Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Welcome home! Welcome home from cabins up North, from vacations around the country, from your children’s weekend sports tournaments, and of course, summer’s good intentions. Welcome home to Lake of the Isles on this Rally Sunday! You should know that while you were away, two couples tied the knot here in this place. Five children were baptized and began their Christian journey. This included twins. And there were one funeral. The new HVAC unit was installed, though we don’t need it today, and a new fence was erected around it.
Throughout the summer, we have been meditating on the Old Testament prophets: from Elijah’s fiery chariot rising into the sky to Hosea and Amos’ call to be a just society caring for the widow and orphan. Last week we heard the story of Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones, and today we will close with one of the most famous stories from the Old Testament, Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
Mind you, God’s faithful people have never fared very well against the “king of the jungle.” There were once three lions sitting on a hill. They were getting hungry. Below them, three men walked by — a Frenchman, an Italian and a Czechoslovakian. The first lion said, “I haven’t had French food in a while.” So, he ran off and ate the French man. The second lion said. “Well, I’m hungry for some Italian food.” So, he ran off and ate the Italian man. The final lion looked at the sole remaining man, and said, “Well, I guess it’s my turn to spring for the Czech.”
Or there was the missionary who was walking in Africa when he heard the ominous padding of a lion behind him. There was nowhere to run so the man fell to his knees and said, “Oh Lord, grant in Thy goodness that the lion walking behind me is a good Christian lion.” Surprisingly the lion also fell to the ground, and bowed his head. “Lord, for these blessings I am about to receive, make me truly thankful.”
The story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den is seldom heard outside of Sunday School, and never shows up in the regular readings of church. And that’s too bad because it is a wonderful story of God’s faithfulness throughout the ages even in the midst of the harshest punishment.
In the years following 600 B.C., the city of Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians, the Temple built by Solomon was destroyed, and many of the Jewish people were led away into captivity. Among the captives was the young Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon ordered that Daniel, together with three other Hebrew youth be instructed in the Chaldean language and wisdom, and dressed them in finery. Handsome children of princely lineage were often chosen to serve as pages in the palace. For three years, they would be fed from food from the king’s table. After this they would be allowed to stand before his throne to be given new names and inaugurated for service in his kingdom. Daniel was renamed Balthasar. The other three were renamed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. But holding to their faith, they disdained the extravagance of court. The Lord granted them each wisdom, and Daniel was given the special gift of insight and the interpretation of dreams. These are the stories which are recorded in the book of Daniel.
By the time we reach the tale of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, the prophet has grown to be an old man, and Jewish people have been in Babylon for nearly 70 years. Daniel had outlived three kings portrayed in the Book of Daniel The first, King Nebuchadnezzar had sent Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to the Fiery Furnace who were protected from the flames. The second, King Belshazzar held a great feast and drank from the vessels that had been looted in the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple. Suddenly, a hand appeared and wrote on the wall. The terrified Belshazzar called for his wise men, but only Daniel good read the warning the kingdom’s imminent capture. Now, the third, King Darius the Mede took over, and Daniel was chosen as one of three presidents to oversee a portion of the kingdom .Daniel was the only foreigner and Hebrew among the appointed leaders.
Daniel’s fellow presidents were jealous rivals and tried to discredit Daniel and end any plans that King Darius might have of giving Daniel oversight over the entire kingdom. Using stealth, these leaders appealed to the king’s ego. They said, “Let’s have a month-long celebration of Darius — our wonderful king and only god. Anyone caught praying to any human or god other than you, great Darius, shall be thrown into the lion’s den.” Honored and pleased, Darius signed the edict that could not be reversed by anyone, even the king himself.
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, just as he had always done. The jealous conspirators caught him, informed the king, and said that he was obligated to fulfill the punishment. And so, with great regret and anguish, King Darius sent Daniel off to the Lion’s Den.
You know the end of the story. Daniel was spared from the wild beasts and the jealous rivals received their just comeuppance. So what does this story really tell us? Certainly there must be more to it than God sending angels to bind the mouths of the lions saving Daniel. There are very few hardship this day that we could even remotely compare to facing a lion. There are men and women around the world, of course, who do face persecution for their faith. I have known men and women in East Germany who were denied access to a university education because they were Christian. I have known Iraqi refugees who rightly feared their lives if they would return to the home country because of their new found faith. Still others who were disowned by their own families for being baptized. I have known pastors in the former Soviet Union who had a suitcase always packed under their bed just in case, one night, the secret police came to arrest them.
We may think that this story is all about the wild beasts, but I actually think it is all about the life that Daniel lived that led him to Lion’s Den. Daniel was a follower of God living in a world of ungodly influences. Temptation was always at hand, and as is the case with temptation, it would have been much easier for Daniel to go along with the crowds. But often times, my friend, a faithful believer must learn to stand alone.
Regardless of the danger before him, Daniel knew he had to live with integrity. He understood the importance of prayer. The prophet knew he was no longer in his home land. He was a foreigner in a land that did not share his faith, values, or customs. How often we can feel like a foreigner in this world? The truth is we must always remember that we are citizens of God’s eternal kingdom. The “cultural norms and customs” of God’s kingdom are vastly different from those of this world. Prayer, worship and gathering together in a community are a part of this kingdom. They help us by strengthening us and keeping us focused so that we do not get lost in this world. Daniel prayed, and he prayed often- even when he knew it meant being sent to the Lion’s Den. Prayer, you see, matters that much.
As a person of faithful integrity, Daniel knew who he belonged to ultimately. Certainly, he looked and dressed and spoke like a Babylonian. He even had a Babylonian name. He held positions of great authority in the government, but he never denied that he belonged ultimately to God. Daniel had truly mastered the art of being in the world and not of it.
Finally, Daniel trusted in the goodness of God, even when things looked bleak. Things happen in this world… things we don’t always understand. Suffering happens. We face trials and times of testing. But we have the promise of God that he works all things together for the good, for those who love him. The enemy may have plans to harm us, but God loves to turn these losses into wins. He enjoys taking what the enemy means for defeat and transforms them into our greatest victories.
My friends, you might be enduring your own personal “den of lions” right now, but remember, the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den is a tale of encouragement for you and for persecuted believers everywhere to stand firm. God is near. It’s also a call to live a life of faithful integrity, for those who are hard pressed by the culture around them. God is in complete command, and because he is sovereign in our lives, in our calling, and in our work, we can serve him without fear of the consequences. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.