Called to Grow: Waiting in the Lions' Den
November 27, 2016; 1st Sunday in Advent
Brian R. Keepers
Called to Grow: Waiting in the Lions’ Den
Today we begin the season of Advent. Advent means “coming” or “arrival” and it is the season in the church year when we anticipate the coming or arrival of the Messiah, the true king and his kingdom. Advent is a time of anticipation and waiting.
Now there is a double sense to our waiting as Christians. On the one hand, we are waiting for Christmas, for the celebration of that day 2000 years ago when angels lit up the sky and shepherds went rushing to see the Savior of the world cradled in a manger in Bethlehem.
On the other hand, we are waiting for more than just the celebration of Christ’s birth. We are also waiting for the day when Christ our King will return to judge the living and the dead and set all things right.
So we find ourselves waiting “in between the times,” between Christ’s first coming and his second coming; waiting for a kingdom that is already here but not yet in its completion. To borrow those words from Jen Hatmaker that the Dykemas shared earlier: we find ourselves “in the messy middle part when the end is not yet in sight…”
Listen to this story from the book that we love—a story about someone who also had to wait, someone who had to live in the messy middle and choose to trust God amid an uncertain future.
Waiting is so hard, isn’t it? It’s got to be one of the hardest things in the world. Especially when you are waiting for an uncertain future and things are out of your control. It can be lonely, scary, even depressing…when you aren’t sure how things are going to turn out.
How will the test results come back? What will the downsize mean for my job? Will I get accepted into the university I want? Is the chemo treatment working? Will the counseling save my marriage? What will happen when a new President is inaugurated in January?
Waiting is especially hard, I think, when you find yourself waiting on God. Will God show up and do something? How long will it take? And if God does show up, does God have the power to really change things—to change our lives, our situation, our world?
Daniel knew what it was like to wait on God. Daniel knew what it was like to be in the messy middle, uncertain as to how things would turn out. Daniel, who excelled in King Darius’ court and distinguished himself above all the other presidents and satraps in the Persian kingdom. Daniel, who was the victim of jealousy and conspiracy. Daniel who stayed faithful to God even when it was hard, who continued to pray to his God even after the king’s edict.
Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den where he must wait for God to show up...or not. This is the key question in the story: Is Daniel’s God truly alive? Is Daniel’s God truly powerful? Can God save Daniel from the lions’ den?
Maybe you find yourself wondering the same thing today. You’re in the lions’ den, so to speak. Perhaps it is because of circumstances beyond your control—an illness, a loss, a situation. Perhaps it’s because of your own decisions—like King Darius you’ve got yourself in a bind because of choices you’ve made. Either way, you find yourself feeling powerless. And the only possibility for change, for rescue, for things to be different is if God shows up and does something about it.
Yes, waiting is so hard.
Is there anything we can do while we wait? That’s a good question for Advent, isn’t it? While it’s true that we are called to wait during this season of Advent, as we live in the messy middle, our waiting is not passive. We don’t just sit on our hands and do nothing. No, the kind of waiting we’re called to as disciples of Jesus, the kind of waiting we see in Daniel, is a very active kind of waiting.
What kind of activity? Not sitting on our hands but getting down on our knees. This is what Daniel does as he waits: he prays. While he is waiting in the lions’ den, Daniel gets on his knees and prays to God.
Actually, we see Daniel praying even before this moment of crisis in the lions’ den—it is prayer that got him in trouble in the first place. The jealous satraps and presidents convinced King Darius to outlaw prayer to any other God but himself. But in a bold act of civil disobedience, Daniel still kneels down to his God. Three times a day, in front of an open window facing Jerusalem, Daniel kneels to pray.
It’s funny how we often think of prayer as a last resort—something we do when we’ve run out of options and we’re at the end of our rope. But that’s not what we see in Daniel. Prayer is Daniel’s first resort, his primary practice as a follower of God who is living in exile. We see this in Jesus too. Prayer is Jesus’ central practice--his way of staying centered in his Father’s will and focused on his mission. And Jesus commands his disciples to pray. In fact, he gives them a prayer to mark them as those who belong to him—the Lord’s Prayer.
Prayer is the central posture we assume in our waiting—as we wait for things to be different in our lives and also as we wait for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
Daniel shows us that prayer is an act of trust. Knowing that his allegiance to God would get him in trouble and likely result in his execution, Daniel expresses his trust in God through prayer. But prayer is not just an expression of trust; prayer is also a spiritual practice that creates deeper trust. Prayer is the way we learn to trust God, rely on him, surrender more fully to God’s will. Prayer is our “Yes” to God and God’s kingdom, even when we are anxious and afraid. “Not what I want, but what you want,” Jesus prayed in the Garden. “Your kingdom come, Your will be done,” we exclaim every time we utter the Lord’s Prayer.
But that’s not all it is. Daniel also shows us that prayer is an act of resistance. And we must not miss this in Daniel’s story. Make no mistake—the Book of Daniel is like dynamite. It is a book about resistance, hopeful defiance in the face of empire, injustice and evil. It’s why the book of Daniel, and especially this story of the lions’ den, was a favorite text that thundered out from African American pulpits during the Civil Rights Movement.
When Daniel bowed his knees to pray, it wasn’t just his “Yes!” to God and God’s kingdom. It was his bold and courageous “No!” to anyone and anything that opposed God’s kingdom. It was his way of acknowledging that his heart belonged to God and God alone. Here’s how the Swiss theologian Karl Barth puts it: “The law of prayer is the law of action,” and when we dare to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done” we “revolt and fight against” a world that is not yet the way it is supposed to be.
It was a late Friday night, and he slumped home after another long strategy session with other civil rights leaders. He found Coretta in bed, asleep. He paced about, his nerves still on edge. Things were heating up. And then the phone rang. A sneering voice on the other end said, “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.” He hung up the phone, walked to his kitchen, and with trembling hands, put on a pot of coffee and sank into a chair at the kitchen table. This was the prelude to what would be Martin Luther King’s most profound spiritual experience. He describes it in his book, Stride Towards Freedom:
“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Some eleven years later, King spoke to an audience about that prayer in the kitchen. It was the darkest hour of his life—his moment in the lions’ den you could say, but it also became the most transformative moment where he heard the voice of Jesus saying to him, “Fight on. I promise I’ll never leave you, I’ll never leave you alone.”
A couple Sundays ago, Pastor Lindsay preached a powerful sermon about our call, as the church, to “stand up” and bear witness to another world, a better world. The way to stand up begins with kneeling down.
That’s just it, isn’t it? When prayer is an act of trust—our “Yes!” to God and God’s kingdom—and an act of resistance—our “No!” to a world that’s not the way it’s supposed to be—it ultimately makes prayer an act of faithful witness.
When Daniel kneeled to pray, both in his house and in the lions’ den, Daniel was bearing witness to the living God amidst the power of another empire. And what is so remarkable about this is that the one who is changed (or so it seems) is King Darius himself. After God rescues Daniel, King Darius then makes a new edict to all peoples and nations of every language throughout the world, which takes the form of a song of praise:
I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for he is the living God, enduring forever. His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end. He delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth; for he has saved Daniel from the power of the lions.
For he has saved Daniel from the power of the lions! God, the living God, does what King Darius in all of his power and authority could not do.
We, too, bear witness to another King and kingdom—One who has come and is coming, whose kingdom shall never be destroyed and whose dominion will have no end. One who was also falsely accused, persecuted, and thrown into the lions’ den in the shape of a Roman Cross. One who was also locked up in a tomb with a large stone and the stamp of a royal seal.
But the God who has the power to shut the mouths of lions is the same God who has muzzled the jaws of sin and death! The God who has the power to push back the stone to the lions’ den is the same God who rolled away the stone from the tomb on the third day! The God who has the power to raise Daniel from the pit and set his feet on solid ground is the same God who raised Jesus from the dead and set him at the Father’s right hand, crowned him sovereign King of all creation and declared him Savior of every nation!
Jesus, God saves! The King has come! The King is here! The King shall come again!
So whatever you face today—whatever your lions’ den may be—let’s actively wait and get down on our knees and join our voices with the faithful saints throughout history who cry out, “For Yours is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory Forever and Ever! Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!” Amen.