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Head of Gold, Feet of Clay - Daniel 2

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 25th May 2003.

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Apparently the jury is no longer out, it has returned and delivered its verdict which is this: the religious mind is a diseased mind. Some are quite open about this. In fact the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins, a few years ago wrote an article in which he argued that religion was some sort of mental virus, a false belief which infects the mind like a virus infects the body. After all, the symptoms are so strikingly similar he said. People don’t adopt a religion after a careful weighing of the evidence, faith is ‘caught’ just like flu. It spreads from person to person like an infection, especially within families. For those who do convert, says Dawkins, the evangelist is an ‘infectious agent’ and revivals are nothing less than virtual epidemics.

Others are a little more subtle in portraying the religious person as the sick person. So the movie director and writer Martin Scorsese, several years ago updated the 1962 classical thriller , Cape Fear, with one significant change. He turned the crazed villain into a Bible- quoting, Pentecostal Christian, with a cross tattooed on his back. In a 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 us? You see, it was in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century that atheism began to flower. 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.’ That was the father of philosophical atheism, Friedrich Nietzsche- hardly the sign of a healthy mind is it? And a direct line can be traced from him 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.’ That was, of course, Adolf Hitler, not exactly the model of rationality. You see when God is dethroned then man becomes a god, at least in his own mind and that is hardly a healthy thought.

Contrast that to the mind of Bach who wrote all his music to the glory of God, or the genius of Rembrant 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?’ Militant atheism produces Auschwitz, militant Christianity produces the Sistine chapel.

And tonight we are going to be seeing what a difference belief and unbelief in the one true God makes in the lives of two individuals. One which is 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 shall see ourselves.

So do turn with me to Daniel chapter 2 and this amazing encounter between Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar.

First of all we have 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? This is the most powerful man on earth. Politically and militarily he is unassailable, his word is unquestionable and his will remains indisputable. So why such fuss over a dream? Just stop eating cheese before going to bed Neb!

But it is precisely because of who Nebuchadnezzar is that having such a dream is so significant. He is King in 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 sort 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.

And so Nebuchadnezzar calls in the mystic meg 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 honor. So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.' . Now why? 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 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 then.

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. You have 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 him. 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 Hussain 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 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 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, what he needed to hear. His fears needed confronting not comforting.

Now let’s just pause there for a moment. Here we are in the West at the beginning of the 21st century. 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 mastery over nature, 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 felt desperately unhappy or depressed in 2002, 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 and 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 one who saw himself as a god and the one who saw himself as a servant of God- Daniel. Let’s see whose behaviour is the more measured and wholesome.

First of all did you notice that Daniel was 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 was 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. 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, accommodating 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.

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 outworkings of the plans of the movers and shakers of this world, 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 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

When Heather and I went to Prague a few months ago we 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. 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, at most 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.

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.’ How later on when his opponents who were out to kill him he quoted Isaiah, ‘ The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this and it is marvellous in his eyes,’? God you see is building his empire, 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 then expect 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 he 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.’ Abrahams wins the 100 metres and in the midst of the thunderous applause there is a silent despondency within. Liddle wins the 300 metres, then packed his bags went off to China with the gold medal in its proper place and his heart at peace with God. You are here tonight, Let me ask: whose glory are you concerned with? Yours? Then expect to feel like Nebuchadnezzar. Christ’s? Then serve him like Daniel.


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