My brother and his family currently live in Portland, Oregon and if you’ve ever been there, if you’ve walked through its downtown, if you’ve ever experienced its culture for any length of time, then you probably know that Portland is well, different. They have a deep love for recycling, unique tastes and sensibilities in the kind of art they love and music they listen to, an obsession with dogs and bicycles and food trucks, and a passion for all things organic and fair trade. It’s odd and eccentric and quirky and has a vibe of its own for a major metropolitan city. And there’s actually a well known slogan that can be found all around Portland and it’s simply this – “Keep Portland Weird.” Keep Portland Weird. Because in reality, most large cities over time end up becoming pretty homogenous, they become corporate, more and more mainstream. But in Portland, they resist that cultural pull. They like and embrace being different. They want to keep Portland weird.
And I share that example with you because I think to some extent, we as Christians, as followers of Jesus, can learn a little something from Portland here. And that is, just as Portland has resisted that cultural pull of assimilating more towards the culture at large, just as they embrace being different, we as Christians should as wellin the ways God calls us to. That when it comes to our values and priorities, our relationships, the words that we speak, the ways we steward our time and resources and so much more, you and I as followers of Jesus are called to look and live differently. That is, we’re called to be a little weird, in all the right ways, in the best sense of the word.
Last week we started a new sermon series on the Old Testament Book of Daniel and like Portland, it’s a bit of a weird book, filled with familiar stories like Daniel and the Lions Den as well as a lot of unfamiliar and strange ones as well, yet nevertheless it’s an incredibly important and timely book, as we discussed last week. The book begins with the lowest of low points in Israel’s history – where after a long period of peace and flourishing, King Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, who was the greatest earthly power at that time, declared war on God’s people. And so, God’s people were captured, their lives turned completely upside down, sent to live as exiles, strangers in a foreign land.
And one of the key themes in the book of Daniel that we introduced last week was the unique way in which Daniel and his friends engaged the Babylonian culture at large, a culture just like ours where we as Christians, as followers of Jesus, are the outsider, the minority. And we talked about how they chose to neither assimilate nor isolate. They refused to assimilate – that is, they refused to fully adopt and become like the dominant culture, and yet, they also refused to isolate, that is, they refused to keep to themselves in their holy huddles and fully disengage the dominant culture.
Instead, they chose to integrate and associate and engage with the dominant culture, while keeping their distinct identity, while holding to the things that made them different, that is, they kept some of their “weirdness.”
And that is in many ways, what we see play out in our story today, the passage that Chris just read.
So quickly here, let’s briefly set the scene. Daniel and three of his friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, among with a few other young men – were recognized for their ability and potential, and so they were recruited and put in was essentially a three year training program, where upon completion, they would one day serve King Nebuchadnezzar in the king’s court.
And so here they are, they are in a new land, under a new regime, given a new education, they’re even given new names, but yet, but yet, there’s one thing they won’t do, one area in which they refuse to fully assimilate, and that is, they refuse to eat the king’s food. They refuse to eat the royal rations of food and wine. And so Daniel asks Ashpenaz, the palace master, that he and his friends be exempt from eating the king’s food and given vegetables and water instead. Now understandably, the palace master is hesitant to do so – after all, these guys are being invested in, given the best training and education that Babylon has to offer – and you don’t want to damage the talent, you don’t want them to become weak and unfit to serve the king. So Daniel strikes a deal and asks that he and his buddies be tested for 10 days.
But yet, setting all those finer details aside, the more important question that you and I need to figure out is, and this is question that will guide the rest of today’s message is, “Why do Daniel and his friends refuse to eat the king’s food?” Out of all the things they could have said no to, why is this the thing that they refuse to compromise on? Why is this the hill they choose to die on and why do they choose to be different and weird in this way?
Well, truth is, the text doesn’t tell us, at least, it doesn’t come out directly and say it, and even more, there’s a bit of disagreement and uncertainty as to their exact reason. Nevertheless, there seem to be two plausible reasons why Daniel and his friends refuse to eat the king’s food. So here’s the first.
On one hand, Daniel and his friends refuse to eat the king’s food out of devotion to God. That is, they refuse to eat the food out of an obedience to God and desire to obey and heed God’s laws and commands. Because back in Daniel’s day, the Israelites were called to obey and follow certain dietary laws, for example they weren’t supposed to eat things like pork or food that had been previously offered to idols, foods which were considered unclean.
Now to be clear, the dietary laws that the Israelites were under then are no longer binding on us because of the person and work of Jesus and so to be clear, you don’t have to abstain from meat and be a vegetarian to be obedient to God (and all the ranchers and meat lovers among us said “Amen”) and yet the larger principle remains – that you and I, as followers of Jesus, as we engage with the culture, are called to be devoted and obedient to God, obedient to the commands that Jesus gives us, commands which will sometimes make us stand out and look different by doing so.
So here are a couple more modern day examples. One is pretty light hearted and fun, the other a little heavier and more serious.
The first is about an older man by the name of Vin Scully. Scully is known as one of the greatest baseball announcers of all time – before his retirement, he was the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers for so long that he was with them when they were the Brooklyn Dodgers back in the 1950’s. And though he’s now 92, he just recently joined Twitter. And in his first post, he asked for nothing controversial, and asked that for everyone who engaged him on Twitter, that it would be a meeting of friends, having fun, talking about their favorite subject, baseball. And that’s exactly what it’s been as he tells stories about Ebbets Field and Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax and Dodger Stadium, bringing joy and laughter and fun and compassion to a place on the internet often known for anger, hatred and petty disagreements.
And so as a devout Catholic, Scully is engaging with millions of people through social media, and yet doing so in a way that’s true to his values, and in a way that is obedient and true to the way God calls us to love our neighbor on social media.
So, that’s one example and admittedly, pretty light hearted and simple. Yet, here’s one that’s a bit more serious and a bit more difficult, an example of how our devotion and commitment to God may sometimes make us stand out.
I heard a story about a Christian who worked in finance, and his partners wanted to invest in a company, part of whose portfolio involved the pornography industry. And so he found himself in this conundrum – he wanted to figure out how to engage and continue working alongside his partners while not compromising his values. And in addition, he also wanted to engage in a way that didn’t completely ostracize himself from the group and in a way where he could communicate his values with both truth and grace, rather than judgment and condemnation. And so, after praying about it for a while, he went to his partners and he said, "Look, I don't think this is a good decision, but if you guys really want to do this, I will not put up a fuss. However, I don't want one penny of the profit."
A pretty tempered and thoughtful response for sure. This man lived differently, acted courageously, look a little weird in the process, stayed true to his faith in Christ, and maybe just maybe, got others to begin asking, “Why does he live the way live? Why does he make the decisions and choices he does?” You see only if were engaging the culture and yet not living just like the culture, will people begin to ask those questions – because they’ll see the differences, they’ll see our convictions, they’ll see our God given weirdness, and because Jesus offers us abundant life, friends, if we’re truly living the Jesus way and living obediently for him, people will be compelled and attracted by the way we live, asking, “How do I live that kind of life too?
Friends, if we, like Daniel, live in a way that shows our devotion and obedience to God, there will be moments where our differences show, and that’s okay. And in fact, it’s in many ways, very good.
So that’s one reason we think why Daniel and his friends chose not to eat the king’s food – devotion and obedience to God. And yet, there’s another likely reason that they chose not to eat it and asked for vegetables and water instead. And that is, to demonstrate their dependence on God.
Some commentators believe that their refusal to eat the king’s food had nothing to do with dietary laws or idols or ritual cleanliness or the health benefits of being a vegetarian. Rather, it had more to do with their desire to demonstrate their dependence on God and their trust that God would provide for them, yes, even in Babylon, yes, even in exile.
You see, by asking for vegetables that come from God’s green earth and water that came from God’s rivers and streams, rather than the finer and richer foods that came from the king’s table, Daniel and his friends were to some extent demonstrating that it was God, not King Nebuchadnezzar who they truly trusted. They were putting their faith in God, trusting that he would provide. For Daniel and his friends, to eat only water and vegetables was risky, it was costly, it made them stand out, but yet, their faith was rewarded and God provided for them. After all, it requires a nutrition miracle to maintain or gain weight on vegetables or water alone, but yet, that’s exactly what happened as they watched God provide.
Friends, you and I too need regular routines and practices that remind us of our dependence on God, regular routines and practices that stretch us to trust Him all the more. Some people call these spiritual disciplines, I like the name spiritual training exercises, whatever you want to call them – the point is they remind us of our dependence on God and stretch us to trust Him more and more.
For example, when we pray, we are reminded that God is in control, that we are dependent on Him for oh so many things, and we ever so slowly relinquish that need to always be in control and know the future.
When we fast, whether for a meal, or day, we are reminded of our dependence on God, how we need food and water to survive, but even more that our physical hunger would point to a greater a spiritual hunger and remind us our even greater need for God’s presence and guidance.
When we rest, when we take a regular Sabbath, we are reminded of our dependence on God, that God will provide for us even as we rest, that he is at work even while we rest, trusting that He will help us to get done what we need to and let go of what can wait until tomorrow.
Or when we give, whether it be through our time, talents or treasure, it is in many ways risky, it is an act of faith, where as we give, we demonstrate our devotion and commitment to God as well as our dependence on him to provide for us even while we give some of what we have away.
You all, when we pray or fast or rest or give, not only are growing in our dependence on God, but even more, people may do a double take and think we’re a little weird.
I was listening to a podcast earlier this week on finances and this Christian man was talking about his family’s desire to practice wise and God-honoring stewardship and the process of finding an independent financial advisor who could help them do just that. And when the advisor saw their budget and their commitment to tithe, to give 10% of their income to their local church, their advisor thought they were crazy, that is to say, weird, and cautioned them against this, warning them that this would make retiring more difficult. And yet, the couple thought to themselves, no way, this is a core conviction of ours, this is what we believe God is calling us to, and we trust that God will provide for us as we give. And you all, that’s the beautiful thing about giving, as we give generously, as we give sacrificially, we often times get to watch God provide for us, we get to experience the joy of giving and almost always we experience the simple joy and contentment of living on less.
You all, as we live our every day lives, as we engage with the culture, may we do so courageously, boldly, winsomely, living lives that are fully devoted and obedient to Him, living lives that reflect our dependence and trust to God alone.
I’ll finish with this.
By the end of chapter 1 we read that not only are Daniel and his friends are in better condition and healthier and stronger than the other men after 10 days of vegetables, but even more, we read that at the end of their three year training program, no one was found even close to as capable and competent in matters and wisdom and understanding and their readiness to serve in the king’s court.
But yet, what exactly do we make of this truth? What exactly are we supposed to take away from this story?
That if we eat vegetables that God will reward us with good health and give us great success and opportunities for upward mobility? No, that can be it.
Is that if we’re devoted and faithful and dependent on God that he’ll reward us and provide for us? Well, yes I think that’s generally true, and at the very least, if we’re not rewarded in this life, we know he’ll reward us in the next.
But at the very least we can for sure know this. In every culture, in every generation, there’s a push and desire for Christians to be relevant. To make a difference. To be a change agent. To be the good in the world.
And the temptation for you and me is believing that in order to do so we need to be just like the culture. But yet, Daniel and his friends, show us that doesn’t have to be so.
You see, these men who would not compromise with the world ended up being most useful to the world as Daniel and his friends not only found favor with God, but favor with the king. Where God placed them in a unique position where they could be a blessing to their captors and build up the society in which they found themselves, while at the same time enabling them to remain true to Him amid extraordinary pressures.
This is the challenge that stands before us, that is as Pastor David Helm puts it, to be at home in Babylon without becoming a Babylonian. To be in the world but not of it. Truth is, it’s in walking that ever so fine line that we can truly be useful and good and attractive and compelling to the world around us.
So friends, as you leave this place, as you go back to your homes, as you go back to work or school on Monday morning, as you go about your everyday lives, wherever it is that you live, work, play or learn, let’s go out there and keep Christianity weird.