Text: Daniel 1
In the movie, The Matrix, the main character, Neo, is offered the choice between two pills. One is red, and the other is blue. If Neo chooses the blue pill, his world would continue uninterrupted, just as he had always known it. Even the memory of the offer of the pills would only be as a faint dream. On the other hand, if Neo takes the red pill, he will go down a proverbial rabbit trail from which there is no return. After taking the red pill, Neo wakes up one morning and asks the question, “There’s no way back, is there?”
What do you do when you find yourself in an utterly new world, completely different from all that was familiar and comfortable before? What do you do when everything around you has changed and morphed into something else entirely? How do you wake up and face each day knowing that there is no way back, and nothing to go back to even if there was a way?
Daniel was born into a world with a fluid, fast changing political storm constantly brewing in which the little kingdom of Judah was a mere pawn between much larger rivals. Following the fifty-five years of utter wickedness of King Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son, God utterly forsook Judah. Even Josiah’s rediscovery of the book of Deuteronomy and his attempts at religious reform were not enough to sway God’s heart. Judah was a vassal state, forced to pay tribute to a line of succeeding powers far greater than Jerusalem.
When Babylon’s general and co-regent, Nebuchadnezzar, finally forced Egypt’s Pharaoh back to his own borders, Judah became a vassal of Babylon, forced to pay tribute at great cost to its people. Life was hard and getting harder.When Daniel was about fourteen or fifteen, Nebuchadnezzar swept through Jerusalem to claim some prizes to take back with him to his palace. The spoils he sought included gold, silver, members of defeated royal families, and other men who showed promise for learning and eventually helping the king manage his growing and wide-ranging empire.
Daniel and three others from Judah were selected and carted off to the hedonistic, pagan world of Babylon. And just like that, Daniel’s world changed forever. What would Daniel do in this wild, new world in which he was thrust? What would he do as his home disintegrated under the weight of this power that offered Daniel everything a young man could want from the world? Once only distant marvels and temptations suddenly became readily at hand.
Daniel did two things in the face of all the newness that surrounded him. One, he adapted to it. Daniel and all of the other youths that were with him from all over the world, it seemed, were there to learn the “language and literature of the Chaldeans.” So Daniel did. He learned to speak and write in new ways. The Babylonians spoke a language that was related to, but different from the Hebrew Daniel knew. It was called Aramaic, and it became the lingua franca of the region even to Jesus’ day. While Hebrew used an alphabet like we do, Babylon’s literature was written with cuneiform, wedge shapes carved into clay.
Daniel learned the language well. He wrote about half of the book that bears his name in Hebrew and the other half in Aramaic. Knowing the language helped Daniel to learn the culture of the day as he read its laws, its poems, its songs, its religious practices, and all of its other literature. He came to understand the political maneuverings of the world. He grasped the economics that drove society. He understood the religion of the Babylonians inside and out. He had to learn all of these things so that he could fully serve Nebuchadnezzar as a competent counselor. And Daniel and his friends went on to excel in that task, highly praised and valued by the king for their hard work, wisdom, and advice.
You see, Daniel looked around the world in which he now found himself and learned its ways. He did this precisely so that he would be able to function in it. He had to be able to get around, to survive, to even thrive in this new world that was different from what he had known.
Daniel and his friends adapted to their new surroundings, but they did not conform to them. They learned to function in their world, and to function exceedingly well, but they did take on its shape. Instead, they remained grounded as the people that they were beforehand, even in the new place in which they lived and moved.
Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah might have been forced by the Babylonians to abandon their names that each praised the God of Israel in favor of names the bore the names of the Babylonian gods, but that did not mean that they ceased to be Jews who were in covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So when it came down to the meals, and the four friends say the table loaded up with the best foods the kingdom had to offer – meat (had they ever seen such an amount of meat in all of their years in Judah?) and wine that flowed in abundance, from the very same vats and kitchen that the king himself ate. But the wine and the meat were the best of the kingdom likely because they were the very foods that the people of Babylon sacrificed to their gods.
So Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah rejected the food and sought permission within the power that they were under to eat other foods instead. They worked within the system, not risking the livelihood of those charged with their care, but insistent that they remain faithful and true to the one true God who had revealed Himself to Israel. They might live in Babylon with all of the trappings of the Babylonians, but they remained Jewish to their core, and they stayed grounded in the truth that they knew. Some things could not be abandoned or traded, no matter the cost.
These two steps must be the same approach that we take when we find ourselves in a new world. We must learn to live in the new world. We must learn its ways and its guideposts – its language and literature. We must learn it inside and out and adapt ourselves so that we can excel within it on its own terms. Even in Babylon, we must live.
Yet, we cannot abandon our hearts and our minds, we cannot lose everything that makes us who we are become unrecognizably conformed to the new world. We must remain grounded in our own identity that makes us who we are. We must understand what is the truth that cannot be abandoned or reshaped, even in a new world. Gravity is gravity everywhere. Light is light everywhere. God is God everywhere. We must adapt to the world, but we must stay grounded in who we are.
Daniel and his friends do both. They learn all that Nebuchadnezzar wants them to learn. But in the meantime they do not forsake their roots as Jews in covenant with God. That would not change. And so they rejected the king’s food and requested their own food, that they might remain faithful to who they were, even in a new land among new people with new rituals and customs. They adapted without conforming.
Monte Vista, Daniel’s situation is our own. We have, as it were, been asleep. And now, as we wake up, we find that we are in a new world. It is a different world that no longer functions as the world we knew once did. it is different. It has different values, different customs, different practices, different expectations, different ways of going about life. Much has changed, and we have to decide what we are going to do about it.
We can become completely one with the world, showing no distinction. Some so-called Christians have done just that. They take the world as it is lock, stock, and barrel, rejecting anything that the world now objects. Abortion becomes a right. Homosexuality a choice. Church attendance an optional exercise. The stories of Hell merely an allegory. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ a fairy tale with some nice morals to it. That’s one choice.
We can utterly reject the new world in which we live, seeking only to return to what once was. We could abandon electricity and other modern conveniences and seek to live a simpler life from an age that no longer exists anywhere else. Or we could pick any other date along the spectrum of time and arbitrarily choose that this is the place where we are going to stick. Where the music is comfortable, where the Bible translation is familiar, where the attitudes and morals and expectations of people match what we want them to be. We can completely ignore that the world has moved on, and thereby lose any opportunity to engage the world and reach it with the message with which we have been entrusted. We can stick our head in the sand, pretend that nothing has changed, and let the world pass us by, mocking and laughing at us as it does so.
Or,we can be like Daniel and his friends. We can accept that the world in which we find ourselves is new and different, and that no matter our desires, there is no going back. Even so, we can commit to holding fast to the things that make us the children of God, and heirs according to the promise. This will mean accepting some changes, learning new things, living and reacting differently. But it will also mean using our knowledge of the new world to search dearly for the important things that we must not let go of from the old world. It will mean knowing what things are important to fight for and what things are important to let go of.
In my State of the Church address at our business meeting this last week, I described our church as being on a precipice with two paths looming out in front of us. One leads to vibrancy and life and a long, dear future as a fully-functioning body of Christ. The other leads only to a surprisingly short road of decay and death. We are right now in the midst of deciding which path we are going to take. Are we going to fight to be only what we were and always have been, or are we going to be like Daniel, learning this new world in which we find ourselves, adapting, and remaining vibrantly important to the work of our King and Lord?
It is my prayer that we will choose the latter. It is my hope that we will be willing to take on the world as it is now, to address it on its own terms, to show it what the Gospel means for life today. It will mean changing the way we do things so that the world can understand us and join with us. it will mean a lot of adapting from the way things once were to the way things are now.
But it will also mean holding fast to those things that are inviolable, no matter what the world might desire of us. We cannot eat the food from the world’s table, no matter how desirable the world present it to us. We must know the world well, but we must also know the truth well. Our goal is to know the truth and to teach the truth to the world so that we may all be free in Christ.
In your own life, whatever new world you find yourself in, hold to these two principles of Daniel and his friends. You will have to learn your new world and live in it. It is the new normal. But you must also be true to yourself in this new environment. Adapt, but stay grounded and wondrously unconformed.
May God bless us as we move forward boldly where we find ourselves now, and all of the new worlds into which He takes us.