Like a modern day reality TV show, the story of Daniel moves back and forth between the officials conspiring against him, the weak and easily swayed king, and Daniel himself. While the officials plot and scheme, and the king struggles to use his power, Daniel is steadfast in his faith in God. As Daniel’s story comes to us on the first Sunday of Advent, he prompts us to think about what it means to be faithful to God while other competing interests swirl around us.
Our story happens in the book of Daniel after Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego endure the fiery furnace, and there’s a change in power at the top. Darius is a new king, but he hasn’t learned from his predecessors not to mess with the power of the God of Israel.
Read the scripture here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary here.
With all the plotting and scheming around him, Daniel has an enviable steadiness in his faith. He’s aware of the new law passed to trap him, but he continues to pray on his regular schedule, in a visible place. He doesn’t construct his faith to fit anyone around him.
Places of power and powerlessness pop up as the characters interact. Daniel is an influential official in the court of King Darius, and also a stranger, who worships a foreign God. The court officials force the king’s hand, hoping to get rid of Daniel, and ask the king for a law forbidding anyone to pray to anyone except the king for 30 days. Then they force the king to enforce the law, in spite of his misgivings. The king seems to be uncertain about how to use his power, and his officials are bossing him around like he’s in elementary school. The king reluctantly puts Daniel in with the lions, leaving Daniel without any of his own power. There, God’s power is revealed. In his prayer of praise, the king notes the power of the lions – and the greater power of God.
In his anguish about Daniel, the king is sleepless and unable to eat, until he rushes to the lions’ den in the morning. He calls out to Daniel to see whether God has saved him, and it seems that he’s expecting Daniel to be fine. The king doesn’t peer nervously in – he calls out to Daniel, with the expectation of an answer. Seeing Daniel alive and well prompts the king to acknowledge the God of Israel. All through the story, his words have been hesitant and conflicted. Now he speaks with clarity and purpose, praising God by saying:
“For he is the living God,
enduring for ever.
His kingdom shall never be destroyed,
and his dominion has no end.”
We begin Advent this year beset by national divisions and ugly politics, with a surge in hate crimes. For anyone feeling discouraged about the election, Daniel shows us a way to live our faith in a time of exile. For anyone rejoicing about the election, the king’s officials and the king show us how power can be used to punish, or how to proclaim God’s mercy. The words of a foreign king remind us that the kingdom of our God is more enduring than rulers and presidents. Advent begins with a call back to the power and grace of God.
- King Darius doesn’t seem to recognize, or want to use, the power he has. He’s pushed around for most of the story. None of us are kings or queens (that I know of…) but still we have different kinds of power in the world. How do we use the power we have to proclaim our God? In what places is our power blocked? Where do we find God’s power at work in our lives?
- The king expects God to triumph over the lions – and over his own inertia. Do we expect God’s victory over indifference and evil in our world? Or are we not quite sure?
- Are there places where we, like Daniel, live in a time or place of exile? Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon have famously said [in Resident Aliens: Life in Christian Colony] that we, as Christians, always live in a different world than the powers around us. Hauerwas and Willimon say, “The church is not to be judged by how useful we are as a “supportive institution” and our clergy as members of a “helping profession”. The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor.” How does Daniel teach us about turning toward God, instead of toward the world’s shifting powers?
- If Advent is about paying attention, watching for God’s presence in the world, where are we finding God in the midst of turmoil this Advent?
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. We would love to continue the conversation with you.
Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church. Her greatest spiritual lessons come from being the parent of a teenager. She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City. The image above is from the National Gallery of Art’s Open Images program, and is Peter Paul Rubens’ Daniel In the Lions’ Den.
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