If you are thinking you have never heard the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den read during Advent, you are almost certainly right. I can assure you I’ve never read it or preached about it during Advent. It seems so odd that one friend told me this week he is reverting back to the old lectionary for Advent. I get that. The big seasons have a trusted routine to them, and that is probably even more true for you at home and in your family than at church. But as I have looked through the texts selected this year by the Narrative Lectionary I think there is a beautiful flow to them, and perhaps the surprising nature of the readings will catch us off guard.
The book of Daniel tells stories remembered from the time of the Babylonian exile. How can Advent begin in Babylon? How can Advent begin in exile? Really, how can Advent not begin in exile? The season of Advent is about watching and waiting and hoping and expecting and anticipating. It is about longing for something, for Someone, to come and save us. These are not things we do when life is going well. These are things we do when darkness seems to be swallowing us up, when we feel utterly powerless and hopeless. Yes, someplace like a lion’s den.
Last week we looked at the beginning of the Babylonian exile through the eyes of the prophet Jeremiah. In the year 597 B.C. the Babylonians invaded Judah and came to Jerusalem to collect tribute money. When they didn’t get it, they carried into exile the king, the leaders, the best and brightest of Jewish young people. Those exiled and those left both fostered hopes of getting help and invading Babylon and bringing the exiles home soon. Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles and told them they would be there 70 years, so they should build homes and plant gardens and raise families and work for the welfare of the people among whom they lived for now. Daniel was among those early exiles apparently, and he took those words to heart. The king of Babylon instructed that the brightest young people among the Hebrews be trained alongside the brightest of the Babylonian young people and prepared for leadership. Daniel was one of those. He never plotted rebellion, never tried to undermine the king, never picked fights. He tried to do the best job he could with the jobs he was given to do.
His best was good enough that he rose high in Babylonian government. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians, they gave permission for Jews to return to Israel if they wanted. Daniel chose to stay, and the Persian king also recognized his talent and put him to work. He became one of the top three governors under the king, with many regional leaders serving under him.
While the Babylonian and Persian kings welcomed the leadership of Daniel and his friends, the Babylonian and Persian people they competed with for jobs were not so welcoming. They didn’t like outsiders horning in on their positions, so they regularly tried to undermine them. They knew they would not be able to bring Daniel down with attacks on his character, honesty, or integrity, for those were beyond reproach. They knew the only way to bring him down was through his religion. They knew how devout he was in his worship and prayer life to the God of Israel.
The two other governors concocted a scheme and got the other Persian government officials on board. They would draft a law saying that it was illegal to pray to any god other than the king for 30 days. The punishment for disobedience was to be thrown into a den of lions. So they drew it up and took it to the king and sold it to him.
Daniel paid no attention to the new ordinance. He continued to go to his room and bow down towards Jerusalem to pray three times a day. The governors planted witnesses and went to the king with the accusation. The king was distressed, because he valued Daniel greatly, and he tried everything he could think of to save him but there were no loopholes. So he commanded that Daniel be brought and thrown to the lions. He said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” The cave was sealed and the king went to his palace and spent a sleepless night, fasting.
At daybreak the king rushed to the cave and called out to Daniel, who told him that he was alive – that God had shut the mouths of the lions because he was blameless before God. He added that he was also blameless before the king. The king rejoiced and had Daniel brought out of the cave. Then he had those who had instigated all this thrown into the lions’ den along with their families, where they met a grisly end.
So try to imagine being in Daniel’s sandals. He has been in Babylon probably some 50-70 years at this point, serving in government at the highest levels under both the Babylonian and the Persian regimes. Yet after all that time, his enemies still refer to him as “one of the exiles.” He is not “one of us” he is “one of them,” an outsider, an alien. He is a threat. Though he has a lot of power and influence governmentally, he has no power personally, no rights, no recourse. He doesn’t argue or protest as he is lowered into the cave, but just imagine when his feet touch ground and the stone seals the opening leaving pitch black darkness. It is hopeless for Daniel unless God comes.
Many of Israel’s hopes and dreams of a coming Messiah come out of the exile period. Humbled, powerless, displaced, a despised immigrant population. Out of such despair comes the deep yearning for God to come and to save. Those Advents when we struggle to “get into the Christmas spirit,” when we have experienced great loss or family disunity or general disillusion, are the years when we are “in the Advent spirit” of exile. It is in those periods of exile and powerlessness when we know what it means to really and truly need God to come and to do something.
It didn’t end when the Messiah came. Jesus was regarded as an outsider by the Jewish establishment. They knew they couldn’t trap him with his character, values, and morals, but they could get him with his religion. They framed him with the charge of blasphemy and made it impossible for the government not to nail him to the cross. He died and was placed in a borrowed tomb, a cave, and the stone was rolled up to seal it and bring total darkness. But God came again and rolled that stone away.
And this is the continuing story of Advent. Not that death is always averted for faithful exiles by any means. But that exile is the place where we see most clearly our desperate need for God. Time in the wilderness. A spiritual desert. Feeling alone and vulnerable. I think you know what I’m talking about. It’s not an experience we desire to have, but it is an experience without which we do not become all that we can be. Instead of imagining that God has driven us into exile when we find ourselves there, let us instead expect that God meets us there and is eager to sustain us and teach us as we go through the experience.
Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. So let Advent begin! Come, Lord Jesus!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
November 27, 2016 – Central Presbyterian, Anderson