Day 35: True Discipleship

15 Mar True Discipleship

Illustration: Juliana Crownover

He unquestionably made it clear that He who spoke to Moses out of the bush and declared Himself to be the God of the fathers, He is the God of the living. For who is the God of the living unless He is God and above whom there is no other God? Whom also Daniel the prophet, when Cyrus king of the Persians said to him, ‘Why do you not worship Bel?’ did proclaim, ‘Because I do not worship idols made with hands, but the living God who established the heaven and the earth and has dominion over all flesh.’ Again did he say, ‘I will adore the Lord my God because He is the living God.’ He, then who was adored by the prophets as the living God, He is the God of the living; and His Word is He who also spoke to Moses, who also put the Sadducees to silence, who also bestowed the gift of resurrection, thus revealing truths to those who are blind, that is, the resurrection of God.[i]

Irenaeus (d. 202), Bishop of Lyons

Opening Prayer

Heavenly Father, we ask you to preserve your faithful people, both outwardly in their bodies and inwardly in their souls. By cleaving steadfastly to all good works, defend us with your mighty power, through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.[ii]

Old Testament Lesson

The text is the apocryphal story known as “Bel and the Dragon.” It was considered canonical both by Alexandrian Jews and early Christians (and is quoted frequently by a multitude of church fathers, including Irenaeus above).[iii] Yet, it is very likely a later addition to the Book of Daniel and is considered merely “edifying reading” by Anglicans and not Scripture. While added later, the story is still ancient, probably dating from the sixth century BC.[iv] Although the details seem legendary, many early Christians loved this story because they believed it held serious importance for teaching about God and the Christian life. In both parts of the story, the character Daniel stands up fearlessly for his faith, demonstrating unshakable confidence in the goodness and providential care of God no matter how long the odds. “Bel” is simply the Babylonian pronunciation of the fertility goddess Baal.[v]

Daniel 14.1-42 (Bel and the Dragon)

1Now when King Astyages was handed over to his ancestors, Cyrus of Persia received his kingship. 2And Daniel was a confidant of the King and was more highly esteemed than all his friends. 3Now the Babylonians had an idol called, Bel, and they expended resources freely on it: every day, it received twelves measures of the finest wheaten flour, forty sheep and nine gallons of wine. 4And the King honored it and went day after day to worship it. But Daniel worshiped his God.

5And the King said to Daniel, “Why do you not worship Bel?” And Daniel said, “I do not honor a man-made idol, but the living God who created the heavens and the earth and is Lord over everything having flesh.” 6And the King said to him, “Do you not think Bel is a living god? Don’t you see how much he eats and drinks every day?” 7And Daniel said, while laughing, “Don’t be deceived, O King, for on the inside, it’s just clay and, on the outside, bronze. It hasn’t ever eaten or drunk anything!” 8Becoming angry, the King summoned his priests and said to them, “If you don’t tell me who is eating these expensive provisions, you will die. But if you demonstrate that Bel consumes it, Daniel will die since he blasphemed Bel.” 9Then Daniel said to the King, “Let it be according to your word.” Now there were seventy priests of Bel, not counting women and children.

10Then the King went with Daniel to the temple of Bel. 11And the priests of Bel said, “Look, we’ll scurry off outside, but you, O King, set the food and the mixed wine down and leave it. Then shut the door and seal it with your signet ring. Come back early in the morning and if you find any food not consumed by Bel, put us to death, but Daniel is lying against us.” (Now they were unafraid since they had constructed a hidden entrance under the table and through it, they were going together consuming the food.) 13So it happened when they went out that the King brought the provisions to Bel. 14And Daniel ordered his servants to bring ashes and spread them all over the temple in the King’s presence alone. Going out they shut the door, sealed it with the signet ring of the King and left.

15Now the priests came at night, as was their custom, along with their wives and children and they were eating and drinking everything. 16And the King arose early in the morning and Daniel with him. 17And the king said, “Daniel, are the seals intact?” And he said, “Yes, they’re intact.” 18And it happened right after he opened the door that the King looked at the table and cried out with a loud voice, “You are great, O Bel! There is not one ounce of deception in you!” 19And Daniel laughed and holding the King back from going inside, he said, “No doubt, look at the floor. Notice whose footsteps these are.” 20And the King said, “I see the footsteps of men, women and children!” 21Enraged, the King then seized the priests along with their wives and children and they showed him the hidden doors through which they went in and consumed what was on the table. 22And the King put them to death and gave the provisions normally delivered to Bel to Daniel. And he destroyed the idol and its temple.

23Now there was also a huge serpent and the Babylonians worshiped it. 24And the King said to Daniel, “It’s impossible to say that this is not a living god, so worship it.” 25And Daniel said, “I will worship the Lord my God since he is the living God. But you, O King, just say the word and I’ll kill the snake without even a sword or rod.” 26And the King said, “I grant permission.” 27So Daniel took pitch, fat and hair and he boiled it and made cakes and fed them into the mouth of the snake. While the serpent was eating, it burst apart. And he said, “See your objects of worship!”

28Now it happened that when the Babylonians heard about it, they became exceedingly angry and came together against the King and said, “The King has become Jewish; he destroyed Bel and has now has killed the serpent and murdered the priests.” 29When they came to the king, they said, “Hand over Daniel to us or we’ll kill you and your household.” 30And when the King saw that they could back up their threat, he handed Daniel over to them. 31And they threw him into the lions’ den and he was there for six days. 32Now there were seven Lions in the den and they were usually given two human bodies every day and two sheep. But now nothing was given to them so that they might consume Daniel.

33Now the prophet Habakkuk was in Judea and had made boiling pottage with crumbled bread in a dish and was going out to the open country to bring it to the harvesters. 34And the angel of the Lord said to Habakkuk, “Bring the meal which you have made to Daniel in Babylon who is in the lion’s den.” 35So Habakkuk said, “Lord, I have not seen Babylon and I don’t know where the den is.” 36Then the angel of the Lord grabbed his head. Holding him by the crown of his head, he placed him in Babylon above the den by the motion of his wind. 37And Habakkuk called out, saying, “Daniel, Daniel, take the meal. God has sent it to you.” 38So Daniel said, “You have remembered me, O God and have not abandoned those who love you.” 39And Daniel arose and ate while the angel of God restored Habakkuk to his place.

40On the seventh day, the King went to grieve for Daniel and to his surprise, Daniel was sitting there. 41And shouting with a loud voice, he said, “You are great, O Lord, God of Daniel, there is none other than you.” 42And the King brought Daniel out from the den and he threw those who had plotted for Daniel’s destruction into the pit in front of Daniel and they were devoured.

New Testament Lesson

This is an earlier section of the story we read yesterday. It recounts how Jesus delayed going up to the major fall festival, the Feast of Tabernacles. It is likely that His reference to “brothers” is to Jesus’ blood relatives. They give Jesus some very typical advice that he refuses to follow. Having seen some of the great miracles Jesus has done they say, “So publicize it! Get the word out!” But Jesus refuses to do this. He is not interested in big crowds; he is interested in true disciples. That even his own brothers do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah says something about the mysterious nature of unbelief.

John 7.1-13

1Afterwards Jesus was going around Galilee, since He did not want to travel in Judea as the Jewish leaders were trying to kill Him. 2Now the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was at hand. 3So His brothers said, “Depart from here and go to Judea so that your disciples can see the miraculous works which you do. 4For no one building a name does anything in secret, but he seeks to be out in the open. If you do these miracles, show yourself to the world.” 5For none of his brothers believed in him. 6So Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always at the ready. 7For the world cannot hate you, but it hates me since I testify to it that its works are evil. 8You go on up to the feast. I’m not going up to this feast since my time has not yet been fulfilled.” 9And having said these things, He stayed in Galilee.

10So His brothers went up to the Feast. Later Jesus also went up, not publicly, but in secret. 11And the Jewish leaders were seeking Him at the feast and kept saying, “Where is He?” 12And there was much murmuring about Him among the crowds. Some were saying, “He’s good,” while others were saying, “But He deceives the multitudes.” 13No one, however, dared to speak openly about Him out of fear of the Jewish leaders.

Reflection Questions

  1. What causes you to lose confidence that God might really show up in a powerful way? Have you become cynical about your faith? What would cause you to believe that God might really help you in a way that defies rational explanation?
  2. Do you feel challenged by the culture with regard to your Christian faith? Is your faith an embarrassment that you try to keep hidden? What would it take for you to live your faith out more openly like Daniel?
  3. What are your sibling relationships like? Do you have any unresolved issues with siblings that some greater attention might help to improve?
  4. Do you have adversaries, people who genuinely want to do you harm emotionally, vocationally, financially or even physically? Do you live in fear? How could your Christian faith help you with the situation in which you find yourself?

Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)

There are several links between our lessons today. One is obvious: both Jesus and Daniel get resistance from those who are closest to them. Daniel is respected by the King. But the King thinks nothing of just giving into pressure and risking Daniel’s life over a wager. On the other hand, Jesus gets pressure from His brothers to mount a marketing campaign to get the word out about his ministry. You have to be famous to do anything useful, so get famous! Both stories hold cautionary lessons for us.

The way of the world is to be “big,” to gather lots of followers, no matter how superficially or manipulatively we do this. There is great value in “eyeballs,” “followers” and “likes.” These are all measures of popularity and social media makes it very easy for us to measure what is “trending” and fashionable. As a society, we see great economic value placed on companies that can sustainably aggregate a crowd.

It is not hard to see how these same measures and practices creep into the Church. The Church often measures success in ministry by how large, wealthy or famous a parish is. Our religious culture readily values big crowds who hang onto a minister’s every word. We even sometimes assess God’s work in the Church by measuring how many people we can draw to our ministries. There is something disturbing about this.

To be clear, counting heads is not altogether wrong. We want to encourage engagement in the faith and numbers are one way to track it. But judging the success of a ministry by popularity is fraught with peril. Numbers say little about the quality of discipleship. In a media-soaked society it is very easy to draw a crowd by emptying the Christian faith of its essential content and by defaulting to entertainment. Christian ministries all over the country do just that.

This is exactly what happened in the nineteenth century during the so-called Second Great Awakening. Preachers fanned out across the ever-growing expanse of our country and preached the Gospel. So far so good. But, because success was based on how many people got “saved,” revivalist leaders invented ever-more clever techniques to manipulate the emotions of people so that they might come to a crisis point and throw themselves on the mercy of God. Scores of people came to faith this way. What could be wrong with that?

Well, by the admission of Charles Finney, the most “successful” of the evangelists, almost none of these conversions were genuine. All these techniques did was to rile people up with fits of enthusiasm. But, in the end, there was little discipleship behind it. Making disciples is hard work, and it is the central job of the Church.

God probably looks at the Church very differently than the culture does. Famous ministries probably don’t impress God very much. What impresses Him is the quiet, growing faith of a genuine disciple. We all know it when we see it, when someone, facing great adversity and long odds, decides to react with goodness and with joy. We see it in the faces of those who give selflessly to a ministry that no one notices. We see it in the courage of a wife lovingly caring for her disabled spouse. We see it in those who step out in faith because they think God is calling them to something different. We see it in those who give their lives as martyrs because they love Jesus more than their own earthly existence.

No doubt, there is safety in numbers. There is a self-satisfied smugness that can come from it too. We should care much more about depth than breadth. Big crowds, adulation and publicity matter little. The quiet work of building sanctity, however, matters a great deal. If Jesus didn’t seek public adulation, neither should we.

Jesus resists the (very real) temptation of adulation and crowds because He understood that it was not good for Him and it’s not good for us. Quiet and loving service to others is what it’s all about. When we embrace humility instead of people-pleasing, smallness instead of bigness, quietness and solitude instead of noise and action, this is pleasing to God. True discipleship may be unpopular and rare, but it’s the life God really rewards.

Potential Applications

  • Fast

As a culture we are addicted to entertainment. Between now and Easter, fast from TV, movies, You-Tube or other forms of entertainment. Use that time to pray, study or reflect on your Christian life.

  • Family/Reconciliation

What family members have you ignored or not caught up with for a long time? Call or write to them and see if you can’t improve the relationship.

  • Divine Office

Use the offices in the Prayer Book to pray throughout the day. Perhaps start with morning prayer when you get up (p. 37), Noonday Prayer at lunchtime (p. 103), Evening Prayer as the sun goes down (p. 61) and Compline before you go to bed (p. 127). Alternatively use the prayers for family devotions to lead your family or loved ones in prayer for the Church, the world and your family (p. 137).

[i] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Ex Fontibus, 2012), 4.5.2, pp. 404–405.

[ii] The Anglican Breviary (Long Island, NY: Frank Gavin Liturgical Foundation, 1998), 487.

[iii] Carey A. Moore, Daniel, Esther and Jeremiah: The Additions, vol. 44, The Anchor Bible (New Haven: Yale Press, 1977), 126.

[iv] Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (Oxford: Oxford Press, 2013), 73.

[v] Ibid.

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