It’s the first Sunday in Advent—a time when when we’re usually prepared to sing songs of the season and hear the familiar stories that will lead us up to the manger, whether it’s the preparatory texts in Luke’s Gospel or the prophecies of Isaiah, or the echoes of the Exodus story in Matthew’s Gospel. While there are lots of texts to choose from, Advent is always a challenge for preachers because we tend to cover the same territory.
But this year, using the Narrative Lectionary, we’re confronted with a text that looks like anything but an Advent story. If you grew up in the church, the story of Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6) is a familiar one that we learn in Sunday School as children. It’s a wonderful story of faithful resistance in the midst of a pagan and hostile culture—something we’ve been talking about a lot over the last few weeks.
But what does that have to do with Advent, which is about preparing for the coming of Jesus? I mean, the trees and the lights are up here in the sanctuary, the Christmas cookies are baking, and yet we have this story of intrigue, conspiracy, a clueless king, a den of ravenous lions, and a desperate situation.
Well, I’m not sure what the creators of the lectionary had in mind, but as I have studied this text over the last couple of weeks, one of the things that stood out to me is that the story of Daniel is, in many ways, the story of Jesus in microcosm. If we’re going to make the journey toward the manger, then it’s important that we do so knowing where the rest of the story will take us afterward. Daniel kind of gives us a model for not only understanding what will happen to Jesus, but also a model for us as Jesus’ followers. As we prepare for his coming again, we are reminded that character, conviction, and faithfulness are virtues that are foundational for the people of God.
I think there are four things we learn from Daniel’s story that can help us connect to the Jesus story and help us to connect to the kind of people we are called to be as we await his coming. As we lay the story of Daniel and Jesus beside one another, we will also learn that these are four critical markers for those who follow Jesus and would seek to be like him.
Both Daniel and Jesus are aliens in a strange land. We learn early in the book of Daniel that he was a young man when the Babylonians invaded the kingdom of Judah and took away many of the people into exile in Babylon. Daniel was one of those exiles. But like Joseph, whom we read about earlier in this series, Daniel is able to catch the attention of those in power and rises to a position of authority even in this foreign kingdom. He will prophesy the downfall of Babylon and the rise of the Persian empire which will overtake it, and he retains his position throughout the transition. By the time we reach chapter 6, Daniel is likely a very old man. But even though he has lived away from his home in a pagan culture for most of his life, we learn that Daniel is still faithful to the God of Israel in every way.
The same could be said of Jesus, who Paul says in Philippians 2, “emptied himself” of his heavenly glory as the second person in the Trinity and exiled himself to earth in human form to live among a people who were themselves in exile, bound in slavery to sin and death. Jesus reflects the character of God even when he is tempted to be otherwise. He will be seen as one in authority, even though he holds no office. He will be faithful to God in every way.
To be a follower of Jesus, then, is to be in the same mold as Daniel and him. We are “aliens and exiles on the earth” as 1 Peter 2:11 puts it. That doesn’t mean that our real home is somehow in heaven that we are just passing through here. Rather, it means that we recognize that the earth is not as it should be. We live as a people who know that a greater kingdom is coming—a kingdom not from this world but that is certainly for this world, as we pray in the Lord’s prayer. In the meantime, we live as strangers and aliens in the present world because we have been given a glimpse of the reality of the new creation made possible in Jesus. Advent reminds us that we live in this new creation already, working toward its completion. Like Jesus, we “empty ourselves” in service of that new creation, counting on the redemption of the old.
How do we do that? Well that’s the second parallel.
Both Daniel and Jesus were blameless and obedient. Nothing could shake Daniel’s faithful obedience. In the text we find that the satraps were jealous of Daniel’s authority in the kingdom and looked for ways to get rid of him via some scandal. But they couldn’t find anything wrong with him. Daniel was faithful and obedient in prayer and conduct. He was blameless. The same could be said of Jesus, who lived a blameless and sinless life, fully obedient to God—obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
The blameless obedience of Daniel and Jesus confronts us here at the beginning of Advent. Could we hold up to such scrutiny? Are we truly blameless and obedient as followers of Christ? What would your family say? What would your boss say? What would your internet browser say? Daniel and Jesus are the models for those who would be Christians. Both finished well.
None of us is perfect, but as Methodists we know that the real goal of the Christian life is to be perfected in love and grace and character. God’s sanctifying grace enables us, but we must respond by eliminating anything scandalous from our lives. I once heard a pastor talk about a group of friends he met with for accountability and the one question they could ask one another at any time, in any place, was this: Are you clean? That’s a great question to ask and answer! It’s the kind of question that leads to repentance and change. May we be known for being blameless and obedient!
Both Daniel and Jesus faced opposition and death. The satraps were so jealous of Daniel that they concocted a law that the king, Darius, was to the be the only object of the people’s prayers. They constructed this law specifically to trap Daniel, who kept praying to the God of Israel three times a day as he had done his whole life. They knew that Daniel would not give up on his conviction or his relationship with his God, so they boxed the king into a corner in an attempt to eliminate Daniel.
Jesus faced intense opposition throughout his ministry. The Pharisees and other religious leaders were constantly trying to trap him, seeing him as a threat. He would be falsely accused and brought to trial on trumped up charges of being the Son of God and the King of Israel. Like Daniel, however, Jesus was only guilty of being faithful to God and to his mission. Both would suffer for their faith and conviction.
We often forget this as followers of Jesus. We want to be liked—so much so that we will often compromise our faith in order to fit in. We forget that following Jesus is a prescription for persecution—the world can’t stand those who will not bow to its idols. Jesus promised his disciples that they would have enemies because of their association with him, but that they were to love those enemies anyway. Indeed, being persecuted means that disciples are doing something right for God’s kingdom! That’s not an easy way to go, which is why many Christians don’t take that way. It’s so much easier to give in, to compromise little by little until we are Christian in name only and not in character.
There are plenty of compromised Christians—compromised by sin, by political ideology, by power, by wealth. They are cultural Christians but not real disciples—“almost” Christians as Wesley called them. But real disciples have always been few in number. The real question is, how will you be Christian when it costs you something?
Both Daniel and Jesus are condemned to death by rulers who know that the men they are condemning are innocent. Darius doesn’t want to throw Daniel to the lions, but the law says he must. Pilate didn’t want to send Jesus to the cross, but the crowd and the pragmatic Roman rule of law said that he must. Darius even tells Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” Jesus gets no such wish from Pilate, who washes his hands of the whole affair.
Faith costs. It cost Daniel dearly, but then again he was prepared. Daniel could have prayed silently and secretly, but that wasn’t his custom. No matter the cost, Daniel was going to pray to God and not compromise even for the king. In fact, some commentators have said that Daniel’s bedroom was the real lion’s den. That’s where the battle was fought and won. By committing himself to continue in prayer, he won the only battle that really mattered. While his enemies were conspiring against him, Daniel was conspiring with God in prayer and in hope. The real miracle in this story is not that Daniel survived his night with the lions, but that he continued to pray when his very life was on the line.
Jesus continued to pray in Gethsemane and not run away even though he knew he would face the cross. The real people of God follow these examples, fighting the enemy on our knees.
The cost of being a real Christian has gone up in our own time. We have seen martyrs in the Middle East who have died for their faith. We will continue to see Christians ostracized in the public eye because they refuse to bend to the culture. The question is, will we continue to be faithful, even when it costs us everything?
Both Daniel and Jesus are rescued by God. Daniel is thrown into a cave filled with hungry lions. Jesus is laid in a cave filled with the stench of death and decay. Both have a stone rolled over the entrance—a sign that they have been given over to death.
But then came morning. The stone was rolled away and Daniel was found healthy and alive among lions as docile as a kitten. The stone was rolled away and Jesus was not found in the cave, but alive outside it. Angels attended them both—life was made possible when it seemed impossible.
It is this promise of rescue and resurrection that has sustained Christians in times of difficulty. The God who raised Jesus from the dead and shut the mouths of lions is the same God who walks beside us. No matter what pit we find ourselves in, God can rescue us. Maybe it is the pit of despair, the pit of addiction, the pit of grief, the pit of a sinful past—know this: God is able. We have hope because we know our God is able to bring life in the midst of death; to confound the rulers of this world with his resurrection power; and to make a way when their is no way.
That’s the real conspiracy—a conspiracy of hope. We know something the rest of the world yet does not. Daniel knew it, Jesus knew it, and we can know it, too—God wins!
There is one difference between Daniel and Jesus, however. Daniel was confronted by lions; Jesus, on the other hand, is a lion. Revelation 5:5 calls him the “lion of Judah, the Root of David, who has conquered.” We need never fear the lions, because we know the one who rules them all!
Advent is a time for hope. We need it now more than ever. But in addition to hope, we need courage. Daniel reminds us that we know where this story will lead—it always leads to an empty cave.
The lion is no longer there. He is here!