Faith at what cost?
1. When church and state collide?
There has been increasing comment in the media over the past few months about the place of religion in politics. Australia’s Treasurer Peter Costello said a few weeks ago ‘Australians are rightly suspicious of people who will try and use religion for another end.’ Last year Kim Beazley said those who exploited religion ‘risk hindering the faith of people who have different views.’ Even George Bush back in 2000 said ‘I am not all that comfortable describing my faith, because in the political world there are a lot of people who say ‘vote for me, I’m more religious than my opponent’. And those kinds of folks make me a little nervous.’ In a recent book by the managing editor of Newsweek, he argues that faith is a matter of choice not coercion. If God doesn’t force us to believe, he argues, then why should mere mortals try to force us to.
Tonight I don’t want to talk about whether politics and religion should be kept separate, but rather what happens when we live in a political world, whose laws clash with our religious beliefs.
Let me give you a few scenarios from the Bible League’s latest ‘Bibles for the Persecuted’ booklet.
1) In China An Chang was leading a Bible study group when 4 government officers burst in. They beat him, took him to the local police station and questioned him for hours. If it was you would you keep leading that bible study group?
2) In Laos Chan keenly evangelized his friends. Soon the authorities swooped and for 18 months he was in gaol. They tortured him, beat him, drew blood from his veins to weaken him. Now out of prison he is still threatened and interrogated, but he is setting up a second church. Would you?
3) In Egypt a church planter has to get permission from the President every step of the way to start a church. Would you persevere in such conditions?
4) In Libya a man was allowed to import 2000 Bibles as long as he only gave them to Christians. What would you do?
5) In Vietnam it is forbidden by law to read a Bible. One lady was ordered to turn hers over to some army officers. When she refused and held on to it more tightly they beat her to death. What would you do?
6) Andrei was a pastor of a small but growing evangelical church in Russia. Some supporters of the local Orthodox church dragged him into a cemetery, beat him and told him to leave the village within a month or else. He didn’t, and kept ministering in that church. What would you do?
What would you do? When human law and your faith collide? Or when you are threatened for your faith?
Remember the book ‘Rachel’s tears’ and the Columbine High school tragedy - imagine you are sitting in class, when two hooded youths burst in carrying guns. They demand that all those who love Jesus stand up. The young girl at the front of the class stands, only to be shot dead. Will you stand up?
Where will you draw the line and say I cannot do that? Or on the other hand say I must keep doing this? For us in Australia it doesn’t often get as severe as the places I’ve just mentioned. But the principle remains. So two more quick examples which may perhaps be closer to home:
1) Your tax agent is showing you the return he has just prepared for you. He has put down some expenses connected with your job that you never spent. You ask him what these amounts are, and he says that in your line of work you can claim that amount without having to prove it, so you might as well. Would you claim it?
2) You have just bought a new computer. Your friend comes around with a copy of the latest software, or movie or music, which you know is already loaded on his computer. It’s just what you want and need, and he offers to give it to you free. Will you take it?
Where do you draw the line when it comes to living out what you believe? Where do we stand up for what God wants and say to the world ‘this far and no further’? What cost are we prepared to pay to maintain our obedience to God, despite the authority of the state? Or do we keep compromising our faith?
They’re not new questions. In the Old Testament Daniel and his friends faced very similar pressures – to deny God, to disobey God, or else. As we look at Daniel 3 & 6 my prayer is you will leave tonight encouraged to stand up for your faith in Christ every day in every way, regardless of the cost. Daniel’s God is our God and he is worth it.
So you might like to turn to Daniel in your Bibles, we’re going to look at both chapters 3 and 6, and to the outline in your Bulletins if you don’t already have it handy. Daniel is just after the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
2. The continuing clash of kingdoms
But first let’s just remind ourselves of who Daniel is and where he is and why. Because if you just jump straight into Daniel it’s like watching the current series of 24 without having seen the previous ones. You feel a bit lost, and not sure of what’s going on and who is who.
So, what is the story thus far?
722BC and Israel have spent centuries generally rebelling against God, despite His clear warnings that He will punish them. So God acts – in that year the northern tribes of Israel are wiped out by the Assyrians. You would think the tribes that are left in the south would learn from that – but they don’t. So in 605BC the unthinkable happens - the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar come and invade Jerusalem, the city of God, taking away the treasures of their temple, and taking away the cream of Jewish youth to re-programme them, to indoctrinate them into the ways of Babylon. Including a young man called Daniel, and three of his friends – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
For the Israelites these events raise huge questions – Where is their God? Is he powerful? Is He still king? What is He doing? What will happen to Israel?
Chapters 1 and 2 of Daniel show Israel that God is still very much in charge, and in fact he is responsible for their situation. It was God 1:2 who delivered Judah’s king Jehoiakim into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand. It was God who in 1:9 caused the official to grant Daniel’s request. It was God in 1:17 who gives Daniel and his friends great wisdom, and who gives Daniel the ability to understand visions and dreams. It is God in chapter 2 who gives Nebuchadnezzar his dream, and it is God who gives Daniel the meaning of the dream. And in the dream itself it is God and his kingdom who will prevail against all the kingdoms of the world.
On the surface it seems God has been defeated. But when we look past the physical events themselves we see that the One true God is still in control.
As we look around our world, it often seems that God is missing in action. So the recent letter in the Bush Tele from a Berowra lady who said in essence she couldn’t believe in a God who would let innocent children die in war. But friends we need to look beyond surface level to see that God is still working to fulfil His plan and nothing will thwart Him.
It’s all about kings and kingdoms. God, our God, the true and eternal king of the universe is building his kingdom, which, as the dream last week reminded us, will one day overthrow every human kingdom. But until then humans still try to build their kingdoms, usually without any reference to God, and often in opposition to God.
The question for Daniel and his friends, as it is for us, is which king to obey, when these two kingdoms clash, as they will? How does Daniel and his friends live out their trust in God in Babylon? How will we as Christians live out our trust in God, in a very pagan nation, which is what Australia is fast becoming?
So let’s see what happens to Daniel and his friends. We’re going to look at chapters 3 and 6, which are part of the half of the book which is written in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew. Aramaic was the language of Babylon. And I take it these chapters are written in it because God, the true God, wants all the nations of the world to know that He is carving out His own Kingdom, a Kingdom not of this world, which will eventually crush and destroy every man-made kingdom, and then last forever. The challenge is will they be part of this kingdom or not?
3. Hot in the city (Daniel 3)
Let’s get to the Bible. Daniel chapter 3. Daniel himself is not mentioned here – just his 3 friends Shadracah, Meshach and Abednego.
The chapter opens in the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar. He has decided, perhaps prompted by his recent dream, to build a statue. An image of gold (gold plated that would be), ninety feet high and nine feet wide. And to set it up out on the plain – presumably so the sun can catch it and reflect off it and make it look even more imposing and glorious.
And in v2 he summons all the key people in his kingdom to come to the dedication. As they do. And the herald says to them – once the music starts, you must fall down and worship the image. Or else. Into the fire.
Let me pause and ask you – what would you do?
The music starts and everyone falls down and worships, except v12 for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They are dobbed in to the king who becomes furious with rage. He summons them and gives them one last ultimatum – do it or else. And don’t think v15 that another ‘god will be able to rescue you from my hand.’ This is no longer a political issue but a religious one.
In v16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego reply. No. They know God’s commandments – you will have no other gods but me. You shall not make for yourself an idol and bow down and worship it. They know it was Israel’s disobedience that led them into this exile. Now it is time for them to stand up and obey God. We won’t do it. God is able to save us, but even if he chooses not to save us, we still won’t bow down. They cannot control how God will act, but they control their own obedience to him, and trust in him.
Like us, they are called to trust God regardless of what the outcome may be, and regardless of whether God acts as we want him to or not.
So into the fire they go. Heated v19 seven times hotter than normal. Tied up by the strongest men. Thrown in clothes and all to make sure something will burn. The fire is so hot even the men who take them up to it are killed.
But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego aren’t. The king is amazed – he sees a 4th person in the fire, looking somehow like a son of the gods – which I take it just means he acknowledges something supernatural taking place. It may be an angel of the Lord. It may be Jesus himself. I don’t know and to me it doesn’t matter. The point is that God was with them somehow.
Nebuchadnezzar commands them to come out – and they have been totally saved. No fire has harmed their bodies v27, no hair singed, no scorching of their clothes, no smell of fire on them. If you think about that is amazing isn’t it – not even a smell of fire. And you know how much the smell of fire permeates everything. Nothing. God has saved his people. Totally. God has shown that he is the true God and the true king. Even Nebuchadnezzar admits that this God is indeed a god. And the 3 friends are promoted in the king’s kingdom.
The 3 friends showed their faith in God was genuine – it showed in total obedience. That is the mark of true faith. Apparently in some languages the word for ‘trust’ is the same for ‘obedience’, because to trust means to obey. Sometimes I think we’ve lost that understanding. Trust for us means mental agreement, and obedience when it suits us. That’s not true faith. As we see as we look quickly at the faith of Daniel himself in chapter 6.
4. The lion’s king (Daniel 6)
Chapter 6 is set under a different king. Darius, otherwise called Cyrus, from Persia. Who in 539BC defeated the Babylonians. Here is the second kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. But the dilemma remains the same - as it will in every human kingdom.
Darius tries to decentralize his government -appointing 120 satraps (or provincial governors) over his whole kingdom, with just 3 administrators over them, one of whom was Daniel. Mind you, Daniel is an old man by now – he has been in Babylon 66 years. But he still proves to be the best, and the king plans v3 to set him over the whole kingdom. Which needless to say makes the others jealous, and they try to plot his demise by finding something with which to incriminate Daniel, politics hasn’t changed much has it, but they can’t, Daniel is a model of a godly person in his work and private life. And so they figure v5 let’s compromise him – we will have to find something that relates to the law of his god.
So they get the king to make a law banning prayer to anyone other the king. Or else. Into the lion’s den. Again the political becomes religious. And they know once this law is made it cannot be revoked. And the king in his vanity so decrees.
Let me pause again and ask you – what would you do? If the government made a law that you could not pray to anyone other than John Howard? Or that you were not allowed to pray at all?
Daniel hears about it, and continues doing what he has done every day – praying 3 times a day to the Lord. He knows the consequences but God comes first. Of course the other men find out, and go and dob him into the king. Now the king is upset – he liked Daniel and wanted to rescue him, but he is stuck because he cannot change his law. He has no alternative – v16, Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den. And a stone is placed over it, and the king seals it.
The king can’t eat that night, nor sleep. First light comes and he rushes down to the lions’ den. What’s happened? V20 – Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?’
Yes! God sent his angel who shut the mouths of the lions, because I am innocent in his sight and before you. God has been with him. Daniel is lifted out of the den, and there is no wound on him because God has saved him. Again, saved him totally. God has shown that he is the true and living God, as even Darius admits in his decree from v25 on. And Daniel prospered during his reign.
Two episodes in history with many parallels -
- 2 kings who try to build their kingdoms, and try to displace God as king.
- 2 groups of faithful people who obey God in these human kingdoms despite the cost
- and the one true God who is present with his people as they suffer, saves them totally, and prospers them afterwards.
What about us? Two questions for us:
1) Do we know this one true God and his king?
God is seen as the only true God, and the only God who can save people. For us it may not be in this world, but it will be the world to come. God will one day vindicate himself and vindicate those who trust in him.
But we have even more reason to trust him than did Daniel and his 3 friends, because some 500 odd years after Daniel, God’s king came into the world. The Lord Jesus Christ is the King of God’s Kingdom. Remember at His trial when Pilate asked him - are you the king of the Jews? Jesus answered - Yes, it is as you say.
He is God’s king, a king not unlike Daniel and his friends. Jesus too was faithful to his God, opposed by the authorities, betrayed by men, killed, vindicated, saved, ultimately triumphant. King of kings and Lord of Lords. The king of God’s everlasting kingdom. He is the rock that will fill the whole earth. His is the everlasting kingdom which will supercede all human kingdoms.
Are you in his kingdom? Have you acknowledged him as your king, in repentance and faith? Why not go home and do it tonight if you haven’t already. It takes an act of will to take the crown off your head, and to hand it to Jesus and to say I now submit myself to you and want to live my life for you not me. To get into God’s kingdom you must come to his King. Jesus calls you tonight to come to him.
Do we know this one true God and his king? And secondly – do you trust and obey him regardless of the cost?
2) Do we trust and obey regardless of the cost?
For it will cost. Living in a human kingdom which is always opposed to the truth of God will cost something for those who are members of God’s kingdom. The Bible reminds us that friends of Jesus are enemies of the world.
Are you prepared to draw the line and make a stand for Jesus? To say God first, regardless of what the world says, regardless of what governments say, regardless of what friends or family say?
To say at work I will work honestly and diligently and not cheat my employer even though everyone else might
To say I will go to church, and home group and be involved in ministry even thought I won’t have time to play all the sport I want, or got o all-night parties, because God is my highest priority?
To say I will give generously to God’s work through my money, even though it means I can’t have that 12 month overseas trip, or that house I want.
To say I won’t gamble in a legal casino, even though I can, because that is not how God will provide for me.
To say I won’t cheat on my tax return, or I won’t break speed limits, even though everyone else turns a blind eye to such things.
To say I won’t get drunk even though I can for that dishonours God and harms the body he has given me.
To say I won’t go out with a non-Christian for that dishonours God and is unwise and unhelpful.
To say I won’t shack up with my girlfriend or boyfriend, in fact I won’t even have sex with him or her before marriage, even though the government says I can and all my friends are doing it, because God says not to.
To say I will continue to go read my Bible and pray and meet with other Christians, even though my friends and family harass me for doing so.
Living as a Christian will cost you. Maybe your reputation, your friendships, your job prospects, your livelihood, your physical safety, even your life. God promises it will cost you, but that he is worth it. He promises he will stand with you as you live for him, and he will ultimately deliver and vindicate you.
Where is it God calling you tonight to make a stand for your faith in Him in a pagan world? It may be in a little thing, or a really big thing, but will you do it?
You will only get the strength to make that stand from God – as we keep reading the Bible, keep praying, keep meeting with one another and encouraging one another. And to then bend down and draw that line in the sand of our lives takes an effort of will. As the Newsweek editor argues – faith is a matter of choice. With God’s Spirit in us we can make godly choices. But will we?
The book of Daniel challenges us to live as members of God’s kingdom in this world, with his values as our priority. And that will make us different.
It is right to ask ourselves - what difference does having Jesus as my king make to my life? I cannot claim to have Jesus as my king and be the same as the rest of the world. Christians are different. God calls us to be holy as he is holy. And that will make us distinctive and disliked.
But we have a king who shed his blood for us. Who died for us. So don’t compromise. Stand up for Jesus. Don’t sell out. Don’t give in. Live for him. It is possible – but only by the grace of God as we continue to trust in Him. Will you do it?