Standing in the Divine Presence Nov 19, 2017
Daniel 3:1-30; John 18:36-37
Super Hero movies are big these days. How many of you have seen a superhero movie in the last year? Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Ironman, Superman, Batman…and on it goes. When I was thinking about parallels between the age of Daniel and our own time, I began thinking about how we depict the gods of this time. How do we imagine deities in the 21st century? There aren’t very many places in popular culture where we run into deities these days – but superhero movies and comic books still have many.
Evil gods, benign gods, disinterested gods, gods that love to meddle with humans’ lives and gods who see human beings as little more than ants to be brushed out of the way or even crushed carelessly without a second thought. The gods of Asgard in the Thor series, the gods of Ancient Greece in Wonder Woman, a whole bunch of gods at war with each other in the old Wonder Woman and DC crossover series War of the Gods – even the God of Israel comes in from time to time, named simply “The Presence”– yes, really! Those of you who read mythology when you were younger know that the gods were always scrapping with each other, trying to gain power through the manipulation of mortal lives.
This is the kind of god we see in the story of Daniel – a god that is about power and competition. We also see how human beings gain power by being associated with these gods and even claiming godhood for themselves. There are a couple of different stories in the book of Daniel that show us this common pattern in human culture. First, there is the story we hear today, in which Daniel’s friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah are arrested for refusing to bow down before a gold statue of King Nebuchadnezzar that was about a fifth the size of the Great Pyramid at Giza. For three high-up officials in the King’s government, staying on their feet is both treasonous and sacrilegious. The king of Babylon was understood to be divine in and of himself, as well as being a direct representative of the Babylonian gods. One could not come up with a graver offense against all that the Babylonian court promoted and believed.
The three young men – also known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – were not deliberately defying the king. In fact, the story makes clear that they wished to be faithful servants of this king who lifted them up in their captivity and gave them an education, a position of power, and a place befitting their royal status. But they knew that the only ruler, the only God, they could bow to, is the Most High God, Yahweh of Israel. To bow before this king and his statue would be to break the laws of Moses and to violate Israel’s covenant with God.
And so we see it, in our mind’s eye, as together, they stand, when the rest of the nobility and the powers-that-be prostrate themselves. The penalty for standing in the presence of what the Babylonians understand to be Divine is death. Yet in the midst of the fiery furnace another figure is seen, and the presence of that figure appears to shield these three from the flames that would consume them. The king declares that this figure is “like a God”. Other translations refer to this figure as an “angel” or even as “a son of God”, leading to later Christian translations in which the figure is interpreted to be Jesus himself. The king’s conclusion is that the Hebrew God is more powerful than his God, or even his own divinity, and – in a move typical of one who believes that he holds the divine power of life and death – orders anyone who blasphemes against Yahweh put to death!
Later on, Daniel finds himself in a similar situation. He is the new King Darius’ most trusted advisor, mostly on account of his ability to dream true and to interpret the dreams of others (there are definite echoes of Joseph’s story here). The King, however, at the urging of other leaders jealous of the power given to these Hebrew upstarts, is convinced to make it law that all shall bow down to him. Daniel is caught in the trap. He is thrown to the lions, but God sends an angel to shut their mouths, and he is saved. This King, too, condemns those who plotted against Daniel, and their entire families, to death. He learns nothing from his mistake with Daniel, but continues to use violence to respond to what challenges, angers or frightens him.
There are a number of things I notice about these stories:
The first is, the kind of God that is represented by the King of Babylon, and by the experiences of the Hebrews.
The second is, where this God is located.
The third is, how these young men respond to the pressure to conform to the norms of the culture in which they live.
The fourth is, what they do to make their way through those pressures and to emerge on the other side.
The God of Babylon, and Babylon’s God-King, is very much the God of familiar ancient mythologies and the God of most present day comic books: not at all interested in the suffering of others, obsessed with power, ready to enact violence to impose his will on the people. This is a God whose power comes through domination, and through the submission of others to his demands. This God is located over and above all else: represented by a colossal golden statue, with all the might of the world’s strongest empire propping him up. Contrast this God with the God to whom the Hebrews pray.
Our God is a God who enters into human danger and suffering in order to save. This God enters into the flames of a furnace and faces down lions; this God is with us, embodied in the angels sent to these faithful men’s rescue. This God does not impose rule, but rather receives obedience and service by virtue of amazing acts of mercy and deliverance.
This is the God we have come to know in Jesus, the God known to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. It is their shared experience of the God of Israel amd Judah that allows these four to stand up to the might of Babylon – the very empire that dragged them from their homes and brought them to a foreign land to serve in an unknown culture and under a power-obsessed king. They have to do what they have to do, and their consciences will not let them compromise with powers that oppose the will of God, no matter how politically convenient or even critical to their own survival that compromise might be!
What aids them in their ability to stay faithful is the courage they find through prayer. They pray together every day, as they seek to be faithful to God’s will. Daniel takes the lead and offers the others a way of being within the minefield of court life. When their loyalty to God provokes a death sentence, they face even this with prayer. I found a clip from the movie “The Book of Daniel” that does a brilliant job of depicting this scene, as Daniel, faced with the lions, prays the words of a Psalm that was likely written right around this time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfkxxV259PA
Gods who dominate, and a God who accompanies. A King who uses violence and oppression to serve his own ego, and four young nobles who face danger with quiet dignity and great courage, fuelled by faithful friends and the power of prayer. We do not face golden idols or all-powerful kings in this day and age, but we DO still face powers of violence and oppression – powers that are strong and insidious and that demand that we compromise our beliefs in order to survive and thrive in this time and place.
Will we bow down, compromise, knuckle under, and kneel down? Or will we stand firm, confident that instead of standing in some pseudo-divine presence, we are standing in the presence of the One God? Accompanied and sheltered by our God, we find courage, we find strength, we find confidence, to stay true to what Jesus has taught us. Claim that strength for yourself, and know what it is to stand strong in the divine presence, and not be afraid. Amen.