mainly daniel: daniel and kings one, two, and, yes, three

Today, we wrap up our three week worship series
in the prophetic book of Daniel.
“[T]he most unusual book” in the Old Testament according to one scholar,
(Daniel L. Smith-Christopher,
Daniel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes
Volume VII
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1996] 19)!
In part because the book’s divided into two distinct parts:
the so-called court stories or confrontation stories
that we’ve been looking at (chapters 1-6),
and then the apocalyptic visions of chapters 7-12.
All three lectionary texts that do come from Daniel, by the way,
come from the apocalyptic section—
not a one from the familiar stories.
And not only is the book divided into two parts,
it’s written in two languages: Hebrew and Aramaic,
but the languages don’t correspond with the division.
So there’s your Bible trivia for today:
remember—two parts and two languages.

Now the stories we’ve been considering in Daniel
have established a pattern we’ve come to know
(if you remember back two and three weeks now!):
power expressed in arrogance
issuing commands accompanied by dire threats
and the promise of lavish reward,
the precarious position of the powerless faithful
in the face of the powerful faithless,
the choice to obey power and resist God
or resist power and obey God,
the test before the king—face to face with the power of the world,
the power of God working on behalf of the faithful,
the acknowledgement of righteousness by the king
and the subsequent reward.
That’s the pattern—
the pattern we first saw
when Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were introduced
as exiles in the court of Nebuchadnezzar—
refusing to indulge in the king’s diet—
adhering to their understanding of God’s expectations—
proving themselves wiser than the wisest—
rewarded, in the end, accordingly.

Then in the story of Nebuchadnezzar dreaming—that statue—
seeking understanding of his dream—
threatening punishment, offering reward—
the failure of his counselors—
Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream—
rewarded, in the end, accordingly.

Then in the story of the king actually building a statue of gold
and commanding all to bow down before it.
Hannaniah, Mishael, and Azariah were betrayed with false accusations
and thrown into the fiery pit—
faithful to God though—
protected—
rewarded, in the end, accordingly.

So a general question for you to consider:
what happens when patterns are confirmed—expectations affirmed?
There’s a cumulative effect that builds a certain confidence, does it not?
Assurance grows—
in how we think the stories will unfold, yes,
but also since the stories are told
to reflect our own situations and circumstances—
our own living confronting the powers of our world,
they are told to confirm and affirm us.
What happens, week in and week out, when we gather in sanctuary
to hear, over and over, the stories of God?

This morning, we look rather briefly, actually, cursorily,
at the remaining stories in the first part of Daniel
to see if they too fit the pattern and thus our expectations—
moving quickly to include all the stories.

There’s another story of Nebuchadnezzar
which does have some surprises for us.
It starts off in the first person—the king telling his own story.
This is his testimony, and it starts with him praising God,
but quickly moves to another dream he had.
For which he seeks interpretation again.
Calling on the wise, he turns to his motley crew (by now, right?)
his motley crew of magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans and diviners,
but—but, interestingly, no expressions of the arrogance of power—
no dire threats, no promises of great reward.
His advisers, as we expect, can interpret nothing.
They haven’t gotten anything right, have they?
Yet they keep their positions as advisers.
They’re like Congress!
But then, at last, in comes Daniel.
And not only does the king recognize Daniel,
he affirms him as one with a holy, divine spirit—
as an interpreter of mystery,
and he tells Daniel his dream.

It’s a dream of a great tree
that provided food and shelter for all.
Empire typically has such a benevolent vision of itself.
But there was a watcher, notes the king—a holy watcher.

Now a brief digression here:
the King’s Eyes was the name for the ancient Persian royal spies—
the secret police who kept an eye on things for the king
throughout the kingdom (Smith-Christopher, 73)—
who helped him impose his rule and maintain his power.
For any Lord of the Rings fans, this is the eye of Sauron.
This is the fear of those in countries with secret police,
who know too well the fear of being watched.
But in this case, the one who watches is himself being watched.

And not only was there a holy watcher, this was one with authority,
who commanded the tree to be cut down to just a stump.
And the animals all left.
And then in the dream, the stump changed,
as things are want to do in dreams, from a stump to a person,
but one whose mind was changed
from that of a human to that of an animal.

Daniel, perceiving the meaning of the dream
was afraid to interpret it—afraid to speak such harsh truth to power.
But Nebuchadnezzar reassured him.

“You’re the tree, o king, great, magnificent.
but you’ve got to learn your place,
(no matter how big and tall, how impressive, how powerful)
you’ve got to learn your place as but part of God’s own creation.
So you are also the one condemned to become an animal.
So atone for your sins with righteousness,
and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed
so your prosperity may be prolonged.”
Daniel makes a direct link
between right living and good living—prosperity.

But at the end of twelve months (so a full year later)
the king was walking on the roof of his royal palace
and saw his beautiful city spread out before him.
“Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built
as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?”
And while the words were still in his mouth—
still in his mouth—while he was still tasting his own glory,
there was a voice from heaven:
“You blew it!”
So notice, it’s not just explicit arrogance in cruel use of power.
It’s also the simple arrogance of pride.
And he was driven from human society, ate grass like oxen,
and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven,
until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers
and his nails became like birds’ claws.
Now mind you, this is the king of empire we’re talking about.
So much for his power. So much for his dignity.

When that period was over, Nebuchadnezzar praised God
(note the story begins and ends with the king praising God).
He praised God and named his own subordinate place within God’s creation,
and his reason returned, his kingdom was reestablished
and still more greatness was added to him.
And he lived happily ever after.

It’s almost as if Nebuchadnezzar had reached a certain level of maturity—
maybe not as a faithful man—a man of faith,
maybe not as a righteous man,
but as one who knew his place—
as one who had gained a certain insight he didn’t lose anymore.
He knew who Daniel was—knew who Daniel’s God was.
So it’s time to move on to another king!
This one no longer the necessary foil.

And so there’s the story of King Belteshezzar.
And we’re back to the arrogant expression of power.
The king was throwing a party—
in typical kingly excess—a party for a thousand.
And he was in his cups.
Do you know that expression?
He’d had a lot to drink. He was drunk.
He was in his cups, but not just any cups.
No, he brought out the the gold bowls and dishes
taken by Nebuchadnezzar from the Temple in Jerusalem.
And quaffing his wine from these consecrated items, we read,
he also worshipped the gods of the materials of which they were made—
the gods of gold and silver—even of bronze, iron, wood, and stone.
And so, in the midst of the party,
as soon as the public debasement of these sacred items is mentioned,
there’s the writing on the wall—
(this the story from which we get the expression
the writing’s on the wall!),
and the king was terrified.
His face turned pale, his thoughts terrified him
his limbs gave way and his knees knocked together.
It’s not actually his limbs that gave way.
That’s the “clean” translation.
The phrase could mean that his belts gave way and his pants fell down
(Look! The emperor’s not wearing any clothes!),
or it could mean that the king lost control of his bowels
(Sharon Pace, Daniel in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2008] 167).
Again, here and thus depicted, the king!
So much for his power. So much for his dignity.

Of course, he calls in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, the diviners,
and while he doesn’t issue the great threats,
he does promise great reward to anyone who can interpret the writing.
But none could. And the king grew even more afraid.

And it was the queen who knew to turn to Daniel—
the queen who described Daniel and told the king to call him.
So, once again, Daniel stands before a king.
And the king asks for his interpretation and promises rewards.

“Let your gifts be for yourself! Or give them to someone else!”
snaps Daniel. “This is not about what you can offer me.”
Daniel reminds the king of Nebuchadnezzar’s power
and arrogance before God.
He reminds him of Nebuchadnezzar’s fate
until he submitted to the sovereignty of God.

Daniel then points out to the king
how he’s now arrogantly exalting himself before God
and identifies the words on the wall:
mene, tekel, and parsin.
These were monetary words
having to do with counting, weighing, and dividing
as “the obsessions of the empire
become the symbolic basis for judgment” 
(Smith-Christopher, 84).
“You’ve been assessed and found wanting.”
And the king’s response?
“Thank you, and may I reward you for that?”
It’s almost slapstick!
But that night, the king died.
So we need another king!

And finally there’s the most familiar story set in the time of king Darius.
Daniel was still in the upper echelon of administrators,
and the others were jealous,
but they could find no grounds for complain or any corruption,
because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption
could be found in him.
The men said, “We shall not find any ground
for complaint against this Daniel
unless we find it in connection
with the law of his God.”
And they go to the king
and suggest he issue a decree
that anyone praying to anyone or anything other than the king
should be thrown into a den of lions.
And the king did.
These kings make all these stupid decrees
often reacting to the fears, jealousies and provocations of the powerful.
I mean the kings are almost revealed as pawns of the fearful.
Doesn’t happen today, does it?

Well as always when faced with the option of faithfulness and danger,
Daniel chose to be faithful.
Now mind you, despite any pictures in your head of Daniel as a boy,
he’s a boy no more. That was years ago—two kings ago.
And faced with yet another royal decree,
this time not to pray to anyone other than the king,
Daniel went to his house to pray just as he always had.
Now just as a side note, there’s no law in the Torah
about praying three times a day and facing Jerusalem.
That would actually later become rabbinic tradition,
but it’s not law. It is Daniel’s custom—part of his faith,
and it’s his faith, that’s so very important to him—
not just the law.
His windows were open, we read.
And some of the translations read as if the windows were always open—
some as if Daniel flung them open to be seen.
In either case, he wasn’t hiding.
And the conspirators had rented an apartment with sight lines into his—
had set up a telescope and had watchers assigned to watch—
stalked him and as soon as they saw Daniel praying, they pounced.
The verb translated “denounce” “literally means ‘eat the pieces of’”
(Sharon Pace, Daniel in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2008] 97).
Daniel was betrayed. And the betrayers repeat the decree
demanding punishment, and the king was very distressed—
made every effort to save Daniel, but couldn’t.
“May your God deliver you from me,” he said,
and then he fasted and could not sleep.
Remind anyone of Pilate?
Power catches people—traps them—even against their will,
and what you wish were doesn’t count against what you actually do.

Well as we know, Daniel was safe, even in the lion’s den—
of course, as we know, he’s been living in the lion’s den, right?
And the next day those who had accused him
were thrown in—along with their wives and children,
and the lions devoured—“denounced”—ate the pieces—of them.
And this is great story telling, because we get the emotional feel good,
the vindictive vindication of power turning on itself,
even with the story reminding us,
even when on the “right side,”
power is not to be accepted—celebrated—justified!

So, in the course of the stories recounted in the book of Daniel,
as improbable as it is, Daniel interacts with three different kings—
is threatened by three different kings—faces three different kings—
is rewarded by three different kings,
and the wisdom of God transcends the perfect empire.
Our pattern holds true through all stories—
variations in the stories though there be.

And as we come to the end of the first six chapters of Daniel—
the first section of the book comprised of court or confrontation stories,
we account for six stories in all.
Why six?
Presumably there were more such stories in this oral tradition—
in this collection of subversive stories of education and encouragement.
Different stories as well as variations of versions.
So why six?
We’ve suggested before, looking at Scripture,
that an occurrence of six might suggest we’re to complete the cycle.
We’re to live the seventh story to perfect the text.

Now these are the stories we tell and teach our children.
They may not make the lectionary—are they too subversive, maybe?
Too blunt—too radical to make the lectionary?
But they make the children’s Bibles.
They make the picture books.
They are, after all, great stories.
But, like the stories of Jesus, it might be better
not to expose our children to them at all
than to tell them these great stories of resistance to the way things are
and then turn around and tell them “No, respect the way things are.
Respect the authority of those in power.”
These are resistance stories of empowerment
and they are meant to empower resistance.
We do no one any favors, by making them cute—sweet—easy—innocuous.
These are stories on which and with which to raise revolutionaries.

So of course this is not a book favored by those in power.
And it really shouldn’t come as any surprise
that Daniel was one of Mahatma Ghandi’s favorite books in the Bible
(Smith-Christopher, 94-95)!

The story is told of the sinner
who wooed the pure and innocent young woman—
putting on the mask of a saint.
After wedding the young woman, some who knew him earlier
denounced him and challenged him to remove his mask.
He did, revealing the face of a saint.
It’s not who he was,
but he had lived into a story that transformed who he was.

So our careful, risky prayer for our children:
that they never live in the world as it is—
playing the world’s games, accepting the world’s rules,
but that they will live into the story that transforms the world—
putting on the mask of Jesus—putting on the love of Jesus—
being transformed by it.
Not living in fear—
not by ignoring the reality of the threats that face us,
but by living in trust and with assurance—
in hope, for love and through faith—
choosing not an ethos of suspicion,
but of anticipation.

And even if … or when—when they’re disappointed—
when they face the difficult, the absurd, the terrible and the tragic,
may it not be the story of hope they reject—
may it never be the story of love they give up on,
but rather may they give up on the great sadness of those who have—
have given up on the story of God—
those who may not even know their own sadness,
but who have given up on what makes life abundant.

So may they continue to hear us telling the stories—
and not just telling them,
but incorporating their truth into our living—
resisting the powers that be with our own faithfulness.
Living into the community of believers
that together shares these stories
tells them, studies them, seeking their truth—
loving them for the truth they contain and the hope they represent,
Ridiculing power, mocking its dignity—
laughing at the rhetoric of those who promise more than they can deliver,
who value what is of lesser significance,
who count and weigh and accumulate and yet lose their living,
who point to others in jealousy and fear and blame,
who use the language and actions of violence,
who are arrogant in their presumptions—
reminding in and through our stories both power and ourselves
of the holy watcher—of the sovereignty of God—
of another way—that prioritizes humility, compassion, justice, peace—
that is willing to risk everything on love.

And in the words of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah,
affirming that even if this doesn’t work out the way we hope it does,
may we nonetheless proclaim, this is our story.
This our God. This our hope.
And thus, this our living.

Amen.

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