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Dare to Stand

Dare to Stand

Daniel 6:1-24

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

6 August 2017

 

    

    The strange thing about this story is that Daniel isn't really the man character; it's the emperor Darius. The narrator never takes us inside the lion's den; never lets us experience the darkness and the terror from Daniel's perspective. Instead, we are told of the fasting and anguish of the king.

    Who is Daniel then?

 

    The Book of Daniel is split into two sections. The first half of the book records a series of stories about faithful Jews working the court of foreign, imperial rulers, first the Babylonians and then the Persians. The second half is apocalyptic literature about the rise and fall of great empires and God's role in the processes of history.

    As I said last week, when we discussed the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace, this book was not written when the events it narrates occurred, but centuries later in a different time and context. The author, then, is writing down traditional folk tales as a means of encouraging people in their current crisis.

    The book was written in the second century Before the Common Era around the time when the Jews revolted under the Maccabees. Antiochus IV Epiphanes was the Seleucid emperor who ruled ancient Palestine. Antiochus believed himself to be a physical incarnation of divinity, and he wanted his subject people to worship him.

    For the author of the Book of Daniel, Antiochus is the personification of evil, a demonic power. In the New Testament, Antiochus is the prototype for the prophesied anti-Christ.

    There's good reason for Antiochus to be viewed this way. Bible scholar David M. Carr records the oppressive actions Antiochus took against the Jews:

 

He . . . issued a decree forbidding observance of Jewish laws in Jerusalem and surrounding towns. Jews were forced to offer sacrifice to foreign gods, Torah scrolls were burned, mothers who had allowed their babies to be circumcised were killed with their children. Anyone with a copy of a Torah scroll was executed, and leading citizens were required, on pain of death, to eat pork in public, thus openly disobeying the Torah's commands.

 

    This reign of terror led to rebellion and ultimately to the independence of the Jewish state.

    This is the context for the writing of the Book of Daniel, though it is set centuries before during the Jewish exile in Babylon, another time when Jews were living under foreign occupation and had to learn how to live and survive with integrity while enduring oppression. As one commentator wrote, this book exhorts people of faith to "resist and pray and hold fast."

    

    Daniel, then, is a legendary figure. There's no independent historical record of a Jewish Daniel as a prominent figure in the courts of the Babylonians and Persians. In fact, the only Daniel we find mentioned in the independent historical record appears in Ugaritic literature as a righteous king of the 14th century Before the Common Era.

The Book of Daniel inaccurately narrates the timeline of rulers and suggests that Daniel remained a high official over multiple rulers in different empires stretching so many decades that his lifespan stretches credulity.

We can confidently say we are in the realm of folk tale and legend. Who then is Daniel, within this legend?

    At the beginning of the Book of Daniel, Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego are promising young Jews whom the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar takes into court service. Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Judea and carried away the elite as exiles. The first chapter of Daniel tells us that Nebuchadnezzar ordered his chief eunuch to "bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king's palace" and teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans so that they might serve the king.

    It was common in the ancient world to have eunuchs in the service of the royal court. It was also common to make eunuchs of the conquered people and force them to serve their conqueror.

    There are layers of horror in this story that we don't encounter in the Sunday school version. These four young men were likely emasculated. They, in many ways, were slaves. One wonders if there is sexual violence involved as well, especially the way the story tells us that the king wanted attractive young eunuchs.

    Despite the horror and injustice, these young men thrive in the foreign court. That's especially difficult under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar has become something of an archetype for the mad tyrant. He consistently makes bad and unjust decisions. His anger is always roiling just below the surface and explodes in violence. In one story, he goes mad and lives like a wild animal in the wilderness for a time.

    Nebuchadnezzar is a cautionary tale of his own.

    Daniel survives and thrives in this frightening setting and through the reigns of other emperors of varying degrees of sanity, rationality, and morality.

 

    The Persian Emperor Darius comes off pretty good, especially in comparison to Nebuchadnezzar. The Hebrew Bible generally has a good view of the Persian kings. We'll encounter another one in a couple of weeks when we look at the story of Esther. The Persians emperors ended the exile and allowed the Jewish leaders to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the Temple. So the Bible often views them as the agents of God. The Persian Emperor Cyrus is even called Messiah at one point.

    The evil people here are the other court leaders, the bureaucrats. This theme will continue in the Book of Esther.

    But as one commentary I read stated, "The court of Darius is a kangaroo court. . . Daniel was innocent; yet Persian law threw him to the lions quite legally and properly." This story reminds us that even an emphasis upon law and order can itself be unjust.

    Daniel, then, has become a symbol of civil disobedience. Even Gandhi studied and wrote about Daniel as he formulated his methods that later influenced the American Civil Rights Movement and most modern efforts to expand human rights.

    Daniel may be a legend, but he has had a lasting impact upon our world.

 

    A favourite book in my library is entitled Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible. It's a series of literary essays on the Hebrew Scriptures. The essay on Daniel was written by the novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz. It's a rich essay full of insights, and I'll only scratch the surface of it today.

    She writes about how as a child she read the stories of Daniel in a children's book and was fascinated by them. These children's stories, she says, "taught two supreme things." And those lessons were:

 

That freedom is a quality of the inner spirit and not of the body's circumstances, and that events move purposefully—if mysteriously—toward just and meaningful conclusions.

 

    These are the simple morals of the stories. But, as I've pointed out the last few weeks, these rich ancient stories never stay put for the simple moral conclusions. Schwartz writes, "Many of us who have grown to maturity amid the brutalities of the twentieth century find these beliefs impossible to sustain."

    We all want to believe that we would be people of integrity in the most dangerous of circumstances. We all want to believe that life works out to just conclusions. But we also know how unlikely both are.

    At General Synod one of the keynote address was by Glennon Doyle, who is a popular author and blogger, particularly among those seeking Christian parenting advice. After the murders at Mother Emmanuel she was reading a book to her children about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. One of her children asked, "Mommy, if we had lived then, would we have marched with them?" Glennon answered, "Of course honey." Then her other child said, "No we wouldn't have. We wouldn't have marched then, because we aren't marching now."

    

    One problem with reading this story is that we want to cast ourselves as Daniel, right? But maybe we aren't Daniel. Maybe we are one of the other characters in the story. This is often a problem in biblical interpretation. We like to think we would be the Good Samaritan stopping to help the injured person, when Jesus really wants us to consider what it is like to be the person beaten up and lying on the side of the road who receives help from a person who disgusts him.

    Maybe the narrator stays with Darius instead of Daniel in order to make us think of the ways we are Darius. The ways we are the functionaries within an unjust system.

    For example, I'm sure some members of the Omaha tribe think of us as the foreign imperial power.

    And one reason it's often difficult to read the writing of Ta Nehisi Coates is that he reminds us white people of the continuing role we play in the oppression of African Americans.

 

    There's a 19th century children's hymn called "Dare to Be a Daniel." The chorus goes:

 

Dare to be a Daniel!

Dare to stand alone!

Dare to have a purpose firm!

Dare to make it known!

 

    But maybe what we should dare is to imagine what life is like for actual Daniels who must, as Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes, "go into a dark, savage place" and survive.

    Maybe we should dare to imagine how we make that injustice possible.


Never Get Burned

Never Get Burned

Daniel 3:1-30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

30 July 2017

 

 

    At 6:30 a.m on September 13, 1814 a fleet of the Royal Navy under command of Rear Admiral Cockburn opened fire on Fort McHenry, the primary defense of Baltimore harbor. The bombardment was one part of a well-organized British battle plan that had begun the day before when troops were landed on North Point and had moved toward the city.

    The British land forces had advanced the day before, but not as successfully as they had expected. They took heavy casualties and their commander, Major General Robert Ross, was killed. They had expected the American troops to flee, as they had done the month before when the British attacked and burned Washington.

    But Baltimore had prepared for this attack. They had trained fighters, dug trenches, blockaded their harbor, and built forts. They had their own plan of defense that accurately anticipated the British movements. They expected forces to land at North Point and successfully drew them inland away from their supplies where the British were surprised to encounter thousands of troops in well-built defenses. The British soon realized that they could not win the land battle without a naval bombardment, but the fleet first had to get past Fort McHenry.

    The British assumed that the Fort would surrender under the force of the bombardment. But it did not.

    By afternoon, the fleet stopped its attack and tried moving closer to the fort, but soon came under attack from the cannons of the fort and withdrew to their original position, where they reopened fire.

    In the night some ships attempted to get past the fort, but were discovered and 1,200 British were killed or captured.

    The defenders of Fort McHenry withstood twenty-five hours of rockets, bombs, and cannonballs, all while it rained heavily. Four men were killed and twenty-four were wounded.

    At dawn's early light, Major George Armistead ordered that a huge American flag created for just such a moment by local seamstress Mary Pickersgill be raised as a sign of defiance. The musicians of the fort played "Yankee Doodle" as the flag was raised.

    Not only did the sight inspire Francis Scott Key to compose our national anthem, but the flag signaled to the British navy that their attack had failed.

    And with the successful defense of Baltimore, the tide turned in the War of 1812. It is possible that had the fort surrendered and the British taken Baltimore, that they could have built upon a string of successes to defeat the young American republic, bringing an end to our experiment in democracy.

    

    On Sunday, July 2 of this year I visited Fort McHenry during a break in activities of the United Church of Christ General Synod. As I explored the fort and learned details of that fateful dawn, my spirit swelled with patriotic respect. These brave people had withstood an overwhelming attack and saved the cause of liberty.

    I needed this dose of patriotism. The week before, I visited Washington, D.C. on my way to Synod. I went to D. C. to see friends, but also took the time to walk among the memorial and monuments and visit the museums. I was hoping for encouragement and inspiration from the ideals of our democracy, but the visit only increased my sadness.

    As I read the great words of Lincoln and Jefferson and King, honored the sacrifices of our veterans, and contemplated the hard work of ordinary people in the growth of our national ideals, the contrast with the news of the day and current political situation of the United States made me very sad.

    It was only at Fort McHenry that my ideals were inspired, as I experienced this story of brave people withstanding an assault upon democracy.

 

    The stories in the Book of Daniel are about how to live in a compromised even terrorizing political system and to remain a person of integrity. They are stories of resistance. As one commentator said, these stories "call people to active, nonviolent resistance to the symbols of worldly power and its religious expressions."

    Scholars believe that the Book of Daniel was written in the second century Before the Common Era and so tells what would by then have been old legends in order to provide assurance for a new context.    

    The book was likely written during the reign of the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes after the abomination of desolation when he consecrated the Temple in Jerusalem to the worship of Zeus and banned the Jewish faith. This resulted in the Maccabean revolt.

    At a time when people were dying for their faith resisting an evil empire, the author of this book drew upon stories set in the past, during the exile of the Jews in Babylon, another time when faithful resistance was called for. We'll explore another of these stories next week, when we look at Daniel in the lion's den, so I'll have more to say about the historical context and its implications.

    The basic theme of these stories is that God will triumph, no matter how dark and dismal current circumstances are.

    By the second century Before the Common Era, the Jews were already well-acquainted with foreign occupation, resistance of evil, and the difficult work of surviving and maintaining their cultural and religious identity.

    Obviously, that Jewish history did not end with the time of the Bible, as Jews have now spent millennia repeating this story, often drawing parallels to these stories of ancient biblical heroes.

    

    We Christians have also drawn upon these stories as sources of encouragement in dire circumstances. This week I learned about the Christmas Eve liturgy in the Armenian Church when this story is read by three young boys. A website of the Armenian Church explained:

    

We read this story as an anticipation of Christ's resurrection from the dead and the presence of the living Son of God in our midst assuring us of God's healing and life-restoring presence for all eternity. Just as the faithful boys are not burned by the heat of the furnace, those who know and trust Christ will be saved from the flames of hell.

 

    And so we read this story as God's promise of deliverance in the midst of darkness.    

    But of course, we cannot naively read this story. Life isn't quite that simple.

Jews died in the fiery furnaces of the Holocaust. No fourth man appeared to rescue them and bring down the murderous tyrant.

Even the Fort McHenry story is more complicated. Exhibits at the Fort point out that the invading British had declared they would end slave and liberate enslaved persons. So, were the defenders of the fort the defenders of liberty or not? It's so complicated.

 

    I believe this story in Daniel is aspirational. It makes no guarantees; sometimes we will not survive the fire

Instead its purpose is to encourage us. Sometimes we will survive the fire. Sometimes if we resist as people of integrity and courage, the enemy will be defeated and good with triumph.