Daniel 3

Journeys to Faith – Nebuchadnezzar

I wonder how you came to faith in Jesus. Over the summer we’re going to be exploring the stories of some characters from the Bible, and their journeys to faith. But there is a sense in which they can feel a bit far off, so each week we’re also going to be hearing the stories of folk from this church, and their journeys to faith.

The first is from someone who has given me permission to share her story, but wanted to remain anonymous. She didn’t grow up in a Christian household, but has vague memories of going to church occasionally as a girl because she had her eye on one of the choir boys. As she became an adult, got married, got busy, even that faded away. Then, when she retired, she felt like there was something missing from her life, and decided to go back to church. After a bit, her next door but one neighbour invited her to go to something at church one evening a week. It turned out to be the Alpha course. A little while later another church member took her under her wing, and invited her to a weekly coffee morning, which turned out to be a home group. She doesn’t feel like she had a big Damascus road experience, but these simple invitations drew her into the church community, and into a faith that has filled that gap she felt, and which now reaches out to others in various ways, including offering to pray for people.

I find it so encouraging to hear the stories of people’s journeys to faith. There are similarities between some of them, but there are also lots of differences. God doesn’t have a one size fits all approach, God knows us as individuals, calls us individually from our own context and background.

Over this summer we’re going to be exploring the journeys to faith of some very different people in the Bible – men and women, kings and paupers, Jews and Gentiles. Different people, in different circumstances- but the same God.

This morning we meet Nebuchadnezzar. He was not a nice bloke.

The book of Daniel begins with the fall of Jerusalem. Since King David there have been a succession of Kings who did evil in the sight of the Lord, and the people have God have been unfaithful for generations. There has been the occasional revival under the leadership of a few good Kings, but in general it has been downhill. Finally God hands the people over to the their enemies and the capital, Jerusalem is conquered. Who is it conquered by? King Nebuchadnezzar and his armies. He sacked the city, took the gold from the temple and took the people into exile. Part of Nebuchadnezzar’s strategy for keeping control of the places he conquered was to take some of the ruling class to Babylon and train them up, entwining them so much into Babylonian culture, making them so invested in it that they have no desire to rebel or to go home.

As part of this strategy four young men are taken – we know them as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. But, from the very first, they refuse to accept the Babylonian culture. They won’t eat the food from the King’s table that is offered to them, because it may have been offered to pagan gods, and definitely wouldn’t have been kosher. They insist on eating vegetables only. And they thrive, they are healthier than any of the others who were brought with them. They finish top of the class, and meet with the King for the first time. He finds them without equal, and appoints them to top positions in the civil service.

Nebuchadnezzar’s journey to faith begins with an encounter with four brave young men who refuse to follow the culture of the time and place, but choose to stand up for God, and who come to stand out.

Some time later Nebuchadnezzar had a troubling dream and he wanted to know what it meant, but he refused to tell his magicians and astrologers what the dream was. He said that if they were really that wise, they’d be able to tell him the dream and its meaning. He also threatened to kill them all if they couldn’t. He really was not a nice man. None of them could, but when Daniel heard about it, he went to meet with his three friends, prayed about it, and then went to the King. God gave Daniel both the content of the dream, and its interpretation. Nebuchadnezzar was astonished, and said, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery”. He also promoted Daniel and his friends to even higher positions in the country.

Nebuchadnezzar’s journey to faith continued with a dream, a group of believers who prayed hard, and a man, Daniel, who was attentive to God, and had the courage to step up when his life was at risk.

That confession of Nebuchadnezzar, as to God being the God of gods sounds pretty definite doesn’t it. But that happened in chapter 2 of Daniel. And we’ve just read something that sounds pretty contradictory to that in Daniel chapter 3. Our Bible reading this morning began with Nebuchadnezzar having a dirty great statue of himself built. Not only that, but he insisted that all his court officials, rulers, wise men, government bods come along and bow down to it. Effectively to come and worship him. It doesn’t sound like he’d really got a handle on what it means for God to be the god of gods. It sounds like he still thinks that he’s quite godly really, and that everybody had better get with the programme.

Anyway, they all gather on the plains, the instructions for everybody to bow down are given, the band strikes up and everybody bows and worships. Everybody? Not quite. Those boys are standing out again. Refusing to conform to the pressure of society, to the command of the king. They know that the only one that is worthy of worship is the Creator of all. Not a statue of gold. So they stay standing. They are denounced and dragged before the King, who is spluttering with rage. Do as you’re told or burn. And then, “what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

I love the courage of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They don’t defend themselves, they trust God to do that. But, they say, even if God chooses not to save them from the flames, still they will be faithful to God, still they will not bow to the idol.

At this point the King really loses the plot, and orders the furnace stoked up to the maximum, gas mark “incinerate” and has the boys thrown in. It’s so hot that the soldiers doing the throwing get burned up, and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego tumble, bound, into the flames. And that should have been the end of them. Except that it wasn’t. Nebuchadnezzar rubs his eyes – I thought we threw 3 men in. How come there are now four walking around in there. What’s going on?

Nebuchadnezzar recognises a greater power at work, “servants of the Most High God, come out”. He then makes another proclamation, that no-one in the empire should say anything against the God of the Jews, on pain of death (he still wasn’t a very nice man) – for no other god can save in this way. Again he promotes God’s faithful servants.

Nebuchadnezzar still hasn’t really got it. He’s willing to acknowledge the Jewish God as powerful among the gods, but not as the only true God. Nevertheless his journey of faith is continuing, with the stand out courage of believers refusing to worship what others in society worshipped, and having the courage of their convictions, whether or not God chose to save them from the consequences.

Chapter four of the book of Daniel takes the form of a letter. It’s a letter from Nebuchadnezzar describing how he finally came to a deep, saving, faith in God. It begins with a couple of verses praising God, and declaring “It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me”.

The letter then flashes back to another troubling dream that Nebuchadnezzar had, and the interpretation that God gave to him, through Daniel, an interpretation that indicated that God was going to judge Nebuchadnezzar and cut him down to size. Having shared the interpretation, Daniel said, “Therefore your majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”

It doesn’t look like Nebuchadnezzar did not take Daniel’s advice. 12 months later he was walking on his palace roof, and meditating on his own glory in great pride. At that moment the judgement of God was announced from heaven, and Nebuchadnezzar was driven away from his people, and lived in the wild on grass, until he learnt humility and looked to God and truly acknowledged God as Lord and King. As he did so, he was restored to his people and to his Kingdom. He was saved from the consequences of his pride and hubris.

The letter ends, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble”

Nebuchadnezzar’s journey to faith has come to a place of humble, deep, saving faith in God. The steps that brought him to that place included another troubling dream, a man who was attentive to God’s message, who had the courage to deliver an unpleasant message of judgement to a powerful King. Finally, there was the direct intervention of God, humbling the proud King so that he could see beyond his own imagined glory and majesty to the true glory and majesty of the one true God.

As we come towards the end of this exploration, let’s just take a step back and think about what we have seen happen. We have seen someone who, four chapters ago, was at the gates of Jerusalem, invading, stealing, enslaving. A man so caught up in his own self-importance that he had a statue of gold built to himself and ordered everybody to bow down to it. A man of such bad temper and fragile self-esteem that when he was defied, he had people burnt to death. This man, has come to a place of exalting and glorifying the King of heaven. There is nobody beyond God’s saving power.

Think for a moment of the people that seem to you to be furthest away from God. They may be friends or families that you despair of seeing come to faith. They may be leaders that you see on the news and wonder if God can bring them to faith.

Nebuchadnezzar’s story shows that no-one is so powerful, no-one is so bad, no-one’s heart is so hard that God cannot reach them. So the question remains with us – will we follow the example of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – will we step up and step out, will we be faithful and counter-cultural when we need to be, will we pray and be attentive to God, and will we be patient and diligent in walking with these folk on their journeys to faith?

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