But Daniel Resolved
But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself.
“We live in unsettling times,” the minister’s sermon began.
Whenever I read an article or sermon or other media communication that begins with this idea that things today seem so upside down in comparison to other times, I wonder. When I am tempted to follow suit I wonder if I’m simply complaining that things aren’t the way they were when I was young. I wonder if each succeeding generation of parents worries that their children are off on the wrong track. When I hear the claim made about society that we “have never been so divided,” I wonder how we measure such things to be able make the assertion.
We are launching into our small group fall study in a series titled Thriving in Babylon based on the older testament book of Daniel. The description for the course begins with this: “These are confusing times for many Christians. Traditional biblical values are not only rejected; it seems as if they're attacked on every front.” I think this is a fair assertion about our era—but I want to be clear that living is such an era is hardly unique. And that is why take up the study of Daniel—he lived during some very ‘confusing’ times, for a believer, to say the least.
1. Some of you will know stories from the book of Daniel. Stories you may recall from Sunday school days like Daniel in the lion’s den and of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace and of the hand that writes on the wall and Daniel is called in to interpret. But we don’t read much from Daniel in our Lectionary cycle of readings—just three short passages in our three year cycle. So we may not be familiar with the story and its influence in the New Testament.
Take, for example, the title of the series, Thriving in Babylon. What does the name ‘Babylon’ evoke in your imaginations? The ancient city of Babylon was built on the banks of the Euphrates River (in modern day Iraq). Babylon was the first nation to conquer Jerusalem, make Judah a vassal sate, and take into exile many of Judah’s leading citizens. Daniel’s story of survival in exile became a story of hope for faithful Israelites living in occupation in the succeeding kingdoms that dominated the Middle East. The Greeks under Alexander the Great followed soon on the heels of the Persian Empire. “Babylon” became a name synonymous with pagan conquers. By Jesus day, for many in Israel, “Babylon was used as code to refer to Rome. (1 Peter 5:13, “Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings).” And in St. John’s Revelation the name ‘Babylon’ stands for the world powers aligned against God that God will defeat at the end of time. I am not sure if we have a modern day equivalent—the term “Nazi” may approach it, not in meaning but in how it functions to stand for so much.
In 605 BC Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar besieged and conquered Jerusalem and takes into exile the leading and talented citizens of Judah, among them a member of the royal family named Daniel. It would be hard to imagine the upheaval in Daniel’s life—it might be akin to the upheaval of being a victim of human trafficking that takes place today. He is taken by force from his home and his family and all he holds dear to now serve as a slave in the court of the King. He is not signing up for foreign studies in an academic fellowship to broaden his education—he is indentured to learn a new language and skills to serve the king who is the very author of his deportation. You can imagine how easily you could harbour hatred for such a person and how easy it would be to simply give up on life and voice your disdain by doing only the bare minimum required.
For Daniel, he suddenly finds himself in this environment hostile to his faith. For us it has been gradual as hostilities have increased towards Christian conviction and some tipping point has made us realize that the country we live in has changed. I think of how the Supreme Court of Canada in 2018 ruled against the accreditation of a law programme of a Christian University, Trinity Western University, when just a few years earlier a court ruling went in their favour with respect to accreditation for their programme for training teachers. Canada has changed in this regard.
But it isn’t just opposition to Christian faith that can have us sensing something of what Daniel knows. Other things can blindside us and make us feel as if God has let us down. A difficult diagnosis; finding out that someone we trusted has betrayed that trust; job loss: depression; all sorts of things can have us feeling as though life is upside down and ‘unsettling,’ to say the least. We wonder about God’s promises. We can hear the enemy sneering at us and our trust of God, as the Psalmist described from his experience, “All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’ (Psalm 22:7-8) The story of Daniel is told to encourage faith in just such a moment when rescue does not appear to be at hand.
2. I invite you to take notice of the name, Daniel. The story begins with the dreadful news that King Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Jerusalem. The unthinkable has occurred—God’s house has been overrun by a foreign power and the brightest and best of it citizens are being deported into servitude. The story then focuses on four young men taken in that deportation, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The fact that they are taken into servitude is difficult enough but upon arrival another indignity is imposed upon them—the palace master gives them other names: “Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.”
So what? What is the big deal about getting a new name? People in our world who move from their culture to an English speaking part of the world, for example, often take an English name. For one thing this was not a choice they were being offered. But there is more here. In each of these Jewish names a shortened form of the name of the God of Israel appears. (el – Elohim, iah- Yahweh). Daniel means ‘God will judge’; Hananiah means “The Lord is gracious’; Mishael means ‘who is what the Lord is’; Azariah means ‘the Lord helps’. They are named for God, so to speak.
The Babylonian names each are given have imbedded in them the name or reference to one of the many Babylonian deities. Daniel gets the name Belteshazzar with contains Babylon’s chief god Bel. Azariah is called Abednego which means ‘the servant of Nebo’, the Babylonian god of wisdom. In other words, each are now named in connection to a god of Babylon. The message is not only that our gods are superior to and more powerful than to the God of Israel (we get to name you as we want), but also that these young men are being encouraged to forget the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
I invite you to take note that this book titled Daniel is careful to call Daniel, Daniel. The few times that he is called Belteshazzar in the book are typically in relationship to conversation with the King and often along with the admission that he really is Daniel. Typical are things like, “then Daniel, who was called Belteshazzar.” (Daniel 4:19) In fact in the story where Daniel is called to read what the hand had written on the wall during the reign of a later King of Babylon the Queen has heard of the great interpreter of mysteries “Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar.” The queen goes on to say, “Now let Daniel be called.” (Daniel 5:12) She does not say, “let Belteshazzar be called.” The phrase “whom the king called Belteshazzar” is a royal protocol you use in the royal court.
I note all of this to underline for you that as the story of Daniel is told we have the picture of a man who will not give up his name. In clinging to his name ‘Daniel’, Daniel is clinging to the God he knows loves him and to whom he belongs. What we are witnessing is a faith relationship. Whatever else is going on in Daniel’s world he is certain of the one to whom he belongs; certain of the God of Israel who names Daniel as his own. This belonging is at the centre of Daniel’s identity; Daniel belongs to the God of Israel and he clings to God the best he knows how in the midst of this place he finds himself that is aligned against the God he serves.
This story is told to encourage us to cling to God in faith. In the midst of the opposition that comes to our Christian faith cling to Jesus; hold on to your name ‘Christian’ that identifies you as belonging to Christ. In your baptism you were named for him. Cling to him even as he holds on to you. This is what will help you in the midst of the storms of life. And isn’t this what the story of Daniel says to us; that it was God who refused to let go of Daniel in the midst of the dreadfulness of deportation.
When I watch my little grandson cling to the neck of his father or mother as he is being held by his parent his clinging is very important to him but he is in fact being held by his parent. Now sometimes when a child does not want to be held anymore they stop holding on and sometimes fling themselves away from the one holding them. Our clinging to God is important because it is a response to knowing that God is holding on to us. Now when these storms of life come that make is think that God had relaxed his grip the truth is the opposite—God hasn’t relaxed his grip. Daniel shows us that our response should be to cling all the more.
3. Now only does Daniel resolve to keep his name but he also resolved to maintain his faith practises insofar as he was able. We read of how “Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.” These practices with regard to food laid out in the Jewish law Daniel determined to follow and we know the rest of the story that as he honoured God, God’s blessing found him even in the land of exile. To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom. I note with you that as we honour God with our lives there is no good thing that God withholds. I sometimes wonder about the good I missed out on because I preferred lesser things (like rations of food and wine). (By the way, the story also tells you that vegetables are good for you; but I will leave those details to the nutritional experts among us.)
The point I invite you to take with you is Daniel’s resolve to follow God as best he could given his difficult faith circumstances. He couldn’t, for example, go to the annual worship festivals at the Temple in Jerusalem while in captivity but he could endeavour to follow dietary practises. In our era where the church is given little attention and in many places opposed Daniel shows us to attend to the faith practises we can practise. Many of the gods of our era (recreation, sports) would have us occupied with them at the time set for worship by the church. We know that Jesus loves his church and I encourage you to continue in your resolve to make worship important. I know that some things come that rob us of the ability to go to church but we can still pray and listen to scripture (audio Bible.) In these times of upheaval attend to the faith practises as you are able. You will find great help through them.
I also observe that the story of Daniel’s resolve is heard as inspiration for our own. Which also means that our resolve inspires each other. The fact that you come to worship is an inspiration to fellow worshippers to be present.
4. And finally I want to remind you of the resolve of the one who resolved to be for us. Our resolve can be so up and down but our Lord blesses that resolve. Our resolve is one side of the coin of faith his resolve to be for us is the other. The point being that our Lord’s resolve inspires our resolve.
Psalm 22, the Psalm we read a portion of today, is the Psalm that is on our Lord’s lips as he hangs on the cross. It begins with that cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We know that Jesus as a faithful Jew committed these Psalms to memory and it is likely that as he utters those first words he goes on in his heart and mind to recite the rest. Think about Jesus reciting the part that talks of those who mock his faith in God even as those passing by do the very thing; “All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’”
But Jesus resolves to cling the one he calls the Father in faith even though it has brought him to bear the sin of the world. Jesus holds on to the promise at the end of Psalm 22, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.”
So in unsettling days may our Lord’s resolve inspire ours to cling to Him!