Accommodation without compromise - Daniel 1

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 25th April 2010.

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To my mind one of the most heart rending scenes from the British Newsreels of World War 2 is that of child evacuees from London lining up at the railway station, with their little gas mask boxes slung over their shoulders, some clutching teddy bears, most crying as they waved goodbye to their weeping parents as they set off to who knows where out of reach of the German air raids. Automatically you put yourself in the shoes of those parents and imagine how you would have felt had it been your children you were having to say goodbye to. But try for a moment to think the unthinkable. Instead of some of those children being sent off to safe houses somewhere in the countryside, suppose they were being sent off to Nazi Germany. What is more, once they arrived in Germany they were going to be employed to work for the Nazi government. Wouldn’t that be a nightmare you would not wish to contemplate?

But you know, something like that happened to the children of Jews back in 605BC, - children like Daniel who was probably around 14 years old at the time. You see, for decades God had pleaded with his people to honour the covenant he had made with them; to believe and behave in ways that were to be exemplary to the nations. But instead of doing that they decided to be like the other nations in pursuing idolatry, greed, immorality and just plain godlessness. Eventually enough was enough and God raised up a new superpower, under a ruthless young king called Nebuchadnezzar to deal with them. For the Jewish nation it seemed as if their world was simply falling apart. And it is to that collapsing world that we are introduced in Daniel chapter 1(1-2): ‘In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.’

Those words would have gutted any Jew. Who had destroyed God’s Temple? Who had taken away the King and the social elite into captivity? At one level of course the answer was Nebuchadnezzar. After all it was his armies that had wreaked havoc in the land. But here is the shocking thing; at a far deeper and more significant level it was God who had done it-‘The Lord delivered Jehoiakim, King of Judah into his hand.’ God had orchestrated the whole nightmare would you believe? What is more, look at where the people had been taken captive to. The NIV says ‘Babylon’ but the footnote gives the literal rendering- it was ‘Shinar’- the same place as the Tower of Babel mentioned in Genesis 9. It was as if they had got caught up in a dreadful time-warp as they found themselves in a situation before all the promises had been made to their forefather Abraham, that from him a mighty nation would come, possessing the land of Canaan and through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. How can that be so now as the land is in the process of being depopulated? Crushed under the oppressive heel of the Babylonians they have no hope, because as history showed over and over again once a nation was taken over by another that was the end, they ceased to exist. And as we see from elsewhere in the Bible, especially Isaiah 40, many of the Jews came to the pessimistic conclusion there was no future. God either was not bothered to help or not able to help.

And you know there are not a few Christians around today who looking out upon our society are rapidly coming to the same conclusions. This land which was the land of the Reformers, the land of Bunyan, the land of Whitefield and Wesley, the land Wilberforce is now the land of one abortion every three minutes, the land of child abuse, the land of rampant consumerism, the land of outright unbelief and immorality in many of the major denominations, with them facing losses of over a thousand people leaving each week week. It is all too easy looking at the statistics to see ourselves as being in a kind of ‘exile’, stuck in a new spiritual Babylon surrounded by idolatries. In that kind of situation what attitude are we to take as God’s people? Are we to be optimists or pessimists? Well, neither. You see, pessimism is essentially atheistic and optimism is essentially naïve. The Book of Daniel enables us to be realists. It is the realism that God is still on his throne, that God is the one who ‘works all things to the good of those who love him’ and that, who while not abandoning his people who are dear to his heart, will nonetheless refine his people so that he can achieve his greater purposes of salvation in the world even bringing this the most pagan of Kings on his knees before him, as we shall see in a few weeks time. But none of these things would have happened had God not mixed his people in with the pagans- as he is doing with us today. Some of you I know have to work in less than ideal circumstances which grate with your Christian faith. Maybe you have to put up with foul language and profanity, which to be honest you could do without. Some of you are having to deal with children and grandchildren who are being pulled away by the world. Some of you are under pressure to compromises on standards of honesty and integrity at work. Some of you feel the pressure of ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ wanting more and more, bigger and better. We all have these pressures and many more besides. The question is how are we to handle them? That is one of the questions the Book of Daniel helps to answer. But undergirding all of these things is the unshakable belief that despite appearances to the contrary, God still rules and God still cares. We have seen how God’s hand was in bringing the Jews into captivity in verse 2, in the first place, but at the end in verse 21 we see that God is the one who preserves his people in captivity and eventually, against all odds, sets them free: ‘And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus’- that is, for some 70 years. So how do we engage in accommodating to where we live and work without compromising what we believe and how we behave? Let’s look at these four young men to find out.

First of all, when to face facts- v 3, ‘Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king's palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. 5The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king's table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king's service. 6Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hannaiah, Mishael and Azariah.’

In the second deportation which took place in 589 BC many of the Jews were placed in refugee camps strung along the Kebar River. But that was not the lot of Daniel and his young friends; they were in the heart of the pagan citadel, the King’s palace no less. Now you might think that was a better deal- good food, good surroundings, good prospects even. If so then you might want to think again. At least in the refugee camps you are with your own people, using your own language, and worshipping with your own religion. But in the King’s palace all of that was stripped away. Imagine: no parents, no guardians, no Jewish language, no cooperate worship- thousands of miles away from home. What is more, they are the subject of a re-education programme. Nebuchadnezzar was quite enlightened in many ways. Instead of just killing off the nobility of the conquered country, he assimilated them. So Daniel and his friends were being forced to imbibe Babylonian culture, history, geography, astrology and science in this little University that the King has set up. And at the end of it all they were to occupy high positions of power in government. Tactically this was a masterstroke because it meant that if anyone contemplated rebellion they would have to take into account the fact that they would be rebelling against some of their own people- people like Daniel.

But you say, ‘They didn’t have a choice anyhow’. Well, they did actually. They could have chosen the path of total refusal which may have meant death, but it was an option and, as we shall see in later chapters, that was a path they were willing to take in some circumstances. But total refusal is not always the only or best option if we are going to do God’s will and honour him where he has placed us. Sometimes as Christians we can come over as those awkward and cantankerous people who are for ever saying ‘no’. As a result we are not listened to because we are never asked, for people think they know what the answer will be anyway, namely, ‘no.’ Therefore, we need to be wise.

Secondly-when to say ‘yes’. Notice three times Daniel and his friends say ‘yes’ before they say ‘no.’

They said ‘yes’ to a pagan education. This would have been a mixed blessing. The Babylonians were not nincompoops, they had built the magnificent city of Babylon after all with its ‘hanging gardens’ one of the great wonders of the world. They had brilliant administrative strategies and skills; you had to in order to run an Empire as vast as this. Militarily they were second to none, so there was a lot you could learn from them- and it seems Daniel did just that. But there was also a down side- for this was a nation based upon an astral cult-they worshipped the stars and studied them- this was the cradle of astrology. This too would have been part of the national curriculum- the occult. And it seems they excelled in it all, gaining top marks-v 17. And here we touch on a debate which Christians are having today- how do we educate our children? There are those who say, ‘If we want to keep them Christians we must home school them or send them to a Christian school.’ That is the principle of segregation. On the other hand there are those who argue, ‘We want our children not only to be salt and light so others can be influenced and come to Christ but learn to be salt and light and the only way that will happen is if they mix with non-Christians and understand what the culture is saying so they can counter it instead of being mollycoddled, wrapped up in Christian cotton wool.’ This is the principle of integration. And there are strengths and weaknesses in both positions. But in making this important decision there are some things Christian parents might want to consider. It is primarily the task of the home and the church to educate children regarding their faith, not the school. It might be considered wise for them to be able to mix with non-Christians in order to demonstrate that faith and have it refined in the rough and tumble of every day life. What is more, there is much to learn from the non- Christian world, of course there is, but our job is for us and our children to view these things critically within a Biblical framework, which is one reason why we are here this morning. If we don’t learn to think and act christianly then why should we expect our children to? And one of the things we shall be discovering over the next few weeks is that Daniel knew his Bible and the God of the Bible which enabled him to be so influential.

In the second place Daniel and his friends said ‘yes’ to serving in a pagan civil service. They were being groomed for government, but not just any government- a pagan government and not just any pagan government but the government of Babylon which throughout the Bible was to become a synonym for godless rebellion. Here is something which may come as a surprise: God would rather have a pagan government than no government at all. The apostle Paul develops this theme in Romans 13 where even non- Christian, indeed, anti-Christian rulers, like Nero, are referred to as God’s ministers. Why? Because God is a God of order and not chaos. Worse than an oppressive regime is no regime at all. This does not mean that such governments are not accountable to God, and may need to be stood up to, they are, as we shall see next week, - but a Christian can never be on the side of anarchy for it is not good for people; and the follower of the one true God must seek the good of his neighbour. And if that means using the skills and resources God has given him or her to serve in the political sphere, they are to go for it and do their absolute best. Babylon is still ‘God’s Babylon’, a lesson Nebuchadnezzar was to learn the hard way. This society in which we live is still God’s society and we are to do all that we can to serve as good citizens in it. Could I ask at the basic level of prayer whether you pray for our leaders? You are meant to; Paul says so in 1 Timothy. If we don’t then can we complain when things start to unravel? Daniel did and so should we.

The third ‘yes’ was to a change of name-v7. So ‘Daniel’ which means ‘God has judged’ becomes Belteshazzar- ‘Keeper of the hidden treasures of Bel’ –a pagan deity; Hannaiah-‘Yahweh has been gracious’ becomes ‘Shadrach’- something to do with the chief god-Marduk; Mishael-‘Who is like God?’ is exchanged for ‘Meshach’- the ancient name of Venus which they worshipped; ‘Azariah’- ‘Yahweh has helped’ becomes ‘Abednego’ – ‘servant of Nebo’ another pagan deity. Names may not mean much to us but they meant an awful lot to people back then because they conveyed not only something key about their beliefs but something about their character. So imagine if you are a Christian with a Christian name being forced to change that in an Islamic state say, to ‘Mohammed’? Even that may not grate on you, but suppose you were forced to change your name to ‘Lucifer’. How would that feel? Well, that is how it would have felt for these youngster but a hundred times worse. But it seems they accepted it without a murmur. They felt they were able to put up with this without it compromising their faith. Maybe they reasoned; ‘After all, ‘what’s in a name?’- I don’t worship Nebo and everyone will be able to see that, so it is ironic that I am called Abednego- in fact it shows what a joke these pagan non-entities are, they have no hold on me. They may have my name but they don’t have my heart.’ I guess that the challenge for some of us is that while the idols of today don’t have our name we need to ask whether they do have our hearts- the idols of money making, career making, power grabbing, food, drink, fashion, entertainment, cars, gambling, sex and so on- anything which occupies an undue degree of our attention and so pushing God to the sidelines of our lives. Daniel had the name of a pagan God, but the heart of the true God. And as we look at ourselves we need to ask whether our lives- what we are really living for, matches up to our name- Christians- what we stand for.

But they did say no- ‘no’ to the Kings food-v 8- ‘But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.’ And we are forced to exclaim-‘Why? Daniel you are willing to swallow your pride in having a change of name, so why not swallow the food with a change of diet? What’s the big deal?’  There are two possible explanations for taking this stand and both are to do with making a symbolic gesture. First, Daniel may have considered the food unclean from a Jewish point of view. Perhaps they had been offered to idols before they were offered to the students in which case it was a ‘no no’. The food laws were given to Israel to enable them to be distinctive. Of course what really mattered was a distinct belief and behaviour, but symbols are helpful in providing boundary markers, so long as we don’t think the symbol is more important than the reality. What good is it to say, ‘I have been baptised’ and yet live no differently from the non-Christian man in the street?  But with Daniel, what he said matched what he believed and this was the line in the sand which he had drawn.

The second possibility is that the foods symbolised covenant loyalty to the king. So here it is what the food meant to the authorities that mattered. To eat the same food as the king at the kings table spoke volumes for it said, ‘This King comes first in my life.’ But Daniel could not say that, for the King who came first for him was the LORD. He and his friends were not going to be ‘secret believers’ but public believers. However, notice how they went about things. First, they show respect to those in authority-v8- they ‘asked the chief official permission not to defile themselves in this way.’ There was no question of being strident, demanding their rights. And sometimes Christian can do more damage than good by the way they take a stand- not in humility but in surly defiance which gets peoples’ backs up- but not Daniel. Secondly, they trusted in God’s sovereignty-which is a major theme of the book, for we are told in v9, ‘Now God had caused the official to show favor and sympathy to Daniel.’ If only we prayed more about things instead of worrying about things half of our anxieties would disappear. Thirdly, they were willing to trust God by taking a risk. They felt for the poor official, of course he was scared spitless because if these young boys didn’t come up to scratch it would literally be his head on the block for failing in his job. But Daniel in v12 simply said, ‘Try us out. Go ahead and compare us with the others.’ And what happened? V 15, ‘At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.’ Then v 17 ‘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.’ And look at v 20, ‘In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.’  Faith involves that you know- risk, otherwise it wouldn’t be faith. It is tested in the day- to- day affairs- the workplace, the home, society. The question facing us as it faced Daniel is this: How willing are we to be different and so prove God faithful? The writer Os Guinness puts it like this: ‘A living faith is better tested in crisis rather than creeds. Sometimes the way we act shows up our beliefs as little better than hazy notions of an unbeliever. One minute we are reciting the most orthodox creed and the next minute we are practicing a pathetic view of God which would not do credit to a pagan.’ You can’t accuse Daniel of doing that can you? Let me ask: why was Daniel and his friends able to stand as old men before the lions and the fiery furnace? It is because they took a stand as young men over something as apparently inconsequential as food. I don’t know what God has in mind for you or me in the future, but I do know that how we shall fare then will in some measure be dependent upon how we are faring now. And that starts with us getting to know the God of Daniel- the Lord of history and the Lord of men’s hearts. Let us pray.

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