Staying True in a Twisted World
Staying Out of the Ditch
This past week, we had a lot of rain come our way, didn’t we? I know my neighbor was happy. He had just planted some grass and it is coming up nicely. I’m happy because when I checked my basement, there weren’t any leaks. But all the while the rain was coming down, I was thinking…good thing this precip isn’t white or my snow blower would be getting a workout.
Now some of you are mad at me because you’re thinking I’ve jinxed us by saying the white “S” word and its only October. Well, from where I’ve come from, snow is not unheard of at this point in the year. Remember the song from White Christmas?
Snow…it won’t be long before we’ll all be there with snow…
Snow…I want to wash my face, my hands, my hair with snow…
Snow…I long to clear a path and lift a spade of snow…
WHAT?! WERE THOSE PEOPLE CRAZY?!!!
Ever have to drive a country road at night in a full-on blizzard? I lived in South Dakota. Talk about white! That was the color of my knuckles as I gripped the steering wheel! It happened a couple of times to me and it was frightening. I couldn’t see ten feet beyond the hood of my car. I didn’t have four-wheel drive and the thought of slipping off into the ditch was terrifying. I’ve heard the horror stories of people freezing to death out in the storm. And here’s the thing about driving in a blizzard. There’s nobody else out there. They all had the good sense to stay off the road! I was fortunate never to end up in the ditch during a raging blizzard. I slowed down to a crawl and kept my eyes on the reflectors on the side of the road to keep the car on the pavement. A couple of times, I had to open the car door to follow the white line.
Staying true to your faith in these days of moral relativism and occasional religious hostility is sometimes a lot like trying to stay out of the ditch during a raging blizzard. What is to keep us true in this turning and twisted world? The question is not so new. It’s ages old, actually. When the Jews were carted off into Babylonian exile, they had to face strong pressure from their captors to deny their faith and adopt a pagan lifestyle. Most of the captives knew that they had been punished by God for their unfaithfulness, so it was vitally important that they endeavor to stay true to God in order to avoid further misfortune. The stories found in the Book of Daniel are heroic examples of integrity in the face of intense pressure.
Daniel 1:1-21 (NIV)
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And 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.
Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service 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. The 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.
Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.
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. Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you.”
Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.
At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.
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.
At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 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.
And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.
Excelling in Exile
The Jewish 70-year exile in Babylon was one of the most profound formational events in their history. Psalm 137 captures the heart of their despair:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
Both the books of Esther and Daniel were written during the exile and they exemplify Jewish wisdom and devotion while living in a hostile culture. Both are relevant for the church today as we move from a period when Protestant Christianity was the default religion of our culture during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries to today where the church is increasingly marginalized.
There are many American Christians who act as if the sky is falling. We observe broadened restrictions on prayer in schools and government where we used to have a place of unquestioned privilege. Just this week, a judge in Wisconsin ruled that housing allowances for ministers are unconstitutional. That ruling has been made before and appeals are pending. But many in ministerial leadership believe that the ruling will eventually stand. We’ve seen Christian businesses sued to bankruptcy for refusing service on the basis of conscience. These are growing trends in our culture that will most likely continue unabated. America has purposely never had an established state religion like Europe had. The First Amendment of our Constitution prohibits the establishment of any state religion.
But the historical fact is that Protestant Christianity has held a place of privilege ever since before the founding of our country. The First Great Awakening, thirty years before the Revolution restored the moral compass and soul of the colonies in the 1740’s. The Second Great Awakening in the early years of the nineteenth century pulled the frontier back from debauchery and cultivated the seeds for the abolitionist movement. Galesburg, itself, was founded as a direct result of the Revival to be a spiritual light on the prairie frontier. Fanny Crosby, the hymn-writer who wrote Blessed Assurance and 6,000 other hymns addressed Congress and was friends with every American president during her adult lifetime. Consider the place of privilege and influence that Billy Graham enjoyed with every president from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. America has never had a state church. But Evangelical Protestantism was established as our default cultural religion for over two centuries.
But that is no more. We are in the process of being disestablished. We no longer hold a place of privilege in American culture. I, along with most other Christians, grieve that loss. But it is what it is. And the sky is not falling. In our new reality, we have a critical new opportunity.
The American church is being forced to grow into a more mature, rigorous, and biblical faith. A Christian faith that is only engaged one hour a week on Sunday mornings will not stand in the pressure of our changing culture. God is calling American Christians to integrate their faith into all of their life – at home, at school, at work, and when alone.
Like Daniel and his friends, we are placed here in this time and this place for a purpose. You and I will be challenged with pressure to embrace a culture that is increasingly hostile to our faith. We have the opportunity and challenge to be counter-cultural and, in so doing, make God known in the world in which we live. These are not bad days, friends. They are challenging, yes! But these are days of glorious opportunity.
For the Glory of God’s Name
God gave Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah a unique opportunity to demonstrate that the God of their faith – and our faith – ruled over the affairs of all people. Indeed, God had put them in places of authority and privilege so that he might demonstrate his power. But Daniel and his friends had to have the integrity and courage to exercise their faith in the face of life-threatening consequences. You see, faith isn’t believing in spite of evidence – that’s just superstition. Real biblical faith is found in action – in obeying in spite of the consequences. And that’s what Daniel and his friends demonstrated.
The first episode of testing involved Daniel. Old Nebuchadnezzar, the unreasonable and arrogant king, had a dream that really bothered him. He demanded that his advisors tell him what the dream was as well as its interpretation. That would be like me telling Diane, “I had a dream last night. I know it was bad, but I can’t remember it. Could you tell me what it was?” Diane is pretty intuitive, but she isn’t a mind reader. But the King demanded to know what his dream was. (And you thought our president was bad…) And when his advisors protested his unreasonableness, he ordered them all killed.
The response of Daniel and his friends is instructive for us:
When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, had gone out to put to death the wise men of Babylon, Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact. He asked the king’s officer, “Why did the king issue such a harsh decree?” Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel. At this, Daniel went into the king and asked for time, so that he might interpret the dream for him.
Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision.
Daniel 2:14-19 (p. 1371)
When Daniel told the king his dream and the interpretation, notice what happened:
“Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell prostrate before Daniel and paid him honor and ordered that an offering and incense be presented to him. 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.” (2:46-47)
God’s character and power were made known.
That’s the theme through all of the stories in the Book of Daniel. When Daniel’s three friends refused to worship the king’s idol and survived the fiery furnace, old Nebuchadnezzar was humbled and responded:
“Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.” (3:28-29)
Later, Daniel’s rivals convinced a new king, Darius, to make a decree that it was illegal to pray to or worship any god except the king. They knew that Daniel was a man of integrity and faith and that he prayed regularly to the God of his fathers. Knowing that he could not obey such a law, Daniel didn’t organize a protest in the streets. He didn’t make signs or placards denouncing the injustice of the decree. He didn’t approach the king for an exception, even though he enjoyed great favor at the court. No. He simply obeyed the Sovereign God of the Universe by disobeying the unrighteous law that had been made. He went home, threw open his window towards Jerusalem, as was his custom, and prayed as he always had. When God delivered him from sure death in the lion’s den, King Darius recognized the greater power of God:
“I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.
“For he is the living God
and he endures forever;
his kingdom will not be destroyed,
his dominion will never end.
He rescues and he saves;
he performs signs and wonders
in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel
from the power of the lions.” (6:26-27)
You see, when we act with integrity, faith, and courage in the face of pressure, the power of God will always be manifested to the world.
Lessons from the Road
We live in a culture that is increasingly in opposition to the Christian faith. There is rising pressure for us to wilt into the background and to compromise our faith. We find that pressure in the media, at work, in the community, and especially in the home if it is not centered on Christ. For those who are engaged in higher education as students, faculty, or staff, the pressure to compromise one’s Christian faith is enormous. How do we stay true in an increasingly twisted world? What are some of the lessons we can learn from Daniel and his friends to strengthen us in this day of challenge and opportunity? I can think of four.
1. Engage the culture with grace. Daniel and his friends were always respectful. Jesus treated his accusers with respect and grace. There is no reason to be obnoxious and disrespectful when confronting opposition against your faith. To act in that way would bring dishonor on the name of Christ rather than make him known. Courageous people of faith in the Bible and throughout history have always engaged those in authority over them with grace and respect.
2. Know that God is sovereign and that he will always have the last say. He will vindicate you if you stand for him. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah believed that and acted on their faith in spite of threatening circumstances. They were convinced that God would demonstrate his power and that is what gave them the strength to stand with integrity.
3. There is a simple model for biblical discipleship and growth. The more you know God, the more you love him. The more you love him, the more you obey him. The more you obey him, the more he reveals himself to you. And so, the cycle continues. Daniel and his friends knew God intimately and they saw his incredible power manifested in their life. Do you want that for yourself? Do you want to see God at work in your life? Get to know him in his Word and through prayer. Then you’ll love him more. Your love for him will be demonstrated in obedience. It is when you and I are obedient to God that we will see him work in ways we would have never imagined. (Repeat the model responsively.)
4. Finally, you were born for such a time as this. Carpe diem! Seize the day and the opportunity! God put you here today, in the place that you are in, so that you might show the power of God to the world. We are on the threshold of new challenges, yes, but also of great possibilities. Let the word of God to Joshua – another man of integrity who faced great challenges and possibilities encourage us today:
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”