Welcome to Babylon

“In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god. Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility—young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.” (Daniel 1:1-4)

Daniel never expected to end up in Babylon any more than you did. Picture Daniel. One of the brightest and best of Israel. Daniel is from a family of high social status. He is physically flawless. He is a strikingly handsome man.  If Joanna were giving this message, she might tell you to picture Daniel Craig. Apparently Daniel is actually much shorter than he appears on screen. So picture someone who looks like Daniel Craig only more handsome and less dumpy. Daniel is bright. He is quick to understand. He is qualified to serve in the king’s palace, which means he has a high level of what we would call ‘emotional intelligence’. He is also devoted to God and God’s people. And he has all the dreams that young men like that have. Back in Judah his future would have been predictable. The whole world is at his feet. He would go to a good university and then on to success in whatever field he chose. He would have a great marriage, live in an enviable home with the right postcode, raise a wonderful family, occupy a prominent place in the community. But life did not turn out the way he planned.

There’s a whole world of heartbreak in the first two verses. Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem, besieged it and plundered it. The heartbreak is this: God made a promise a long time ago to Abraham, “I’ll be your God, and your people will be my people. And I will give you a promised land, and I will make you a new community that will bless the world.”  That promise had sustained God’s people for centuries. At times, that’s all they had. They were in slavery in Egypt. They were delivered under Moses. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years. They entered the promised land. And they reached their zenith under King David and Solomon. They built a glorious temple. But then came a long, slow decline. For all his wisdom in governing a nation, Solomon had not been a good father. The kingdom was divided. The ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, were defeated and the people driven into exile, never to return. All that is left is the small Southern kingdom called Judah. And then when Daniel is a young man with the world at his feet, Nebuchadnezzar comes, and with very little effort, destroys all that is left of Daniel’s hopes and dreams. The temple is a memory. The sacred contents were trophies in the temple of pagan gods. Daniel will spend his life as an exile, in a foreign land. He will give his best years to a foreign king. He has lost his roots, his culture, his family, his friends. He has to learn a foreign language. He will never go home. He will live and die in a foreign country. And the greatest indignity?  He loses his name.

And this name deal is really significant. In 1:7 we are told Daniel and his three friends are given new names. Their old names, their Hebrew names, were a derivation of the name of God. Either the little syllable ‘el’ as in Dani-el, Misha-el — from ‘Elohim’, or the syllable ‘yah’ as in Hanani-ah, Azari-ah — from ‘Yahweh’.

Their names constantly remind them that they belong to God. That is why Nebuchadnezzar gives them new names. This is his way of saying, “You have a new king now.  You belong to me. I now define your identity.”  The name ‘Daniel’ means “the Lord will judge.”  It is a great name. The Lord will be my judge. Through his childhood and upbringing, he had a name worth declaring.

Every time Daniel had heard his name spoken, it was a reminder, that the Lord will set things right. The Lord will see justice is done. His very name had been a promise every time he heard it, every day of his life. But now he’s not Daniel anymore. The Lord is not setting things right. In fact, it looks like his promises have been shattered. Maybe you can identify with Daniel. Maybe you feel like you have ended up in Babylon. In fact, if you don’t think you are living in Babylon, you need to look more closely at your circumstances. Because sooner of later, you will end up in Babylon. Babylon is where you find yourself when life does not turn out the way you planned. It happens when your grades are lower than expected. When your career hopes die. When a relationship or even a marriage that you had such dreams for comes to an end. When your hopes for your children don’t materialise.  When somebody you love wounds you deeply.
When you realize that a prayer you prayed for many years will never be answered the way that you want. You find yourself in Babylon, cut off from the life that you longed for, and you may never get home. And worst of all?  You wonder if God even knows or cares. Has he forgotten his promise? Does he even notice? What do you do when you find yourself, like Daniel, in Babylon?

There’s a whole field in the social sciences that involves a study of people who experience suffering, major crises, or trauma.  And these studies reveal that, as you might expect, a lot of people are left scared for the rest of their lives. But studies also show that some people don’t just survive trauma, they endure, they adapt, they actually thrive on trauma. Researchers have come to call these people ‘resilient’.  They develop the capacity to thrive in hostile, stressful situations and are then able to empathize with others less able to cope. Studies show there are certain characteristics, qualities of spirit that mark out resilient people. When we turn to Daniel, we see one of the most resilient people in history.  In his youth, he lost everything. Yet with God’s help, in Babylon, Daniel learned not just to survive, but to thrive. Today we begin a new series, ‘Living in Babylon Today’ and Daniel will be our guide.
Lets observe how to develop spiritual resilience.

  1. Resilient people resolve to maintain their integrity

“But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.” (Daniel 1:8)

Spiritually resilient people resolve–they make a deep decision–to respect and maintain their deepest values. They refuse to live as passive victims of circumstances beyond their control. They refuse to get tangled up in stuff that would cause them to betray their deepest commitments. They resolve to honour God by doing what they know is right.  Now, in many ways, 1:8 is the hinge point of the whole story – certainly of the first chapter, and in some ways, of the entire Book of Daniel. Everything turns here. Because up until verse eight, it is the Babylonians who have determined everything.

Until this point, they’ve been in the driving seat. Nebuchadnezzar determines to conquer Israel. He determines to cart off its most sacred objects and its highest potential citizens. He determines to enrol them in his leadership academy. He decides on the entrance criteria, the subject matter. The dean of the school determines their names, their new identities, and their diet. They’ll be fed rich food and wine from the king’s table. And the easiest thing in the world would have been for Daniel to feel like he’s just a passive victim of forces way too big for him, to go with the flow. But from 1:8 on, the initiative in this story shifts.  And the writer shows this in a really colourful way. This is kind of hard to pick up in most translations, but the same verb gets repeated three times. A kind of literal rendering of 1:7 would be, “The chief of staff determined new names for them. He determined on Belteshazzar for Daniel and so on…” Then 1:8, “But Daniel determined not to defile himself with rich food.”  It’s the same verb repeated over and over, but this time Daniel is determining — Daniel the captive, Daniel the prisoner, Daniel makes a decision. And the writer uses a real strong word for a quality decision. It could be translated, “Daniel resolved in his heart he would honour God. He would not defile himself.” He just decides. And now he’s got to take action, so he goes to the dean of the school to talk about the menu. He explains that everybody is being fed roast beef, eggs, and cheese. They’re on the Adkins’ diet, but he’s a Weight Watchers guy. Now the text doesn’t say why this food would defile Daniel. Maybe it violates ceremonial laws. Maybe it was offered to idols because it was from the king’s table.

It’s not real clear why, but it is clear that to Daniel he needed to draw a line. He needed to take a stand. And you need to know how much courage this took on Daniel’s part. Nebuchadnezzar was not the kind of leader who took ‘no’ for an answer. In 2 Kings 25, a puppet king named Zedekiah rebelled against him. Nebuchadnezzar captures Zedekiah and his family, has his sons killed in front of Zedekiah, and then has Zedekiah’s eyes put out. The last thing he ever saw was the execution of his sons then he goes blind  You’ve heard of leaders with hands-on management style or hands-off management style. Nebuchadnezzar had a “heads-off” management style. If people crossed him, they lost their heads. Imagine working for a boss so tough that when he terminated people, he really terminated them? That’s Nebuchadnezzar. That’s who Daniel is dealing with here.

But Daniel determines something.  Daniel remembers his name. Daniel does not view himself as the helpless pawn of circumstances beyond his control. Daniel resolves in his heart.
There’s just this magnificent courage and initiative here. And then we’ll see a lot of wisdom behind it. And spiritually resilient people are that way. They resolve that they will honour God. And then they figure out whatever it takes to do that. And they do not accept as an excuse that they live in forces that are too powerful for them to control. They seize whatever initiative is available to them.

That is why we are launching Peacemaker Mediators in December. In the face of the harassment, the opposition and restrictions, we are choosing to focus instead on serving the Lord wherever the Church is under-resourced, disadvantaged or persecuted, wherever human rights are denied, or reconciliation needed. In Daniel’s case, this is going to take some effort. He goes to the dean of the school makes his request. And the dean says, “But if I say ‘yes’ to you, you’ll end up looking weak and you’ll lack energy. And the king will have my head.” That’s his answer. And now we start to see Daniel’s persistence and resilience. Daniel says to himself, “Well, that’s not exactly a ‘yes,’ but it’s not exactly a ‘no’ either”  And so he goes to the guard in the next level down on the organisational chart and proposes an experiment. He says, “Let me try this diet for ten days, and then you be the judge.” Daniel exercises amazing initiative, courage, and faith that God will work. And God does. In fact, we see in verse 16 that the guard is so impressed with what happens to Daniel and his friends that he takes away everybody’s steak and puts the whole school on the veggie burgers. And Daniel goes to the top of the class. But please remember how this came about.

This only happened because when everything looked like it was lost and he was up against overwhelming forces, Daniel resolved in his heart he would not betray his deepest values. He resolved in his heart he would honour God. He would not give up his integrity.
So let me ask you, anywhere you’re getting tangled up in life?

Most people never intend to sabotage a marriage. Or destroy a friendship. Or wreck their career. Or shatter their reputation.  They think they can get away with it. They just drift into resentment or bitterness or revenge, and before they know it they suffer a relational crash that wrecks their life. Sometimes we get tangled up in more subtle enemies: hurry or success or a deception and we compromise. You may see yourself as a helpless victim. A pawn of circumstances beyond your control. Trapped by decisions made by others. And you think there is nothing you can do about it. Wrong. God is calling you to be like Daniel. Make a resolution in your heart that will take courage and wisdom to carry it out. You can do this. This is required for spiritual resiliency. This is required if you’re going to survive and thrive in Babylon. Regain your integrity. Do the right thing. I’ll let you into a secret. We all live in Babylon.  So many people say, “I would get to know God better if…”  or “I would get involved in ministry if…” or “I would be joyful if…”  or “If only I weren’t so busy.” “If only I had a better small group leader.” “If only my life wasn’t so demanding.” “If only other people had made different choices.”  See, we all live in Babylon. We all live in a world that will try to tempt us or intimidate us into settling for less than God’s best. That tempts us to compromise our integrity. Listen, friends, this is your one and only life. This is your day. You will only get one shot at tomorrow. So what do you need to resolve in your heart? Do you need to end a relationship that’s dishonouring God? End it! Make the call.  Do it today. Do you need to repent of unethical business practices? Repent and set things right. Do it now. Do you need to reorder your priorities? Then do it. Is there some area in your life where you need to pursue forgiveness or healing and you haven’t been doing it because you’ve been seeing yourself as a victim? Then stop wallowing and take responsibility. Tomorrow does not have to like yesterday. This is your day. This is your life. You must resolve in your heart. You must do this. I’ll tell you why so much is at stake here, friends.

In the future, Daniel and his friends would have to make some very difficult decisions. There was one point where they were commanded to bow down and worship the king or be thrown into the furnace. And they said, “Okay, throw us into the furnace because we’re not going to bow.” When Daniel was told one day, “Cease praying to your God or you’ll be thrown to the lions,” Daniel said, “Throw me to the lions, because I’m not going to stop praying.” See, if Daniel and his friends had not drawn the line here over their diet, if they had not kept their integrity in something small, if they had not declared to the world and themselves where their deepest allegiance belonged, they never would have had the strength to face the fiery furnace or the lion’s den. Resolve “I will honour God. I will not hand over this one and only life that God has given me to any power in Babylon–not to any person, not to any relationship, not to any job, not to any boss, not to any habit, not to any force, not to any schedule. I’ll resolve in my heart that I will honour God.” Resilient people resolve to maintain their integrity.  Because this is a life or death deal.

  1. Resilient people commit to building community

“To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds. At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service.” (Daniel 1:17-19)

For Daniel, he found strength in a little small group that formed with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. And we’re going to see these characters again. But they really were kind of a little small group. They ate together. They went through college together. They studied and prayed and faced decisions together. And they would one day face the furnace together. And having been tested, they would one day help to rule together. Indeed, by God’s grace, this small group of devoted believers would change the course of an entire nation. When you live in Babylon, you will not survive and thrive outside community. You just won’t. God never intended us to live in isolation. Julius Segal, one of the primary researchers in the area of resiliency, writes, “Few captives suffered more than Vice-Admiral James Stockdale who served 2,714 days as a POW in Vietnam. On one occasion, his captors shackled his legs and arms and left him in glaring sunshine three blistering days while guards beat him repeatedly to keep him from sleeping. “After one beating, Stockdale heard a towel snapping out in a code that the POWs had devised a message he would never forget. It was five letters–GBUJS–God bless you Jim Stockdale.” Segel writes that for these POWs, the briefest experiences of community, of being connected, became literally a life or death deal. Their devotion and ingenuity to making community happen in spite of unbelievable obstacles defies belief.  Segal writes how if one man walked by another cell, he would drag his sandals in code to send a message. Men sent messages to their comrades through the noises they made shaking out their blankets, by belching, snoring, blowing their noses. This is so ironic. We can take community for granted, but when people are deprived, people will move heaven and earth and even risk their lives just for a moment of it.

That is why we seek to build community around food like the monthly church breakfast or lunch, or Connection, our community magazine. Community –  that is deep friendship and spiritual intimacy – do not come easy. You have to strive for them. Sometimes I talk to someone after a service who is struggling. And I’ll ask, “Are you in community? Are you in a small group of trusted friends who support you, help you, pray for you, give you wisdom?” And so often they say, “No. I tried once, but it didn’t work out.” If that is you, try again – try another group. Make time for community. If you are not a member of a small group meeting to study God’s word, for prayer and community, you will not survive long in Babylon. And if you who are in a small group, remember, those in your group live in Babylon, and they get beaten up one way or another sooner or later, some more than others. There are people here right now who are ready to give up. Maybe one of them is sitting next to you.  I wonder if you have any idea what a difference it makes when you take the time to say, “God bless you. I’m praying for you. Your life counts.”  See, people need to hear the code – GBU – not just hostages and POWs.  People in this room need to hear the code. That’s why we major on the fact that we are community church not just an Anglican church. We are building something here. As a community, we must ensure that nobody leaves without hearing somebody say, “I’m glad you’re here. You matter to me. Don’t you give up.” Because…  Resilient people resolve to maintain their integrity. Resilient people commit to building community.

  1. Resilient people know their life has meaning and purpose.

In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.” (Daniel 1:20-21)

This is very interesting. Researchers say that the factor that causes people to give up most often is not when their suffering gets intense. It is when they believe their suffering has no meaning or purpose. It’s not the intensity of the suffering. It’s the meaninglessness of it.  People who write suicide notes rarely speak about failing health, rejection, finances, or even physical pain. They say things like,

“There’s no point in going on. There is no reason for me to keep living.”  See, Daniel was about to discover something in Babylon that he would have never known if he’d lived his whole life in Israel like he planned.

He was to discover that there was somebody who was at work in Babylon. There’s one character in this story besides Daniel and his friends and Nebuchadnezzar and his servants. See this in reverse. Daniel 1:17. “To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning.” Now look at Daniel 1:9. “Now God had caused the official to show favour and sympathy to Daniel.” Now look at Daniel 1:2. “And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand.”  The writer is convinced that God is at work right from the start. He had a purpose for what was happening from the very beginning. He knows what many of the Israelites did not know. He’s convinced that even the defeat of Judah and the loss of the temple was not just a random meaningless event. God was not absent. He had not broken his promise or forgotten his dream. God was up to something in Babylon in the place of great suffering. God, as it turns out, loved even Babylon. God even cares about Nebuchadnezzar.

God sees something in him. Whatever you suffer today or tomorrow or sometime in the future, God is with you. God is with you, whoever you are, whatever Babylon you find yourself in. We’ll see this in the coming weeks. God is up to something in Babylon, so you resolve to honour him. Because resilient people resolve to maintain integrity. Because resilient people commit to building vibrant community. Because resilient people remember that life, even their suffering, has meaning and purpose in the eyes of God.

 

With grateful thanks to John Ortberg and a sermon entitled, “Pursuing Spiritual Excellence.” And John Lennox, Against the Flow.

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