Sunday, September 01, 2013

Sermon: Daniel 1: 1-21 Dare to be a Daniel

When we started at university, my friend David came to lunch looking very flustered one day. We had gone to school together, and now university, doing the same course. In first year, though, you could take your pick, so in the first week, I toddled off to Sociology while David went to his first class in Theology. Waiting outside the lecture room, he got some odd stares; looking around he wondered why everyone else seemed to be female mature students... until he went into the room, the lecture started, and it was then he realised he was in Third Year Nursing - he was in the wrong place, he didn’t fit in!

As time goes on, we’re finding ourself out of place, not quite fitting in to the culture around us, like a fish out of water. It doesn’t feel right. If this was once a Christian country, it is not any longer. The culture is changing, and not for the better. Laws are changing, marriage is being redefined, and to disagree is to bring derision.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus promised us persecution. And if you remember back to before the summer, it was the message of Peter in his first letter. We aren’t the first generation of God’s people to face such hardship. In order to help us, God has given us a case study - a real life example of people living in such a situation - and it’s found in the book that we’re starting today: Daniel.

The opening seven verses are all doom and gloom. As some of you might know, I have an interest in photography. After taking the digital photos, you can tweak them with photo editing programmes on the computer. A photo can start off all colours, but then you move a button, and the colour drains away. What was once vibrant is now stark, greys or even black and white. It’s as if the button is being used as you read through these verses.

Jehoiakim is king of Judah, reigning in Jerusalem. He’s been king for 3 years when Nebuchadnezzar besieges the city. He captures the king, as well as some of the holy vessels used in the temple. He and they are carried off to Babylon - a journey of 500 miles on foot. As if that weren’t enough, some of the young men from the royal family and the nobility are also taken.

We’re told about four of these young men. They’re far from home. They’re forced into school to learn the literature and language of the Chaldeans, to re-educate them, make them forget about home and instead learn all about their new country. They’re being prepared to work for the king in the civil service. And in a final move, they’re given new names.

In the Bible, names are important. They each have a meaning - they mark out the person’s identity, who they really are. Now if you look at verse 6, you find their names. Do you see the endings of the names? They either have an ‘el’ or a ‘iah’. Both of these are names of the Lord God - el as in ‘El Shaddai’ and iah as in ‘Yahweh’ (or ‘Hallelujah’ - Praise the Lord). It’s a bit like ‘Christopher’ these days. But these names are changed to have Babylonian gods’ names. Daniel (God is my judge) becomes Belteshazzar (Bel’s prince); Hananiah (the Lord is gracious) is now Shadrach (illumined by the sun-god Shamash). Mishael (who is like God?) becomes Meshach (who is Ishtar?); Azariah (the Lord is my help) finds himself Abednego (the slave of Nabu). Just imagine if a Christopher (Christ-bearer) was renamed Muhammed...

Put yourself in their shoes. They might ask: What is God doing? Why are we in this situation? Doesn’t God care? But then they also ask what does God want me to do in this situation?

So let’s look at the first question: What is God doing? Jerusalem has been attacked, God’s king and God’s temple cups taken away. God had promised that he would send his promised king through this line and this city. But now there’s no king, and the city will soon fall. Is God powerless? Growing up, we used to play top trumps. You had a pack of cards each with, say, cars on them. Each card had its stats, and you tried to beat your opponent’s on what you thought was best. So, for example, a Ferrari F12 might have 730 horsepower, and it would beat an Austin Metro with 48hp.

So is there a heavenly game of top trumps going on? Are the gods of Babylon (these of the renamed Israelites) better and stronger than the God of Israel? Look with me again at verse 2. ‘The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power.’ However it looks on the surface, the writer reminds us that the Lord has allowed Babylon to win.

Other versions use the word ‘gave’. It’s a word that is repeated in the chapter (although not in the NRSV) - the Lord gave the king into Neb’s hands (2); gave Daniel favour and compassion in the sight of the palace master (9); gave knowledge and skill to the four young men (17). The Lord is in control, even when it looks like he’s not. God is sovereign - not just sometimes, but all of the time. It can be hard to know that or believe that at times. But even on the darkest day of history, when the promised king had finally come, the one who seemed to have the crowds with him, the one to win a great victory, as he died on the cross, seemingly forsaken and abandoned. Even on that day, God was in control, working all things for his purpose. It’s the reason we can meet around his table today, remembering his death and celebrating his risen life, waiting for his kingdom.

God is in control. It’s a truth that Daniel reminds us of - something these four guys needed to remember - and something we need to know day by day in a hostile culture; in life’s circumstances; when things don’t turn out how we had thought or planned or hoped. God is still in control. When we know this, it raises another question - how should I live? What does God want me to do?

When the flood comes, do you go with the flow? It’s so much easier to let the river carry you along. It’s harder to swim against the tide, to go against the flow, to take a stand. But that’s what Daniel does here. Verse 9. ‘But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.’ He wants to stay pure, to not eat the king’s food. It may have been sacrificed to those false gods. So he takes a stand. He says NO.

Think of the pressure he must have been under. There were lots of other young men from Judah. They seem to have eaten the food and said nothing. But Daniel and the other three refuse. “But everyone’s doing it. Come on ahead. Don’t be a stick in the mud.” Daniel had resolved, had made a firm commitment to refuse.

Where are the situations where you find yourself under pressure to go with the flow? At work, where everyone leaves early or fiddles expenses? Among friends, where juicy gossip is shared?

Daniel and friends eat their vegetarian diet for ten days and are found to be better and fatter than the other young men (so fatter must be a good thing!). God is in control, honouring those who honour him, giving them knowledge and skill. What a turn around. The chapter began with defeat - now God has placed his men close to the king, in the king’s court. What is it that you’re going through today? In what way do you need to know that God is sovereign, in control? And knowing that, how will you stand for him?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st September 2013.

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