Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 24 April 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
23. So Daniel was taken up out of the lions’ den.
When Daniel was put in the lions’ den, a stone was laid on the mouth of the den. When Jesus was buried, a stone was rolled in front of the tomb. Where Jesus goes, we go. There can be times, many times in fact, when a human life is darkened, suffocated, buried, by a stone which blocks out the light. It just happens, it might be our fault, it might not. But our minds can find no way beyond the loss, the problem or tragedy which has settled on us. It is as if there is a death in life. You know it when you’re there. The story of Daniel is a story of deliverance, a recognised literary form of that time. Christianity is a religion of deliverance, deliverance from death in life.
Daniel’s deliverance is somehow our deliverance. To earlier generations of Christians, including those who sat where you are now sitting, this was obvious, this is what religion is for. Isaac Williams (1802-1865) was a prominent member of the Oxford Movement (or “Tractarians”), of which this church is a still a living memorial. HHHe managed to be both John Henry Newman’s curate and John Keble’s curate. He wrote a book about the Gospel narrative of Christ’s passion, his suffering, and about Jesus’s prayer which came from the suffering. Williams wrote this: That prayer prevailed with God, as did the prayer of Jonah from the belly of the whale; and that of Daniel from the den of lions; and that of the Three Children from the midst of the furnace; and that of Hezekiah from his bed of sickness; much more is Christ heard from the wood of torment.
These deliverance stories describe common human experience down the ages. You and I know how to read them. We read these texts in the light of Easter, because that’s where we are now. After Easter the suffering, which seemed impassable, like a den of lions, is given a new meaning for us, because we see, in the story of Christ’s Passion that God has gone through it all with us. I can’t see any other reason for reading the Book of Daniel. We’re not studying anthropology, ancient history, nor Hebrew or Aramaic, and Daniel’s written in both languages, which is discouragement enough. I could entertain you with lecture facts, such as the discovery that there is no evidence whatsoever for anyone at that time keeping pet lions to munch up disobedient servants, but it’s all useless if we lose sight of the story of our own deliverance, which we sometimes call salvation. What is that, what is salvation? It is the divine union which comes from an interior freedom. The Kingdom of God is within us. Daniel is taken up out of the lions’ den. The stone is rolled back from Jesus’s tomb.
We are survivors, then, and thank God for it, because we cannot deliver ourselves. Only survivors, only those who have been through the wilderness, only those who have prayed for deliverance, only you and I, resting in the strange luminous landscape of our Easter life, can know the arms which held us all the time. This Easter viewpoint applies to all aspects of our lives. Take stress. For whatever reason life gets stressful. This stress can feed on itself, take us over, no way beyond it, like being in a den of lions. Or we can begin to see these stresses in our life in a different way, from within the great peace, God’s gift of his own life at Easter. Whatever is in the dark, whatever oppresses us, will be exposed to the light, to truth. That is part of the process of being saved, being delivered, being set free, living an eternal life, not one at the mercy of human division, but free from Death in life. This Easter life, the life of freedom, isn’t a matter of negotiation, working out a bargain between God and ourselves, something that works for both of us. The Christian life is one of surrender. Both Daniel and Jesus surrendered into a life at the mercy of God. Daniel was thrown to the lions because he prayed three times a day. Prayer is surrender to God.
There’s an interesting twist to the Daniel story. The one in anguish, the one with the sleepless nights, wasn’t Daniel. It was King Darius the Mede, a likeable tyrant by all accounts, who was tricked into casting Daniel into the den of lions by an unpleasant group of jealous officials. Daniel seems quite at home in the lions’ den. The angels of God shut the lions’ mouths. I don’t know what sort of stress the lions might represent in your life, maybe fears of change and of the unknown, maybe some threat to your church life arising from the Resolutions which this church needs to consider, maybe an addiction that can’t be conquered, maybe a regret that never goes away, whatever it is, deliverance starts in the presence of the lions, knowing them for what they are, and finding that they have no power over us. God is always there, wherever we are, and particularly at our lowest point, because that is so often for us the moment of truth. There the suffering God will shelter the suffering soul.
Daniel’s story is the story of a Christian life, of your life. We can tell that story ourselves, day by day, for our Easter is never over. Our story is always one of deliverance, of joyful freedom gained, when the angels of God shut the lions’ mouths, and when the stone is rolled back and the light streams in.