Thursday, 6 February 2014
Daniel 1 'Dare to be a Daniel'
Sometimes we have to take a stand. We live in a society where the cultural tide flows against Christian thinking. This is going to become very evident in the next year as we run up to the referendum on same-sex marriage. We are called not to avoid the debate. We need to speak with compassion and clarity. Compassion, and deep love, towards those who experience same-sex attraction and yet remaining true to what the Bible has made clear about the nature of marriage. But the pressure Christians face is not simply limited to the issues surrounding sex and marriage.
All cultures have many weaknesses and there are many ways in which we must take a stand. Dorothy Sayers was an English novelist who observed that the Irish are not good at forgiveness and don't let go of grudges (perhaps this is most clearly seen in our attitude towards the English). So we take a stand by being gracious people in a culture of resentment. I heard of a woman whose culture told her that it is okay to be deceitful in your asylum application but the Spirit of truth told her otherwise. So she took a stand and wrote a letter to the Department of Justice confessing her dishonesty.
How do we take a stand and remain faithful in an unChristian society? I am glad you asked! That is exactly what we learn to do in the first chapter of Daniel.
Despite how things look God remains in control (1-2)
God's people had made a great mess of things. He had given them the promised land on the condition that they remained faithful to him. But they were incapable of faithfulness. They practiced all sorts of evil. So God divided the kingdom in two. Eventually allowing the northern kingdom (called Israel) to be conquered by the Assyrians, and later the southern kingdom (called Judah) to be conquered by the Babylonians. The conquest to the southern kingdom provides the background to the book of Daniel.
'In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar (the vigorous young) king of (the newly powerful) Babylon came to Jerusalem (the capital of Judah) and besieged it.' It's 605 B.C. At this stage there probably was no major devastation of the city. It was the beginning of a tumultuous eighteen years that would end with the destruction of the city and its temple, and the deportation of many of its people.
The worst thing about these events is that it looks like God has been defeated. We read, in verse 2, that vessels are taken from the temple and placed in the house of Nebuchadnezzar's god. Are the Babylonian gods greater than our God? Has our God lost control? Has he fallen off his throne? Not at all! Look carefully at what is written. It is God who gave Jehoiakim into Nebuchadnezzar's hands. This is a theme that runs through the book of Daniel; all power is ultimately subject to God's power. Things are not always as they seem. The living God is always on his throne.
This is true in our day too. The increasing number of new-atheists may mock God but one day they will have to acknowledge him. We may look at the state of our world and ask, 'where is God?' But don't worry, he is watching over the rise and fall of superpowers, he remains in control of history, and he is also establishing an eternal kingdom that is not of this world.
Be willing to make a stand (3-8)
Nebuchadnezzar takes some of the aristocracy from Jerusalem to Babylon. He is targeting the future leaders and he wants to indoctrinate them in Babylonian beliefs. Those taken into exile were well-educated, young, wise and good looking (I guess some of us would have had nothing to fear).
It strikes me how different God is to Nebuchadnezzar. In the first chapter of first Corinthians the apostle Paul tells us that God delights to choose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, the weak things of the world to shame the strong, the people that are considered nothing to shame the people who are something. This is why so few Christians are wise by earthly standards or powerful or of noble birth.
In verses 6-7 we are introduced to four heroes of the faith. Daniel ('God is my judge'), Hananiah ('Yahweh is gracious'), Mishael ('Who is what God is?') and Azariah ('Yahweh is a helper'). The chief official gave them new names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego (7). These new names invoke the help of the Babylonian gods Marduk, Bel and Nebo).
Now Daniel, who is still in his teens, makes a stand for his faith. He is willing to undergo the Babylonian education, for it will not shake his belief in the truth. He is even willing to be called by his new name, because he knows that what matters is not what you are called but what is in your heart. But he will not eat and drink the meat and wine from the king's table. What was it about this issue that made him draw the line? It can't be anything to do with the meat and wine themselves for later he explains, 'I ate no choice food, no meat or wine touched my lips ... Until the three weeks were over' (10:3). In other words he ate the food after he had made his point.
I think the point that he wanted to make is that he would not be entirely dependant upon King Nebuchadnezzar for his survival. With their restricted diet Daniel and his friends remind themselves they were God's people in a foreign land. 'Look you can remove me from my home, you can teach from your culture, you can even change my name; but you cannot change my heart. And to show it I'm drawing the line here. I will not eat the king's food. My allegiance is to God.'
When was the last time you made a stand for your faith?
One girl working in a office decided she would not play the office lottery. Now you mightn't have a problem with the lottery but it went against her conscience. When asked why she refused to join in she explained that she was a Christian and didn't believe in gambling.
An email went around an office in Hull asking for contributions to a Christmas card. The only problem was the rules. The email explained that the card could not express any religious opinions in case it offended people of other beliefs. So a number of Christians replied that they could not go along with the card idea because they believed Christmas is about Christ. You might feel they were being pedantic but at least they had the courage to make a stand.
It can be difficult even to tell people that you are born again. As a follower of Jesus there will be many times when you have to swim against the crowd. Dare to be a Daniel. Be willing to make a stand for your faith. Let your allegiance to Christ be obvious.
God will enable us to remain faithful (9-21)
Notice how faithful God is to Daniel and his friends as they make their stand. 'Now God had caused the official to show favour and compassion to Daniel' (9). 'At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food' (15). 'To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds' (17). At the beginning of the chapter these four men were taken as captives into exile, by the end of this chapter they are exalted to the personal service of King Nebuchadnezzar. 'And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus'; in other words Daniel was enabled to remain faithful to God from his teens to his eighties.
Daniel and his friends prospered as they made their stand. God gave them all they needed to be faithful to him. This isn't just a story about four men who remained faithful to God but of the God who was faithful to his people. I believe that he wants us to prosper too. I am not saying that he plans for all his people to be wealthy, after all his word warns about the dangers of loving money. He wants our souls to prosper. He wants us to be ever growing in faith. Few things cause us to grow like standing for him and finding him to be faithful.
Kingdoms come and kingdoms go. At the start of this book the Babylonians are the superpower. Before them the Assyrians were the superpower. After them the Persians will be the superpower. Daniel will have a vision of further superpowers that will flourish but in time fade in the pages of history. This book teaches we that all these kingdoms are subject to the rule of our God. History is not always as it seems.
There is one kingdom that will last for ever. Its leader is called King of kings and Lord of lords. It's a kingdom that is characterised by now and not yet. King Jesus has been installed but we await the day when he is recognised by all. He has been enthroned but we look forward to the day when his glory is fully revealed. In the meantime his subjects feel like we are living in exile in a hostile society. As we noted at the beginning if this sermon, there are plenty of times when it is uncomfortable to stand for Jesus in our culture and plenty of influences demanding that we conform. But our king is with us. He promised that he would never leave us. He says that we will be given the words to say when earthy powers pressure us. He enables us to stand firm. He will not let us be tested beyond what we can bare. He is faithful.
King of kings, majesty,
God of Heaven living in me,
gentle Saviour, closest friend,
strong deliverer, beginning and end,
all within me falls at your throne.