The Book of Daniel has been a huge source of comfort and inspiration for me over the past few years, and increasingly so as I think about what it might mean for the church in the West to go into a more exilic time.
Now much has been said about whether we are in exile or not, and I tend to think it’s not a totalising metaphor, but more a tone or feel for the pushback the church in the West is receiving.
Still, I keep coming back to the the book of Daniel and finding much that is helpful, not least of all in terms of how the church can benefit from the experiences of the exiles in Babylon. And as a pastor I am keen to learn from this book about how we can be God’s corporate people in exile; how to do gathered church well in such a way that we bring glory to God in the midst of the pressure of a surrounding culture.
Today I offer four ways that the gathered church can model itself on the experience of Daniel and his three friends in Babylon, looking specifically at chapters 3 and 6. It’s not the sum total of what we do, indeed its focus is more on what we do as we gather corporately. But corporate gatherings are shop front windows: they show people what we value the rest of the week.
As I see it there are four aspects to their lives that we can model as exiles gathered in worship: Defy, Declare, Die and Deliver.
There’s something about being together in church and announcing the greatness of God that is defiant. And increasingly so in a culture that has passively forgotten God or is actively rejecting Him. I actually think it’s an exciting time for the church as it thumbs its spiritual nose at the pretenders to God’s throne.
And again, it’s analogous to the exilic situation of Daniel and his three friends as they negotiated the tricky place that was the court of an Ancient Near Eastern pagan king.
The first action of God’s servants when faced with the command to reject God and worship false gods is to defy the king’s commands. In the first story the three friends won’t bow down to the image of gold, and in the second, Daniel continues to pray to God three times a day despite the order to make requests of the king only.
Clearly they don’t live in a democratic nation. They live under the rule of an Ancient Near Eastern despot. They do, however, have influence within the court. Yet notice that in both instances the men involved do not try to influence the king’s political or religious agenda. Indeed in the second case, Daniel would be within his rights to point out to the king that jealousy is the reason behind his enemies pushing the ludicrous law that prohibits prayer to anyone other than the king.
And it’s not as if neither Daniel’s friends in chapter 3, or Daniel himself in chapter 6, don’t have kudos in the court. The three friends are coming off the back of a great victory in chapter 2 in which they helped the king determine the meaning of his dream. It’s given them great influence. And Daniel? Darius is considering elevating him to the second in the land, so esteemed is he in the king’s eyes.
Yet none of these men appeal to their social or political status for a loophole, neither do they, at this stage, appeal to their innocence in all matters related to the king.
What do they do? They defy the king simply by looking past his decrees to the decrees of a greater King – the God of Israel. They show that their identity is not wrapped up in Babylon and its decrees, hence they seek no succour from Babylon, nor any legal protection. Instead they refuse the king the totalising position he would assign himself.
They are great acts of defiance.
It’s my observation that the gathering of God’s people around the Word, the sacrament, the prayers and the worship on a regular basis is our greatest act of defiance. Yes we can make political statements and blog and lobby if we want, but the very act of public worship says to the kingdom of this age and all of its threats and cajolings, “You are not in charge. You are not the true king.”
Over the coming decades it would do us well to stop seeing church as merely a place to get together, merely a place to celebrate, merely a place to hear teaching, but a place of godly and God-loving defiance. A place in which, even though we recognise we still have social influence in our culture, are completely free not to exercise our rights, but to show the world that our hope is not in pushing our rights, but in standing alongside our King.
Last week at our gathered church meeting I began with these words from Psalm 138:
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise.
In the negative that is an act of defiance; a thumbing of our noses at the false gods that have assailed us with hopes of false comfort all week long. In the positive it is a declaration before the other hopes and dreams of this age that our hopes and dreams are fulfilled in God, and no one and nothing else.
And we see this too in Daniel 3 and 6. In light of their defiance these men are exposed before the king, indeed before the whole royal court and all who have influence and sway. With the world looking on the three friends in chapter 3 declare volubly that “we will not serve your god or worship the golden image that you have set up.” At the very time self interest and self-preservation should mean that they deny their God they do the reverse. They announce his greatness and his sovereignty whatever the outcome. They declare God’s praise before the small “g” gods.
Daniel’s declaration is more subtle. Whereas the three friends had to respond dramatically, Daniel continued life as usual. He simply keeps doing what he had always been doing, praying to God and towards Jerusalem, the city of his hope. His enemies saw it for what it was: open rebellion:
Daniel who is one of the exiles of Judah, pays no attention to you, O King, or the injunction you have signed, but makes his petitions three times a day.
In other words, Daniel is declaring that you are powerless to answer his deepest needs, O king. You are unable to satisfy the longings of his heart. His actions expose as a lie the claim that the king is the true sovereign.
False gods, false kings don’t like it when they are so challenged. They cannot cope with the truth being declared before their faces. Truth telling in the face of the false gods disempowers them, exposing their strength and power as a sham.
That’s what we are called to do as God’s gathered people. It isn’t simply enough to be defiant. That would leave us slightly bitter at best, and proud and arrogant at worst. When we get together, we have to – and we will have to increasingly do it – extol the virtues of our God over and against the false gods of this age.
And that’s where those who lead us in corporate worship will have to get their act together. The slightly sentimental, non-historical songs that centre on “I” in our corporate worship won’t cut it. I must say the recent push by Hillsong to keep Jesus and his work firmly at the centre of their new songs has been a great boon for the church. It’s been encouraging to sing their songs with gusto recently as joyous declarations to the world that we will not worship your false gods of ease and comfort and self, but rather we will look upwards and outwards to our king.
It’s astonishing isn’t it, that in both stories, chapter 3 and chapter 6, these men are delivered from death in the here and now. But I don’t want us to think for a moment that this means that we will, as God’s people, receive complete vindication for our decision to defy the gods of this age. In both instances the men go down into death. Yet in both instances the men are delivered from death, first by the presence of a “son of the gods” (Dan 3:25), and in Daniel’s instance, by an angel of the Lord shutting the mouths of the lions.
Their deaths are proto-deaths that point to the coming death of the truly Righteous One who both defies the powers of this age and makes the faithful declaration of allegiance to his Father. The fiery furnace and the lion’s den are but portents of the cross.
When the cross is not central in our church gatherings in terms of its implications, its hopes, it constraints on our desires, its rejection of our tendency to not forgive, or serve or love others in a costly way; then we are rejecting the call of our Master. Has any quote of Bonnhoeffer’s ever been so contemporary? “When Christ bids a man, he bids him come and die.” But of course Bonhoeffer is simply echoing the words Jesus states in Matthew 16 and Luke 9 that in order to follow Christ we must take up our cross and follow Him.
Now that’s a great individual request of Jesus, but it’s also corporate. In the current context of our culture, the church that will not die to itself, its hopes of corporate influence or its desire for a place at the cultural table, is refusing to identify with the faithful witnesses of salvation history who have died for the sake of their Saviour. By refusing to walk the road of the fiery furnace, of the lion’s den, and ultimately of the cross, the church that loves its life more than it loves the Saviour, will hide from the scorn, opprobrium and shame that the scoffing world will heap upon it.
In our own context that is unlikely to be actual death, but the social, cultural and political death that is the lot of those committed to godliness, steadfastness, holiness and truth telling. However, the church that goes into the flames, the den or upon the cross, both identifies with her Saviour and will find that her Saviour is with her in the midst of that deathly experience.
The church that no longer focuses on eschatology is the church that is looking for its deliverance in this age alone. And by focussing on eschatology I do not mean charts and maps predicting when Jesus will come back. Rather I mean a church whose hope is grounded in the coming King and the new creation, rather than this fallen, broken age.
In both stories in Daniel, deliverance comes unexpectedly and at the critical point in the story. There is no last minute reprieve, no changing of mind, but a sure and certain death which, in the most unlikely of ways, is snatched away at the last minute. The men are delivered miraculously.
Once again these are proto-deliverances; a foretelling of the truly Righteous One and his deliverance from the grave on the third day. If we die with him we will also be raised with him. Our deliverance is assured.
The church would do well to remember that in the crunchy cultural times in which we live. Perhaps things will swing back to favour us in the ways we fondly – or not so fondly – remember. Perhaps they will not. Either way our hope of deliverance is in the coming of the King.
So focussing on eschatology helps. How can we do that? Well, celebrating communion on a more regular basis might help! Paul says in 1Corinthians 11 that the very act of the Lord’s Supper proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes. Our looking back to his death is a call for us to look forward. Longing for his appearing is a feature of the Christian life. There ought to be times in our worship gatherings in which our communal longing for his appearing is heart-felt and evident. We’re going to need that to give us strength in coming days. There ought to be songs that ache for his appearing, that call us to prepare ourselves for it, that push all of our hopes on to it. Don’t just save those songs for your funerals; if we’re called to die daily, sing them daily and weekly!
Our ultimate deliverance can never be political, social or cultural, it can only be eschatological. And when that falls off our radar we will look to politics, society or culture to do the deliverance for us. Daniel and his friends were delivered in a far more radical and God-glorying way than they could have been had they cajoled and manoeuvred and schemed.
Oh, and did you notice in each story? There is a second Declare in each of them. In both chapters 3 and 6, the pagan king, upon seeing the defiance, declaration, death and deliverance of God’s people, declares the greatness of Israel’s God. Surely this tells us that the church itself is a witness to the glory of God by its very faithful presence in the community.
Witness is not something we do, witness is something we are. At a time when there is tremendous pressure on the church to conform to the world and what it worships, the sheer power of an alternate community that witnesses to a different hope will become a counterpoint to the withered worship of the self.
Nothing is more powerful than when the kings of this age cannot help but announce, as Darius does in Daniel 6:
He is the living God,
his kingdom shall never be destroyed,
and his dominion shall be to the end.
He delivers and rescues;
he works signs and wonders
in heaven and on earth.