In the parlance of modern language, the word Aleppo has come to be equivalent with the idea of hopelessness. The politically torn, war ravaged town is at the center of the Syrian conflict and finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to carry on with normal life in the face of violent factions built on destroying each other at the expense of anyone in the way. Writing for the UK news service the Guardian last September, Emma Graham-Harrison and Hussein Akoush used social media to interview several people who are just trying to stay alive while holding some semblance of normalcy together. The people of Aleppo describe their circumstances this way.
Aleppo has become synonymous with destruction and death, barrel bombs, bunker busters and shattered hospitals. For the doctors and rescue workers racing to save lives around the clock, life has become a blur of blood, death and desperation.
But between the explosions and the street fights, there are more than 200,000 civilians trying to cling to a semblance of normal life in east Aleppo, a quarter of them children.
Taxis and bakeries, water plants and market stalls, schools and charities all operated in rebel-held east Aleppo. Until government forces began a siege in July, vital supplies filtered in and out, residents could visit friends or even leave if they wanted to. Some stayed out of loyalty, others for desperation or fear of life as a refugee in squalid camps.
Among the factions fighting in the city are hardline Islamists, including a group formerly linked to al-Qaida. But east Aleppo is also still home to artists and moderate activists, including women who work in its charities and schools…
…The siege is also biting hard. Food supplies are shrinking, fruit and vegetables have all but gone from people’s plates, and fuel is dwindling too, so most cars have vanished from the streets. They are hoarding supplies for generators that power not just hospitals but also the internet connections that are east Aleppo’s link with the world.
In other eras, cutting supply lines also cut communication, but smartphones and satellite internet routers mean the people of Aleppo can reach out online beyond the circumscribed world that one resident described as a “vast, open-air prison”.
Food and medical aid cannot get in, but stories of horror can get out.
A woman who runs a local school said this, “Our school is in an underground shelter now, but I can still see when the children arrive with their school bags, there is happiness in their eyes, they are excited to study.”
As we begin today I want to ask you, “What is hope?”
Myself, I think of hope this way: it is something that isn’t now, that we wish to be later; it is a trust in what can and may be. As we begin this Advent season, we start with this idea of hope by looking back in time at another story of hope in a hopeless situation, a story about Daniel.
In the mouths of lions
This morning I’d like to tell a tale, a tale of death and court intrigue. Strangely enough it has nothing to do with Game of Thrones or the recent election. It is the story of opposing ideas and ideals within the Kings Court and the challenge to see who will come out on top. It is the story of a young man uprooted from his home, raised and educated in a foreign land, and given the opportunity to serve a foreign king. This young man has made enemies while becoming a member of the king’s court, enemies who would rather him dead.
In the first six chapters of the book of Daniel, Daniel and his friend assert themselves as heroic figures for the Jewish people. Repeatedly, they have lived out their beliefs despite opposition from the king’s court and advisors. Once again, the text talks about how those governors and vice regents or satraps that were subjected Daniel, despised him for the gifts he brought to governance. The story is reminiscent of Joseph before pharaoh, Esther before King Ahasuerus, and the three men in the furnace in Daniel chapter three. Wherever Daniel serves, Daniel succeeds. In the Message Bible, Eugene Peterson translates it this way,
Darius decided to appoint one hundred twenty chief administrators throughout the kingdom, 2 and to set over them three main officers to whom they would report so that the king wouldn’t have to be bothered with too much. One of these main officers was Daniel. 3 Because of his extraordinary spirit, Daniel soon surpassed the other officers and the chief administrators—so much so that the king had plans to set him over the entire kingdom. 4 As a result, the other officers and the chief administrators tried to find some problem with Daniel’s work for the kingdom. But they couldn’t find any problem or corruption at all because Daniel was trustworthy. He wasn’t guilty of any negligence or corruption.
5 So these men said, “We won’t find any fault in Daniel, unless we can find something to use against him from his religious practice.”
Like I said, court intrigue, power struggles, political maneuvering. As the story goes on, the other under-rulers devise a scheme to get rid of Daniel for the last time and they try to use Daniel’s faith against him. They notice that Daniel prays three times a day, every day, regardless of the other circumstances in his life. They go before the king with a flimsy, probably common trope of creating a law to honor the king. Most kings of the ancient world liked having their egos assuaged and the idea of a law that demanded the citizenry of the king’s lands to worship only Darius for the next month probably sounded like an innocuous request from a bunch of brown-nosers trying to curry favor.
If you have ever been in a Sunday school class, you know what happens next. Daniel is caught praying to God, the other rulers remind the king that no one should be praying to anyone but the king, and the king is bound by the law of the land to punish Daniel per the law. In the story, the punishment decided on is death by lion, which seemed to be a common method of capital punishment in the ancient world. Daniel is shut up in the lion’s den with these parting words from Darius, “Your God—the one you serve so consistently—will rescue you.” Then, Daniel – much to the delight of those who are allied against him – is left to face his own passion. The next day, after a worrisome, sleepless night, Darius returns to the den to hear Daniel say, “Long live the king! 22 My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.” Those allied against Daniel are subject to the same punishment and final story of the narrative half of Daniel ends with Darius declaring that everyone should “fear and revere Daniel’s God.”
Learning from Daniel
And now I guess you all want to know, what does a guy playing with overgrown housecats in ancient Persia have to do with the birth of Jesus? They are both stories of hope for a people in need of something to hold on to. The story of Daniel was written at a time of great turmoil for the Jewish people. During the three centuries before the birth of Jesus, the tiny land known as Israel faced a succession of rulers from Egypt (the Ptolemies), Syria (the Seleucids), and finally Rome. During this time, the Greek rulers tried to impose their customs on the conquered peoples going as far as desecrating the temple in Jerusalem in 167 BCE and turning it into a place of worship for Zeus.
Against this backdrop, the stories of Daniel are told, written down, and become a part of Jewish faith and custom. The hope they have arises from walking with God, even at the cost of one’s life, to carry on the faith of the fathers before them. The stories of Daniel, Esther, and others during this time were stories of inspiration to not give up, to not surrender your faith to foreign gods and to love and serve the God of Israel no matter what.
Daniel in the lion’s den is a story of hope and resurrection. Daniel should have been killed by the beasts and yet certain death is not so certain after all. So much of this story is similar to the story of Jesus resurrection in the New Testament: both are pronounced as criminals before the state worthy of death, both face rulers who are not certain they deserve death, both are condemned by those of their peer group, both are placed in a tomb of death with a stone to seal them in, and both are found alive in the morning, having overcome death itself by the divine hand of God.
Stories of resurrection are stories of hope. They are stories about a life that is not yet finished, a life that has more living in it. When we look at the story of the early church in Acts, they did not preach the cross – many died on Roman crosses, nothing especially noteworthy in that – they preached the resurrection, the hope of one gone to the grave and returned. Why? Because the idea of resurrection is the idea of hope beyond a hopeless situation.
It is the hope we have as believers, that the life we live following Christ is a life reborn. That is the power of the resurrection that lives in us as we live a life devoted to being disciples of Jesus. When we begin to walk as Paul said, “in newness of life”, we walk as people of resurrection. When this becomes our reality, the resurrection is not just part of the Jesus story, it is part of our story, the story of how our life becomes one with the story of Jesus, one with the Spirit of God. Hope is the fuel of resurrection, it is the catalyst that generates the power of the life we now live after Jesus.
The Hope of Advent
The advent story is also a story of hope. The narratives of Jesus birth in Matthew and Luke are stories of a great light shining into the darkness of the world. They are stories of a miraculous, wondrous birth, of God so loving the world that Spirit of God would come to earth in the form of an innocent child to bring living water to barren landscape. It is “…a Savior… born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah [one blessed and chosen of God] and Master [teacher of God’s truth to man].” It is the time of Emmanuel, God with us.
The writer Madaline L’Engle puts it poetically this way,
Into The Darkest Hour
It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss-
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.
It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight-
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.
And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.
The old adage is, “it is always the darkest before the dawn.” Hope is born in this darkness. Hope has overcome this darkness. Hope shines through the remnants of darkness to point us to the light. This advent season, let us take the story of Jesus birth into our hearts, into our congregation, and into our community that it may bring those who are hopeless to a new hope. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
 Daniel 6:1-4
 Daniel 6:16
 Daniel 6:21-22
 Luke 2:12