(sorry, due to technical failure there is no recording of this week’s sermon)
So, the story of Daniel and the lion’s den. It’s a great story, a real Sunday School special. The faithful Daniel, saved from starving wild beasts by a angel of God, so that King Darius might know that Daniel’s God is the one true God.
It’s got everything: political intrigue from those who conspired against Daniel, a leader trapped between his laws and his sense of justice, wild beasts, a miraculous escape, and the conversion of the pagan king to the worship of God.
It’s a great story of reassurance: reassurance to those who faced persecution for standing for what was right – for Daniel was saved, and reassurance to those who despaired because they were ruled by pagan kings – for Darius saw the light.
But I have to admit that it also leaves me with a slight sense of disquiet. Two, distinct, senses of disquiet, to be honest.
The first arises out of Darius’ response, when he finds Daniel alive. The very first thing he does, realising that Daniel’s God is the true God, is to have his advisors executed – and with them, their wives and their children. Now I guess we aren’t expected to have much sympathy for these advisors; they had, after all, plotted for Daniel’s execution. But nonetheless, it disturbs me that the first act of a new convert to the worship of God is not just to execute the guilty, but the innocent, whose only crime was to be born in the family of the guilty. Are we supposed to rejoice in the image of children being thrown to the lions, because their father’s sin?
But I guess it’s worth noticing that the story doesn’t praise Darius for his actions; it just reports them. It’s as if Darius, newly convinced that God is God changes side, but hasn’t yet had a chance to learn what worship of the one true God might look like: he worships his new God in the way he worshiped his old gods – with violence and the slaughter of the enemy.
But I think my deeper difficulty as I wrestle with this story is this: it’s a great tale of God miraculously saving God’s faithful servant Daniel. But what, then, does it have to say to all the faithful servants of God who were not saved from their dens of lions? How does it speak to the testimony of the martyrs, allowed by God to die for their faith? How does it speak to those who are left in their sickness, their suffering, their addictions, their abusive relationships, despite their faithful prayers?
What do we say to those who ask “if God saved Daniel, why not me? why not my friend? why not my child?”
Which is why I think that when we look for a miracle in the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, we look in the wrong place. Our eyes are drawn to the showy, the spectacular, the impossible. But we already knew that God could, and sometimes would, do the impossible miracle. We already knew that in the story of Daniel – he had already walked out of Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace with his three friends.
If you start with a belief in God, then the possibility of the miraculous simply follows. The question of why sometimes, why not other times, remains, of course, but the possibility must be there.
The truly remarkable, the unexpected, the unpredictable, for me in this story is not in the actions of God.
The bit I find really amazing is Daniel.
Because the life of Daniel is genuinely remarkable. Taken as a young man into exile in Babylon, he was one of the ones who heard the words of Jeremiah that Bob spoke on a few weeks ago – “work for the good of the city in which you find yourself”. And Daniel has taken these words to heart, and yet never forgotten who he is.
He has managed to hold two sides together; he is a citizen of Babylon, a servant of the pagan King, working as an advisor, a civil servant for the empire. But at the same time, he is a Jew, a servant of the one true God. Deprived of the community of his faith, taken from the corporate worship of the Temple, he has stayed true; he has obeyed the dietary laws even in a foreign land, and he has continued in his prayer and worship to honour God.
He finds himself with a dual identity; his citizenship and his faith which do not always align. He had grown up in a nation where this was not so; where God and country aligned – or at least, were seen to align – but found himself in a situation that we can probably far more easily relate to: a man whose faith was that of a minority, treated with contempt, or, worse still, completely ignored.
And yet he has made a success of life; risen to a position of sufficient power and influence that he has made enemies who plotted against him. And so they created a trap for him. A choice; cease your worship of God, or be lion food.
How easy would it have been for Daniel to find a compromise, to find a way out of the dilemma? How easy to find a way to rationalise? The edict did not require him to prayer to Darius; just to refrain from praying to anyone else. And it was just for 30 days – could he not have just have sat the time out, and then returned to his former pattern of prayer? Surely God would understand, it was just a short time out of whole life.
Or he could have at least closed the windows and prayed in the privacy of his room. Or simply prayed in the silence of his heart; surely that would have been acceptable to God?
The great miracle, for my money, in the book of Daniel is that he did not take the easy way out. Perhaps because he understood that the demands of the empire that oppose faith always start simple, start small, that compromise begins in little steps. Or perhaps because Daniel knew that there were many victims of this law, but only he had the position of privilege from which he could challenge it.
So he refused the socially acceptable little compromise that would have made his life so much easier. And instead, he chose the path of civil disobedience. He knowingly, openly, and deliberately disobeyed the law: not because he had no choice, but because he had a choice, the choice to say “I will no obey, I will not even pretend to obey, a law that is so clearly contrary to the way of God. In this, I will not be a Babylonian, for I will always be a Jew. If I do not stand up now, when will be the right time?”
The president of the American Civil Liberties, Susan Herman, said this week that if the incoming Trump administration went ahead with its proposal to establish a register of Muslims in America, she, a proud Jew, would register as a Muslim. Because, she said, we Jews know that being asked to register your religion is not the end, it is just the beginning. Or, as another American Jew tweeted “first they came for the Muslims, and we said ‘not this time’”.
Each one of us carries the same dual citizenship as Daniel wrestled with. We are citizens – or residents – of Australia (or Vanuatu); and we are also called to be citizens of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps we are fortunate that much of the time those two identities can sit comfortably together. Or perhaps not. Perhaps that lulls us into a false sense of security, makes it too easy for us to identify our discipleship with good citizenship, our faith with our cultural identity.
What, I wonder, is our Daniel moment? What is it that will be asked of us by our culture, our government, our laws, our society, to which we have to say “No – for if I give my conscience on this, where will I stop?”
Where, I wonder, does being a Christian, send us into the lions den?