There is an island between Australia and Antartica, about six hundred and fifty miles southwest of the southern tip of New Zealand, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. And two hundred years ago… and today… it’s just this place were some birds and seals and penguins live. But in that two hundred years. Well…
One day, some sailors came to the island and saw the seals and penguins, and said, “We could hunt those.” And they did.
And then other sailors started showing up. And where there are boats, there are rats, so rats started showing up. So the sailors let some cats loose to eat the rats. And, just in case anyone got shipwrecked there, which is a thing that happened, the sailors let some rabbits loose so that there would be food.
And the cats ate the rats… and massacred the birds. And the rabbits ate the plants… which wasn’t great, either. And the cats and the rabbits did what cats and rabbits do when cats and rabbits love each other very much.
I mean… not with each other… the cats with the cats and the rabbits with the rabbits.
So, in the eighties, some people decided to get rid of the cats. And that was good for the birds. And that was great for the rabbits. And the rabbits kept eating the plants… which caused soil erosion… until part of the island… fell off.
And, long story short, it took three-and-a-half decades and tens of millions of dollars to make this island in the middle of nowhere back into a place where some birds and seals and penguins live.
And the point is… sometimes, things that seem little and sensible—like letting a handful of cats and rabbits run around on an island—can have big, unintended, destructive consequences.
Darius is a king. The Persian Empire is huge. It stretches through Pakistan and Afghanistan and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and then it reaches west through Iran and Iraq and Egypt and Turkey. It even pushes a little bit into Greece. And it has conquered the Babylonian Empire, which is also huge, but not as huge as the Persian Empire.
And Darius has been put in charge of a kingdom that stretches from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. And the best among his administrators is a man from Judah named Daniel.
You see, the people of Judah had forsaken the Lord and run after other gods. They had grown rich and fat while orphans suffered and the needy had nothing; the very word of the Lord had become an object of scorn to them. And God had sent prophets to warn them; and the people in power had not listened.
And so the Babylonians had come with swords and with spears. hey had destroyed Jerusalem, and razed the Temple of the Lord to the ground, and taken the sacred things from the temple and put them in neat little rooms with neat little labels
And they had taken the people, including Daniel, into exile. And Daniel kept the faith, and did good work, and rose through the ranks of the Babylonian Civil Service. And when the Persian Empire took over, and Darius was appointed to be in charge of what was once the Babylonian Empire, Darius was happy to find someone who already knew how things worked.
But Daniel is still in exile. He is still far from the land that the Lord had promised to the descendants of Abraham; he is still far from home. And Daniel has seen the power and glory of the Lord during his exile. But it must still feel—a little bit—like the covenant that the Lord had made with Abraham… and Moses… and the people… was laying shattered on the ground.
It must still feel—a little bit—like Daniel, himself, is laying shattered on the ground.
And on top of all of that—on top of all of that—there are these Babylonian and Persian administrators looking at him and saying, “What affirmative action nonsense let his foreigner, this guy from Judah rise up this high? Let’s take him down.”
So they go to Darius. They go to the king. A handful of them. And they say,
King Darius, may you live forever! All of us have talked and we think it would be a good idea—all of us do, every. single. one. of. us., all of the administrators in the whole kingdom (not that we asked Daniel)—we think it would be a good idea for you to issue an edict and establish an ordinance that said, that for the next thirty days, anyone who prays to anyone other than you will be thrown into a den of lions.
And that sounded good to Darius. Everyone would be praying to him. Everyone would be recognizing his might and his majesty. And all of his administrators agree… according to the administrators who are in the room. So he issues the edict, and he establishes the ordinance, and he makes it irrevocable.
For the next thirty days anyone who prays to anyone other than Darius will be thrown into a den of lions.
And then, a few days later, that same handful of administrators come to Darius and tell him,
King Darius, may you live forever. You know Daniel, the foreigner, the guy from Judah, your favorite? Well, we’re sorry to tell you… he has been praying to his god… three times a day. And there is an edict and an ordinance… and it cannot be revoked.
And Darius is distressed. He likes Daniel. He never intended for this to happen. So he tries everything. He looks for a loophole. But there isn’t one; and there’s nothing he can do. And when Daniel is ushered into the den… and a stone is rolled over the entrance… it is Darius’s name on the stone.
And there is nothing he can do but pray. It seemed little and sensible at the time. And now there are big, unintended, destructive consequences.
We could draw so many lessons from this moment. We all live in a world that is full of unintended consequences.
Don’t get me wrong, we also live in a world that is full of intended consequences. There are things that we have done on purpose. But we all live in a world where we have done things that seemed small and sensible at the time… and where we have watched those things blow up and turn bad… and maybe even where we’ve tried to fix them and failed.
We all live in a world where—if we are brave enough to look—we can see the stone over the entrance to a lion’s den that contains someone else… maybe even someone who we love… and that stone has our name written across it.
That is where Darius is. He didn’t issue an edict because he is evil. He didn’t establish and ordinance because there was hatred in his heart. He just heard an idea, and it seemed small and sensible, and it was good for him. And he went along with it.
And he didn’t think about the people who it would affect: Daniel, who had helped him and who he liked, and who he was going to put in charge of everything; and all of the other people who had been exiled from their homeland in Judah to the depths of the Empire, who were just trying to hold onto whatever they could.
And maybe, if he had sought those people out first—if he had listened to the vulnerable in the first place—he wouldn’t be here now. But he is. He is in his palace… he his distraught… he is afraid… he cannot eat and he cannot sleep. There’s nothing he can do but pray.
But listen to his prayer. Darius does not pray to his own god. And he doesn’t pray for any god to help him come to terms with what he’s done, or to comfort him and bring him peace, or to make him feel better. No. He prays, “May your God, Daniel—the God who you serve faithfully—deliver you from what I have done.”
And there is power in that prayer. Daniel will be fine. The lions will not hurt him, and when the stone is rolled away the next morning, he will greet Darius. And Darius will proclaim that everyone should tremble before the God who Daniel serves. And Daniel will prosper.
But here’s the thing. Last week, I said that we have grown too comfortable with things that aren’t actually comfortable… with things that aren’t comfortable for others, and that rely on the discomfort of others, and that aren’t even comfortable for us. I said that we resist the call to step into the world that God has created for us. Because that step is hard. It is wild and dangerous and full of grace.
But if we want to take that first step. If we want to be brave. If we want to be wild and dangerous and full of grace. We can start with prayer. Not for ourselves, but for people more vulnerable than ourselves. Not for us, but for the ones who are shut up in lions’ dens with our names on the stones rolled over the entrance.
Because it turns out that when God delivers the folks from the unintended consequences of the things that we thought were small and sensible, God delivers us, too. Our freedom, our liberation, our redemption, our rescue, our salvation, our step into the kingdom… is inextricably tangled up with everyone else’s.
This is the first Sunday of Advent. This is the Sunday when we light a candle for hope.
So often, when we light this candle, we think of ourselves. So often, when we light this candle, we light it so that we can find our own way out of the darkness.
But what if, this time, we lit this candle as a reminder of the hope that others—trapped in lions’ dens that we can only imagine—so desperately need? What if this time, we lit this candle so that they can find their way out of the darkness? What if this time, we prayed that the God loves the world by coming into the world among the vulnerable will deliver the vulnerable?
And what if, during this season of Advent, we had faith that when the least of us are brought into the kingdom of God, then all of us will be brought into the kingdom of God?