Daniel Under Siege
Should Danidel conform to his culture or risk being torn apart?
This sermon is taken from Daniel 6; 2 Timothy 4, verses 1-5; 16-18
DANIEL UNDER SIEGE
DANIEL UNDER SIEGE
Suppose you were in danger of losing your life if you continued to practise your faith?
Yet you were brave and faithful enough to keep up your habit of regular prayer despite this threat? Would you choose to pray right in front of a large window, which opened out onto the street?
I don‘t get this. What was Daniel thinking of? He was just asking for death.
Daniel, we are told at the start of the book, was an exceptionally intelligent man. Despite being in exile from his home country, he had been head-hunted to become one of the highest leaders in the kingdom of Babylon and he did his job superbly well.
This particular “edict’ was a put- up job. It had very little to do with the King, who valued Daniel highly and everything to do with petty spite and jealousy on behalf on the bad guys. Daniel was quite bright enough to recognise this, so why play into their hands?
The edict was a temporary one- “you shall not pray to anyone except the King for the next thirty days.” It was hardly a lifetime ban. Why could not Daniel have said his prayers in secret just for thirty days? Again, he was quite bright enough to be able to find a place for prayer where his enemies would never see him.
It is not even as though Daniel was trying to inspire any kind of mass rebellion against the edict. There is no hint that he was inciting other people to stand at their windows and pray- a kind of public “pray-in.” This was purely about his own personal faith.
So why? Why kneel at an open window in a busy street in order to pray three times a day, when you had been threatened with death if you did so?
If you were brought up on dramatic Bible Stories such as Jonah and the Whale and Daniel in the Lions’ den, you may have consigned them by now to the books of children’s fairy tales, myths and legends- exciting, memorable but surely not meant to be taken literally. Even the Jewish Study Bible (remember, Daniel comes from the Jewish sacred scriptures) suggested that this story was not likely to be historically true. But, as you must know by now, I do not tend to get tangled up in these arguments. When I think about Jonah and the Whale or Daniel and the lions, it is not puzzling over who actually ate who that keeps me awake at night. What has kept me awake is being right in one of those terrible dark places, where you begin to feel that you are drowning and that you will never see light again. I have been there and so have you.
Or being in that place where you feel under serious threat; when something in your life seems out to destroy you, to tear what you are to pieces. I have been there too and so have you. And so had St Paul. Did you notice how he wrote that he had escaped “the lions?” And in one of the Psalms, the writer says that he “lies among lions who wait to devour me.” We all face these kinds of lions, which is why Eric Heaton in his commentary on the book of Daniel wrote that “this story belongs to every age”.
“Not everyone,” he continues, “is threatened with death but every person who believes in God shares Daniel’s temptation to abandon the practice of prayer in order to please others or to make their circumstances easier if they fear disapproval or ridicule. “
“Our society,” he says, “is alien rather than hostile. It is more likely to suffocate the spirit than devour the body, but it is still dangerous.”
Daniel, then, is every man and every woman who has been threatened with the destruction of who they are and what they stand for.
The threats may be physical- many people even today are imprisoned, tortured and executed for their faith.
Or the threats may be intellectual- so much that is written and spoken in the western world today leaves us feeling that we must be total fools to believe in God.
They may be emotional, from the taunts in the school playground because you go to church, to the truly loving partner, parent or child who simply cannot understand why faith must play such a crucial role in your life and express a sense of personal betrayal that you cannot give it all up.
Or the threats may be spiritual- as our own lifestyles and the pressures of 21st century living squeeze out time with God, prayer, worship, serious reflection, a committed involvement to the faith community. When all of sudden you realise that God seems a very long way away and that it is you who have moved, without even noticing.
I’ll leave you to identify your own lions, just as I keep a look out for my own. But they are very real, aren’t they?
Now, going back to the story of Daniel, I wonder whether his action shows us that he was far less scared of the animal lions than he was of the spiritual, mental and emotional forces threatening him.
Daniel had been brought up to believe in God and to obey the laws of God. He had been gifted, he believed, by God with his fine physique and his exceptional intelligence. He could even believe that, despite being taken from his homeland and the Temple where his family had worshipped, there was a work that he could do for God even in a place like Babylon. But in order to do this work with integrity, for the good of the nation and not simply for his own prestige; in order to remain faithful to his beliefs; in order to demonstrate to the whole nation that was watching him that his faith was based on something real and something good, he needed to stay very close to God. To be the person he was, in the position he held, Daniel needed to keep up the practice of prayer, for once he started making compromises to please this person or avoid criticism from that person or escape from the threats of another he would be setting up a rival authority to that of God. He would not need to wait for the King or his henchmen to do it.
We in the church of today have become wary of talking too much about the authority of God and the laws of God and the discipline of faith. We are keenly aware that this kind of language and this kind of attitude have produced terrible levels of intolerance and spiritual abuse in the past. And yes, we do preach Jesus Christ, who welcomed the outcasts and forgave the sinners.
But how many times in the Gospels is Jesus described as being one who taught “with authority?” And how many times did he “bump up” the law rather than watering it down. He said that it was no good doing all the “right” things if your heart was not in the right place. And how often did he warn that following him was no soft option?
A god with no authority is surely not a god worth worshipping. A god who says, “just do as you like and I’ll be there when you need me,” is hardly doing us any favours. A faith which you can pick up occasionally when you have nothing better to do is not a faith worthy of the name. And a faith which is only about you and your sense of personal well-being does no credit to the god you worship.
For Daniel, his faith was at the heart of his being. His faith had made him the person he was. That is what faith is for. Daniel worshipped God as the source and centre of life. This did not, by all accounts make him a kill-joy or a crashing bore. He was at the centre of the nation’s life; loved and respected by those who knew him. But he knew about the lions that could destroy him and without God he knew that he would stand no chance of saving himself from them. He would have sung that Psalm (57) in which another great hero, King David, had said that he “lay in the midst of lions” but David’s trust was in God. “My heart is steadfast,” he wrote, and his prayer became a song of praise to the power that would save him. Both David and Daniel found a sense of stability and security in the worship of God and Daniel simply could not risk his inner security for the sake of his physical safety.
It is all about priorities, isn’t it? And I know that fixing priorities is far more complicated for us than I might just have made it sound. Ancient stories, like that of Daniel do tend to paint things in black and white, whereas the rest of live with endless shades of grey. But, to use an old-fashioned term, this story is about “saving your soul” and “saving your soul” is not about will-you-go-to-heaven-or-hell-when-you-die? It is about saving the person you are right now and only you can work out what that means. But Daniel, despite his personal strength, brilliance and celebrity looked to the God of power and authority to save his soul.
The last thing I want to say about Daniel is about his relationship with three Kings in succession. Each one of them valued him highly. At first, he was headhunted for a position of power because he was good-looking, intelligent and charismatic but it was not long before the first King-Nebuchadnezzar- learned that there was far more to Daniel than this. Daniel, we are told, could interpret dreams and each of these Kings were troubled with disturbing dreams- hardly surprising given the level of responsibility they carried. Daniel would listen to them; he could understand these men and what was going on deep down; he could size up the state of the nation and where the real threats lay; he would talk with them, displaying a level of wisdom far deeper than any other they had encountered. There was a spiritual awareness in Daniel which they were quick to recognise and, far from feeling threatened by this person with a different religion to their own, they reached out to this inner strength in him.
Has it ever occurred to you how very vulnerable people in positions of power can be? And the greater the power, the greater the vulnerability. You have a huge responsibility to carry; you have a requirement to appear totally invulnerable at all times; you are surrounded by people who will try to manipulate you to do what they want and people who will tear you to pieces if you fail. These great Kings were very vulnerable and, in Daniel they found one person they could trust because he was a man of faith. Because he worshipped a God who was higher and greater than political intrigue and military might and economic wealth, these Kings could trust him. Even he said things they did not want to hear, they knew he was offering them truth, real truth.
I guess that King Darius, who was forced to throw Daniel to the lions, was as much scared for himself as he was for Daniel. For if Daniel had compromised his faith then Daniel’s great strength would have dwindled, and Darius stood to be destroyed along with him. For the strength that lay in Daniel’s faith would no longer have been there for that King.
So, it is not just about saving our own souls when we are under siege, threatened with destruction. It is about saving our nation and our world. Yes, we live in an increasingly secular society which is just one of the “lions” threatening to destroy our faith and Christ’s church but more people than ourselves need us to stand firm and stand out. Someone wrote to me only recently that “there is still a massive emptiness in people’s lives, and they are more full of despair and purposeless than ever before….”
There is no doubt that the model and style and social role of the faith community needs to change quite radically in order to relate to a changing culture, but a faithless society will remain an empty, despairing and purposeless society, which is a bleak outlook for our children and grandchildren. The world needs us to remain strong in our faith and to be people of God wherever we are and whatever threats we face.
So what did Daniel do when he was “under siege?” He prayed and he made sure that everyone knew he was praying. And he survived the lions- not only the wild beasts in the den but the wild beasts in politics and the wild beasts of fear and doubt and compromise. And the King himself said, “Thank God.”