Advent I; November 27, 2016
You may already know the story of Daniel in the lions' den and you just heard it read to you, but it's a good story worth retelling. Here's what I'm looking for in the story: reasons for hope. The difference between hope and optimism, I believe, is that if I am optimistic then I simply decide to have a positive attitude about things. If I am hopeful, I can give you reasons for it. Hope is built on evidence.
In the story, Daniel is a Hebrew exile. He had been dragged from Judah when the Babylonians conquered it, and his good looks and administrative abilities got him promoted to a high position in the Babylonian government. Then, when the Persians conquered Babylon, he likewise rose high in the Persian government. Now, the period of time covered by these events is more than a century, and throughout Daniel appears to be a vigorous young man. Artists normally present him that way (e.g. Rubens, Daniel in the Lions' Den). It's a story, okay?
The background of this story is the jealousy of Daniel's rivals in the Persian government. He has been promoted to one of the highest positions in the empire, over the heads of native Persians, and they are jealous. So they try to find something to accuse him of, in order to get rid of him. But Daniel is squeaky clean; they can't find anything to pin on him.
But there is something: he is a Jew, and known to be a faithful Jew. So perhaps they can find a way to get him because of his religion. Now, Persia is not Nazi Germany: there is nothing wrong with simply being a Jew. So they come up with a twisted plot. They convince King Darius to issue a decree that for a thirty day period no one is permitted to pray to anyone, god or human, except the King himself. They don't appear to give the King any reason for the decree, other than that everyone in the government thinks it's a good idea.
I don't know how they got the King to sign such a decree – perhaps they interrupted his nap – and so to pray to anyone except the King himself was forbidden for thirty days. And Daniel's rivals knew they had him, because as loyal as Daniel was to King Darius, he was even more loyal to the Lord his God. They knew he would continue to say his prayers, as required three times a day, even though the penalty would be to be thrown into the den of lions.
As expected, they catch Daniel praying to a temporarily forbidden god, and they accuse him to the King. Even an absolute monarch has to abide by his own laws, so Darius is forced to throw Daniel into the den of lions. The King is not in the least happy about it. Now he sees through their plot, and knows what they are doing, but the law is the law.
And here is the first sign of hope in this story: Darius at least bends, if not breaks, his own law and invokes Daniel's God in a prayer that God will protect Daniel. And Darius spends the night fasting: he stays up all night, unable to sleep and refusing to eat, hoping that his discipline of fasting will alert Daniel's God and that God will save Daniel.
I was out walking on one of those gloomy, overcast days this week and thinking about Daniel being lowered into the lions' den. We've come from the bright days of summer to Thanksgiving, complete with laughter and pie, and we are descending into the darkness of December and the shadows of Advent.Did Daniel draw his arms close around himself as he was lowered, trying to make himself small? In these cold, gloomy days I wrap my arms around myself for warmth and look for sunlight to pierce the clouds. It must have been dark in that den, and hot from all those large, warm bodies, and of course very, very frightening. Some of the Bible readings we do during Advent are frightening, about God's coming judgment and God's displeasure with the course we have been on for oh, too very long. Maybe King Darius is standing over us, fasting and praying to our God through the long Advent night.
Well, to finish the story. Although artists tend to focus on Daniel in the lions' den, and generally picture him praying, the story-teller is more interested in King Darius, who spends the night waiting for the dawn, fasting in hope that Daniel will be saved. And then we go with the King to the den, and learn when he does that Daniel is all right. God saved Daniel from the lions, we discover. I hope that I never have to find out if God would save me from the lions. I am no Daniel; I think the lions would react to me as you react to the pizza delivery guy. Anyway, God saved Daniel, the King's prayers paid off, and so the King punishes those who plotted against Daniel too severely, and then orders the people throughout the Empire to fear the God of Daniel. As we descend into the Advent darkness, we also wait for the morning, for the sun to rise and the light to reveal that God has saved us.
How about a Thanksgiving-related story to give us hope? In the Spring of 1621, when the Mayflower sailed back from Massachusetts to England, the struggling colony of Plymouth had 54 inhabitants, half of whom were children. The previous fall, when they landed, there had been 102 of them. Nearly half died during the winter; they had come to America woefully unprepared to establish a new community in a new land and had no idea what they were doing. They knew little about hunting, fishing, clearing property, or growing food.
As the starvation of the entire colony seemed likely, a Native American of about the age of thirty appeared by the edge of the forest; his name was Tisquantum, but the colonists called him Squanto. He was accompanied by another native named Samoset. To the astonishment of the colonists, the two natives greeted them in English; Samoset spoke some English and Tisquantum was fluent.
As a teenager, Tisquantum had been captured by a passing English sea captain. Taken to England, he learned to speak English. On a trip back across the Atlantic, he was captured by Spaniards who hoped to sell him into slavery. Instead, he was rescued by some Spanish Franciscans who looked after him and under whose tutelage he became a Christian. He eventually made it back home, where he discovered that the majority of his tribe had been wiped out by a plague, probably smallpox. So he was left without family and without tribe, but with the conviction that God had a purpose for his life.
And so, English-speaking, learned in the ways of the land, and with the servant's heart of a Christian, Tisquantum taught these English colonists how to hunt, fish, and plant corn. He introduced them to the native foods, and he negotiated peace treaties with the nearby native tribes. Those English colonists had much to give thanks for when they harvested their first crops that fall and invited their neighbors to feast with them.
If King Darius spent the long night of that Massachusetts winter praying for the Pilgrims, his prayers were answered when an English-speaking Native American Christian seeking God's purpose for his life appeared just when they needed someone who would teach them how to survive.
As the Advent darkness gathers around us, remember that Christmas morning will come. Christ will come, the Morning Star, the Dayspring, the source of all our light and hope. Say your prayers and stay away from lions, but somewhere someone like King Darius is praying for you, praying that your God will rescue you from all that frightens you. It seems very likely to me that, just when you need one, God will send a Tisquantum to help you and to lift you out of the lions' den.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church