Delivered at Ames UCC on November 27, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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DANIEL AND THE GOLDEN BOOKS
The earliest Near Eastern reference to Daniel that has surfaced to date is of a Ugaritic king in the 14th century BCE. After that time, a whole cycle of Daniel stories spread across the region. In the Bible proper he’s in this book, Daniel, as well as Ezekial. He is also in the extra-Biblical books of Susanna, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three, Bel and the Dragon, the Dead Sea Scroll called the Prayer of Nabonidus, and the Ugaritic Aqhat Epic.1
The first six chapters of the book of Daniel are a series of self-contained folk tales. Daniel shares qualities with other Biblical folk heroes, like Joseph’s gift of dream interpretation, and success in foreign politics like Mordecai, from the book of Esther.
As collected by our Jewish ancestors, these characters helped the Jewish community with how to live under occupation.
But because of my age and how I came up in Christian churches, I can’t hear “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” without picturing the Golden Books versions, all cartoony and not looking at all ancient near-eastern. Daniel looked, maybe, more like he came from Iowa. And what I can remember from those children’s versions is a really bad king and David as a cherubic tamer of lions. In my memory’s eye, there is a big confrontation between Daniel and the lions before his release by the king.
The moral was always that with enough faith God can save you from all dangers. The flip side of that was that if you were not saved, it was because you did not have enough faith.
DANIEL AND KING DARIUS
Except that’s not really the story. The actual story is of courtly intrigue and a bereaved king. It is about preserving a minority religion under siege, and we have no details at all about what happened between Daniel and the lions.
At this point in our Biblical history, Israel has fallen captive and been colonized many times over. Here in chapter six the Medes, who are sometimes allied with the Persians and sometimes not, have just taken over. But King Darius does not want the work of ruling. Instead, Daniel has been given royal robes and a gold chain and appointed as one of three ministers who will do that work, with the satraps reporting to them.
Daniel is, in the usual extremes of the Bible, the best of them all. When it looks like the king might give him all control because of that, the satraps try to find some fault with which to take Daniel down. So they appeal to the king’s vanity, who then puts a ban on asking anyone, even God, other than him for help during the following month.
Daniel is a very religious man, though, and the bad guys catch him praying to God and asking God for help, as they’d planned. So, despite not wanting to, the king must punish Daniel, whom he loves. In Daniel goes to a den of lions, closed in by a stone. We hear that the king has a terrible night, but nothing of Daniel’s.
When the king checks on him in the morning, Daniel says that yes, he is alive. And just as he had done no injury to the king in his religious practice, the lions had done none to him. Then the schemers and their wives and children are sent to the lions and are crushed to death and the king sends out a proclamation to the world about the greatness of Daniel’s God
In our religion’s practice, we are now in the season of Advent. During this month of Sundays, much of our language will be about night and darkness. It is an intentional preparation for receiving the night star of Bethlehem and the morning star of Easter.
So I want to focus on that idea of night and the two different nights in this story: Daniel’s and the king’s.
A few weeks ago when our story was about Elijah, I described the dark and creepy raven, who scavenged carrion to keep the prophet alive, as an emissary of that dark and watery surface God invited to be a partner in forming creation. I referred to it as the tehom.
Tehom is Biblical Hebrew for dark abyss. Theologian Catherine Keller describes it as “deep, salt water, chaos, depth itself.” The tehom is a place separate from formed creation as we know it, one of possibilities not yet acted upon, an open-endedness that is not before time but the basis upon which time can happen.2
God, then, is that which can bring order into disorder. God is the instigator of becoming out of just being. The tehom can be any thing, with God it becomes the things we know.
Are you with me so far?
If it sounds weird, it is. Keller is arguing that we begin the theological story of ourselves, as opposed to the biological or geological stories of creation, in a soup of all potential realities from which holiness has co-created this particular reality.
But the tehom is not destroyed or used up in that process. We get glimpses of her again in that raven and when God describes playing with the leviathan in Job.3
Although darkness and night are often associated with the negative or evil, they are really about the tehom, the unseen, the gestational. In the night all things may come to be. As with God and tehom, it is what we bring to the night that determines what will be.
Throughout the night the king was consumed with images of Daniel in the claws and jaws of that execution chamber. He became aggrieved that hubris had so easily allowed him to be tricked into making that stupid ban, one that could now kill his favorite. The king brought ego to the night and so all he could do was sleeplessly suffer.
Daniel brought his integrity. Daniel chose the religious practices that kept him whole and allowed him to be of use to his people over a trap of a law made by a jealous kingdom of humanity. And so he walked into the den with the prayers he would not abandon, with his relationship to God.
Daniel, while in the most dangerous place in the city, was unharmed. The king, in the most comfortable, was miserable.
Ego or integrity, which will we choose, which do we bring to this world of ours which is still becoming?
HOPE, PEACE, JOY, LOVE
Folk tales like Daniel’s may not be real, and they may get watered down for easier consumption, but they endure because we recognize the truth within: Humans make mean-spirited, ego-centric laws, that test the integrity of our faith. But it is that faith that stands as a barrier against political corruption and senseless death.
I do not believe, as you know, that prayer is a magic trick or that some people get chosen for safety over others. Again, that would be the work of a capricious sprite rather than the host of the open table.
But I do believe that what we nurture grows, what we allow to become second nature will shape nature herself. What we bring to the dark abyss matters, what we hold onto at all costs becomes the matter of this world.
To Advent’s tehomic possibilities, through this wreath of candles, we first bring hope, then hope and peace, then hope and peace and joy, then hope and peace and joy and love.
Because we bring hope, there is hope.
Because we name peace, we will work for peace.
Because we will not let anyone steal our joy, we will laugh.
And then, finally, after praying and preparing like Daniel, will we gather in the nurturing, ripe, dark eve of Christmas to light the candle of Christ.
If we do so with integrity rather than ego, we will with God birth a world remade again in love.
1Coogan, Michael, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 1253.
Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 1640.
2Keller, Catherine. Face of the Deep. (New York: Routledge Press, 2003), pp. xvi–xvii, 161.
3Ibid., pp. xvi