Lessons from the exile

How do we live when our faith seems ruined and we are subject to oppression?  Daniel shows us.

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Lessons from the exile

 

November 27, 2016 – Daniel 6:1-28

 

 

 

Daniel is a book of stories and visions written to help people of faith survive trying times.  The apocalyptic visions – which comprise chapters 7-12 – are notoriously difficult to understand.  But the stories in chapters 1-6 are much more helpful.  They present Daniel and his friends as models of integrity and perseverance.  So they encourage people in uncertain and threatening circumstances to live with obedience and trust.

 

The people of Israel had entered the most difficult period in their history.  Samaria and the northern kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed by Assyria in 722 B.C.E.  About 150 years later, in 587, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon attacked and destroyed Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah in the same way.  He not only destroyed the city.  He destroyed and ransacked the temple.  And he ended the reign of David’s descendants on the throne.

 

City, temple and king – these were the three things that anchored Israel’s faith in God.  But they were wiped out.  So, for all intents and purposes, this was not only the end of the story of Israel.  It was the end of the story of Israel’s God.

 

When there is such change in our lives, how do we remember who we are?  How do we remain connected to what is important to us?  What is it that shapes our lives?  How then do we remain faithful?  When the concrete symbols of our faith are obliterated, how do we continue to serve God?

 

 

 

When the book of Daniel opens, it is the last days of Judah when King Jehoiakim was reigning.  After the defeat and destruction of Jerusalem, King Nebuchadnezzar picks the best and the brightest (also the most handsome and well-educated) to serve in his government in Babylon.  The king also orders that they are to be served the same food that the king eats – rich meats and heady wines.

 

Daniel resists this effort to try to turn him into a Babylonian.  He tells the head of the palace staff that he wants to be exempted from the royal diet.  Instead, he wants to eat only vegetables and water.  The head of the palace staff is reluctant to do so.  He thinks that this would make Daniel wimpy and weak and the king would find out that he has disobeyed his command.

 

But Daniel says, “Let’s try it for ten days.  Then you be the judge.”  And after ten days, the head of staff sees that Daniel and his friends look healthier and stronger than those eating the royal diet.

 

So, Daniel and his friends excel in their government jobs.  And the king considers them wise advisors on important matters.

 

 

 

Then the king began to have nightmares.  He was very troubled by them.  He called together all his fortunetellers and magicians and sorcerers and enchanters.  He ordered them to tell him the meaning of his dreams

 

They said, “We would be glad to, O mighty King!  Tell us your dreams.”

 

But King Nebuchadnezzar said, “If you can’t tell me my dreams, then you are no good to me!  Off with your heads!”

 

They said, “But only the gods know dreams.”

 

“Then, off with their heads!” the king cried.

 

When Daniel heard of it, however, he said, “Let’s not be so hasty.  Give us some time and we will be able to interpret the dream.”  Together he and his friends prayed for God to enlighten them.  And that is what God did.

 

Then Daniel went to the king.  “Our God has revealed your dream and its correct interpretation to us,” he said.  “You can be sure that it is correct.”

 

Now, to make a long story short, King Nebuchadnezzar will reign for a while and then his kingdom will be replaced by an inferior kingdom.  And then in time that kingdom will be replaced by one even more inferior and again another after that.  But through this God is building a kingdom that will never be destroyed.

 

In reaction to this news, King Nebuchadnezzar does not cry out in dismay and have his guards chop Daniel’s head off.  No, he bows down in praise of God and in awe of Daniel.  Then he gives Daniel another promotion.

 

 

 

Then comes the story of the three friends of Daniel – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, as they are called in Babylon – and the flaming furnace.  These three refuse to bow down and worship the great statue of himself that King Nebuchadnezzar has had erected.  The king threatens to throw them into the fiery furnace.

 

They say, “Go ahead if you want to, O king.  We will pray to our God and he will save us.  But if not, we will still not bow down and worship your statue.”

 

That’s just what God does.  And again the king declares the greatness of their God.  And again the king gives promotions to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

 

 

 

Then there is a story of another dream and its interpretation to King Nebuchadnezzar.  And there is the story of mysterious writing appearing to his successor, King Belshazzar.  And then comes King Darius and our story for today.

 

Daniel kept having success and getting promoted, so that others in the king’s service became jealous of him.  His work was without fault, so they knew they couldn’t get him in trouble for that.  But they thought they could get him if it involved his faith. 

 

So they went to the king and said, “O King Darius, may you live forever!  We all urge you to issue the following decree: ‘For the next thirty days, anyone who is found to be praying to any god other than the king shall be thrown into the lions’ den.’”

 

And the king said, “That’s a great idea!  Why didn’t I think of it?”

 

But when Daniel heard the decree, he ignored it.  He continued praying to his God as he always did, by standing in front of his apartment windows and facing Jerusalem.

 

This is just what the conspirators wanted and they reported it to the king.  He tried to get Daniel out of the fix he had put him in, but to no avail.  The king caved in and had Daniel taken to the lions’ den.

 

He said, “I’m really sorry, Daniel.  I hope your God can get you out of this mess.”  After Daniel was placed in the lions’ den and the stone door closed tight, the king went back to the palace.  He couldn’t eat a bite and he didn’t sleep a wink.

 

When morning came, he rushed to the lions’ den.  He called out, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God saved you?”

 

“Indeed, he has O King.  He sent an angel to shut the mouths of the lions because I am innocent.  I have done nothing to harm you or your kingdom.”

 

The king was delighted.  He had Daniel taken up out of the lions’ den and had the conspirators and all their families thrown in.  That gave the lions a very nice breakfast.

 

And the king – being the king – sent out another decree.  It said, “There is no God in all the world like Daniel’s God.  So everyone must now worship Daniel’s God.”

 

 

 

What can we learn from these stories?

 

First, empires and rulers appear to last forever, but they do not.  In just the book of Daniel, we witness four kings – Nebuchadnezzr, Balshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus – come and go. Empires and rulers come and go, but God lasts forever.  And God is working to build another kingdom, a kingdom that lasts forever.  So, hang in there!

 

             Second, since kings and empires come and go, our true loyalty is to God.  Our true refuge is in God.  Our true Savior is God.  This doesn’t mean that everything will work out in our favor, as it seems to with Daniel.  We don’t have to look very far to find examples of people who did not give up their faith while living in an oppressive regime.  But even Daniel’s friends, when they are threatened with execution, say, “We believe that God will save us. But if not, we still will not do as you say.”  Their faith was not based on a particular outcome. They only knew that their God was greater than any king, greater than any fire, greater even than their own deaths.  So, remember just how great God is!

 

            Third, it is prayer that nurtures our faith.  It keeps us connected to what is important and does not allow us to withdraw or avoid what is difficult. That’s what did it for Daniel.  We don’t know much about his prayer, other than that he prayed regularly and that he prayed facing Jerusalem.  Even though the city was destroyed and the temple was laid waste and the Davidic heir no longer sat on the throne, Jerusalem served as a pole star for his prayer.  It kept Daniel oriented in the world.

 

            We also know, though, that Daniel did not pray in secret.  He prayed openly in front of his apartment windows for all to see.  His prayer was not navel-gazing.  He did not pray so that he could feel better.  He did not focus on his list of requests for God.  Nor did he use his prayer to withdraw from the world.

 

            Prayer, for Daniel, was an act that took him into the world.  It reminded him and others of the suffering of his people.  It was a declaration to all that the supreme power – the one to whom prayer should be directed – was not some human person, no matter how important or powerful.  It was the Lord God of heaven and earth.

 

            We do not have a holy city or an earthly temple or a sitting king toward which we might pray.  But we do have Jesus – who is city and temple and king all wrapped into one.  We have the witness of the scriptures.  And we have this community of people.  This will not only anchor us and keep us oriented.  It will embolden us to live in the midst of all the challenges and uncertainties of this world with patience and kindness, with compassion and peace.