Trust in Tough Times

Trust in Tough Times

Gracious God, in all seasons and all circumstances, may we trust in your goodness, wisdom, and love.  In this time of worship, prayer, and reflection, may we open our hearts once more to hear your word and call to each of us.  And may you bring us courage and inspiration for our continued journey of discipleship.  Amen.

Today, we are continuing our exploration of the biblical prophets as we take a look at the book of Daniel, particularly that familiar story in which Daniel finds himself thrown into the lions’ den where he must trust in God’s power to deliver him.  It is a story of courage and faith in the face of adversity.

The book of Daniel is a fascinating read, full of inspiring stories of courage as well as wildly vivid apocalyptic dreams and visions, all in only twelve chapters.  Though it was likely composed several centuries later, the literary setting of the story is Babylon in the time of the Babylonian Exile.  And Daniel and his three friends are some of those who have been taken from Judah into exile, where they find themselves in service to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, and his successors.

The first half of the book is all about their time serving in the king’s court.  And it turns out that Daniel is pretty handy to have around as a royal advisor because God has given him the gifts of wisdom and interpretation of dreams and visions.  These abilities get him some credibility and attention from the king.  In fact, Daniel ends up protecting himself, his friends, and even the Babylonian sages when he is able to interpret a particularly troubling dream of the king’s, when no one else can.

However, that this act of interpretation protects him is a bit ironic because the king’s dream is about a statue that represents his own empire and all of the empires that will follow.  And, in the dream, the statue is destroyed by a large rock that then turns into a mountain and grows large, looming over all the earth, symbolizing God’s everlasting kingdom that will supplant them all.  This dream is the first of several apocalyptic visions in the book which proclaim that God’s kingdom will one day rule over all peoples and nations.  It’s not necessarily the news a powerful guy like Nebuchadnezzar wants to hear.

Nevertheless, Daniel proves his wisdom and insight and becomes a favored advisor by the king and his successors.  And he is given more roles of responsibility within the court and kingdom.

By the time we get to chapter six, a new king, Darius, is now on the throne.  He has already promoted Daniel to become a sort of regional governor.  And he now wants to put him in charge of all of the other regional leaders.

But the other leaders don’t like that one bit.  Perhaps it is because Daniel is a foreigner.  Perhaps it is simply because of their own thirst for power.  Perhaps a little of both.  So, they get together and start conspiring to find a way to take Daniel down.  But they can find no corruption to pin on him.  Daniel is an upstanding and righteous guy.

So, they decide to use Daniel’s righteousness against him.  They know that Daniel is faithful to his own God, even as he is living in Babylon.  So, they convince the king to make a law that no one can worship or pray to any god other than King Darius (who is evidently viewed as having his own divine status) for thirty days.  Anyone who violates this law, shall be thrown into a den of lions.  The king goes along with this, and so it becomes the law of the land.

Obviously, it’s an intentional trap.  And so, these jealous conspirators go out of their way to catch Daniel in the act of praying to his God.  And they lay out their case before the king and demand that Daniel be thrown to the lions.

The story goes that king doesn’t want to kill Daniel.  But it appears that he can’t go back on his royal decree now without causing trouble for himself.  So, he does what they demand and seals Daniel into the lions’ den and into what seems like a sure and violent end.

But, as we know, that’s not how the story ends.  Instead, God sends an angel to shut the lions’ mouths and keeps Daniel safe through the night.  In the morning, after a restless night, the king anxiously approaches the lions’ den and calls out to Daniel.  And Daniel replies that he has been saved.

So, Daniel is taken up out of the den.  He is ok.

But what happens next is terrible.  In anger, the king throws those who had conspired against Daniel into the den, along with their wives and children.  The lions don’t even wait until they hit the ground before attacking.  Their plot against Daniel was horrible.  But mercy doesn’t appear to even be a possibility here.

Interestingly, chapter six ends with the following:

Then King Darius wrote to all peoples and nations of every language throughout the whole world: “May you have abundant prosperity! I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: For he is the living God, enduring forever. His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end. He delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth; for he has saved Daniel from the power of the lions.”

Even the king of Babylon cannot deny the power of the God of the Hebrews.  He preaches like he’s converted.

The story of Daniel is largely a story about faithfulness and trust in God.  Even before we get to the lions’ den episode, the story has lifted up other moments when Daniel and his friends choose to maintain their Jewish identity and loyalty to their God, despite pressure to do otherwise.

They all refuse to eat some of the food given to them in order to adhere to the dietary laws of their tradition.  And Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (remember them?) refuse to bow down and worship a golden statue of the king.  And so, they are thrown into a fiery furnace, another attempt at a sure and violent execution.  But they are saved by God from the fire, just like Daniel would then be saved from the lions.

These stories all serve as a reminder to be courageous, to be steadfast in faithfulness, and to trust God.  To the first audience and to us, these stories serve as words of encouragement to have faith, even in times of deep uncertainty, even in the toughest moments.

And they are also stories of nonviolent resistance to oppression.  The text tells us that Daniel knew about the law prohibiting him from worshiping his God.  And yet, he prayed anyway.  He knew the consequences could be dire.  But he prayed anyway.  Daniel chose faith, even at the risk of death, instead of compromising his values and going along with the unjust law of the land.

This story of courage has inspired so many who have followed in his footsteps, including Jesus, including Gandhi, including so many people who have been colonized, occupied, exiled, or enslaved throughout the centuries.

We ought to remember that the original hearers of this story were those Jewish people whose land had been occupied for centuries by the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians, and then Persians, and then the Greeks, and then later on the Romans.  They knew captivity.  They knew exile.  They knew war.

They knew what it was like to be in a metaphorical den of lions, wondering if they would make it out alive.  They knew the challenge of maintaining their identity, living faithfully, and choosing to trust God in those tough circumstances, even when it was tempting to think God had abandoned them.

That had to be so very hard at times.  And yet, by and large, they did hang on to faith.  They did hang on to trust.  We wouldn’t still be reading these stories and traveling this journey of faith for ourselves if they hadn’t.

And so, one of the questions for us to ponder is how will we choose trust?  How will we choose faith?  How will we choose to hang in there with God and trust that God is hanging in there with us?

Our particular circumstances may vary.  But there is still so much that is uncertain.  There is still so much that challenges us.  On a social level, there is still so much violence and injustice in our world.  On a personal level, we all must face our own mortality; we endure sickness, and grief, and struggle.

On some level, we all know what it is like to wait out the night in a den of lions, wondering if they’ll keep their mouths shut and spare us to live another day.

You know, I get a kick out of those children’s Bible depictions of this story where Daniel seems so relaxed and the lions look like tame, overgrown house cats.  Sure, they’re cute.

(Show picture in From Susie folder)

But I don’t think Daniel was relaxed at all.  And if their den was the domain of a king who used them as his executioners, I think the lions, these wild and powerful animals, were possibly held captive, mistreated, malnourished, and ravenous.  This lions’ den is a seriously dangerous and uncomfortable place to be.  That’s the image the story is offering to us.

And yet, even in that dangerous and uncomfortable place, Daniel chooses to trust God.  Faith is not always comfortable.  Faith is not always easy.  Faith is not always safe.  Faith does not always bring us immediate relief or relaxation.

But, even in those dangerous and uncomfortable places, I think faith can bring us hope.  Faith can bring us courage.  Faith can bring us endurance and the will to carry on.  Faith can bring us an experience of peace and centeredness, even when chaos is swirling around us.  Faith can bring us an experience of connectedness to God and to each other, even in isolating and lonely experiences.

More often than not, I have heard people express these gifts of faith when they have been going through a tough time.  And, more often than not, I have heard people talk about how a tough time taught them something valuable about faith, and life, and God.

That doesn’t mean we wish tough times upon ourselves or anyone else.  But it does mean that we can learn from all of life’s ups and downs.

And, like Daniel, we can choose to trust God, even in the toughest of times.

But there is more to this story too.  And I think we would be remiss if we didn’t spend a moment to consider what King Darius has to teach us as well.

Darius is frustrating.  He wants to be a better person than he is, I think.  He seems to genuinely like and appreciate Daniel.  He also seems to be genuinely open to Daniel’s faith and Daniel’s God.

But we can’t let him off the hook too easily.  He’s a guy whose empire has occupied lands and taken people away from their homes.  He’s a guy that throws people into lions’ dens.  That is cruel and unusual punishment (perhaps for both the prisoners and the lions).

Sadly Darius, like so many rulers of this world throughout the ages, is spiritually trapped and morally held back by the imperial structures and systems that have given him his power.  He could change this foolish law he’s been manipulated into creating.  But he doesn’t because it means he would have to go back on his word, change course, and potentially give up some of his own power.

He could be a leader who shows courage and changes course for the better.  But instead he chooses to follow through on the wrong decision and throw Daniel to the lions, even though he knows it’s the wrong thing to do.

This story of Darius serves to warn us of the same things the prophets have been warning us of all along.  Earthly power can corrupt.  Systems that are built for domination, power, and control often neglect the needs of those most vulnerable and lead to abuse and exploitation of peoples.

In contrast to the reality of Darius’ limited, unjust, and impermanent Kingdom of Babylon, is the vision of the Kingdom of God, a vision for an enduring just and peaceful world for all.  That is the vision that gives Daniel his faith and his courage to trust.

As I mentioned, the book of Daniel is filled with apocalyptic visions.  The hope for the coming Kingdom of God is what these apocalyptic visions all reveal.

The book of Daniel asks us to reflect on where we place our trust (in an earthly king or in God) and it asks us to examine our own loyalties.  Do we live and work for the priorities of the kingdoms of this world?  Or do we live and work for the priorities of God?

Daniel chose God.  Daniel chose the hopeful vision of the just and peaceful Kingdom of God.  And, in doing so, Daniel chose the wellbeing of God’s beloved people too.

In all our ups and downs, in good times and in tough times, perhaps Daniel’s story might encourage and inspire us to have faith, to trust God, and to keep choosing to use our lives to work for God’s priorities and God’s people.