This sermon was preached at St Mary’s Diss for Evensong on the 19th of May 2019.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week Tony stood here and warned you, and I think it may have been a warning, that tonight’s preach would be of Lions and Angels. Much as Daniel was thrown into the Lion’s Den, we’re going to jump right into the thick it!
Lions in scripture are very much like angels. Once you start noticing them, there are references to them all over the place. Indeed, in Ezekiel the two combine and there’s this vivid presentation of these angelic figures with four faces, one of which is the face of a lion. There were decorative bronze lions as part of elaborate stands within Solomon’s temple, and Solomon himself had an ivory throne at the top of six steps. Beside his armrests and on each end of the steps there were lions overlaid in gold. The like of it, scripture says, was never made in any kingdom.
To summarise the references in the Old Testament to lions would actually be far harder than presenting a framework for engaging with angels (who, basically, are either representatives of God, messengers of God or doers of mighty deeds in the name of God).
There’s an obscure story in Chronicles which is reminiscent of Tarzan killing the leopard. It tells of a valiant warrior and doer of great deeds called Benaiah who not only killed some enemy princes but on one occasion fell into a pit on a snowy day. Also in the pit was a lion, which pounced. Benaiah survived, managing to kill the Lion and escape the pit.
However, the most famous Lion stories in scripture are undoubtedly Daniel and the Lions Den, which we’ve heard read this evening, and the source of a perplexing riddle in the book of Judges. “Out of the eater came something to eat, out of the strong came something sweet.” I wonder how many of you enjoy Lyle’s Golden Syrup with your pudding? You may have noticed that the label for Golden Syrup is a depiction of this very scene, of bees hovering around a lions carcass. This is the story of Samson as he walks through the Vineyards of Timnah when suddenly a young lion roared at him. The scriptures say, “The Spirit of the Lord rushed on him and he tore the lion apart with his bare hands.”
Rushed – this adjective creates the impression of speed not unlike a strong gust of wind or of water flowing over the edge of a waterfall to plummet to the ground below. Here God acts in power through Samson to keep him safe from the Lion.
Lions, it seems, would ambush the unsuspecting who strayed off from the main paths or were on their own. As such they are commonly used as a metaphor in the psalms for bandits or malicious foes who hate the psalmist. There’s a profound sense of wildness to Lions. If they caught you, their teeth were like spears and they would kill you and eat you, leaving nothing but broken bones behind.
Wild though they might be, there’s also a sense of nobility to them. It can be easy to lose sight of that now that we have guns and our primary exposure to lions comes either through Disney cartoons or in pens at zoos or maybe in a managed safari park. But before such weapons, your best defence against lions would be first to avoid them and second finding safety in numbers. Proverbs 20:2 talks of a growling lion, anyone who provokes him to anger forfeits life itself.
However, this sense of nobility isn’t just from their physical prowess, rather it’s that they are often presented as instruments of God’s justice. In the Second Book of Kings, chapter 17 it says that when the Assyrians took possession of Samaria, replacing the Israelites, they did not worship the Lord; therefore the Lord sent Lions upon them, which killed a number of them. These killings only stopped when the King of Assyria sent for an Israelite priest to teach the people the law of the God of the Land, that is, the Lord.
Long before the Romans used lions in their amphitheatres to kill Christians, a fate which Paul himself writes that he was spared from in 2 Timothy, it seems that the Babylonians had a similar idea. Somehow they managed to capture a group of lions in a den or a pit from which the lions could not escape. Imagine that there’s a narrow passageway which goes into the rocks and at the end of the passage way it opens out beyond a small platform to reveal a sharp drop down into a pit with several lions in it. As a sentence for certain crimes, people would be brought through the passageway and thrown to the hungry lions. Needless to say, an unarmed man against four or five deadly cats isn’t going to be as lucky as Benaiah was.
The use of Lions in this way continues the theme of justice. In our story, Daniel was in a prestigious position in Darius’ kingdom. One of three presidents who were second only to the King and who in turn had oversight of the 120 satraps, whose role would have been a mix between state official and politician. Daniel was due to be appointed over the whole kingdom because of his excellent spirit. The jealous satraps and the other two presidents conspired amongst themselves. Knowing that Daniel was innocent of corruption yet devout in his faith they engineered a situation in which his devotion to God would make him contumacious. They knew, quite rightly, that even if the law prohibited it he would continue to pray to the Lord.
I wonder if people would have that same confidence in us?
We heard the story, we know that Daniel, on pain of death by lions, violated the law and prayed to the Lord. Spied upon, he was reported to the king who, to his horror, found that he couldn’t avoid the punishment. The king may have created a law which he regretted but he still had to uphold it even though it pained him to so do. Indeed, the King’s last words to Daniel are “May your God whom you faithfully serve save you.” And thus, Daniel is thrown to the lions.
Daniel, like Samson, was in mortal peril. Unlike Samson, Daniel does not receive a supernatural boost to his strength in order to fight off the lions. Instead, we find out that God sent an Angel to close the mouths of the Lions so that they would not hurt him because Daniel was found to be blameless before both God and the King.
One might be tempted to suggest, by way of rationalising how this could have happened, that the Lions had eaten recently and thus were more bemused than annoyed by Daniel’s presence. The full text of the chapter refuses us this interpretation, for having lifted Daniel out of the pit those who had accused Daniel were brought and thrown into the den whereupon they were immediately, swiftly and violently dispatched by the ravenous Lions.
The chapter ends with this decree from King Darius:
“I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel:
For he is the living God, enduring for ever. His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end. He delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, for he has saved Daniel from the power of the Lions.”
We may not live within the royal dominion of Darius, but these words remains valuable to us even today for this is a description of the same God who presents us with himself in Jesus Christ.
The Lions of Samson and Daniel together can represent to us the complex reality which is our lived experience. A reality where justice is mixed with random chance. A reality where death comes upon believers and non-believers, on the weak and the strong, the wicked and the righteous both.
For Samson, God joined with his efforts and enabled him to overpower the Lion. For Daniel, God sent an angel to accompany him and to defend him much as he had with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. In each case death was prevented, for a time and a purpose. Samson was to go on to use the lion’s carcass as a riddle and a pretext for driving out the Philistines. By saving Daniel, God was given all due honour and reverence throughout the Land.
Yet there’s a detail within Daniel’s salvation which is fascinating. He was preserved because he was blameless. God judged Daniel and found him to be righteous, and so stayed the mouths of the lions. God judged those who had accused him and allowed the Lions to do their thing.
It’s an uncomfortable aspect of the reality in which we find ourselves that in all truth and honesty we have to admit that we are often not blameless. We have sinned. We might not think of ourselves as being “that” bad, but it’s that very qualification which damns us. When the standard is perfect holiness, our all too real flaws and stubbornness means that should we be judged as ourselves, there’s no real reason why the lions should not eat us.
Yet there’s a confidence which is offered to each of us here tonight which comes not from our own righteousness, but from Jesus. He may not have died at the jaws of lions, but in dying he passed through the maw of sin’s cankerous trap. Unlike with Samson he did not battle through with supernatural power, unlike with Danial the angels were told to stand down and let him die. However, as with Jonah in the belly of the beast after three days Jesus rose to life beyond death. Revelation alludes to him symbolically as the Lion of Judah. Isaiah says that the Lord will come with a confidence such as a Lion who is not terrified by the shouting of a band of shepherds coming out against him. And Amos says:
The lion has roared; who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?
The resurrection of Jesus resounds as the roar of a Lion. The resurrected Jesus is the living word of God, a God who has taken on our humanity so that we might be preserved from the metaphorical yet all too real lions of our lives and stand with confidence before his throne on the last day, secure in the faith that by his blood he shall find us as blameless as Daniel. The lion has roared, who shall not fear? Christ has been raised, who shall not praise him as God and King?
Having been declared righteous in the sight of God, Proverbs 28:1 exhorts us to be as bold as Lions.
In the name of Christ,