Daniel teaches to stand firm in commitment

3/18/2008

By Sue Whitt

April 6
Daniel Keeps Covenant in a Foreign Land
Purpose:
To explore how to maintain our identity as the people of God in a secular and diverse culture.
Bible Lesson: Daniel 1:8-20
Key Verse: “But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself.” — Daniel 1:8.

If we want to travel back to the time and place of Daniel, we have to remember how he got to the royal court of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. God had made promises to his ancestors and those promises had been realized. After escaping some enemies, they had conquered others and for a couple of centuries had a united kingdom worshiping one God. They failed to hold it together. The united kingdom split. The citizens of neither could hold up their side of God’s covenant with them. Eventually, Assyria conquered and destroyed the northern kingdom. About a century later, the new superpower, Babylon, conquered Daniel’s country, Judah.

The invaders destroy the temple and plunder it, taking its treasurers back to display in Babylon. They also take four young men from the best families of Judah to display in the king’s palace. These young men learn the language and history of their new home. They get new names. They are offered royal rations of food and wine.

Their old home is gone. They can’t go back. Somebody very powerful is in charge of their future. They had no control over their deportation. They didn’t refuse their new names. Yet, they do choose to refuse the royal food. We are not told why their identity was less important than their diet. But, we are told that they were willing to make a stand on what was important to them.

This refusal frightens the palace master. If they don’t eat the good food, they might be weakened, and that would make him look bad. He’s answerable to the king’s orders. “Just give us a 10-day trial,” Daniel asks. The palace master agrees. He must have been surprised at the end of the 10 days to find that Daniel and his friends were healthier than the others.

If we want to bring Daniel’s situation into our own time, we need to ask ourselves under whose authority are we living? Why are we spending our lives where and how we are? Whose wishes are we willing to follow? What parts of our lives are decided on the basis of what somebody else needs for us to do — our jobs, the expectations of our neighbors, the requirements of our families?

What is necessary for our happiness (or success)? But also, what is satisfying to us? What makes our lives easier? More amusing? When do we go along with someone else’s wishes, and when must we say no? Are we caught in a situation where king and God do not agree?

Consider those times in your life when you have made a stand, a time when you realized that you had to do what God wanted rather than what someone in charge of you wanted you to do. Are there activities now that you just cannot agree to take part in?

 

April 13
Three Refuse to Break Covenant
Purpose:
To examine what is involved in true worship of God
Bible Lesson: Daniel 3:10-13, 16-18, 21, 24
Key Verses: “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” — Daniel 3:17-18

Time has passed. Daniel has impressed King Nebuchadnezzar who then promoted him and his three friends to significant leadership positions. This week’s lesson opens with the description of the huge golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar has set up. All of the officials of all levels of government are assembled. The king’s herald tells them that they are all required to fall down in front of the statue and worship it. Almost everyone complies. Because they are Jews, Daniel’s three friends refuse.

Certain Chaldeans came forward and denounce this refusal. By not bowing down to the statue, they are not only apostates to the official religion, they are showing disloyalty to the nation itself. The Chaldeans got this one right. The Jews do not share their religion, and all their loyalties lie elsewhere. 

Of course the king is furious. What ruler can bear such public disobedience, such disloyalty? He threatens to throw them into a fiery furnace. They still refuse. “We aren’t going  to bow down to the statue no matter what threats you make. God will protect us, and even if God doesn’t, we’re not going to worship any other god.” 

First, consider Nebuchadnezzar’s point of view. He has rescued these three young men from a devastated country and put them in positions of honor and responsibility.  All he is asking is that they show what he considers to be proper gratitude and respect. How can a nation survive if the people don’t obey the law? Or, putting this question another way, whose laws should a nation’s people obey? Who gets to decide which laws are more important than others?

Then, consider our own situation. We have no Nebuchadnezzar in our lives. Nobody is demanding that we bow down to any really big golden gods. But, we do have a desire for our wellbeing and security. What loyalty do we owe to the country that protects us? How do we make our choices when nation and religion are in conflict? Do we live by fear or faith? It’s not only the government that directs our loyalties. Employers, families, and neighbors all have influence over our decisions.

The story in Daniel is one of miraculous deliverance, but not all Bible stories — or stories in our own experience — have such happy endings. Can we emulate these three faithful Jew who acted on the basis of what they knew was right although they had no certainty that their deliverance would come?

 

April 20
Daniel’s Life-and-Death Test
Purpose:
To acknowledge that our ability to serve as faithful disciples requires faithful practice of spiritual disciplines
Bible Lesson: Daniel 6:4-7, 10, 16, 19, 21, 25-26b
Key Verse: “Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.” — Daniel 6:10

Babylon has a new king, Darius, but like his predecessor, he trusts Daniel and gives him a position of great authority. When they realized that Darius planned to set Daniel over the whole kingdoms, his rivals for power began to plot against him.

They searched for some grounds of complaint or corruption but couldn’t even find any evidence of negligence on his part. So, they created a law that he would have to disobey. Anybody who prayed to anyone except to the king would be thrown into a den of lions. What pressure would keep any of us from praying for a month? Are we praying regularly enough that anyone is noticing the effect in our lives?

The previous king, Nebuchadnezzar, had thrown Daniel’s three friends in a furnace because he was angry with them. He had meant to hurt them. Darius has no intention of harming Daniel. He has been trapped by his advisors. Whether a king is intentionally cruel or inattentively manipulated, the result can be pretty much the same — a fiery furnace for his friends, a lion’s den for Daniel.

The friends wouldn’t pray to a false god; Daniel wouldn’t quit praying to the real one.

Daniel knew about the law, knew about the penalty, but he continued to pray; pray in front of an open window where he could be seen by his enemies. They told the king. He was distressed and wanted to save Daniel. Daniel’s enemies appealed to the concept of law and order. How can a king resist that argument?

When Darius commanded that Daniel be thrown into the den of lions, he said, “May your God save you!” Is he disobeying his own law?

The next morning, after a sleepless, foodless night, Darius rushes to see if his fervent prayer has been answered, if Daniel’s god has been able to save him. Daniel is there to greet him.

In our world, we can safely go into our homes and pray — even before open windows. How is Daniel’s bravery applicable to us? What requirements that God has placed on us are in conflict with what the society in which we live and by which we may be judged and may even be punished?

 

April 27
Daniel’s Prayer for the People
Purpose:
to recommit ourselves to a life of intercessory prayer, dependent on God’s mercy rather than on our righteousness
Bible Lesson: Daniel 9:1-7, 17-19
Key Verse: “Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his supplication, and for your own sake, Lord, let your face shine upon your desolated sanctuary.” — Daniel 9:17

Daniel has been in exile since he was a young man. Taken from his home, he has lived in the king’s palace and has been promoted to positions of authority. Yet, he is still a Jew. He quotes the prophet Jeremiah that the exile will last 70 years (Jeremiah 25 and 29). I’m not sure it’s important to the lesson, but I am diverted by wondering whether he brought physical scrolls with him to Babylon or whether he had studied sufficiently as a child to be able to quote scripture decades later.

Jeremiah had not only foretold the length of the devastation of Jerusalem, he had also explained the reason for it. “I’ve spoken persistently to you. I’ve sent prophets. But you wouldn’t listen.” (Jeremiah 25:1-7) Daniel knows that this accusation accurately describes the behavior of his people. He prays:

“We have sinned, we have not listened. We deserve all that has happened. We knew the penalty for disobedience. O Lord our God, listen to us. Look at us. We don’t deserve any help on the basis of our righteousness — there hasn’t been much of that. We’re asking for your help on the basis of your great mercies.”

Look at the Prayer of Humble Access in the United Methodist Hymnal, page 30. It begins, “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy great mercies….”

Daniel, like God’s people throughout the ages, rely on God’s nature when they recognize that their own nature is not worthy of or capable of saving. Then, he gives a further argument. “Do this for your sake,” vv. 17-18.  He is echoing the plea that Moses had made to God after one of the many rebellions during the exodus, “What will the Egyptians say about you if you kill your people?” (Numbers 14:13-17). Note that Moses also was relying on the steadfast love of God rather than on the deservedness of the people (Numbers 14:18-19).

Although Daniel had been in exile for a long time, although he had been living a life of opulence, he still identified with the people of Judah. He is still concerned with their well-being and survival. Although he has been surrounded by people with other loyalties, he remains faithful to God.

Daniel’s prayer of confession is a communal prayer. He’s admitting the sins of the people of Judah. He’s asking for restoration for the people. Look at the prayers in the UM Hymnal, 890-894. They too are communal prayers. Does your congregation share in confession during each worship service? How do you receive assurance that God is capable of and willing to restore us?

The Rev. Sue Whitt is a retired clergy member of the Mississippi Conference. She is active at Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church in Jackson.