Scripture: Daniel 6:1-23
In 2013 Civil rights activist and world leader Nelson Mandela passed away. This event was international news and covered in every news media, but the report caused confusion for a lot of people because they thought he was already dead. Multiple people reported confusion at the news because they distinctly remembered news reports of him dying in prison in the 1980s. Now this did not happen, but it was odd that so many people had a nearly identical false memory. This led researchers to look into this and discovered there is something odd indeed. The phenomenon became known as the Mandela Effect and is formally defined as, “a recent refinement of false memory that typically refers to pop culture or current event references.” Most of these examples are fairly minor. For instance a lot of people remember children’s book character Curious George as a money with a tail, but he is never drawn with one or a lot of people are convinced that at one point the Monopoly man mascot had a monocle when he in fact never did. While this is a much older reference other people have very clear memories of Ed McMahon handing out big checks as promotions for Publishers Clearing House back in the day. That never happened because Ed McMahon was never a spokesperson for Publishers Clearing house. He did that gig for American family publishers, but he never handed out checks.
There are several causes of this phenomenon. Sometimes we confabulate two memories such as Ed McMahon’s picture being on American Family publishers’ junk mail and Publisher Clearing House commercials where people were given checks. Other times we do not really remember a detail, so our brain makes the best guess. This might be why people remember curious George having a tail since a lot of small monkeys do have tails. Other times we are given information second hand that is incorrect and we just accept it as the way it is. I think this last one might be the reason for this scripture, but a lot of people have a Mandela effect image of this morning’s scripture. If I asked you to picture and describe this morning’s scripture there are probably some fairly significant details that are pictured wrong. This morning’s scripture is the last of the stories we will focus on that many of us were introduced to in vacation bible school or children’s Sunday school. Like me, just hearing the title “Daniel and the lion’s den” instantly brings to mind a storybook image of Daniel in a pit surrounded by lions. In many of these story books the story lifts up an important but simple message of trusting God. The story of Daniel and the lion’s den is a story that emphasizes trusting in God, but this story is radically relevant to our everyday faith experiences as well. This is a story is about radically living out our faith in the face of opposition.
We read the lion’s share of the story this morning, but we are missing some of the context. When Daniel was a young man Jerusalem was attacked and sacked by the Babylonians. The Babylonians hauled off into exile the best of the best the Israelites had to offer and Daniel was one of them. The idea was to assimilate the Israelites into the Babylonian culture, to have them adapt a Babylonian way of life. Daniel though resisted this cultural indoctrination. He desired to stay faithful to God. Along with three other young Israelites he stayed true to his faith and Daniel 1:17 records “To these four young men, God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.” Years passed. Daniel served the royal government of Babylon faithfully but he also stayed faithful to God in all that he did.
You might tend to picture Daniel as a young man when he was thrown into the lion’s den. That is one of the details we tend to get wrong when picture this story. By the time Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den he was in his late 70’s to early 80’s. Despite being and old man he was at the height of his power and influence. That is what the start of this morning’s scripture really establishes. The current ruler Darius the Mede had appointed 120 governors or satraps to administer the realm. These governors answered to three administrators who answered only to the king. Daniel was one of these three administrators and he was extremely good at it. Even if you are not familiar with this particular story, you can probably guess what happens next. People who crave power above all else, want more power above all else. This led to the governors to conspire for a way to get rid of Daniel, but this proved hard because Daniel was a man of integrity, who lived righteously. He did not have any dark secrets or any skeletons in his closet. Finally, they figured out a way to tear him down.
The first part of this plan was to appeal to the king’s vanity. They had him declare a decree that for 30 days that he could be the only object of religious devotion. This seems odd to us today, but this was not out of the ordinary in this era. Rulers were seen as the divine appointees of the deities. In many cases, it was believed that the ruler had a special relationship with the gods. They were not quite divine but they were more than mere mortals. In some instances, like the ancient Egyptians they actually believe the Pharaoh to be divine. The other thing to be considered is that for much of human history national identity and religious identity were bound together and they could not be separated. Thus, showing religious devotion to the king in Ancient Babylonian culture would not have been seen as blasphemy but as a display of patriotism.
Upon learning this decree, Daniel had a choice to make. He could be a good citizen of the Babylonian empire and comply with this act of nationalism, or he could rebel and stay true to God. Daniel being a man of integrity and righteousness, stayed true to his faith and continued to pray three times a day. This is of course exactly what Daniel’s enemies wanted him to do. They turned him into the king for breaking the rule. The king then realized that this had been a trap, and that he had played right into it. However, his hands were tied because a royal decree is a royal decree.
Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den. We often picture this as a cave or some sort of hole in the ground, but that is the other part of the story we often picture incorrectly. Lions do not live in caves and would not be well suited for that sort of environment. Furthermore, there is zero archeological evidence that the ancient Babylonians maintained this sort of pit. It is most likely that this den was actually some sort of manmade enclosure. It is completely within the realm of possibility that there was a lion’s den though. The lion was a symbol of the Babylonian empire. Also, wild animal attacks were considered a sign of divine judgement. We see this elsewhere in the bible, where God’s judgement on people is carried out by wild animals. Since Daniel’s infraction was a religious/civic one it makes sense that the punishment be divine judgement by mauling.
While not recorded in scripture, there must have been a rule that someone had to be left in the lion’s den for a set amount of time to determine their innocence, because the king awaits until the light of first dawn to rush to see if Daniel survived. Daniel survives and reports in verse 22 “My God sent his angel and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me because I was found innocent in his sight.” The epilogue of the story which we did not read this morning is that those who tried to trap Daniel end up in the pit themselves, and the king issues a decree that states “In every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. For he is the living God and he endures forever, his kingdom will not be destroyed.” Daniel is faithful despite the threat of death, and God is glorified.
I think there are two major things we can get out of the story of Daniel that are deeply relevant to living out our faith today. First, we have to live out our faith with deep integrity. Our culture today is nowhere near as hostile to our faith as Babylonian culture was to Daniel’s. However, we have to acknowledge that Christianity is not as culturally prevalent now as most of us remember. In some ways the decline of Christianity prevalence in our culture is a bit of a blessing in disguise. This means that going to church is no longer done just because it is the culturally appropriate thing to do. I do not know about you, but I would much rather be part of a church of 90 people that deeply love Jesus then a church of 900 who are there because they feel like they are supposed to be. Our faith, the belief that we are saved by grace through Jesus Christ, should influence every single aspect of our lives. The apostle Paul put it like this in Colossians 3:17 “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” Jesus put it like this Matthew 5:48 “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” The idea is not that we are flawless, but rather that in everything we do we display, we shine the love of God. It does not matter if we are in a meeting at work, waiting in line at the grocery store, or at a family gathering what we do and should say should reflect the perfect, unending love of God. How we live our life, our everyday life, our waking, eating, going to work life, is the greatest witness we have. It is the greatest way that display and proclaim the love of God. The single greatest way that we can make a difference in an unbelieving world, is to live like no one else. This is exactly what Daniel did. He did not assimilate to the culture around him, he stayed faithful, but he also lived differently and was full of integrity. We do not tell people that we are friendly and loving, but rather we show them that is true through our actions. Again this is exactly what Jesus taught us to do when he said “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
The second thing we need to keep in mind from the story of Daniel is that if we try to live a life of faithful integrity. If we try to humbly love others and live differently, then just like Daniel people will try to tear us down. If Daniel had just conformed to the culture around him, if he had tried to fit in and be like everyone else then he likely would have never found himself in the lion’s den. Daniel lived out a life of faith and integrity, which led to opposition in the form of jealousy. Most of us tend to go out of our way to avoid conflict and opposition. Of course the best way to incite zero opposition is to do nothing significant. It is likely that any actions we take that seek to radically love, fearlessly invite, or compassionately care for the least of these will somehow provoke opposition. This is where we can look to the faith of Daniel, because he was faithful to God no matter the consequences and he trusted God to see him through the ordeal.
If we are being faithful in following God, there will be times in our life where it feels like we are being threatened to be thrown to the lions. Whenever we do something significant there will be opposition. Following God, living out the gospel, is always significant and it will always rub someone the wrong way. It can be easy to just go along with the crowd in those instances, to not make waves, and to keep our head down. However, we should not do that. We should follow the example of Daniel. We should live as if our belief in God is the most important thing in the world to us, and when push comes to shove we should hold to that conviction. Even if that means being fed to the metaphorical lions. Even then, we have nothing to fear, because God is still with us, God is still faithful, and just like Daniel we can trust in God to keep us. Because Daniel was faithful to God, God was glorified and lifted up in a pagan nation. May we be Daniel’s in our culture and our community. May we have a strong faith. May we have a bold faith. May we not be afraid of the lions of this world, because we know the lamb of God is stronger. And through our compassionate actions and our lives of faithful integrity, may God be glorified.