Have you ever been in a den of lions?
You are called in to your boss’s office and when you open the door, there is your department supervisor and the head of HR. It feels like you are walking in to a den of lions.
You are sitting at your dining room table with bills piled high. There’s another stack of letters too: the eviction notice, the termination date, the warning that they will soon take the car back. You’re surrounded with troubles that are tearing you apart.
You are at the bedside of your loved one. The door opens and here comes your doctor and the doctor who was called in to consult and the charge nurse and the chaplain. You know that life is about to close in on you.
You are in a church Board meeting and – out of the blue – people who love each other start clawing and tearing at each other. You can’t believe your ears. What could possibly be so important that Christian friends would devour each other? You wish an angel would show up and shut all their mouths.
Whatever lions’ dens have threatened you over the course of your life, whatever the various details, we all can say “amen” – been there, done that.
And I’m guessing most all of us would say, like Daniel: “God saved me.” Maybe not the way our storyteller describes; there may not have been angels – but somehow, in some mystery – we knew we were not alone. We had strength beyond our own strength, wisdom beyond our own wisdom, endurance that we never could have imagined. And we know – God was in it, walking with us: carrying us, leading us, nudging us, protecting us.
The first six chapters are a collection of short stories from the Hebrew exile about Daniel and his good friends: Azariah, Mishael and Hananiah. Those of us who heard these stories growing up are used to calling Daniel’s friends by their Chaldean names: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
Do you remember the one about the fiery furnace? Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah are present at the dedication of a gigantic statue of King Nebuchadnezzar. When the drums roll and the flutes play, all the people are to bow down and worship the image. But – of course – good Hebrews that they are; Jews who have finally learned their lesson throughout this time of Exile and who have become thoroughly monotheistic – the three worshipers of the one true God will not bow down.
Nebuchadnezzar is furious. His face contorts with rage. His voice trembles and shouts and demands their allegiance. He spews and threatens and stokes the fires of the immense furnace.
I love their reply: “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 that we will still not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue.”
Their conviction reminds us of Queen Esther: “Our God can deliver; but if not, all right then – if I perish, I perish.”
To defy a king was death. And so, sure enough, the three courageous men were bound and tossed into the fiery furnace. But when the king looked closer, a fourth man could be seen walking with them in the fire. “One like a Son of Man,” the storyteller marvels.
A den of lions.
A furnace of fire.
We don’t go through hard times because we haven’t been good enough. As often as not, our obedience to God’s way, our faithfulness to God’s values are the very things that place us in opposition to the values of the world. It is exactly because we try to do what is right that we often find ourselves embroiled in some controversy.
So be it.
Like Daniel, like Hananiah, Meshael and Azariah – we will not define ourselves according to what other people think is right. We will not let fear decide our path. Because – like Daniel and his friends – we know God walks with us.
Malala Yousafazai reminds me of these bold believers.
Malala was 11 years old when the Taliban in her Pakistani hometown began to threaten the girls who dared to go to school. Misreading their own Scriptures and misunderstanding their own religion, the Taliban fanatics insisted girls should stay in their place and work in the home; they believed a formal education was unnecessary – even dangerous for their society.
Malala disagreed and began to say so publicly. “Why should I wait for someone else to speak up for me?” she asked. “I need to stand up for myself.” She did; and speaking up made her into a target. She had thought about this possibility of attack; threats and warnings were everywhere. She imagined herself facing a terrorist, wondering what she would do. “Maybe I’d take off my shoes and hit him. But then I’d think – if I did that, there would be no difference between me and the terrorist.” So she had a plan. She would say to her attacker: “Listen to me. What you are doing is wrong. Every girl ought to be able to go to school. OK, now shoot me.”
In 2012, Malala was 15 when the Taliban invaded her school bus and shot her in the face. Malala survived and fought her way back to her bold outspoken life.
On her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations General Assembly. In 2103, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. This year, she began her studies at Harvard.
Like Daniel, like Hananiah, Meshael and Azariah – she would not define herself according to what other people think is right.
She would not let fear decide her path.
In the Gospel of Mark, there is this little gem of a story about Jesus returning to his hometown. Jesus addresses the synagogue and begins to teach. But instead of a sweet homecoming, it turned into a den of lions; a fiery furnace.
As soon as Jesus started speaking, the little congregation took offense. “Who is this guy?! Mary’s uppity little boy, acting like he’s someone; talking like he’s better than us. And this guy is just a local construction worker; he ought to know his place.”
Why does Mark’s Jesus always seem to cause such a stir? What was the message Jesus brought and taught that caused such a backlash?
It was the word of the kingdom.
It was the good news that God’s kingdom is come near. It was the clash of kingdoms that sparked such resistance.
Like Daniel, like Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Esther and even Malala – Jesus’ power comes from a much different source than the kings and tyrants of this age.
Jesus was empowered by bold self-giving and audacious self-sacrifice.
Such mysterious power can be quite intimidating to some people. God’s power to save and heal and reconcile – not conquer and control. The power of love was the message Jesus preached.
But Jesus did more than to proclaim the message. Jesus did more than commit himself to the message. Jesus the Christ IS the message, the good news that the one true God is king and sovereign and lord of all creation.
Mark’s Jesus stands in that mysterious place as Son of God and Son of man. He is the one sent from God; the one in whom God is acting; the one by whom God is defeating every principality and power and empire and kingdom; the one through whom God is establishing the kingdom not made with human hands.
In the kingdom of heaven’s upside-down right-side-up reality, those who lose their lives, find them. Those who die to self find themselves. Strength is found in weakness. Wisdom comes through foolishness.
Jesus the Christ IS the good news that God is with the vulnerable, the rejected, the oppressed and the crucified.
When Jesus entered into his own fiery ordeal, he was able to say with complete confidence: “My God can save. But if I perish, I perish.”
When Jesus was placed in his own pit of death and the stone rolled over the opening and all hope was gone, death became life and hope was born for all of us.
Daniel icon by Betsy Porter