Text: Daniel 1
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:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
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What does it mean to serve God in the world today? Today we are starting a series on Daniel that I believe responds to that question in significant ways. The historical backdrop for Daniel is the Babylonian defeat and deportation of people of Israel in several waves, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Daniel was in a first wave of captives taken in 605 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar was the King of Babylon at this time and had built the Empire and city of Babylon into one of the largest cities the world had known up to that time.
God’s Exiles and the Lures of this World
We’ve talked before about Exile for the people of Israel in the Old Testament times. It felt like everything had been lost: they were not just defeated by an enemy, but they had lost all those covenant blessings that God had promised and given to them over generations of struggle and wandering. Those covenant blessings were land, descendants, and blessing. The Babylonians took them from the land, eventually even took Jerusalem, and took them from their homes and places of worship. Their children and descendants mostly survived, but were taken into foreign cities to inter-marry, be surrounded by pagan worship, and potentially lose their identity. And God’s hand of blessing seemed to have been removed. Broadly, that was the experience of Exile which stretched over several hundred years starting in the 7th century B.C.
Daniel and his friends faced a particularly enticing and alluring version of that Exile. They were among the young, wealthy, educated leadership of Israel, the first wave taken away to Babylon. And while in some wars they might have been the first to be executed by the enemy, the Babylonian method was different. They were to be brought in, won over, and become part of the Babylonian elite. For someone facing capture, loss, and worse, it seems like the ultimate opportunity to salvage something good out of something bad. Especially when one’s God-given home, family, and blessing is lost, the appeal of regaining those things would have been so strong.
But Daniel and his friends made a key decision of faith and faithfulness; they would seek to remain faithful to God and seek His way and will in this tempting world of exile.
God’s Best and the Wisdom Behind It
If there were ever a time for a friend to whisper, “What’s the big deal?” this would have been it. “Come on, Dan, they are offering us delicious food, an opportunity to become powerful in this world, and the alternative could be much worse. Actually, if we don’t go along it will be much worse!”
Verse 8 describes the stand Daniel took, why he did so, and how he did so. It is not clear exactly why the king’s food would “defile” them, but Daniel “made up his mind” (lit. set in his heart) not to eat it. It is surely possible that some of the meat might have been forbidden by Mosaic Law, like pork. But the wine was not specifically prohibited. And if it was a matter of meat being offered to foreign gods, that was likely also true of the vegetables they then chose to eat. I think it likely that the defilement was from possibly involving prohibited meat, but also because it represented giving in to the Babylonian identity. The way the story is told seems to indicate that they tried to retain their Hebrew names as well.
At the very least, if what was at issue was the meat, Daniel and friends were choosing to trust God’s Law as the best for overall health and flourishing, even if committing to that way put them at risk with the human powers that be around them. I do believe that is a valid and trustworthy principle, like observing the Sabbath, or tithing, or keeping any of the commandments. They involve obedience to and trust of God and promote human health and well-being. And that is true even when the surrounding culture or powers that be say otherwise. It may appear – and we may well convince ourselves – that Sabbaths and tithing and honoring parents and loving neighbors are old-fashioned and quaint and impractical. But like Daniel said to those appointed over him, I’d say, test it and see. See if setting aside time and money for God don’t cause you to flourish. It’s not magic; you don’t put in a quarter and pull out a blessing. It is that ordering our life under God’s authority brings a perspective and an attitude and a posture that blesses us and those around us.
But I think there is more than strict adherence to God’s Law that was going on with Daniel and his friends. He actually made a very Jesus-like move, perhaps even foreshadowing the kind of faithfulness Jesus was teach about and live out 600 years later.
Distinctly In and Not Out
As I said earlier, I think the “defilement” that Daniel set his heart against was more than simply keeping the kosher laws. I think he recognized that his very identity as God’s own was at stake. The Babylonians wanted to change his name from “God is my judge” to “may Bel/Marduk protect me.” He was being groomed for a place in Babylonian leadership. That didn’t just include training, but food, culture, perhaps music and clothing. And to be clear, Daniel did not have a lot of choices. But he found this one area in which he and his friends could be faithful to God and they could maintain their distinctness. And it was in an area that could make a difference. Had they insisted on dressing differently or keeping their Hebrew names, they would have just been an annoyance and distraction. But eating in a healthy way, like the way God had taught them… that could make a difference. It could set them apart in a positive way.
And you can bet that they didn’t just sulkily eat vegetables in the corner as a protest. They were working mind, body, and spirit to shine and show forth their very best for God. Because everything was at stake; their lives and, in a real sense, God’s reputation were on the line. And at the end of the trial period, they were demonstrably healthier and they excelled in the other areas of their training – books and wisdom – blessed by God and surely a product of their own discipline and commitment as well.
I said that this reminded me of Jesus because it reminds me of his prayer in John 17 right before his crucifixion. Jesus was praying for his followers, not just the disciples, but also those who would come after and believe, like us. And he prayed what I think is a very unusual and significant thing. He prayed that God would not take us out of this world, but send us into this world. And he prayed at the same time that we would not become indistinguishable from this world – “of it” – but be distinct and set apart in this world.
That’s Daniel! He didn’t have a choice about being in Exile, but he could have so made a stand about being Jewish that the Babylonians would have just taken him out – killed him. More common in our day, here in the U.S., is for Christians to huddle and remove themselves from the culture around us. We’ve formed sub-cultures and enclaves and even sometimes churches, and are practically “out of” this world. That was not Jesus’ intent for us; that is not God’s desire for us. But Daniel also faced the very real danger of over-identifying with the world around him, of blending in so much he lose any distinctiveness for God. So also we are inundated by our culture with names, clothing, values, and food – that with which we ‘feed’ our minds and hearts – that we can lose our distinctiveness for God. Or, as Jesus taught, we can become like salt that has lost its saltiness.
And finally, Daniel models for us the complexity of this being-in-yet-distinct people of God. We have to figure out what is most important, what will make a difference, what will defile us, what will compromise us. We can rely on God’s Word. We can trust God’s teaching. And this complex, messy, gray, place in which we live – here’s the encouraging part – THIS is where God wants us! He wants us in and among the people and the culture. He wants that because God LOVES the world that He has made, as broken and messed up as it is. And like Daniel, like Abraham, like His people of old, God works through us for the sake of this world.
We will see, in the coming weeks, that God used Daniel and his friends to challenge as well as to bring blessing within the Babylonian Empire. God worked and witnessed through Daniel’s faithfulness, even as I believe God will do through ours. But it involved Daniel clinging to his identity as a follower of God. And it involved Daniel standing up for God and sometimes speaking truth to power even at risk to himself. We will see that God used Daniel as a change-agent and one who brought honor to God through several successive rulers and powers.
While we may never have that kind of access to power, each of us does have the choice to carry our faith into the world – into school and work and friendships and neighborhoods and online – and we have the choice to “set our heart” to be distinct for God in all those encounters and exchanges. May God give us courage and consistency and grace. Amen.