October 21, 2018

For Wisdom and Power are God’s

Passage: Daniel 2:12-23, Psalm 104:1–9, 24, 35c, Hebrews 5:1–10, Mark 10:35–45
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Daniel said: ‘Blessed be the name of God from age to age, for wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons, deposes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding.
Kate Bowler is an associate professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School. Kate has terminal cancer and has written a new memoir, Everything Happens For A Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved. In a recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Bowler was asked about how she managed to feel loved by God even in the aftermath of major cancer surgery. Bowler said that of course she wanted a long life with her husband and son. But she also discovered what she called a gift—she realized how fragile life is for everyone. And that realization connected her with the pain of other people. Here are Bowler's own words:

“It's like you notice the tired mom in the grocery store who's just like struggling to get the thing off the top shelf while her kid screams, and you notice how very tired that person looks at the bus stop. And then, of course, all the people in the cancer clinic around me. That felt like I was cracked open, and I could see everything really clearly for the first time. And the other bit was not feeling nearly as angry as I thought I would. And, I mean, granted—like I have been pretty angry at times. But it was mostly that I felt God's presence. And it was less like, here are some important spiritual truths I know intellectually about God. There are four of them. I have a PowerPoint presentation. It was instead more like the way you'd feel a friend or like someone holding you. I just didn't feel quite as scared. I just felt loved [by God].”

1. For Kate Bowler it certainly must seem that circumstances have taken charge of her life. When we are feeling emotionally or physically threatened it is hard to focus on anything else except the threat. Have you ever been in such a moment? It may be that you are in one such moment today. We have in our minds how life should unfold. Like Kate Bowler who imagined long life with her husband and son, we too have pictures in our minds of marriage and children and grandchildren. And then some set of events beyond our control comes crashing in upon us and turns everything upside down.

Daniel was in just such a place. Daniel was a member of Judah’s royal family and he had been forcibly remove from his privileged life by the invading army of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. He was taken captive to Babylon and there trained to serve in the king’s court. Someone else was in control of Daniel’s life. And if being a captive in a foreign land forced to deploy his talents in a job of someone else’s choosing wasn’t enough to deal with, he now stands in a place where he discovers that his life can be terminated at the whim of the king he has been enslaved to serve.

First a little of the backstory. Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that troubled him deeply. He was desperate to know its meaning; he was losing sleep because he just couldn’t get it out of his mind. We must note here that in many cultures it is common to believe that God communicates to humans through dreams as in Nebuchadnezzar’s day. These cultures do not have the scientific empirical hang-ups that we in Western societies pride ourselves with holding. We prefer God to behave in ways we can measure. Nebuchadnezzar does not share our empirical ideologies and apparently, according to the book of Daniel, neither does God.

In his urgency to learn the meaning of his dream King Nebuchadnezzar commands the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans to tell him the meaning of the dream. I am not sure why, but the King demanded that these professionals whose work included disclosing the meaning of dreams tell him both the content of the dream and its interpretation upon penalty of death. It may be that Nebuchadnezzar was so troubled by the dream he wanted to be certain of the interpretation, so if you could tell him both the content and meaning of the dream he could be sure that the gods had spoken. (And he may not exactly trust these people).

Now Daniel and his Jewish captive companions had been educated to be part of this group on whom the King is now calling for disclosure of his dream. Their education would have included a wide range of things—versed in every branch of wisdom known at that time. It was when the King’s chief executioner is rounding up this entire class of people for execution for failing to be able to tell the King his dream that Daniel first learns of the King’s decree. It has to be a crushing moment for Daniel to experience that he lives or dies at the whim of the King.

And I invite you to note that Daniel doesn’t turn away from God in this moment. He is sustained by God. I am sure that Daniel is a courageous man but I am more of the mind that in this moment of peril he finds himself strengthened by God. In a similar way to Kate Bowler, in this moment Daniel sees things more clearly than he has before. Life is fragile for everyone. Daniel senses, even in this moment, that he is loved by God. Strengthened by his confidence in God, Daniel boldly asks the King for time and he would tell the king the interpretation.

2. The King grants the extension of time. Daniel goes immediately and rounds up his faith companions Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and asks them to pray; “to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions with the rest of the wise men of Babylon might not perish.” The events that are swirling around Daniel and his companions in which they have been caught up become the occasion for them to cling in faith more tightly to the God of heaven. Often this is the way with us. Circumstances more often reveal what is in us rather that make us though they certainly impact us. I note that Daniel seeks the mercy of God not the mercy of King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel is confident of the One who knows the meaning of the dream rather than the one who dreamed the dream.

As these faith companions commit themselves to prayer seeking God’s mercy “the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night.” In response to God’s mercy Daniel blesses God with this wonderful prayer of praise: “Blessed be the name of God from age to age, for wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons, deposes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding.” Nebuchadnezzar’s vision was of a great statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, middle of bronze and legs of iron with feet of iron and clay that depicted four succeeding kingdoms. Nebuchadnezzar was the head of gold and, in Jesus’ day, the succeeding kingdoms of this vision were understood as the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander the Great, and then the Romans. Daniel sees that God is the one who deposes kings and sets up kings—wisdom and power are God’s.

This story of Daniel is relished by Israel who have been largely an occupied people by foreign powers ever since Babylonian captivity; they loved to retell Daniel’s story that the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob sets up kings and tears down. God is at work fulfilling his purposes. The world is not the theatre of the survival of the fittest and the powerful as it looks to so many. The world is a theatre where God is moving things with his purposes in mind towards the day when, as Nebuchadnezzar’s vision foresaw, “God will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 2:44) This is the kingdom Jesus announced was near, inaugurated at his crucifixion and resurrection from the dead, and whose consummation we await in confidence because Jesus has been raised to rule all things.

Join me in a little thought experiment. Babylon is the most famous city from ancient Mesopotamia whose ruins lie in modern-day Iraq 94 kilometres southwest of Baghdad. Here is a picture of the ruins of the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar; as this King walked around his then magnificent palace do you think he envisioned a day when it would lie in ruins? For those who had the opportunity to visit Rome you will have likely visited the ancient colosseum. (Pictured here.) When Emperor Augustus took his seat in royal box to enjoy the spectacle of the day do you think he would have imagined that one day the colosseum would look like this? When Pilate left his Mediterranean palace at Caesarea Maritima and headed to Jerusalem for that eventful Passover when he would meet Jesus do you think that one day he imagined the city would look like this? (Show picture).

Let me further ask—do you imagine this to be permanent? (Toronto skyline). The point is this, as with Daniel, when we put our trust in our Saviour Jesus Christ we trust the one who really is permanent. Psalm 62 is a song of trust in God alone and makes this astute observation of all our human pretences to our own glory; “Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.” (Psalm 62:9)

Kingdoms come and go. To be sure, the scripture reveals that governance is a principality that God intended for human good; as is education a principality God gives for our good (love God with all your mind.) According to the Bible, these principalities have been corrupted by human sinfulness. Still their purpose is for our good. And even though they are for our good they do not save us from our sinfulness. No human government will correct that which only God can correct. But it is hard to look past governance because it is in our face—look at Jesus’ disciples asking Jesus for top spots in what they imagine will be the ultimate government. But politics won’t save us.

God’s sovereign and gracious rule of all things has direct impact in our daily lives. Just as governance has its limitations for human good so too we find our health care. When disease strikes and overtakes our lives we want to believe that our health sciences can make it go away. To be sure, we do find some help but soon discover its limitations. In the midst of the chaos created by disease we find that our faith in the One who makes all things new sustains us. God’s sovereignty is comfort and strength for the believer.

3. As we have been probing this story of Daniel we have noted that in the midst of harrowing circumstance that takes over Daniel’s life God sustains him in the moment. We noted that as Daniel turns to God in prayer he finds God to be sovereign even in these moments and is strengthened by this experience of God. Sometimes we read these stories and wish we had faith like Daniel. Yes, his faith and courage can inspire our own. Yet it can also make us feel inadequate; we may wonder how I can have faith like Daniel.

It is important to note that faith isn’t a thing. A person who aspires to Daniel-like faith often assumes that there’s such a thing as faith. But of course there isn’t, is there. There’s no such thing as faith. There’s no such thing as faith precisely in the sense that there’s no such thing as love.

No such thing as love? Exactly! No such thing as love. Love isn’t a thing; love isn’t something. Love is a relationship; specifically, love is the relationship of self-giving; love can never be a thing! Love doesn’t exist and never will; a person who loves is what exists.

Faith isn’t a thing that we are to possess. Faith is a relationship, the most significant relationship that can occur in anyone’s life. It is relationship with God. What we see in the story of Daniel is this relationship in the flow of a very difficult moment in life. And the point I wanted to underline for us today is that God meets us in these moments. God hasn’t abandoned Daniel—at the awful moment when he learns of the peril he is in this relationship with God comes to the fore.

I noted with you this same relationship the Bible calls faith was alive in the story we began with of Kate Bowler in the midst of a diagnosis of terminal cancer. She said, “And the other bit was not feeling nearly as angry as I thought I would. And, I mean, granted—like I have been pretty angry at times. But it was mostly that I felt God's presence. … It was … like the way you'd feel a friend or like someone holding you. I just didn't feel quite as scared. I just felt loved [by God].”

God’s sovereignty over life is never, for the believer, an armchair discussion; never just an articulation of doctrinal truth. It is a glorious realization of faith that the believer is in relationship with the One who really is sovereign. No circumstance can dislodge the believer from our Saviour’s grip of her life.

‘Blessed be the name of God from age to age, for wisdom and power are his. Amen.