This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Introduction: Daniel's story
"Dare to be a Daniel." That's the title of a fairly well known children's song. You may know Daniel a little from the Old Testament book named after him. And you are probably most familiar with the story of his surviving a night in a lion's den. The king had placed him there after Daniel was caught disobeying the king by worshiping God.
But while Daniel may be most famous for his night with the lions, the truth is most of us will never identify with that kind of a situation. At least we hope not. But this story we just read of Daniel in the dining room – which I guess you could call it - hits a little closer to home for most of us. In fact, it's pretty safe to say that Satan uses dining rooms far more as a way to get us away from God than he uses lions.
Well, be that as it may, this isn't a story simply about a dining room, or being vegetarian any more than the lion's den story is simply about surviving a night with some scary wildlife. It’s about a battle going on. It’s about the spirit of Babylon trying to grab, to pull the people of God into a godless culture. A battle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness.
We're going to look at this passage from Daniel as a way of looking at stewardship from a bit of a different angle. An angle that in the end will take us to what it means to follow Jesus. We'll do that looking first at the context, secondly at the battle and thirdly at the blessing [if ‘PowerPoint’ is available, progressively screen through the headings of the sermon as it is delivered, beginning with the introduction].
I. The context
First, we look at the context because we want to get a sense of what is going on here.
The people of Israel, of which Daniel and his three friends were a part, had been taken to Babylon. They had lost their land and their freedom and were now trying to settle into this new country. They were a proud, at times defiant people, but at this point they felt pretty defeated. And then this offer comes from King Nebuchadnezzar. He's going to try to break and integrate the spirit of this people whom he has brought to a new home.
Nebuchadnezzar is no dummy. He knows to capture the nation he has to capture the youth. So he goes for the young people and Nebuchadnezzar's plan is to 're-orient’ the youth into the Babylonian culture. At first glance, Nebuchadnezzar’s offer is almost too good to be true. He would give the selected youth a full education, he would take care of all their physical needs in the process, and at the end held out the prospect of a good paying, powerful government position. The one catch is that they - of course - would have to fit in with the worship of the Babylonian gods. That would mean eating the food offered to the idols and giving up their religious diet. If Nebuchadnezzar could get them to do that, he would have his foot solidly in the door to move these Israelite youth away from their God and get them on-line with his kingdom and plans. So the question now is how these people would respond to this offer.
Nebuchadnezzar's invitation came at a time when many of the Israelite exiles were ready to settle down in the New Babylon comfortably and uncritically. So as far as that went, his timing was good. More than likely some of them happily argued that giving up the old lifestyle was the best way to make a contribution to this great emerging nation. It would enable them to be a part of something big. The world would be best served in terms of the direction it was going if they would let go a bit of Zion and move beyond some of this legalistic food stuff already.
Of course, these young people and their families saw that life in Babylon offered a promise of wealth and fulfillment that they hadn't dreamed was possible in the old country. Parents could see the incredible opportunity of having their kids make it in this new system. So when word came around of Nebuchadnezzar's search for recruits for his college, it is easy to picture how parents would scramble for places for their children--their youth whom they had already called by new Babylonian names. And so most of them tossed aside the food regulations they had been brought up with. Hey, this was modern Babylon. Things were different, times were moving and they weren't going to be left behind and let someone else's kids take the opportunity. No sir. There was more to get, and they were going to try to get it.
The sad part of this first chapter in Daniel is the recognition that, of all these young people, only four dared to stand their ground for the faith... the religion... and the God to whom they belonged. As far as that went, the battle wasn't going too well.
II. The battle
Which is the second point: the battle. Because – as mentioned earlier – at heart that's what this was: a battle which confronted these young people, these future leaders, with some questions about what success is. Questions like: what counts in life? What work or career can you legitimately pursue as a Christian? What is this battle, which so often feels like a rat race, really all about anyway, and how much does God’s word really speak to that?
Well, the issue upfront here was about obedience to God. It wasn't that being trained for government service or taking on a secular leadership position was bad. In fact, gifted Israelites could become very influential in their new society. No, the issue was whether the people of Israel would embrace pagan gods as part of their new society. Going along with the king's proposal meant they had to give up certain faith priorities. It meant they would have to change their faith walk. And that is what Satan wants. So what better place for this all to start than in the dining room; what better way than through the stomachs of hungry young men.
As we read earlier, we already know that it worked. All of them, except for four, were willing to give up some part of their faith, and go for the food. It was a step forward for Satan. Once Satan gets his foot in the door and gets people to take the first step of disobeying God - and somehow justify that disobedience - the next steps get easier. They're easier because you are already heading down a road away from God. Nebuchadnezzar knew what he was doing.
If you think about it a little, that concept should not be that foreign. Something similar happened in the garden of Eden, remember? The fruit tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I mean, what's wrong with eating a healthy looking fruit? ...and knowledge is a good thing, right?... and it is just food... so what's God's problem that you can't eat fruit from one little tree? Even if God said so?
And we know where that went with Adam and Eve. The people of Israel knew as well. What God's people didn't recognize somehow is that the battle is not against flesh and blood, and the battle is not simply about food but the battle is against principalities and the powers of darkness that would separate us from God. And if Satan can get you to disobey on the small things, it's just a few more steps toward ignoring and disobeying the bigger things. That's what Ephesians 6 is such a stark reminder of.
Well, Daniel didn't give in to the first steps of that journey. He waited on God, and refused to conform the way others were. He didn't wait to get his sense of direction from what other youth chose. He knew the words of Joshua when Joshua was pleading with the people: 'choose this day whom you will serve... but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.'
Those are the words we also need to hear today. The clear call from God to stand firm when others are compromising. Or if we've already been compromising to get back on the right track. The issue isn't simply whether the matter at hand happens to be very important in our own eyes. The issue is whether we recognize that there is a battle going on, and that we have to draw lines. And if we compromise, it's not just about food. No, it's about a bigger fight.
That's where the issue of discipleship and stewardship comes in. No different than in Jesus' day – with all his warnings about money and material goods – God's word reminds us of a consistent danger in our day. Our culture says more is better. Our culture says money is the answer to almost anything. And if you don't have it, act as if you do and get it on credit. Get what your neighbours have, or better yet, one-up them. Work like a slave - two jobs if need be - in order to get more. The danger today is that we live in a consumer society that defines us not by who we are but by what we have. But it traps us, and it doesn't take long before we begin thinking and talking as if success, for me or for my children, is measured by what we earn and what kind of a place we live in and what kind of toys we have to play with.
What does that tempt us to give up? That doesn't take much to figure out. It tempts us to give up family time and family values. To give up Sunday rest. To let friendships slide. To leave volunteering to others. It can pull us from being content with what we have and push us to try to get what we want. It can tempt us to let go of godly values in order to try to be more 'successful.' It tempts us to give in to the idea that a little more money, and a few more things will get us the happiness we don’t yet have. It's the kind of thing that leads us to do what the rich man did in one of the parables Jesus told: tear down the barns we have and build bigger ones... forgetting that in the end you die and take nothing with you. Because the only thing you can take with you when you die is your relationship with God. That's what Daniel and his three friends knew. They had the battle straight in their heads and hearts.
III. The blessing
That brings us to the third point: the blessing.
Daniel and his three friends followed what God had said, and God makes sure we understand that Daniel and his three friends were the ones who ended up getting ahead. In spite of their choice that everyone would have thought was foolish, they went further than any of the others.
Now we have to be careful how we understand that. Following God always results in blessing, but it may not always be the blessing we intend or desire. This story of Daniel doesn't mean that if we obey God in all things we will end up further ahead than others, or with more of the stuff we want, because then of course our motives for obedience are already starting in the wrong place.
What this story of Daniel points to is that when we prove we are trustworthy, then God entrusts us with more. That is God's blessing. It means God can count on us to honour him even in a world where things change so fast and we can get sucked in to the 'get more for me' culture so quickly. God’s word reminds us here that he empowers trustworthy people to do his will.
So what do we need to do to fight this part of the battle? Well, when you read and study this passage and consider the theme of the book of Daniel, the answer comes out clearly: you need to live a godly life. It means that you need to choose to do the things that line up with God's word. Not because they always make sense to ‘the world’, but because it's about God and his kingdom, and about a battle and principalities. It's not simply pieces of meat or fruit and my ability to make sense of it.
For Daniel it began with what he started in verse eight of the chapter we read. A clear and godly decision before anything else. We read there: “Daniel resolved not to defile himself” - he was not going to be defiled with the kinds of things that would lead him away from God. He made that decision, that promise before all else. He took that with him into meal-time, three times a day. Daniel set his faith sights on God.
That's the point. That's what God calls us to do too, in all areas, and certainly as part of a consumer society, a culture that always wants to get more. God calls us to remember that getting ahead can be very deceiving if we use today’s standards. We must recognize that what may seem like “getting ahead” in the eyes of our culture may be the very thing that holds us back in the eyes and will of God.
There is a story about a girl named Alice in a song written by Ken Miedema [Album: “Kidding Around”]. The song is called "Pockets". Alice is a little girl who cannot run and skip. It's not because she is sick, though. It's because she has a dress covered with pockets, and the pockets are filled with all the stuff she owns. Alice carries her stuff with her everywhere.
One day, Alice decides to skip school. She goes to a fair and ends up on a ride called the "upside-down-turn-around machine." Guess what happens... as Alice takes this ride, all that stuff falls out of her pockets.
Well, understandably, Alice is in tears. All her stuff is gone… but then she discovers something. Alice learns that without all those things weighing her down, she can run and jump and skip like never before. And what Alice finds is a new way of looking at life. A new way that comes when her life turns upside down and she loses all the stuff she was holding on to that was really holding her back.
Daniel, a young man in exile in Babylon, a believer in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, knew that… without needing the upside down turn around machine. God wants us to know that too. The stuff and the dreams of cultural success and getting more can weigh us down and become the very ideals and things that keep us from the freedom of being happy in following Jesus.
It is striking that when you talk to many who have gone to developing countries, in service projects or on mission trips, that there is a familiar discovery. They report that those they spent time with in these countries had so little compared to us westerners. And yet ironically, they had so much joy and so much life. And in that observation, some discovered that what we have in our pockets may not be what is best for us... at least not if we want the freedom to follow Jesus Christ and go where he leads.
There will be a price to pay and things to forgo. But if you want to jump and run and dance the dance of the kingdom you need to follow God's way without compromise. And you need to then hear his call in getting and giving and using and sharing, God’s call to a Kingdom economy.
Conclusion: Your story
Well, that's the story of Daniel. And that's the story of Alice. The question, now that you have heard God's word and this sermon, is how the story of you is going. You can read about Daniel and sing about Alice, but have you resolved in your heart not to contaminate yourself with the stuff that can be so tempting and weighty in our culture? Have you resolved to obey the Lord in all things and trust that he will work it out? Are you ready to follow Jesus no matter what and not begin the slow and difficult trip of trying to bargain with sin because others around you are?
It’s one thing to say ‘yes’, but how will you apply it to the way you work, what you put in the offering, the guidelines you set at home, the way you handle alcohol, sexuality, what you do on the internet, how you speak about others, how much you eat, what you give for the poor, the time you spend in prayer and Bible reading, and the language you use?
This week pause for a moment to at least look at what's in the pockets of your life that may be keeping you down when it comes to your stewardship of time and resources and energy. Resolve in prayer with Jesus, to do something about it. Maybe in that sense we can say: dare to be a Daniel, a steward of the riches of what it means to belong to God in Jesus, and so to follow Jesus with all your heart. Because that's where the real success lies.
Today is Sunday; you have six more days to work on it this week. This is the word of the Lord. Amen.
Prayer: Father in heaven, we thank you for your word. We pray that we may be good stewards of the gifts that we receive. Forgive us when we get this wrong. May we always seek first your Kingdom and your righteousness. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Order of Worship
We Gather Before God
Call to Worship: Psalm 24:1-6
Silent Prayer (followed by: “Spirit of the Living God” PsH #424)
*Opening Songs: “Faithful One” and“You Are Holy”
“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” PsH #475
“The Earth and the Riches” PsH #24:1,3,5
*Opening Prayer: Lord God, we are gathered here in your name. Together we confess that our help is in you, and we rely on your promise that you will never forsake the works of your hands. May your grace, mercy and peace rest upon us as we worship. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
*Song: “To God Be the Glory” PsH# 473
God Calls Us to Reconciliation
Call to Confession: 1 John 1:8-10
Prayer of Confession
God’s Will for our Lives: Romans 12:1-8
*Song of Response: “Christian Hearts in Love United” PsH# 513
We Hear God's Word
Prayer for the Guidance of the Holy Spirit
Scripture: Daniel 1; Ephesians 6:10-13
Sermon: “Emptying Your Pockets”
We Give God Our Response
*Song: “Take My Life and Let it Be” PsH #288:1,2,4,6
Offering our gifts
God Sends Us Into the World
*Hymn: “What the Lord Has Done in Me”
“Lord, I Want to be a Christian” PsH #264
*Prayer for God’s Blessing: Hebrews 13:20-21
*Response: “He is Lord” PsH# 633
(* Please stand, if you are able)