The Promise of Hope

Advent 1 2016 – Daniel 6:1-28 (and Psalm 121)   

A  big tip of the Advent 1 hat to RevGord, whose Ministerial Mutterings re: Psalm 121 and the sorts of lions dens we find and create resonated deeply and helped me find my open and close.

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When I was a sophomore in college (which was more years ago than I care to count), my grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.  My uncle planned a big reception for them, renting a hall near their home in Mesa, Arizona.  

The rest of my family drove over from Texas, and I made arrangements to fly in from Little Rock.  I had no idea what to do for a gift, being a broke and very busy college student, other than something I could make myself.I didn’t have much by way of crafting supplies, so I decided to make some music.   

I did a little research to find something meaningful, and it turned out that they included Psalm 121 in their wedding –  and that passage remained an important touchstone in their lives well beyond that special occasion.  I didn’t find any guitar-friendly settings that I could sing, so I set out to write something myself.

I spent my spare time over a couple of weeks reading and re-reading the words, feeling their rhythm and making them my own, then I wrote a simple melody that I could play and sing for them.

It was one of many lovely gifts they received that day, though the time I spent reflecting on that psalm was probably an even greater gift for me.  Not surprisingly, it has become a touchstone in my own life, a reminder of God’s steadfast love and care for me – at least as comforting as the 23rd Psalm.

The psalmist reminds me that
My help will always come from the Lord, maker of heaven and Earth.
The Lord watches over me, keeping my feet steady as I walk
And that night or day… nothing under the sun or the moon will harm me
The Lord will watch over all of our comings and goings, now and forevermore.

I’m pretty sure that is why I say with confidence to you that the God who Promises is with and for us. Just as God has been from the very first.

I don’t know what the melody the psalmist originally put with those words, or how it changed as the Hebrew people passed it along from one generation to the next.

And I don’t know what happened in the lion’s den between the moment King Darius sealed it with his signet ring and when he came back and had the stone rolled away again…

But it’s not hard for me to imagine Daniel in the dark,  singing his way through the psalms, especially the songs of lament that turn to praise. In fact, I wonder if Daniel wasn’t more comfortable than Darius that night, resting as he was in the faith that God was with him in that dark cave.  

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Darius was new to the throne when this story takes place… it was early in the time that the Persian Empire dominated the scene. The Persian Empire replaced the Babylonian empire as the superpower of the biblical world beginning in 539 BCE.  If we turned the clock back another 60 or so years, we would see the Babylonians in ascendance, displacing the Assyrian Empire.  

Nebuchadnezzar II annexed Judah, taking Jehoiachin captive.. You remember him, the king that took Jeremiah’s scroll, sliced it up and threw it in the fire, rather than leading the people to repentance? And then Jerusalem was destroyed soon after.

A series of murders and overthrows led to a string of less capable Babylonian rulers, the last of whom was killed just before Darius, who was a Mede, was installed.  

King Darius spread his power out among 120 satraps, sort of like governorships over provinces. These satraps were directly accountable to one the three “presidents” or overseers, of which Daniel was one.

Like Joseph among the Egyptians in the court of Pharaoh, Daniel represented an outsider, a follower of a foreign God, a keeper of unfamiliar rituals.  And because Daniel took his faith seriously, his allegiance truly was to God, not to the empire or its current ruler.  

And like Joseph, this placed Daniel at risk.

There is something ugly in the human heart that leads us toward fear and jealousy.. even hatred… for those who are not “one of us.” Especially when that outsider gains some of the power and influence we would like to keep for ourselves and our own people.

And so, in a move that had to be way more difficult than it sounds  (I mean, how often do 120 powerful people agree unanimously  – about anything?) they all decided that it was time  to do something about Daniel.  

He was above board in all his dealings, so they would never catch him in corruption.  They had nothing on him…. except his unfaltering loyalty to God.

So they come to the king’s court and shout something like “Long live the King!” in unison before a representative walks out in front to say to Darius
All the presidents of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions.

And just to be sure it would have to be implemented, they had the document ready for his signature.
Now, O king, establish the interdict and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed, according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be revoked.”

All he had to do was sign.
Which he did.
To the delight of all the conspirators.

It’s hard to know why Darius was so open to making the law…  Maybe because he was new to power and easily flattered. But what he clearly hadn’t considered was how this required show of loyalty would affect one of his most effective and trustworthy leaders, and therefore how it would affect him as King.

And so while Darius signed the decree, this was in fact a calculated manipulation by 120-plus leaders with one specific goal in mind-  to produce a written document they could use against Daniel. The conspiracy had set in motion events that would force the king to execute Daniel for his public worship of the Lord.

That darkness in the human heart that leads us toward fear and jealousy.. even hatred… for those who are not “one of us” left Daniel in the darkness of the lion’s den.  And it left Darius tossing and turning until the earliest light of day broke through.

Sealed in what could have been his tomb, Daniel remained faithful.  Daniel trusted that the God who makes and keeps promises would also be the God who saves.

Daniel remembered and prayed
To the God who provided a ram to replace Isaac on the altar
To the God who made good from of the evil that the brothers perpetrated on Joseph
To the God who provided enough for the Elijah, the widow and her son until the rains came

Daniel prayed and sang…
I look up toward the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, the Creator of heaven and earth!
May he not allow your foot to slip!
May your protector not sleep!
Look! Israel’s protector does not sleep or slumber!
The LORD is your protector;
the LORD is the shade at your right hand.
The sun will not harm you by day, or the moon by night.
The LORD will protect you from all harm; he will protect your life.
The LORD will protect you in all you do, now and forevermore.  (NET Bible)

All night he prayed and sang to the Lord
To the God who sent an angel to close the mouths of the lions
To the God who requires justice
To the God who would reveal to a king what it looks like to rule with power

God’s power to save Daniel opened Darius’ eyes and awoke in him the power to rule.
In the light of day, and in light of God’s actions, things had changed
With the light of day, there was freedom
With the light of day, there was truth
With the light of day, there was clarity

Darius had nothing to fear from Daniel, nor from Daniel’s worshipping the Lord.  Instead of condemning an innocent man to execution, Darius commands his men to rescue Daniel. Instead of ceding his leadership to the counsel, Darius puts them to death, as well as their families, for their scheming against Daniel and for manipulating the King.

Darius now embodies a decisive king, condemning the guilty, rescuing the faithful and promoting worship of the Lord throughout the empire.  

His new decree reverses the old:
The people throughout his realm should tremble and fear the Lord,
“For he is the living God; he endures forever.
His kingdom will not be destroyed; his authority is forever.
He rescues and delivers and performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions!”

See, the story of Daniel and the lions isn’t really about the lions, so much as it is about the human heart.
Our capacity for fear and hate
and our capacity for faith
and our capacity for hope.

Which, in the end, is why this story is not as odd a choice for the start of Advent as I first thought.
The hope of Advent is the hope that Daniel held onto as he waited in the darkness
The hope of the people of Israel as they waited in exile.
It is the hope of a heart that bows only to God, trusts only in God.
The hope of a body that rests in faith, even as it prays and works for justice.

The hope of Advent is the very mystery of our faith that we recite in our Great Prayer of Thanksgiving…
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again

And as we wait and hope for his return, the hope for the world is that the church of Jesus Christ would be all that it is called to be
All that we are called to embody.

Because until he comes again,
we are the bearers of light of Christ,
which our world so desperately needs.  

Because there remains something ugly in the human heart that leads us toward fear and jealousy.. even hatred… for those who are not “one of us.”
for those who look or speak different
for those who come from someplace else
for those who challenge our traditions or habits

And being followers of Jesus does not make us immune.
Not from the hatred.
And not from getting caught up in the hating

Because there are always those who would whisper,
those who would stir up fear,
who would use their privilege and power in hurtful, hateful ways.

The truth is… we live in a world where jealousy and nervousness, insecurity and fear all too often drive or at least shape important policy decisions. And important spending decisions.

We live in a world where it sometimes feels like playing it safe is wiser than wholeheartedly being the people that God has formed us to be.

Yes, friends, we live in a world in which we can find a wondrous variety of lion’s dens…

And yet…  there is another truth:
We live in a world where there is hope.
We live in a world where we carry hope.

It is the hope of God’s enduring Kingdom to come.
The hope of the kingdom that will not be destroyed
The hope of a rescuer.
The One who has died. The One who is Risen. The One who will Come Again.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
Amen.

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