. Jesus makes us new, adopted as sons and daughters of God.
I pray they will remember that our faith was fearless, unflinching: we did not put our trust in a political party; we did not give our loyalty to a government or a nation. We lived as God’s possessions, as disciples of Jesus Christ.
I pray that they will remember what we said about Jesus and that we demonstrated the love and grace of God, and in remembering our witness, future generations will become Christ followers.
It is a choice. Faith wasn’t a part of Daniel’s life. Faith was his life. Everything in life, for Daniel, happened in light of his relationship with God. We can choose to have church, faith, prayer be a small part of our lives. I am not sure what to call those who make that choice. If we choose a Biblical faith, the faith embodied by Daniel and Stephen and many others, it becomes our everything. Faith is not a part of our lives. Faith in the living God is our life and we cannot imagine life without it. We would rather lose, suffer, and die than abandon faith.
Lent begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. For our church it will be a time to focus on repentance (turning to God) and unity (our interconnectedness in Christ). It will also be a time of spiritual discipline.
I will talk a little bit about this in the Ash Wednesday worship service and in next week’s sermon. I urge you to take up spiritual practices that help you grow in your relationship with Christ. The reason Daniel was ready to face lions is his spiritual life was forged in daily discipline. He prayed three time a day, without fail. He recognized God because he was attuned to God through daily practices.
God is always with us, in our successes and when we suffer. We are more ready to see and hear God, and to respond in faith, as we condition ourselves to listen. As we move into the week ahead, I encourage everyone to be ready to take up spiritual disciplines and to grow in the relationship with God. You might not have a lions’ den ahead of you, but there will be trials. God is bigger than the trials and will be there to help you. So, I encourage you seek him and to speak his Gospel whenever the opportunity arises.