by: Denise Robinson
Life Lessons: Daniel
Daniel 1:1-7; 6:1-9
Our series, Life Lessons, continues this morning with the story of Daniel. Two weeks ago, we looked at Esther’s life and learned how, although seemingly absent, God worked behind the scenes to use her life in such a way that impacted others. Then last week, we jumped 40 years forward from Esther’s time to a man named Nehemiah, a Jew living and working in Persia who acted out of love for his country but never lost sight of God. This morning our focus is on Daniel and to pick his story up we have to go back over 150 years before Nehemiah and 100 years before Esther. The year is 605 BC and darkness is over the land of Israel.
If I mention the name of Daniel, the event most well known in his life is the story of the lions’ den. But Daniel’s story begins long before then, to a time when Israel was not one nation but two – the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Daniel is a young man living in Judah when Babylon attacks. The Babylon Empire was, in Daniel’s time, what the Roman Empire was 600 years later at the time of Jesus. Ruthless and powerful, Babylon conquered Judah and following the victory, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, ordered that the best and brightest young men of Judah be deported to Babylon. Babylon secured its power by taking young people from their homelands and moving them to cities within the heart of the Empire – they kept the young people in line by threatening their families back home and they kept the families at home in line by threatening the children they had taken captive. The young people were forcibly detained, but on wealthy estates where, for three years, they were housed, well-fed, and educated. They experienced firsthand the wealth and power of the Empire and then were then placed in government positions within the Empire, some even in the royal court. In Daniel 1 we are introduced to four young men from Judah, all placed in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar – Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Once taken captive, even their names were taken from them; Daniel’s name was changed to Belteshazzar and the other three were named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. All part of the process of assimilation into the empire.
After his three years of training, Daniel was assigned to Nebuchadnezzar’s court where he served until the king’s death in 562 BC. We don’t know how old Daniel was when taken captive, but because he was described as a young man, he had to have been at least 14 and was likely a little older. Since being brought to Babylon, 43 years have passed; making him at least 57 years old at Nebuchadnezzar’s death. What happened to Daniel during those 57 years? We get a glimpse in the first four chapters of the book of Daniel. The king was plagued by dreams and Daniel was given the insight by God to interpret the dreams which gave him greater access to the king and a status in the court that made others jealous. He likely was aware of a trap laid for his three countrymen, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, when the king had a golden statue made of himself and ordered all persons to bow before the statue. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the statue and told the king to his face that they would not bow down, they were ordered to be thrown into a furnace of fire. If you know that story, you know that, on account of their faith, God delivered them from the fire. It takes courage to worship God in Babylon it seems.
As we come to Daniel, Ch. 5, more years have passed. After Nebuchadnezzar’s death there was a succession of kings over a period of 9 years. When Ch. 5 opens, Belshazzar is king, and Daniel is now at least 66 years of age. Belshazzar reigns for fourteen years when suddenly one day, writing, which no one can interpret, appears on a wall. The king sends for Daniel, who would now be at least 80, and Daniel, again speaking with wisdom given by God, delivers a message that the king will not want to hear: God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians. The king, recognizing Daniel’s courage in speaking the truth, orders that Daniel be clothed in purple, given a gold chain as a symbol of the king’s authority, and promoted to a position that ranked him third in power throughout the entire kingdom.
Before you think that Daniel has it made (at age 80), we are told that very night Belshazzar was killed and Darius the Mede assumes control of the empire. Daniel survives the coup and in Ch. 6, vv. 1-9, we learn what happens next. It’s an old, familiar story – one that mirrors what had happened to Daniel’s three friends several decades earlier. Daniel is popular with the king, others are jealous, and the only way they can find to bring down Daniel is through his faith in God. Darius is encouraged to pass a law that for thirty days no one will be allowed to pray to any god – they can only pray to the king. The penalty for disobedience is to be thrown into a den of lions, to be torn apart and killed. Then the conspirators sit back and spy on Daniel. When they see Daniel praying to God, just, we are told, as he has always done, they come running to the king and report that Daniel is violating his law. Most of you know the rest of the story: Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den, death seems inevitable, but instead Daniel is delivered by God.
The key to the book of Daniel, however, is not so much a story of God’s deliverance, although God is very much present. Rather, Daniel serves as an example of how to react to political, social, cultural, and religious pressures. How does a person who believes in God live in a secular society which does not share that belief? This is where we draw our life lesson for today.
Like Daniel, we can’t live in isolation from the world and its demands – nor would we choose to do so if we could. After all, God created this world for us to enjoy and it is in this world that we love and live and laugh. But, as Christians, we know that we don’t truly belong to this world, we belong to the next. This creates, for us, certain pressures. In other words, we face lions every day. What are some of the lions we face? The cultural climate in which we live is certainly not conducive to the practice of our faith and the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus. Let your Christian faith be told too widely and you will quickly see a response – you are naïve and ill-informed at best; at worst, you are viewed as judgmental and dangerous. The business climate teaches that he or she with the highest salary or the most prestigious title wins, and it doesn’t really matter how you get there along the way. The social climate sends a message that there is no longer any moral rights or wrongs – do what seems right to you and it must be right or at least who am I to judge. In politics, the middle ground is getting increasingly smaller as people flock to the left or to the right, with seeming intolerance for those “on the opposite side of the aisle.” Even our religious climate seems to divide us – Catholic vs. Protestant, traditional vs. progressive – instead of being united by our faith in Christ we find ways to divide ourselves on what Wesley referred to as non-essential matters of theology. We don’t even need the help of the outside world to cause division in the church; we, it seems, are more than happy to do that on our own. And, finally, there are personal lions we face – lions like the death of someone we love; an illness that strikes us, a family member, or close friend; the loss of a job or some other financial hardship; depression or anxiety or fear; even human emotions like pride, greed, envy, and so on. There seems no end to the lions we face that try and destroy our faith in God.
Daniel faced lions in his life before he faced the lions in the den. He faced the fear that came with being torn away from all that he loved and taken to a place where the God he had worshipped his entire life was unknown. He faced the fear of what might happen if he spoke too loudly or boldly of his faith in God – after all, he was a nobody from nowhere brought into an empire that had a lot of nobody hostages from nowhere places. He faced the temptations of living in the royal court – where power, wealth, and status were suddenly within his grasp. Why risk his standing in the court, his reputation, his success, and perhaps even his life? After all, what is the point in worshipping God too obviously when you are stuck living your life in Babylon? To get around the lions, why not just go along and get along? All Daniel had to do was just give up his God. Or, not even give up God really; just stop making such a fuss. Stop talking about God, taking time away from his busy schedule to worship God, stop praying in a way that people noticed. Worship and pray in secret and on the outside look and act like everyone else. That will work, right?
When you and I face the lions that confront us, we have choices. We can turn and run from the lions, we can surrender to the lions and stop fighting, or we can face the lions, as Daniel did, with faith. I think we’d be safe in assuming that Daniel had some fear of the lions’ den, but his faith in God was stronger than his fear. Faith has a way of doing that, of taking away our fear of all that we face. When we run from the lions, our faith deserts us; we no longer have the courage of our convictions and our faith becomes weakened to the point where our faith, if there is any left at all, is barely noticeable to ourselves and certainly not noticeable to anyone else. When we surrender to the lions, we desert our faith and give in to fear; there is no faith left, only the shell of what might have been. When we face the lions, we rely on our faith in God to give us courage and to remind us that we don’t ever face lions alone.
I close this morning with words from John 17, from the prayer that Jesus prayed not only for his disciples, but for each of us. Jesus prayed: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name … While I was with them, I protected them … But now I am coming to you … I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them…. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them…. The glory that you have given me I have given them … so that they may be one as we are.one … so that the world may know that you have sent me and that you love them.”
We are called to face the lions of this world and to proclaim the message of Christ, that God so loves the world that he sent his only Son to die so that all might have eternal life. But Daniel reminds us that we don’t face the lions alone; God is with us always and everywhere so long as we have faith. And if God is for us, no lion can stand against us.