A sermon on Daniel 1 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 15 may 2022
The message of the book of Daniel is about living in Babylon.
Daniel lived in Babylon, the great city at the heart of the Babylonian empire. He was there from the time of Babylon’s greatest king, Nebuchadnezzar, all the way to that empire’s collapse when it was defeated and replaced by the Persians. It was an empire forged by conquest, as the armies of Babylon swept from one side of the Middle East to the other. They invaded other countries. They put down revolts and revolutions. They put cities under siege and deposed their rulers and robbed their temples and took their young people away as hostages. All for the glory of Babylon and its gods.
We don’t live in Babylon. We live in Corowa or in the district around it. We live in Australia in the year 2022. But there are many similarities between our experiences and Daniel’s. Like Daniel we live in an age when it is hard to be a person of faith. Values that are in the Bible and which we hold dear are openly mocked. If we dared to speak out for what we think is right or good we risk being shunned or excluded. And there is great pressure to conform to the community standards around us, to bow down and worship the gods of materialism and celebrity.
In many ways, modern day Australia is a lot like Babylon. So I believe very strongly that the book of Daniel was written not just for the people of God of his time but for us. Because from this book we can learn how to live in our kind of Babylon. And not just survive, but also thrive.
The first two verses of Daniel chapter 1 show us what happened when Nebuchadnezzar and his armies arrived at the doorstep of the people of God in Israel in about 605 BC. What other kings and other empires had tried to do, Nebuchadnezzar achieved. The city of Jerusalem was captured, its king Jehoiakim was taken prisoner, and the temple of the Lord was looted.
How could this happen? Were the gods of Babylon stronger than the Lord, the God of Israel? Not at all. All this happened because the Lord let it happen. The Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand. Not out of his hand, but into his hand. It happened as a judgement on his people for turning away from him.
And so straight away in the first couple of verses we learn lesson one about living in Babylon. The Lord is in control. He is the king of kings. He allows the empires of the world to have their brief time on the stage of history. He raises up rulers to pursue his sometimes mysterious plan. But in the end they are replaced by others. Everything that happens, happens for a reason. We may never learn how or why. We don’t know why men like Kim Jon Un or Vladimir Putin get to rule for years or even decades. But the Lord our God is in control. No side of politics will ultimately end up on history’s side. History is on nobody’s side except the Lord’s. In the meantime we wait for the Lord Jesus to return to put all wrongs right and to lift up the oppressed and the broken-hearted. And every person, great or small, will give an account of their actions and choices. In the meantime, we can live in Babylon confident that the Lord is king, no matter what people think or say.
One other thing that Nebuchadnezzar did in his invasion of Israel was to take some hostages. These were the children of the nobles and of the upper class of Jerusalem. This made sense for two reasons. Firstly, it guaranteed the good behaviour of mum and dad back home in Israel. People would think twice about rising up against their Babylonian overlords if it meant risking the safety of their children.
But Nebuchadnezzar also had a much more cunning plan. If he could train these young people in the ways of Babylon then he could turn them into loyal servants who would grow up to be future governors of places like Jerusalem. Who better to lead the Jews in the ways of Babylon than young Jews brought up on those ways?
They were to be
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.
The core of the curriculum during their years of training was to be the language and literature of the Babylonians. They were to be taught how to read and they were to be told what to read, the myths, the culture, the values of the people of Babylon so they could grow up to be good, loyal examples of that culture and values. They were to be trained for three whole years and fed from the king’s own table.
Among those young men were our four heroes, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Teenagers, far away from home, living in Babylon, the land of their people’s conquerors. Many young people, facing those challenges, would have meekly succumbed to the king’s plan. But Daniel and his friends decided to draw a line that they refused to cross so that they might not be corrupted from their faith in God.
And it is interesting to note where they decided to draw that line and how. They didn’t draw the line on the curriculum that king Nebuchadnezzar chose. They didn’t refuse to learn the language and literature of the Babylonians as if by staying illiterate or ignorant they could be protected from the influence of Babylon’s culture. They learned the myths and laws and culture and values of the Babylonians. Nor did they later refuse to serve the king but took what they learned and put it into practice as loyal and hardworking officials in the empire’s bureaucracy.
These are important lessons to learn about living in Babylon. We have permission to take what is good from our surrounding culture and use it to live and to work for the good of our neighbours. Science isn’t bad just because we may not believe that our ancestors were apes. Science as a discipline is an excellent way to solve problems and to improve our lives. And books aren’t evil just because you don’t want to make the same mistakes as the characters in them. We can learn important lessons from stories even if it is the opposite of the lesson the author was trying to teach. As an example, I never wanted my children to learn that sex is bad. I wanted them to learn that we practice purity because it is good.
So some people might choose to turn their back on their culture to live as a hermits in their own homes so that they never hear or see or speak any evil. But please excuse me if I don’t join them. Daniel and his friends were not afraid to engage with the culture of Babylon to learn from it and to use what was good in it to serve others. And neither should we.
No they drew the line that they wouldn’t cross on God’s law. They refused to eat the king’s food. This decision only makes sense on the grounds that the food either contained meat forbidden by the Old Testament law like pork or contained meat that had been sacrificed to idols. They made their stand according to the laws and values of the law given to Moses by the hand of God.
And we should have the same courage to refuse to compromise on the law of love given to us by Christ and on the values that have been put on our hearts by the Spirit. The world around us can indulge in gossip and to assume the worst of others and to say that what is good is old fashioned and that what is wicked is fair game. But we have been called by the Lord Jesus not just to believe in the good news of love and life and forgiveness and redemption but to put it into practice in our daily choices and actions.
There is much that is good in the world around us. Social media does not have to be a battle zone where reputations can be ruined in hours and lies spread to millions. If people of goodwill used it to exchange information and to enhance conversation and debate, social media could be a great tool for good. There is much that is good in the world around us. But there is much much more that would be better if it followed in the footsteps of Jesus.
Daniel and his friends drew the line that they would not cross on the simple choice of either obedience or disobedience. But notice carefully how they did it. They didn’t make a scene. They didn’t go on a hunger strike. They didn’t cause any unnecessary drama. The people in charge of Daniel’s welfare were understandably unwilling to disobey the king. If their students looked underfed it would reflect badly on them. And Daniel didn’t want to make his stand in a way that would harm those who were supposed to be taking care of him. So he proposed a simple test. The young men would be allowed to eat only vegetables for ten days and the officials could decide if they looked any worse or not and take whatever action was appropriate.
The fact that they looked better at the end of the ten days says nothing about their diet. Daniel chapter 1 is not an advertisement for vegetarianism. Instead, it says everything about God who blessed his faithful servants with better health and vitality. It was a miracle. This is because our Lord is the God of life, the creator and sustainer of all things. All his purposes for us promote our life and health and joy. Obedience always leads to what is truly good for us. And we should never be afraid to put that to the test.
But we don’t have to make a scene. We don’t have to wear a chip on our shoulder. We don’t have to play the victim card as if the whole world is out to get us. We only need to obey our Lord with grace and courage and simple decency.
At the end of the three years of training king Nebuchadnezzar put the young men to the test and found that Daniel and his friends were ten times better than the others. This should not surprise us. If our Lord is the Lord of life, the creator of all things, then those who follow in his footsteps understand the key secret to all reality. And that is that true joy and blessing and peace and success are found in harmony with the Lord’s will. In God’s good world where Christ is king, being Christian is just being normal. It’s just being natural, in tune with the purpose of the universe. It is sin and wickedness and evil which are abnormal and they always only lead to breaking and ruining everything.
So to serve our Lord we don’t all have to be ministers and monks and missionaries. But we can be doctors and nurses and teachers and farmers and politicians and public servants doing good, bringing joy, promoting health, fostering peace with all we do in every situation that we land in.
So when I say that the book of Daniel is about living in Babylon, it isn’t just about surviving. Daniel and his friends lived a long time. Daniel well into his 70s or 80s. But they didn’t just survive. They thrived. They succeeded. They rose as high as they could in the administration of the empire.
And we can too. We may not. I’m not promising anything. But we can thrive. Because every empire, even our present day Babylon here in Australia, exists in God’s good world. We don’t have to live in fear. We don’t have to cause a drama to get our way. We don’t have to play the victim card because the whole universe and the tide of history is against us. Because the creator of the universe, the Lord of history is for us. And so we are allowed to take what is good around us and use it for the benefit of others in whatever sphere of life we are called to. And if we have to draw a line on a matter of principle we can do it with dignity and grace and courage.