Haters Gonna Hate (Message for June 21st, 2015)

Twentieth century American poet Ogden Nash once quipped, “The problem with a kitten is that it eventually becomes a cat.”   I think there is some truth to that.   I am not a cat person.  There are a couple of reason for that.   First, I am allergic to them and I enjoy breathing a lot more than I enjoy petting soft animals.  Second, is I just do not trust cats.   I get the sense that the only reasons why cats do not actively hunt is only a matter of inconvenience for them.  We just happen to be too big to take down, so they settle for allowing us to pet them in exchange for food.    When cat people forget that cats at their hearts are vicious hunters and not lovable furballs bad things happen.   A good example of this is the experience of Lauren Fagan.   Two years ago she spent the summer as a volunteer at the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in South Africa.   Lauren volunteered because she loved cats, and wanted to spend time caring for big cats.   She felt that she had a special affinity for large cats, and she connected with them deeply.   This misguided belief led her to make a very poor decision.  One summer day, she was cleaning a feeding cage, when she noticed a lion watching her from the other side of bars.   She misinterpreted the cat’s glances as affection, and approached the cage.  She attempted to kiss the lion on the nose, and when she did the lion swiped out, grabbed her leg and dragged it into the cage.   Lauren Fagan was extremely lucky that she survived and she did not lose her leg, and she did learn a very important lesson.  Cats, especially ones big enough to actually eat you, are not be trusted.  

That may be overstating it a bit, but we learn at a very early age that lions are dangerous.   For many of us the story that taught us this when we were very young was the story of Daniel and the lion’s den.   Like me, just hearing the title “Daniel and the lion’s den” instantly brings to mind a storybook image of Daniel in a pit surrounded by lions.  For many of us, this image is tied to the simplistic moral teaching to trust in God.   The story of Daniel and the lion’s den is a story that emphasizes trusting in God, but this story is radically relevant to our everyday faith experiences as well.   This is a story is about radically living out our faith in an unfriendly culture.   

The whole story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den can be found in Daniel chapter 6, but the story goes a bit like this.   When Daniel was a young man Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians.  The Babylonians hauled off into exile the best of the best the Israelites had to offer and Daniel was one of them.   The idea was to assimilate the Israelites into the Babylonian culture, to have them adapt a Babylonian way of life.  Daniel though resisted this.  He desired to stay faithful to God.  Along with three other young Israelites he stayed true and Daniel 1:17 records “To these four young men, God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.”   Years passed, Daniel served the royal government of Babylon faithfully but he also stayed faithful to God in all that he did.  

Chances are, if you are like me, you tend to picture Daniel as a young man when he was thrown into the lion’s den but that is not right.   By the time Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den he was in his late 70’s to early 80’s.   Despite being and old man he was at the height of his power and influence.   The current ruler Darius the Mede had appointed 120 governors or satraps to administer the realm.  These governors answered to three administrators who answered only to the king.  Daniel was one of these three administrators and he was extremely good at it.    Daniel 6:3 records, “Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom.”   Even if you are not familiar with this particular story, you can probably guess what happens next.   People who crave power above all else, want more power above all else.  This led to the governors to conspire for a way to get rid of Daniel, but this proved hard because Daniel was a man of integrity, who lived righteously.  He did not have any dark secrets or any skeletons in his closet.   Finally, they figured out a way to tear him down.  

The first part of this plan was to appeal to the king’s vanity.   They had him declare a decree that for 30 days that he could be the only object of religious devotion.   This seems odd to us today, but this was not out of the ordinary in this era.   Rulers were seen as the divine appointees of the deitiesIn many cases, it was believed that the ruler had a special relationship with the gods.  They were not quite divine but they were more than mere mortals.  In some instances, like the ancient Egyptians they actually believe the Pharaoh to be divine.   The other thing to be considered is that for much of human history national identity and religious identity were bound together and they could not be separated.  Thus, showing religious devotion to the king in Ancient Babylonian culture would not have been seen as blasphemy but as a display of patriotism.  While not quite a perfect parallel a modern day equivalent would be a hypothetical law that stated during the month of July only the American flag could be flown and all other flags, like our Christian one, would have to be taken down.  

Upon learning this decree, Daniel had a choice to make.  He could be a good citizen of the Babylonian empire and comply with this act of nationalism, or he could rebel and stay true to God.   Daniel being a man of integrity and righteousness, stayed true to his faith and continued to pray three times a day.  This is of course exactly what Daniel’s enemies wanted him to do.   They turned him into the king for breaking the rule.  The king then realized that this had been a trap, and that he had played right into it.  However, his hands were tied because a royal decree is a royal decree.   Completely dismayed, “The king said to Daniel, May your God, whom you serve continually rescue you.”   

Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den.  We often picture this as a cave or some sort of hole in the ground, but that is not accurate.   Lions do not live in caves and would not be well suited for that sort of environment.   Furthermore, there is zero archeological evidence that the ancient Babylonians maintained this sort of pit.    It is most likely that this den was actually some sort of manmade enclosure.  It is completely within the realm of possibility that there was a lion’s den though.   The lion was a symbol of the Babylonian empire.  Also, wild animal attacks were considered a sign of divine judgement.  We see this elsewhere in the bible, where God’s judgement on people is carried out by wild animals.  Since Daniel’s infraction was a religious/civic one it makes sense that the punishment be divine judgement by mauling. 

While not recorded in scripture, there must have been a rule that someone had to be left in the lion’s den for a set amount of time to determine their innocence, because the king awaits until the light of first dawn to rush to see if Daniel survived.    Daniel survives and reports in verse 22 “My God sent his angel and he shut the mouths of the lions.  They have not hurt me because I was found innocent in his sight.”   The epilogue of the story is that those who tried to trap Daniel end up in the pit themselves, and the king issues a decree that states “In every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.  For he is the living God and he endures forever, his kingdom will not be destroyed.”  Daniel is faithful despite the threat of death, and God is glorified.  

While our current culture is not as actively opposed to the one true God as the one Daniel lived in, it cannot be denied that the past 60 years have seen the prevalence of Christianity disappear in our culture.   Many of you have seen this happen in your life time, so you know what I am referring to.   This is part of an ebb and flow.  This is not the first time that cultural religious devotion has been down.  John Wesley experienced a similar climate in the 1700s, where church attendance was declining, and many were beginning to see God as irrelevant.   We could discuss why the current cultural climate is un-Christian, and we can bemoan that things are not like they use to be.   However, in the light of our present reality that is not terribly productive.    Analyzing and complaining will not help us live faithful lives, help us glorify God, or make an eternal difference.   To do that, we need to consider how we can apply the examples of Daniel into our own lives.  

I think there are two major things we can get out of the story of Daniel that are deeply relevant to living out our faith today.   First, we have to live out our faith with deep integrity.  In some ways the decline of Christianity prevalence in our culture is a bit of a blessing in disguise.  This means that going to church is no longer done just because it is the culturally appropriate thing to do.  I do not know about you, but I would much rather be part of a church of 60 people that deeply love Jesus then a church of 600 who are there because they feel like they are supposed to be.  Our faith, the belief that we are saved by grace through Jesus Christ, should influence every single aspect of our lives.    The apostle Paul put it like this in Colossians 3:17 “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”    Jesus put it like this Matthew  5:48 “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”   The idea is not that we are flawless, but rather that in everything we do we display, we shine the love of God.   It does not matter if we are in a meeting at work, waiting in line at the grocery store, or at a family gathering what we do and should say should reflect the perfect, unending love of God.    How we live our life, our everyday life, our waking, eating, going to work life, is  the greatest witness we have.  It is the greatest way that display and proclaim the love of God.   The single greatest way that we can make a difference in an unbelieving world, is to live like no one else.   We do not give into the culture of this age but instead live in a loving way that shines out as different.   Again this is exactly what Jesus taught us to do when he said “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”   

The second thing we need to keep in mind from the story of Daniel is that if we try to live a life of faithful integrity.  If we try to humbly love others and live differently, then just like Daniel people will try to tear us down.   In his letter of 1 Peter, Peter puts it like this: “Be alter and of sober mind.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”    We have seen it time and time again.   Every time a believer in the public eye stumbles, it is called out.  It is lifted up as the way things are instead of the exception.  An example of what this likes happened in the 1990s at Bloomington North High School.   Julie Moore was a junior at that school and she felt led by God to start a Bible study in the school.   She went through the hoops of getting sponsors, setting meetings, and officially started the Cougars for Christ.   The first meeting was December 1st, 1995 and things went well for that first full semester.   Beginning her senior year, the group grew, it was going to be included in the yearbook, and club announcements were being made over the P.A. system.   However, she had opposition.  A counter group, the Cougars for Communism was formed, and their main goal was to find a way to shut down the cougars for Christ who they felt were turning the school into a church.  This group could not stop the Cougars from Christ from meeting but they were able to challenge the group and harass the members.  They were able to get it so that the group could not be included in the yearbook and they made it harder to have meetings announced over the PA system.  This harassment took its toll, and the attendance of the Cougars for Christ dropped to five.  Throughout the rest of the year, Julie had to put up with bullying and harassment about her faith but she stuck with it.   After she graduated and a new school year began Cougars for Christ continued but the conflict did not.  The group continued attendance increased, and it remained a light for Christ in that school for many years.  

If we are being faithful at following Christ, there will be times in our life where it feels like we are being threatened to be thrown to the lions.  Whenever we do something significant there will be opposition.   Following God, living out the gospel, is always significant and haters are going to hate.   It can be easy to just go along with the crowd in those instances, to not make waves, and to keep our head down.   However, we should not do that.   We need to shake it off, and we should follow the example of Daniel.   We should live as if our belief in God is the most important thing in the world to us, and when push comes to shove we should hold to that conviction.   Even if that means being fed to the metaphorical lions.   Even then, we have nothing to fear, because God is still with us, God is still faithful, and just like Daniel we can trust in God to keep us.    Because Daniel was faithful to God, God was glorified and lifted up in a pagan nation.   May we be Daniel’s in our culture and our town.    May we have a strong faith.  May we have a bold faith.  May we not be afraid  of the lions of this world, because we know the Lion of Judah is stronger.   And may by our actions and our lives of faithful integrity, may God be glorified.