Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Lion's Den (Daniel 6)



Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 19, 2017; Text: Daniel 6

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  



:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Assurance: Don't Be Afraid (John Bell/Iona) - throughout service
Singing Together: How Great is Our God (Tomlin, Cash, Reeves)
Singing Together: Hiding Place (Ledner)
Offering of Music: Total Praise (Smallwood, arr. Youngblood)
Hymn of Sending: My Faith Looks Up to Thee (OLIVET; arr. Austell)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Today we conclude six weeks in the book of Daniel. One of the consistent themes we’ve seen there is faithfulness, specifically in the face of opposition, hostility, and persecution. Today you heard the story of Daniel and the lion’s den in Daniel 6. Following his accurate interpretation of the fall of Belshazzar, King of Babylon, Daniel was appointed to a high position under the new ruler, Darius “the Mede.” Darius made Daniel one of three vice-regents over the 120 governors of the area. Daniel quickly distinguished himself even there, so that Darius planned to appoint him over the entire kingdom (v. 3).

As you might imagine, there were power struggles and jealousies, and a number of the governors and the other vice-regents began to plot against this successful foreigner. Knowing Daniel’s faithfulness to his religious practices, they convinced King Darius to pass an irrevocable decree that would trap Daniel in his practices and lead to his death. Then comes the story of the lion’s den. The King reluctantly must throw Daniel in the lion’s den overnight. He returns sorrowful in the morning and finds Daniel miraculously safe and unharmed. The King brings Daniel out, punishes the malicious accusers, and then declares the worthiness and glory of the God Daniel worships.

It makes a great story, doesn’t it? God comes through and rescues the faithful believer in the end… is that the lesson of Daniel? Actually, I don’t believe that it is; but I do believe there are several key lessons to be learned from the story of Daniel and the lion’s den.

Faithfulness is Noticeable

The first lesson for us is that faithfulness is noticeable! Daniel wasn’t just a hard worker (though he was clearly that). We read in v. 3 that Daniel was “brimming with spirit and intelligence.” And then, as the vice-regents and governors began checking him out and trying to find a way to accuse him, they found nothing, for “he was totally exemplary and trustworthy” (v. 4). They concluded, “We’re never going to find anything against this Daniel unless we can cook up something religious” (v. 5). Daniel had a reputation and he had integrity. His faithfulness was noticeable.

How many times have I “ducked” my faith to avoid notice? Enough for me to be embarrassed. Have you been out to eat with someone and paused to ask yourself the question, “Should I say grace or just jump right in?” One person shared with me about a business meeting where the participants were asked to share with the person next to them about life goals and priorities. They thought, “Should I say anything about wanting to know God better or be a more godly husband?” It’s so easy to let our faith and expressions of faith glide under the radar. “My faith is a personal matter,” we say.

Daniel wasn’t trumpeting his religion, but when his behavior came under scrutiny, there was no mistaking his faith. I am challenged by Daniel’s example to have a faith that others will notice!

Persecution Doesn’t Always End Well

Unfortunately, a second lesson from Daniel is that sometimes faithfulness to God brings on persecution. By persecution I mean being opposed and attacked for allegiance to God. What began as jealousy and positioning in Daniel’s case turned into persecution when his enemies used his faithfulness to God as the means to oppose and attack him.

In the case of the lion’s den, God miraculously kept Daniel safe and delivered him from death. At the beginning of the book of Daniel, three friends of Daniel’s – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – were also persecuted for their faith in God. God also delivered them miraculously from a fiery furnace… they endured the heat and emerged unharmed. I want to note, though, that persecution doesn’t always end well for the faithful. Doesn’t God always come through and rescue the faithful believer in the end? No, and in fact if that’s where we focus, I think we’ve missed the main point of the story.

I can’t help but think of the martyrs – those who have been persecuted and given their lives to be faithful. The first Christian martyr we read about is Stephen, who was killed for proclaiming faith in Jesus Christ. Many, many more Christians lost their lives in those early days of the Church. And martyrdom is not a thing of ancient church history. There are people who are persecuted and killed for their faith even today, some say more than during any other time in history!

Last weekend, I was at Lake Norman with the confirmation students. At one point, I gave them the opportunity to commit or re-commit their lives to following Jesus Christ. I could have said a prayer with them, or had them write in a journal. Instead, I had them wade out into Lake Norman with me to “remember the waters of their baptism.” It was bitterly cold and uncomfortable – even painful. Among the things I said to them, I told them that following Jesus Christ was sometimes a difficult choice, one which requires perseverance and commitment. If the outcome of persecution of the faithful is not always deliverance and rescue, then what is the purpose and lesson for us to appropriate?

Faithfulness Amidst Persecution is Always a Witness to God

A third lesson from Daniel answers that question. For Daniel, for the martyrs, for you and for me, faithfulness amidst persecution is always a witness to God.

Daniel’s constancy and integrity over continuing his daily prayers to God declared that communication and relationship with God, and obedience to God, were more important than his own status, well-being, or safety. In fact, it declared that prayer was essential TO his well-being. Daniel’s faithfulness to the point of death in the lion’s den witnessed to all who heard or saw it (and have since) that obedience to God was even more important than life itself. And even had he died in the Lion’s Den, his faithfulness would have borne this witness to God. It bears striking similarity to what the New Testament teaches about Jesus… that he was obedient, even to the point of death on the cross.

In Daniel’s case, God chose to deliver him miraculously, and this brought glory to God all the more. In fact, when King Darius found Daniel alive, he wrote to the people in all the land: “I decree that Daniel’s God shall be worshiped and feared in all parts of my kingdom.” (v. 26)

Now, decreeing worship of God probably misses God’s intention, but listen to this true proclamation about God that went along with the decree. This is true testimony about God that was fruit borne out of the seed of Daniel’s faithfulness and obedience.

He is the living God, world without end. His kingdom never falls. His rule continues eternally. He is a savior and rescuer. He performs astonishing miracles in heaven and on earth. (v. 26-27)

When the inclination to duck our faith beneath the radar comes, remember that faithfulness amidst persecution is always a witness to God.

Here to Worship

Okay… fine, fine, Robert. Sticking to your religious convictions is a good thing. We get that. But what’s the big deal. Wouldn’t God rather me save my neck and live to pray another day? I’ll be honest and tell you that I don’t know what I’d do if my life was on the line. I don’t think any of us can know unless we are faced with that. I know I chicken out of far less threatening situations. But I’ve also experienced uncharacteristic boldness when core convictions have been challenged. I hope that God would give me extraordinary boldness and faith in the face of intense persecution.

What I do know is that the Bible says that human life is first and foremost about the worship of God. We are here on this planet, in existence, by God’s power and gracious will, so that we might serve, honor, and glorify God with our life and breath. My decisions should not be based on answering the question, “Will I take heat for this?” But my life, thoughts, actions, plans – all that I am and all that I have – belong to God, for His glory. If I live life with that most basic and biblical purpose, then I will likely face persecution at some point. And to back off out of fear is to deny the very reason for my existence.

I’m not saying God will damn you or me for wimping out. In fact, one of the most compelling stories to me in scripture is the story of Peter’s “restoration” in John 21. You may remember Peter’s bold promises on the night of the Last Supper – “Lord, why can I not follow you right now? I would lay down my life for you.” (John 13:37). Then, after Jesus was arrested and in the courtyard, Peter denied knowing Jesus, even to the point of cursing and saying he never met the man. He wimped out; he failed the Lord. Would God turn His back on Peter like Peter turned his back on Jesus? No, in John 21 we read that the risen Jesus took Peter aside and three times (to match his denials) gave Peter the opportunity to declare his love for Jesus. And each time, Jesus directed Peter to worship and serve Him anew: “Tend My lambs; shepherd my sheep; tend my sheep” (John 21:15-17).

The point is not that God will get you if you don’t go the stake for Him. The real lesson from Daniel is that the highest calling and meaning of our lives is to bring honor to God through our faith and faithfulness. If persecution comes, and it likely will, then our faithfulness amidst persecution is a witness to the sovereignty and power of Almighty God. May God grant us faith like that! Amen.