Sunday, 27 May 2012

Dare to be a Daniel

It’s not only football games that can have two halves.

Books sometimes come in halves too.  And Daniel is very much a book of two halves.

We have worked our way through the Law and the Prophets and we are well on our way through the Writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament.  We are coming towards the climax to the books of the Old Testament.  But we are not quite there yet.

The Book of Daniel stands on the threshold of the final set sequence of books and it stands out very much alone in the Old Testament.

The book is actually written in two languages.  After an initial chapter written in Hebrew chapters 2-7 are written in Aramaic before the final chapters revert to Hebrew.

The first half of the book – chapters 1-6 are a sequence of stories that alternate – all tell about the stand Daniel and three other Jewish leaders take in the face of the devastating power of the Babylonian state Nebuchadnezzar and his successors.

The second part of the book from 7 to the end is a sequence of apocalyptic visions that I want to come back to next week.

There is a strange appropriateness to arrive at the book of Daniel on Pentecost Sunday.   Pentecost is a moment of utter transformation in the story of the first followers of Jesus.  It is the point at which they are galvanised into action.  And the action they take goes in the face of the powers that be, be it the Jewish leaders and officialdom in Jerusalem or the Gentile powers that be in Rome.

Jesus knew they were going to be up against it.  After all, he knew how much he himself was up against it in everything he did.  Just as he had come with a messasge to share and healing to bring, that’s exactly the task he set his followers as he sent out the twelve like sheep into the midst of wolves.  What Jesus envisaged was an immense amount of opposition. Opposition that would amount to persecution.

This was a scary venture.

At the moment when all was lost, that was the point for Jesus when his followers would have a strength to rise above themselves – and strength was nothing less than the Spirit of God.

When they hand you over do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time, for it is not you who speak but the Spirit of y our Father speaking through you.

There are echoes in what Jesus says of the story of Daniel.

Jesus goes on to speak of the untold hostility his followers will have … but they are to keep going in spite of the fact they won’t make it round all the towns of the Jewish people before ‘the Son of Man comes’.

And that is no coincidence that there should be such references and allusions to Daniel.

In a sense that’s the whole point of the book.

It’s set in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar as the destruction of the Babylonian power is at its worst.  But the book speaks into subsequent generations.  Indeed when we look at the visions of next week we shall see that it seems to be written against the backdrop of the awful events that gave rise to the Maccabean revolt.

In the first half of the book there is a rhythm – Daniel is an interpreter of dreams and summoned to the court of the tyrant king to interpret his dreams.  As he does so it becomes apparent that the God of the Jewish people, the God YHWH is the God of the Universe and he is all powerful.

Alongside the dreams and their interpretation come moments when Daniel and the three others are challenged in their faith.  But they hold firm.

The dreams interpreted in vividly dramatic stories Daniel confronts the demands of the tyrant stays true to this faith and is protected and saved by the unseen yet very real power of God.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego defy king Nebuchad nezzar and refuse to fall down at the feet of an enormous gold appearing statue the Emperor has made from gold.  Other Babylonians are out to entrap them.  But they stand firm in the face of everything.

Then it is the turn of Daniel to stand up to those who plot against him.  He is thrown into the Lions Den but again the stand he takes is vindicated.

In the fiery furnace there is another figure present with the three in the furnace.  And they are saved.

In the Lions den it is the angels of God who shut up the mouths of the lions.

The story told it then is a story that comes to life in subsequent generations.  The vicious power of the Babylonians is replaced by the more benign power of the Persians, but still the people are not free.  The Egyptians rise momentarily and then the Greeks under Alexander the Great.  There are moments of Egyptian power and Syrian power but then it is the  Romans that arise.

In turn as the Jewish people face untold opposition, oppression and repression the stories of Daniel figure large n the memory they hand on.  They are an inspiration to them as they too are called to take a stand in each generation.

The followers of Jesus were facing the same challenge.

But the promise of Jesus is that they will not be alone.

They go out as twelve together, they come back and find they have received just the strength Jesus spoke about.  Luke tells us 72 then go out  and return finding they too have received just the strength Jesus spoke about.

Jesus himself is arrested, tried and crucified.  And the confidence of the followers of Jesus deserts them.  But they are not alone.  Jesus appears to them and although that is only momentary, they stand firm.  Then it is on the Day of Pentecost that that moment of turning that transformation comes.  For they become aware they are not alone.

It is as if there is another presence with them – as there had been in the fiery furnace.  It is as if there is a protection from God just as Daniel experienced in the Lions Den.

The story of Acts … and the story of the church is a story then of people taking a stand.

At times the state seeks to take Christianity and bring it to heel.  But the followers of Jesus stand over against the powers that be to challenge, to question, to cajole and to transform.

That too is the task we share as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

This Pentecost Sunday we share in our prayers for those who are facing persecution.  We think specially of the descendants of those Jewish people exiled in Babylon – and the followers of Jesus among their midst.  They are facing persecution as ever as they have fled Iraq, sought refuge in Syria and face the devastation of all that is happening there.  Not easy times.  Need for strengthening, the strengthening of the Spirit.

In Egypt with the uncertainties of the outcome of the elections.  Again strength for those facing persecution.

And we will face those who criticise, those whose apathy drains our strength.  And we too need to take our stand.  And claim the strength promised in anticipation of Pentecost by Christ, the strength that is unseen and yet so very strong.

A strength we are to take to heart ourselves.

This is a year of anniversaries.  It has been the 40th anniversary of our Congregational Fedeartion.  It was moving at the annual meeting a fortnight ago to see how so many of the wounds that were caused at the times of the dividing of the way for many churches, have been healed in friendships and mutual respect.  My thought went to the first President of the CF, Margaret Stansgate.

A fiery person if ever there was one whose life spanned every decade of the twentieth century and a life of campaigning for social justice with a member of her family in the commons in each of those decades and still to this day.

An old Salvation Army hymn was one of her husband’s favourites.  You may know it …

Standing by a purpose ture
Heeding God’s command
Honour them, the faithful few!
All hail to Daniel’s band.

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.

Interestingly, Tony Benn took that as the title of an autobiographical memoir he wrote and he told of the moment he saw a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den in the YMCA in Nagasaki of all places.

That made me think in turn of the story of one of the great Christians of the twentieth Century.  Nagai.  A radiologist and part of the Christian community in Japan that stood their ground against the dictates of the empire and suffered extensively.  Passionate in his commitment to peace he was outside the city of Nagasaki when the second nuclear bomb was detonated in 1945.

He rushed to aid the victims – in the charred remains of the city at the very epi-centre of the blast one of the few buildings to have any part of it still standing was the  Christian cathedral.  Ironic that the city to be bombed should have been the centre of the Christian community.

It strengthened his faith.  He worked for peace and for justice in the wake of the war before dying an early death from radiation sickness within ten years of the ending of the war.

He is another of whom it could be said he was a Dnaiel

Many mighty men are lost
Darning not to stand
Who for God had been a host
By joining Daniel’s band

Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone!

That too is the heritage we have as this year we mark the 350th anniversary of the day in August 1662 when the state once again asserted control over the church in this country and insisted only the prescribed readings be read, only state approved preachers should preach – and 2000 ministers were ejected from their churches.

It is a heritage of dissent that we stand in.

Many giants, great and tall,
Stalking through the land,
Headlong to the earth would fall
If met by Daniel’s band.

Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to have a purpose firm!

But that tradition doesn’t just go back to the stand taken by the likes of Margaret Stansgate on all sorts of issues, of Nagai in Japan, or of our forebears down through the ages.

It goes back to the very beginnings of the church that we mark today on the Day of Pentecost.

Empowered, strengthened by that presence, that presence of the very spirit of God, Peter and the others had the courage of their convictions to pass on the message of Christ and seek to make a difference in changing the lives of many, many people.

Hold the Gospel banner high!
On to victory grand!
Satan and his hosts defy,
And shout for Daniel’s band.

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone;
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known!

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