Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation…who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out weakness… Heb 11:1-2;33-34
When you think of Daniel what comes to mind? A young man ripped from his homeland along with thousands of others, by a ruthless invading army? His friends in the furnace or him with the lions? A muscular figure of faith in God? A wise prophet standing against overwhelming odds? I guess all these things come to mind if you have been part of any Sunday School or junior church group. It is not unusual for the story of Daniel in the lion’s den to be known outside the church even today. One part of Daniel that probably comes to mind is his prophetic visions and the fact that he refers to ‘one like a son of man’ presented before the Ancient of Days who will have dominion over all nations.
Daniel is also a book of exile and before we get stuck into the stories we need to understand that context a little. Why did I have Psalm 137 played? Because ultimately that is the context of Daniel. It is not one of triumph, but disaster – yet Daniel thrives. Some of you will have picked up on other connotations of Boney-M singing, particularly in the light of the shooting of another black person in Minneapolis last Sunday. Psalm 137 was one turned to by enslaved people lamenting being ripped from their communities, never to return.
How am I going to approach our study of this book on Sundays?
• I am not going to use it as an example of muscular faith in God, because I don’t read Daniel as that sort of character. Strong in faith he certainly was; willing to stand firm, definitely. However, we shall see that he was not a muscular man of God in the sense we might think of David or the 21st Century version of muscular Christianity.
• I am not going to use the book as a moral compass, although there is a lot we can learn ethically from the actions of Daniell and his friends.
• I am not going to use it as a blueprint for the future, although people of power would do well to take note of the visions of Daniel.
This is a book about God and unrelenting faith and trust in the one who sees the beginning from the end and holds the future – whatever that may be. It is also a book that asserts God is ‘Adonai’ – Lord over all. This is in the face of the obvious – Judah is no more and just a ruin; the temple is no more and just a ruin; worship at the temple with all its sacrifices are no more; the people have been exiled. However, the authority of God is asserted through the actions of a few exemplary people, the way in which the despots are humbled and through the visions of Daniel. This is a book that is about singing the Lord’s song in a strange land. There is no choice if the people are going to remain connected and faithful. This is demonstrated by Daniel and his friends.
In order to better understand Daniel, we need to take a step back and see what happened prior to the exile of Judah. For this it would be worth reading 2Kings 24 and 25, as well as Jeremiah 24-29. In 2 Kings we learn about the rebellion of Judah against Babylon. Babylon is the super power with the latest weapons and can effectively crush any opposition, especially from a puny state like Judah. Whenever Israel or Judah had gone to war against overlords, the alliances with other nations had been weak and it seems that Judah went it alone this time. The ironic thing is that Judah could have lived peaceably in the land under babylonian rule – irksome as that might be. Before Zedekiah rebelled, Jeremiah was actually telling him to recognise that Nebuchadnezzar was God’s servant and to submit to him so the nation would survive. However, this was ignored. The greatest rebellion was against the Lord and that led to judgement and ultimately to exile. After the first siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the temple was plundered and thousands were transported from craftsmen and officials, to warriors and members of important families.
This first exile was terrible enough. However, when Zedekiah rebelled, it brought total destruction and everyone was deported except for the ‘poorest of the land’. All prominent buildings in Jerusalem were destroyed; the temple was completely dismantled and destroyed; nothing was left to become a focus of nationalism or religion and cause discontent. Against this backdrop we have psalm 137. What was Jeremiah’s response to the exile? In a letter to those deported he says: Jer 29:4-9. Make your home there and seek the city’s welfare, because that is where God has sent you. That is a tough message. You are not coming home. Those who will be in 70 years time will be their grandchildren. In this context we get the often quoted verse ‘For I know the plans I have for you…’ Well they weren’t the plans people expected. Basically Jeremiah is telling them to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land – they have no choice if they are going to remain faithful to him. And isn’t that exactly what Daniel and his friends do?
Let’s consider what they had lost.
• A homeland. A heritage. A nation. All the structures of their society which maintained their religious worship.
• They lost their culture and were re-educated in the culture of the Babylonians.
• They lost their names and were given Babylonian names.
• They lost their families, either because they were killed in the invasion or because these young men had been taken off to the court.
• They lost the prospect of settling down with someone, having a family and someone to continue their name and memory. Think about it. They have been separated to do a job and whilst training are under the authority of the chief eunuch. The likelihood was also that they were now eunuchs.
Life for these young men had not turned out as they would have expected. Their family support network is gone. Their religious support systems are gone. Their national heritage is gone. Yet, as Jeff Lucas says, Daniel and his friends sing the Lord’s song. They picked up their harps again – if they had ever laid them down – and sang and had an impact on the despots who could have snuffed out their lives at the snap of their fingers. Daniel and his friends settle down and thrive, but they do not lose their centre based on Adonai, the Lord over all. They are thrust into the pagan space of Babylon and stand out as a beacon. Gerard Kelly says their unbelievably difficult experience stretched their faith to its full potential. From Jerusalem to Babylon, they acquire a bigger picture of the Kingdom of God.
Here is the context of Daniel. How does that bridge to our own? Well how often do you feel like a square peg in a round hole because of your Christian faith? You don’t sit quite comfortably in society, although you are very much a 21st Century person. This is where you have grown up or ended up, but don’t fully share the values, goals and ambitions of the majority and at times are at odds with the prevailing trend or current philosophy. We should be feeling that if we are really seeking to follow Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2 describes followers of Jesus as sojourners and exiles who are to ‘keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.’ We’ll be thinking about how Daniel and friends did this. We like Daniel are called to sing the Lord’s song where we are.
Daniel’s society proclaimed that its gods were greater and victorious over the God of the Hebrews. We find ourselves in a similar situation. The gods of our time are proclaimed greater, rending belief in Jesus Christ as quaint at best but really quite obsolete and pointless. Science explains and solves everything; if it hasn’t it will do so in the future – including the desire for eternal life. It is open season on the Christian faith at least (largely because the mantra of toleration doesn’t allow the mocking or attacking of other faiths) and the truthfulness and reliability of faith in Christ is constantly mocked and undermined. There are those who would like to see churches turned into museum pieces or monuments. Spirituality is appropriated into the current ‘Wellness’ movement, but this is very much a secular spirituality focussed on the individual. In the face of this we are called to sing the Lord’s song where we are and we will consider how Daniel and friends managed this.
Sometimes life does not turn out as planned. Jeff Lucas was meeting with his team of ministers and the question was asked, ‘What are we hearing from people in our congregation?’ One person said, ‘There’s one comment I hear repeatedly…life just hasn’t turned out the way they thought it would.’ There’s one phrase that is repeated in adverts that really annoys me: ‘For your perfect…’ Add kitchen, sofa, bedroom, bathroom; add holiday, wedding day, Christmas Day and any number of other things. Life is not perfect though – not even that gift you have spent hours choosing. Perfection is only found in Jesus Christ, but the philosophy of the world is that it is found in things. Another comment made at Jeff Lucas’ meeting was that ‘life is what happens when you expect something else.’
In the past four and a half years Wendy and I have experienced three serious life happenings we would rather had not taken place – but that’s life. It is how you handle these things, what you do with them that is important. We as Christian believers do not face life on our own and without the resources that God willingly provides. The most important of all is the firm foundation of his love. Daniel and friends certainly had life happen to them – and we will learn from their experience and reaction.
As a nation we are emerging from lock down and people are testing the freedom of being able to do much more than a month ago. However, there is fear around; people are nervous of going out and being in groups. The isolation has taken its toll and there has been an economic cost to people. There is still uncertainty as we continue to live with Covid 19 and its various strains. Life has certainly happened for the world. It has taken a turn no-one expected and people’s lives have been changed forever. We have not been unrooted from our families and culture, but the impact for some has been drastic as they have lost jobs, businesses, income and even homes. In the face of all this we are still called to sing the Lord’s song. Daniel and friends experienced the most traumatic twist to their lives, but they still sang the Lord’s song. How did they do that?
The big message of Daniel, I think, is that God is Lord over all. We have been celebrating that over Easter and will continue to celebrate that as we declare Jesus the Lord of life and death, the resurrected Saviour. That remains true whatever happens in life and is our foundation stone.
I was listening to an Easter reflection in which the speaker talked about a Russian orthodox song used at the grave, called a kontakion. It says, ‘And weeping we make our song o’er the grave: Alleluia!’ The reason we can do that is because we know the one who has experienced life, gone through the grave and risen. We can declare ‘Alleluia! Praise God!’ through tears of sorrow and sadness, and through tears of joy and celebration. We have met with the risen Lord and that is how we sing his song in a strange land.