This week we kicked off a brand-new teaching series called, How to Be Faithful When No One Else Is. Over the next seven weeks we are going to be working through some of the story of Daniel to see how he maintained such incredible faithfulness to God in spite of living in circumstances that were generally not even remotely supportive of that goal. Living as we do in a culture that is increasingly hostile to public expressions of the Christian faith, Daniel’s story offers us several important principles we can use to follow his great example. Thanks for reading and sharing!
All actions have consequences. That’s just how things work. Sometimes we have control over and can anticipate those consequences. Sometimes we can’t. When the U.S. withdrew our forces from Iraq a few years ago, one of the unexpected consequences was the rise of ISIS. This radical, Muslim, militant group swept to power throughout the Middle East, eventually taking control of a huge swath of territory for a short time. During their brief reign of terror, the world was treated a whole litany of shocking and tragic acts by the group and those who followed them. One of the most shocking, though, also turned out to be the most inspiring. Militants kidnapped 21 oil workers from a refinery in Libya. All but one of them were Egyptian Coptic Christians. The group took these men to a beach on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa and on camera offered each one the opportunity to renounce his faith in Christ and embrace Islam. All of them refused and had their lives taken for their refusal. When it came to the turn of the one African man who was not previously a believer, he responded, “Their God is my God,” and forfeited his life as well. The story of the incredible faithfulness and courage of these men is still told throughout that region to inspire others to follow Jesus as well.
The dangers associated with following Jesus are real. Not a few folks have been made all too aware of that fact. Thankfully, such violence toward believers is not something we experience very often in this nation. Only a few live in any kind of a meaningful fear of that in our country. Yet following Jesus still comes with challenges. They are merely different challenges. For instance, we live in a culture in which the protections of religious liberty and free expression are more robust than they have ever been. Followers of Jesus in particular, but really people of all different religious backgrounds, have more freedom to practice their religious beliefs in public ways than at any point in our history. This is by no means to say we’re perfect on the matter—we’re not, and you can find all kinds of anecdotes to back that up—but we’re better than we’ve ever been and better than you’ll find anywhere else in the world. That point is simply not up for debate. At the same time, though, we live in a culture in which the church and followers of Jesus generally have never been viewed with such outright hostility from so many, especially among the elite members of the academy, media, and political class. The interesting result of this is that while followers of Jesus have more freedom than ever before, we feel more attacked and marginalized than ever before. All of this means that while we can freely live out our faith in Christ in public ways, doing so will take more courage than we are used to its requiring.
We live in a culture today in which the role and place of the Christian worldview is on the decline and that decline is speeding up as we go forward together. If you are from the Builder, Boomer, or Generation X, you have watched this unfold over the course of your lifetime. It’s been like a train wreck playing out in slow motion. You can’t look away, but you also can’t do anything about it. And, if you are a follower of Jesus, this train wreck has been slowly rumbling down the tracks in your direction. Fewer and fewer people claim any kind of meaningful association with Christianity. More than that, in the latest Gallup polling, fewer and fewer people are even willing to say they believe in God in the first place. And among our younger generations, these trends are doubly concentrated. With an ever increasing frequency, if you take a stand for faithfulness to Christ, you’re likely to be standing all by yourself. All of this leaves many followers of Jesus asking a simple, but demanding question: How do I live faithfully when no one else around me is doing the same?
Starting this morning, I want to explore that very question with you in a brand-new teaching series called, How to Be Faithful When No One Else Is. Being faithful to the command of Christ is hard. It’s harder still when we feel like we’re the only ones doing it. Now, as a matter of record, God’s people are never alone—and I don’t just mean we have Him with us either. He always has more folks who are working in places we can’t even imagine to advance His kingdom. We’ve been reminded of that in three really cool ways over the last couple of months. But sometimes in our own lives, it can feel like we’re the only ones trying to stand on a foundation of faithfulness. What makes all of this even harder is when the world starts pushing back against us for our efforts. What do we do then? Well, we are going to turn to the Scriptures. When we do that, we find all sorts of different sources of help. Last summer, we walked through the apostle Peter’s first letter to believers living in a hostile cultural situation. That kind of direct teaching is really helpful and encouraging. But sometimes, we need more than just teaching on the matter. We need more than mere instruction—even divinely inspired instruction. We need to see it in action to get a sense of what this could really look like in our own lives. And, our God understands that. So, He didn’t leave us with only teaching. He gave us some stories. It is to one of these stories that we are going to turn together for the next few weeks as we explore this question. As we journey through the next few weeks, the story of Daniel is going to be our guide.
Daniel is one of those collections in the Scriptures that is a Sunday school writer’s dream. The tales of how he and his friends stood their faithful ground in the face of the Babylonian Empire are exciting, action-packed, and full of easy-to-package-for-kids (and adults!) principles that almost do the work for you. More than merely the kids’ Sunday school reminders that God is faithful, though, these stories of real people in real and harrowing situations offer us some solid principles for how we can stand on a foundation of Christ in our own lives, especially when we feel like we’re standing alone. Over the next seven weeks, we are going to examine Daniel’s stories and along the way uncover seven different principles for being faithful when no one else is. This morning, we are going to start at what was once identified as a very good place to start: the beginning. If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby, find your way to Daniel. It is in the Old Testament, tucked in just after the much longer record of Ezekiel’s prophecy. Find your way right to the beginning of Daniel’s story and we’ll start there.
Daniel’s story opens at the beginning of the end of Israel as an independent nation. The people had been unfaithful and disobedient to God’s covenant with them over and over again for generations and the time had finally come for judgment to be delivered. In this case, judgment would be delivered at the hands of the Babylonians under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar. After the faithful reign of King Josiah, his immediate descendants didn’t follow in his footsteps and Babylon came calling. In 605 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar came and laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. As a part of this process, he took a number of captives from among the royal family and other prominent families in the city back to Babylon. These captives served two purposes. They were hostages intended to convince those powerful families to play ball with his political aims. They were also intended to create a generation of faithful Babylonians out of these Jewish young men in hopes that they would convince their fellow countrymen to go along peacefully with Babylon’s forthcoming rule. Daniel and his friends were among this group.
Look with me starting right at the beginning of Daniel’s story: “In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and laid siege to it. The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the vessels from the house of God. Nebuchadnezzar carried them to the land of Babylon, to the house of his god, and put the vessels in the treasury of his god. The king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the Israelites from the royal family and from the nobility—young men without any physical defect, good-looking, suitable for instruction in all wisdom, knowledgeable, perceptive, and capable of serving in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the Chaldean language and literature. The king assigned them daily provisions from the royal food and from the wine that he drank. They were to be trained for three years, and at the end of that time they were to attend the king. Among them, from the Judahites, were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The chief eunuch gave them names; he gave the name Belteshazzar to Daniel, Shadrach to Hananiah, Meshach to Mishael, and Abednego to Azariah.”
We are so accustomed to hearing and seeing this story presented in the context of children’s Bibles and children’s Sunday school lessons, that sometimes we forget what this time would have been like. Imagine you are in a Ukrainian city surrounded by Russian forces. At the barrel of a gun, the Russian leaders enter the city to take all of the children of the city leadership hostage. But they don’t simply want to make them hostages, they want to brainwash them into being loyal Russian citizens who will work to help their new nation understand best how to conquer their old nation and keep its people effectively subjected to their rule. The families of these young men would have been desperate and devastated.
The experience for Daniel and his peers would have been intensely disorienting and terrifying at first. Then it would have been confusing. When they suddenly found themselves put up at the king’s palace, treated well, and had all of their whims and desires met, their natural, internal resistance would have started to soften. After all, if they were being treated this well, their captors couldn’t really be all that bad—certainly not as bad as their families had taught them to believe. They didn’t want to turn their back on their people—of course not—but their Babylonian tutors were making some really good points. After all, if their God was really all they had always heard Him proclaimed to be, why would He allow them to be taken like this in the first place? Couldn’t He have protected His own city if He was truly greater than the gods of Babylon? And besides, why should they limit their potential impact on the world to a tiny, meaningless nation in the middle of nowhere, when they could be serving at the pleasure of the greatest and strongest king the world had ever seen? How much more good could they accomplish if they would just…compromise a bit? It’s hard to be faithful when no one else is.
But what the Babylonians didn’t realize is that in picking up Daniel, they were getting more than they bargained for. Now, we don’t know anything about the other young men who were taken with them and how faithful they remained to the law with which they had been raised, but we do know something about Daniel and his friends. Whereas some—perhaps many—of the others gave in and conceded to Nebuchadnezzar’s demands, Daniel had a resolve that should make us envious. In the face of all the wooing and likely threats of his captors in this strange and scary new land, Daniel did not fold. Rather, he strengthened his resolve even more and made a decision. That’s really the key thing here even though we often miss it. We marvel at Daniel’s actions, and rightly so, but those actions were preceded by a decision. There was much that Daniel could not do to keep the Law of Moses given his circumstances, but he decided to do what he could do, and that made all the difference.
Come back to the text with me in v. 8: “Daniel determined that he would not defile himself with the king’s food or with the wine he drank.” Now, what is this? This is Daniel’s decision. And think about what it took to make this decision. This would have been incredibly difficult on two different fronts. For starters, there was a chance that his Babylonian caretakers would not have taken kindly to this. After all, he was being given a gift directly from the king. This was not just any food he was refusing. It was the king’s own food from his own provisions. Refusing a gift from the king could have been taken as a personal offense. People who personally offend the king don’t tend to fare very well. They could have responded by killing him for the offense, starving him to death for his refusal to eat what he was given, or torturing him until he was willing to eat it. On the other hand, of all the laws Daniel could have resolved to keep, the kosher laws governing what God’s people could and couldn’t eat seemed like a pretty minor hill to risk dying on. What’s more, his refusal put the rest of his fellow Jews at risk of being punished in solidarity along with him. They may very well have not have signed up for this. Daniel, keep the Ten Commandments, sure, but let this little thing go! It’s not worth all of our lives for you to rebel on something so insignificant as our food supplies. Besides, this is way better than we ever ate back in Jerusalem. Just go with the flow on this and we’ll find some other ways to maintain our identity together.
Yet any one of his fellow captives who considered pushing back on Daniel’s bold decision to refuse the king’s food failed to consider an additional factor in their reasoning process: they had an ace up their sleeve that the Babylonians did not and indeed could not understand. This ace was the God who had not abandoned them even here. Daniel was counting on Him and so—back to the text now—“he asked permission from the chief eunuch not to defile himself.” Now, just the phrasing of that question reflected Daniel’s incredible boldness. Think about it: “Hi there. Yeah, the food you guys are giving me is great and all, but I’d like to not eat it. Why? Because my God (you know, the one your people think they conquered?) doesn’t like us eating that kind of stuff, and I’d rather not defile myself by disobeying Him. Oh, it’s nothing against the food or the king. They’re great. It’s just that I don’t want to upset my God. You understand.” By every reasonable expectation, Daniel should have been pounded for this. And he probably would have been but for that ace.
Verse 9 now: “God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch…” It seems like something simple, but it was powerful. And how had God granted this to Daniel? Well, it’s God, so the list here could be pretty long, but I tend to think He worked through Daniel’s own character. Daniel had demonstrated himself not just smart and hardworking, but kind and generous. He knew when and how to submit to authority and always showed deference and respect to the people around him regardless of who they were. In other words, he was incredibly likable and as a result, the people assigned to care for him liked him. Don’t miss the importance of that.
Yet this whole food thing was a command from the king, and while Daniel may have been willing to sacrifice himself to be faithful to his God, the chief eunuch was not so comfortable putting himself on the line. “God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch, yet he said to Daniel, ‘I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and drink. What if he sees your faces looking thinner than the other young men your age? You would endanger my life with the king.’”
Daniel could have responded to this in a bunch of different ways that were various forms of aggression, but he stuck with the character that had garnered him favor from the eunuch in the first place. “So Daniel said to the guard whom the chief eunuch had assigned to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, ‘Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then examine our appearance and the appearance of the young men who are eating the king’s food, and deal with your servants based on what you see.’” In other words, “Let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll give it up. You can punish us for our disobedience to the king’s command however you see fit.”
And because they had that ace up their sleeves, things turned out just how we expected them to, this being a Bible story and all. “He agreed with them about this and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days they looked better and healthier than all the young men who were eating the king’s food. So the guard continued to remove their food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables.” And wouldn’t you know it, with an eye toward the end of the story, the author reveals their faithfulness paid off in spades. “God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom. Daniel also understood visions and dreams of every kind. At the end of the time that the king had said to present them, the chief eunuch presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king interviewed them, and among all of them, no one was found equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. So they began to attend to the king. In every matter of wisdom and understanding that the king consulted them about, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and mediums in his entire kingdom. Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.”
So, what did Daniel do here? What was it inside of him that drove him to do something so small, yet at the same time so enormous? He was faithful, sure, but how did he maintain it in such hostile circumstances (both from without and from within)? He did it because he understood something we absolutely must understand if we are to follow his example in our own lives. Let me phrase it as our first principle for being faithful when no one else is: Faithfulness always requires courage.
Now, what’s courage? We often think of courage as doing something hard and scary in spite of the difficulty and fear involved. And that’s an okay definition, but I think there’s more to it to really get it right. Using that definition, we could call someone who robs a bank courageous because that’s scary and hard, but I hope we can agree, that person is no hero. Courage is better understood to be doing the right thing even when it’s hard and scary. Daniel was committed to doing what he understood to be the right thing regardless of the challenges and pushback he was going to face for doing it. Now, did he really have to take his stand on the matter of eating the Babylonian food or not? Would God have forgiven him if he had let that go and taken his stand in another way? Perhaps. We don’t know. But in light of all the ways he wasn’t going to be able to follow the letter of the Law given his current circumstances, this was one thing he knew he could try to do to keep it and maintain his faithfulness. His goal was not primarily about food. It was about a bold, sacrificial faithfulness that personally and publicly demonstrated his commitment to God. And it took courage. A lot of it. Faithfulness always requires courage.
If you and I are going to pursue a life of faithfulness in spite of a culture around us that is not only increasingly not supportive of such a goal, but is more and more openly antagonistic to it, it is going to take courage. It is going to take a willingness on our part to do the right thing regardless of what the consequences may be. And I know this may not be fun to hear, but it is where we need to start. Until we decide in our hearts and minds that we are going to choose the steep, narrow path of Jesus over and against every other path available to us and in spite of the obstacles that will litter our path along the way, we’re not going to do it. And making that choice requires courage. Faithfulness always requires courage. Following Jesus in the midst of a culture that doesn’t isn’t a journey for cowards.
Yet what does this courage look like? Because it is all too easy to get caught up in our culture’s vision and understanding of courage and run off the rails of faithfulness in the process. Being courageous doesn’t mean being brash or rude or aggressive in our efforts to advance the Gospel. It is unfailingly respectful, kind, and generous. It doesn’t mean standing against our enemies; it loves them. It has nothing to do with burning bridges and celebrating the downfall of our foes; it builds avenues of grace and showers compassion on our enemies. Courageous faithfulness is never an us-versus-them game; it is an all-of-us-together affair. The kind of courage being faithful when no one else is requires of us is the courage to stand firmly on the truth of the Gospel regardless of its current popularity. It is the courage to love the people around us sacrificially and selflessly whether or not they deserve it or even return the favor. It is the courage to refuse to take sides in partisan debates that are not determinative of our salvation, instead choosing intentionally to create a context in which anyone can enter freely into a relationship with Jesus including and especially those who are the least like Him. It is the courage to show compassion to the least, last, and lost in ways that are personal, challenging, and spiritual. It is the courage to refuse to allow our own fears and biases to shape who we are willing to engage with the Gospel message. It is the courage of leaving our comfort zones and doing things we didn’t think we could do (with God’s help and direction) so the Gospel can be advanced into new places. It is the courage to set aside our desires and preferences for the sake of honoring those of the people around us.
This courage is unlike anything the culture around us can even comprehend. It goes against our natural inclinations and desires. It will lead us into places we can’t imagine and never thought we even wanted to be. But it is also a courage that will make us salt and light in a tasteless, dark world. It will very likely get us attacked and accused and abused. But it will advance God’s kingdom in ways that simply aren’t possible by other means. It will bring glory to God and joy to our own hearts as we become by all of this more fully who God designed us to be in the first place. Faithfulness always requires courage.
So then, where is it in your own life that you need to embrace this Gospel courage that Daniel so beautifully put on display for us at the beginning of his story, and which Jesus demonstrated even more powerfully? Where you can take a stand for the Gospel with humility and gentleness, with kindness and grace, that will highlight the differences between the way of Jesus and the way of the world? How can you love someone who is widely considered to be unlovable? There’s no age limit on this. You can do it anywhere you go from within these four walls to the ends of the earth and everywhere in between. Faithfulness always requires courage, and when we will embrace it, the kingdom will advance. Faithfulness always requires courage. Commit now right where you are to standing firm in your faith no matter what consequences happen to be. That path likely won’t be easy, but it will be good. Faithfulness always requires courage. Go and be courageous.