Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. . . . But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself. Now God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master. The palace master said to Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king.” Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. . . .” (Daniel 1:5, 8-12)
I used to have a friend in the army reserve, a very clear-minded person, very black-and-white on the issues — political issues, biblical issues. He saw only one way to do things. Yet I remember him telling me that strict biblical ideas just don’t work in the army. In the army — at least in his part of it — the foulest language and debasing other human beings are part of the process, part of the social structure, part of the way that world works. That’s the way he has to operate, because, if he were to ignore those things, he couldn’t hope to survive.
He’s got a point, of course; at least it’s one we hear often enough: “I wish it were different, but the only way to operate in my job is to put it first in my life or to fudge on some of the numbers or to follow orders, no matter what I may think of them. There’s no other way I can make it.” The idea is that the principles of the Christian faith, those things that mark us as the people of God, are fine for Sundays, for dealing with each other, for charitable causes, but the rest of the time we have to survive at work, we have to survive in school, we have to survive in a world that has its own set of rules that have little to do with Sunday. If we ignore those things, we can’t hope to make it. You see, the truth is, if you’re in Jerusalem, you can do it God’s way, but we don’t live in Jerusalem.
Neither does Daniel, not anymore. You see, the Book of Daniel — at least chapters 1—6 — is about living away from Jerusalem, living under somebody else’s control, somebody with another set of rules. The Book of Daniel is about living in Babylon. And Babylon is not the place for a good Jewish boy to be, because in Babylon they have a different kind of king and a different way of life and a different god. Daniel and his friends aren’t in Jerusalem anymore.
But it’s worse than that. Not only has Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, besieged Jerusalem, and conquered Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and made off with the best and brightest young Israelites, but he has also gone into the temple of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and helped himself to whatever he liked. He looted the place. Forget defeating Babylon — the Lord, it seems, isn’t even running Jerusalem anymore. That’s how it looks if you’ve watched it all happen, if you’ve watched Nebuchadnezzar thumb his nose at the God of the Jews. So, if you want to survive, it seems, there’s only one way to play it, and that’s Nebuchadnezzar’s way, that’s Babylon’s way. There’s no such thing as Jerusalem anymore. That’s how it feels and that’s what it looks like.
And it couldn’t look more that way than it does for Daniel and his friends, whose names are no longer Hananiah and Mishael and Azariah, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They’re so far from Jerusalem now that even the church remembers them as Babylonians. The four of them are brought to Babylon on full scholarship: room and board, tuition, physical fitness training — all of it on Nebuchadnezzar’s tab. His plan is to take the best and the brightest from the nations that he conquers and then turn them into men he can use, men to serve on his cabinet, men to advise him, men to further the cause of Babylon. That’s what these four Jewish boys are brought here to do.
And the first thing to go is the names. If you’re going to live in Babylon, you’ve got to have a name Babylonians can pronounce. More than that, you’ve got to have a name Babylonians can understand. So Daniel, which means “God is my judge,” is out, while Belteshazzar, which is a prayer to the god of Babylon, is in. Hananiah, which means “The Lord shows grace” is out, while Shadrach, which praises the moon-god of Nebuchadnezzar, is in. You see, in Babylon everything’s different, and so the names must be different, too.
Daniel apparently doesn’t care what they call him. He accepts the name change, just like Joseph accepted it in Egypt, and Esther accepted it in Persia. Apparently a name is nothing to lose your head over. Maybe that’s because you can call him whatever you want, but he’ll still be Daniel, and God will still be his judge. Anyway, the name change goes smoothly enough. And I guess so does the scholarship. We don’t hear anything about Daniel refusing to go to class or demanding prayer in school or something; he goes along with that part. He accepts Nebuchadnezzar’s free ride; he takes part in the training. So this far, through verse 7, living in Babylon isn’t a big problem for Daniel. It’s the diet that gets in the way. Now Daniel draws the line; now Daniel turns into a vegetarian.
“But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine. . . .” Daniel can live in Babylon, but he can’t eat from Nebuchadnezzar’s butcher. He can’t take the food and wine from Nebuchadnezzar’s table. So Daniel asks the chief steward or the dean of students or somebody for permission to go the vegetable route, to knock the fat out of his diet, to break the rules of Babylon. But that’s a big request, because this guy’s got his own orders to follow, his own set of rules to worry about. In Babylon it’s not only faithful Jews who risk losing their heads. Those lions they have there are equal-opportunity devourers. So Daniel works around him and proposes a test to his guard. Give us ten days and we’ll see what happens. If we’re not holding our own with the other freshmen, you can change your mind. Just give us a chance, says Daniel. See if we can do it our way. Let’s hit the salad bar.
And of course the whole thing turns out to be a smashing success. At the end of the ten days Daniel and Hananiah and Mishael and Azariah are as fit as fiddles. They look great; as a matter of fact, they look better than everybody else. And not only do they look better, but they train better, too. They’re smarter, they’re quicker, they’re healthier, they’re more mature than all the other students. Nebuchadnezzar has collected — ten times better, in fact, than anybody else the king has in his entire empire. Daniel not only survives in Babylon; he turns out to be class valedictorian. It’s not a bad story. Daniel remains obedient in the foreign land with its foreign rules and its other gods, and he ends up a success anyway. Daniel refuses to defile himself at the risk of his own life, and in the end he goes right to the top of the class. Daniel is faithful to God even a long way from Jerusalem, and so Daniel is protected and honored and blessed beyond anyone’s expectations.
And I wish it were always that simple. I wish that at the beginning of this church year I could promise you the same, but I can’t. The temptation here is to say, Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand out from the crowd, dare to keep your faith in a foreign environment, and God will bless you, too. You too will be healthy and wealthy and wise. You too will make it to the top. You too will survive Babylon. Just be faithful.
That’s the temptation, because if it’s simple like that, preaching is easier and faith is easier and life is easier. The problem is that we know better. The problem is that there were faithful people in Auschwitz and the gas chamber strangled them like it did the others. And our friend Linda Doezema was faithful, but cancer still devoured her body. The truth is that the world’s history is littered with stories of faithful people who lost their savings or their loved ones or their lives. It might be nice to go home today telling ourselves that, if we just obey like Daniel and his friends, we’ll be fine, our problems will be over, we’ll surpass all of our peers because God will be with us. It might be nice to go home that way, but it would be wrong. Babylon is always a dangerous place for people who believe in something else.
So we can’t count on Daniel’s results. But if we’re from the same people as Daniel, if we also belong in Jerusalem, then we can count on what Daniel counted on. We can count on the one thing that does not change from Jerusalem to Babylon, from good times to bad, from victory to exile. And that is the presence of our God. It’s true that, if you’re standing in downtown Jerusalem on that day Nebuchadnezzar comes marching through town, things don’t exactly look like God’s behind them. When the king of Babylon walks into the temple of the Lord and makes off with sacred objects, it looks like the Lord’s having a bad day, like he’s overmatched, out of control. But that’s only how it looks. And that’s why we read the Book of Daniel. The Book of Daniel says to the rest of us that appearances aren’t everything; image is nothing. The Book of Daniel says to the rest of us that the Lord’s temple may be profaned and his city overrun and his people in exile, but he remains the Lord of heaven and earth, the Lord of Jerusalem and Babylon. It’s the Lord who delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand; it’s the Lord who moved the heart of the guard to let Daniel break the rules; it’s the Lord who gave knowledge and understanding to these four young men.
My friend is right, of course he’s right: there’s a different set of rules in many of the places that we find ourselves each week. And in those places, whether it’s the military or an accounting firm or junior high school, it can seem like the only way to survive is to play it the way everybody else does. It’s dangerous in Babylon. But here’s the good news this morning: you’ve been set free from that. You’ve been set free from the Nebuchadnezzars of the world, from those who run things according to some other god; you’ve been set free, because your life isn’t in their hands, anyway, it’s in the Lord’s. Even in Babylon, the Lord is God; even in Babylon, the Lord is with his people.
So the question for Daniel, and the question for us, is: Are we going to be his people? Are we going to trust in him or in the ways of Babylon?
There’s some debate as to why Daniel draws the line at the diet instead of the other stuff. What is it about Nebuchadnezzar’s cooking that Daniel can’t take? I think the answer is in chapter 11. There it says that those who eat from the king’s table become partners with him, they are his allies, his loyal supporters. If Daniel eats Nebuchadnezzar’s food, he becomes Nebuchadnezzar’s man, he becomes part of Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, he belongs to Babylon. But Daniel knows that the way to survive in Babylon isn’t to be partners with Nebuchadnezzar; it’s to remain part of the people of God, even if that means doing something that puts him in great danger, even if it means doing something that costs him his life. Daniel knows that as long as he belongs to the Lord, he’s in good hands. We find out over and over again in this book that he’s right about that.
Much of the world in which we operate, especially the world in which most of you operate, is a foreign, dangerous place, a land of exile, with all kinds of strange gods; and the temptation is, when in Babylon, do as the Babylonians do. That’s what survival seems to demand. But as long as we remain who we are, as long as we belong to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Daniel, survival isn’t our concern, no matter how far we are from Jerusalem. God’s people always have a bright future. And, believe me, it has nothing to do with a scholarship from Nebuchadnezzar.
“And Daniel continued there until the first year of King Cyrus” — this is the last sentence of the first chapter. But it’s a strange sentence, because it jumps ahead seventy years; it tells the end of the entire story. It tells us that Daniel will outlast the exile. He’ll be there when a new king will come to power and the Jews will go home. That’s why it’s so important, because that’s how it is: God’s people will outlast Nebuchadnezzar; they will survive the pretenders to the throne. We’re vegetarians in Babylon, but one day we will feast at the table of the real King. Until then, we have this bread and wine, and we remember that this world and its menu don’t rule us. We have this bread and wine, and we remember that one day we will live only in Jerusalem, we will love free from danger, we will dine forever at the table of the King of kings. In the name of Jesus Christ,