Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Sermon Summary 4.1.05: Babylonian Success Story

The greatest challenge for Christians in the Western world is the fact that the Christianity is no longer mainstream, and for the last fifty years churches have struggled to adapt to that cultural change. When I look to the Bible for guidance on how to deal with it, the closest parallel I can find is the story of Daniel and his three friends (Dan. 1). The book of Daniel contains a lot of visions about the end-time, but I believe that its stories are equally important as they give us models of how to live in the end-times.

Daniel and his three friends were brought to Babylon when King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem. Daniel 1:1 tells us that he also brought the implements from God's temple in Jerusalem and put them in the house of his Babylonian gods. This verse establishes the two chief characteristics of Babylon: oppression of God's people and a mix-and-match style of religion. Modern Western culture anyone?

Nebuchadnezzar's goal was to strip the Israelite boys of their identity and rebuild them as Babylonian officials who would serve in his government. He likely had them castrate, a common practice at the time (the word "official" means "eunuch") but one the excluded a man from the Israelite assembly (Deut. 32:1); and had them study Babylonian mythology, astrology ("Chaldean" means "astrologer"), and culture. He also had them take names referring to Babylonian gods and eat food that was likely unclean and sacrificed to Babylonian idols. And you thought going to public school was bad?

"But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself..." (Dan 1:8); he and his three friends decided do draw the line at worship. They changed their names so they would not accurately reflect the names of Babylonian gods, and they refused to eat food that involved sacrifices to Babylonian gods, opting for a vegetarian diet instead. And because of their faithfulness "God gave them knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom; Daniel even understood all kinds of visions and dreams" (Dan. 1:17).

Even though Daniel and his friends would not compromise their worship, they did not withdraw from the mainstream; you didn't think that the "literature" and "wisdom" that God gave them was Psalms and Proverbs did you? Listen to this: "As for every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king consulted them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and conjurers who were in all his realm. (Dan. 1:20)" By the end of their education they knew more about astrology than the astrologers; they became better Babylonians than the Babylonians themselves.

It seems to me that the church is struggling with the balance of being in but not of the world (John 17:15). Some groups compromise their worship to the place where they're indistinguishable from the mix-and-match religion of the world. Others, in order to avoid compromise, have pulled right out of the world and are no longer effective at reaching.

But I think we can restore the balance if we start to remember one fact: God loves Babylon and so much so that he died for its sins (John 3:16). You see, the story of Daniel 1-4 is not so much the story of Daniel and his three friends as is the story of how God reached the heart a pagan monarch named Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel is simply a vessel through which God is able to communicate with him.

Do you love Babylon? Babylon is the city we love to hate; it's abused us in many ways. Yet we are called to learn to be better Babylonians than the Babylonians themselves, to serve it without serving its idols, so that those Babylonians can have a chance to become citizens of the New Jerusalem.

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