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Edward F. Markquart

Books of the Bible - Old Testament

Old Testament Sermon Series     Daniel 1:1-21

 It is wonderful to be together today as a congregation, after summer vacations and summer trips and summer outings. We know that it has been good to “get away” during the summer time, to “get away” on vacations, trips and outings, to “get away” fishing and hiking and camping. But it is also good to gather together again, to come together again as a community after the summer travels. We come together for fresh beginnings at school, college, work, and church. Life has its seasons, and this is the season to gather together for a fresh beginning here at church, Sunday School, confirmation and other ministries. Welcome back. Welcome home.

Today we are finishing our summer series of sermons about the Old Testament personalities. It has been fun to preach on the characters from the Old Testament. During these sermons, I used a persistent analogy. That is, I love to hike in the mountains around us here in the Pacific Northwest. This past week on Monday, my wife and I hiked up on Chinook Pass and Naches Peak. The trail wandered in circular fashion around Naches Peak and we enjoyed spending time at Naches Peak and seeing its distinctive lakes, its distinctive meadows, its distinctive views of Mount Rainier. When you hike, you know that each mountain is distinct and each trail is distinct and each panoramic scene is distinct whether it be Mount Baker, Rainier, Hood or Shasta. Each mountain is distinct and has a distinct personality. In this series of sermons, I have used the analogy of Old Testament personalities being like mountains and mountaintops. We love to go hiking on the sides of mountains and we have distinct learning experiences from each mountain. That is, we have spent time hiking on the mountains of the Old Testament, such as on Mount Abraham and Mount Moses, on Mount Joshua and Mount Ruth, on Mount David and Mount Solomon, on Mount Job and Mount Ester. We have spent time hiking, seeing, absorbing the beauty from the distinctness of each mountain. On each Old Testament mountain, we have hear distinct stories with distinct lessons and distinct messages for our lives. We learn and see something unique and distinct from each mountain. Today we are hiking and spending time on the trails of the last mountain, Mount Daniel.

Daniel is the last of our sermons on Old Testament personalities because Daniel, from my point of view, is one of the last Old Testament books that was written. From the Biblical scholars that I read and appreciate, Daniel addressed the situation in 168 B.C., before Christ or BCE, before the Christian era. It was during the time of the Maccabees and the Roman Ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, who claimed to be a deified god. It was the time during which the Jews were pressured to become Greeks and think Greek thoughts and worship Greek gods and follow Greek practices. Let me explain.    

The theme of the book of Daniel an invitation for us to stand tall in our faith, to be loyal to God and Jesus Christ and to be aware that the world around us wants to bring us down to the world’s level of morality, to bring us down to their level of spirituality and beliefs, to bring us down from the slopes of the mountains. I remember some years ago when Princess Diana of Great Britain died and at her funeral, Princess Diana’s brother gave an eloquent eulogy. Her brother said the press was trying to find faults with his sister and to bring her down. He then gave the following line: “Genuine goodness is threatening to those at the other end of the moral continuum” and those people at the other end of the moral continuum always want to bring you down. I will repeat his words, “genuine goodness is threatening to those at the other end of the moral continuum and those people at the other end of the moral continuum always want to bring you down.”

The same thing happened to Mother Theresa. Mother Theresa of Calcutta was perhaps the greatest moral force of the twentieth century, she is the highest moral mountain of the twentieth century. As history looks back at the twentieth century, I believe that only two names will be clearly remembered: Einstein as a symbol of science and Mother Theresa as a symbol of moral goodness and genuine spirituality. Many people believe that Mother Theresa was the holiest person who lived in the twentieth century. When Mother Theresa received her Nobel Peace Prize, it happened. I could not believe it. People wanted to bring her down. I was so irritated and angry at them. People became critical of Mother Theresa, saying that she was helping people to be poor; that she was not getting at the root causes of hunger in the world. They said: “If she were a real leader, she would be against abortion. If she were a real leader, she would fight the causes of world hunger.” And Mother Theresa would say, “No, that is not my mission. My ministry is to reach out and touch. Give me your babies that you don’t want and I will touch them. Give me your dying beggars on the street and I will hold them in my arms and personally and lovingly help them die.” Mother Theresa was the highest spiritual mountaintop of the twentieth century and the world tried to bring her down, they tried to bring her down to moral mediocrity. Why is it always true that those at the other end of the moral continuum will always try to bring the moral giants down?

That is what the story of Daniel is about. Daniel and his friends were at the top end of the moral continuum and the world wanted to bring Daniel and his friends down to their level of moral mediocrity, to bring them down from the majestic moral beauty of the mountains to the moral mediocrity of the desert and wasteland below.

To get into the book of Daniel, you have to understand the setting of that book. That is, we need to understand the big epochs of human history. So when we talk about the big epochs of human history, we will begin with the Egyptians and the pyramids, with King Tut and the other pharaohs, with Moses who lived in the palace of an Egyptian pharaoh. Then the next big epoch of human history was the Assyrians and the capital of Assyria, named Nineveh. Then, the next big epoch of human history were the Babylonians and Babylon and prophets like Jeremiah. Then, the next big epoch of human history were the Persians and Emperors Cyrus and Darius and the book of Ester. And then the next big epoch of human history was the Greeks, including Alexander the Great.

In today’s story about Daniel, we are in the epoch of time of Alexander the Great and the Greeks. Alexander the Great came to power when he was twenty years old. In thirteen years, he died at the age of thirty-three, his Greek armies conquered the whole wide world. It was not merely that the Greek armies conquered the whole wide western world but the Greek ideas conquered the whole wide world. Who was his teacher? What was the name of Alexander the Great’s private professor? His teacher was Aristotle and the ideas of Aristotle conquered the whole wide world. In Western civilization, you and I are products of that Greek world. That is, you and I can go to the city of Athens which was the center of his empire. We can go and see the Parthenon and you see these wonderful Greek columns. You can’t go to any city in the western world without seeing Greek columns. Greek columns are all over the western world.  From the Greeks, we get certain words which are part of our vocabulary such as Olympics, gymnasium, and stadium. The Greeks were interested in the development of beautiful human bodies, much more so than the development of beautiful human spirit. The ideas of the Greeks help to create democracy and the word, senate, is a Greek word.

Now, right after Alexander the Great, died and Aristotle and his principles spread throughout the world, they started to impose this new religion. In the Greek religion and its mythologies, their God was Zeus. They started to impose this new religion on the world around them, and they were the Hellenists. It had to do with imposing Greek values on the territories that were conquered. They is the world out there which is always trying to impose its values on you.

The incident happened on a specific date. The date was December 15, the year was 168 BC, Before Christ. The location was the city of Jerusalem and the Hellenists were imposing their culture and religion on the people of Jerusalem. It would be today as if the Hellenists came into our sanctuary of Grace Lutheran Church and the cut down the Christ figure and the cross. They omitted Christ and the cross and instead, here on the high altar, they put a new statue of Antiochus Epiphanes. (You can read about this in the Jewish book of Maccabees.) This was December 15th. Ten days later, on December 25th, the Hellenists who were trying to impose their religion on the Jews came into our sanctuary and took away our central Bible and took away the Chalice and Holy Communion and instead they put incense burners because we were to burn incense to Zeus. A short time later, they removed the sign in the front of the church which said Grace Lutheran Church and they renamed this Olympic Zeus Church. Our sanctuary became the new temple dedicated to the worship of Zeus. Children could no longer be baptized. Any family who brought their child to be baptized would be executed. Instead of Sunday School (that is why I had the children’s sermon about the importance of Sunday School), they had gymnasium. The children would go to body building exercises in the gymnasium, so that all the children could have strong, beautiful Greek bodies. The Greek Hellenists were interested in the bodies much more than the souls. 

It is in that situation that we find the story of Daniel for today. Daniel was that person whom the Hellenists were going to bring down and Daniel refused to be brought down. Daniel was to stand tall in the face of cultural opposition and we too are invited to stand tall and firm n the face of cultural opposition to our faith.   Let us look briefly at each of the four stories about Daniel. You now, stories about the lion’s den and the firey furnace. 

The first story about Daniel has already been read as a Biblical text for the day. There were four beautiful Jewish young men. They were the kind of men that the Greeks liked: handsome, big brown eyes, bodies that were tight and muscular, minds that were sharp and intellectual. These were the kind of bodies that the Greeks would be attracted to. The Hellenists selected Daniel and three of his friends to be brought into the king’s court so that these young men could be trained in the ways of Hellenism. These four young, handsome men were to eat the king’s food, drink the king’s wine, and enjoy the king’s desserts. Daniel spoke up and said, “We would rather not do that, thank you very much. We eat only vegetable and water.” The supervisors responded: “Vegetables and water? You will never survive on vegetables and water. You have to develop Olympic bodies and Olympic minds. You have to look good and think good. You can’t do that only on vegetables and water.” Daniel very wisely suggested, “Let’s have a ten day test. Give us ten days of vegetables and water and compare us to the other men on the king’s food, the king’s wine and the king’s desserts for ten days. Then, compare our complexions and our bodies and see.” The Hellenists accepted the challenge and ten days later, it was discovered that the bodies of the four young men were more strong and beautiful than those living on the king’s diet.

By the way, the lessons from this story are clear: when you stand up to the world that wants to bring you down, you need friends to stand beside you, friends who are committed to the cause. You can never stand alone when people are trying to take your religion away from you and bring you down, you never can stand alone. You need those friends around you who are committed to your cause. That is one of the purposes of confirmation: for young people to make good friends who are part of the faith. Having good friends and friendships helps you remain loyal to Christ, Christian values and Christian foundations. Also, good healthy diets are enormously important to your well being in life. We all know the dangers of the king’s menu. There are not many places in the Bible where you can go specifically to hear about healthy food intake, but the book of Daniel is one of those places. You are what you eat; you are the foods that you consume, and we know that God wants us to eat a healthy diet and healthy foods. Now we move to the next story in the book.

In the second story in the book of Daniel, the king has a dream. The king couldn’t  remember his dream and he said to all of his magicians and advisors: “I would like you to tell me the dream and what it means?” They replied, “How can we tell you the dream and what it means if you can’t remember the dream yourself?” The king said, “If you can’t tell me the dream, you are all going to die.” His magicians and advisors said, “King, be reasonable. Who can tell you your dream and the meaning of your dream if you yourself cannot remember it?” The king said, “I am going to kill all of you magicians if you can’t tell me my dream. I want to know what my dream was and what it meant.”

Daniel then indicated that he wanted to speak to the king. Daniel spoke. “King, I would like to tell you your dream and I would like to tell you what it meant. This was your dream. In your dream, there was a giant statue. At the top of this gigantic statue was a golden head; the shoulders and arms were made out of silver; the thorax and stomach  were made out of bronze; the two legs were made out of iron; and one foot was made of clay and the other foot was made of iron. Then, the figure looked away and a rock came, hit the figure and shattered the figure into oblivion. That little rock became a huge mountain which lives forevermore. King, that was your dream and now I will tell you the meaning of your dream. You king are the golden head and the kingdom after you will be a lesser kingdom and the lesser kingdom will be made of silver as in the shoulders and arms. That kingdom will fall and then there will be a still lesser kingdom made out of bronze as in the belly or stomach. That kingdom will fall and that kingdom will be lesser than the previous and it will be made out of iron as in the legs. Then there will be a kingdom that is divided, with one iron foot and one foot made out of clay. All of these kingdoms will be destroyed by the power of God, my God, my God who chooses all kings, my God who makes the seasons come and go, my God who is the author of life and death, my King who raises up kings and destroys them, and my God is the mountain who lives forever. All kingdoms of the earth shall perish. King, that was your dream and the interpretation of your dream.”

Whew! Daniel had the courage to say all of that to the king. Daniel said that the king was raised up by God and lowered down by God, that all the kingdoms of the world would fade away and that the only kingdom which is eternal is the kingdom of God. And “I, Daniel, will be loyal to my King more than your kingdom.” Whew! What was the king’s response? The king liked what Daniel said and made Daniel the governor of his whole empire.

We easily understand the lesson and message of Daniel, that all kingdoms and nations of this earth are temporary and transitory and that only God and his kingdom rules forever and ever. Our primary loyalty is to be to God’s kingdom rather than to any earthy transitory nation which is powerful at the moment. Nations of the world throughout all of history are forever trying to obtain your primary loyalty and allegiance, so that you are more loyal to your nation than to the Lord and his ways. In the New Testament, we hear that we are to obey God rather than human beings. England, France, Germany, China, Russia, the United States. Each of these nations last for a fraction of time, and each of these nations fall, but only God and the rule of God will live forever.

Now, we move to the third story. It is now time to bring Daniel down. We remember the quotation from earlier in the sermon: “genuine goodness is a threat to those at the other end of the moral spectrum.” There were those people who wanted to bring down Shadrack, Meshack and Abedneggo, the names of Daniel’s three friends. The Hellenists erected a statue to the king. The statue that they erected to the king was nearly three times as high as our sanctuary ceiling. It was ninety feet high, made out of pure gold, and it was nine feet wide, as wide as our communion table here in our chancel. It was an obelisk to the king, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, made out of pure gold. The Hellenists said to Daniel’s three friends, “Fall down and worship the symbol of the king, this golden statue.” Shadrick, Meshack and Abedneggo, Daniel’s three friends, said “No. That is not right. Your kingdoms of earth rise and fall. Earthly kingdoms and earthly nations are nothing. There is only one king who is eternal and that is the only king that we will bow down before and worship.” They said, “You must fall down on your knees and worship the statue. If you don’t, we will throw you into the firey furnace and you will die.” So they turned up the heat of the fire in that furnace seven times and they threw Shadrack, Meshack, and Abedneggo in that furnace. They threw the three friends into the furnace to burn up. The king looked into the furnace and the Bible says that “there was a fourth presence with them, protecting them from the flame of death.” An angel? The text says, “A son of God.” The Son of God? Christ? The Presence of God with us to protect us during the firey flames of life. The three men came out of the furnace and they were unharmed by the fire. The king said, “The God who delivered you is the true God.”

The lesson of this Daniel story is true: when the world tries to bring you down, when you are standing tall, what are a living a morally upright life, there will always be people who will want to bring you down and God will be there with you. Christ will be there in the firey furnaces of your life, protecting you, giving your strength in the heat of the battle, in the heat of the battle at work, at school, at church, in your family, all alone. Whenever you are engaged in the heat of the battle with the world of sin, the fourth presence will be with you. Is it an angel, a son of God, The Son of God, Christ? The story is clear: it is the presence of God with us to strengthen us when we are fighting our battles in our firey furnaces.

And now we move to the last and fourth story in the book of Daniel. This story is located in Daniel, chapter six. I love the way this story begins. “Now Daniel distinguished himself among the administrators by his exceptional qualities, so much so that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. At this, the administrators tried to find grounds for charges against him and his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him because he was trustworthy and not corrupt.” It sounds as if Daniel was the kind of person that the world wants to bring down. Daniel was at the opposite end of the moral continuum of the world.

They noticed that Daniel, although he was ruling over the whole kingdom, was deeply religious and would fall on his knees three times a day and pray. Three times a day, he would fall on his knees, lift up his hands and heart and ask God for help. I always like that part of the story, where someone who reached the top of their world, still knows the need for God and still falls on his or her knees and prays. Do you? Or have you become so self reliant and so self assured and so self possessed that you no longer need God? So that you don’t ever fall on your knees? Not Daniel. He fell on his knees and prayed and asked God for help. This was the core of his life, even when he was successful.

They saw Daniel fall on his knees and thought to themselves, “We will get him for that. We’ll get him for praying.” So they went to the king, “Anyone who falls on their knees and prays to another God should be thrown into a den of lions.” They made it a law that anyone who prays to another God should be thrown into the lion’s den. The law is the law and it cannot be changed. You cannot reverse an edict from the king’s palace. They watched Daniel and they caught Daniel praying and said, “We are going to get your after all. That has been our intention for a long, long time. We are going to bring you down.” So Daniel was going to be thrown into the den of lions. The king was upset because the king loved Daniel. A wonderful line in the text says, “The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you.” May your God, whom you serve not just a day or a week or a month but your God whom you serve continually save you. That night, the king nervously went into his palace and fretted and Daniel peacefully went into the lion’s den and was calm. I am sure that the king did not sleep a wink during the night. The Bible says that the first thing in the morning, the king ran to the lion’s den and shouted, “Daniel. Daniel. Are you still alive?” Daniel replied boldly, “My God who creates all the kingdoms of this earth, who raises and falls all the kings of all the kingdoms, who creates all the seasons, my God sent his holy angels to close the mouths of the lions and the lions did not eat me. May God be praised.” The king was pleased and appointed Daniel as administrator of the whole kingdom.

The lesson? God will rescue you and me from the mouths of the lions, those people and so-called friends who would destroy our faith. People may ridicule you for your prayer life and ostracize you for praying to God, but God will rescue us from disastrous situations.

The stories about Daniel are so good, and there are many lessons in those stories, lessons for our lives. The primary lesson that all the governments of the world will crumble and fall but only Christ and his kingdom is forever. The primary lesson that Daniel was so good, so loyal, so strong with God that it was inevitable that they, the world, would want to bring him down. And when you are strong and when you are loyal to God and when you are living a life of service to others like Mother Theresa, the world will want to bring you down. That is just the way it is. I think of certain times in our lives, this happens so often. Such as the past two days when I was with our seventh graders on retreat. Such as  when children move to young adulthood, from thirteen years old to twenty three or fourteen to twenty four. I was with the seventh graders yesterday on a retreat, and the little seventh graders are so innocent, so beautiful, so nice; and in that next epoch of time, the world wants to take their innocence, their beauty and bring them down so they don’t remain loyal to God. During this enormous transition in life, from being a child to being an adult, from being a young girl to becoming a young woman, from being a young boy to becoming a young man, the world wants to bring them down. The purpose of God is to be there to strengthen them and be with them in the firey furnace of life, to rescue our children from the power of evil. God wants to raise up young Daniels and young Danielles.

But this occurs not only when you are a child in seventh grade. But during your work, family, marriages, home life, again and again, when you are doing what is right, the power of evil in the world wants to bring you down. The purer you are and the taller you stand, they want to bring you down. You are not alone in that firery furnace. The fourth presence, the angel of God, the son of God, the Christ, is with you. Amen. 

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