Daniel and Christians of Any Era

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Daniel, the Den of Lions, and Christians of Any Era

Daniel 6:10-24        Acts 5:27-32         Mathew 10:24-31

I: -- God’s children have long known that their faith immerses them in a world that is both turbulent and treacherous.  God’s children are painfully aware that the world-at-large resents any and all who are the sign of God’s presence and purpose.

   Daniel of old was no different: he learnt quickly that the world’s hatred gathers itself around the person whom God has appointed to be a beacon, a witness, salt, light, unmistakable as a city set on a hill.  At the same time Daniel knew that God has promised never to fail or forsake those whom he appoints but always and everywhere to protect them.

   The story begins with King Darius of old.  Darius (approximately 540 BCE) was a gifted ruler and administrator.  He divided his kingdom into 120 provinces and set a premier over each province.   Above these 120 premiers he set three presidents, Daniel being one of the three.

   Daniel happened to be the most talented of the three, and King Darius planned to make Daniel the leading civil servant of the kingdom, second in power and authority only to the king himself.

   The reaction of those who had been passed over for promotion was swift and sure.

[a] They envied Daniel, and their envy was lethal.  Never think that envy is merely a twinge of heart or mind whereby we fleetingly wish we had what someone else has, the twinge disappearing a second later.  Envy is a poison that seeps into our bloodstream and renders us toxic to ourselves and deadly to others.  First we covet what someone else has.  Then we resent her for having it.  Next we invent nastiness about her and project it onto her, the projected nastiness now legitimizing the venom we shall surely inject with our next “bite.”  Our venom can assume many forms.  We may gossip and ruin her reputation; we may harass her subtly in a hundred different ways; we may make her life miserable by refusing to co-operate with her; we may slay her through engineered humiliation.  If we are her boss we may even be able to demote her if not fire her.  Envy ultimately aims at someone else’s annihilation.

[b] Not only did government officials envy Daniel on account of his ability; they also hated him on account of his goodness.  Daniel was said to be “blameless”: he couldn’t be bribed, bought, threatened, corrupted, co-opted.  He couldn’t be drawn into influence-peddling or bookkeeping wizardry or payola of any sort.  Daniel’s integrity was unimpeachable.

   Was he loved for it?  On the contrary he was hated.  Darkness hates the light.  People of integrity who stand upright are hated by those who wriggle in the slime of clandestine corruption.

[c] What’s more, the people over whom Daniel had been promoted resented him because he was a foreigner.  “Xenophobia” is the social science word for the phenomenon.  Xenos means “strange”; phobia, of course, is neurotic fear.  Xenophobia is a neurotic, groundless fear of strangers.  Once again, however, we mustn’t think that because xenophobia is neurotic it isn’t harmful.  Xenophobes hiss their ultimatum: “assimilate or leave”.

   Plainly Daniel already had three strikes against him.

[d] Still, there was a fourth vulnerability to Daniel, perhaps the most dangerous one of all: he was a Jew among Gentiles.  Here we come to the heart of what the apostle Paul calls “the secret forces of wickedness” (2nd Thess. 2:7 REB) or “the mystery of lawlessness” (RSV).  Groundless Gentile hostility to Jewish people, so deep-seated it couldn’t be deeper, is utterly irrational, of course.  Still, the sheer irrationality of evil is one aspect of evil’s evilness.  To the extent that evil could be understood or evil explained or evil accounted for; to this extent its evilness would be lessened.  

   It saddens me to have to tell you that where virulent anti-Semitism is concerned the same irrationality is found in many Christians and frequently flares out of the church institution.  Until 1948, when the state of Israel was established, Jewish people customarily received far better treatment at the hands of Muslims than they received at the hands of Christians.  Why is it that while the inquisition, spawned by the church and maintained by the church, began in the 14th century, a second inquisition was launched in the 15th, this time targeting the Jewish people specifically?  Why is it that anti-Semitism, virulent throughout the Middle Ages, reached such irrational depths that one aspect of the “blood myth” whereby Jewish people were libelled; one aspect of this myth was that Jewish males menstruated?  You have never seen it?  Who needs to see it when one segment of our society is labelled monstrous so as to justify treating it as monstrous?  Never assume that irrationality is harmless.

  We must never forget that it was Erasmus, the Christian humanist without intellectual peer in the sixteenth century, who wanted to see Europe rid of its entire Jewish population, and who coined the term Judenrein, purified of Jews -- which term had a horrific history in the 20th century.

   Daniel was dead four times over.  The rest was commentary.  Since Christians believe that humankind is fallen, that the prince of this world is nefarious, Christians of all people ought to have no illusions as to the world’s turbulence and turpitude and treachery.

 

II: -- The men who envy Daniel, hate him, resent him and loathe him now conspire to frame him.  Since they can’t accuse Daniel of anything, they have to invent something that will render his present behaviour -- exemplary in every respect -- newly criminal.  They persuade King Darius to pass a law forbidding anyone to petition any deity or human except Darius himself for the next thirty days.  Aware of Daniel’s ironfast faith, they know for sure that an Israelite like Daniel will never petition a mere mortal like Darius while refusing to petition God.  Not to address God is unbelief, while addressing a mortal as a deity is blasphemous because idolatrous.  It would all have sickened Daniel inasmuch as he had long known he would never, simply never, accommodate a pagan king where that king’s request contradicted the claim of God upon him.  Daniel was aware that if he forgot for one minute who he was because of whose he was, then in one minute he’d be useless to God and humankind.

   Why did King Darius promulgate the law?  King though he was, undoubtedly he felt enormous pressure from all the civic officials who had now “packed” on him.  When mediocrity packs it is nothing less than terrifying.  Darius saw in a flash that king though he was, once all his subordinate officials packed on him he couldn’t administer his kingdom.  He would be a king without a kingdom, a toothless tiger, a laughing stock.  When mediocrity packs it can always render excellence inoperative, can’t it?  Darius saw instantly that he was soon to be a king without “clout” unless he capitulated to the mediocrities around him.  None of them could individually out-muscle him, but collectively they could render him politically impotent.  He capitulated.

   Daniel learned of the newly promulgated law.  He disregarded it.  He continued doing what he had always done; namely, he went to the upper floor of his home where the windows were open and where he knew he would be seen.  He knelt down and prayed.  Daniel knelt to pray in private even as his private devotion was visible, thanks to the open window.  In other words, private worship is a public event.  (This point must be underlined in our society: private worship is a public event.)

   Daniel won’t apostatize.  When the law is passed forbidding him to pray to the Holy One of Israel, the only true and living God, he prays.  Centuries earlier the prophet Elijah, together with thousands of others, it turns out, had refused even to bow to Baal, let alone kiss him.  Centuries later two apostles of Jesus Christ will cry out, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), and then step ahead rejoicing that they are counted worthy to suffer on account of the name of him who has incarnated himself in the Nazarene.  Daniel is fully aware of the consequences of his non-compliance: anyone found defying the king will be executed.  He ignores the edict and prays.

   Where did Daniel find, how did he find, whatever it takes to remain faithful to God and therein sign his own death warrant?  Our text tells us that when Daniel opened his window to pray he faced Jerusalem ; Jerusalem , hier shalem, city of salvation.  Jerusalem was that spot on earth, we are told, where God “chose to make his name to dwell”, according to Deuteronomy 12; that spot of which God was to say, “My name shall be there”, according to 1st Kings 8.  God’s name is God’s living person; God’s name is God’s person, presence and power.  God’s name is the God who is high and lofty and lifted up focussing himself to pinpoint concentration so as to render his presence and power palpable.  God had pledged himself to this at Jerusalem .

    Daniel wasn’t young at the time of this incident with Darius and his drones.  Daniel was estimated to be 70 years old.  We mustn’t think that Daniel’s courage and resilience came upon him merely in the moment of trial; his resolve not to capitulate didn’t “just occur” to him on the spot like a bolt from the blue.  Daniel’s spiritual formation had been developing for decades.  For years he had prayed facing Jerusalem without ever being able to see Jerusalem .  Living in Babylon he oriented himself to the city he couldn’t see or visit just because he knew that God had pledged his name to hier shalem, city of salvation, and God’s name was nothing less than the concentrated, effectual presence of God’s person.

   The resources that Daniel needed at this moment didn’t arise from this moment.  The resources Daniel needed arose from the spiritual discipline that an old man had maintained for decades.  These resources now fortified the 70-year old man with a defiance that wasn’t childish petulance but was rather righteous resilience.  Such resilience couldn’t admit even the thought of self-serving, skin-saving compromise.  When Daniel prayed to the God his Gentile tormentors despised and prayed facing Jerusalem , the earthly guarantee of all that Israel ’s God had promised, Daniel knew precisely what he was doing.  He knew that private prayer is always public event; more to the point, private prayer is always public protest.

   Was Daniel afraid?   John Wesley insisted that it is impossible not to fear.  We all fear and must fear.  Then the only matter to be decided is what or whom we are going to fear.  Wesley maintained that either we fear God and then fear nothing else and no one else, or we don’t fear God and then fear everything and everyone else.  “Give me a hundred men who fear no one but God and hate nothing but sin and we can turn England upside down”, Wesley said.  All biblical faith begins in the fear of God, said Martin Buber, 20th century philosopher and exegete. 

   Then did Daniel fear?  Of course he did.  Yet because he feared God more than he feared Darius he ceased to fear Darius.  Because he feared God he remained undeflectable.

 

III: -- Darius proceeds with Daniel’s execution.  Is Darius a psychopath, someone seemingly like us but utterly conscienceless and therefore never to be trusted?  No.  So far from conscienceless Darius is conscience-stricken.  He’s devastated.  He’s distressed that he has allowed himself to be backed into the corner from which he can’t escape without losing face.  Once Darius has had Daniel thrown into the den of lions he spends the night fasting.  Pagan though he is, he intuits that fasting, a religious rite known throughout the religions of humankind, has something to do with self-denial or purification or intercession or whatever -- anything that might somehow mitigate his guilt and lessen Daniel’s pain.  Darius is so very conscience-stricken that he can’t sleep.

   Darius isn’t a psychopath.  But neither is he harmless.  The fact that what he’s done to Daniel upsets him dreadfully doesn’t mean he hasn’t done it.  Never think that just because a person is conscience-stricken that person isn’t dangerous.  As a matter of fact the insecure person is always more dangerous than the nasty person.  The nasty person is characteristically nasty, consistently nasty, and therefore predictably nasty.  Because we can count on the nasty person to be nasty we know what we must do to stay out of harm’s way.  But the insecure person is different.  The insecure person will lash out unpredictably in a way that we can never foresee.  Not only will he lash out unpredictably, he will lash out with consequences that are themselves unpredictable.  The insecure person who dreads loss of face, dreads public humiliation and therefore dreads loss of his fragile identity; this person is far more dangerous than the mean-spirited person whom everyone has learned to step around.

   We must never think that super-sensitive people like Darius are by that fact harmless.  They are dangerous, more dangerous than the characteristically nasty.

  So Darius isn’t conscienceless.  But he is cowardly.  And he can be compromised.  Is he also cruel?  He isn’t inherently cruel.  Still, his sensitivity, his dread of losing face before the mediocrities who are essential to him and who have “packed” on him; his dread of losing face before them renders him cruel with that unintentional yet deadly cruelty peculiar to the fusion of cowardice and compromise.

   Darius is reluctant to execute Daniel; in fact he’s heartbroken over it.  So what.  Execution is execution regardless of whether the executioner is smirking or weeping.  Daniel is going to be murdered.

 

IV: -- When Darius ordered the execution of Daniel he had a stone rolled against the mouth of the lions’ den.  Then the stone was sealed.

   This aspect of the story causes the reader to think of the tomb in which the body of our Lord was laid.  Once our Lord’s remains were laid in the tomb, a stone was rolled against the entrance to the tomb lest the body be snatched or governmental process be violated in any way. 

   On Easter morning our Lord was raised from the dead in a transfigured body.  His resurrection vindicated him.  His resurrection vindicated everything about him.  On the day that our Lord was raised from the dead he stood forth vindicated, vindicated in all that he said and did and is.

 

   When Daniel emerged from the lions’ den he too was vindicated totally.  Everything about him was made to shine forth resplendently as God now honoured before the world a man who had faithfully honoured God.  Daniel had served God with integrity in the course of his daily work as pre-eminent civil servant in the service of King Darius.  Daniel had remained a steadfast son of Israel even though he was an exile in a strange land far, far from home.  Daniel had been unwavering in his loyalty to that kingdom which transcends the kingdoms of this world, unwavering in his zeal for truth, undeflectable in his thrice-daily recognition of all that Jerusalem represented.  In short, Daniel had never forgotten God’s name.  And God’s name, Daniel knew, is God’s person, presence, power fused as one -- now operative, effectual, in such a way as to declare God himself the hidden truth and reality of the world regardless of the world’s recognition or the world’s non-recognition.  Daniel had never forgotten God’s name.

   Neither had God forgotten Daniel’s name.  Dan-i-el: “God is my judge.”  The Hebrew notion of judge, we should note carefully, differs significantly from the modern notion of judge.  In our era a judge is an impartial arbitrator.  In our era a judge pronounces something but never does anything.  In Israel of old it was different.  The first responsibility of the judge was to rescue the oppressed and free the enslaved, and then to vindicate the newly rescued and freed as righteous before God and henceforth the beneficiary of God’s blessing.  Daniel’s name -- “God is my judge” -- now declares that God has rescued him from the lions, freed him from the den, vindicated him as a righteous man and rendered him the beneficiary of God’s blessing.  God remembers those who remember him.

 

V: -- But does he?  Does God invariably remember those who remember him?  In the course of his faithfulness to God in Nazi Germany Dietrich Bonhoeffer unfailingly remembered God’s name.  But it can’t be said of Bonhoeffer as it was said of Daniel, “God sent his angel and shut the lion’s mouth.”  For that matter no one shut the mouth of the lion whose paw-swipe decapitated John the Baptist.  No one shut the “mouth” of Mary Tudor when the gospel was surging throughout England in the days of the English Reformation and “Bloody” Mary responded by executing Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer, together with 300 others.  No one shut the lion’s mouth on that never-to-be-forgotten day in 1597 in Nagasaki when the Japanese, who had never heard of crucifixion until missionaries told them the story of Jesus, crucified 125 Jesuit missionaries at once, and then burnt and beheaded dozens more 25 years later in 1622.

   The truth of the matter is, more often than not -- far more often than not -- the lion’s mouth isn’t stopped, with the result that yet another witness becomes a martyr.

   While we are thinking of Bonhoeffer we should think as well of another brave witness in the Confessing Church during the same era, Martin Niemoeller.  Both men were Lutherans.  Both were scholarly pastors.  Both formed and informed the Confessing Church , those Christians who refused to say “Hitler ist Fuehrer”, who refused, like Daniel, to abide by the edict of the political ruler.  Niemoeller was in prison for eight years, was scheduled for execution, but was rescued by allied forces three days before he was to be hanged.  Bonhoeffer was in prison for two years, was scheduled for execution, and was not rescued but rather was hanged three weeks before allied forces reached Flossenburg.

   Calvin has said that God’s providence is “inscrutable.”  Calvin is correct: providence is inscrutable.  The apostle Peter was executed in Nero’s persecution, while the apostle John was exiled to the island of Patmos .  Self-denial is required of all Christians, to be sure, but the nature of the self-renunciation involved varies hugely from Christian to Christian.  Peter is permitted the comfort and consolation of a wife in his apostolic struggles; Paul reminds us that he has been given no such comfort.  My discipleship has cost me very little, it would seem, while Father Damien’s obedience took him to a leper colony on the island of Molokai where he ministered until he died from leprosy himself.  No lion’s mouth was stopped for him.

   Or was it?  Surely the lion’s mouth is stopped for all Christ’s people ultimately.  Peter and John met very different earthly ends, yet neither had his life dribble away fruitlessly.  Both have been used of God to introduce millions to Jesus Christ and nourish them in him.

  Bonhoeffer died at 39 and Niemoeller at 92, yet both have equipped countless Christians who are threatened by totalitarian rulers to hold out, hold on, hold up Jesus Christ as the transcendent truth-bringer and therefore the world’s only hope.

   Damien died of leprosy among lepers, while Shepherd will likely die of old age among the elderly infirm of the local nursing home.  But both will have relished discerning God’s will for them and abandoning themselves to it.  Both will have been sustained by their steadfast confidence that the Word they aspired to keep on earth is going to keep them in eternity.  

   Since no Christian’s life ultimately succumbs to the forces of destruction that surround us on all sides, therefore every Christian’s life has been rendered kingdom-fruitful even if the King alone has seen and noted and magnified the fruitfulness.

   There remains another sense in which the lion’s mouth is stopped for all Christians.  Regardless of the earthly circumstances under which our life unfolds, regardless of the circumstances under which our days are terminated, none of Christ’s people is consumed ultimately.  On the day of judgement all disciples without exception are going to stand forth gloriously as irrefutable proof that they were rescued by God’s outstretched arm, were freed from bondages both dramatic and seemingly ordinary, were vindicated as righteous before God and are now the beneficiary of his eternal benevolence.  Since God is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) and yet we are not consumed on the day of judgement, then for us the lion’s mouth has been shut and can never be opened.

   In John’s gospel the risen Jesus tells Peter that Peter one day will be bound and carried and stretched out; in other words, Peter will be crucified like his Lord before him and in this manner glorify God.  Then Jesus urges Peter, “Follow me.”  Peter sees another disciple following too, a disciple concerning whom Jesus hasn’t said anything yet.  “I’m going to be crucified?”, says Peter, “What about him?”  Jesus replies, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

   The truth is, regardless of the circumstances under which both Peter and the unnamed disciple died the lion’s mouth was stopped for both.  For both now stand forth in glory as servants of Christ whom the master rescued, freed, vindicated, commissioned, used, blessed and will continue to bless for ever and ever, as surely as all of this can be said of Daniel too and will even be said of you and of me.

Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                          August 2010