Thursday, 10 April 2014

Daniel 9 'Daniel, your God is too small'

In the early 1790s William Carey challenged his fellow Baptist pastors about their responsibility for world missions.  He received an unfavourable response.  One of the senior men present curtly told him, 'sit down young man', and added, 'if God wants to save the heathen, he will do it without your help or mine!"

Surely both men knew that Jesus had promised that the gospel would reach the ends of the earth.  Yet one man saw that as a promise that prompted action; whereas the other let that promise produce complacency.

In the book of Daniel we have seen that God is sovereign.  Nothing will frustrate his plans.  He knows the begining from the end, and all history is in his hand.  He will do as he wants for his glory.   If this is true then what is there for us to do?  Are we simply to sit on the sidelines and be spectators?

Similarly, we know that Christ will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  We know that he who began a good work in us will see it through to completion.  If God is going to get his way in this world, and in our lives, then do our prayers matter?

While prayer may be a mystery it certainly does change things.  It has been said that more things are wrought by prayer than the world dreams of.  Somehow our prayers are intertwinned with God's soverign purposes.  When God promises that he is going to do something it is not an invitation to simply watch him at work; it is a call to action.  As we now see, the promise of God prompted Daniel to pray.

1.  The promise of God prompts Daniel to pray (1-19)

The first part of this chapter contains one of the great prayers on the Bible.  In chapter six we saw Daniel praying, now we get to hear him.

Remember that Daniel had been taken from the promised land by the Babylonians while he was still in his teens.  He had given a lifetime of service to that regime when it was overthrown by the Persians.  Our chapter is set in the first year of Darius.  That is 539 BC.  Daniel is now in his eighties.  It is eleven years since the vision recorded in the preceding chapter.

Daniel is reading from the Scriptures, as no doubt was his daily habit.  There he comes across a passage in Jeremiah (25:11) that prophesied that after his people had been exiled from their land it would lie desolate for seventy years.  In other words it was time for them to return to Jerusalem and its surrounds.  So what does Daniel do?  Does he sit back and simply wait for God to act?  No! He prays.  God's promises prompt him to action.  He knows that his prayers have a role to play in God's eternal purposes.  At the end of the Bible people who know that a day and time has been set for the Lord's return nevertheless pray 'come Lord Jesus.'  God's sovereign purposes are somehow intertwined with the prayers of his people in such a way that our praying really matters.

There are two things that I want us to notice about Daniel's prayer.  Firstly, it is rooted in the character of God.  Secondly, it is full of confession.

A professor in a Bible college asked his students, 'how can we reconcile the loving God of the Old Testament with the angry God of the New?'
They attempted to correct him.  'Don't you mean, "how can we reconcile the loving God of the New Testament with the angry God of the Old?"'
No, he meant what he said.  You see he was trying to underline the point that the God of the Old Testament is in fact the same God as is portrayed in the New.  Contrary to what some think, the Old Testament has plenty of things to say about the love if God and the New Testament has some if the severest things to say about the wrath and judgement of a holy God.

Living in Old Testament times Daniel knows that God is 'great and awesome' (4).  He knows that Yahweh is the promise-keeping God.  He is the God who made a promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; he is the God who delivered his people from slavery in Egypt; he is the God who spoke to them at Mount Sinai; he is the God who warned them that if they rebelled he would remove them from the promised land; he is the God who graciously persisted with his rebellious people and waited patiently before delivering them into exile; he is the God who had prophesied that his people would repent and that he would deliver them from exile after seventy years.

It is to this God that Daniel confesses.  He confesses for his people and stands as a representative before God on their behalf.  We benefit from the prayers of a representative greater than Daniel.  'Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them' (Hebrews 7:25).  Our perseverance is guaranteed by the prayers of the Son if God.

The story is told of two rabbis who went to the temple to pray.  The first rabbi beat his breast and cried out 'I am nothing, I am nothing.'
The second rabbi followed his example and also beat crying I am nothing, I am nothing.'
A peasant was watching them and decided to join in, 'I am nothing, I am nothing.'
This prompted outrage in the first rabbi who looked at his fellow rabbi and exclaimed 'who does that peasant think he is claiming to be a nothing like us.'

Daniel, who has been portrayed favourably right throughout this book, identifies with this sins of his people.  On one hand he sees the corporate nature of guilt (a concept that is alien to our individualistic culture), and on the other hand he knows that he too is personally guilty.  He was confessing his sin and the sin of his people (20).  Unlike the two rabbis in our story there is a sense in which when we acknowledge that we are sinners we know that no-one stands lower than us.'

Max Lucado says, 'confession is not telling God what we have done, he already knows. Confession is acknowledging to God that what we have done is wrong.'  Daniel's prayer acknowledges God's assessment of their actions.

Your God is to small (20-27)

Sixty years ago J. B. Philips wrote a book entitled, 'Your god is too small.'  In the second half of this chapter the angel Gabriel tells Daniel that he is thinking of God in terms that are too small.

You see Daniel is pleading with God to forgive the particular sins that lead to the exile and the sins they had committed in exile, but God is going to do something far greater.  He is going put an end to all sin, to atone for all of his people's unrighteousness, and to bring everlasting righteousness (24).  Daniel is pleading with God to restore Jerusalem, but God is going to do something greater.  He is going to bring the anointed one from Jerusalem (25).  It is as if Gabriel is saying, 'you are concerned about the seventy years of the exile, but let me tell you of the seventy times seventy years leading to the Messiah.'

Likewise we tend to have too small a view of God.  We may come to faith wanting God to forgive certain things we have done in the past, but God not only forgives those particular sins he deals with all of our sin and the wickedness at our very heart.  We think in terms of simply being forgiven, but God not only forgives us he adopts us into his family as dearly beloved children.  We concern ourselves with finding God's help for life in this world, but God not only helps us now, he is going to cherish us for all eternity.  Our view of God is too small!

The last four verses are among the most debated words in the whole of the Bible, so we should hold our opinions with a degree of humility.  Are the numbers symbolic (as sevens often are in Scripture) or literal (like the seventy years of exile)?  There are many various interpretations.

A friend of mine suggests the following understanding:
The years begin with the decree by Persian King Artaxerxes giving the resources to rebuild Jerusalem in 458 BC (see Ezra 7).
The first week of sevens (forty-nine years) is the time of rebuilding Jerusalem.
The sixty-two sevens (434 years) that follow lead up to the beginning of Jesus' ministry in 26 AD (Jesus was actually born in 4 BC).
The last seven is split in two.  The first three and a half years lead to the end of the sanctuary, as the cross makes the system of sacrifices redundant.  The second three and a half years is the time when the gospel is offered to the Jews, who reject it, and then it is given to the Gentiles.

Again we are being reminded that our God controls history.  He has an exhaustive knowledge of the future.  He is working his purposes out.  In a way that goes beyond our understanding our prayers and his sovereign purposes work hand in hand.


Does God get his way or do our prayers change reality?  Although this question is an either/or question the answer is actually both/and.  God always gets his way and our prayers change things.  To paraphrase someone else's words, the sovereign God who controls all things has not called us to watch history, but to shape history, through our prayers, for the glory of his great name.

I began by mentioning William Carey.  Like Daniel he saw the promises of God as a spur to action.  Carey knew that God would bring the gospel to all the nations and he wanted to be a part of God's purposes in his generation.  Thankfully he overcame the discouragement given by his fellow Baptist pastors and became a lifetime missionary in India.  He is known as the father of modern missions and is famous for the mantra, 'expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.'

One of the greatest ways we can share in the eternal purposes of God is as we pray.   His kingdom will come, it will come as we prayers like 'your kingdom come, you will be done, on early as it is in heaven.'  As we pray, 'expect great things from God', and through our prayers, our lives and our words 'attempt great things from God.'

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Daniel 8 'Chaos never rules'

I have a friend who started going to a Bible Study where they loved to speculate about the end times.  They had their conspiracy theories and he began to think that the rest of us were naive because he had everything figured out and we didn't.  But what he lacked was historical perspective.  Throughout the generations many Bible teachers have confidently identified the final Antichrist and claimed that the Lord's return was imminent.  The leaders they identified as the final Antichrist came and went, and those Bible teachers went to their grave still waiting for Jesus to come back.

I believe that the value of these verses is not found in fanciful speculations.  These verses were given to us by God to help us trust God as we live in a world filled with seeming chaos and opposition.  These visions primarily describe events that took place before Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the first century.  They might also foreshadow events that will take place before Jesus returns in the clouds.  But they have a relevance for every time.  

Every generation of God's people suffer at the hands of tyrannical leaders and unsympathetic opponents but these verses tell us that even when it looks like evil is triumphing heaven rules; and that God is committed to keeping his people faithful to the end.

1.  God will never be taken by surprise

God will never be taken by surprise.  This is seen in the fact that he gives Daniel an accurate picture of what will happen in the centuries from his time leading up to the time of Jesus' birth.  

It is the third year of the reign of the Babylonian king, Belshazzar.  A number of decades previously many of God's people had been taken from Jerusalem into exile in Babylon.  They are in a foreign land, subject to a foreign power, amongst people who worship foreign gods.  They might have wondered where God was in all this.  The dreams and visions that Daniel has leave them in no doubt that God is on his throne and in control of history. 

Daniel was living in Babylon but the vision is set in Susa, the winter residence of the Persian kings.  The significance of these is seen in the fact that the Babylonians would soon be replaced by the Persians as the superpower of their day.  

The angel Gabriel explains to him that the two-horned ram he sees in his vision represents the kings of Mede and Persia (20).  Around the time Daniel is having this vision the Persian king Cyrus was conquering the Medes and uniting their two kingdoms.  But that kingdom was one of unequal power.  The Persians would be the dominant partner, which is why the ram has one horn bigger than the other.  

The Medo-Persians would replace the Babylonians as the world's superpower just a few years after Daniel has this vision.   But later the Medo-Persians would be replaced by the Greeks.  This is shown in Daniel's vision by a male goat replacing the mighty ram.  This goat comes from the west (the Greek empire that was west of both Babylon and Persia).  Gabriel explains, 'The shaggy goat is the king of Greece, and the large horn between its eyes is the first king' (21).  

This first Greek king is Alexander the Great, who overthrew the Medo-Persian empire with amazing efficiency from 334-331 B.C.  The speed of this conquest is pictured in the fact that the goat travels across the whole world without touching the ground.

Notice that the goat is enraged (7).  Alexander the Great was the son of the king of Macedonia, a land north of Greece.  He was only twenty when his father was murdered and he took over as king.  Alexander was a gifted ruler who managed to unite the Greeks.  The Greeks were motivated by anger; they were angered by the way that the Medo-Persians had been attacking them and meddling in their affairs for the previous two centuries.

But Alexander's reign was short-lived.  He died in Babylon at the age of thirty-two.  His death was surrounded by rumours of poison.  He was soon to be replaced by four generals.  'The goat became very great, but at the height of its power the large horn was broken off, and in its place four prominent horns grew up toward the four winds of heaven' (8).  One of these generals began the Seleucid Empire.  From that empire would come a tyrant called Antiochus Epiphanes.  He is pictured, in verse nine, as the little horn.  

The accuracy of these prophecies has led those who deny the miraculous nature of the Bible to suggest that this story must have been made up after the events happened.  The same thing could be said about a prophecy of Jesus.  It is reasonable to believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke were written around thirty years after the death of Jesus.  Yet in each of these gospels Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.  Liberal scholars either have to give a later date for the gospels or suggest that the prophecy was added to them after the events occurred.

The truth is that God has an exhaustive knowledge of the future.  Nothing in history will take him by surprise.  He knows the end from the beginning.  He knows what his people will face as we await the return of Christ and he has the power to keep his people faithful to the end.

2.  God is always on his throne

Forms verses nine to fourteen the attention is focused on Antiochus Epiphanes.  He moves throughout the world, including towards the 'beautiful land'.  This is a reference to the area around Palestine.  At the time of Antiochus God's people had returned from exile and were centred around Jerusalem.  

The little horn 'grew until it reached the host of the heavens, and it threw some of the starry host down to the earth and trampled on them' (10).  This is a reference to the fact that Antiochus killed thousands of God's people within just a few years.  The reference to the 'Prince of the host' (11) and the 'Prince of princes' (25) probably refer to God.  Antiochus set himself up as a divine figure.  Coins from his reign have his head with an inscription of deity on them.

There is something demonic about Antiochus's rise to power.  The end of verse twenty-two ascribes his rise to something other than his power.  Antiochus fiercely opposed God's people.  He banned circumcision, he stole the treasures from the temple in Jerusalem, he put an end to the sacrifices, he desecrated the temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar, he built a pagan alter over the alter for burnt offerings, he burned copies of the scriptures, he banned the law and slaughtered those who sought to remain faithful to God. 

So imagine you are a faithful follower of at the time of Antiochus.  You know that God has worked in the past.  Your history tells you of how God delivered your people from slavery in Egypt and gave them the promised land.  You know that when your forefathers rebelled that were taken into exile in Babylon.  You know that God had foretold how the Medo-Persian king, Cyrus, would conquer the Babylonians and send your people home from exile.  But now where is God?  Antiochus is killing thousands of your people.  People from your own family have been slaughtered.  Is God still on the throne?  Absolutely!

One of the lessons that we learn when we study history from the Bible's perspective is that evil people act with evil intent, doing what they want to do, and will face judgement for their actions.  Yet no one ever frustrates God's plans.  They unwittingly contribute to his purposes.  God is never absent from his throne.  This is most clearly seem when Jewish leaders plot to have a man called Jesus killed, when a crowd cry 'crucify him', when Roman soldiers nail him to a cross, and in all this God fulfils his plan for Christ to take the punishment of our sins.

Look at verse twelve.  'Because of rebellion, the Lord’s people and the daily sacrifice were given over to it (the little horn) ...'  God had allowed Antiochus to come to Jerusalem to discipline them for their repeated disobedience.  The primary thing we can learn from this is that God remained in control.  Chaos never rules.  There is a parallel between God's people of the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament.  When they strayed he disciplined them.  He was calling them to return to him.  Likewise he is committed to the welfare and health of the church.  In our own individual lives we take comfort from the knowledge that God disciples those he loves (Hebrews 12:5-6).

But don't assume that every trouble you face in life is God disciplining you for your sin.  After all it was those who were faithful to God who were persecuted most severely by Antiochus.  Surely some of these people had also been faithful before Antiochus turned up.  Jesus warned us that in this world we will have many troubles.  God is till on his throne.  God will keep his people to the end.  You may be considered a fool by your colleagues because you are a Christian; you may be mocked by those in your school because you love Jesus; you may be thought of as a self-righteous prude by your family because you follow Jesus' way of purity and love, all over the world many Christians are put to death by tyrannical regimes but God is always in control, no one thwarts his plans, he has the power to keep us faithful, and he will honour us eternally for ever sacrifice made for his glory.

Finally, God does not let tyrants rule for ever.  As predicted in this chapter Antiochus did not die by human hands.   The circumstances of his death are mysterious.  He died in 164 B.C. from a painful disease while returning from Persia.  Every evil empire comes to an end.  Sometimes the ruler faces a judgement in this life.  They always have to face the day of judgement to come.  There was a very definite time frame with regards to Antiochus's does creation of the temple -  two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings (either three and a half or a little over six years, depending on how you read it).  If we take it to be six years then it is the time from the assignation of the High Priest Onias in 170 B.C. until the Jewish freedom fighter Judas Maccabeus liberated Jerusalem and re-dedicated the temple in 164 B.C. 


I said at the beginning of this sermon that God did not give us this passage of Scripture so that we might speculate about events that will immediately preced the return of Jesus.

In Antiochus people have seen a foreshadow of the final anti-Christ who will oppose God and persecute his people.  In truth Antiochus is not just a foreshadowing of that final tyrant, he is a foreshadowing of all demonic regimes.  The term antichrist can be applied to all opposition to God and his people.  If you are resisting the rule of Christ in your life you too are on the side of the anti-christ.  You will share his judgement.  You need to repent and be embraced as one of Christ's people.

Remember that God has given us these verses of Scripture to teach all God's people that we can expect to face opposition and endure terrible times; that we are not to be surprised when evil looks like it is triumphing and remember that Heaven rules; and that God is committed to keeping his people faithful to the end.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The current and future reign of the Son of man (Daniel 7)

(I leaned heavily on a sermon from Saint John, Newlands, Hull in preparing this sermon).

So far in Daniel you might get the impression that God always delivers his faithful people from their present suffering.  Three men go into the fiery furnace and aren't even singed.  Daniel faces the lions and doesn't have a paw laid on him.  The message of this book might seem to be 'don't worry, nothing will hurt you.'  This chapter tells us otherwise.

History is filled with martyrs who laid down their lives for the faith.  One preacher suggests that the outrage we twenty-first century Western Christians feel when we hear of religious persecution elsewhere in our world, may partly be due, to our lack of historical perspective.  No one should have promised you that being a Christian is easy.  Jesus warned that in this world we will have troubles.

This chapter tells us of unseen realities behind the kingdoms of the earth and yet assures us that the violence and chaos is subject to the greater power of God.  The message of Daniel is not, 'don't worry, nothing will hurt you' but 'don't worry, God remains in control, and we have a future hope.'  As Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar in chapter four, 'heaven rules.'

1.  God's people will be opposed by beast-like kingdoms (1-8, 15-17)

The book of Daniel is set about six hundred years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem during a period known as the exile.  The exile had been a disaster for God's people.  Great swathes of them had been taken from their homeland by the Babylonians.  They are living in a foreign land under foreign rulers who worshiped foreign gods.  That might have called into question whether God really is in control and whether heaven does rule.  But then Daniel is given a glimpse of reality from God's perspective.

Daniel is asleep one night during first year of the reign of Belshazzar.  Belshazzar was the ruler we met in chapter five, the one who saw the writing on the wall.  Daniel had a dream and visions, and he wrote down the substance of what he saw.  “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea.  Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea" (2-3).

The four winds come from the four points on the compass.  The sea was thought to be the place of chaos and hostility towards God (which is why in the New Heaven and New Earth, in the book of Revelation, their is no sea).  The vision is fearful.  These beasts seem scary.  But what is this all this about?  We can see if we jump down to verse seventeen: 'The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth'.

Back in chapter two Nebuchadnezzar had a dream about four kingdoms represented by the different parts of a great statue.  Here, it seems, we have these same kingdoms.  So, the lion-like creature represents the Babylonians; this creature had its wings plucked off, picturing how king Nebuchadnezzar was humbled (in chapter four).  As we saw at the end of chapter five, the Babylonians were replaced by the Medo-Persians; this kingdom was ruled by two unequal countries, therefore the bear is raised up on one side.  The leopard, represents the Greeks; in particular Alexander the Great who was known for his speedy conquest of the known world at the age of thirty-two.  The fourth creature, which has been labelled 'Robo-beast' by one commentator, had 'large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left.  It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns' (7).  This seems to be the Roman Empire.

What about the 'little horn', in verse eight, who makes war against God's people and defeats them?  This refers to a Greek emperor called Antiochus Epiphanes who killed many of God's people in the second-century before Christ.

So Daniel is being shown that in the centuries leading up to the coming of Christ there would be kingdoms who would act in beast like ways.  Not everyone will be unharmed by the fiery furnace and see the mouths of the lions held shut.  These pictures could be applied to many other kingdoms; to the beast-like kingdoms of Hitler, or Stalin, Pol Pot or North Korea.  And such beast-like behaviour is not limited to totalitarian regimes.  It shouldn't shock us when the media give Christians unfavourable coverage, when laws are drafted that contradict what we believe to be holy and true, when family members dislike us for what we believe, and when those who are brave enough to stand for their faith in school and work are teased and bullied for what they believe.  There is a sense in which every Christian lives in a wicked and depraved generation.

2.  God will judge beast-like kingdoms (9-12, 19-26)

The picture changes dramatically in verse nine.  There had been aggression and fury, now there is calmness.  As we see that God will judge beast-like kingdoms.

“As I looked,
“thrones were set in place,
    and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
    the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
    and its wheels were all ablaze.
A river of fire was flowing,
    coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
    ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
    and the books were opened (9-10).

This is God, 'the Ancient of Days', who takes his seat.  The fact that he is called the Ancient of Days suggests that his reign, unlike that of the beasts, is not limited in time.  God in his brilliant piercing purity for he exercises his rule with integrity and justice.  The symbol of fire is regularly used as a sign of God's immediate presence in judgement and in mercy.  God sits as judge.  The little horn receives his judgement.   'Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking.  I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire' (11).  God does not tolerate these beast-like kingdoms for ever.  One day justice will be done and all opposition to God will be removed from the world.  Each of those four kingdoms was judged and brought to an end, God's judgement may break into history and an empire falls but ultimately we wait to the end of time when all will be judged.

This final day of justice is good news.  A tyrant dies peacefully in his palace at a great age.  It looks like he got away with his crimes against humanity.  But he will face a day of divine judgement.  We must be warned.  The Bible teaches that apart from Christ you are hostile to God, you resist his rule, and this day of judgement will be awful for you.  It also teaches that if we place our trust in the sin-bearing work on the cross and have him living within us then we have nothing to fear.  There is now no condemnation, nor will there ever be, for those who are in Christ Jesus; thanks be to God!

3.  God will establish his perfect king (9-14, 18-28)

God will judge these kingdoms, but he will also establish his perfect king.  'In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.  He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.  He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed' (13-14).

What a contrast to rulers who are beast-like.  In the creation account humankind is to rule with God's authority.  But we rebelled against God.  The kingdoms of the world descend into beast-like behaviour.  Now we see the Son of Man acting as God's perfect ruler.

But when is this rule established?  When is this perfect king crowned?  In the gospels the title Son of man seems to be Jesus' favourite title for describing himself.  Daniel looked forward to the time when the Son of man would approach God and be given his rule.  We look back at Jesus, birth, death and ascension to heaven to be crowned as God's perfect king.

In the book of Revelation, John on the island of Patmos has a vision in which he sees 'someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.  The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire (1:13-14).  Notice that even what was said of the Ancient of Days was ascribed to Jesus.   Jesus is now enthroned, he is with the Father, ruling from heaven.  Yet all people do not yet acknowledge that rule.  There is a 'now' and 'not yet' in the fulfilment of these verses.  Mark's Gospel tells us a future time when all people 'will see the Son of Man coming in clouds  ... with great power and glory.'

4.  God's people will share the perfect king's rule (26-28)

Finally, take note, God's people will share the perfect king's rule.  'But the court will sit, and (the little horn's) power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever.  Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High.  His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him' (26-27).  We will do what we were designed to do - to live perfectly under God's authority and to excuse rise his rule.

Life may be challenging in the present but a great future awaits us.  We live in the time between Jesus' ascension and his return.  The Son of man has been crowned but he has not yet returned in the clouds.  Understanding the 'now' and 'not yet' of Christ's kingdom is crucial if we are going to answer the call to be godly with contentment.  This world is not as good as it is going to get for us.  We still wait for the fulfilment of our future hope.  Jesus is king but his kingdom is not fully consummated.  We have been accepted into fellowship with him but we have not yet arrived home in the New Heaven and New Earth.  So stop demanding that this world be trouble free.  In the life we will face temptations, trials and discipline.  In this life we are subject to the reign of death.  In this life their will be opposition.  But chaos does not reign because Christ is on his throne.  And he will return, defeat all his foes, judge all in rebellion against him, bring an end to the suffering of his people, and allow us share his glory.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Daniel 6 'A man of integrity and prayer'

The Reverend John G. Paton was a pioneer missionary working in the New Hebrides Islands.  One night hostile natives surrounded the mission headquarters intent on burning his family out and killing them.  John and his wife prayed all during that terrifying night that God would deliver them.  When daylight came they were amazed to see that, unaccountably, the attackers had left.  They thanked God for delivering them.

A year later the chief of the tribe became a Christian.  Patton, remembering what had happened, asked the chief what had kept him and his men from burning down the house that night and killing them.

The chief replied in surprise, “Who were all those men you had with you there?”

The missionary answered, “There were no men there; just my wife and I.”
 The chief argued that they had seen men standing guard—hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords in their hands.  They seemed to circle the mission station so that the natives were afraid to attack.  Only then did Paton realise that God had sent his angels to protect them.   The chief agreed there was no other explanation.

This morning we are also looking at another dramatic story of an angel being used in protecting one of God's faithful people.  But it is not the angel that I want to place at the centre of our attention.

Daniel - a man of integrity and prayer

More than focusing on the angel I want us to consider this man Daniel.  We saw in the last chapter that the Babylonians were replaced by the Persians as the superpower of that day.  Daniel is now in his eighties.  We were introduced to him while he was in his late teens.  He has a lifetime of service under his belt but no intention of retiring.  Whatever age we are God has things that he has called us to do.

King Darius has made Daniel one of his three officials who oversee the satraps (regional governors).  He is so capable and diligent at this task that the king plans to give Daniel control over the whole kingdom.  This provokes the jealousy of his colleagues.  So they put together a plot to trap him.  Daniel may be loyal to the king but he has a greater loyalty to God.

So they go to the king and say, 'make a rule that anyone who prayers to any god other than you over the next thirty days will be fed to the lion.'  It seems a good idea to the king, after all it will have the effect of rallying his new subjects around him.  The king signs this injunction into irrevocable law.

Off hand I can't think of any situation in our country where obeying the law would conflict with obeying God.  Indeed, it is only in very rare situations where Christians are called to civil disobedience.  But i can think of many situations where standing for Christ will annoy you boss.  'Tell them I'm not in', 'don't run that transaction through the books'; 'talk the product up'.  Daniel cannot forgo his prayer life to obey Darius.

Indeed, look at Daniel's prayer life.  He prays three times a day on his knees facing Jerusalem.  This is not like the Muslim rule about praying three times a day facing Mecca.  There was no rule that stated that Daniel had to pray this way.  But Daniel was a man who developed healthy prayer habits.

I am not into rules for prayer.  At their worst made up rules make us self-righteous.  But prayer habits are healthy.  So why does Daniel pray three times a day?  He prays three times a day because that centres his day in prayer.  No doubt he brings the day before God as he begins the morning, looking ahead to what faces him and acknowledging his dependence on God.  No doubt he ends the day thanking God for his strength and seeking God's forgiveness for the ways in which he let God down.  He also remembers God in the middle of the day and focuses his mind in praise of God.

Why would be kneel as he prays?  There is no rule that says we have to adopt any posture for prayer.  But kneeling was what you did before a king.  God is our Father, we can call him Abba (like daddy), but he is also our king and worthy of reverence and awe.

Why does he face Jerusalem?  He faces Jerusalem because he knows that God will establish his messiah in Jerusalem.  Until that messiah comes God has not finished with that city.  The coming of that Messiah is his hope.  He prays to a God who is involved in history.  Likewise, as we pray, we must not forget the messiah Daniel looked forward to.  We approach God with confidence because of his cross, we have been invited to ask in his name, and we look forward to his return.

Jesus - a man of integrity and prayer

I want us to see Jesus when we read through the Old Testament.  One of the ways the Old Testament prepares us for Jesus is through the patterns set by the leaders and heroes that God gives.  When those leaders act in a godly way we are reminded that the messiah that is to come would be perfect.  But the Old Testament also shows God's leaders failing.  When we see them fail we realise that the perfect leader was yet to come.  Unlike many of God's Old Testament heroes we don't hear of Daniel's failings, but he was a flawed person like us all.

But Daniel does point to Christ in being a man of integrity and prayer.  Like Jesus he was willing to go against the flow.  Like Jesus he made his stand.  Like Jesus he was prepared to face death in order to honour God.  We read that Jesus had healthy prayer habits too.  Jesus knew the need of getting far from the maddening crowd to pray.  'Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed' (Mark 1:35).  It doesn't have to be in the morning, but find sometime when you can pray on your own.  Jesus also knew the importance of praying before important decisions and events - so we read of how he spent considerable prayer before choosing his disciples and before facing the cross.

But there is one other way that I believe that this passage points to Jesus and his mission.  Daniel is willing to face death out of loyalty to God.  So was Jesus.  But, unlike Jesus, Daniel did not have to die.  The angel closed the  mouths' of the lions.  As Daniel emerges from the lions' den the picture looks like a resurrection.  Jesus also emerged from the pit unharmed.  Daniel's resurrection led to people praising Daniel's God.  We praise the God of the risen Son.

“For he is the living God
    and he endures forever;
his kingdom will not be destroyed,
    his dominion will never end.
He rescues and he saves;
    he performs signs and wonders
    in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel
    from the power of the lions.”


Angels do play a role in the lives of God's people.  But we are not told of all the details of how they do this.  Which is just as well given our cultures preoccupation with angels (in the average bookshop you will find more about angels than about the living God)

Daniel is a worthy example to follow.  His prayer habits should inspire us to pray more.  His willingness to die points to the messiah he was waiting for.  That messiah, Jesus, is the one who delivers us from death.

This is a resurrection story.  Because of Jesus we will be raised to new life.  We are being saved from death.  We will emerge from the pit in resurrection bodies.  All this is for the praise of the Living God.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Daniel 5 'The writing on the wall'

1945.  The Russians are closing in on Berlin.  Hitler and Eva Brawn shoot themselves.  Goebbells's wife poisons her children and them commits suicide with her husband.  But many senior Nazis took a different option.  They partied.  They took their wives and mistresses, and simply drank and danced.  Until the Russians came and killed many of them.  That was a bit like the bizarre scene that we have portrayed for us in this chapter.

562 B.C.  The Persians are closing in on Babylon.  Belshazzar opts for the party option.  Along with his nobles, wives and concubines he starts to drink dance.  He must be hoping against hope that his soldiers can protect the city.  He has yet to face the terrifying reality.  It's the closing days of his empire.  We are looking at a story without hope.

1.  The waster, his women and his wine (1-4)

At the end of the last scene we heard King Nebuchadnezzar declares, 'and those who walk in pride he is able to humble' (4:37).  Both Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar are humbled.  In Nebuchadnezzar's case the humiliation leads to repentance and faith; in Belshazzar's case the humiliation comes with a final judgement.  You can either let God humble you now as he exposes your need of his forgiveness or you can hold on to your self-righteousness and be humiliated on the day of judgement.

Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as Belshazzar's father.  The word translated father can also be translated 'predecessor'.  Nebuchadnezzar was followed by Nabonidus.  Nabonidus was something of a religious nut who worshipped the moon god 'Sin'.  He had taken a leave of absence and left his son Belshazzar in charge of the empire.

In chapter one we saw that Nebuchadnezzar had taken sacred vessels from the temple in Jerusalem and placed them in the temple of his god.  Now Belshazzar takes these vessels as a novelty piece for his party.  The king, his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them.  'As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone' (4).  What a profane thing to do.  It causes God to act with sudden judgement.

As I thought about this sin I wondered how we might be guilty of similar profanity.  They desecrated vessels that were set apart as holy and we are in danger of desecrating a holy meal, a holy body and a holy people.

The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that their loveless attitude towards one another during the Lord's Supper meant that they were sinning against the body and blood of The Lord ... and drinking judgement upon themselves (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).  Therefore examine yourself before we share communion and don't partake if you are not letting God be God in every aspect of your life.  Don't desecrate the holy meal.

The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians about their holy body.  'Flee sexual immorality (which refers to all sex outside of marriage and all thoughts of sex outside of marriage).  All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his body.  Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you received from God?  You are not your own; you were brought at a price.  Therefore honour God with your body' (1 Corinthians 6:18-19).  Don't desecrate your holy body.

Finally, the apostle Paul talks of a holy people.  He warns the Ephesians: 'but among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these things are improper for God's holy people.  Nor should there be any obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.  For you can be sure:  No immoral, impure or greedy person - such a man is an idolator - has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.  Let no-one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient' (Ephesians 5:3-6).  On't desecrate a holy people.

Belshazzar took that which was holy, desecrated it, and brought upon himself the judgement of God.  Make sure that you do not do the same!

2.  The writing on the wall (5-30)

At Irish Preachers' Conference the speaker talked about reflecting the mood of a passage.  As I read this passage I find the mood to be terrifying.  I can't think of a more frightening image as that of the mysterious hand writing with its finger on the wall.  It causes Belshazzar to have the physical reactions of terror.  'His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way' (6).

Yet again we see the wise men of Babylon being called upon to give an interpretation.  Yet again they are baffled.  The king becomes even more terrified.

Then the queen - which is not a reference to Belshazzar's wife (as his wives and concubines are already at the party) but is perhaps his mum, granny or Nebuchadnezzar's wife - reminds him of Daniel.  Daniel was in his late eighties at this stage in the story.  Daniel refuses the offer of reward for his services.  But notice the mark of historical authenticity in the text: Belshazzar offers to make Daniel 'the third highest ruler of the kingdom' (16).

Why only third highest?  Third highest because Belshazzar himself is only second highest, remember he is only vice-regent for his father, Nabonidus.  Indeed, until the early twentieth century the historians did not believe that Belshazzar was king in Babylon at that time.  They only knew of Nabonidus.  Then documents were found that showed that Nabonidus had taken his leave of absence and left Belshazzar in charge.

Daniel reminds Belshazzar of what had taken place in the life of Nebuchadnezzar.  'But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this' (22).  There is a Biblical principle that teaches that the more opportunity you have to repent and the more knowledge you have received of God the greater your guilt if you refuse to turn to him.  Belshazzar knew the story of  Nebuchadnezzar.  He should have followed Nebuchadnezzar's example and turned to God.  Instead, he excelled in arrogance.  We live in a culture where anyone can gain access to a Bible.   We sit listening to the Bible in church.  How great our guilt will be if we continue to resist God despite all the opportunities he has given us to turn to him!

Notice the hostility Belteshazzar has shown towards God.  'You have set yourself up against The Lord of heaven' (23).  Notice that at the heart of sin is a failure to glorify God.  'You did not honour the God who holds in his hands your life and all your ways' (23).  The book of Romans teaches us that the sinful mind is hostile to God (8:7) and that all have fallen short and fall short of the glory of God (3:23).  How desperately we are in need of his mercy!  Unless we are repentant the judgement will fall on us as certainly as it did on Belshazzar.

The writing on the wall referred to three sets of measurement.  Daniel explained that this signified that God had numbered Belshazzar's days and was bringing his reign to an end; that God had weighed Belshazzar on the scales and found him wanting; and that his kingdom would be given to the Medes and the Persians.  Remember the statue in the dream of chapter 2?  We are moving from the head of gold to the chest of silver.

What a pathetic scene unfolds as the doomed king clothes Daniel in purple and makes him third highest ruler in Babylon.  For it does not matter and more.  That night Belshazzar's kingdom comes to an end and he is slain.


This scene is frightening.  It seems hopeless.  A condemned man stands in the shadow of judgement.  His body shows the physical effects of terror.  His life will soon be taken from him.  Yet Belshazzar's end need not be our end.  Because another man stood in the shadow of judgement and was condemned.

Think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He is a condemned man standing in the shadow of God's judgement.  His body shows the physical effects of terror as his sweet alls like drops of blood (Luke 22:44).  What terror he feels as he prays, 'Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will but your be done' (Luke 22:42).  He will soon experience not just physical pain but spiritual anguish as he cries from the cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Mark 15:34).

If you don't feel something of the seriousness of sin as you read this story then you have not engaged with the tone of this passage.  The writing is on the wall for all who refuse to repent.  There is a day of judgement when all who have kept Christ at a distance will weep and gnash their teeth.  If you are too proud to admit your dire need of God's mercy then you should be afraid.  If you are determined to keep Christ at a distance, and not let him be king over all your life, then the day of his return will be awful for you.

But there is a perfect love that drives out fear (1 John 4:18).  Remember Nebuchadnezzar?  Like Belshazzar he was a profane, vicious tyrant.  But God humbled him and as he cried out to the Most High he received grace.  If you have given up on self-righteousness and turned to God for mercy; if you have stopped resisting God's rule and are experiencing a life-transforming relationship with Christ, then can look forward to the day when all kingdoms but his are ended and he is seen in all his glory.  He says to us, 'dear child, be at peace, for there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.'

Yes, he have all been profane.  We have all acted with hostility towards God's rule.  We have all failed to take heed to God's call to repent.  We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  We all deserve Belshazzar's end.  But because Jesus faced the judgement in our place we the guilty ones can go free.  We can read a passage as frightening as this with no fear.  We can be assured of his perfect love that drives out fear (1 John 4:18).  We can have peace with God (Romans 5:1).  We can know that there is no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).  We can face that day when Christ returns and all earthly kingdoms are brought to an end with joyful anticipation rather than the dreadful prospect of eternal judgement.  

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The moral mess of the prosperity gospel

When I visit my parents I sometimes look through their television channels.  They have some that we don't get, including a load of 'Christian' channels.  I usually end up frustrated at the crass materialism of 'health and wealth' preachers.  Such theology surely flies in the face of the apostle Paul's warning about the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10).

In 'A Short History of Christianity' Stephen Tomkins reminds his readers of how Jimmy Swaggart uncovered Jim Bakker's liaison with a prostitute only to be later caught himself with a couple of prostitutes.  He also mentions the madness of Oral Roberts climbing up his glass spire and announcing that God would kill him if his flock did not give four and a half million dollars.  They gave.

The damage caused by prosperity teaching is not confined to those preachers who morally fail or embarrass themselves.  How many people have lost money giving to line the pockets of rich ministries?  How many have lost their faith because God failed to deliver on promises that he actually never made?

Friday, 21 February 2014

Coke ads

There is some controversy about Coca Cola ads at the moment.  This includes the fact that an ad which includes a gay wedding has that scene removed from its Irish version.  My frustration with Coca Cola is related to the fact that the image that they project is deceitful.  It irritated me when one ad said something like 'unconditional love; drink Coca Cola'.  The ad I am familiar with at the moment compares people acting kindly with those that are unkind; as if Coca Cola is a kind firm.

I am sure that Coke is not the only unethical company out there.  In fact I guess that most multinationals have questions to answer.  But I noticed that the Ethical Consumer website gave them a rating of 1.5 out of 20.  Unconditional love indeed.  I think I am going to have to cut back o. My Diet Cokes!

Check out the Ethical Consumer website.  I am not saying that agree with everything on it but it will keep you more informed.