by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The readings for Sunday, December 2, 2012:
optional reading: Luke 23:1-5
Today we get the story of Daniel in the lions' den; yes, it's the same Daniel as the friend of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were thrown in the fiery furnace. Here we see another Biblical figure, like Joseph centuries earlier, a figure held captive by an alien empire, a figure with the power to interpret dreams.
We also see the story of a faithful man, like so many other Biblical stories. When the powerful leaders of the alien empire decree the religious practices of the Jews to be illegal, Daniel continues to pray several times a day. He's obvious about it. Like Jesus, he's on a collision course with the empire.
As with the Old Testament story of Esther, we see a king manipulated by those who surround him. He doesn't want to put Daniel in the lions' den, but the law is the law, and so, Daniel is walled up.
But God protects him because he is faithful. God finds Daniel blameless. Chastened, the king has the manipulative advisers walled up with the lions, where they are not so fortunate: the lions rip apart their limbs.
I can now hear my atheist friends snorting in scorn: "We're expected to believe that God swooped down and saved Daniel from hungry lions?"
Focusing on whether or not the story could actually happen isn't very useful here. As with the story of Jonah a few weeks ago, we lose the point of the story if we focus on whether or not a man could live in the stomach of a whale for 3 days or if a man could survive overnight when walled in a chamber with hungry lions or survive a fiery furnace.
We shouldn't focus on the literal truth, but that shouldn't prevent us from thinking about the other truths of these stories. Above all, again and again we see stories of God who can make a way out of no way. We see stories of a God who will not be stopped by events that hold humans back.
I see this story of Daniel as one that reminds us of the importance of our religious practices. But I also see it as a story about the problems of law and strict adherence to the law. Because of the interpretation of the law, the king had no choice but to condemn Daniel. The main focus of the story is that God rewards faithfulness, but an important undergirding of the story is the message that the law, with all its strictures, will not lead us to freedom.
Many of us may feel like Daniel, strangers in a strange land, an alien empire, full of practices that we don't fully understand. Many of us find ourselves in workplaces and other cultures where we don't find many other Christians, if we find any at all. We may find ourselves struggling to stay true to our Christian values in a world that doesn't reward us for that and may in fact actively punish us.
The stories in the book of Daniel are designed to comfort those of us who labor under an alien empire. These stories remind us that although the larger culture may not reward us, God watches and God is the one who is ultimately in charge.
We may not escape from all of our lions' dens, but we can be sure that God will reward our faithfulness.