“The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’ “Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’ (Message)
It’s tempting to think this parable doesn’t apply to us, but someone else. Jesus then goes on to talk about the birds of the air being fed by God and the flowers of the field being clothed by God, and for us not to make these things the priority of our lives. He finishes by saying,
Be generous. Give to the poor. Get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt, a
bank in heaven far from bankrobbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.
Is this relevant to our chapter from Daniel? I think so. What are the barns of wealthy nations? What declares wealth and prestige? Shopping centres, because these are a measure of the wealth and prosperity of a nation and the places at which people worship. These are places that say we are civilised and developed and have plenty – and they have been deserted for 18 months and many units will now stand empty. The things which we think are secure suddenly prove to be as vulnerable as anything else.
It’s tempting to think that chapter 4 of Daniel applies only to people in power, to governments and to societies. But we are part of society. We also need to apply it to the church and bring it down to the personal level, because that is why scripture was written – to speak into our lives.
Our three points for this week:
1. The pride of Nebuchadnezzar
2. Humbling the proud
3. Powerful church
The pride of Nebuchadnezzar
Nebuchadnezzar writes an open letter to the empire in this chapter. He is surprisingly open about his experiences and his humbling, but that may be because it had a happy ending for him:
At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my
majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me.
The source of his humbling is found in these words: “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” And to be honest I don’t think a lot of humility is expressed at the end of this chapter.
Perhaps he has reason to be proud of his achievements as the magnificent capital of his empire lay before him as he looked out from the roof of his palace. Here was someone who was more powerful than the president of the United States: no-one could vote him out of office and those around him didn’t dare offend. If any part of the empire rebelled, then it was dealt with ruthlessly – as Judah found out.
The vision seems to reinforce his position of glory and power with its description of the tree, its beauty and abundance and the fact that many found shelter and security under its canopy. However, this was all contingent on obedience and subservience. This is how powerful nations have always worked: if you want benefits from us then you will do things our way and use our companies and our goods. This increases dependence and reduces the power and autonomy of individual states.
Interestingly, this powerful man is fearful again, particularly after this second vision. He should feel safe and secure, but he doesn’t. He has everything he needs and there are no worries about provision for his old age, but he is still fearful. Let’s face it, he has a lot to lose. Perhaps the greatest thing he stands to lose is status and prestige. When powerful figures fall they tend to be remembered for their fall, rather than their success. The fall or demise becomes prominent in the minds of people.
There is a problem at the heart of his empire though, and this is expressed in v. 27:
Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by
practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed,
that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.
Righteousness and mercy are not the foundations on which the empire is built, but injustice, oppression and ruthlessness. These are the instruments which maintain and hold the empire together and eventually it will crumble as the first vision showed.
Nebuchadnezzar calls on Daniel last of all to interpret his dream. This is perhaps surprising in the light of last time, and that he’s called the chief of magicians who has ‘the spirit of the holy gods and no mystery is too difficult for you’. These words show that although Nebuchadnezzar declared God the Lord of all and revealer of mysteries in chapter 2, no conversion has taken place and certainly no change in character. For Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel follows a different god whom he as king can just accept into the collection of gods worshipped in Babylon.
It should remind us to be wise when people use religious language and cause us to think there has been a change of heart. We should be wise when politicians praise the work of Christians, accepting that God has been glorified. In Matthew 7 Jesus says,
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but
the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
True conversion brings a change of heart, a change of allegiance and a different lifestyle.
Daniel is dismayed by the dream. Is that because he has to deliver another difficult message, only this one will have an impact in Nebuchadnezzar’s lifetime? Is it because he has developed a respect for this king, working with him at such close quarters? What we do know is that he was wise in his answer, whilst not pulling any punches. He delivers the interpretation which will lead to this man’s complete humiliation and ends with an appeal for repentance, which was very forthright and bold, though delivered sympathetically. It fell on deaf ears. We are people called to live out the gospel in word and deed. I do not believe we are called to condemn people but to share the saving love of God in Jesus Christ. It is then for others to respond. No-one can be forced to become a follower of Jesus; even this dream has not convinced Nebuchadnezzar to become a worshipper of the one true God.
Humbling the proud
I started cycling when I moved to Horley..London to Brighton…fit and healthy. Carried on here…Rochester..coming back…garden… lay down… weekend I had a heart attack. Suddenly I was no longer in control.
My life was in the hands of others and ultimately in the hands of God. Instead of being the one visiting the sick, I was being visited and prayed for. I was easily tired and couldn’t do much. The plans Wendy and I had for the future were not quite so certain. I went from being fit, healthy and being in control, to someone who was humbled and had to accept the leading and direction of others.
Did I learn anything from that experience? Certainly that we cannot add one day by worrying – but I still worry. That ultimately we are not the ones in control – but I still seek to control. That we make our plans, but we need to sit loosely to them, because they may not be the plans God has for us.
We can be so like Nebuchadnezzar surveying our empire and feeling satisfied with ourselves, but failing to realise the focus of our worship has slipped from God the Lord over all, to what we have achieved and the security we have established. Daniel’s call for repentance fell on deaf ears and Nebuchadnezzar was humiliated. The one who controlled the fate of thousands in his empire, was reduced to being animal like in his behaviour. Everything is taken from him as he experiences a total mental breakdown. The amazing thing is that he was not completely usurped and assassinated.
In Luke’s Gospel, he records Mary singing
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Mary was asserting what the Book of Daniel asserts: God is Lord over all – he is Adonai. Is this really true? Can we be sure about this? Some doubt is expressed in Psalm 73:
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.[a]
They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
They say, “How would God know?
Does the Most High know anything?”
This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
Job shares his concerns about what he sees:
Why do the wicked live,
reach old age, and grow mighty in power?
Their offspring are established in their presence,
and their descendants before their eyes.
Their houses are safe from fear,
and no rod of God is upon them.
They say to God, ‘Depart from us!
We do not desire the knowledge of your ways.
Who are the influencers and the powerful and the apparently successful? Aren’t they the wealthy, the famous, the celebrities? Aren’t they people who sneer at religion and undermine belief in God? It often feels that way. However, we first have to
keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right side of God’s throne.
This is where we begin and to where we return when we have doubts or as the psalmist put it envy the arrogant.
I am not a fan of Call the Midwife, but Wendy is and one of the story lines has been the loss of faith by the oldest sister in the convent. She literally goes through a dark night of the soul. I am also not one of those who eulogise over the birth process, but this is where suddenly the sister concerned finds she emerges from her dark night of the soul to appreciate and experience again the wonder and majesty of God the creator and her Saviour. He is where glory and power reside. One day all will bow the knee before him.
In the meantime, we live our lives as the body of Christ, the Church of Christ on earth; and the church has been humbled.
In the 1990s Pope John Paul II visited South America and the people of the Andes. They made a special gift of a Bible to him saying:
We people of the Andes have decided to give you back your Bible, because in
five centuries it has brought neither love nor justice, nor peace. Please take it back to our oppressors because they need its moral precepts more than we do.’
Powerful church in past centuries has not been expressed in terms Jesus would have understood or accepted. It was church marching forward with the power of the state and behaving in just the same way as other invaders. Powerful church should be more like this parable from Ecclesiastes:
One day as I was observing how wisdom fares on this earth, I saw something
that made me sit up and take notice. There was a small town with only a few people in it. A strong king came and mounted an attack, building trenches and attack posts around it. There was a poor but wise man in that town whose wisdom saved the town, but he was promptly forgotten. (He was only a poor man, after all.)
Powerful church should be more like Jesus who declared he had come to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and sight to the blind. The model of powerful church for us is that of Philippians 2:5-11 as the Son of God completely empties himself on behalf of the world to bring the world salvation.
So as we emerge and begin to move towards normality of some sort, how can we be powerful church following Jesus’ example?
One of the things that can occupy church ministers is success criteria. How popular are my social media posts? How many people come to services? Are we up to date with our media presentations and music? What is the band like? How busy is the church and how busy am I? How many branches of my church are there? These are not necessarily wrong, but they focus on success criteria easily recognisable by secular organisations. What is missing?
How well have we discipled followers of Jesus to live every day as Christians in
the world they find themselves?
How well have we equipped followers of Jesus to survive the isolation of a
How well are we fulfilling the manifesto of Jesus laid out in Luke 4?
How many people are becoming followers of Jesus Christ?
These are the questions we should be addressing as small groups, as leaders, as a whole church.
Some answers to these questions might be
• Providing space to talk about the Bible, the message given on a Sunday and
apply it to our lives, asking and tackling difficult questions.
• Enabling people to serve both through the church and elsewhere, as well as
seeing the work people do as their calling and service for God.
• Being generous in the use of our physical resources, using the building as a
community space and not just as a source of income.
• Not being concerned about the outward signs of success of other churches or
denominations, but rejoicing that the Kingdom is advancing.
Underpinning all these is growing a deep rooted faith that recognises God as Lord over all. Gerard Kelly says,
‘Faith for Daniel was stretched between the overwhelming power of the emperor
and the apparent powerlessness of his own situation. The experience of Daniel begins with the loss of power and ends in the discovery of a greater power.’
That greater power was the power of the living God who glorified Jesus Christ by raising him from the dead. My prayer is that we grow in the knowledge and experience of the greater power of God our Father; follow the example of the Lord Jesus Christ and be equipped and enabled by the Holy Spirit.