Archives for posts with tag: Nebuchadnezzar

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on 17th November 2013, Second Sunday before Advent
Daniel 6 – Biblical Big Cats

In the 1960s, if you had gone shopping at Harrod’s, you would have found that they had an Exotic Animals Department. You may remember the wonderful story of the lion cub who was sold in Harrod’s and who became known as Christian the Lion. He lived in Chelsea with two young men who owned a trendy furniture shop, for a year before he got too big and was taken to Kenya to be released into the wild. There is a very sweet story about him meeting up with his former owners several years later, and fondly remembering them.

We tend to be rather soppy about cats – and that includes the rather daft idea that lions and tigers and leopards, big cats, are just that, big cats. If only they got to know us properly, we think, they would be just like big pet cats, with sweet, gentle dispositions, keen on sleeping and climbing under counterpanes on the spare bed when no-one is looking: happy to be stroked and to have their tummies tickled.

You will remember the famous zoo owner and gambler, John Aspinall, who kept tigers and encouraged his keepers to go into their enclosures with them, to play with them as pets. Unfortunately, those tigers didn’t know what Mr Aspinall expected of them, and on several occasions, they devoured their keepers.

The truth is that even domestic cats do not have entirely reliable tempers. My two Bengals are very good at rolling on their backs, purring and generally appearing very friendly, inviting you to tickle their tummies: but you should be aware that the height of ecstasy for both of them is then to grip your hand in their paws and give you a good bite! Nothing personal, of course. It’s just what cats like doing.

Which brings us to the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. There were several Persian kings called Darius, but most scholars agree that this was Darius I, who died in 486BC. He set up a complicated administration structure for the Persian empire. According to the Book of Daniel he divided Persia into 120 administrative zones, although the contemporary account in Herodotus’ Histories suggests that Darius only set up 20 regions, called satrapies, and his descendant, King Xerxes, increased the number of satrapies, perhaps indeed to 120.

It is possible that the Book of Daniel was written not just in order to tell historical stories – and indeed it may be that the history is a little bit shaky in places – but rather for prophetic teaching purposes, to demonstrate the power of God. So Daniel going into the lions’ den illustrates this. It is an escape story, just as in the earlier chapter, chapter 3, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three other Jewish exiles in Persia, in Babylon along with Daniel, were cast into a fiery furnace because they refused to worship a golden image which Nebuchadnezzar, the king before Darius, had made. And again, God saved them and they were unhurt, even though the fiery furnace was so hot that the people who were throwing them into it were themselves consumed by fire.

Daniel portrays Darius as a benevolent king, who was tricked into signing into law an edict, that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from him, the king, for thirty days – and according to the commentators, ‘prays’ should better be translated as ‘makes a request’ either of gods or of humans – that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from the king, should be punished by being thrown into a den of lions.

Interestingly, none of the historians can find any evidence that the Persians had dens of lions, or that they used them to deal with criminals as a way of execution. The Romans certainly did. They had a special expression for it, damnatio ad bestia, condemnation to the beasts. The main reason why the early Christians were martyred by being thrown to wild beasts was because they refused to worship the emperor; similar circumstances to those in which Daniel found himself.

There are a couple of other interesting things which we should note in the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. One is the way in which King Darius refused to contradict the law which he had made, the edict. The laws of the Medes and the Persians could not be changed. Indeed that expression, ‘The laws of the Medes and the Persians’, became synonymous with the idea of immutability, unchangeability in the law.

I think also that we are meant to understand that it was not one of those cases where the Israelites on the one hand were God’s chosen people, and on the other hand there were their oppressors, the Gentiles, the ‘nations’, people who didn’t believe in God and who were vastly inferior to them. In this case, the Medes and the Persians were decent people, who treated the Jews in exile fairly and well. One defining characteristic of the Medes and the Persians was that they recognised the rule of law.

As Lord Denning famously said, ‘Be you never so high, the law is above you.’ He was quoting Dr Thomas Fuller, who said this first in 1733. This is a hallmark of civilisation. This is something we look for today as a desirable feature in all countries. When we talk about ‘failed states’ – Somalia, perhaps Iraq, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier of Pakistan, the rule of law is said to have broken down.

So here Darius felt that, whatever he personally may have wanted to do in order to be compassionate to Daniel, he was not allowed to do, because there was a higher principle, the rule of law. And so he very reluctantly sealed the lions’ den with Daniel in it, with his own signet ring.

This is a terrible story. So often in ancient literature we don’t get the gory details. The King simply decrees that somebody should be done in, and he is: witness Herod with John the Baptist. But here, King Darius personally supervises his good friend and trusted minister Daniel being fed to the lions.

Clearly those lions were very fierce, because when Daniel’s story has had a happy ending, and Daniel has survived a night in the den without being eaten, King Darius makes sure that all the people that tricked him into making the law and putting Daniel in mortal danger by it, are themselves thrown into the den, with their children and their wives; ‘Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.’ So it’s not the case that the lions’ den had been filled with special soft lions like Christian the Lion. These were normal cats, and for Daniel to survive a night with them really was a tremendous miracle.

This is one of the great Bible stories, which I’m sure we all remember from Sunday School, from our earliest days. It’s right up there with Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories. But are there any lessons which we can learn from it as grown-ups today? What about the laws of the Medes and the Persians? Are there laws today which result in cruelty? Is there anyone like Daniel, who, despite being innocent, is being thrown to the lions? Can we by prayer, by relying on God like Daniel did, in fact negate the effects of these immutable laws?

I will leave you to ponder on that. There are 38 shopping days left until Christmas. It’s a fortnight until the beginning of Advent. Christian the Lion and his descendants are no longer available in Harrod’s. Perhaps in Advent there is another lion that we should remember. What about Aslan, the lion in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’? Now there was a Christian lion!

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Sermon for Evensong on the 17th Sunday after Trinity, 22nd September 2013
Ezra 1; John 7:14-36

‘By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion …
How shall we sing the Lord’s song: in a strange land?'(Psalm 137). The Israelites had been enslaved by Nebuchadnezzar, and they had spent fifty years in a strange land, Babylon, from 587BC until they were freed by King Cyrus, Cyrus the Great of Persia, who defeated the Babylonians and generously decided to allow the Israelites to go free, to go back to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple.

That’s the story we hear from the book of the prophet Ezra, written in the fourth century BC, Ezra being the great prophet of the Second Temple, the temple which was rebuilt following the return to Jerusalem under the Persians.

The great story of Israel, leading up to the Christian gospel, is one of obedience to the Law, to the Law of Moses; and the question whether the Israelites were faithful to one god. ‘Thou shalt have none other gods but me.’ When the Israelites turned aside and did worship other gods, Baal and Moloch for example, as a result they were deserted by God and the Temple was destroyed.

You can read all this story very succinctly in the Acts of the Apostles, in the sermon delivered by St Stephen in Acts 6 and 7, or in one of the ‘history psalms’, such as Psalms 78 or 106. The Israelites regarded the Temple as being of huge importance. They made a house for God to live in. It was the same idea that the apostle Peter had at the time of the Transfiguration, to make tabernacles, little houses, for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. (Matt. 17:4)

But Stephen in his sermon explained that Jesus had changed things. ‘Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool; what house will ye build me, saith the Lord: …. Hath not my hand made all these things?’ (Acts7:48f)

In our New Testament lesson from St John’s gospel, Jesus is pointing out that the Jews are very literal in their adherence to the Law, so there are certain things that the Law allows them to do, for instance carrying out circumcisions, on the Sabbath, but not, according to them, healing the sick.

So the Jews were questioning Jesus about what authority, what basis he had, for challenging them, and Jesus answered that he wasn’t simply a man, but that he got his knowledge also from his divine origin. St John’s gospel has a major theme, which is that Jesus was the Son of God.

It’s interesting how these theological questions evolved. In 600BC, 2,700 years ago, it was a live issue whether there was one god; but it was already part of the Jews’ vision that that one god had to have a house, and the house had to be magnificently furnished. The idea of God being beyond time and space had not really taken hold; but it was true that the Jews understood God as not being something made, like a golden calf – God was not a ‘brazen idol’. He was the Creator and sustainer of the world.

It is perhaps a bit salutary to realise that these steps in the history of our own civilisation – the Persians conquered the Babylonians, the Greeks conquered the Persians, the Romans conquered the Greeks and the Romans conquered Britain – those early steps took place in those mysterious and rather feared places which perhaps today we would see on the map and say, just represent threats and trouble: Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria. That’s where it happened. It is perhaps difficult for us to remember that these places together represent the cradle of our civilisation.

It does look as though things have regressed from the time when the great king of Persia, Cyrus, could be so generous to the Jews living in exile in Babylon. The dreadful use of chemical weapons recently looks to be an innovation in brutality – but if you look at Herodotus’ Histories, you will realise that even in the days of Cyrus there were some ghastly inhumanities going on.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to go into the gory details here, but suffice to say that man’s inhumanity to man seems to have been a hallmark of this part of the world, at once the cradle of civilisation and at the same time the scene of bestial cruelty. That was true even in these heroic times, when the Jewish exile was coming to an end.

The idea that God did not live in a particular place was not something which Jesus started. ‘Heaven is my throne and earth is my footstool’ is an idea which comes from Isaiah chapter 66. So Jesus’ preaching was not that revolutionary – it was simply emphasising what was in the prophets’ teaching already – but, as often seemed to happen, the Pharisees didn’t understand, and thought that Jesus was some kind of a charlatan.

I think it’s not very fair that we should have this idea that the Pharisees were all bad. I think we have to have some fellow-feeling. What would we have thought if we’d been there? For instance, if we’d heard a rumour that Jesus might be the Messiah, but we’d compared it with what we could remember had been prophesied about the Messiah: ‘You won’t know where he has come from.’ But we did know exactly where Jesus had come from.

Would we have been clever enough or trusting enough to become disciples? Or would we have stood on the sidelines, going with the flow, like the majority of the Jewish people? Would we have recognised all the miracles that Jesus did and realised that He was who He claimed to be?

But hang on a minute. Isn’t that all really rather academic? What possible difference could any of that stuff make to our lives? How does the fact that we go to church and we call ourselves Christians affect how we look at what’s happening in the Middle East today? Or if we come across people who are in need, or suffering from disabilities; do we put it down to their ‘lifestyle choices’, as a government minister did the other day?

Where is God in all this now? Is God speaking to us through His Holy Spirit, or has He left us to sort things out by ourselves? I think Jesus would be cross with us, just as He was cross with the Jews, if He saw us not taking care of the hungry, the weak, the poor, those who are not as fortunate as ourselves in our society: not, in other words, loving our neighbours as ourselves.

Jesus was clearly right in saying that the Pharisees had forgotten the law of Moses, because they were setting out to kill him. They had conveniently forgotten ‘Thou shalt not kill’. He was absolutely serious when He pointed out that, even on the basis of conventional wisdom, on the basis of the Law of Moses, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. That was true in the early years of the first century, when Jesus said it (or at least when Jesus implied it); and it’s true today. The right answer to the crimes of someone like Mr Assad of Syria is not more killing.
Nearer to home, Jesus’ emphasis, when faced with the fact that many people are hungry today, even in England, even in the rich borough of Elmbridge, in Stoke and Cobham, Jesus’ emphasis would surely be on feeding those people rather than trying to blame them for somehow bringing hunger upon themselves.

I can’t help the feeling that, although I don’t think Jesus actually said it in words, what is implied by his great commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves – which is in the Law of Moses; it’s in Leviticus, chapter 19 verse 18 – is that you have to take people as you find them. The Good Samaritan didn’t check to see whether the man, who had fallen among thieves and was lying injured on the road, he didn’t check whether the man had been imprudent or had not gone out properly prepared, or even had perhaps said the wrong thing.

None of that mattered. The only thing that mattered was he was hurt and in need. That should surely be our motivation too. Remember what Jesus said that the eternal Judge would say at the day of judgement: ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ (Matt. 25:34f).