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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Humbling the Proud (Daniel 4)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 5, 2017; Text: Daniel 4

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:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: Let God Arise (Tomlin, Cash, Reeves)
Singing Together: Immortal, Invisible (ST. DENIO)
Offering of Music: Come, Share the Lord (arr. Tabell)
Hymn of Sending: I Surrender All (SURRENDER)

:: 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.

Does God ever deal with bad people in the here and now or is that kind of justice reserved for the final judgment? Why doesn’t God make things right RIGHT NOW?

For a number of weeks we have been in the book of Daniel hearing stories of Daniel and other Hebrew men captured and taken into Exile, trying to find a faithful path in the face of impossible situations and the demands of the most powerful man in the world, King Nebuchadnezzar. We have seen how Daniel sought to live a distinct life of obedience to God in the midst of captivity. We have seen how he spoke and acted wisely and how he trusted God for things that were out of his control. Last week we heard the story of the three men who defied King Nebuchadnezzar’s order to worship and serve the golden monument to Nebuchadnezzar’s ego and fear and how they declared that God alone was worthy of their ultimate allegiance, even if He did not deliver them from their impossible situation.

And all along, we’ve seen followers of God make faithful decisions while a tyrant has put people’s lives at risk because of dreams and not submitting to his extreme demands. And though he is wowed at times by what God does in the faithful Hebrews’ lives, he continues his crazy and arbitrary rule. And the obvious question keeps running beneath the text: Will God not do something directly to save His people and the world they live in?

There is no one answer to that in Scripture. There are examples of evil people and evil kings ruling for a long time and even for a lifetime. There is a promise of an ultimate justice and judging of their deeds. But Scripture also sometimes speaks of God allowing evil choices to have their own consequences, as if God removes any grace or hand of restraint. And then there are examples of God intervening. And this is one such story.

Another Bad Dream (vv. 1-18)

Nebuchadnezzar had another bad dream. When this happened before, he demanded that his advisors not only interpret the dream, but somehow figure out what the dream was without him telling. This time, he tells the dream, but his advisors can’t (or won’t!) interpret it. So he sends for Daniel, or Belteshazzar, who is now “chief of the magicians” and a most trusted advisor.

Nebuchadnezzar tells Daniel the dream. There was a big towering tree at the center of the world that grew even larger so that it touched the sky and could be seen all over the earth. And it provided food and shelter for all: “everything living was fed and sheltered by it.” (v. 12) Have you ever had a dream that started really beautiful and amazing like this? And then it started to get scary or strange? If it were a movie, this is when the music would start to change! A “holy watchman” descended from heaven and called out: “Chop down the tree, lop off its branches, strip its leaves and scatter its fruit. Chase the animals [away] but leave the stump…” (v. 14-15)  And then the dream takes another turn. The watchman gets personal! The tree is no longer a tree but is a ‘him’: “Let him be soaked in heaven’s dew and eat with the animals… let him lose his mind and get an animal’s mind… let this go on for seven seasons.” (vv. 15-16) Then another change in perspective: “the angels announce this decree, the holy watchmen bring this sentence… so that all will know that the High God rules human kingdoms.” (v. 17)

It seems to me that the dream pretty well explained itself by the end. But I suppose Nebuchadnezzar wanted someone else to say it out loud. No wonder the advisors didn’t dare! Even Daniel was upset and terrified, according to the next few verses (v. 19).

Daniel will explain the dream further to Nebuchadnezzar (and to us), but I’d like to point out one thing at this point: it is that God is communicating to someone who wasn’t raised in the faith or who trusted the scriptures. It is possible that he had read the sacred writings of the Hebrews, but it has been made clear that he not trust in or worship the God of those scriptures. Why I want to point that out is this: scripture itself says that God reveals Himself generally in the Creation around us. And while the specifics of God’s covenants and salvation are spelled out in the written scripture, God does communicate in other more general ways. And there are stories ancient and contemporary of God getting people’s attention in dreams. I have heard numerous stories in recent years of Muslim’s converting to Christianity after having a dream of Christ speaking to them. In a particularly dry and disconnected season of my own faith, in my 20s, I had a powerful dream of seeing Jesus that shook things loose and got me reconnected with faith. Not all dreams are like this, nor are they enough in themselves to teach us what we need to know about God. But they can get our attention sometimes, particularly when then paired with scriptural truth, and that’s precisely what Daniel will offer to Nebuchadnezzar.

Calling to Account (vv. 19-27)

Daniel seems immediately aware of the implications of the dream and, despite his boldness in previous years, is “upset” and “terrified” to have to explain the meaning to the king. But the king presses him and he explains in so many words: I wish this weren’t about you, but you are that tree, O King. You have grown great and strong and your kingdom stretches across the whole world. But the part about the angel-messenger, that is also for you. It means that the Most High God has sentenced you to judgment so that you will learn that God is Most High, even over the greatest kings and kingdoms. And those details at the end, those are for you: You will be driven away from human company and live with the wild animals. You will eat grass like an ox and be soaked in dew. This will go on for seven seasons so that you learn that God is Most High. Like the stump and roots, your kingdom will still be there for you after you learn that it is God who is over kings and kingdoms, including yours.

And then here is the part that I want to highlight to you. Daniel doesn’t just interpret the dream. He adds to it teaching from scripture (cf. Prov. 28:13; Psalm 41:1-3)

“Make a clean break with your sins and start living for others. Quit your wicked life and look after the needs of the down-and-out. Then you will continue to have a good life.” (v. 27)

That repentance is the message of the prophets to Israel. It is later picked up by John the Baptist as he preaches to the generation about to meet God’s salvation in the flesh. The message of “start living for others” and “look after the needs of the down-and-out” is the core biblical message of “love your neighbor” found in the Jewish Law as well as later summarized by Jesus. Daniel didn’t just explain a dream; he proclaimed the Word of God to Nebuchadnezzar and invited him then and there to turn and change his ways and experience the blessing that comes from obeying God.

This is a step forward for Daniel, at least in what is recorded in this book. In previous encounters, Daniel publicly trusted God and God came through in ways that demonstrated His power. But now, Daniel is “preaching” to Nebuchadnezzar and we see the first real call to repentance and faith. But we will see that he did not heed Daniel’s words.

Humbling the Proud (vv. 28-37)

Twelve months later, Nebuchadnezzar was walking on the balcony of his royal palace and boasted out loud: “Look at this, Babylon the great! And I built it all by myself, a royal palace adequate to display my honor and glory!” (v. 30) With an immediacy that reminds me of the rooster crowing after Peter’s third denial of Jesus, Nebuchadnezzar heard a voice out of heaven declaring the verdict of judgment on him:

Your kingdom is taken from you. You will be driven out of human company and live with the wild animals. You will eat grass like an ox. The sentence is for seven seasons, enough time to learn that the High God rules human kingdoms and puts whomever he wishes in charge. (vv. 31-32)

And it happened at once.

In verse 34, Nebuchadnezzar becomes the narrator, telling his own story:

At the end of the seven years, I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked to heaven. I was given my mind back and I blessed the High God, thanking and glorifying God, who lives forever. His sovereign rule lasts and lasts, his kingdom never declines and falls. Life on this earth doesn’t add up to much, but God’s heavenly army keeps everything going. No one can interrupt His work, no one can call His rule into question. (vv. 34-35)

And then, as Nebuchadnezzar regained his mind, he also regained his rule. And though his kingdom and rule became even greater, he now (still telling his own story) is singing and praising the King of Heaven with these words: Everything God does is right, and He does it the right way. He knows how to turn a proud person into a humble man or woman. (v. 37)

Jesus would later say something similar. Speaking about the Pharisees, who abused their spiritual authority, Jesus said, “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)

And later in days of the early church, James wrote, “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” (James 4:10)

It took a long time, but in this case and from what we know God got through to this proud man, taught him true humility, and showed through him the limits of human power.

Everything God Does is Right (v. 37b)

I want to return to the first question I asked: Does God ever deal with bad people in the here and now or is that kind of justice reserved for the final judgment? As I said at the beginning, there is not just one way God responds to evil and to injustice. That’s one of the Big Questions that we all must work through as our faith matures. Why doesn’t God make all things right RIGHT NOW? There are some partial ways of answering, and sometimes God does make some things right, as with Nebuchadnezzar. Other times, as with Nebuchadnezzar’s son and successor, there is no repentance and a captive people move from one proud ruler on to the next.

I can’t answer that particular Big Question in this sermon. The question of why God doesn’t make things right RIGHT NOW is one that many of us struggle with for years or even all our lives. One way I have come to balance that struggle with something that satisfies me is to hold it in tension with Nebuchadnezzar’s “song” – and it’s one I believe with conviction: everything God does is right, and He does it the right way.

If God is good, and I believe He is… and if God is wise and loving, and I believe He is… and if God is all-powerful, and I believe He is… then everything God does is right and He does it the right way. That gives me an anchor while I navigate the rough seas of “Why doesn’t God make things right RIGHT NOW?!”

I’ve been expressing gratitude for Daniel’s faith and faithfulness all these past weeks, but today I am thankful for what God did with Nebuchadnezzar, who was able to put into words (and even song!) this declaration of faith: everything God does is right and He does it the right way! Amen.

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