No Lions This Time, But Dreams and Fire (find the reading here)
The book of Daniel tells the story of Daniel, a faithful Jew, in exile in Babylon at King Nebuchadnezzar’s court. The book has two sections – the first, where our passage is located, tells a series of stories about the faith of Daniel. Daniel and his friends actively maintain their faith in Israel’s God, even when tempted and threatened by a powerful king. The second part of the book is a series of visions, and most scholars date the book to the second century BCE.
Daniel and his friends, most commonly known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are brought to court by the king, who culls out the fittest and best looking of his Hebrew captives. The first test is whether they will eat the unclean food of the foreign court. They ask for water and vegetables, and their overseer protests that he will be in trouble if they aren’t found to be fit and robust. They agree to a test, to see if they can remain healthy on the vegetable diet, and they show a touching level of compassion for the concerns of their jailer.
The stories in Daniel echo other familiar hero stories in the Hebrew scriptures.
Daniel first comes to the attention of the king when Nebuchadnezzar is having troubling dreams that he can’t understand. Just like Joseph, Daniel is able to interpret the dream, and the king rewards him with a position at court. At the same time, the king sends the three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, off to oversee the affairs of the province.
The next part of the story echoes the Book of Esther, where someone denounces the foreigners because they won’t bow down and worship as commanded. In this case, the three friends of Daniel won’t fall to the ground and worship the golden statue the king has set up. As the story says, “the Chaldeans” denounce the friends, saying, “There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” The king commands that they be thrown into a furnace, where the God of Israel preserves them.
The well-known story of Daniel in the lions’ den comes a little later, in chapter six, where Daniel is serving the third king in the story, and again gets into trouble for continuing to worship the God of Israel. (You’ll find that story in Year 3 of the Narrative Lectionary.)
Daniel’s story is the story of faith in adversity. The setting is Israel’s exile in Babylon, but the book was written later, about 165 BCE. Some scholars believe that the stories were originally folktales, and that some date back to the time of the exile, and were compiled later. The book was written in the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, who defiled the temple and prevented people from worshipping. The historical setting mirrors the setting of the book of Daniel, and the stories convey the message that God will preserve the faithful through times of oppression by foreign powers.
The book of Daniel is part of the apocalyptic literature of the Bible, writing which reveals God’s mysteries, and looks ahead to the reign of God. L. Michael White observes that “Really, all apocalyptic literature is much more a response to a concrete set of circumstances, often political circumstances that drive this sense that we have to look for a mode of deliverance from God. And Daniel was, as a book, really responding to the political crisis of Antiochus Epiphanes and the political forces of war that are all about. …” Faith is about the mystical – like dreams and visions – and also about the real world around us right now. Daniel embodies both.
Possibilities for the Sermon
- Part of the story of Daniel is the story of faith in a foreign land, surrounded by people who believe differently. We live lives of extraordinary religious freedom, and yet we are also surrounded by people of other faiths, or no faith. How do we live with strength of faith in our own diverse world? What does it mean to be the minority? How do we show our faith to the people around us in ways that reveal God in our actions?
- Daniel and his fellow Jews stand out at the foreign court because of their different faith, and because they refuse to bow down and worship something they don’t believe in. Do we feel pressure to worship the foreign gods around us, gods of success…material gain…the display of our education, wealth, and status? How do we hold on to God’s presence in a culture with such different values? How do we stand out from our culture’s version of foreign gods?
- If you’re preaching on this story on December 1, you’ll be preaching on it during the Jewish season of Hanukkah, which dates from the same time period when Daniel was written. As a holiday, Hanukkah also honors faithfulness to God, and God’s saving care in a time of desolation. The sermon might talk about our indebtedness, as Christians, to our Jewish ancestors, and talk about how our Jewish heritage has shaped our Christian faith.
- For Daniel, like Moses, Jacob, Joseph at Pharaoh’s court, and the later Joseph, among others, God is revealed in dreams. How do we hear God’s voice in the wisps of dreams, in the synchronicity of life, in the elusive messages that often slip past us? How can we listen better to those small voices in our own lives?
Where are you headed this week? Please join the conversation in the comments. As always, thanks to Working Preacher for the marvel that is the Narrative Lectionary.