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 lions’ den.
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 consultant 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 the particular lions’ dens that have threatened you over the course of your life, whatever the details, we all can say we’ve been there, done that.
And I’m guessing – on the other side of all these troubles – many of us might say, like Daniel: “God saved me.”
Maybe God hasn’t saved us in exactly the same way, not in the way our storyteller describes – but somehow, in some mystery – we knew we were not alone.
We knew we found strength beyond our own strength, wisdom beyond our own wisdom, endurance that we never could have imagined.
And we know – God was somehow in it all, walking with us, carrying us, leading us, nudging us, protecting us.
The first six chapters of the Book of Daniel are a collection of short stories from the Hebrew exile; stories 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/Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.)
These short stories function much like a novella, like we saw in the Books of Esther and Jonah.
Do you remember the story 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 commanded 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 – these 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.
It’s like the psalmist’s “nevertheless”
In that day, to defy a king was death.
And so 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.
These dens of lions. These furnaces of fire. We don’t go through hard times because we haven’t been good enough or faithful enough. No!
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.
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 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 formal education for women 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 Malala made 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 in 2013, Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Then in 2104, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Like Daniel, like Hananiah, Meshael and Azariah – Malala would not define herself according to what other people think is right.
Malala would not let fear decide her path.
In Mark chapter 6, there is this little gem of a story about Jesus returning to his hometown. Jesus addressed the synagogue and began to teach.
But instead of a sweet homecoming, it turned into a den of lions and 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 carpenter!
- he ought to know his place!
Why does Jesus always seem to cause such a stir? What was the message Jesus brought and taught that caused such 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 angry resistance.
Like Daniel, like Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, like Esther and even Malala – Jesus’ power comes from a much different source than the kings and tyrants of the 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 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, 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.
- He is the one in whom God is acting.
- He is the one by whom God is defeating every principality and power, every empire and kingdom.
- He is 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 (what we humans think is) foolishness.
Jesus the Christ IS the good news that God is with the vulnerable, the rejected, the oppressed and the crucified.
When Jesus was placed in his own den of death; when the stone rolled over the opening and all hope was gone – Jesus’ total obedience to God’s way and complete faithfulness to God’s values; his bold self-giving and audacious self-sacrifice invited God to do a bold and audacious and faithful thing: death became life and hope was born for all of us.
Living in The Story readings for Week 44
Daniel icon by Betsy Porter