Today we’re continuing the summer series on courage, with a classic Sunday School favorite.
Our hero Daniel was Jewish; he was living under Persian rule and working in the administration of King Darius. The Bible says he had an excellent spirit. When Daniel was about to get promoted over all the presidents and satraps, these other officials decided to hatch a plot to take him out.
They lured the king into signing a new law that goes: Our allegiance belongs only to the king. Anyone who prays to any power who *isn’t* the king, well, that person shall be executed by getting thrown into a den of hungry lions.
But you know Daniel… Daniel was faithful to God. He continued to go into his room and pray to the LORD three times a day, seeking mercy. Everybody knew he did that. So sure enough, his colleagues turned him in, and even though it grieved King Darius, he had no choice, he had signed the law. Daniel was thrown into the pit of lions. And the king was afraid.
Spoiler Alert: Daniel was not eaten. When King Darius learned that he survived, the king called on all the people to believe in God. He also issued an order. He had Daniel’s accusers thrown to the lions along with their wives and children. The lions killed them, breaking all of their bones in pieces…
The scripture Sue read is one of those stories that has made its way through the game of Telephone that is the Christian faith. As in many games of Telephone, some of the message gets passed along clearly, and some of it gets jumbled.
We remember that Daniel is the hero. We remember the den of lions. (I mean, the story is not called, Daniel Prays Three Times A Day.)
We might not remember that the hapless king was tricked into passing this law. We might not remember that, even though he was dismayed when he had to enforce it against Daniel, the king didn’t even blink when he ordered the other officials and their families to get ripped to bits.
As the story gets passed around, we might begin thinking that the lions were really a test of faithfulness. You would be forgiven if you thought the lions were sent by God. Now they weren’t. The whole point of the story is: Don’t mistake the LORD for the king, but then, that’s exactly what happens.
All through the story of the Church, one of our greatest sins is that we’ve worked to pass along stories that make people afraid of God.
I was probably eight or nine years old, and I was watching an episode of Little House on the Prairie. That was the first time I ever heard the phrase “God-fearing.” That was mystifying! Why would they want people to fear God? As you can guess, I was told: Oh. That’s an old-fashioned way of describing respect. It’s more like wonder and awe than terror. And okay…
But is it?
I think there’s some terror mixed in too.
The Church has told the stories that God was so enraged by human sin, Jesus had to come to our rescue and die on our behalf in order to appease God’s wrath. The Church has made it its business to twist Bible stories into delivering the takeaway that goes: You better do this, Or else… You better obey the LORD, Or else— floods, plagues, lions…
Maybe the old preachers pushing these narratives were thinking: What’s the harm if people are a little bit scared of God? That will just make them want to be good!
But you and I know. This approach has handed down trauma generation after generation.
The way I see it, there are at least two problems with passing on the stories that make us afraid of a cruel, punishing, Heavenly Father. The first problem is that we’re quick to believe these stories. They speak right to the shame we keep hidden in our souls. The second problem is that, really, we don’t believe these stories. They’re not true, and something in us already knows that.
The first problem with passing on the stories of the big fish who will swallow you, or the lions who will eat you, or the fires of hell that will burn you forever— the problem is there’s something in us that is all too ready to agree. God is judging us, and boy do we know we fall short! We know the stench of our own sin. We know that probably the Holy Spirit is furious with us because they have every right to be.
This is the same impulse in each of us that knows, whatever you do, don’t read the comments, but then we go ahead and read the comments. There could be ninety-nine posts of affirmation and one complaint, and of course it’s that one complaint that cuts us to the quick!
One reason why people are suspicious of the Christian faith is because they hear about the lions, because maybe God is out to get us, and maybe we deserve it. That’s the first problem.
The next problem with handing down the notion of a terrorizing God is that — it’s not true. And in the place of our deepest authenticity, we know that. And Hallelujah.
Back when God was singing the world into being, when she was knitting us together before we were born, some of the singing of the Holy Spirit got into each of us. But so did the grace of God.
In the heart of our hearts, in the deep place where we are most ourselves, each of us is harboring the compassion of the LORD God himself. You can’t help it. You didn’t put it there. You can’t get rid of it.
All this time, you’ve had the mercy of the Holy One shining in your own spirit. And can you imagine if we really believed this? Can you imagine if we began to recognize this shining grace in each other? Because I can! I think this might be exactly what we’re doing here.
One reason why people are suspicious of the Christian faith is because they hear about the lions. They hear all those stories that end with a You better, Or else… And they know, this is not really true. This is not really God. Hallelujah.
Here is a fun question to ask your future preachers. If you could say one thing, and the deal is, the people will believe you —just one thing, what would tell them?
I would say: You are more forgiven than you know.
We’re all more forgiven than we know, and that’s saying something because deep in our heart, we already know the forgiveness of God like we know our own mama’s voice. We always have.
I know, these days, people are wondering, What is the point of Church. When I hear this concern, it helps me to remember what Bishop Yvette Flunder says about communion. She says: “We can wait for each other. We can hope and believe that those who say cruel things today will say kind things tomorrow… We can’t give up on one another, for we are all the body of Christ and we can wait for each other.”1 My thanks to Dr. Benjamin Ledell Reynolds for sharing this excerpt from Bishop Flunder’s writings.
I’m telling you, if this believing that people can change, if this waiting for each other until the grace in me recognizes the grace in you, if this is all the Church ever did, it would be worth keeping around. It would be worth struggling for.
If all we did as a Church is practice forgiveness in this world hellbent on revenge…
If all we did was take seriously the work of compassion in this world that’s so terrified…
If all we did was begin to repent from the stories that threaten and begin telling the stories of mercy, this would change the world! It would have to.
The story Sue read speaks to the Jewish people who have survived the exile. They were scattered in diaspora far from their homeland; they were facing persecution for their faith. By lifting up the story of Daniel’s civil disobedience, and passing it around at the table, they were letting his faith renew their faith. Daniel’s courage was reviving their courage. This is what makes this story worth sharing!
Legend has it that when Gandhi was imprisoned for civil disobedience in South Africa, there was a Bible in his jail cell. He came upon the story of Daniel which became a touchstone for him. When Gandhi went on to give speeches rallying the Indian people in South Africa, he told them the story of Daniel and called on them to share in Daniel’s courage.2https://www.bobcornwall.com/2018/10/in-lions-den-reflection-on-daniel-6.html
I know that somewhere along the game of Telephone, we might have gotten mixed up. We might have learned that God sent the lions, as though God is so insecure he demands our fealty, as though God needs to be prayed to three times a day, or else…
Instead, as the story goes, the LORD our God does pretty much one thing. It happens after the part Sue read, when Daniel is already lions’ den. That’s when God sends an angel to come down from heaven and find Daniel in the pit. The angel of the LORD closes the mouths of the lions. (Now you’re right to ask: But what about those others who got eaten? That’s entirely fair! Still.) The one task God performs in this entire story is to show up and stop the violence.
And what if we learned that from the LORD? What if we learned how to disarm the angry, and turn in our own weapons, and close the mouths of the lions… What if we made it our mission to see the mercy of God shining in each other and believe it… If that’s all our church ever did, it would bring a measure of healing to this fearsick world.
This is the love that drives out fear, and now we’re braver than we ever meant to be. We’re more forgiven than we know. Hallelujah.