Sunday, October 8, 2006

I decided to go off-lectionary for a bit and spend some time exploring the great stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. So the text for this sermon is Daniel 6.

The story of Daniel's adventure in the Lion's Den is standard fare in Sunday School. If you grew up in church, you might have watched the tale reenacted with puppets, or made a lion out of construction paper, or heard one of the many Children's versions read during Story Hour. The story is popular beyond the church, as well. A brief version of it is included in the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, a reference book of American culture. The story of the man who was miraculously protected from hungry lions makes for an exciting lesson about a faithful man's deliverance from death.

But let's go deeper.

I want for us to really understand what's going on here, and so a little refresher on the history of the Israelites is in order. For a short time, the Israelites had one united and sovereign Kingdom, ruled by David and his descendents. But the Northern part of the Kingdom broke away, and the divided house soon collapsed. The Northern Kingdom went first, but the Southern Kingdom of Judea was eventually destroyed by the conquests of the Babylonians. That's when the Babylonian Exile began. Thousands of Judeans were deported to Babylon. Daniel was a member of the Jewish community in exile. The Babylonians were smart; they didn't force able-minded people into positions of manual labor. A man like Daniel, with an excellent spirit, could achieve a measure of success in the foreign land. When we first encountered Daniel, he was not some low-level assistant. He was one of three administrators with a lot of responsibility for the Babylonian Kingdom. His supervisor was none other than King Darius himself, and the King clearly liked and trusted Daniel. A major promotion was in the works for our Israelite hero. He stood to follow in the footsteps of his ancestor Joseph, who held a position of authority in Egypt.

The other administrators didn't like Daniel. They had no reason and every reason to grumble about his leadership. There he was, a foreigner whose homeland had been defeated by Babylonian forces. Exile wasn't supposed to mean a fast track to the top for Daniel, and yet he had distinguished himself so highly that he was about to become their boss. They wanted to take him down on principle. But it turned out he was a little too good for their rotten scheme. His character was honorable, his record immaculate. So they played the religion card. "We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God."

They hammered out the perfect plan of attack: flatter the King by drafting a law prohibiting prayers to any other authority—divine or human—for thirty days. And then camp out under Daniel's window and wait for the evidence to fall into their waiting arms.

One of the most important details of the story comes next. "Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before."

Daniel and his people had lost their homeland, their temple, and the basic freedom to live and work where they pleased. But Daniel's faith would not be tethered by any ruler. His soul would not be managed by any edict. The conspiracy against Daniel threatened to enslave his spirit, but Daniel's spirit was as fierce as a lion. The narrator of this story is clear as can be: Daniel knew full well of the new law prohibiting his daily prayers, and he prayed anyway. What's more, he didn't lock his piety away behind the relative safety of a cellar door. Daniel disobeyed the law openly, kneeling before his open window to pray to the God of Israel.

To me, this is every bit as awe-inspiring as the lock-jawed lions.

Prayer, for Daniel, was as natural as breath. Three times a day, without fail, he fell to his knees and offered himself to his Lord. A prayer attributed to Daniel is preserved in the second chapter of the book bearing his name: "Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him." Through prayer, Daniel knew God. Prayer connected him to the Living Source of Life. And through prayer, Daniel knew himself. Raising his voice in praise to the God of his Ancestors—the God of our Ancestors— gave him an unwavering sense of identity, even in a foreign land. No matter how high he rose in the ranks of Babylon's leadership, three times a day he turned toward Jerusalem: heart, mind, and body.

With the royal decree limiting prayer only to the King, Daniel's praying took on another shape in his life. Prayer became a form of resistance, a public sign of his obedience to a greater law. Prayer became a form of civil disobedience. Daniel rejected not only the idolatry of the edict, but even the temptation to simply take the truth underground for thirty days.

Daniel's bravery – not in the lion's den, but on his knees before the open window— became a hero to Mahatma Gandhi early in his vocation as a pioneer of nonviolent resistance. Daniel was Gandhi's model of resistance to unjust legislation. When he was working on behalf of the Indians suffering from oppression in South Africa, Gandhi counseled his brethren to "sit with their doors flung wide open and tell those gentlemen that whatever laws they passed were not for them unless those laws were from God."

There are always consequences to civil disobedience. Anyone who publicly breaks a law faces the penalties of the law, even if the law is wrong. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that when he and his fellow civil rights activists disobeyed the segregation laws, they were inviting imprisonment, hatred, and abuse. They expected to land squarely within the fangs of racist Americans. They used that predictable retaliation, hoping that the sight of innocent suffering would transform the hardened hearts of their oppressors.

Darius didn't even want to follow his foolish edict, but the law was the law. King and Kingdom would lose all integrity if he didn't consistently enforce the laws of the land. And so Daniel was thrust into the lion's den with nothing to protect him but the God to whom he had prayed a million times before.

Which was all he needed.

What happened to Daniel in the lion's den was a joyful triumph for people of faith. God saved his servant. Daniel's deliverance from death is one of the greatest, most vividly imaginable stories in all of our Holy Scriptures. It gives hope to the hopeless and proclaims that God will make a way where there is no way. The blameless hero was nearly killed on account of his devotion, yet his devotion to the Most High God summoned an angel to seal the jaws of his predators.

In the lions' den we learn that the rules and regulations of the world are not the final authority over God's children. Corrupt laws are turned to ash, death itself is left empty-handed, and even the most foolish King makes a wise decree: revere the God of Daniel.


I found a book in our church library called Alone with God. It was written in 1917 by a woman named Matilda Erickson. It's the sort of book you could glance at once and immediately dismiss; surely, a volume so old and yellowed doesn't have anything too enlightening within its tattered covers. But listen to what Matilda had to say about Daniel. "When prime minister of Babylon, [Daniel] found it possible to meet God alone three times each day. All that the men asked of Daniel was that he stop praying for thirty days—just thirty days. Many Christians have stopped praying much longer than that, when the only lions in the way were carelessness and spiritual laziness."

Daniel isn't a hero because he was saved from the lions. That was God's doing, God's power revealed. Daniel is a hero because he threw open his window and prayed. His best bravery was spent on his knees. He defied Babylon, and our God stood with him in that defiance to establish life where Babylonian law sentenced death.


It has been said that the Bible comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. In the gospels, Jesus teaches that his followers must lose their lives for his sake in order to live. The part about everlasting life is comforting, but the dying for it can be a bit unnerving. We love that Daniel's faith in God saved from death in the lions' lair… but don't linger too much on the fact that his faith in God landed him there in the first place.

Daniel's story teaches us what it means to be truly faithful. God does not challenge us to be privately pious, concealing our devotion from polite company. God dares us to take our faith public, living out the commands of our God – even when that means irritating the culture or breaking the law. God longs for us to choose the lion's den with Him rather than the palace without him [paraphrase from Matilda Erickson].

Ancient Babylon thirsted for a witness like that of Daniel's. And so does our own time and place. Our witness to the goodness of God is a prayer that must be prayed and a window that must be opened. This tired world needs to encounter the God we know through Jesus Christ, and the only ones capable of giving voice to his glory are the ones who know him.

We will face lions, but none more dangerous than a life emptied of God. Like Daniel, we will be delivered. Like Daniel, we will be saved.

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