I preached on the second chapter of Daniel this past week; here's a link to the audio. Here is an outline of the sermon on the wisdom of God and the dream of the kingdom:
Question: Why do you make the decisions you make? What confidence do you have that they’re the right decisions, the wisest choices? Just based on your own opinion, your own experience, from something you read on the Internet? Is this haphazard and impulsive, or something more contemplative and intellectual in nature?
This first question ultimately reveals a deeper question: where do we place our confidence? We’re surrounded by millions of voices vying for our attention, sharing advice and wisdom and input. What counsel do you seek, and why do you seek it from that source? Why trust that person, that book, that article, that experience? It’s a deeply important question, because it affects every single one of our decisions. And we all have something or someone we’re placing our confidence in, whether our own intellectual abilities or the authority of our parents, or our personal experiences—both healthy and unhealthy.
In the context of exile in the hostile pagan culture of Babylon, Daniel must navigate how to live wisely and faithfully in spite of difficult circumstances. King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream that no one can interpret; his "wise men"--his sources of wisdom and input--have failed him, causing him to order the destruction of the wise men, including Daniel.
So how does Daniel respond? He pleads for mercy and wisdom from God, giving God the credit and praise for revealing the king's dream to him:
Then Daniel praised the God of heaven and said: “Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. (Daniel 2:19-21)What are we reminded about God's character from this prayer? God is sovereign--he's never overwhelmed, and always in control--and God is wise--he knows what is best and has a good plan in mind. Daniel reveals both the content and the meaning of the dream to Nebuchadnezzar: he saw a dazzling figure, a statue made up of layers of precious metals.
We could spend all sorts of time trying to figure out the meaning of the statue, peering back into history and assigning each layer a known world empire and why they were given that particular metal. But let’s not miss the climactic moment of the dream: the rock. The dream points out that any and all successive powers, both Nebuchadnezzar and beyond, are temporary. Nebuchadnezzar has fashioned one of the greatest kingdoms in human history, and God is revealing that it’s disposable. Fleeting. A minor blip on the grand scheme of history, one that will fade with time. Even though he is the head of gold, he’ll be replaced. In fact, all the kingdoms will. And by what sort of a kingdom? A kingdom represented by a rock.
Why a rock? Daniel describes it as a rock cut out “not by human hands.” This kingdom doesn’t come from human ingenuity or power-mongering or efforts; this kingdom is unique, established by the God of heaven alone. This is a kingdom that will never be destroyed, never left to another people, never overcome by obstacle or defeat. This kingdom isn’t temporary; it’s eternal.
It’s an interesting contrast—the kingdoms that dazzle, the kingdoms that appear most powerful and beautiful and ornate, the ones that capture our attention and affection—those are the ones that will fade and crumble. But the rock, an ordinary stone, like any you would find in the dirt beneath your feet—this little rock of small beginnings becomes an enormous mountain, created and established by God alone.
This is a dangerous dream to tell a king: “Hey, your kingdom, your rule and reign, the control you believe you have—it’s all an illusion. It’s temporary. The God of wisdom and power, the sovereign Lord, He will establish His kingdom here in this world, and it will overcome all obstacles.”
This is a dangerous truth to tell anyone: “Hey, your kingdom--your idea of personal control and rule, the wisdom you believe you have, the circumstances you believe you can create for yourself—it’s all an illusion. The God of wisdom and power is the true, wise King. He's the one who is in control.”
A few hundred years later, after Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom had faded into the line of successive kings and kingdoms, after Medeo-Persia and Greece and Rome had taken over, with the Jewish nation still living under oppression from a foreign rule, a 30-year-old Jewish carpenter began to walk around and say things like this: “the time has come! The kingdom of God has come near! Repent and believe the good news!” This ordinary figure—this “rock”—was rejected, arrested, and lifted up. Instead of the dazzling figure of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, this innocent and sinless man was lifted up on a cross and died. Three days later, he rose from the dead, conquering sin and death, and inaugurated the kingdom of God here on earth, the kingdom that started as an ordinary rock and is becoming a mountain, the kingdom that will last for eternity.
Jesus is the wise King. He is the source of our wisdom and confidence. When we put our faith and trust in Him, when we turn away from the temporary kingdoms and “wise men” of the world around us and embrace Him as King, we become citizens of the kingdom of heaven. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18).
There are all sorts of parallels between our own context and what Daniel experienced thousands of years ago. We live in the tension between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of the present age. We’re citizens of the kingdom of God living in exile in our own Babylon, the culture around us, filled with the voices and messages of “wise men” that promise to give us wisdom, but tend to leave us empty or confused.
When it comes to engagement with the culture around us as kingdom citizens living in a present-day Babylon, we tend towards one of two different postures:
On the one hand, people tend to conform to the culture. We assimilate, doing our best to blend in with the surroundings, taking on the practices and wisdom of the culture around us. Our spirituality becomes an amalgamation of Christian faith with cultural values, swirling them together into a marriage of disparate philosophies. The Israelites did this themselves; many adopted Babylon’s culture and never returned to Israel. It’s actually what got them exiled in the first place; they were adopting the idols and pagan practices of the cultures around them, worshiping God on one day and the gods of culture the next. The problem is that this isn’t holiness; this is toxic to our spiritual health.
The second posture: we can condemn the culture. We tend to separate, creating our own Christian churchy bubble. Listening to Christian music, watching only Christian movies, reading Christian books or just the Bible, and taking on a stance of separation from the polluted world around us. The problem here is that we’re ignoring the reality—we do live in Babylon. In Christ, God calls us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to serve and practice compassion with those around us. It presents an us-versus-them, which is less-than-inviting for people who are seeking Jesus, but can’t get past the Christians who don’t want to be polluted. This posture tends to become simply moralism with a Christian label.
So how do we respond with wisdom and clarity as citizens of the kingdom living as exiles in Babylon? We find answers in a letter the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles:
"Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." (Jeremiah 29:7, 11-13)Jeremiah 29:11 is a popular verse that gets quoted often in Christian circles, but rarely within its original context. Yes, God has plans for us as citizens of the kingdom. But for now, we’re living in exile in Babylon. We are to live faithful lives now with expectant hope for the future. Seek the peace and prosperity of the city. Pray to the Lord for it. God is in control. He’s sovereign. He is good. So, you don’t have to worry; you can simply live faithful lives with your Babylonian neighbours, revealing the grace of God to them through your actions and wisdom and grace and kindness. Don’t be deceived by the dreams of false kingdoms or supposed wise men; seek God’s kingdom first. Instead of conforming or condemning, we can confidently and wisely engage with our culture out of a deep Christ-like love for our city. Do you love your city? Do you love your neighbours?
We’re called to seek the peace and prosperity of our city, just like Daniel. We’re invited to give up our security and personal dreams for God’s dream of the kingdom. But we fail at this all the time—we conform to the sinful practices and values of the culture around us. We condemn and reject people who God loves and desires to be a part of His kingdom. Yet Jesus confidently chose to love the sinful people around him, seeking the peace and prosperity of the world. The cross exposed the foolishness of the world and opens us to heed God’s power and wisdom for our lives. So everyone who accepts the wisdom of the cross is given an opportunity to become a citizen of the kingdom, to enter into relationship with Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit to live lives of wise confidence, far beyond our own limited capacity. We can live like Daniel, exiles in Babylon, seeking the kingdom dream through the wise power of Jesus.