The Apocrypha in Lent – 30 March (Good Friday)

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

30 March 2018. Daniel chapter 14

Like the story of Susannah on which I wrote earlier this week, this chapter, known as “Bel and the dragon”, is unrelated to the rest of the book of Daniel and is only included because Daniel features in the three short stories that it comprises, all of which share the theme of the defeat of idolatry.  The chapter is omitted in Protestant Bibles as “apocryphal”.

In the first of the short stories, King Cyrus – mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and undoubtedly a historical person – is portrayed as worshiping the idol called Bel or Marduk which appears to eat a large amount of food (including sacrificed sheep). Daniel is no under illusion – he knows that the idol is only a bronze -covered clay statue, and tells the king that their must be trickery.  Cyrus is at least willing to investigate the truth, but the priests of Bel are confident their secret trap door (by which they go in to eat the idol’s food at night) will not be discovered. Daniel uses a simple built of forensic investigation by scattering ashes on the floor to expose the footprints of the people who come in at night, and thus persuades the king to stop worshiping the idol.

In the second story, the king is now worshiping a living creature – a “dragon” (we cannot know what sort of animal this really was). He believes it to be immortal, but Daniel very simply chokes it to death with balls of hair, grease and pitch.  In this way he persuades the king to drop the practice of idolatry.  But that is not the end of the story – for the second time (if the stories in the book are in chronological order) Daniel is fed to the lions, yet survives by God’s miraculous intervention.

Is there any relevance to this story for Christians?  Yes, very much so! Today is Good Friday, when Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate.  Pilate found himself in the same position as Cyrus did – faced with a believer in God who had been upsetting the religious systems of their day, yet willing to be persuaded that the believer in question was not only harmless to society, but maybe even right in representing a different form of religion.

Yet in both cases, the priests of the established religion – the servants of Bel, or the priests of the Jerusalem temple who professed to worship the true God, the God of Abraham (and for that matter Daniel) – were so afraid of losing their influence and their income that they threatened to riot. Just as the priests of Bel “pressed [Cyrus] so hard that the king found himself forced to hand Daniel over to them to throw Daniel into the lion pit” (14:30-31), so Pilate was pressed so hard by the Jews to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus, that he did the same.

What can we learn from these stories – true or not? It seems impossible to modern people that an intelligent person such a Cyrus could believe in a statue actually being a god, but then it seems impossible for many people that an intelligent person can believe in an unseen god.  The deity of Bel and the Dragon could be disproven; the existence of God can neither be disproven, nor proved by scientific experiment.  Daniel, if these stories are true (and the Bible has many examples of people being miraculously preserved from death) could point to the evidence in his life of a saving power, and so can many people today.  Belief in God requires faith, but a faith for which there is evidence.

It is not surprising that when Jesus hung on the cross, he was taunted to save himself and come down from the cross.  He had healed people of all kinds of illness and disability, even raised people from the dead. But it appeared he could not save himself. Where was the God who rescued Daniel from the lions, Joseph from the pit in which his brothers had thrown him, or the three young men of chapter 3 from the furnace, when his own son was dying?  The miracle of Good Friday is in fact in the fact that Jesus was not saved from physical death. For he had to undergo it in order to be raised to life, without which his saving work for all of humanity would not be complete.  Daniel’s life was saved as a reward for defeating the power of idolatry and destroying the terrifying dragon, but Jesus on the cross faced down the greater enemy, the unseen power of the Devil.  He paid the price for that with his life, but was rewarded with the everlasting life that he also offers to us.

Happy Easter!

Here ends the book of Daniel, and with it my survey of the whole Bible (including the apocryphal bits) over the last 15 months.

 

The Bible in a Year – 25 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

25 December John chapters 19-21

I am sure it cannot be coincidence that the reading for Christmas Day is the last three chapters of John’s gospel, which cover the death and resurrection of Christ.  The people who planned this year-long programme of Bible readings must have arranged it like that, and for a good reason.

Our priest at this morning’s Christmas communion service started his sermon by talking about the Yorkshire tradition of eating cheese with sweet foods – salty blue Stilton with mince pies, creamy Wensleydale with Christmas fruit cake.   He linked this odd, but actually very tasty,  combination of tastes to the fact that within the last week before Christmas, when the church is looking forward to the joy of the Nativity, and the world is celebrating in its own pleasure-seeking way, the church leaders and musicians have been planning the music for services in Lent and Holy Week.

It may seem strange reading about the death and resurrection of Christ, or planning solemn music for the season when we particularly remember those events, just when the focus should be on his birth.  But there are good reasons for doing so.

We cannot understand the birth of Jesus into the world unless we think also of the crucifixion. Nor can we understand the crucifixion without believing in the resurrection.  For that was the whole point of his birth.  The way God rescues us from the consequences of our own sin is to take those sins upon himself and suffer the consequences – separation from God, mental agony, physical torture, and death.  But that was not the end of the story – the resurrection proved that the sinless  one was stronger than sin and death and would live for ever.

Even at the time Jesus was dedicated as a baby, it was prophesied about him that he would be the cause of the “falling and rising of many in Israel”, and of Mary his mother it was said “a sword will pierce your own heart also”.  Throughout the last year or so of his life, Jesus had tried many times to explain to the disciples that his death – and subsequent resurrection – were absolutely part of God’s plan for him, and could not be avoided without wrecking the plan.

There is a line in a Christmas carol that says “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day”.  It sounds good, but it is not good theology.  It would be more accurate – if less poetic – to say “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Day”.  But we can make a concession – as the timeless God came into our world in the form of a time-bound human being, birth had to come before death.  Without Christmas there could be no Easter.  And without Mary’s willing acceptance of God’s will there could have been no Christmas.  Therefore we say with her, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”.

Merry Christmas to all readers.

 

The Bible in a Year – 14 April (Good Friday)

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

14 April. 1 Kings chapters 6-7

In these chapters, Solomon arranges the building of his great Temple, which takes seven years, and his even bigger palace, which takes thirteen.  The furnishings of these, especially the Temple, are described in great detail.

 

The Temple in its three versions – this first one, the rebuilt one after the Exile, and finally Herod’s Temple that Jesus knew – would be the central focus of religious life in Israel/Judah for the best part of a thousand years.   There is no longer a central Temple for either Jews or Christians. But its symbolism continues in Christianity – for example the plan of many Catholic and Anglican churches with narthex, nave, chancel and altar sanctuary  deliberately echoes the plan of the temple, and some church fonts are made to resemble the “sea” or large basin of water in the nave of the temple.

 

Today (as I write this) is Good Friday 2017, the most solemn day of the Christian year when Jesus died for our sins.  One of the ‘crimes’ for which he was condemned was the blasphemous claim that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.  What he meant was that in his death, he would instantly put an end to the the purpose of the Temple (indeed its curtain that kept ordinary people away from the holiest part of the shrine was miraculously torn down at the moment of his death), and on the third day when he rose from the dead he himself would become the temple for us.

 

The Christian understanding is that Jesus replaced the temple, a central place of prayer by priests on behalf of the people, as the way to God, for he was God incarnate, and he “lives for all time to make intercession for us”. He replaced it as the location where God can be encountered, for we can know his presence at any time. He replaced the function of its altars for making sacrifice for sin, for he himself became the ultimate sacrifice.

 

This week, Jews have celebrated the Passover and Christians prepare to celebrate Easter – these are really two versions of the same story of God’s saving love.  But one led, after over five hundred years, to a man-made temple in which God’s love for Israel could be remembered and kept sacred.  The other instantly opened up God’s love to the whole world for ever.

 

May you have a blessed day and look forward to the celebration on Sunday.