Dream big - Daniel 2
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
It has long been the practice to portray the religious person as the sick person and in fact to go further so that the more religious you are the more crazed you are seen to be. So several years ago now the movie director Martin Scorsese, updated the 1962 classical thriller, Cape Fear, with one significant change. He turned the psychotic villain into a Bible- quoting, Pentecostal Christian, with a cross tattooed on his back. In one scene where he attempts to rape a woman he shouts, ‘Do you want to be born again?’ You can’t mistake the message can you? People who believe the Bible are deranged, even dangerous. After all it was Freud who described religion as neurosis.
But is that really where the evidence leads? You see, it was in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century that atheism began to flower in the West. Tell me: how would you describe the mind of someone who in his autobiography had chapter headings like these: ‘Why I am so intelligent.’; ‘Why I write such good books’; ‘Why I am Fate.’ Those words were written by the father of philosophical atheism, Friedrich Nietzsche. Saying those sorts of things is hardly the sign of a healthy mind is it? And a direct line can be traced from Nietzsche to the person who wrote these words: ‘I freed Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience and morality…. We will train young people before whom the world will tremble. I want young people capable of violence- imperious, ruthless and cruel.’ Do you know what said that? It was, of course, Adolf Hitler, not exactly the model of a balanced mind. You see when God is dethroned then man becomes a god, at least in his own mind and that is hardly a healthy thought, in fact it is a most dangerous thought because it leads to dangerous deeds.
But contrast all of that to the mind of Bach who wrote all his music to the glory of God, or the genius of Rembrandt whose paintings reflected his profound reverence for God, or the writings of CS Lewis whose stories are still able to touch millions today and then ask, ‘Who has the diseased mind?’ After all, it is militant atheism which produces Auschwitz, whereas it is militant Christianity which produces the Sistine chapel.
Well, this morning we are going to see what a difference belief and unbelief in the one true God makes in the lives of two individuals. One has a mind devoid of God, the other a mind drenched in God. One is a tyrant ,the other a servant, and in one or the other of these two men we see a reflection of ourselves.
So do turn with me to Daniel chapter 2 and this amazing encounter between Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar.
The first thing that strikes us is that we are confronted with a troubled tyrant -v 1. ‘In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep.’ Now why on earth should Nebuchadnezzar of all people be troubled by a reoccurring dream? After all this is the most powerful man on earth. Politically and militarily he is unassailable, his word is unquestionable and his will indisputable. So why such fuss over a dream?
Well, it is precisely because of who Nebuchadnezzar is that having such a dream was so significant. He is King of Babylon, and the kings were thought to be channels of the divine, the means whereby the gods communicated to the people. And the favoured means whereby such celestial texting took place was through dreams. The problem was: how could such dreams be interpreted? Well, the Babylonians were prepared for such contingencies for over the years they had built up a whole reference library which contained books packed with the sorts of symbols which tended to be thrown up in dreams and with these you had their attendant interpretations. So if you had a dream with a green monster on the rampage, you would get out the directory and look up the dream under the heading- ‘Monster- green’ and see what it says. Here are a few such interpretations discovered by archaeology: ‘If a man laughs in a dream he will become sick; If a man repeatedly flies, whatever he owns will become lost; If someone gives him an empty cup, the poor man will become poorer.
And so desperate to know what is in store for him by the gods, Nebuchadnezzar calls in the crystal ball brigade in v3 and asks for an interpretation. ‘Fair enough’, they say, ‘tell us the dream and we will tell you what it means.’ But then comes the sting in the tail-vv 5- 6 The king replied to the astrologers, "This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble. But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive from me gifts and rewards and great honour. So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.” The astrologers are understandably thrown into a tizzy by such a demand. To read off the meaning of a dream is one thing, to read someone’s mind in order to find out what the dream was, is another thing altogether. And just to make sure they get on the case and give it their full and undivided attention the King says something which you will not find in any manual on people management, they and their families will be butchered if they fail or rewarded if they succeed- bullying and bribery.
What’s his problem? They are quite right when in v 11 they say, ‘What the King asks is too difficult’, impossible might be a more accurate way of describing it. Well, we are actually given a clue as to what is really going in the King’s mind in v 9 If you do not tell me the dream, there is just one penalty for you. You have conspired to tell me misleading and wicked things, hoping the situation will change. Have you seen the graffiti- ‘Just because you aren’t paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you.’? That could have been written by Nebuchadnezzar. Everybody is suspect, his most trusted advisors- they must be out to get him! And such paranoia is typical of despots like Nebuchadnezzar-no one is safe. After all, Saddam Hussein butchered members of his own family. And you can see why such brutality breeds insecurity, for if they have trampled over dead bodies to reach the top, why shouldn’t the victimiser one day become the victim?
But it may have been the dream itself which both fed and reflected his paranoid fantasies. Maybe he didn’t really need an interpreter to grasp the main thrust of what was coming over to him loud and clear, for deep down he knew the answer- he just wanted it confirming. This is a dream which embodies the repressed fears of a powerful man haunted by morbid premonitions of the collapse of his empire. According to psychiatrists dreams of falling are common amongst those given to delusions of grandeur, as Nebuchadnezzar clearly was. Though outwardly he was at ease in his royal fortress, during the hours of darkness the secret fears of his subconscious mind began taking shape in the surrealist symbols of his nightmares which were beginning to reduce him to a quivering wreck. He had been the colossus, for as in former modern day Iraq, which is ancient Babylon; these despots too had giant statues made in their image, as shall see in the next chapter. So, little wonder the King’s stable existence began to feel unsettled. And for once in his life, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t want to be surrounded by ‘yes’ men, giving the interpretation they thought he would like to hear, he wanted the truth. His fears needed confronting not comforting.
Now let’s just pause there for a moment and think about our society. Materially we have things in our houses that not even Solomon would have dreamt of. Our technology alone is simply awesome, we are able to map every single part of the human DNA molecule; with high speed computers we are able to make those most remarkable predictions about our future environment. And yet for all our supposed mastery over nature- (although recent events involving volcanoes in Iceland may put a big question mark against that idea), we feel so out of control. CTV was the stuff of fictionalised dictatorial states, it is now the very stuff of our every day lives, underscoring how scared and insecure we have become. The National health bill for tranquillisers and the like runs into thousands of millions of pounds. 50% of Britons feel desperately unhappy or depressed, with 8 out of ten people making a major lifestyle change in order to make them feel happier. And now 100 teenagers a month are asking how they can become witches according to the Pagan Federation which represents Britain’s estimated 100,000 witches. Indeed in the Harper Collins’ Young Witches Handbook you will find a spell on how to deal with bullies. Don’t those things tell us that something is wrong? Say ‘goodbye’ to God, try to gain control yourself, and like Nebuchadnezzar and many in our own society you soon begin to unravel. You see, Nebuchadnezzar’s problem is really our problem when living without God, it is the problem of living the lie-that I and I alone am King.
And the only antidote to fantasy is a good dose of reality, hence a challenging truth vv 14-45. What a contrast between the behaviour of the one who saw himself as a god and the one who saw himself as a servant of God- Daniel. So let’s see whose behaviour is the more measured and wholesome.
First of all did you notice that Daniel is tactful- v14? He doesn’t overreact when Arioch gives him the news of their impending demise. He courteously asks what is happening and respectfully approaches the King to ask for time. His confidence in God doesn’t make him complacent -’whatever will be will be’- it makes him active. Secondly, Daniel is prayerful- v18. He calls his friends together, not to form a committee to look into the problem, but to form a prayer group to ask God to solve the problem. In the third place Daniel is thankful- vv 20-23. This is a man who has a grip on reality because he, unlike the King, is in touch with the ultimate reality-God. And what a God, "Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him. I thank and praise you, O God of my fathers: You have given me wisdom and power, you have made known to me what we asked of you, you have made known to us the dream of the king." This is the all knowing, all powerful, all prayer hearing God. Could I ask: is that your God? As we look at the increasing descent of our culture into paganism, the challenges which simply leave politicians feeling helpless and hopeless-to where are we going to turn? More plans, new initiatives, compromising the Christian message perhaps to make it more acceptable? That is what we are tempted to do. Well, following Daniel’s example wouldn’t be a bad thing would it? We turn to the same God in prayer and plead for.... mercy for that is what our country desperately needs.
So what is the truth which the dream contains and which Daniel explains? Well look at it. We have a giant statue which is a mixture of great glory and crazy instability, full of inner contradictions being made partly of costly and useful materials and partly of stupid and impossible pottery. And then in v 34 a rock appears which is not quarried by mere men, only to smash the feet of clay resulting in the frightening collapse of the whole edifice. Then everything is reduced to dust and blown away by the wind- but not the rock, this takes on a life of its own, expanding and expanding until it fills the whole horizon like a mountainscape.
And that is when Nebuchadnezzar is given a salutary lesson in the theology of history which is this: history is not the result of a series of random events or even primarily the outworking of the plans of the movers and shakers of this world- the politicians, it is the arena in which the God of heaven works out his plans for the good of his people and the glory of his name- vv 36-45.
Empires come and go at God’s bidding- he is the King behind all other Kings. After the Babylonian empire came the Medo- Persian empire, then the Greek empire, then the Roman empire. And since then there have been other empires, the British Empire, the German Reich, the Soviet Empire, and although they may not like the term as such, the American Empire- and all come and go, just like this one, as ordained by God. But the real focus of the dream is not the statue which is so impressive, nor the empires which appear so formidable; it is the rock-44.:"In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever
A few years ago my wife and I visited Prague and saw a most impressive sight. It was the royal palace located on a hill overlooking the Volta. You could drop Buckingham Palace in the centre of this and lose it. In the palace complex is a cathedral which alone is awe inspiring in its size and beauty. But not too far away from this there used to be a giant statue of Joseph Stalin. I gather that was an awesome sight too. When he fell from grace in the mid fifties the statue was blown up- into pieces of dust. Now I am quite sure that if there had been a piece of rock a metre or so in length lying around the palace complex or next to that statue of Stalin had it still been there, I wouldn’t have given it a second glance. It would have seemed an irrelevance, an oddity. That is the picture here. That which is of no consequence, an anomaly, a piece of rock that you might find lying around in a builders yard - that is the thing to watch out for, for that is what God is going to use to bring kingdoms down and which will grow into a kingdom which will last for ever. So what does this rock stand for? What is it really?
Do you remember what Jesus said to Peter after he had confessed him to be the King, the Son of the living God? ‘On this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.’ Do you remember how after he told the parable of the vineyard against his opponents who were out to kill him, he quoted Psalm 118 and then actually alludes to this chapter here- Daniel 2, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’ Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed’ (Luke 20:17-18). God you see is building his empire through is King Jesus, but it is an empire of love and service, not tyranny and self. The beginnings were so inauspicious and unpromising- a Jewish carpenter bleeding on a tree, butchered by a regime in every way as merciless as that of Nebuchadnezzar, an empire of iron- v 40. And no matter how many attempts are made to stamp out this kingdom which has no territorial boundaries or racial distinctions, they will all fail. Do you know, if you are a Christian you actually have a future which even death can’t snatch away from you? You are working for something which time will not wear away or ruin- you are working for the kingdom of God. And that is the only thing worth working for-bringing everything under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. You see, the false idols which we so readily give ourselves over to eventually collapse; that is why we feel insecure. The career, the family, even our bodies and good looks. I am not saying these are unimportant but they have only a relative importance. God’s purposes however, the purposes of saving people from hell and for a love relationship with him for ever in which all these other things become enriched, that is of absolute and eternal importance. Daniel knew that.
And as the word of God is proclaimed by the man of God we are in for an unexpected twist- v47 The king said to Daniel, "Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.". Reality has broken in at last.
The film Chariots of Fire is also an interesting comparison of two men. Set in France and the 1924 Olympics, there is Harold Abrahams running for personal glory, and Eric Liddle running for God’s glory. Just before the Olympic race Abrahams confesses to a friend ‘ You know, I used to be afraid to lose, but now I am afraid to win. I have ten seconds in which to prove the reason for my existence, and even then I am not sure I will.’ That is how most personal glory is sought, but when it arrives it leaves us empty- and- insecure.
By contrast at one point in the film Eric Liddle is reprimanded by his sister for trying too hard in his effort to win the gold medal and so neglecting things of greater importance which for her is missionary work. His answer reveals how all of life is connected for him: ‘Jenny’ he says, ‘God has made me for a purpose-for China. But he has also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.’ And as Abrahams wins the 100 metres, in the midst of the thunderous applause there is a silent despondency within. But when Liddle wins the 300 metres, he packs his bags and off he goes to China with the gold medal in its proper place and his heart at peace with God. You are here this morning, Let me ask: whose glory are you concerned with? Is it yours? Then expect to feel like Nebuchadnezzar- empty and insecure. Is it Christ’s? Then serve him like Daniel.
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