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Sunday, January 15, 2017

God Who Hangs Around with People Like Us (Daniel 2.1-30)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 15, 2017
Text: Daniel 2:1-30

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

:: Scripture and Music ::
Gathering Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Singing Together: Ancient of Days (Sadler/Harville)
Singing Together: My Hope is Built on Nothing Less (SOLID ROCK; arr. Austell)
Offering of Music: Psalm 139 (Pote)
Hymn of Sending: He Knows My Name (Walker)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Last week we began a series on Daniel which focuses on the overarching question of how we can serve God in the world today, particularly with all the cultural challenges out there in 2017. We surveyed the context of Daniel – that he was part of a first wave of Israelites captured and taken to captivity in Babylon by the Babylonian Empire, which was ruled at the time by King Nebuchadnezzar. In the case of Daniel and his friends, they were not to suffer in dungeons, but to be assimilated into Babylonian culture – with new names, royal food, and the best education at the time. We also saw that Daniel set it in his heart to not lose his identity as an Israelite and that he found a wise and narrow path through asking for permission to eat a simpler diet while working hard to set himself apart. The net result was that there – even in exile and captivity – he brought honor to God’s name and showed himself faithful. Finally, I also drew a connection to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for his followers and those like us who still desire to follow him. He prayed to God that we not be removed from the world around us. He also prayed that we not become indistinguishable from the world around us. And he prayed that we be distinct, God’s people, living faithfully in the very complicated and compromised world around us for the sake of God’s name. He also prayed for God to protect us from evil and from the evil one in that endeavor.

Today we hear about another scene in the life of Daniel. And again, he faces an opportunity to trust and point to God in the midst of a compromising situation. And in this case the stakes are as high as they can get because his life is at risk. I want to highlight all that and how God comes through, but also point out how God becomes known in the process as a reminder that our lives and faith and experiences are about more than us; they are about a larger historical and spiritual reality.

An Impossible Situation

I don’t know if you’ve heard this particular story before. I have a few times, but it’s not one of the main stories I associate with Daniel. If I am pressed to remember it, I remember the dream and its meaning, which we will look at next week. But all my life I have glossed over this first part of the story. By this point, Daniel and his three friends had joined the ranks of the trained and educated advisors to the king. The story opens with King Nebuchadnezzar having had deeply disturbing dreams. And the King wants to know what they mean. When his advisors offer to interpret, we get a glimpse into the personality of Nebuchadnezzar. He is the ruler of the enormous Babylonian Empire, and he is used to getting his way. So he raises the stakes as high as they can go: “Tell me my dream and explain it or I will have you viciously killed and your homes destroyed!” (v. 5) Conversely, he promises lavish wealth and honors to any who can explain it. (v. 6) We also see that he is paranoid regarding his advisors. He says, “I see right through you – you’re going to cook up some fancy stories and confuse the issue until I change my mind. Nothing doing!” (v. 9) It’s not clear whether he is crazy or distrustful or both, but the combination along with almost limitless human power makes him incredibly dangerous. The advisors declare, “No king, great or small, has ever demanded anything like this from any magician, enchanter, or fortuneteller.” (v. 10) And while not present, but members of the group of advisors, Daniel and his friends are included in what has now become a life or death situation. And when the advisors tell him what he asks is impossible, it only angers him more and he loses his temper and orders the whole company of Babylonian wise men killed. (v. 12)

While this particular scenario may seem far from your experience, impossible situations are not. We face health ultimatums that seem to have no way out. We face financial situations that seem impossible. Just this week I was part of a 15 hour training event entitled “dismantling racism” and the size and scope of effectively addressing our country’s racial issues seems overwhelming and impossible.  And I want to be clear here: even though we know and just heard how this particular story ends, God does not always solve our situations, much less in the ways we imagine. “God will solve your impossible situation” is not the message today.

But God can. It was already a saying in this church – I think it came from Pastor Bill – that God always answers prayer, but sometimes with Yes, sometimes with No, and sometimes with Wait. This is a similar point. God is God of the Impossible because nothing is impossible with God. God has more power than earthly kings and emperors. God has more wisdom than the wisest wise men. And let me say this, too: God has more love and compassion than we can fathom. And one of the hardest things we can ever try to understand is why, if God CAN do the impossible, he does not do it for us. I cannot answer that today; I may not be able to answer it sufficiently for you at all. But I have made peace with it. I also believe that if God had not revealed the answer to Daniel, that Daniel would have gone to his death blessing the name of God. But let’s look at what did happen and what Daniel did say and do.

Wisdom and Opportunities

Daniel did not even know why his execution had been ordered. But as before, he chose a wise path – see in v. 14 – he spoke to the chief of the royal guards who was preparing for the execution and Daniel “wisely took him aside and quietly asked what was going on.” As a side note, one reason this was wise was because it gave the guard the opportunity to respond personally, not publicly where he might have acted differently. Then, Daniel went directly to the king and asked for an opportunity – it was one he could have been denied because he apparently was not in the original group brought before the king. So, as before, Daniel was thoughtful and intentional about his words and actions, which was particularly important because the stakes and danger level were so high.

I am reminded of how NOT thoughtful and intentional we have become on social media and in many of our social groups. When we are surrounded by people who look and think like us, or particularly in the protective bubble that online communication offers, we are often not wise or thoughtful or intentional, and there is a high cost to public discourse and community.

I’ll also note that Daniel must have cultivated some kind of trust or relationship with Arioc, the chief of the royal guards. For one, Arioch took time to respond to him and explain the situation. But even more significantly, when Daniel later told Arioch that he knew the dream and its meaning, Arioc was willing to risk bringing Daniel before the king, potentially having Daniel disappoint and himself getting taken down in the process.

I highlight all that to say that when are facing the impossible, or even just something very challenging or difficult, there is more going on than getting an answer. There are people around us, there is the opportunity to trust God or not, to talk to God or not, and to honor God or not. In addition to praying himself, Daniel appealed to his three friends to pray with him for God’s mercy. (v. 18) There are opportunities to be wise and thoughtful and intentional and there are opportunities to lash out, be foolish, and add difficulty to difficulty. There are opportunities to make allies and build relationships, which may bring support back around to us; and there are opportunities to isolate ourselves and alienate others.

It is easy to get narrowly focused on what is before us and miss all that is around us. Daniel reminds us of those opportunities, even in the midst of the impossible.

God Who Hangs Around With People Like Us

And then, in addition to being wise, thoughtful, and open to what’s around us, I want to highlight a truth brought out in this story that was named by the fortunetellers who failed Nebuchadnezzar. It was also a truth proved by God through Daniel. When the fortunetellers and other wise men realized that Nebuchadnezzar didn’t just want the interpretation, but also demanded that they describe the dream itself, they exclaimed, “Impossible! Nobody anywhere can do what you ask.” And here’s the part I want to zero in on: “What you’re asking is impossible unless some god or goddess should reveal it.” (v. 11) They acknowledge that what the king demands is beyond human power – it requires godly power. And then they add this: “And they [gods and goddesses] don’t hang around with people like us.” (v. 11) Even if there is such super-natural power out there, it is not accessible by us, they say.

All that serves to highlight and set up what the people of Israel already knew and what we believe as Christians: God DOES hang around with people like us. God IS involved with this world and the people in it. God revealed Himself and His holy name at the burning bush to a historical man named Moses. And God would reveal what only a god could know, to the man Daniel.

Again, God is not a genie in a bottle whom we can summon at will. But God has demonstrated a willingness and pattern of hanging around with the likes of us… most notably through Jesus Christ, who was God-in-the-flesh, born among us and who “moved into the neighborhood” as John 1:18 tells us.

So, when God did give Daniel the super-natural knowledge to know both the dream and its interpretation (and along with that, an indication of history that was about to unfold), it also demonstrated something even more powerful to Nebuchadnezzar then the meaning of the dream. It demonstrated the existence and attention of a God who was more powerful, knowledgeable, and lasting than even the most powerful king on earth at the time. And Daniel did not fail to point this out: “No mere human can solve the king’s mystery… but there is a God in heaven who solves mysteries, and he has solved this one.” (v. 27) We will see in coming weeks and chapters that Nebuchadnezzar has to grapple with what it might mean that there is a being more powerful than He is, and one who is paying attention to human history and to him!

Does this all mean that God is going to make a personal appearance in response to your prayers or impossible situations?  As I said early on, I believe God doesn’t always say ‘yes’ to what we ask. Sometimes He says ‘no’ and sometimes ‘wait’ – and while both of those answers can be incredibly difficult to understand and accept, I have to trust that God’s wisdom and love are as great as God’s power. I also believe that God does make Himself known to us in very real and direct ways, but there is also a sense in which, having come to live among us and BE one of us in Jesus Christ, and then leave His Spirit with us and in us, we have all the “hanging out with people like us” that we need! God does care about us; He knows us and our situations; He is the “God who sees” and is the God who cares. And He hangs around with people like you and me; that’s His story with us and for us. Amen.

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