September 13, 2020
Daniel 1:1-7 (NRSV)
1 In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar,[a] and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods. 3 Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. 6 Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. 7 The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.
This morning, we’re kicking off the fall season with a new sermon series on the Old Testament book of Daniel. It’s a book that is in many ways familiar, yet also somewhat mysterious. There are the familiar stories like the one that just about every kid learns in Sunday school, that is, the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den, or the somewhat lesser known tale of the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Or how about this, you know that phrase we use, when we say “the writing’s on the wall?” Well, that too comes from Daniel when in chapter 5 we read about how all of a sudden there literally was writing on the wall.
And yet, though it may be somewhat familiar, it’s also admittedly a bit mysterious, maybe even intimidating. It’s filled with tons of seemingly impossible to pronounce names, unbelievable miracles, tyrannical kings, and even more, half the book contains what’s known as apocalyptic literature, which means it’s filled with crazy dreams, odd visions, with symbols and images that might have you wondering if you accidently picked up a science fiction novel. And so if you’re unfamiliar with it, or if you’ve never really given it an honest read before, well, you’re probably not alone.
And yet in midst of all of that, in midst of both the familiar and unfamiliar, both the mundane and the mysterious, I’m confident this book will be a great encouragement to us, as it both challenges and comforts us, largely because you and I have more in common with this book than we might initially think.
And that’s because the book of Daniel is in many ways about what it looks like for God’s people to live faithfully as strangers in a world that feels far from home. Or to use the language that the bible uses, the book of Daniel is in many ways what it looks like for God’s people to live faithfully in midst of exile.
The book of Daniel begins with what is essentially the lowest of low points for God’s people. Here again is how the book starts off -
1 In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.
You see, for hundreds of years leading up to this point, God’s people, were living large in Jerusalem, things were going relatively well, they had kings, they had land, they were thriving. But then, for a variety of reasons, King Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the greatest earthly power at that time, declared war on God’s people. They were captured, their kings dethroned, families uprooted, their temple destroyed, and they were sent to live as exiles in a foreign land, under a foreign power, Babylon.
Now, I want to be careful with the connection I’m drawing here because it should go without saying that surely our situation is not quite like theirs. After all, to be clear, we’ve haven’t been captured by a foreign power, forced to live in a foreign land, or anything anywhere near that severe.
But yet, just like Daniel and his friends and the rest of the Israelites, we too, here in 2020, find ourselves living in exile to some extent, as we currently live in a world that is often indifferent, or even at times, hostile to Christianity.
Throughout the last century, we as Christians, at least here in America, have moved into greater and greater minority status. And in fact the fastest growing religious affiliation is unaffiliated, that is to say, no religious affiliation at all. Fewer and fewer people attend church, fewer and fewer people grow up in Christian homes, and fewer and fewer people hold to what have historically been seen as core Christian beliefs.
After all, think about the people right around you – your neighbors, your co-workers, other parents you watch sports games with or people you see at the grocery store – chances are, many of them are indifferent to Christianity in general, and if you were share with them your plans to go to church this weekend, while they may respect it, they also may not understand why you would choose to do so.
In so many ways, we today, here in Dillon and beyond, we as Christians are the minority, living in a form of exile, outsiders, strangers living in foreign world that doesn’t really understand us.
And even more, sometimes people are actively opposed to us, hostile towards us, often due to what are perceived to be rigid and outdated beliefs. We’re even seeing instances of this here lately when it comes to the area of religious freedom and regulations and restrictions regarding the coronavirus. In fact, you may have heard of how months ago, the state of Nevada was in the news for allowing people to gamble inside their casinos yet not gather inside their churches, which was troubling for sure.
In Daniel, we too see a similar dynamic at play, here in verse 2:
2 The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods.
Here we see how King Nebuchadnezzar and the people of Babylon took some of the vessels, or sacred items out of the temple in Jerusalem, and placed them alongside similar items in their own place of worship. This was a power play by King Nebuchadnezzar, as he symbolically and literally tried to eliminate the means of worship for God’s people and convert them over from the true God of Israel to Babylon’s own.
And while that may be a more extreme version of what you and I see and experience today, in so many ways, we today, here in Dillon and beyond, we as Christians are the minority, living in a form of exile, outsiders, strangers living in foreign world that doesn’t really understand us. Now, I don’t share all this to be overly alarmist or to simply wish that we could go back to the good old days, whenever we believe those days actually were, but rather to do a couple things. One is to to draw the connection between then and now, but in addition, that we would recognize both the challenge and opportunity of exile, both the challenge and opportunity that we have as Christians living in world and in a time where we are the minority, the outsider.
In fact, in Jeremiah, God’s people, including Daniel and his friends, are told that they are going to be in exile for 70 years – yes, 70 years – and God, through the prophet Jeremiah gives them this charge - “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.”– that is, be a blessing in Babylon, be a blessing to this place where I have brought you to.
And in many respects, Daniel and his friends, through their stories laid out in this book show us how to do this well. They show us how to live faithfully, courageously, and wisely in midst of exile. And in addition, they do all this while maintaining their Christian identity.
You see, this is one of the great challenges of exile, and for us today as followers of Jesus, and that is, how can be a blessing to those around us while maintaining our distinct Christian identity and witness?
Truth is, Christians often swing towards two ends of the spectrum and both have their problems. On one end of the spectrum is to assimilate, that is, we blend in and look exactly like the dominant culture. We value what they value, worship what they worship, cherish what they cherish and if you were to put our lives and their lives up side by side, there would be no noticeable difference. And yet, on the other end of the spectrum, is to isolate, that is, we totally separate ourselves from the culture, we keep our distance, we stay in our holy Christian huddles and refuse to engage in the larger culture in any meaningful way. This is, what we often do - we either assimilate or isolate and both have their downsides, because whether we assimilate or isolate, then we lose our distinct Christian witness and ability to influence the culture for good.
And this was one of the challenges for Daniel and his friends, would they assimilate or isolate? Truth is, King Nebuchadnezzar had every intention of wanting to see them fully assimilate and to turn them into new and improved Babylonians once and for all.
As we read just a few minutes ago, King Nebuchadnezzar brought over Daniel and his friends, some of Israel’s finest young men, for the purposes of one day being stationed at the king’s court. And so, they were educated for three years at what we can we think of as a three year residency program at the University of Babylon. In addition, they were given new names, replacing their Hebrew names with Babylonian ones. And so, they’re in a new land, given a new education with new names, and in addition, also given daily portions of the royal food. But yet, for reasons that we’ll see next week, they refuse to eat the food. In fact, while they do engage with the larger Babylonian culture, there are some things they refuse to compromise when it comes to the areas of holiness, worship and their personal conscience and devotion before their God.
You see, they neither fully assimilate nor isolate, rather they engage in just the right ways. And the truth is, to engage in this way is often harder, it requires more courage and a greater level of faithfulness. Daniel and his friends challenge on us this, but yet their lives are also an encouragement that it can be done, that we truly can be found faithful even in exile.
Right next door to Callie and I is an apartment building and for the most part, in our first two years here, most of the renters next door have been college students. And I’ll be honest, I know I’m not that old, but at this point in my life, in my mid 30’s, married with kids and a mortgage to pay, college students make me feel old. And to be honest, I kind of feel like I have nothing in common with them and really nothing to talk to them about. And my tendency when it comes to my neighbors is to isolate, to withdraw. This past Labor Day Weekend, I was coming home from the grocery store and a bunch of them and their friends were out front playing cornhole, enjoying a late summer day. And as I got out of the car, a couple of them, ones I’ve never met before, said “Hey!” and so I walked over and said hello. They were all very friendly, in good spirits, pretty well hydrated if you get what I’m saying. They invited me to play a round with them, but I declined, I told them I had to get Noah to bed, which I’m not sure was completely true, but it seemed like a worthy excuse. My tendency, in those kinds of moments, is to withdraw, to isolate, to avoid, to go inside.
But yet, as I think about Daniel and his friends, I’m challenged and encouraged to engage. To get to know them, to learn more about where they’re from and how they got to Montana Western and what they’re taking during this first block and what they think of Dillon as a college town. And if I could rewind things back to this past Sunday night, I wish that’s what I did. And hopefully long term, there will be more opportunities like that to come. Opportunities to build those relationships, maybe even be a blessing and encouragement to them through a homemade meal during final exams, maybe eventually we can invite them to church and share about our own lives and our own faith journeys, and who knows, if we get to know them well enough, maybe Callie and I can add another babysitter or two to our list.
Friends, as you think about your lives, the places you go, the people you interact with, your neighbors, your coworkers, your fellow parents and friends, are you more tempted to assimilate or isolate? And what might it look like to engage instead, to be a blessing? And if you aren’t fully sure what that looks like, don’t worry, we’ll be thinking through those questions a lot more in the weeks ahead.