A sermon given on Remembrance Sunday 2017.
2017 has had us worried at times. We’ve watched the tensions between the United States and North Korea ratchet up. The fear that any actual war could turn nuclear is very sobering.
North Korea wants its place on the world stage, and flexes its muscles to try and get there. Existing world powers don’t want their place threatened. The sad thing is that it’s the ordinary people who suffer. If war does break out, soldiers die, and civilians are collateral as well. When there isn’t war, money that should go on food goes on armaments, and people go hungry.
What we’re actually seeing is something that’s happened many times before. Empires rise and empires fall., and so it goes on. It’s all as old as the hills. Ordinary people like us are left wondering where we find stability, security, safety.
This is the world our first Bible reading is set in, this time in the 6th Century BC.
Here’s the history in the Near East at that time. Babylon was the superpower. It had expanded, conquering territory in ancient Israel and Egypt. Then, Babylon weakened, and two new kingdoms were getting stronger: Media and Persia. Their first king, Darius, successfully conquered Babylon.
Darius quickly had a huge empire – from Egypt and Turkey in the west, almost to India in the east. Travel was slow in those days, and these different nations worshipped many different gods. Darius’s challenge was to unite his empire, to build loyalty to him as the new king.
One day, his courtiers suggested something. Why not have a 30 day period when the only access to any god is through the king. Nobody is to pray directly to their god. Nobody is to go through any other mediator. This really appealed to Darius. Who doesn’t like being put on a pedestal like a mini-god. This could draw his empire together.
That’s the start of Daniel chapter 6. Our reading comes at the end of the chapter, and records a decree Darius issued. His outlook on life could not have changed more radically. Here’s what he said: “I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. For he is the living God and he endures for ever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end.”
Darius has come to see that empires rise and empires fall. Darius’s own empire was new, but would one day end. World history is like watching the swell on the sea from a ferry. One bit of water lifts up, before it sinks back down and somewhere else rises instead. And while all that’s going on, God has his own kingdom. God’s kingdom may grow slowly, but it won’t rise then fall. Little by little, it will rise and rise. It will never be destroyed, never end.
What happened after the time of Darius the Mede? Kingdoms continued to rise and fall. Since the days of Babylon and Persia, we’ve had Greece, Rome and many other empires ancient and modern. Today, the United States is one superpower, and China is growing fast.
That kingdom of God took a while to come. 550 years later, Jesus appeared on the world stage. In his opening speech he explained that the kingdom of God was now here. The kingdom had come, because Jesus was the king – the king had come.
But still the story was of slow growth. 2000 years later, there are Christians in every country, and thriving churches in most countries. Quietly, as empires continue to come and go, the kingdom of Jesus Christ has been growing. It alone will never end, never be destroyed.
The world we live in is unstable. Empires rise and empires fall. There’s no guarantee that the western way of life we know will last. And sometimes we get caught up in the turbulence as world powers fight for dominance.
But in all that instability there is a place of safety. The danger is that we’re like Darius at the start of the chapter. Which of us would not like to be treated like a mini-god? Which of us is not working to build an empire where we hold sway – be that at work, at home, or wherever?
Darius models a much better attitude in the portion we heard read. God’s kingdom is the only one that lasts forever. Other world empires will not. Our empires will not. God’s kingdom will. So true security is to be found only in being rightly related to Jesus, the king.
Darius did not only announce that God reigns. He also announced that God rescues.
This comes in the second half of that reading: “He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.”
Time to fill in the gaps, what happened to change Darius’s outlook.
It turns out that the wonderful plan to make the king god for a month was actually something more sinister. It’s a sad example of the kind of plotting and back-stabbing the politicians can get up to at their worst. They were jealous of one official in particular. Daniel, one of the Jews who had been brought from Jerusalem in Babylonian times, was so good at his job he was slated to become prime minister any moment.
Daniel’s rivals wanted him out of the way. Unlike scores of modern politicians, Daniel had no skeletons in his closet, no scandals, nothing that could discredit him. So they went for his religion. Persuade the king to pass this law, and Daniel will pray to his God as he always did. Daniel obliged, and was faithful to his God. The trap was set. The trap was sprung. Daniel was thrown into the royal lion pit – the punishment for anyone who dared cross the king’s decree.
It has to be said the king was distraught. He valued Daniel highly, and he’d been tricked. But he was utterly powerless to help. The politicians and the lawyers had got him; his hands were tied. Suddenly he can see he’s not a god after all. He’s been used.
But while the king could not help, God could and God did. When the king went to the lions the following morning, he was overjoyed to find Daniel alive. Daniel explained that God had sent an angel, a heavenly warrior who appeared in human form, to shut the lions’ mouths. Daniel didn’t have a scratch on him.
Which is why he says the words we heard read. Daniel’s God “rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.”
The Bible is full of stories that testify to God being a rescuing God. Rescuing Daniel from the lions is particularly vivid. The biggest rescue in the Bible is from an enemy you can’t see. Darius learnt that God reigns, but we all live like we’re gods in our world. God won’t allow us to keep doing that, and one day he must judge us for our arrogance. But Jesus died and then came to life again to rescue us from that judgement.
In 2015, Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in Helmand. He took his life in his hands to help the wounded and to rearm a group who were pinned down under enemy fire. Here’s part of his citation: “Displaying gritty leadership well above that expected of his rank, Lance Corporal Leakey’s actions single-handedly regained the initiative and prevented considerable loss of life, allowing a wounded US Marine officer to be evacuated. For this act of valour, L/Cpl Leakey is highly deserving of significant national recognition.”
He lived to receive his award. Jesus is our rescuer, and he died in the process.
Of course, we still have many troubles in life. Indeed, followers of Jesus often have more trouble because of him. Ask Daniel in the pit of lions. Ask the North Korean Christian in a concentration camp. But one day Jesus will return. Everyone who is in his kingdom will be fully and finally rescued from all trouble.
Darius came to realise that God reigns and God rescues. No other kingdom lasts forever. Nobody else can save like our God. It’s the fact that he both rescues and reigns that gives us the security we crave. In a world where people are jostling for power, we have the chance to know the God who holds all power, and who alone is able to rescue us from ourselves, and from the collateral damage of living in a world full of people like us.