Sunday, November 18, 2007

Standing for God - A sermon preached in Ballyward and Rathfriland on 18th November 2007. Daniel 6

I want to ask you a question today. If the government made it illegal to pray, would it make any difference to you? Would there be enough evidence to convict you?

In our Old Testament reading today, we heard of events in Babylon during the reign of King Darius. The king made a law that said you weren’t allowed to pray to God or to a false god or to any person, except the king. As we think about what happened, we’ll see how Daniel stands up for God, even when it is dangerous and unpopular.

Daniel, you might remember, was a young man from Judah who was carried away to Babylon when Jerusalem was destroyed by its enemies. The book of Daniel records some of the events of his life, as he and his friends (Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego) stood up for God away from home.

By the time we come to today’s reading, Daniel is an older man, and helps the king to run the country. He’s like one of the top civil servants in the country, or something like the Prime Minister or First Minister.

If you were listening closely, you will have heard that Daniel was very good at his job, so that the king was going to put him into the top job alone. But you know what? His colleagues and fellow-workers didn’t like this, and didn’t like him. His good work showed up their bad work. His work life was a witness to his faith in God.

So they planned to ambush him. They needed to find something to bring him down. Something to have him removed from his job. But what? There was no corruption, nothing that he had done wrong. Until they realised that they could attack him through his faith.

His colleagues got the king to pass the law banning all prayers (except to the king) for the next month. Imagine it, thirty days without prayer! You’ve maybe heard the old phrase that ‘seven days without prayer makes one weak.’ What would Daniel do for thirty days?

Look at verse 10. There we see his response to the problem. He doesn’t launch a protest march, or a letter-writing campaign, or complain to the rector. What does he do? ‘Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened towards Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.’

Law or no law, Daniel would not be stopped from praying! More than that, when the men go to catch him praying, they find him ‘praying and asking God for help.’ It was probably the easiest crime ever solved. The law said you couldn’t pray; the men went to Daniel’s house and found him praying. Case closed. And what would the punishment be?

The law stated clearly – thrown into the lions’ den. Despite the king trying to find a way to stop it, he could do nothing. The law said it, so it must happen. Daniel would be thrown to the lions. Even thought the king did it reluctantly, notice that he expresses some hope or trust in God himself – “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” The king who had banned prayer was praying himself!

When I was preparing for this morning, I was struck by the forward hint of Jesus’ death. Look at verse 17. ‘A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the ring of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation may not be changed.’ Does it remind you of how Pilate and the chief priests sealed Jesus’ tomb? ‘So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting a guard.’ (Matthew 27:66)

What would happen? Would God save Daniel? How could it happen? I know this story is probably very familiar to you, and you’ve heard it many times, but try to hear it again for the first time.

It seems that Daniel spent a better night than the king. Daniel was in the den of lions, whereas the king couldn’t eat or drink, and he didn’t even want any entertainment. I don’t think this meant that he didn’t play on his Nintendo Wii or his Playstation, but he didn’t have a happy night. Then he couldn’t even sleep, he was so worried about Daniel.

Early the next morning, he rushes to the den of lions and shouts out to Daniel – if you’re in there, let me know! ‘Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?’ Would Daniel answer? Or had he been eaten for supper by the lions?

Then amazingly, Daniel’s voice echoes out of the den of lions, answering the king! ‘O king, live for ever! My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions.’ Isn’t this great? Daniel wasn’t left alone to avoid the jaws of the hungry lions. God intervened to save him, to stop the lions from eating him. Remember, it wasn’t because the lions weren’t hungry that they didn’t eat him – later when his accusers are thrown to the lions they are overpowered before they even reach the bottom of the den. Only God could have saved and rescued Daniel.

If you were looking closely, you might even find another forward picture of Jesus. Remember how Daniel had been put in the den, and the entrance stone sealed? Think of verse 23. ‘The king was overjoyed and gave orders to lift Daniel out of the den. And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no would was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.’ Daniel was lifted, or raised from the den. We see an image of Jesus’ death and resurrection in Daniel.

But for today – what does the reading mean for us? What difference will it make to you and me? Firstly, there’s the challenge of the working witness. How would your colleagues fare if they were trying to bring you down? Are your business dealings above board? Or in school, is all the work you do your own? Do you cheat, or study?

There’s also the challenge of our evidence as Christians. As I asked at the start, if you were charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? How important is your prayer life? Daniel prayed three times a day – but once would be a good place to start! A regular pattern or routine can help get started. It isn’t easy, but stick at it. God delights to hear our prayers.

These challenges all come under the main point, though. The call today is to stand for God, trusting in him, even when things are difficult – especially when times are hard. Despite facing the threat of the lions den, Daniel kept praying to his God. Remember those words from the end of verse 23. ‘No wound was found on him because he had trusted in his God.’

By trusting in God, Daniel had been saved. In the book of James it says this – ‘Come near to God and he will come near to you.’ (James 4:8), and in 1 Samuel 2:30, God says – ‘Those who honour me, I will honour.’

Are you standing for God today? The real hero in our reading today is not Daniel. Yes, we should be like him and do what he did. But the real hero in our reading today is – God. He is the one who reaches out and rescues Daniel. If God can shut the mouths of hungry lions for Daniel, then what can he do for you? Nothing is too difficult for him. Will you stand for God, and see what God will do for you?

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