Distinctive Daniel (Daniel 1)

Distinctive Daniel from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

Distinctive Daniel: Daniel 1:1-21

“…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 1:3-4)

Picture Daniel. He is from a family of high social status. He is physically fit and strikingly handsome.  If Joanna were giving this message, she might tell you to picture Daniel Craig who many think is strikingly handsome. 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. Aged 17, he would have achieved ‘A’ stars in all of his subjects at AS level last week and be heading for Oxford or Harvard next Summer.  Daniel also scores high in ‘emotional intelligence’. His future would be predictable. After university he would go to medical school or law school or Sandhurst. He would work in Harley Street, the Diplomatic Service, the City or MI5. He might become a stock broker, a barrister, an officer, an ambassador, a corporate CEO. He would be successful in whatever field he chose. He would marry a beautiful wife, live in an enviable home with the right postcode, raise a wonderful family who would go to private schools and he would occupy a prominent place in the community. He would also do great things for God and God’s people. But life did not turn out the way Daniel planned.

There’s a whole world of heartbreak in these first two verses.

“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.” (Daniel 1:1-2)

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 the people of Israel for century after century. At times, that’s all they had. There had been ups and downs through the years. They were in slavery in Egypt for many centuries. They were delivered under Moses. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years. They went into the promised land. And after a period of time they reached their peak under David and Solomon. And Solomon built this glorious temple. But then there was a long, slow decline. For all his wisdom in governing a nation, he had not been a good father. The kingdom became divided. The ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, are defeated and the people are 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. a foreign king comes to Jerusalem, and with very little effort, besieges it and destroys all that is left of God’s dream and Daniel’s. The temple is a memory. 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 culture.  He has lost his family and friends. He has to learn a foreign language. He will live and die in a foreign country. He will never go home.

And the greatest indignity of all? He loses his name. And this name deal is quite significant. In 1:7 Daniel and his three friends are each given new names. Their old 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 gave evidence of their relationship to the one true God. Their names remind them they belong to God. That is why Nebuchadnezzar gives them new names. It is his way of saying, “You have a new king now. You belong to me. I define your identity.”  The name ‘Daniel’ means “the Lord will judge.”  It is a good 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 promise has failed. The Lord is not his judge. 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.

So what do you do when you realise you have ended up in Babylon? Because sooner of later, you will. Babylon is where you find yourself when life does not turn out the way you planned. Maybe a relationship or a marriage of your dreams has ended. Maybe your vocational hopes have died. Maybe somebody you love has wounded you deeply. Maybe you realize that a deep prayer you have cherished will never be answered the way that you want. Welcome to Babylon, Cut off from the life that you wanted and planned on, you now realise you may never get home. And worst of all, you wonder if God even cares. How could God let this happen? 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 of research into suffering, major crises, or trauma. The clinical term is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but for most people it is known more generically as depression. When someone becomes depressed, something dies inside. You may even lose the will to live.

But studies show that there are some people who don’t just survive these traumatic experiences. They find the ability to endure, to adapt and be creative. They don’t just survive they grow through trauma. Researchers call these people ‘resilient’. They call this capacity to thrive in adversity ‘resiliency’. Tonight, come to our evening service and meet one. Wess Staffford, CEO and President of Compassion International, will share his personal story. Researches have concluded that there are common characteristics, identifiable qualities of spirit that mark out resilient people.

When we read Daniel, we are looking at one of the most spiritually resilient people in history. In his youth, as we’ve seen, he lost everything – his home, his family, his future, even his name. Yet with God’s help, in Babylon, Daniel learned not just to survive, but to thrive.  This morning I want us to meet Daniel in Babylon and observe some of the characteristics that make for 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)

The first observation we can make is that resilient people resolve. They make a decision of the will to honour their deepest values. They refuse to live as victims of circumstances beyond their control. They refuse to compromise or betray their deepest commitments.
They resolve to honour God.  Now, in many ways, 1:8 is the hinge point not only of the first chapter but of the entire Book of Daniel. Everything turns here. Because up until verse 8, the Babylonians have determined everything. They are in control. Nebuchadnezzar determines to conquer Israel. He determines to plunder its most sacred objects. He conscripts 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 a passive victim. To get used to it. To bend with the wind. To become compliant and eventually enjoy the ride. But no.  From 1:8 on, the initiative in the story changes.

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 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…” “But Daniel determined not to defile himself with rich food.” (Daniel 1:8). It’s the same verb repeated over and over, but this time Daniel is determining — Daniel the captive, Daniel the prisoner, makes a decision. And the writer uses a really 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 having decided, he takes action. To discuss the menu. Everybody is to be fed roast beef, steak, ham, eggs, and cheese. They’re on the Atkins’ diet, but Daniel wants to be 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. Maybe because it was from the king’s table. It’s not real clear why, but it is clear to Daniel that 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 give people much latitude. In 2 Kings 25, a puppet king named Zedekiah rebels. Nebuchadnezzar captures Zedekiah and his family. He has all his sons killed before Zedekiah, and then has Zedekiah’s eyes put out. The last thing he sees is his sons being killed, before going blind.  You’ve heard of leaders with a hands-on or hands off management style. Nebuchadnezzar had a “heads-off” approach. If people crossed him, he cut off their heads. How many of you have ever had a really tough boss? Imagine working for a boss so tough that when he terminates people, he terminates 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 with courage and determination. And we’ll see the wisdom behind this initiative. That is what makes for spiritually resilient people. They resolve to honour God. And then they figure out whatever it takes to do that. And they do not accept the excuse that life is beyond their control. They seize whatever initiative is available to them. Now this is going to take some effort on Daniel’s part. He goes to the dean of the school to make 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 too.” That’s his answer. And now we start to see Daniel’s resilience. Daniel says to himself, “Well, that’s not exactly a ‘yes,’ but it’s not exactly a ‘no.’” And so he goes to the guard in the next level down on the organisation chart and proposes an experiment. He says, “Let us 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, in verse 16 the guard is so impressed with Daniel and his friends health that he takes away everybody’s steak and puts the whole school on the veggie platter. And Daniel goes to the head of the class.

But friends, this only happens because when everything looked like it was lost, 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. He would do the right thing.

So let me ask you, anywhere you’re feel you’ve compromised? The husband like Tiger Woods who never intended to lose his family, but decided it was okay to flirt around the boundaries of adultery. He got tangled up in Babylon. The business person who decides that cutting an ethical corner here and there will make a ride to the top quicker. Most people never intend to wreck their career. Or shatter their reputation or destroy their marriage. They think they can get away with it, but before they know it, they suffer a relational crash that wrecks their life. Invariably it begins with 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 out. You can do this. This is how spiritual resiliency grows. This is required if you want to survive in Babylon. Regain your integrity.  Do the right thing. 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 first thing Monday morning. Make the call.  Do you need to reorder your time or priorities? Reorder them. Is there some area in your life where you need to be proactive and you haven’t because you see 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.

Why is this diet thing so important for Daniel? 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 hear themselves say, “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 the link? 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 furnace or the lion’s den. So, resolve today, “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. They recognize that it’s a life or death deal.

2. Resilient people commit to building their 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 in, 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 surely 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 alone without 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–GBUS–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.  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 ironic. Where community is so difficult, people will move heaven and earth and risk their lives just for a moment of it. But when Community is so available we take it for granted.  Lets value our church family breakfast next Sunday or the 4th Sunday lunches together. Community –  that is deep friendship and spiritual intimacy – do not come easy. You have to fight for them. That is why our membership covenant is a covenant with one another. That by God’s grace, we will determine to not neglect one another but support and uphold one another.  Sometimes I talk to somebody after a service who is struggling with some difficult problem. And I’ll ask, “Are you in community? Do you have a small group of trusted Christian brothers and sisters that 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.” This morning I plead with you to try again – try another group. In the next few weeks we are re-launching our home groups. We are a church of small groups. If you are not yet a member of a small group meeting to study God’s word, for prayer and community, you will not survive long in Babylon. And those of you who are here tonight who are in a small group, remember, the people in your group live in Babylon, and they get beaten up one way or another all the time, 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.” People need to hear the code – GBU – not just hostages and POWs.  People in this room need to hear the code. As a community, we must ensure that nobody leaves church on Sundays without hearing somebody say, “I’m glad you’re here. You matter to me. Don’t you give up.”  How do we learn to thrive in Babylon?

1. Resilient people resolve to maintain integrity.
2. Resilient people commit to building vibrant community.

3. Resilient people remember that life, even their suffering, has meaning and purpose in the eyes of God.

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 too intense. It’s when they believe their suffering has no meaning or purpose. It’s not the intensity of the suffering, but the meaninglessness of it.  Apparently, 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 as planned. He discovers that there is another character in this story besides Daniel and his friends and Nebuchadnezzar and his servants. See this in reverse.

“To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning.” (Daniel 1:17). Now look up 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 has a purpose for what is happening every step of the way. 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 and the deportations to Babylon that looked so tragic are not just random meaningless events. God is not asleep. God has not broken his promise. He has not forgotten his dream. God is up to something in Babylon in the place of great suffering. God, as it turns out, loves 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. Next week, when we revert back to our normal 9.30 and 11.00am services, we are going to begin a new series in Nehemiah. We are going to see what happened to God’s people after their exile in Babylon. God’s providential grace working his purposes out. God is up to something in our Babylon too, so you resolve to honour him. Because resilient people resolve to maintain their integrity. Because resilient people commit to build a vibrant community. Because resilient people remember that life, even their suffering, has meaning in the purposes of God.

Lets pray.

With grateful thanks to John Ortberg and a sermon entitled, “Pursuing Spiritual Excellence.”