Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Lion of a Prayer

It’s one of those phrases that you hear every once in a while but I’m not always sure that those using it are aware of the context.   It often involves someone who is in a tough spot and they will say “I felt like Daniel in the lions den.” 

But it is just something they say?  I wonder if they actually know who Daniel was or why he was in the Lion’s den?  Or if it’s just something that’s said.  In Australia people would sometimes say “It’s a bit of a sticky wicket”, which originated from the game of cricket, which if I tried to explain here would take up more time than I have this morning. 

But you are in luck, because this is week four of Old School Sunday School here at Cornerstone So far we’ve had to opportunity to learn about Jonah and the Whale, David and Goliath and last week we looked at Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s adventure with the fiery furnace.  And this week our lesson will be “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” 

Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the concept of Sunday School, perhaps you attended as a child or you know someone who did.  But how many of you know that it was started in 1780 by a Jesus follower, named Robert Raikes,  as a means to teach children of common people how to read and write.  In that day and age children worked 6 days a week and his dream was to give them an opportunity on the seventh day to learn regardless of how much or how little they had.  Five years from it’s beginning it is estimated that there were 250,000 children enrolled And within 50 years we are told that there were 160,000 Jesus Followers teaching 1.5 million children how to read and write and how to love God with all their minds. 
And while we are seeing fewer and fewer Sunday Schools thirty years ago they were the primary outreach of churches.  We had contests to encourage children to bring their bibles and their friends.  If your church was any type of church at all it had a fleet of old school buses that drove through neighbourhoods picking up kids and driving them to Sunday School. It was called the “Bus Ministry”.  And there was a virtual army of volunteers who kept that ministry alive, driving and maintaining buses, going door to door inviting kids to come to Sunday School.  Hillside Wesleyan Church in Cole Harbour was recognized as the fastest growing Sunday School in Nova Scotia in the late 70’s and it was primarily because of their bus ministry, they had seven buses and a crew of 30 volunteers. 

Imagine today, a stranger coming to your door and inviting you to put your kid on a bus that had been bought at a surplus auction to take them to a church you may never have attended.  And it worked, back then.  As proof of that one day in 1974 a young couple came to a house in Lawrencetown and invited a couple to put their kid on a bus and send her to Sunday School, and they did.  And eight years later I married her. 

One of the highlights of Sunday School were the songs, full of action and enthusiasm.  The songs were printed in song books and song sheets and eventually they went high tech and the person with the best printing would write them on a transparency for the Overhead Projector. 

And I’m going to invite Pastor Jason to come back up and lead us in Deep and Wide.
But Daniel in the Lion's Den isn't just something we say, it's got a story behind it, and  for those of you who were brought up going to Sunday School you might be familiar with the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, it really is a great story. 

It begins when Israel is conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and many of the people are taken into captivity as slaves.   We pick up the story after Nebuchadnezzar returns home with the captives and he’s looking for personal attendants to work in the palace and we read in  Daniel 1:4 “Select only strong, healthy, and good-looking young men,” he said. “Make sure they are well versed in every branch of learning, are gifted with knowledge and good judgment, and are suited to serve in the royal palace. Train these young men in the language and literature of Babylon.”
Last week our lesson was about three of these young men and how they took a stand for righteousness and refused to bow down to the Idol set up by King Nebuchadnezzar.  But that was last week. 
This week we are looking at another one of those young men who was selected to be groomed in the courts of Babylon and he is the hero of our story Daniel.  Except he’s no longer a young man.  Now I know that’s how we often picture him, in his late teens or early twenties, as a matter of fact many of the classic paintings show Daniel in that light.  But while that may be perception it’s not reality.   
You will recall that the king who captured Jerusalem and took the young men as slaves was King Nebuchadnezzar.  And King Nebuchadnezzar ruled Babylon from 605 to 562 B.C. and we know that Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 and it was then that Daniel was taken into captivity. You OK? 

And we know that Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 B.C. about 25 years after Daniel had been taken captive. Now let’s fast forward to the King in this story, we are told that his name was Darius and many scholars believe that he reigned around 539 B.C.   Which if we do the math, 587 – 539 = 48.  So this happened at least 48 years after Daniel was taken captive.  So if assume that Daniel was say 15 when he was taken captive he would be at least 63 when the story took place and maybe even older.  That was what is technically called a “Tangent”. 

So, Daniel has risen to position of influence with King Darius and  those who are jealous of his rise decide that enough is enough.  They knew that Daniel was a devout God Follower and the times he spent talking to the his God were very important to him, so they convinced the King to pass a law that would make it illegal to pray to anyone other than the king for thirty days.  And the penalty for breaking the law would be to be fed to the lions. They really didn’t mess around.  

Well, when Daniel heard about the new law, he did what any of us would do I’m sure, he went home to pray about it and his enemies spied him praying and reported him to the king.  And the bible tell us that this bothered the King because he really liked Daniel, but he was bound by the law and ordered that Daniel be thrown into the Lion’s Den.  Thus, feeling like Daniel in the Lion’s Den. The bible tells us that the King couldn’t sleep all night and rushed to the den in the morning to discover the fate of his friend, but instead of finding Daniel dead he found him safe in the midst of the Lions.  And as a result he had Daniel’s enemies fed to the Lions and declared that everyone should worship Daniels God. 

So what do we learn from the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den?  Well, I think it’s important that we look at the prayer that got Daniel in all the problems.

Daniel 6:10-11 But when Daniel learned that the law had been signed, he went home and knelt down as usual in his upstairs room, with its windows open toward Jerusalem. He prayed three times a day, just as he had always done, giving thanks to his God. Then the officials went together to Daniel’s house and found him praying and asking for God’s help.
The first thing we discover is that Daniel’s Prayer Was A Prayer of Habit  We are told that he knelt down as usual, and he prayed three times a day as he had always done.  He didn’t have to think about what he was doing, he just did it.  He made a point each day of talking to God, it was his habit.  We all have habits, and usually when we use the word we think of bad habits, the things that make up our New Year’s resolutions and then three months later we talk about giving the same things up for lent. 

But there are good habits and bad habits, they are simply the paths that we have trod through life that are easy to walk.  I’ve always done it that way.  When I mow my lawn, I always do it the same way, when I clear my driveway I always do it the same way.  I have a friend who always eats the same way, he positions his plate in a particular manner and then eats all of his potatoes, then all of his vegetables then all of his meat.  It’s a habit.

Mortimer J. Adler who was an American educator wrote,   “Habits are formed by the repetition of particular acts. They are strengthened by an increase in the number of repeated acts. Habits are also weakened or broken, and contrary habits are formed by the repetition of contrary acts.”

And what are your spiritual habits?  You understand that they are formed by what you do, are you in the habit of attending church?  The more you do it the easier it gets.  But when you get out of the habit it gets harder to do.  How about reading your bible?  Do you have a certain time that you do that?  Nice thing about using a plan in youversion on your computer, phone or tablet is that it will actually remind you to read, it helps with your habit.  I discovered very early in my Christian life that this worked the same way with my giving to the church, if I did it every week, if I made it my habit it was a lot easier, otherwise I was forever playing catch up and feeling guilty.
Aristotle said  “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

And so Daniels habit was that he prayed three times a day, not a bad habit to have, start the day with prayer, pause in the middle of the day to touch base with God and then finish with a word of prayer before you go to bed.  We are told in Luke 5:16 But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.   You catch that?  Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer; it was his habit to find a quiet place where he could talk to his father.  And time and time again Jesus taught people to pray and he always seemed to begin with the words, “when you prayer”.  His assumption was that prayer would be their habit.
And the great thing is that making something a habit is a choice, it is something we can choose to do.  We can choose to pray, we can choose to read God’s word we can choose to make church attendance a habit. 
Ben Franklin had it right when he said, “Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.”

So what will your net spiritual worth be when you subtract your bad habits from your good ones?

Daniel 6:10-11 But when Daniel learned that the law had been signed, he went home and knelt down as usual in his upstairs room, with its windows open toward Jerusalem. He prayed three times a day, just as he had always done, giving thanks to his God. Then the officials went together to Daniel’s house and found him praying and asking for God’s help.
Daniel’s Prayer Was A Prayer of Thanksgiving  Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on Daniel’s life at this particular moment.  The first thing we need to recognize is that he was a slave.  His country had been invaded, he had been taken captive and while he might have a better life then many of the others who had been taken captive at the same time he was still a slave, he did what he was told and he lived at the whim of his master.  Then he has his religious freedom taken away, he was told that he could not pray.  Not that he could not pray in school, not that he couldn’t pray as part of the opening of parliament or the legislative assembly, he was told that he could not pray, period.  And now because he was willing to disobey the decree not to pray he was facing the death penalty.  And what is the first thing he does?  He gives thanks to God. 

Maybe he thanked God that his life had been spared during the invasion, maybe he thanked God that he was a palace slave and not a field slave, maybe he thanked God that in a time when many people would have died young he was a relatively old man or maybe he was simply thankful that he had a relationship with his creator. 

We don’t know what Daniel was thankful for, all we do know is that he prayed as he always did giving thanks to his God.  .    

Time and time again the Bible tells us to give thanks to God.  And we have so much to thank God for, if we are only willing to stop and reflect on it.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.
Did you catch that?  It doesn’t say be thankful for all your circumstances, it says to be thankful in all your circumstances.  And there is a difference.  You don’t have to be thankful because you are sick, but you can be thankful when you are sick.  You don’t have to be thankful because you are broke, but you can still be thankful when you are broke.

One of my favorite stories involves a Preacher from the 1700’s named Matthew Henry.  The story goes that when travelling between preaching points that he was robbed and later he wrote in his diary, I thank Thee first because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse they did not take my life; third, because although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth because it was I who was robbed, and not I who robbed.

So let’s go back to the story.   Daniel 6:10-11 But when Daniel learned that the law had been signed, he went home and knelt down as usual in his upstairs room, with its windows open toward Jerusalem. He prayed three times a day, just as he had always done, giving thanks to his God. Then the officials went together to Daniel’s house and found him praying and asking for God’s help.
Daniel’s Prayer Was A Prayer of Petition  So Daniel, started by giving thanks to God for all he had and then he got down to business and asked God for help.  He knew that he only had two options, he could capitulate and not pray.  And that seemed to be smart but not right.  Or he could continue to do as he had been doing and keep praying regardless of the outcome.  And that seemed to be right but not smart.  So he decides to check with someone smarter than him, God.  And that’s still a good option, it’s why we are told in  James 1:5 If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.
Throughout the bible we are told to ask God for help when we need it, Isaiah 55:6 Seek the LORD while you can find him. Call on him now while he is near. And in Psalm 91:15 we read the words of God Psalm 91:15 When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honour them. And God’s promise to David was the same as God’s promise to us, Psalm 50:15 Then call on me when you are in trouble, and I will rescue you, and you will give me glory.”
But ultimately this has to go back to the habit thing, Daniel wasn’t just praying to ask for help, instead while he was praying he asked for help.  Too often we skip the first two points.  We don’t pray because it is our habit, and we don’t pray to give thanks, instead the only time we pray is when we need help. The kids are sick so we pray, our marriage is in trouble so we pray, we lose our jobs so we pray and hope that God recognizes our voice. 

Now understand , it’s not wrong to ask for God’s help, but that shouldn’t be the only time we talk to him.  I am a pastor, people call me all the time, but for some people the only time they call is when they need something, or want something or want to express their displeasure over something.  And when their name comes up on the call display, I cringe.  Does that make me a bad pastor?  They never call to thank me for something Cornerstone has done for them, they never call to ask about my day or to tell me they are praying for me and for the church, they call to ask me to do something for them or to solve a problem for them or to fix something for them.

I hope that God never looks at the call display and cringes and thinks “I wonder what Denn wants now?”   God wants us to ask him for things, in the Lord’s prayer we are taught to ask for our daily bread, that is our daily provisions.  But that comes after we’ve have expressed our adoration for God and after we have acknowledged his sovereignty in our lives.  Remember, Matthew 6:9-11 Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.
Don’t be afraid to ask God for help, as our heavenly father he expects to help and he wants to help, but it needs to be a part of a relationship.  Prayer isn’t just a red phone that we pick up when there is an emergency. 
So let’s go back to the story
Daniel 6:12 So they went straight to the king and reminded him about his law. “Did you not sign a law that for the next thirty days any person who prays to anyone, divine or human—except to you, Your Majesty—will be thrown into the den of lions?” “Yes,” the king replied, “that decision stands; it is an official law of the Medes and Persians that cannot be revoked.”
And even though Daniel was a favorite of the King’s, Darius felt he had no choice and he ordered that Daniel be thrown into the den of Lions.  Now understand, regardless of whether the law was just or unjust Daniel knew that it was unlawful to pray and he knew what the penalty would be and he still prayed.  Martin Luther King often wound up in jail for disobeying the law. Nelson Mandela wound up in prison for disobeying the law.   Even if the law was unjust it was still the law, and you may be willing to disobey a law that you don’t agree with but in doing that you have to be willing to pay the price.  And it goes back to the scripture that we read last week when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were ordered to bow down and worship the statue of the king, Daniel 3:17-18 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”
So what happened to Daniel?  Let’s go back to the story.  Early the next morning the King rushed to the Lion’s den, but to his surprise he discovered Daniel alive and well, the bible says not a scratch was found on him.   
Daniel’s Prayer Was A Prayer that was Answered    Daniel prayed for God’s help and he received it.  You might be thinking “But it doesn’t always work that way, sometimes you get eaten by the lions.”  I’m not even sure that this was what Daniel prayed for, perhaps when he prayed for help he was praying God would help him die well, maybe he was praying his death would be quick, or that Darius would intervene.
If we keep reading in the book of Daniel we discover that Daniel was used by God after he was saved from the lions, so perhaps the answer to Daniel’s prayer was simply that God’s will was done.  Because as Christ Followers shouldn’t that be our prayer, that God’s will be done in our lives? 

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