One Big Story - Week Five: "A Stranger In A Strange Land"

Did you know that the Bible is One Big Story of God’s love for people who don’t always feel like they deserve God’s love?  It's true--it's the best kind of story, to be honest.

And God has a way of always picking the wrong kinds of people to do what God needs doing.  People who think they aren't good enough, people who the rest of the world thinks aren't good enough--heck, people who really aren't good enough... that's who God seems to love to pick to write God's One Big Story.

The Bible is One Big Story filled with heroes and villains, great adventures, epic battles, love stories and astonishing tales.  It’s also the story of a “once and future” King who picked the most unlikely people to help him share the story of God’s amazing love, and how far God was willing to go to save the world. 

Today we are continuing our summer sermon series, One Big Story.  And what we're going to be learning over the course of this summer is one very simple fact:  "God can use you  you no matter what." 

You might think that you aren't good enough to be used by God... You might think you're too old, too young, too busy, too messed up, too much of a sinner... but God doesn't care about that.  God loves you and wants to use you no matter what.

We'll be encountering some of the great characters in Scripture along the way---characters that undoubtedly dominated many a Sunday school class for some of us church-y types.

I'd like to think that this sermon series is kind of a "Sunday School Remixed," sort of thing.  We're going to be going over some familiar ground for many of our church members but hopefully, we'll all learn some things that surprise us when we do.  And if you are tuning in and you don't have much of a history with the Bible---you will definitely get the chance to learn more than you bargained for if we do this right...

Today we're going to be encountering another of the great characters from the Hebrew Scriptures:  Daniel.  And we're going to be learning something extremely important from one of the stories of his life.  

But first, let me ask you a question:  Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you felt powerless, isolated and lonely?  What did you do in that situation? 

In my first pastoral job, I had a season where I felt like this.  Before I even started in my role as associate pastor for youth and families in the church who called me, there was a church member who decided I wasn't the right person for the job.  

She lied, spread rumors, gossipped and generally made my first year as a pastor a nightmare. 

I got little or no support from the lead pastor of the church, who was going through some stuff of his own.  None of the elders I spoke to seemed to believe what I was telling them, because they thought she was so sweet, and I didn't know the rest of the staff well enough to have them in my corner.  So I felt all alone.  

I remember telling Merideth that I'd made a terrible mistake and wasted four years of my life in seminary and ordination preparation and that I was probably going to get a job at Starbucks. 

Maybe you've had a time like that in your life where you felt isolated at your work--unsupported by your boss, ostracized by co-workers.  Or at a school where your classmates turn on you, say mean things about you, or flat-out pick on you and you feel alone and angry.  

It could be this kind of thing happened to you in a church--and it wounded you beyond belief.  

Sometimes we assume that God isn't present in these places where we find ourselves.  We find ourselves in a lonely place, and we decide that maybe even God is among those who have abandoned us and left us to struggle on our own.  

Today as we read through one of the first stories of the life of Daniel, I want you to know something very important.  

No matter where you go, God is already there.  

I bet you thought I was going to say, "No matter where you go, there you are."  I almost did.  It's a quote from one of my favorite movies...  Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.  Watch this movie.  It will change your life. 

When the Old Testament book of Daniel opens we find ourselves in the year 599 B.C.

The great Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar has achieved virtually a bloodless conquest over the kingdom of Judah, and the city of Jerusalem.  The Babylonians and the Egyptians were the two superpowers in the region and were in a constant struggle over the trade routes in and near Judah and its neighbors.

Jehoiakim, the king of Judah made the mistake of plotting with the Egyptians against the Babylonians.  He died before Nebuchadnezzar arrived, however, and his son Jehoiachin was on the throne.  Jehoiachin capitulated almost upon the arrival of the Babylonians outside the gates of Jerusalem.

To teach the Hebrew people in Judah a lesson, Nebuchadnezzar took 10,000 of them back to Babylon with him.  7,000 of them were linked to the royal family and included the king.  1,000 of them were skilled craftsmen, and 2,000 of them were either the head of families or firstborn sons.

This was the Babylonian way.  Gathering exiles was a way of dealing a huge blow to the culture of the nations they conquered and strengthening their own position for generations.

Daniel was among the exiled captives and was probably a member of the royal family.

The idea was that these people would be assimilated into the Babylonian culture, and put to work furthering the Babylonian way of life.  Daniel was given the opportunity because of his royal blood to be a part of the palace contingent, and be trained as a courtier.

The captives were given new clothes, a new way of life... and new names.

Daniel's name means "God is my judge."  This would have been the One God, Yahweh, Jehovah, whom Daniel worshipped and to whom his life was dedicated. This was an honorable name, a name that meant something.

The Babylonians knew this and so they named him something else: Belteshazzar, which means "The Treasure of Baal."

So, not only did they take him away from his home, they told him who he was going to be.  And they wanted to remind him every day that they called him by his new name, that Yahweh was not as strong as Baal.

Let's learn a bit more about this king, Nebuchadnezzar.  Good old Nebuchadnezzar was a piece of work.  To begin with, he worshipped the god, Marduk, who was one of the many iterations of the god Baal.  He was famous for his devotion to Marduk and even built one of the most incredible shrines and temples to Marduk in the ancient world.  The shrine and temple with ziggurat towered in the middle of the city of Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar liked to collect things.  He had a collection of kings that he would keep imprisoned and then would bring out shackled in gold chains for dinner parties.  He collected the best artisans from all of the places he conquered.  He would also collect the armies of conquered nations and put them on the battlefield. 

And he collected the best and brightest young people to be trained in his court. 

Daniel was part of this best and brightest group and was earmarked early on to be a "wise man," in Nebuchadnezzar's palace.  This meant that he had to become an expert in Babylonian literature, religion, science, culture, etc.

And he had to learn how to write in Akkadian, which had 100's of symbols, rather than letters.  Daniel and his companions would copy literary and religious works for hours upon end---both learning the Akkadian language and being indoctrinated in the Babylonian "way."

In the first chapter of the book of Daniel, Daniel is presented with a bit of a quandary.  It seems that the king wants his wise men to eat the same food that he eats, and so commands them to do so.  

The typical presentation of this story focuses on the idea that because of the strict dietary laws that Daniel has as a Jew, to eat the food would be in violation of his covenant with God.

But the problem is that the historicity of this claim doesn't really hold water considering what we know about Jewish restrictions at the time.  Besides, the word that is used here for food is pat bag which gives no specifications regarding the type of food. 

The only thing that we know for certain is that it is food given to them by the king, from the king's table.  And this in itself is significant. You see, in Babylonian culture, eating the "king's food" would mean that you were now in a covenant relationship with the king. 

Regardless of what kind of food it was, Daniel knew that if he and his friends ate it, they would be declaring their allegiance and a covenant with Nebuchadnezzar--who was essentially worshipped and obeyed like a god.

The first commandment in the covenant with Israel goes a little something like this, "Thou shalt not have any other gods before me."  If Daniel ate the king's food he would be violating this command, breaking his covenant with God and declaring his allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar, and to anything that Nebuchadnezzar did or said.

Here are some things that Daniel knew that we can learn from...

Daniel knew that by giving in and eating, he would be connected to whatever future policy or plan the king would have--regardless of whatever they might be.

Daniel knew that although the food was fit for a king, it wasn't fit for a servant of the King of kings. 
Daniel knew that saying "yes" would have taken his convictions and tossed them aside, turning him into just another guy with a price.

What Daniel didn't know was how all of this was going to turn out.

But he had courage, and he made a deal with the guy who was in charge of all of the Jewish contingent.  He told the guy that if he and his three friends, Shadrack, Meschak and Abednego (we'll be visiting those guys next week) were not in great shape physically or mentally after adhering to their vegetarian diet--he would do as the guy asked.  But if they were in better shape than everyone else, then the guy would have to let them keep eating as their convictions led them.

He took the wager, and lo and behold, Daniel and his buddies were better than everyone else at the end of the training.

The question is, where did Daniel get this courage?  Where did he get the inspiration to believe even though he was in a foreign land, and that according to the cultures of his day his God had been defeated by Babylon's god?

Maybe it had something to do with a lion.

I discovered something interesting a few years ago when I was visiting the Oriental Institute in Chicago.  There is a panel on display from the Processional Way that led to the Ishtar Gate in the old city of Babylon.  Here's what it looks like: 

It's called "The Striding Lion," and this panel was one of the dozens that lined the Processional Way on either side.  The lion was a symbol of the goddess Ishtar, the patron of love, war and sex.  If you were a captive you were walked into Babylon through the Ishtar gate so you would know that you were beaten. 

It's like every lion you passed as you approached the looming gate was telling you, "You lost."  "Your God is weak."  "You belong to us."  "We own you." 

Let me tell you about Daniel's walk through the gate of Ishtar. 

Sure, Daniel saw the lions.  Only for Daniel, they didn't represent a goddess of sex, drugs and rock and roll. 

The lion was the symbol of his tribe, the tribe of Judah. 

The lion of Judah was right there.  In every panel and with every step. 

And as Daniel walked across that bridge of the Processional Way, the lions spoke something else to him.  They said:

"I will never leave you." 

"Nor will ever I forsake you." 

"The Lord your God is with you, withersoever (love that King James language baby) thou goest." 

"You.  Are.  Not.  Alone." 

"You. Are. My. Child." 

"Your identity is in me---not this place." 

"I have things for you to do here." 

"Don't be afraid... step out on to the edge." 

Have you ever been there... in that place?  You know, that place you feel lost and alone.  You've been betrayed by a friend or a loved one.  Your job isn't panning out like you thought it would and you're growing more and more isolated. 

You're going through something hard like cancer, or another bad diagnosis.  Your finances are collapsing around your feet.  You're breaking down and you feel like this strange new place you are venturing into is somewhere where God has never been.  

And maybe right about now, you are beginning to feel a bit like one of those captives walking down that long bridge with Babylonians jeering and laughing at you as you go.  And the lions telling you with every step.

"You lost."  "Your God is weak."  "You belong to us."  "We own you." 

Right about now maybe you are convinced that "Babylon" is right. 

And maybe you are thinking of just giving up and giving in.  You're going to accept the name change and the new clothes.  You want to be comfortable because the discomfort of where you are is too much to bear. 

Maybe you are tempted to betray your convictions for gain--just to know what it feels like to win, to be on top for a change.  Maybe you are just growing weary from fighting losing battles, and always being on the wrong side of things.  You believe in truth and justice, but it doesn't believe like truth and justice believe in you.  

Or maybe... maybe... you are starting to wake up in your faith, and you don't believe the things you used to believe.  You are starting to realize the Gospel is bigger than you thought it was, that the Bible is more than you thought it was, that church needs to be a huge part of your life... but your friends and family aren't getting it.  

Whatever the reason, you're may be feeling isolated and lonely.  I want to encourage you to not give up.  

In his incredible book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning tells the story of how he was conducting a spiritual retreat once and a woman came to him and said, "The only thing I want to get out of this retreat is to just to experience God, up close and personal.  I feel so disconnected from God, right now."  

She had been struggling in isolation and loneliness, feeling more and more depressed and alone.  All she wanted was to know God was there. 

As the retreat wore on, it was clear that the woman wasn't getting what she wanted.  But one morning as she was walking on the beach before the activities of the day began, she saw a woman and young boy walking toward her from far away.  They grew closer and closer until finally the walked by one another.  

Suddenly, the woman with the boy stopped and embraced the woman from the retreat with a huge hug.  "I just want you to know that I love you," she said to her in her ear.  Then she broke the embrace and kept walking down the beach.  

Come on!  

Those lions on the walls around you right now?  The ones the Enemy thought to put there to discourage you and mess you up, to make you feel like you were lost?  Yeah, those lions are symbols of victory for you.  The Lion of Judah has already been through the valley of the shadow ahead of you.  His presence fills all of those strange places where you feel like a stranger.  

You are no stranger.  You are a child of God, blessed, beloved and not alone.  

No matter where you go, God is already there.  

No matter where you go, God is already there. 


Popular posts from this blog

Wuv... True Wuv...

Rapha & Yada - "Be Still & Know": Reimagined

The Lord Needs It: Lessons From A Donkey