“God’s Grace in the Life of Daniel”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 23, 2017
8th Sunday after Pentecost
Mystery surrounds the book of Daniel. We don’t know who wrote it or exactly when it was written. It is part story and part vision; written partly in Hebrew and partly in Greek. Hungry lions, kings with unpronounceable names, death and salvation in unlikely places[i]—the stories of Daniel are wondrous and I want to preach them all. I want to preach about young Daniel and a few others, who are taken into captivity into Babylon. When they are told to eat royal rations of food and wine—Daniel sees this as an unclean practice—so he proposes an alternative. “Give us vegetables to eat and water to drink—after 10 days, compare our appearance to those who are eating the royal rations.” The palace master agrees to the test—and Daniel and his friends pass with flying colors.
Is it no wonder that I want to preach about the time King Nebuchadnezzar makes a huge golden statue and he gathers the peoples to hear the herald proclaim, “When you hear the music, fall down and worship the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever doesn’t fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” All the peoples fall down and worship—all—except for Daniel’s friends—Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. They will not bow down, even when the king spells it out for them: “If you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” Still, they refuse. The king is enraged—so much so he has the furnace heated up 7 times its normal temperature.
The young men are tied up and thrown into the furnace—clothes and all. It’s so hot, the men who toss them inside are killed. But when the king looks in expecting to see 3 men ablaze, lo and behold—he sees not 3 but 4 men—unbound—walking in the middle of the fire—unharmed—and the fourth looks like a god.
And who wouldn’t want to preach about the times Daniel interprets dreams and happenings for the kings of Babylon—when no one else can—particularly when King Belshazzar has a festival. Intoxicated, he throws caution to the wind and commands that the vessels of gold and silver, which were taken from the temple in Jerusalem, be brought out so that the partiers can drink from them. And drink they do—all the while praising the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. It would be a bit like someone coming into our sanctuary, taking the bowl from the baptismal font and saying—let’s use this for our salad luncheon as we praise the gods of the harvest! What a mockery! In those days, too, such behavior is a mockery—and God will not be mocked. Immediately God’s wrath is revealed as a disembodied hand begins writing on the wall. The king sees the hand and the writing; he turns pale; his knees begin to shake and he cries out for the diviners and all the wise men of Babylon to come and read the writing on the wall.
No one can interpret it, no one that is except Daniel who is known for interpreting dreams. Daniel comes and reads the words that pronounce God’s judgment: “The days of your kingdom are numbered; you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting, and you will lose your kingdom to the Medes and Persians.”
Yes I want to preach all these wonderful stories found in the book of Daniel but I see Jeff Stewart has started twitching and I imagine you came to hear just one sermon—so let’s move on to our reading from Daniel chapter 6—another incredible story.
By this time, Daniel is likely a man of ripe old age. He’s been in Babylon for many years. He’s seen kings come and kings go. While there have been changes aplenty, God has remained the same. So has Daniel’s passion for God. E.M. Forster has been quoted as saying, “One person with passion is better than 40 people merely interested.”[ii] Rest assured—Daniel is more than merely interested when it comes to his relationship with God.
It’s noteworthy that even though he is a Jew, Daniel has risen to high rank in this foreign country. Along the way, he has made some friends and (have no doubt) he has made some enemies—enemies who set this story in motion because they’re jealous of Daniel. They want to see him lose his power—more than that—they want to see him lose his life. So they devise a plan.
Now imagine for a moment that you are the king and your loyal subjects come to you—seemingly eager for everyone to know how important you are. Your chest puffs out, and you smile with satisfaction, when you hear the plan: “Establish an ordinance that whoever prays to anyone divine or human, for 30 days, except to you, shall be thrown into a den of lions.” Yes, yes, a splendid idea! And without a second thought, you sign on the dotted line. Little do you know you’ve just walked into a carefully made trap.
Soon, the king learns that Daniel has been praying and seeking mercy before his God and—clang—the doors of the trap are shut tight. Evidently during the exilic period, praying toward Jerusalem and down on one’s knees becomes the custom for private prayer. It is Daniel’s custom—and he is not about to sway from it because of a decree signed by an earthly king. Daniel’s citizenship in God’s kingdom concerns him most. So he goes to the upper room in his house, with the windows open, down on his knees, facing Jerusalem, and he prays and he praises his God—like clockwork, three times a day. Now you may be wondering couldn’t he have shut the blinds? Couldn’t he have gone to a secluded place to pray? No, in this area of his life, Daniel isn’t about to compromise.
So the trap is set. Daniel walks into it and kneels down. And the king, well he’s there too—not literally, of course—but he is powerless to extricate himself from the situation—for we are told that according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, once the king signs a law into effect, it cannot be revoked. So there they are—locked in a trap set by those who seek evil instead of good.
Of all people, the king is probably the most shocked by the circumstances. Honestly, I can’t help but feel sorry for him. Yes, he made an unwise decision. Yes, he let his ego get the best of him. But here is a person who is supposed to be the most powerful man in the nation yet his hands are tied. We know he’s very fond of Daniel. He can’t eat. He can’t sleep. He probably paces the floor all through the long night and what a long night it must have been.
Waiting—it’s so hard, isn’t it? When our middle son, Seth, was a baby he was diagnosed with strabismus. The muscles in his eyes were not working well together so surgery was needed to fix the problem. By this time, I had worked in the hospital a few years—long enough to have just enough knowledge to make me dangerous. In great detail, I remember that morning, standing outside those daunting double doors, waiting to hand our baby over to the surgical team. Just prior to the procedure, the surgeon came out to speak to Kinney and me. He could sense my anxiety and he said, “Glenda, it’s a simple procedure, probably won’t take more than an hour—you work in the hospital—you know how this goes.” And I said to him, “Well, yes, but I’ve always been on the other side of those doors.” It took only an hour or so…but the time passed so slowly.
It makes a difference, doesn’t it? When we are the one sitting—waiting—praying. It is a hard place to be.But wait the king does—until the break of day. At first light, the king rushes out to see what has happened to his friend. Has Daniel made it through the night? Have the lions devoured him? The king runs and calls out as he nears the den, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God whom you faithfully serve been able to deliver you from the lions?” And a voice calls back, “O king…my God has sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths…” The trap is opened—both the king and Daniel are freed by the hand of God—and quick as a flash—those who set the trap—find themselves in it.
Daniel is loyal and obedient and God’s salvation story is worked out in his life in wondrous ways. Through him we find hope for our own faith walk. But we are wise to fight the temptation to moralize the story, taking it to mean that if we are faithful enough, things will go our way and we’ll rise to places of power and success just like Daniel. We only have to look to one person—Jesus—to see that isn’t always so. We only have to look to one place—Golgotha—to see that isn’t always so. Yet, resurrection hope is still ours for remember, Jesus is only held in the trap of the tomb three days. Three days and then victory of victories because even death cannot stop God’s ultimate plan for good.
In addition to Daniel’s way of life, we can learn something from Daniel’s friends’ behavior, too. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are about to be thrown into the fire, essentially they say to the king, “If our God is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace, let God deliver us. But if not, know this, we will not serve your gods and we will not worship your golden statue.” These young men would rather take their chances with God than anyone else. It sounds like the Apostle Paul, doesn’t it? “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”[iii] What wonderful news—we can’t lose—no matter what, we are the Lord’s. No matter what, Daniels friends will bow to no one but God and no matter what, Daniel will let no one sway him from his passion for God.
You see, Daniel has seen kings come and he has seen kings go—but one thing remains the same—God. So come what may, Daniel goes to his upper room and kneels toward Jerusalem and he praises God and he prays and he prays and he prays. Amen.
[i] Daniel Commentary from The Life with God Bible, NRSV, James M. Rand
[ii] Quoted in The Best Advice I Ever Got, Katie Couric
[iii] Romans 8:14.
*Cover Art “Daniel’s Answer to the King,” Thomas Agnew and Sons, 1982; Public Domain