25th April 2021 Russell Braund

Daniel 1: Life takes a wrong turn

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Like most of you, I have never experienced war or invasion. Thankfully. However, we are all made only too aware of the devastation of war and the impact of invasion on ordinary people. In spite of all we know about war, nations are still willing to engage in it for whatever reason. It brings destruction, atrocities, devastation to whole areas and people’s lives. People are terrorised, abducted, transported. All sorts of justifications are given for the violence that occurs. Having invaded and taken over, then the invader sometimes tries to placate the population and be nice so that things settle down.

The impact of war is possibly the ultimate diversion of the course of life for people. Ambitions, plans and hopes are dashed. This is what happened to Judah when the Babylonians turned up and deported the population. How old were Daniel and his friends when they were deported to be re-educated and serve the despot Nebuchadnezzar? Possibly as young as 12 and certainly in their teenage years. Education for young men in Babylon began about the age of 14 and if they were to become naturalised Babylonians they needed to be young and impressionable.

This makes the story of Daniel all the more astounding. They were deported, never to return to their homeland. The whole course of their life takes a wrong turn that will never be corrected. They are weak people compared with the might of Babylon, but in these weak people is the hope of Israel. They are not cowed or overawed by this dazzling city they are removed to with all its sophistication. Even the authority of Nebuchadnezzar and his successors does not overwhelm to the point they give up on God.

As I said last week, Daniel is a book about Adonai – God the Lord over all. It is a book that asserts this and demonstrates it through the words and actions of the servants of God and principally through his servant Daniel. We are going to consider this chapter from the following perspectives: the re-education of Daniel; the subversion of Daniel and the wisdom of Daniel.

The re-education of Daniel
We have been hearing about re-education recently, because of the Uighurs in China and the mass re-education programme going on there. Re-education is often a tool of despotic governments and dictatorships. Political regimes from both ends of the spectrum have had re-education camps for those non-compliant with the government. The purpose is to make model citizens, or at least those who will do as they are told. Sometimes the purpose is to encourage integration, so that people come to accept the dominant culture. It can be more effective if people from the minority or deported group are recruited to prominent positions and seen to do well.
The Babylonians had given up tolerating this irritating little nation called Judah and smashed it, but equally they didn’t want a subversive group at the heart of their empire. If they could take young men from prominent families and train them in Babylonian ways, it was thought it would encourage the rest of the population to settle down and become Babylonian. However, Daniel is a book of defiance and declaration that the lord is King over all, and even the actions of a despot are subject to him. It is through the weakness of Daniel and his friends that this assertion was to be made real.

Let’s pause there a moment. One of the struggles of the Christian church in the progress of the 20th Century and definitely in the 21st Century is that it was strong and is now weak. It was at the heart of government telling people what to do and is now back at the margins of society. There are still attempts to court the corridors of power, but there are greater influences holding sway. However, we are still people who declare that God is Lord over all.

When pandemics break out we realise how weak and vulnerable we are; that life is fragile and can suddenly take a wrong turn. However, as we celebrate each Sunday, we know the Lord of life, the risen Lord Jesus Christ who is still Lord even in crisis times. It is in our lives that we declare Lordship of Christ and this is what we are exploring through Daniel. So many people have said that during the past year they have learned what is important and what is peripheral. How will that translate as we emerge from lock down? What have we learnt as followers of Jesus Christ and how will that affect our discipleship?

So Daniel and friends are re-educated. The big question is, why didn’t they take a stand at this point? It could reasonably be argued that these young men had undergone a traumatic experience in deportation and suddenly finding themselves in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, that it took a while for them to adjust and process it all. The obvious answer is that if at this point they had refused, that would have been it and life would probably have come to an end.

No purpose would have been served. If we see God at work here, then the preservation of their lives – more than that the prospering of their lives in the face of everything – was essential. More importantly the prospering of their lives at the centre of government whilst remaining faithful to God was essential. Some unknown deportees who defied the will of the king and were disposed of would go unnoticed. However, government advisers who make a stand and demonstrate the faithfulness of God would have been a very public matter – as it proved.

Daniel and his friends would have undergone a very challenging as well as stimulating education. They would become Babylonian in appearance and thought – it was inevitable. Yet God preserves them to be exemplars of faithfulness in pagan society. It was as exemplars of being faithful in a hostile environment that could bring the prospect of death. It was to be people who were quietly, yet publicly confident in the Lord their God who was and is Adonai – Lord over all. What an incredible work of God in these young people’s lives that they were able to be discerning and remain faithful. To be successful in learning and understanding the culture of Babylon, but not to succumb to it. They would have had to learn the language, study the literature, learn astrology and things that apparently contradicted the Law of Moses. Yet it was necessary for them to understand, be discerning and show wisdom. Their mission was not to change the centre of government but to witness to the living God in the centre of government. The matter of bringing despots to their knees to acknowledge his sovereignty was God’s.

What is it that is required of us as believers? Is it to Christianise society and to tell others how to live; to be the governors rather than the governed? We take the opportunities that come our way, but Jesus taught us to be salt and light; to live lives of integrity following him and to be unafraid in doing so. That may lead to difficulties, challenges and hostility and we may have to face what Daniel and his friends faced. Paul told the Ephesians?

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole
armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the
devil…take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the
evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.

This is what is required.

We need to understand our culture so we know best how to remain faithful within it as well as communicate the gospel to those around. Daniel and friends had the wisdom to be able to do this.

The subversion of Daniel
Having said all that, they did embark on a course of subversion early on in their re-education. It seems a strange thing to do when you are provided with the best food and drink available and you only want vegetables and water. What is going on here? It has been thought that it had something to do with meat being offered to idols beforehand, but all foods were part of the offerings to gods – as they were in the Jewish system of sacrifices and offerings. There is something more going on here that possibly has something to do with hospitality, loyalty and dependence.

For other cultures, hospitality has great significance, especially if you are invited into someone’s home. There is an expectation of loyalty and particularly if the person showing you hospitality is a person of authority or the king himself. He would certainly not have expected his hospitality to have been rejected, especially from within his own household. This was a life or death matter, as the chief of the eunuchs expressed.

It is difficult to second guess what the motives for Daniel and his friends were, but it certainly has something to do with defilement as verse 8 says, and it was a seriously subversive act defying the orders of a king and a despot. It could well have been linked to this idea of loyalty and dependence expressed through food. The young men were not dependent upon the king for their health and well being, but on the Lord God. They put down an early marker that they may be becoming part of the establishment, but they were not of it or dependent upon it. In this instance God prospered them and they were able to make further significant stands. What is more, Daniel at least got a lifetime job – he is there until the reign of Cyrus when he was probably about or approaching 80 years old.

We know that Daniel and his friends are preserved, survive and prosper. We need to be careful of drawing simple conclusions – be faithful to God and he will prosper and protect you. We only need to look at the Christian martyrs right up to the present day to realise that being faithful to God does not guarantee protection from all danger. I have heard recently of someone I know who has been faithful and been picked up by the security forces in his country as a result. There are plenty of places in the world where to be faithful has cost believers everything. Myanmar is in the news at the moment. This is not a country where minority groups are accepted or tolerated and in the recent past the military leaders have described Christians as having the C disease and they have faced and face persecution.

What can we take from this example? Daniel’s statement seems to have been, ‘We have been given no choice about where we work, but we are not of this place and will remain faithful to God.’ Daniel and friends demonstrated Jesus’ saying to the disciples, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Daniel was willing to serve faithfully, but not willing to compromise. He followed Jeremiah’s instruction to seek the prosperity of the city, but that would not compromise his faithfulness to God whom he knew was the author of life itself. Here is the lesson we need to learn and we need the wisdom to know how to put that into practice. This takes us to

The Wisdom of Daniel
Psalm 111:10 says,

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practise it have a
good understanding.

The opening of Deuteronomy 4 says,
And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules[a] that I am teaching
you…Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding
in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely
this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is
there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call
upon him?

Proverbs has 46 references to wisdom, although Daniel wouldn’t have had access to that book. In fact in Babylon when he was taken away he wouldn’t have had access to anything. There were no religious props to support him and even if he were in Judah they had all been destroyed. His wisdom lay in remaining faithful to God and he must have had some fairly effective teaching to be able to remain faithful as a young man experiencing all that he experienced.

Gerard Kelly talks about him having an intrinsic faith that sustained him and enabled him to be faithful. To have an intrinsic faith is to have such deep roots that it shapes everything about you – your thoughts, your views, your actions, your whole life. To have an intrinsic faith is to be
independent of crowds who have jumped on the bandwagon;
Independent of bands, good presentation and the latest Christian songs;
Independent of film clips and rousing preachers.

It is an internalised and rooted faith. For Daniel it is as though he has swallowed the Word of God. It makes him wise and shrewd in his judgements; sound in his actions; and he drew his strength from going

to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open towards
Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave
thanks before his God, as he had done previously.

Daniel knew that God did not depend on a building or sacrifices; rules and regulations. That he wasn’t territorial and could only be found in the ruins of the Jerusalem temple. Daniel knew that God was found in relationship and that relationship was formed through prayer, worship and living. That was why, free from all the trappings, the rituals and the building; deported to a pagan country, Daniel and friends were able to pick up their harps in a strange land and sing the Lord’s song. Was it a song of victory? Probably not. Was it a song of lament? Quite possibly. Was it a song of confidence and trust, praising God for who he is? Most definitely. Daniel proclaimed the power of God in his life and people looked to him for wisdom – even despots. How is that for declaring that God is Adonai – Lord over all?

We are in a strange land of Covid and throughout we have sung the Lord’s song. It has not been perfect, there have been mistakes and sometimes it has been off key. We have learned that God is not bound by our traditions and rituals; by our buildings and the trappings. We will find that there have been casualties as we emerge, because we haven’t enabled people to be strong enough disciples to persevere through this time, or even to want to continue. There will be those who will have found better provision elsewhere or whose priorities have changed. But for the majority their hope and trust has remained focussed on God their Saviour who has carried them through and will continue to do so. There is the encouragement of those who have come seeking and found Christ as Saviour and Lord. Daniel’s faith grew and strengthened during the time of exile which never ended for him. My prayer is that the same experience of growth, of intrinsic faith, is ours.