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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Some Things are Worth the Heat (Daniel 3)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 29, 2017; Text: Daniel 3

:: 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 ::
Singing Together: Praise to the Lord - Alleluia (LOBE DEN HERREN; arr., chorus Nockels)
Singing Together: Prince of Peace (You are Holy) (Imboden, Rhoton)
Song of Confession: We Fall Down (Tomlin)
Hymn of Sending: How Firm a Foundation (FOUNDATION)

:: 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.

Today we continue in a series from the book of Daniel. The overarching question this series is addressing is this: “What does it mean to serve God in the world today?” In Daniel 1-2 we’ve seen the importance of being distinct in the world. We’ve seen how it is possible to honor and serve God even when we are up against impossible situations. We’ll revisit that theme today. And we’ve seen that God’s metric for us is not results, but faithfulness. God will do what he wants with that, but what he asks of us is faithfulness. We’ve also seen in the man Daniel an example not of blind obedience, but thoughtful and wise faithfulness: considering when and what and how to act and speak for God’s glory.

Today we are back with King Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel’s three Hebrew friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, named here by their Babylonian names. Their faithfulness will be put to the ultimate test.

90 Foot Ego (vv. 1-6)

The third chapter of Daniel opens with King Nebuchadnezzar building a gold statue, 90 feet high and 9 feet thick. He invited “everybody who was anybody” to the dedication. And then he demanded that, when the music played, everyone – every race, color, and creed – kneel and worship the statue… on pain of death.

There are a number of things that could be said about the statue. But I’ll try to roll it all together with this: didn’t he just have a terrifying, recurring dream about a statue that signaled his impending doom?! That was just last week, last chapter! The best I can figure is that this is a ruler with a 90-foot ego deciding he would fight fate and fight God Himself. He’s not going to go down without a fight, even if he has to fight the very God of Heaven (whom he acknowledged as “God of gods, Lord of kings, and revealer of mysteries” in chapter two!).

So what’s the solution to successive, weaker kings and nations taking his place? And the solution to a heavenly kingdom greater than all of those? He builds a giant golden statue – like the one in the dream where the head of gold represented him – but now the whole thing is gold. The meaning seems clear; his rule and his kingdom were going to be the one that lasted, the only one. And everyone would acknowledge his reality. And there would be no worship of a God in heaven; all would kneel and worship THIS statue. And all races and religions would yield to this one. All those who might represent the kingdoms that would follow his or the gods who might challenge him; all would have to kneel to him.

Indeed, his ego and his fear were as large as the statue he built. And this would present another impossible situation to God’s people.

Race, Religion, and Respect (vv. 7-15)

I already mentioned the role that race and religion played in this scenario. Nebuchadnezzar was demanding that all threats to his own power yield to him. But some Babylonians stepped up to single out the Jews. The Jews represented both a racial-ethnic and a religious challenge to the king’s demands. And, as we know from history and experience, singling out OTHERS is a means to elevating yourself. The Babylonians who wanted to secure their place in the king’s good graces would benefit from calling out the Jews, particularly the leaders like Daniel and his friends who had enjoyed an influential role in the King’s life up to this point.

It is a testimony to their position that Nebuchadnezzar brought them in to ask them personally where they stood. Nebuchadnezzar even gives them a “second chance” but doubles down on his demands for complete allegiance, even if that means the death of some of his trusted advisors. Their ultimate allegiance is more important than their counsel or truth.

Then he asks this startling question that stands in contrast to the end of chapter two: Who is the god who can rescue you from my power? Well, it’s the God who revealed your dream, who spoke unpleasant but real truth to you, who would guide you if you would listen. It’s the one you acknowledged as “God of gods, Lord of kings, and revealer of mysteries.” But Nebuchadnezzar insists on all yielding to him, even God in Heaven.

What’s Worth Everything? (vv. 16-23)

In verse 16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answer King Nebuchadnezzar, though they do more than name the God who can rescue them. They demonstrate that they are already free from Nebuchadnezzar’s power because even his thread of death does not hold power over them. They will not serve a false god or worship the gold statue. They say:

Your threat means nothing to us. If you throw us in the fire, the God we serve CAN rescue us from your roaring furnace and anything else you might cook up, O king. BUT EVEN IF HE DOESN’T, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, O king. We still wouldn’t serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up. (vv. 16b-18)

Do you hear the conviction and power and faithfulness in their statement? Even if God doesn’t miraculously solve this new impossible situation, they will worship and serve God alone. Before we know the ending of the story, before they know what God will do, they stake everything on serving God.

What holds that kind of value in your life? Anything? Do you have any core conviction or allegiance that’s worth everything to you? The scripture declares this to be true: before what God has done for you, before we have breath or life or purpose, God is all in all. There is none like God. The first commandment recognizes this: you shall have no other gods. God is God alone, worthy of worship, worthy of our allegiance and devotion, worth everything to know and serve. These three Jewish men knew this and bore the ultimate faithful testimony in the face of the ultimate price.

This enraged Nebuchadnezzar. It played upon his fears that he was not actually in control. He rushed to heat up the furnace and get the men in there, resulting in the death of several of his own men. And it would be enough for the story to end there. That is the faithful story that has been played out again and again in history, with faithful men and women sacrificing everything to serve God above all else.

But in addition to all that, God showed up.

When God Shows Up (vv. 24-30)

This is probably the part of the story you know the best. Nebuchadnezzar realizes that the three men are still alive – and walking around – in the furnace. And a fourth figure has joined them. And the fourth “looks like a son of the gods.” (v. 25) Whether an angel, as Nebuchadnezzar describe the figure, or the second person of the Trinity, a pre-incarnate Christ as some scholars believe, God sent an intermediary to protect and accompany the men in the flames.

Nebuchadnezzar calls the three men out, acknowledging them as “servants of the High God.” (v. 26) All those around examined them and discovered they were completely untouched by the fire.

And Nebuchadnezzar declares:

Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! He sent his angel and rescued his servants who trusted in him! They ignored the king’s orders and laid their bodies on the line rather than serve or worship any god but their own. (v. 28)

Then Nebuchadnezzar goes on to modify his decree: no one is allowed to speak against this God, for “there has never been a god who can pull off a rescue like this.” (v. 29) And he went on to promote the three men in leadership in Babylon.

Another “impossible situation” and I would again focus your attention on human faithfulness in the midst of it. The outcome is good for the three men, for their lives were spared. But that was not necessary for them to serve God faithfully. Nebuchadnezzar recognized a greater power at work, but did not come to see the truth or have it transform his leadership. He was on to new death threats and we will see that God was not done. And if we remember Pharaoh in Egypt, God continued to show up dramatically with a short-term response from Pharaoh and then a hardening of his heart. The outcome we might look for isn’t always going to be present, nor may it even be the point.

As amazing as this rescue was, the point is not that God will pull you out of your own fiery furnace situation. Rather, the great heart of this story is that there is a God above all and He is worthy of our ultimate worship and service. Period.

What does it mean to serve God in the world today? It means recognizing the true order of things, that there is a Most High God to whom we belong. And no powers, demands, or allegiances in this world are worthy of our worship and service as God is. Serving God in the world today starts with recognizing that “body, mind, and soul, I belong to God.” And these three faithful men remind us that serving God is not only saying ‘yes’ to God, but also ‘no’ to that which conflicts with our ultimate allegiance and hope. Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Greater Kingdom (Daniel 2.28-45)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 22, 2017
Text: Daniel 2:28-45

:: 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 ::
Singing Together: Hear the Call of the Kingdom (Getty/Townend)
Singing Together: Let Your Kingdom Come (Kauflin; Sovereign Grace)
Offering of Music: Bless the Lord, O My Soul (Nygard)
Hymn of Sending: O Worship the King (LYONS)

:: 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.

We are continuing today in a series from Daniel, seeking to answer the broad question, “What does it mean to serve God in the world?” So far we’ve seen that it is possible to be in the world, but be distinct in belonging to and following Christ. And last week we saw how it is possible to honor and serve God even in when we up against impossible situations. We left off last week with Daniel about to describe and then interpret a dream that had been disturbing King Nebuchadnezzar for some time. First we will look at the dream and its interpretation, then we’ll consider what we might learn from it.

The Terrible Statue (vv. 28-36a)

Nebuchadnezzar’s dream had disturbed him for some time. And you heard the description of the dream in the scripture reading so I won’t read all the way back through it. Instead I’ve found a picture of it because this is one example where I think images do a better job than words. We read that the statue was strikingly huge and TERRIFYING. Head, chest, mid-section, legs, and feet were all different materials. And then the whole thing was violently crushed when part of a mountain fell upon it and the whole statue collapsed and was carried away on the wind like scraps of old paper.

It must have been the case that Nebuchadnezzar saw part of himself somewhere in that statue and dream, and it terrified him. He was so disturbed that he threatened the lives of all his advisors in an effort to find out what it meant or rid himself of those closest to himself who might betray him. Though he was the most powerful man in the world, he was full of fear, which played itself out in devastating ways to those around him. But as we saw last week, God provided Daniel with an opportunity in the midst of that impossible situation, and along with some wisdom from Daniel, he gains audience with the king.

A Lesson in Humility (vv. 36b-43)

After revealing the dream itself, Daniel goes on to explain the dream. Different parts of the statue represent earthly kingdoms that will come after the “golden head” that is Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian Empire. Many folks will be quick to assign subsequent Empires to each part of the statue, like the Persian Empire for the chest and so forth. But I think that misses the point in the same way that we often over-allegorize parables and miss Jesus’ main point. Look at what Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar, starting in verse 37:

You, O king, are the most powerful king on earth. The God of heaven has given you the works: rule, power, strength, and glory. He has put you in charge of men and women, wild animals and birds, all over the world – you’re the head ruler, you are the head of gold.

Here is Daniel’s first message to the powerful king: this power you have did not come from yourself or human beings, but from the God of heaven. Now remember that Daniel has already given God credit for revealing the dream, so God has been named and Daniel has Nebuchadnezzar’s ear. He is quick to name God as the one with the ultimate power, even in this world.

Then Daniel goes on to explain the rest of the statue. The subsequent materials and parts of the statue represent kingdoms that will follow Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. They will be “inferior,” but they will nonetheless defeat the Empires that came before them. In other words, Nebuchadnezzar’s power will not last. He will one day be defeated, and not even by a superior power, but by an inferior one. Can you imagine the guts it would take to say this to the most powerful man in the world – and one who has already threatened to kill you? Having said that, Daniel has already said that he could not name the dream; only God could. And he certainly isn’t “blowing smoke” as Nebuchadnezzar previously charged the advisors with doing. One thing about a supremely negative interpretation – one couldn’t accuse Daniel of trying to curry favor.

I think the message itself is a double message of humility. Nebuchadnezzar does not have all the power; God’s is greater and God gave or allowed Nebuchadnezzar to rule at this time. And Nebuchadnezzar would not keep his power; another inferior kingdom would replace his. So in many ways, the dream was as disturbing and terrible as Nebuchadnezzar seemed to think it would be.

But Daniel is not done!

The Revealer of Mysteries (vv. 44-45)

There is one more part of the dream that Daniel explains. After talking about the Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom and the ones that will follow, he says:

But throughout the history of these kingdoms, the God of heaven will be building a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will this kingdom ever fall under the domination of another. In the end it will crush the other kingdoms and finish them off and come through it all standing strong and eternal. (v. 44)

This is the same God of heaven who Daniel named as the “Revealer of Mysteries,” the one who was able to both describe and interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. This is the same God of heaven who gave or allowed Nebuchadnezzar to rule and hold power, strength, and glory… in charge of men and women all over the world. This is the same God who will allow other inferior kingdoms to rule after Nebuchadnezzar. And this same God has His own Kingdom, existing and growing in the midst of all those earthly kingdoms. The Kingdom of this God will not only exist and grow in the midst of the others, but will crush the others and last forever. It is the “stone cut from the mountain by the invisible hand that crushed the iron, the bronze, the ceramic, the silver, and the gold.” (v. 45)

And Daniel finishes, “The great God has let the king know what will happen in the years to come. This is an accurate telling of the dream, and the interpretation is also accurate.” (v. 45)

Speaking Truth to Power (vv. 46-49)

Now there was no guarantee that Nebuchadnezzar would hear or receive what Daniel had to say. He could have killed him on the spot. But as I said last week, this exchange was not about Daniel getting past his “impossible situation.” It was again about maintaining faithfulness in his identity as one of God’s people. To the extent that he had opportunity, with all the wisdom he could muster, and with God’s help, he spoke God’s truth to human power. He told the most powerful man in the world about a greater power and a greater Kingdom. He pointed to God and, in doing so, rendered faithful worship and service to God. I believe we ALWAYS have an opportunity to choose faithfulness, even if we do not see a way out of our situation. We belong to God and can honor God in some way.

In this case, at least for a while, Nebuchadnezzar was humbled. He “fell on his face in awe before Daniel” (v. 46) and honored Daniel and his friends with high positions in the kingdom. He also acknowledged God in this way: “Your God is beyond question the God of all gods, the Master of all kings. And He solves all mysteries, I know, because you’ve solved this mystery.” (v. 47)

Now let me be careful here. We love a happy ending! Daniel got out of his impossible situation, Nebuchadnezzar was humbled and acknowledged God, and Daniel and friends were richly rewarded. But that doesn’t always happen. I think the real story here is that God was lifted up, truth was spoken, and Daniel found a faithful path when the way seemed impossible.

If our overarching question is, “What does it mean to serve God in the world?” I think the answer isn’t in terms of results, but in terms of faithfulness. We are citizens of God’s Kingdom, living in this world but belonging to God. Serving God means faithfulness, obedience, wisdom, and lifting God up with truth and grace. Sometimes that means speaking; sometimes it means acting. And those are things we can do, whether free or in chains, whether at home or in exile, whether accepted or rejected. We re-affirm our participation in God’s Kingdom every time we pray, “Thy Kingdom come” and “for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” Amen.

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.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Faithfulness, Tested and Proven (Daniel 1)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 8, 2017
Text: Daniel 1

:: 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: I Will Worship (Ruis)
Singing Together: Every Promise of Your Word (Getty/Townend)
The Word in Music: Today (Doerksen)
Offering of Music: Trust and Obey (Rick Bean, jazz piano)
Hymn of Sending: May the Mind of Christ My Savior (ST. LEONARDS)
Choral Benediction: God Be With You Till We Meet Again (Carter)
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.

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.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Resolution for a Lifetime (Luke 2.40-52)

Sermon by: Pratt Butler; January 1, 2017 (New Year's Day)
Text: Luke 2:40-52

:: 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
Hymn of Praise:Once in Royal David's City (IRBY)
Song of Praise: Better is One Day (Baloche)
Offering of Music: Angel Carol (Rutter)
Music During Communion: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Sending Hymn: Be Thou My Vision (SLANE, arr. Austell)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript ::
 There is no manuscript available this week. 

Our guest preacher is Pratt Butler, who serves on staff with his wife, Ashley, with Vida Joven (Young Life) in Leon, Nicaragua. They grew up at Good Shepherd and we are pleased to have them here today. Their children are Nolan (1) and Ada (3 1/2).