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September 26th, 2010

When you belong fully to the Lord, he puts a “jealous watch” on you.

Daniel 1:8-20

September 26, 2010

Training Program

If my sermon title today seems, well, peculiar, that is by intention.  Daniel 1 gives us a case study in being odd.  Weird.  Strange.  Different.  Extraordinary.

I want to be an extraordinary Christian.  That desire goes back to my college days.  So much of my life and ministry was shaped at Columbia Bible College in the 1970s.  During Sunday School today I presented a chart overviewing the whole Bible that I got from James “Buck” Hatch at CBC.  Some of you know me to be organized and goal-oriented; I learned that from Bill Supplee.  Linda and I have often quoted Robertson McQuilkin: “It’s easier to go to a consistent extreme than to stay at the center of biblical tension.”

And, of course, in Columbia I started dating that beautiful girl with the long blonde hair when we were both 19 years old.  35 years later we are still living out that commitment sealed in our college years.  There’s something about those young adult years that shape our lives.

The Babylonians knew that as well.

King Nebuchadnezzar had chosen some of the Israelite young men based on what we would call good looks, physical fitness, I.Q., and common sense.  His method of maintaining control over vanquished people was to retrain the brightest and best of their youth for his service.

The Babylonian program was three-fold and lasted three years.  We will teach you Babylonian language and literature.  We will feed you the king’s food.  We will change your name.

If your goal is to be peculiar, on which of these should you take your stand?

It seems to me the name change would be a biggie.  Their Hebrew names all end in either “el” or “yah” (abbreviations for Elohim and Yahweh) – Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.  The newly assigned names all imply a connection to the Babylonian gods.  Yet we find no evidence that Daniel and his friends objected to their new names.

Likewise, the re-education program seems important, especially from an American perspective.  Not just Christians but almost everyone seems to feel that we should shelter ourselves, and especially our kids, from literature and media that present alternative viewpoints. 

We will come back to this point, but Daniel does not take his stand against what he is asked to read and learn. He takes his stand on the dinner table.  I find that peculiar. 

Identity

Verse 8 says that Daniel “resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.”  The word “defile” means to pollute or stain.  I have a favorite polo shirt – black and white, with a pink stain on it.  Maybe I splashed some bleach on it; I don’t know.  The shirt is comfortable and looks good, but that one stain “defiles” it and makes it unwearable for most situations. 

Daniel did not want to be defiled by the king’s table.  Specifically, he wanted to eat only vegetables and drink only water (v. 12).  Why?

A number of theories have been proposed.  One theory is that food had been offered to idols.  But all the food, including the vegetables, would have been offered to idols.

Another theory is that he was trying to be kosher – ritually fit according to Jewish standards.  The Law prescribed not only what could be eaten (and the proposed diet probably included pork and horse and other unclean meats), but how it was to be prepared, in many cases.  The problem with that theory is that although certain meats were prohibited, wine was not.  And again, the vegetables and even the water could have been just as non-kosher.

What if the real issue was not the meat and wine, but that it was the king’s food and wine.  Commoners and captives ate simply – we would say “bread and water.”   Elevation to power and privilege gave one a place alongside royalty.  Those who ate at the king’s table accepted not only the associated privilege but the control that went with it.  If Daniel and his friends ate at the king’s table for three years, the enjoyment of that status would have changed them. 

Nebuchadnezzar knew it: “If you eat my food, I own you.  You are dependent on me.  You accept your primary identity as part of the king’s inner circle.  You do what I say because you know if you don’t, I cut out the perks.”

Who has your ultimate loyalty?  And how did that come to be?  That is the heart issue that makes the extraordinary Christian peculiar.

Whoever feeds you what makes your life comfortable and enjoyable and personally fulfilling, that’s who owns you.  In our culture, we are taught to claim identity in a number of ways.  First and foremost is as an American.  But identity is also intertwined with family, political party, ethnic origin, gender, career, place of work, even the athletic teams we support.  We talk about learning “who we are” and being loyal to that identity (usually a collage of identities).

Daniel’s peculiarity was his primary loyalty to God.  His identity was first of all spiritual.  Everything else was secondary.  Claiming that identity meant refusing to eat the luxuries and delicacies offered to him at the king’s table – refusing to do that which would shift his loyalty to any human being.  That is the first principle of holiness.

Courage

The second principle is courage – specifically, courage to set boundaries.

As the story continues in Daniel 1, Daniel asks Ashpenaz, Nebuchadnezzar’s chief of staff, for permission to set boundaries.  This was one of the king’s most trusted inner circle of advisors.  Ashpenaz only came to his position through years of showing that his primary identity was wrapped up in Nebuchadnezzar. 

Ashpenaz did eat at the king’s table.  He was the one chosen to identify the young men to serve in the king’s balance.  He was their teacher and mentor.

Among the new recruits, Daniel was one of his favorites.  Verse 9 says Ashpenaz showed Daniel “favor” (hesed, a word indicating they had a deal) and “compassion” (which is related to the word for “womb” – like a mother would show her own child.

Ashpenaz really wanted to say yes to Daniel, but his job and even his life was at risk if Ashpenaz directly disobeyed the king’s order to feed Daniel the king’s food and wine.

You have to read between the lines to hear Ashpenaz saying to Daniel, “If you don’t eat the king’s food, I don’t know anything about it.”  In other words, he seems to have given some tacit permission.

Daniel went one rung (or more) down the ladder of command to the guard whom Ashpenaz had appointed to watch Daniel and his three friends.  Quietly he appeals to the guard, “Give us ten days.  That’s all we ask.  Feed us the commoner’s food and see if we aren’t healthier” (vv. 12-13).  The guard agrees (v. 14) and the experiment works (vv. 15-16).  They can have their chosen diet.

The point of this story is not that good Christians should be vegetarians and teetotalers.  In addition to identity, the point of this story is that holiness requires boundaries. 

Some of the boundaries are universal.  You don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery.  You’ve heard of those.

Some of them require more careful attention to Scripture and a biblical world view.  We set higher standards than the world does.  Anger must be controlled.  Sexual purity extends beyond adultery.  Worship must be prioritized.  Give generously to the poor and to God’s work.  Forgive others and release your resentment.

What’s more important than the list is having the courage to be peculiar – to live within boundaries that others might find strange.  Boundaries are not confining; they are freeing.  Thirty-two years ago I gave up my “freedom” to marry Linda.  I don’t spend my time and energy thinking of what I could do or who I could be with if I weren’t tied down.  Boundaries are liberating, and I get to enjoy a life of loving and being loved by that one special person.

Wisdom

There is a third principle of holiness in Daniel’s story: wisdom.  Verse 17 says God gave Daniel and his friends “knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning.”  Verse 20 adds, “In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.”

This was after the three years of training.  Apparently the boys pulled off their vegetarian diet the whole of their boot camp.

Remember that the place Daniel did not take his stand was on learning the language and literature of the Babylonians.  Commentator Joyce Baldwin (Daniel, 80) says the Babylonian way of thinking was like “a completely alien thought-world.”  In addition to humans, they believed in a large number of gods, including a trinity of great gods – Anu, Enlil, and Ea.  There were many lesser gods, including the sun and moon.  Magic, sorcery, charms, and astrology were all central to this pagan worldview.

Daniel didn’t refuse to learn how the Babylonians thought.  He became an expert in it.  He earned a Ph.D. in Babylonian literature.  He knew it better than the Babylonians did. 

Why?  Because wisdom is never afraid of learning.  The worldview shared by Daniel and expanded by Jesus and Paul stands up very well to all the alternatives that have been proposed.  We need to know how the world thinks so we know where they most need the truth.

Before Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were exposed to Babylonian thought, they were thoroughly immersed in the Law of God.  That’s where the teaching ministry of the church and Christian literature are so vital.

Holiness

Back in those formative days of my own spiritual journey, I came across a tract written by a 19th century “Holiness” minister named G. D. Watson.  Watson’s words were drilled deep into my heart and soul and have directly or indirectly guided my own quest for holiness.  I’d like to read the tract in its entirety, titled “Others May; You Cannot.”

 

If God has called you to be really like Jesus He will draw you into a life of crucifixion and humility, and put upon you such demands of obedience, that you will not be able to follow other people, or measure yourself by other Christians, and in many ways He will seem to let other people do things which He will not let you do.

Other Christians and ministers who seem very religious and useful, may push themselves, pull wires, and work schemes to carry out their plans, but you cannot do it, and if you attempt it, you will meet with such failure and rebuke from the Lord as to make you sorely penitent.

Others may boast of themselves, of their work, of their successes, of their writings, but the Holy Spirit will not allow you to do any such thing, and if you begin it, He will lead you into some deep mortification that will make you despise yourself and all your good works.

Others may be allowed to succeed in making money, or may have a legacy left to them, but it is likely God will keep you poor, because He wants you to have something far better than gold, namely, a helpless dependence upon Him, that He may have the privilege of supplying your needs day by day out of an unseen treasury.

The Lord may let others be honored and put forward, and keep you hidden in obscurity, because He wants to produce some choice fragrant fruit for His coming glory, which can only be produced in the shade.  He may let others be great, but keep you small.  He may let others do a work for Him and get the credit for it, but He will make you work and toil on without knowing how much you are doing; and then to make your work still more precious He may let others get credit for the work which you have done, and thus make your reward ten times greater when Jesus comes.

The Holy Spirit will put a strict watch over you, with a jealous love, and will rebuke you for little words and feelings or for wasting your time, which other Christians never feel distressed over. So make up your mind that God is an Infinitely Sovereign Being, and has a right to do as He pleases with His own.  He may not explain to you a thousand things which puzzle your reason in His dealings with you, but if you absolutely sell yourself to be His love slave, He will wrap you up in Jealous Love, and bestow upon you many blessings which come only to those who are in the inner circle.

Settle it forever, then that you are to deal directly with the Holy Spirit, and that He is to have the privilege of tying your tongue, or chaining your hand, or closing your eyes, in ways that He does not seem to use with others.  Now, when you are so possessed with the living God that you are, in your secret heart, pleased and delighted over this peculiar, personal, private, jealous guardianship and management of the Holy Spirit over your life, then you will have found the vestibule of Heaven.

The only part of Watson’s essay that troubles me a bit is the part about being in the “inner circle.”  It’s too easy to have a martyr complex or become proud about being in an elite group – “Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, and me.”

Across the years I’ve learned that at the same time I look at others wondering why the Lord lets them get by with things he chastises me for, they are looking at me wondering the same about me.  When I wonder why God gives someone else more money than he gives me, I realize how many people look at me with the same question.

So again, it’s not about comparison.  We don’t see Daniel on a soapbox chastising other Jews who sit at the king’s table enjoying his food and wine.  The point isn’t the food and wine.  It’s accepting the principle of holiness – that my identity is not of this world and I will live by the boundaries the Holy Spirit sets for me.  Amen.

One Response to Choose the Peculiar »

  • Chorusboy says:

    This G,D Watson essay is priceless – I will treasure it through the rest of my Earthly days. I will never feel I am the part of some elite God squad but as Jesus was a servant so go I. Furthermore, He seemed to love boats – which I deduce naturally we are all in the same boat ! Desired personal holiness ? oh you bet ! achieved in perfection here on Earth ? I will just quote Jude ” Now unto Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before His presence of His glory with great joy…”(Jude 24).

    Anthony/Chorusboy

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