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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Obedience in Exile (Daniel 1.1-21)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - August 24, 2014
Text: Daniel 1:1-21

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Holy, Holy, Holy" - Susan Slade, flute (arr. Joan Pinkston)
Song of Praise: "Holy Spirit" (Torwalt)
Hymn of Praise: "If You Will Trust in God to Guide You" (NEUMARK)
Offering of Music: "Lighten Our Darkness" - Celtic Band (Keith Duke)
Hymn of Sending: "Be Thou My Vision/Open My Eyes" (SLANE; refrain Youngblood/Austell)
Postlude: "Be Thou My Vision" (arr. Don Wyrtzen)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)  
There is no sermon audio this week, but you will find the manuscript below.
1 It was the third year of King Jehoiakim’s reign in Judah when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon declared war on Jerusalem and besieged the city. 2 The Master handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the furnishings from the Temple of God. Nebuchadnezzar took king and furnishings to the country of Babylon, the ancient Shinar. He put the furnishings in the sacred treasury. 3 The king told Ashpenaz, head of the palace staff, to get some Israelites from the royal family and nobility4 —young men who were healthy and handsome, intelligent and well-educated, good prospects for leadership positions in the government, perfect specimens!—and indoctrinate them in the Babylonian language and the lore of magic and fortunetelling. 5 The king then ordered that they be served from the same menu as the royal table—the best food, the finest wine. After three years of training they would be given positions in the king’s court. 6 Four young men from Judah—Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah—were among those selected. 7 The head of the palace staff gave them Babylonian names: Daniel was named Belteshazzar, Hananiah was named Shadrach, Mishael was named Meshach, Azariah was named Abednego. 8 But Daniel determined that he would not defile himself by eating the king’s food or drinking his wine, so he asked the head of the palace staff to exempt him from the royal diet. 9 The head of the palace staff, by God’s grace, liked Daniel, 10 but he warned him, “I’m afraid of what my master the king will do. He is the one who assigned this diet and if he sees that you are not as healthy as the rest, he’ll have my head!” 11 But Daniel appealed to a steward who had been assigned by the head of the palace staff to be in charge of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: 12 “Try us out for ten days on a simple diet of vegetables and water. 13 Then compare us with the young men who eat from the royal menu. Make your decision on the basis of what you see.” 14 The steward agreed to do it and fed them vegetables and water for ten days. 15 At the end of the ten days they looked better and more robust than all the others who had been eating from the royal menu. 16 So the steward continued to exempt them from the royal menu of food and drink and served them only vegetables. 17 God gave these four young men knowledge and skill in both books and life. In addition, Daniel was gifted in understanding all sorts of visions and dreams. 18 At the end of the time set by the king for their training, the head of the royal staff brought them in to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 When the king interviewed them, he found them far superior to all the other young men. None were a match for Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. 19 And so they took their place in the king’s service. 20 Whenever the king consulted them on anything, on books or on life, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his kingdom put together. 21 Daniel continued in the king’s service until the first year in the reign of King Cyrus. (Daniel 1:1-27) [The Message]
Last week we looked again at the Jeremiah 29 text about God challenging his newly exiled people to find God’s blessing through making a literal and spiritual home there in exile. Beyond that, God even challenged them to seek and pray for the blessing (shalom) of their captors, and in that act of obedience to find God’s blessing.

Today we look at another passage about the exile. The reason for doing so is that I believe in many ways we are sharing more and more in common with those exiled people of God. Though Christianity, the church, and Judeo-Christian values were once at the center of American culture, we are more and more finding ourselves living in a secularized culture, sometimes one even hostile to Christianity.

The question I’m after is this one: Is it possible to be faithful to God in exile?  Specifically for our context, is it possible to be faithful to God in the midst of a culture that is increasingly secular, if not openly hostile to our faith?

Captured, Conquered, and Commanded

The story today has some familiar characters. Though this is not the story of the “Fiery Furnace” (Daniel 3), it does introduce Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had declared war on Jerusalem and besieged the city (v. 1). He took these young men from the royal family back to Babylon, where they were identified as “healthy and handsome, intelligent and well-educated , good prospects for leadership positions in the government.” (v. 4)  They were to be indoctrinated in the Babylonian language and the lore of magic and fortunetelling. (v. 4) This would involve complete enculturation – the best food and wine of Babylon – and three years of training in preparation to serve in the king’s court. (v. 5) They were even given Babylonian names – taking away the names that all identified them as belonging to God, and replacing them with pagan Babylonian names.

    Daniel – “God is my judge”        Belteshazzar – “Bel protect his life” (aka Marduk, chief god)
    Hananiah – “Yahweh is gracious”    Shadrach – “the command of Aku” (moon god)
    Mishael – “Who is what God is?”    Meshach – “Who is what Aku is?” (moon god)
    Azariah – “Yahweh has helped”    Abednego – “Servant of Nebo” (another Babylonian god)

Last week we talked about the loss of being taken from home, from Jerusalem and the temple. These young men lost all that and more. Coming from a people who prized ethnic and spiritual identity so highly, they were being pressured to give it all up and, for all practical purposes, become Babylonian. Surely, they were lost, with no way to remain faithful in this hostile and godless setting!

What I am moving toward is a core conviction that I believe scripture and history teaches: it is possible to be faithful – to give glory to God – whatever one’s setting may be.

Let’s look at what Daniel and friends did. Not only did they choose an area where God had instructed them – healthy eating – but they used it as an opportunity to bear witness to their Babylonian captors. Instead of refusing to comply or inviting trouble, they “read the situation” and made a request. The situation was that the King was looking for leadership from some of the young Jewish nobility. This was an opportunity to live out that core covenant with Abraham – to be a blessing to the nations. They looked to what God had already taught them regarding food and asked their captors to let them eat vegetables and water and see if they were not the better for it. And indeed, they were. Not only did God bless their faithfulness, God’s Law itself was blessed, a healthier way of living than what Babylon had to offer.

And when the trial period was over, the young men stood out in the eyes of their captors and were placed in the king’s service. We find God using this whole process – including their bravery and faithfulness – such that “whenever the king consulted them on anything, on books or on life, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters (i.e. ‘wise men’) in his kingdom put together.

Like Jesus would later teach, Daniel and his friends became “salt and light” in their world, not retreating from it or giving in to it, but bearing faithful witness to God in the middle of it. Amazing!

Cultural Captivity

Does that story seem relevant for us? I sure think so. There was once a time when being a church-going Christian was not only easy, but advantageous, particularly in the South. If you moved into town, one of the first things you did was find a church. When you met someone for the first time, one of the first things they might ask you is, “Where do you go to church?”

But things are changing. There is so much now competing for time and attention. And going to church isn’t culturally expected any more. In fact, in some places it can be a bit suspect, with some assuming you are either uneducated or bigoted for continuing to be part of this old institution.

For a number of reasons, many churches’ response to a changing culture, particularly one that is more and more secular and hostile, is to retreat or hunker down. So we’ve created an entire Christian sub-culture of music, sports, entertainment, schools, reading lists, clothes, and more, isolating ourselves and defending ourselves from these cultural changes. But there will be less and less space to isolate and hide away. My recent trip to Scotland was a stark look at what is ahead of us in terms of secularization.

But listen; rather than see this as a one-way ticket to obscurity, realize the great opportunity before us to bring witness to God. It’s not so far from what Daniel and his friends faced. We still have God’s Word to cling to. And faithful obedience is possible, even in the world in which we live. Faithful obedience isn’t forming a Christian sub-culture or withdrawing altogether. Those are strategies. Faithful obedience is trusting God’s Word as true and good and blessed. There may even be opportunities to live out faithfulness to that Word in a way that witnesses to God’s goodness in a “salt and light” kind of way.

How do we love our spouses and children? Do we conduct ourselves with integrity and compassion? Do we care for the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden? Do we keep gathering to worship and departing to love and serve? Are we willing to try life God’s way and let it speak for itself?

These are the kinds of things Daniel and his friends did, even though their home, titles, names, and families had been taken away. And God used their small act of faithfulness in amazing ways – just read the rest of Daniel’s story!!

Can I be Faithful Now?

Being faithful in a changing culture is not the only pressing question of faith. We face sickness, job loss, unfaithful spouses, disappointing leadership, lying, stealing, depression, racism, violence, and a thousand more challenges. Is it possible for a person of faith to be faithful to God in the face of those things?

I believe it is. I believe that whatever you are facing today, there is a way to be faithful before God. There is a way to honor God and bring God glory. A starting place is trusting God’s words to be true and good and useful. That trust also bears fruit as people see that truth and goodness applied into your life – and sometimes overflowing into theirs.

You’ve heard the call and response before, right?  God is good… all the time; all the time… God is good.  That gets at the heart of today’s text. God is not just good when you are sitting in church or comfortable in life or prayed up or behaving. God is good ALL THE TIME, in every place and every circumstance… even the bad ones; even the hostile ones; even the dark and deserted places. Faithfulness is trusting in God to be good. What good and glorious news that is! Amen.

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