Well, you never know when plans are going to be turned on their head. I was all set to preach yesterday, but wound up stuck at home. Our Minister of Students did a terrific job filling in last minute. Here’s what I would have preached had I been able to go as planned.
This week, as we continue in our series, How to Be Faithful When No One Else Is, we are exploring the next part of Daniel’s story together. Here we find a king demanding something utterly irrational and throwing a royal temper tantrum when he can’t have it. Yet it is Daniel who comes to the rescue by providing the king (with God’s help) exactly what he was seeking. That’s the part of the story that usually gets all the attention, but there was something else Daniel did along the way that is so important for us to understand if we are going to stand firm in our faith when the world is pushing back against us. Let’s explore this together!
How to Speak When It Matters Most
Have you ever thrown a truth bomb? Do you even know what a truth bomb is? If you’re on social media in some capacity, I suspect you do. A website called Slang.net defines a truth bomb this way: “A truth bomb is a statement made that might seem shocking to the recipient but is the truth. It feels like a bomb because the victim…is unsuspecting of it and is usually left disoriented. Truth bombs can lead to disaster depending on the truth they reveal and how the recipient takes it.” Truth bombs aren’t so fun if you are on the receiving end of one, but we live in a day when people love throwing them at each other—especially on social media. Now, just how fully most “truth bombs” actually fall in line with the truth is a matter of some debate, but it’s always fun to feel like you’re telling people something they don’t already know and will shock them to learn it. We love the idea of speaking truth to power like this.
This idea is found all over our culture and has even made its way into the church. There are not a few memes floating around out there on social media that were designed to be mic drop moments—you know, the kind of statement you make that you believe completely obliterates the argument of the other person and from which you neither expect nor desire a response—that are always quick to garner lots of “likes” and shares and attaboy-type comments from people who proudly identify themselves as followers of Jesus. We see and hear examples of this kind of thing and think to ourselves: Now there’s a person who loves Jesus and is willing to be faithful when no one else is. Then, we share the meme and feel like we’re doing the same thing. But is that really how to do it? Can we be faithful—even courageously faithful—by simply throwing the occasional truth bomb and otherwise leaving well enough alone?
This morning we are in the second part of our series, How to Be Faithful When No One Else Is. The whole idea for this series is that our culture is not where it once was when it comes to the Christian faith. Used to be, being known as a follower of Jesus and an active member of a prominent church (especially somewhere like the First Baptist Church in a town) was a prerequisite for having any kind of a public role in society. Nowadays, that kind of thing is going to result in your being associated with one political party and an increasingly small segment of that party at that. While we have more legal freedoms to pursue the practice of our faith in public ways than we ever have before (recent Supreme Court decisions have served to highlight the freedom we have), we are also more likely to be attacked and abused for doing it than we ever have before. The net effect of all of this is that it is easy to find ourselves in a place where we feel like we are all alone in our pursuit of Jesus. Standing firm in our faith is hard when we’re in a group. It’s significantly more difficult when we feel like we are alone in the effort. What we need are some clear, simple principles we can pursue in our lives to give us some hope, encouragement, and instruction in our pursuit. In this series, we are looking for these in the stories of the Old Testament faith hero, Daniel.
Last week, we started our journey by looking at the first chapter of his story which tells how he and his friends were taken to Babylon when Jerusalem was conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar. There, they had to decide how much and how well they were going to play along with Babylon’s efforts to convert them into loyal Babylonians who would help run the ever-expanding empire. While they may have played along in a lot of different ways in terms of adapting themselves to the culture of their new home, Daniel and his friends chose to make a stand on the matter of what they ate as an exercise in sacrificial, courageous faithfulness. God had their backs, and they settled in for a long, successful career in foreign service. What we learned along the way is that faithfulness always requires courage.
And if that were the end of their story, it would still be a pretty impressive ordeal. But there was more. Refusing the king’s food was not the only adventure Daniel faced in his early time in Babylon. Soon, Daniel found himself in an entirely different, more dangerous, and unexpected predicament. We find this story in Daniel 2. If you have a copy of the Scriptures, find your way there with me and let’s take a look at this together.
The story starts like this: “In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams that troubled him, and sleep deserted him. So the king gave orders to summon the magicians, mediums, sorcerers, and Chaldeans to tell the king his dream. When they came and stood before the king, he said to them, ‘I have had a dream and am anxious to understand it.’” Now, there are a couple of things I want to make sure you see here. None of these things are critical details for understanding the bigger point, but they will make sure you don’t get distracted by non-essentials and miss the larger picture.
For starters, those opening words locate this story as taking place during the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. Honestly, in reading this story fairly casually several times before preparing for this message, that detail completely escaped my attention. I just assumed this all happened sometime after Daniel had been assigned to a post in the empire. This time, though, it didn’t. Nebuchadnezzar took over as the king of Babylon in 605 B.C. That same year he went and made his initial attack on Jerusalem, resulting in the forced deportation of Daniel and his friends to Babylon. Daniel chapter 1 ends with Daniel being presented before the king after three years’ worth of training. What this means is that the story of chapter 2 actually unfolds during Daniel’s time of training. Sometimes opportunities to stand firm in our faithfulness in challenging circumstances come at us with a fast and furious pace.
The next thing worth noticing here leads us forward in the story. When Nebuchadnezzar had this dream that so disturbed him, he summoned all the people he knew he could ask for help in making sense of it and gave them a specific task. They were to “tell the king his dream.” Now, you might think the text left out the word “about” there, as in they were given the instructions to tell the king about his dream. But that’s not what the text says. He wanted them to tell him what the dream was in the first place. Look at v. 4 now: “The Chaldeans spoke to the king: ‘May the king live forever. Tell your servants the dream, and we will give the interpretation.’” That makes sense, right? They really couldn’t do anything to help him until he gave them a place to start. Once they knew what the dream was, they could tell him what it meant.
The trouble is (and this says something really interesting about the Babylonian culture of wisdom), the king knew they were all charlatans and hacks. If he told them what the dream was, of course they were going to be able to “interpret” it for him. They were going to make up something that sounded appropriately elaborate and flattering and tell the king about how great he was. They were going to butter him up in hopes of gaining recognition, wealth, and authority over other people from him. That was simply how they operated, and the king knew it. Verse 5: “The king replied to the Chaldeans, ‘My word is final: If you don’t tell me the dream and its interpretation, you will be torn limb from limb, and your houses will be made a garbage dump. But if you make the dream and its interpretation known to me, you’ll receive gifts, a reward, and great honor from me. So make the dream and its interpretation known to me.’”
Gulp. The back and forth here is actually comical. These guys all look around at each other and they’re all thinking the same thing: “This is crazy. What does he think we are? Mind readers? We may be wise guys, but we’re not telepaths.” “They answered the king a second time, ‘May the king tell the dream to his servants, and we will make known the interpretation.’” But the king won’t budge: “The king replied, ‘I know for certain you are trying to gain some time, because you see that my word is final. If you don’t tell me the dream, there is one decree for you. You have conspired to tell me something false or fraudulent until the situation changes. So tell me the dream and I will know you can give me its interpretation.’”
At this point the group of advisors and wise men drop any pretense of deference and drop a truth bomb on the king: “No one on earth can make known what the king requests. Consequently, no king, however great and powerful, has ever asked anything like this of any magician, medium, or Chaldean. What the king is asking is so difficult that no one can make it known to him except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals.’” In other words, “Hey, Dummy, you’re asking for something only the gods can do and they’re not talking. Be more reasonable, and we can help. Until then, you’re on your own.” Well, the king handles this response about as well as you might expect and immediately orders that all of the wise men in the entirety of the empire should be rounded up and put to death. All of them including Daniel and his friends.
Now, if you’re Daniel, this might be the point at which you mash the panic button and start freaking out. I mean, sure, you got through the whole food thing in your first year, but now the king wants to have all of you executed because of an irrational request and a handful of the higher ups who responded to it badly. How am I supposed to have faith in God when it seems like He’s pulled the rug out from under me? Daniel, though, much to his credit, once again doubles down on the faith that had served him well to this point in his journey. Rather than losing his mind, he takes full control of it and approaches the captain of the guards assigned to the grisly work of killing all of these innocent men at the king’s command.
“Then Daniel responded with tact and discretion to Arioch, the captain of the king’s guard, who had gone out to execute the wise men of Babylon.” Daniel didn’t simply respond to Arioch. He responded with tact and discretion. He chose his words very carefully and made sure they were precisely tuned to what the situation needed. For his part, the captain of the guard responds to Daniel in kind. I wonder what his response would have been had Daniel been angry, arrogant, or disrespectful instead of tactful and discreet. Daniel asks what’s going on, Arioch explains, and Daniel gets an audience with the king to give him a little more time before carrying out his awful order so that he can meet the king’s request. He then goes back to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, to ask them to pray with him for God to give him the answer to the king’s query so they didn’t lose their lives over this. God grants the request and Daniel comes to the rescue. He goes before the king, tells him what the dream was (and don’t you know Nebuchadnezzar gave a smug look to the other wise men in the room when that happened), and then tells him what it meant. The king’s dream was actually a vision about the future. For some reason, God was giving Nebuchadnezzar a glimpse at the empires that would come to power after his was long gone. There was going to be a sequence of four empires with his being the first. Not only was it to be the first, but it was going to be the greatest and strongest of them all. The rest would all be inferior copies.
Well, King Nebuchadnezzar was obviously delighted by all of this. Not only had Daniel told him the meaning of the dream, but he had been able to tell him the dream in the first place. It also didn’t hurt that the interpretation was pretty flattering of him. Perhaps even more than that, though, it highlighted how much greater Daniel’s God was than all the other gods. This is pretty interesting because it was the evident failures of Daniel’s God that led to his being a captive in Babylon in the first place. It’s almost like maybe it wasn’t actually a failure on His part. We won’t worry ourselves with that rather inconvenient detail right now.
And this is the moral of the story, right? Daniel is awesome because he could interpret the king’s dream, and God is awesome because He gave Daniel the ability to do that (something about which Daniel was explicitly clear in terms of giving credit where it was due). The lesson here is that God will help us out when we are in a pinch and are willing to trust in Him. Except, I don’t think that’s the point here at all. Oh, it’s not insignificant, but I think there’s more. This is particularly true when it comes to principles worth emulating in our efforts to be faithful when no one else is.
In order to get our hearts and minds around this, I want to go back to v. 14 for just a second. Remember what it said there when describing how Daniel addressed the matter of his impending execution with Arioch, the captain of the king’s guard? Daniel responded to him with “tact and discretion.” If you think about it, that’s kind of an odd thing for the author to go out of his way to report. He could have simply reported that Daniel responded to Arioch without giving any adjectives. I mean, scroll space was expensive back then. He could have saved a couple of words. Why go out of his way to draw attention to Daniel’s approach like this? Because it matters. A lot. It mattered for Daniel, and it matters for us.
Daniel’s words here were incredibly bold. But they were also filled with tact and discretion. He went out of his way to be respectful to Arioch and to avoid offending him. Now, on the one hand, that was just smart because Arioch literally possessed the power of life and death over Daniel in that moment, but it was also wise, because instead of burning a bridge in his attempt to avoid the injustice speeding down the highway at him, he built one. Just like his courageous but polite request to the guard who was in charge of his food a year or so before, Daniel spoke boldly here as he sought to continue standing faithfully before God. But his boldness was not brash. We often think about bold words as being aggressive or harsh or loaded with superlatives. But while that can sometimes be the case, bold words can also be gentle, humble, and designed to diffuse an otherwise explosive situation. The boldness lies not necessarily in the words themselves, but in the tone and intent of their delivery.
If we are going to remain rooted in our faith in the context of a culture that doesn’t desire or appreciate such a thing, there are times when we are going to have to speak boldly. We are going to have to be willing to tell the truth when it isn’t popular. In an opposite but similar way, we are going to have to be willing to refuse to say things that aren’t true even if such a refusal is costly. Followers of Jesus today need to be actively developing a theology of getting fired. Sometimes these opportunities to speak will come with a grand stage like Daniel had in his audience with the king himself, but much more often than that, they will come in small ways where nothing particularly significant seems to hang on our words, but where speaking the truth with gentle boldness can affect the path we or another person are walking such that we are directed more toward life instead of death. The shift may be a subtle one in the moment, but eternity hangs on the outcome.
When we face these moments, it’s going to be too late to suddenly gain the ability to speak in ways that point to life like Daniel did. What Daniel did in addressing Arioch with tact and discretion was the result of his disciplining himself to speak like that in every situation he was in, whether big or small. If you have trouble controlling your tongue in your day to day interactions with other people whether in person or (especially) on social media, hiding behind false walls like boldness or dropping truth bombs, then when you are in tense moments when a great deal more is on the line, you are going to stick with your pattern…a pattern that doesn’t lead to life. The way forward is to make sure, like Daniel did, that while your words are always entirely rooted in truth, that they are also entirely rooted in graciousness. This is not an either-or affair, but one that is firmly both-and. Culture may not think so, but we know so because we see examples of this throughout the Scriptures in places like the stories of Daniel, and, even more significantly, on the lips of Jesus. The words of a faithful person are both truthful and gracious. And if you are going to maintain your faith in a context when no one else seems to be, your words are going to have to follow suit. The words of a faithful person are both truthful and gracious.
This is what godly boldness looks like. The culture around us won’t understand it. Places in the church where the thinking and assumptions of the world have leaked in won’t understand it either. But if we want to remain rooted when everything around us seems to be flying apart at the seams, there’s no other way. The words of a faithful person are both truthful and gracious. So, speak boldly when the time comes for speaking. Just make sure that boldness is equal parts truth and grace. The words of a faithful person are both truthful and gracious.