Sermons are not generally preached on scripture taken from Daniel and yet within the book of Daniel are some of the most familiar stories, stories we know from our childhood. Many of us grew up with a child’s version of the Bible that held the most spectacular images of Daniel and his friends in the fiery furnace or had pictures of equally heroic splendor depicting Daniel with his friends unharmed as they stood among lions in their den. Without fully understanding why, these pictures set our hearts beating a little faster. We love stories after all and this one is a good one. We knew without being told that something miraculous was happening and that God had a great deal to do with it
Though this may have been our first exploration of the Bible, now as adults we can appreciate the fact that these stories are not really children’s stories at all. In fact, they may not even be appropriate for young children. They contain such high danger, such potential threat, and such alarming violence that in our media rated age Daniel and his adventures would not make the cut. Not kid stuff at all. And they were never intended for the innocent but rather they were focused on lifting the spirits of the dismayed and fooling the powerful.
Daniel was written at a time of great Jewish distress. The Jews had been captured and dispersed among several warring conquerors. Forced to find ways to survive some had chosen to give in to the beliefs and worship of their conquerors. Others, having lived among the enemy into future generations, had long since lost a memory of their own God and worship. They adopted the ways of the Greeks, Babylonians, Persians and other tribes that had captured their ancestors and now held them captive too.
As exiles in strange lands, their own faith and God had become strange to them. But there were those who had not forgotten, those who would not allow captivity and persecution or the scattering of their people to result in loss of their faith or denial of their God. And it was for these Jewish rebels, these silent protestors, and these faithful guardians of the Israelite memory that Daniel was written. The author’s intention was to counter the rising anxieties and increasing despair of the Jews as the conquerors, in particular the Greeks, attempted to counter the rebellion with greater acts of oppression. So the book of Daniel is a power story. It is intended to raise the hopes of the Jews for a new future and to call them to have continued faith in their God. They were the chosen people of God and as God’s chosen, they could and should depend on God’s faithfulness to them.
There is fairly reliable evidence presented by biblical scholars, which indicate that the book of Daniel is an allegory. It’s not based on the lives of real people nor was it telling a tale of historic fact. But, like any good story it does have a purpose. The author used the literary form of allegory so that he could safely speak to his intended audience without fear of punishment or death. He could say one thing while meaning quite another. Within the format of an allegory the author could say what he wanted to say to the people who needed to hear it without alarming or alerting the people he didn’t want to hear it or read it. For those who had captured the Jews and held them in their power, this story wouldn’t strike them as dangerous or subversive. But to those Jews seeking to retain their national heritage, faith, culture, and God, this was an extraordinary word of hope in a time of great despair.
Daniel became the symbol of a more glorious past, a faithful Jew, who even under threat would not compromise his beliefs or deny his God. When the king issued a law commanding all people to pray only to him, Daniel continued to pray to God Almighty and to do so openly before his windows so that anyone could witness this faithful act. That action led him ultimately to be arrested and tossed into the lion’s den. The king was forced by his own law to send Daniel to his death even though he favored Daniel and wanted to save him. The hidden message for all faithful Jews is heard in King Darius words to Daniel; “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!”
And of course God did deliver him. By telling this representative tale of faith, truth shone through: God was faithful to the faithful; God had not nor would not desert God’s chosen. This is what this story meant to those who heard it then but what does it mean to us, to those of us who hear it now? I can remember a “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” kind of moment. I had received a note from a friend who had just heard some frightening news. My friend had discovered a lump on her breast. Immediately, she sent an email to her friends requesting our prayers; in particular that the biopsy would indicate the lump was benign.
About a week later, another email came with the sad news that the biopsy was positive. My friend, Joan, did have cancer. But, undaunted by this piece of bad news, she asked for prayer again, this time for her upcoming surgery and with a special hope that the lymph nodes would not be involved.
Over the years I have pastored many women who were given this same devastating diagnosis and each has responded differently. Some have kept to themselves and tried to work through their particular time of crisis alone. Others have fallen apart totally unprepared to deal with the news and frankly just couldn’t cope. And some like my friend Joan turned for solace, comfort, and prayer from people they knew cared about them. I think that was what impressed me most about Joan’s response. She immediately reached out not only to the faith of others but tapped into her own faith in God. Like Daniel, whatever would happen in the weeks that follow she would, because of her faith in God, stand among the lions and come out from the den unscathed. I felt such admiration for her courage, her strength and her faith.
Fortunately most of us will never receive a diagnosis of cancer. Our particular lion’s den won’t be the same as the one my friend had to enter in her life. But life being what it is there will always be something that compels us to walk in faith or run in fear. Everyone endures moments of crisis, times when standing before our open windows, as Daniel did, and praying to our God, as Daniel prayed, we are driven to call upon the faithfulness of God to encourage, strengthen and increase our faith.
What might initiate such a call for faith? For some it may be an impending death, ours or someone we love. For others it may be the end of a relationship, a marriage, or a career. We may need to call on our faith and our God to deal with a sick or disabled child, or an ailing parent. For still others, a change in life circumstances, a move to another state and away from family and friends might be their particular walk through the lion’s den.
How we survive the lion’s den in our lives depends a lot on how and whom we turn to in our need. It also depends a lot on whom we want to be when we come up and out of the pit. There’s no question in this story of Daniel who he wanted to be when he exited the lion’s den. Going in Daniel knew he was a child of God, knew also that he must put his faith in God. There lay his hope. He also knew that God would be faithful to him. Coming out Daniel was whole, saved, and free. Nothing could harm him. God had promised his protection and God had fulfilled his promise. God delivered his faithful one.
But even if Daniel hadn’t survived the blows of this life, he had been prepared to welcome a new hope and a new existence. His God hadn’t and wouldn’t abandon him to the abyss. As Christ taught us by his action on the cross, even death can be redeemed. We may not see that in the darkest moments of our lives. Perhaps Daniel didn’t see it at first either especially when he was ordered into the lion’s den to die, but in the end God’s truth won out and Daniel’s faith was justified. Others may tell us that we have no cause for faith, that there is no hope in our particular circumstance, that we will not survive but God has told us to trust him, to believe in him, and to lean on God’s strength when we don’t have much of our own.
At the time this story was written, it held a message for those whose lives were constantly in danger. It was a message of hope to a people who had almost forgotten what they ought to be hoping for. It reminded them that God’s grace delivers, saves, heals, restores and redeems. So many years later, and regardless of its lack of historical validity, this story has a message for us, for all of us, reminding us that no matter what lion’s den we are subjected to God’s grace will heal, save, restore and redeem us too. We will come out of our particular crisis, loss, sickness, or struggle with new hope knowing that we are never alone. Whatever the outcome, we have a trustworthy companion walking with us. For certain, when we enter our lion’s den, God walks in with us.
We probably will never understand the Daniels in our midst if we don’t have a bit of Daniel in ourselves. We may admire the people who under every circumstance still call upon their faith in God to move through their crises. When plagued by terrible, terrible devastation Job, whose very existence was the epitome of life at its worst, still clung to his unshakeable faith in God. Like Daniel, Job would not be moved. And like Daniel, Job’s faith was rewarded by God’s faithful action. In all things, in all circumstances, no matter what the outcome, we can not be moved if we put our lives in God’s hands, have complete faith in God’s love for us, and dare to be a Daniel braving the lions that are ever ready to rob us of peace. But in Christ, that is never possible. King Darius may have been taunting Daniel with his words; “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” or maybe, he might just have hoped there was something and someone to believe it after all. Amen.