October 1, 2013
Our commission, like the disciples and the Israelites, is to reach the world around us with the love and forgiveness offered by Jesus Christ. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego give us great insight into how to reach our culture and make difference for the Kingdom of God. We see three young men who maintained their integrity, lived lives of holiness, refused to literally bow their beliefs to appease those around them, but were humble, respectful, and concerned about those around them...and in the process helped the ruler of the greatest empire of its time find God.It was their attitude and approach that led King Nebuchadnezzar to greater and greater recognition that Yahweh God was the Lord of All.
Let’s review for just a moment:
Chapter 1 starts out with Nebuchadnezzar destroying Yahweh’s capital city and ransacking His temple. He had no respect for this God because, in his eyes, Yahweh could not protect His own people or His own temple. But by the end of chapter 1, Nebuchadnezzar found these young men superior to everyone else, and they did that because they were obedient to their God. Not in a pushy or public way...just obedient. Daniel 1:19-20 says, “The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.” It starts with us doing our jobs, doing them well, and people liking us.
In Chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar has a dream that troubles him, but wants to know his advisors and spiritual leaders are not just blowing smoke. So he wants them to both tell him the dream and interpret it. They can’t do it. So they remind Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel 2:10-11, “There is no one on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among humans.”
So Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego pray, and God uses Daniel’s spiritual gifts to do something great! Daniel stands before Nebuchadnezzar and declares, Daniel 2:27-28, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” By using the gifts and abilities and position God had given him, Daniel was able to help the King take one step closer to Yahweh.
Daniel 2:46-47 says, “Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell prostrate before Daniel and paid him honor and ordered that an offering and incense be presented to him. The king said to Daniel, “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.”
Daniel 3 tells how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced certain death because they refused to bow before the idols placed before them. Because of their integrity and their trust that God would work everything out for His glory...even if He didn’t rescue them from the fire...Nebuchadnezzar took another step closer to Yahweh God.
In Daniel 3:28-29 Nebuchadnezzar says, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”
We see that Nebuchadnezzar has moved from a complete lack of knowledge to liking some of God’s servants...to acknowledge God’s reality...to praising Him...and now, in Chapter 4 his spiritual journey continues.
Nebuchadnezzar himself is writing this chapter of Daniel...the only non-Jewish male to write a anything included in the Bible...and he shares his testimony.
Read Daniel 4
Looking at these 4 chapters from Daniel it becomes very clear that
God’s uses us to reach others.
So often we want the church to reach the lost. We want others to speak up. We want others to take the initiative in spiritual discussions...but God wants us to do it. He places us in the position He does so we can make a difference for the Kingdom...so others can be drawn closer to Him because of their relationship with us.
Each step of the way God used Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to reach and influence those around them. Here, again, in Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar has a God-given dream that no one can interpret for him, and God uses Daniel. He has placed Daniel in this situation for a reason. Daniel would not have chosen this life. He would much rather have been safe and secure in Jerusalem, with his own people, and worshipping in the Yahweh’s temple...but he couldn’t be because God had placed him here in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Because of that Nebuchadnezzar was taking one step after another closer to worshipping God.
Maybe you chose that neighborhood because of the nice house and good schools, but God places you there because He wants you to be an influence for the Kingdom of God. There are neighbors who need a relationship with Him, and He places us in our neighborhoods so He can speak into their lives through us.
Maybe you would choose a different family if you could, but God wants to use you to reach those closest to you and draw them closer to Him. For those of us who are parents, that starts with our spouse and our children. In Daniel 5 we will see that Nebuchadnezzar, though he drew closer to God himself, did not help his son Belshazzar draw closer to God. But we have parents, in-laws, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews who need to know God, and we have been placed where we are to help influence the Kingdom of God in their lives.
You accepted that job because they offered it to you and you needed the money. Or you made the change because it was in the best interest of your career trajectory. But God places you there so you can work hard, with integrity, and be a positive influence for the Kingdom of God. You have coworkers who need the power of God’s Kingdom in their lives...they are searching for God, and you are the one God has placed in their path.
One of the biggest hurdles that we have to overcome in our faith journey is that God want to use us...that we are His only plan for reaching this world. God promises to act and work...we have to be willing to step up and do our part. There are millions of people who are headed straight to hell, and it is given to us to be the messenger of God’s love and salvation to them.
We can’t change their hearts. We can’t force them to accept. God’s Holy Spirit will do the internal work, but we are to be the voice, the offer, the loving embrace and kind act that helps them move one step closer to God.
We reach them with our gifts
You know Billy Graham has an amazing gift of evangelism...I’m no Billy Graham.
Mother Theresa had an amazing gift of compassion and empathy...I’m no Mother Theresa.
And yet, just because I can’t be Billy Graham or Mother Theresa doesn’t mean I am excused from the act of evangelism or the act of compassion...it simply means that I must do what I can do. I am not called to be either of those two, and neither are you. We are called to use the gifts we have been given to do what we can do.
Daniel had the gift of interpreting dreams. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as far as we know, did not...and yet God used all of them to help change the spiritual life of King Nebuchadnezzar. Each one of us have talents, abilities, and spiritual gifts that God has given us so we can expand and influence for His Kingdom.
1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, 1 Peter 4 and Ephesians 4 all give us a glimpse into some of the spiritual gifts God gives us to expand and influence for His Kingdom. We all have one or more gifts. And we all have a responsibility to use them to further the Kingdom of God.
Richard, who visited with us last week, claims he doesn’t can’t do evangelism. But every one of his neighbors know they can come grab a soda out of the refrigerator in his garage and sit and talk for hours with him on the front porch...and eventually Richard brings up his faith.
You see our gifts are meant to be used to help others take their steps closer to God. That is why God gives them to us and expects us to use them and why he places us where he does.
We reach them with love
I want you to take a look at some pictures...this is how many are being “evangelized” in our world. And unfortunately for the you and I these are the people that become the representation of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to share our faith.
Their message is so different from what the Bible says Daniel did. They are sharing the truth about the judgment and wrath of God...which will take place...but they seem to enjoy it. They seem happy that those sinners will get what is coming to them, and this reveals their deepest problem...they don’t really love those they are trying to reach.
Have you ever had to give bad news or share some blunt truth with someone you love?
It hurts. It’s hard. You have to confront someone you love very much with the truth about how their actions are affecting them and other around them...that’s not easy.
Daniel listens to the King’s dream and knows this is a prediction of judgment on Nebuchadnezzar. Listen to what is says, Daniel 4:19, “Then Daniel (also called Belteshazzar) was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him. So the king said, “Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or its meaning alarm you.” Belteshazzar answered, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries!”
Daniel had to confront the supreme ruler of the greatest empire of his time with a judgment from God. It was the truth. Nebuchadnezzar was being judged for his sins. But Daniel loved and cared for the Nebuchadnezzar. He didn’t look forward to the fulfillment of this prophecy...
And he had every right to look forward to it. Daniel saw his hometown destroyed. The temple of his God ransacked, pillaged, and desecrated. Family and friends slaughtered. He had been dragged off to a foreign land and made to serve the very king who did all of those evil things...and here he stands longing for this prophecy to apply to someone else...
I have to wrestle with that a bit. Don’t you? It has been in my thoughts for several days now, thinking about Daniel’s response to this King, his concern for this man despite all that he had done...and then comparing it to my response to others.
Daniel demonstrated compassion, kindness, and love to the man who had done so much wrong to him, his family, and his people...it should be so much easier for us to have this same approach to people in our culture whom we don’t even know...who have haven’t done anything wrong to us.
But then when you think of the family, friends, and neighbors whom we do have a relational connection with...those we do love...and yet we remain silent about our faith. We never invite them to step closer to God. We seem fine to let them find their own way. We sit by hoping that someone else will step us and say something...
And I don’t think it is because we don’t care...it is because we don’t want to be associated with the people in those pictures. But sometimes it is because it is difficult and uncomfortable to bridge that gap and bring up spiritual things.
I believe God places us where He does so we can influence others and lead them step-by-step closer to Him. That is our primary purpose in life, and we live in a city that desperately needs us to recognize our missionary calling in our families, neighborhoods and jobs. The need us to use the gifting God has given us, and do it with so much love that people can’t resist...and if they do...they at least recognize that they are loved beyond anything else.
Nebuchadnezzar ends the chapter by saying, “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.”
Just think of those around us who need this in their lives! Let’s pray and work like never before to see those in our community move step-by-step closer to God.
The lost sheep...my call to ministry...why I entered church planting.
Just a few weeks after leaving Egypt, the Israelites were camped at the base of Mount Sinai. The thunder boomed and lightening flashed as the clouds swirled and shrouded the top of the mountain. Moses had fasted and prayed for 40 days in the presence of God, and was now ready to receive the 10 Words of Law handwritten by God on slabs of stone.
The Israelites were to be the people of God dedicated to worshiping God alone, and these 10 Laws were to guide them and give them all they needed to live in a hostile world.
The world around them was filled with various culture groups all with their own regional gods and idols of wood and stone. So it is now wonder that one of God’s words would prohibit his people from engaging in the idolatrous practices of the people around them.
Exodus 20:3-6, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
One of the primary themes running through the Bible is the tension between worshiping the True God and worshiping something else...something less.
The Apostle Paul understood the first sin of Adam and Eve as an act of idolatry (Rom 1:21–25), “...they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”
But idolatry isn’t just about worshipping images of wood and stone. It isn’t simply refusing to bend our knees in worship to in a pagan temple. The root of all our sin is in fact a battle against idolatry.
Tim Keller writes “The Bible...does not consider idolatry to be one sin among many (and a rare sin found only among primitive people). Rather, all our failures to trust God wholly or to live rightly are at root idolatry—something we make more important than God.”1
We live in one of the biggest idol worshiping cultures that has ever existed! We are challenged daily to put something...anything at the center of our lives, and when something other than God gives us meaning and purpose and direction...we have succumbed to the call of idolatry.
Idolatry means we have taken something good and useful and beneficial and giving it all of our attention, worship, and service. Anything receiving our best time and attention and energy and resources...is our idol.
Just think of all the possible idols available for us worship:
Celebrity- Respecting, honoring, and learning from someone who has accomplished good things in their life is a good thing, but we have seen the throngs of people who worship at the feet of celebrity and status. The infatuation with every move our favorite celebrity takes...
Fame, Recognition and Personal Achievement- It is not wrong to be recognized for a life of hard work...for people seeing that you have done well in your chosen profession. But we have seen people who hunger for...live for receiving recognition...for being known. It is their idol
Wealth and Power and possessions are popular idols in our culture. Earning a wage for our work and taking care of our family is a good thing. Being in leadership is not a bad thing. Owning things is not in and of itself a sin...But when we stare longingly at the bigger house and want more stuff and love to have control over not just others but every facet of our lives...
Nationalism-Supporting our country and respecting our founding fathers is a good thing. But it becomes and idol when we allow the constitution to speak more boldly in our lives and dictate our actions over and above the Bible.
Science-It is not wrong to love science and the study of our world, but science has taken on an almost religious character moving from just observing and describing our world to infusing it philosophical and religious meaning based on those observations.
Even our children and our families can become idols.
A quick way to decide if you are looking at a possible idol in your life is to ask yourself, “If I were to lose this would it devastate me beyond my ability to cope?”
This is more than just making us sad or distraught or mournful or even hurting us deeply...We are human beings that face the psychological consequences of loss. No, this is basing all our existence and life on something good that is not God.
Another way to probe this issue is to ask, “What do I fear losing the most?” Because our deepest fears reveal what we most want to hold on to in life.
In this message series we have been looking at the book of Daniel, and specifically looking at how it helps us in our witness to the world around us. And how you and I deal with our own sins and idolatry says a lot to the world around us.
We desperately need to learn the lesson of Daniel 3 and see how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were able to stand up to idolatry at a time when their very life depended on it...With the rampant idolatry in our world...Here are some things we learn from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as they faced down idolatry...
We build on prior practice
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were able to stand in the face of this idolatry because they refused to bend in Daniel 1. Many saw obedience to the dietary laws as just a small concession. The King would kill them if they didn’t listen and eat the food. But Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not see it as a small thing...it was simply a matter of obedience or disobedience.
For us to stand in the difficult times, we must learn to stand in the easy times. We must stand up in the small things. The moment we let up on our convictions...give just a little room...do something that makes us feel a little uneasy...we are setting a precedence for future failure.
Notice too they didn’t do this alone...
We depend on our friends.
The Bible doesn’t tell us what would happen if just one of them had been faced with this situation, but thankfully it doesn’t have to. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had each other, and that makes a world of difference when staring into the hungry eyes of temptation.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 reminds us, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
For too long we have hidden our sins from one another. Our desire to make it on our own or to protect ourselves means we have hidden our sins. So time after time we get in too deep and too far, and we are unable to escape without damage to our lives and to the cause of Christ.
Imagine if some of the pastors who have publicly fallen, very early on, had been able to tell one of their friends, “I struggle with pornography.” Or the Christian who committed adultery had been able to say to a trusted friend, “There is this person at work that I enjoy, more than I should, spending time with, and he is not my husband.” What if before succumbing to that temptation we were able to have friends come along side and help us withstand the storm of temptation as it batters at our walls?
But revealing those temptations are dangerous...so we hid them. We pretend they do not exist...so the unbelieving world just waits for us to fall prey to one more of our idols.
We need people around us who can help us stand.
And it is important that...
We remain consistent.
You can’t give up. Moral failure is moral failure even if it happens right at the end. In fact, it is even more sad if it happens right at the end because you had all this time, and rather than let that time strengthen us we allow the time to wear us down.
And don’t be fooled into thinking temptation will just come once. Temptation is a relentless pursuer. It will hunt you down, and chase after you attempting to wear you down.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow before the golden idol...then Nebuchadnezzar brought them into his presence to force them to bow down now. The temptation was amped up. It had to be fairly easier to resist when it was just the 3 of them standing among thousands...maybe no one would notice...but now they were standing there face-to-face with the King himself...the muscle head guards were flexing and holding the rope...the other magi and astrologers were snickering in the corner...the pyromaniac was stoking the fire higher and higher...
The temptation to cave had been substantially raised! And yet they remained consistent.
Even when the King became angry they held firm. Here is a secret...ok, it is not much of a secret...not everyone is going to like our stance when we resist temptation...when we buck the idols of our world...when we choose to live according to God’s principles rather than those of the world and culture around us. In fact, many who attend church and call themselves Christians will become offended when we take a stand for the Truth of the Gospel and living out the Jesus life.
We will stand out. We will be different. We will be noticed...but we will be a witness.
We trust God for the outcome.
I love how these 3 young men responded to Nebuchadnezzar. They said, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Their belief in God did not depend on his ability to save them. Whether or not God saved them...He was real, and He was the one, true God. The outcome does not determine the existence of God. God is real whether they survive or not.
Some times we like to challenge God.
God if you are real...then we give him the answer we desire him to give...the action we think He ought to perform.
But God is not our monkey dancing to prove anything to us. When we pray and treat God in this manner we make him nothing more than a genie in a bottle.
God moves and act in response to our prayer, but it is all in service to the Kingdom. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew God would act and move according to what was best overall...but whether or not they were delivered God was still God and they would still trust him.
There have been countless times in my life where I have prayed for a particular outcome. Challenged God to move the way I wanted Him to move...and He did not do it. At times I got angry...and at others I acted in a way that was honoring to God...I have done it all...but no matter what
When we take a stand...We see God shows up!
I don’t know how God will help you get through your temptations and beat back the idols in your life...but I know that when you stand up to them, resist them, and depend on others for support God shows up. In the midst of the fiery trials of our lives...Jesus will show up.
He doesn’t always do things the way we want...If I were one of these 3 young men, I would have wanted him to show up before I ever had to take a stand...send me on Babylonian Business trip away from there so I didn’t have to bow down...give me the flu on the day of...cause the King to have a change of mind...
He could even have shown up just after I took the stand...you know, soften the King’s heart or even better make it so no one sees or just ignores me. Or, if I wanted the miraculous, He could have caused a strong wind to blow out the fire...I would prefer all of that to Him waiting to dance with me inside the fiery furnace!
But sometimes that is when God shows up...when we are in the furnace. When we stand up to our culture’s idols and refuse to worship at their shrines...God shows up. It isn’t always easy. He often waits far too long for our comfort, but He does show up, and when He does show up...
We draw people closer to God.
In Daniel 1, Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t even close to acknowledging the existence of Yahweh God.
In Daniel 2, after Daniel interprets his dream, Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges God. He says, “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.”
Now, in Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar takes another step closer. He says, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.”
When we stand against the idols of our culture...it will make some people upset with us...even people who call themselves Christians and attend church...but when God shows up people’s hearts are changed...they are drawn closer to Him because we were willing to stand against our idols despite all pressure to cave.
Every day we are faced with the pressure to bow before the idols of our culture.
Our jobs will want us to work longer and harder. Our family will tempt us to place them on the pedestal. Our desire to get and have more stuff will come up over and over again. Our nation will ask for our complete allegiance over all others and disguise it as patriotism.
So we must continually challenge ourselves with this question... “Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight?”2
But when we stand up to the idols of our world, some will be angered, but some will see the power of the God we serve and be drawn closer to Him because we stood against the idols!
September 17, 2013
We have come to value a person’s last words. We cherish them. We hold on to them. Because we know they had this one last opportunity to say something, and this is what they said.
After the crucifixion and resurrection, right before He ascends into the heavenly realm, Jesus gathers the disciples on a hilltop and offers them these last, Matthew 28:18-19, ““All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
One of the last things Jesus says to His disciples, the last marching orders for them and for us, is “Go and make disciples.”
Israel was always meant to be a missionary organization. They were called to be the people of God so they could live in obedience to God. Out of that obedience, they would be a City on a Hill beckoning people to come and worship God. They were to remind people that God was still moving and active in our world, and was pursuing a relationship with them.
But they did not always live up to that. Instead of following God, they often abandoned their worship for idols. Rather than live according to God’s Law, they did whatever they pleased. Instead of reflecting God to the world, they simply mirrored every thing in the cultures around them.
While most failed miserably, there were some, throughout the story of the Old Testament, who lived out God’s call to follow Him and to draw people closer to Him.
Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were some of those people. They lived according to God’s will, and by doing so were blessed by God to reach those around them. They believed God, trusted God, and because they refused to disobey him, they were able to make an impact on the Babylonian Empire.
We are working our way through the Book of Daniel because it offers us so much insight into how, as Christians, we can live out our faith AND make a difference for the Kingdom of God in our world....even when the culture around us wants nothing to do with the God we serve. Our world needs Christians like that...who live out their relationship with Jesus Christ in holiness of heart and life AND who make a difference for the Kingdom by drawing others to God.
Just like the people of Israel, we are called to be a missionary people. That means each and every one of us are tasked with helping those around draw closer to God. He places us in our families, our neighborhoods, our jobs, and our communities for a reason...to be a witness to others.
And the Book of Daniel gives us a lot of insight into what that means.
So let’s read Daniel 2:1-49 together...
Daniel 2:1, “Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep.”
People far from God are having experiences with God.
God is speaking to people around you who are outside the faith. The problem is they do not often understand them, where the come from, or even that they are from God.
Don is a mentor and friend of mine from teenage years. His job with the military has taken him back and forth from Dayton to New Mexico to Washington D.C. A few years ago he was telling me about the hot springs in New Mexico. He said he loved to hike out to the springs, and relax in the water. The water comes out of the hill at a scorching temperature, but people have created little pools along the way that allow the water to cool down so people can sit in them...like a natural hot tub.
As the people go out into nature, he says they will commune with nature, and people have the tendency to drop their clothes and sit around together and relax.
He said some of his best conversations about God and the faith have taken place with naked people in the hot springs of New Mexico. As they relax and drop their clothes they also seem to drop their guard. But then he said, “They have had experiences with God that they can’t explain or define, and often when they attempted to discuss them with Christian friends or family members they were told that God doesn’t speak to non-Christians. So they either have to deny the reality of their experience or deny the reality of God...so they more often than not deny God.”
Our passage today reminds us that people are having experiences with God all around us. Like Nebuchadnezzar, God is speaking to them...they just don’t understand it or where it is coming from.
And when there is an absence of a God-explanation...
They look for answers wherever they can find them.
Daniel 2:2, “So the king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed.”
Nebuchadnezzar went to the obvious places for his spiritual advice...he went to his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers. It was, to him, the obvious choice.
When those around us face spiritual questions and have these experiences with God they go to the places closest to them to find the answers. They go to Oprah Winfrey...to Dr. Phil...to Deepak Chopra. They go to the horoscopes. They go to science. They go to the places closest to them to find the answers because they do not have the words or the connection with God to get a handle on what they have experienced.
Unfortunately, in our world, neither Jesus nor his followers are the obvious places to look. Because of our own dysfunction and problems, the Church has been disregarded as a place to even look for truth. Like those my friend met, they reject God and the Church because they have been disregarded by God’s people. And part of our responsibility is to be good PR for the Kingdom...to help restore just a piece of that trust.
People are searching. They want and need God, but like Nebuchadnezzar they are searching in the wrong places for the answers. The search seems endless. New spiritualities and methods and more stuff...the search is endless for 2 reasons...
First, They want something real.
In Daniel 2:5-6 Nebuchadnezzar says, “This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble...”
When I first came into the Vineyard the idea of the Word of Knowledge was a bit new to me. For those you are unfamiliar with this idea...it is when God gives insight to someone, and they are to speak it to you. It is meant as encouragement. It is a way for us to listen to God so we can speak to others and confirm what He is saying in their lives. Sometimes, like Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well, it is a way for God to push a person into recognizing His power and leading them to Him.
So, I didn’t have a framework for dealing with this stuff. But here is what has worked for me. I am more willing to listen to these Words of Knowledge from two kinds of people...1. People who are close to me whom I trust explicitly. 2. People who don’t know me at all. There are a few more, but for me, these have become my safeguards. I have to trust you explicitly because I don’t want you using general knowledge about me to claim God has given you a Word for me. If you don’t know me, and the Word rings true...then you don’t know me and could not have used knowledge about me to shape what you think God might be saying.
I do this because I want to test, like God says for us to do, but also because I want it to be something that is really from God and not out of someone’s good intentions or bad intentions to manipulate me.
The people having spiritual experiences around us are looking for something real.
They want something and someone they can trust. For Nebuchadnezzar it was the test of not only explaining the meaning of the dream, but also actually telling him what the dream was!
People need and want Truth. The answers must not be off the cuff and made up. They don’t want our best opinion...they are looking for something real...from God. So when they see they are drawn to it.
Second, There is a limit to answers the world can give.
Daniel 2:10-11, “The astrologers answered the king, ‘There is no one on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among humans.’”
There are hints of truth in the various religions and spiritualities around us. They have some of the answers, but they do have Truth (capital T) as found in the real God and in Jesus Christ...so their answers are limited.
Nebuchadnezzar’s advisors knew their powers and insight had limits.
All the religions and spiritualities and methods we and others use to bring meaning to our lives...these have limits too. Even the Christian faith, when used only as a religion instead of genuine connection to God, has limits. So many have viewed Christianity as just another religion. They have gone to church on Sundays, taken part in small groups, studied the Bible, even prayed and sang the songs...but when done without a real relationship with Jesus Christ...these all fall short...they are just actions like any other religion or spiritual activity.
Our world is looking for something that is real, that is truthful, and that genuinely answers the questions and desires of their heart...so when they come looking..
We must speak up when given the opportunity!
God places you where he does so you can respond to the spiritual needs around you! He is waiting for you to use the opportunities you are given to interact with the people around you so He can change the world.
In Daniel 1, because Daniel and his friends were willing to live in obedience to God, God expanded their spiritual gifts and blessed them in roles in the Babylonian Empire.
Daniel 1:17, “To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.”
They proved faithful. They met the challenge, and because of this God was willing to give them more. God knew they would use these gifts faithfully to serve Him...and they did. Daniel heard of the King’s dilemma. His own head was on the chopping block as they say...and he stepped up to use the gifts God had given him.
What our world needs is Christians who are willing to step up. Christians who are willing to speak up when given the opportunity...use the spiritual gifts they have been given, but the opportunities are not always that obvious. Sometimes we get just a little bit.
A few weeks ago, I met a guy from Nepal, and I was able to start a conversation with him. As should be the case with our conversations, I asked questions and listened. I wanted to know more about him and where he came from. In the midst of that conversation, he mentioned how he viewed the world in a spiritual sense...and I simply followed with the conversation.
People around us, everyday, are looking to have spiritual conversations...we just have to be willing to go there with them. We just have to ask the right questions and be careful listeners...realizing that God wants to speak into the lives of people around us.
Daniel could have kept quiet, but he didn’t
He could also have spoken in the wrong way. When speaking with those outside the faith about their experiences...we must use humility, wisdom, and tact.
Daniel 2:14, “Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact.”
Our world is failing to hear the Good New of Jesus Christ because so many Christians are failing in the two areas where Daniel succeeded. They either fail to speak up like Daniel or they fail to speak with humility, wisdom, and tact.
If we want to change our world and have the opportunities to speak about God with others...we must speak up when given the opportunities and we must use humility, wisdom and tact.
This means we become good listeners. We really hear what the person is saying and not what we think they are saying. We don’t make assumptions.
It means we befriend people. Genuinely befriend and love them...no matter how sinful or far from God they are...because within that relationship we have the opportunity to speak honestly about our faith and about God...and they have the opportunity to see it lived out.
We respect their story and their perspective. We value them as people.
It means we don’t shout, we don’t condemn, we don’t beat people up with the Good News of Jesus. We speak honestly, but we use humility and tact when we do it.
But in this...
We must stay connected to God
Daniel 2:17-18, “Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.”
Only in connection with God do we know how and when to move and to speak. Only when we are hearing form God can we offer something real! We might speak too soon or too late...that is why Daniel and his friends went right to prayer.
God moves in response to our prayer to reach those around us. As we pray, God gives us spiritual opportunities to speak for Him.
We run the danger of doing and saying something stupid, of moving too soon or too late, of being a stumbling block rather than a help when do things without that connection to God.
When we do all of this...
We help people take their next step closer to God.
When we think of evangelism, we often think of helping someone say a sinner’s prayer. You know, it starts with, “If you were to die tonight do you know for certain you would go to heaven?” and ends with them weeping and confessing their sin!
But evangelism is far simpler than that...it is simply helping someone take the next step in their spiritual journey.
When given the opportunity to speak, Daniel, with humility, wisdom, and tact, spoke to the King. Daniel 2:26-27, “The king asked Daniel (also called Belteshazzar), ‘Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?’ Daniel replied, ‘No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.’”
By the end of their time together, Nebuchadnezzar had taken a couple steps closer to God...
Daniel 2:47, “The king said to Daniel, ‘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.’”
Nebuchadnezzar makes this amazing statement about Daniel’s God, but in the next chapter he builds an idol of himself for people to worship. Some might think, “What a waste! Daniel accomplished nothing of eternal value!”
But if we go back to the beginning of Daniel 1, Yahweh God was not even on Nebuchadnezzar’s radar. Yahweh was a regional deity who offered Nebuchadnezzar a temple to pillage. He had no knowledge of Yaweh. No connection.
By the end of Daniel 1, Nebuchadnezzar liked Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. That is a step forward.
So Nebuchadnezzar starts out knowing nothing of Yahweh even pillage His temple...then He starts to like and respect a couple of men who are committed to living God’s ways...and now...Nebuchadnezzar is making a recognition that Yahweh is a god worthy of worship...even more powerful than the gods of his region because his magi and advisor could not call on their gods and receive an answer, but Daniel could!
He isn’t fully won over, but he has taken many steps forward.
Our role, like Daniel, is to help people take their next step. That might be to help them make that commitment to following Christ as the leader of their life, but more often we get to help them take a step closer to God.
Some people simply need to see Christians in a positive light. That is their next step. They have bought into the common perception that Christians are hypocrites who argue over theological differences. So for them, we start by being nice. We love them. We become their friends, and don’t harp on ever wrong thing they do.
On Wednesday we went to Classic Pizza for our Crossroads Night Out. One young man came and hung out with us, and at the end he said, “I’m not a Christian, and haven’t had a good opinion of them. But you guys are trying to be real Christians. I like that!”
That is evangelism...helping someone take that next step.
Some people need a little more. They like you. Now they need to know there really is a God. So that is their next step.
Some need more knowledge about God. Some have all the knowledge they need...they just need to take the next step and start following Him.
Evangelism is simply being aware of the opportunities God gives us to help people take their next step closer to Him, and then being obedient to help them. That is what it means for us to be a missionary community for God. We look around at our families, our neighborhoods, our jobs, and our communities and we must take advantage of the God-given opportunities to help people take their next step.
Every morning we wake, we have breakfast, we take a shower...hopefully, and we enter the real world.
We go to work. We go to school. We go to the grocery store, the gas station, the bank, the library....and all “out there” in the real world.
And if you are a follower of Jesus, you realize that the beliefs, the patterns, the culture we live in is very different from what Jesus calls us to live out. When we walk out into the world our beliefs and our commitment to Christ are met in a couple ways. For som
e, they are interested and want to know more. Others meet us with indifference...the world just yawns and goes, “Ok, if you want to live that way. Go ahead!” or “That’s great that is works for you!” Sometimes we are met with confrontation. “I think you are stupid for living that way. I think you are wrong!” And sometimes the confrontation leads to actual persecution and attack...people have been fired from their jobs for their beliefs, others have been tortured and killed for their beliefs. In fact, there have been more people killed because of their belief in Jesus in the last 113 years since 1900 than the entire 1,900 years prior.
As we enter this world, Christians have responded in a variety of ways...some good...some not so good.
Some of us remain silent. We just keep our mouths shut. We don’t say anything because if they don’t know then we are fine.
Others compromise their beliefs. We say, “I’m a Christian!”, but then live no differently than the world around them. We lie when needed. We gossip just like everyone else. We base our beliefs on what everyone in our work or world or family environment says rather than wrestling with our beliefs through the Word of God.
Some of us fight back. We protest. We get vocal and aggressive with our faith. We see every disagreement as persecution. Every time someone gets annoyed at our approach we say, “Look! I’ve been persecuted!”
But none of these methods really seem to be working.
Over the past few years, the Christian faith has lost ground. Our compromise has caused people to say, “See, they don’t really believe what they say!” Our silence means people don’t even take notice. And our protests just push people father away from God.
Over the next month or so, we are going to be looking at the Book of Daniel. A few years ago, I was preaching through the Book of Daniel, and reached chapter 4 when it dawned on me...I had misunderstood the direction of this entire book. My sermons still applied, but there was a different direction I should have taken. I was working through it chapter by chapter, and when I came to chapter 4, I realized this was the story of how 4 young men, living out a very difficult commitment to God in a hostile environment, managed to see the transformation of a King and how those faithful to God were able to live and prosper in a Kingdom dead set against them and their God.
My hope is that as we study the Book of Daniel, we will realize our call to live out this commitment we have made to follow Christ in uncompromising and powerful ways...because we have been called to go into our homes, into our neighborhoods and communities...into our world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and see it transform the lives of those around us.
So let’s start off today by reading Daniel chapter 1.
Judah, because of their sin, was conquered by Babylon. For years the Prophets had called for them to reject their idolatry, to stop mistreating the poor and broken, to turn from their sinfulness and return to God...but they refused. So after years and years, God allows the Babylonian Empire to conquer and almost completely destroy Jerusalem.
Daniel 1 tells us that the best and brightest of Jerusalem were carried off to serve in the King’s court. The temple treasures were pillaged to use in the worship of the Babylonian idols. And Jerusalem was left in shambles.
For those hearing this story for the first time...they knew what all this meant. The shame of their disobedience. The felt rejection and abandonment of Yahweh. The pain of living in a land hostile to their beliefs.
So we have Daniel and 3 of his friends. If you know the story, you know them as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But this was simply the naming process. You see they were now owned by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. So Nebuchadnezzar renamed them after his gods Bel, Aku, and Nebo.
Daniel means "God is my Judge" and Belteshazzar means “Bel’s Prince”
Hananiah means "Yahweh is gracious" - Shadrach means “Command of Aku"
Mishael means "Who is like God?" - Meshach means “Who is like Aku?”
Azariah means "Yahweh has helped" - Abednego means “Servant of Nebo”
The King places these three young men in training. They are to learn the ways and culture of Babylon, and one day serve in the King’s court.
Just to give you a little side note...they are in training to basically become Magi. The same group of men who will one day come to worship at the feet of Jesus from the Nativity Story.
So the King orders them into this training and, as part of the training these young men are faced with a decision...How are they going to be faithful to God and His standards in the face of a King who has their very life in his hands?
Others, in this same situation, have adapted...or caved in. They felt the best way to deal with this was to not create waves...so they caved. They compromised. They failed to trust God in the face of everything.
But Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, give us a great pattern to follow as we go into our world. Because, as we said in the beginning, we live in a world that, in general, is opposed to our core beliefs...and yet these young men were able to remain true to God AND see the transformation of their world.
As we look at their response, we see
We decide to live God’s standards.
Daniel 1:8 says, “But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine...”
The first problem these men faced involved the dietary laws of their faith. The King offered them the best of his kingdom which included the meat and wine from the worship of his temple. Animals were sacrificed and offered as worship to the false gods of Babylon, and then used as food in the King’s palace. Jewish dietary laws prohibited them from eating food offered to idols
Many Jews, in this exact same situation, decided to remain silent or compromise their beliefs in order to make it in this new situation. These were just dietary laws. It was nothing serious like bowing before idols or using the temple prostitutes. Besides, they didn’t want to rock the boat. They decided the best way to move forward in this world was to just go along. So they ate the food and adapted to what it meant to the way things are in Babylon.
But Daniel and his friends realized that if they compromised on one the commands of God it would get easier and easier to compromise on others.
In 1994, Michael J. Fox was in a movie called, Greedy. It is about millionaire Uncle Joe who knows his entire family puts up with him simply because they want the inheritance. So Uncle Joe torments them. During one of the family meetings one person steps to the front and says, “Uncle Joe is like the Devil! He challenges he draws a line in the sand an in front of you and dares you to cross it...so you do because it is only an inch. Then he draws another and another and another. Pretty soon you have gone so far and compromised so much you can’t even see where you started.”
For us it starts with small compromises...just an inch out. It really isn’t anything big. But one little concession after another leads to bigger and bigger concessions. By the time we realize it we have gone too far.
It is just one small small lie...It is just one little piece of gossip...just one sex scene...one time of unguarded anger...It is just one instance where we remain silent and go with the flow...
One compromise...by Chapter 3 of Daniel...everyone else had compromised to the point where they were bowing down to Nebuchadnezzar’s gold idol. And because of their commitment to obey in the small things...Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were willing to stand even in the face of death.
If you want to stand on God’s principles it starts with your every day decisions. Our commitment to God’s ways are not won in the big confrontations until they are won each and every day in the small ways and small decisions we make.
So we have to make a decision to live according to God’s standards. Next
We trust that God is in control.
Daniel 1:9-10 says, “God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you.”
One of the beliefs that crept into the minds some Jews of this time was that God had abandoned them. Why else would Yahweh allow the destruction of the Holy City Jerusalem and the ransacking and destruction of His temple by this pagan king! God had abandoned them, and left them there to die. He just didn’t care!
Another common belief was in the idea of regional deities. Yahweh was the god of Israel. But Bel, Aku and Nebo were the gods of Babylon. Many gave up on Yahweh because they believed the Babylonian gods were stronger...they had after all defeated Yahweh’s people. Or, they gave up because they were now in Babylon and Yahweh had no power over here in this foreign land.
Both lead to the same result...they no longer believed that God was in control. Our own willingness to compromise is often rooted in the fact we don’t really trust that God is on our side and will work out things for the good.
Our boss will make life more difficult if we don’t make those “adjustments”. We could lose our job, and we live in a rough economy. We have a family to support. We have no other prospect for a job...Do we really trust God to take care of us...or do we compromise.
Our friends are about to do something which makes us feel morally uncomfortable...or, if it doesn’t make us morally uncomfortable SHOULD make us morally uncomfortable because we know God’s commands...we might face rejection from our friends. We don’t want to lose them. Some of us don’t have all that many to start with!
What if we live sacrificially and give of our time and money and talents to God’s Kingdom the way He calls us to live...will he really take care of me? What if I actually decided to pay my tithe despite the fact that things are tight...make the necessary cuts to my spending, but also trust God to take care of things.
Daniel and these 3 young men trusted God to take care of them...they were even willing to put that trust to the test.
Daniel 1:11-14, “Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.”
It was God who was at risk now. So often we don’t even give God a chance to make good. We just assume he won’t do what we ask...maybe we know we aren’t going to like what He actually will do...so we make the decision for Him and expect Him to bless that.
But God regularly says, “Obey me and see if I will not take care of you!”
This leads to the final thing we see in these young men...
We live our beliefs with humility.
There is a difference between real persecution and simple rejection. American Christians LOVE to talk about persecution, but have rarely, really faced it. It is far more common for Christians to face rejection or maybe some push back or some disagreement, but many times it has more to do with their methods than their message.
But look at how Daniel and his friends approached the situation...
Daniel 1:8, “...he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.”
He asked. He didn’t demand. He didn’t whine and complain. He didn’t post on his Facebook page a link to the latest petition about how they weren’t allowing him to practice his faith. He asked. Then he offered the test with an interesting addition...
Let’s read Daniel 1:11-14 again, “Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.”
Daniel says, “Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” He gives this man the option to override his convictions if God doesn’t live up to the test.
Not only that, but Daniel and his friends continued to work hard. They did their part. They studied and learned...and they depended on God to do his part. So at the end of the 10 days Ashpenaz was able to see, “they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.”
How often have people demanded their rights so their boss was more put off by their attitude than by their desire to live according to God’s ways. Or they allowed the employee to have Sunday off, and realized they had poor work habits the rest of the week? How many times have people left a Christian’s friendship not because of their actual beliefs, but because of their presentation?
What if instead of demanding Sunday off or compromising and allowing them to make you work on your Sabbath...you said, “Give me a month, and see if I don’t work harder on the days I’m here. See if I am not a better employee for you the rest of the time.”
There is a big difference in the approach...in the method. One is demanding and demeaning...the other exudes the humility required of someone who follows Jesus.
We may still face rejection, indifference, confrontation, even persecution, but in our humble response and consistent living we can change the world around us.
1 Peter 3:13-17, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.”
Because they remained committed to God’s standards and trusted God, He rewarded these men with talents and responsibility that no one else in the Kingdom of Babylon could match! And because they carried themselves with humility they would eventually see a King transformed!
Daniel 1:17-20 says, “To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.
At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.”
God wants to change this world, and He wants to do it through you! He will start with you, then your family, then your neighborhood and community and then extend that to your world. But it takes us being willing to push forward, live according to God’s standards, trust that He will take care of things, and living it out with humble boldness.
The book of Daniel is a great reminder that God is working even when the culture around us is hostile to our message...when we are the minority for our beliefs...God is still at work to bring about His will and to transform those around us!
Ralph Waldo Emerson is famous for saying "Life is a journey, not a destination." But he is not the originator of the idea. For centuries, religions of all kinds have described life and our spiritual growth as a journey...a long trip filled with adventure and set-backs. It requires courage, dedication, and commitment.
The Bible often talks of our relationship with God as a journey. All throughout it talks of people walking faithfully with God. God regularly encourages people to walk in obedience. The Psalms and Proverbs are filled with this idea of walking and staying in the right path. Jesus talked about the narrow and the wide path.
And our primary passage for today, and addendum at the end of the Fruit of the Spirit, talks about walking...and journey...
Galatians 5:25, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
We have been looking at the Fruit of the Spirit. It is important to remember that our growth in the Fruit of the Spirit, the growth of our character, is a journey. It is walking this stuff out every day of our lives in connection to the Holy Spirit.
You cannot muster enough energy to do this yourself. You cannot make yourself good. I found this quote on the internet and it speaks so much to what we are aiming at: “It's so much easier to do good than to be good.” — B. C. Forbes. Paul says this in several places, but none so clear as Romans 7:15, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
So often we look at God’s call to a holy life. His call to live a life that produces these Fruit of the Spirit, and we say...there is no way! I have tried! I have tried to be patient with that person! I have tried to be loving with my co-worker! I have tried to be kind and generous. I have tried it all, and I just can’t do it...
You are right. You can’t do it. You need the power of the Holy Spirit at work in your life.
This doesn’t get you off the hook. There is still effort required on your part. Some have read Paul’s words and thought, Well if I can’t do what I want to do, I will just go with how things are. I was born this way! God is just going to have to do the work.
Character development and growth take time and effort on our part, but they are only effective as we keep in step with the Spirit.
The imagery here is of the Roman Army marching my...click, click, click...lockstep...every soldier’s heels hitting the stone streets at the same time. And Paul says, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
We live by the Spirit. We don’t live by the flesh, as Paul points out all the behaviors that leads to just a few verses earlier. We don’t live by our culture and what it claims is ultimate reality. We don’t live by our work, our family, our inner sense of things...These should not provide the guidance for our direction and purpose in life. We are called to live by the Spirit.
And as we live by the Spirit, our goal is to learn to keep in step with the spirit...allowing his work to transform us so we exhibit the Fruit of the Spirit...that is how we go from just doing good to actually being good!
I read this quote last week from Richard Foster, “Inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside. We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God. It is a grace that is given…”
So you have tried time and again to grow in your patience and you have failed.
You have tried to be more loving, but then they just push the right buttons and you find yourself acting in some very unloving ways or saying some very unloving things.
You try to have joy, but you just can’t shake the gloom. You can’t seem to find anything to be joyous about.
You want to be faithful, but you just keep failing...over and over and over again.
And Paul says that our answer is live by the Spirit and walk in step with the Spirit....learning to see where he is leading and then following Him.
So we do this by first
Building our spiritual muscles.
There is no way to know where the Spirit is leading, much less to follow, if we are not spending time in God’s presence.
I am as guilty as the next person...trying to discipline myself to do this...to carve time out of a busy schedule to hear the still small voice of God. We have to step away from the television, from the computer, from the book, even from our family and from work to carve out time to spend in God’s presence.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have developed what they call Spiritual Disciplines. Spending time with God isn’t just about reading the Bible and praying...those are definitely part of it. And praying isn’t just about you talking. Sometimes, and more often than we realize, prayer is about us learning to shut-up.
But there is a long list of disciplines that any Christian can use to spend time with God. Silence, solitude, fasting, worship, journaling, sabbath, prayer with all its different aspects, Bible reading and study, service...all of these are meant to build up our spiritual muscles so as we enter the world our spirits have developed the strength to face what will come our way. We also learn to sense the leading of the Holy Spirit so we are not searching for it in the midst of our struggle.
Just like working out physically...we don’t wait until we get to the marathon to run. We run miles and miles and miles over the months and year before the marathon so that when the time comes we can run with confidence.
Powerlifters lift heavy weights for years and years before they step out on the competition floor and attempt to lift the amount of weight they do.
If we want to show love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control...we have to spend time putting in the effort to develop those muscles...and that starts in our time spent in God’s presence because it is there where we learn to walk in step with the Spirit.
But we also have to realize...
It takes time to grow.
Watching one episode of Dr. Phil will not undo years of watching Jerry Springer...so one prayer won’t undo years of living your own way. One Sunday morning isn’t going to undo a lifetime of bad habits.
You have allowed your anger to go unchecked for most of your life...it most likely will not stop overnight.
You have never thought about the fact that you say some pretty mean things about other people under your breath...it won’t end overnight.
You have not controlled the depressive thoughts and moods...it probably isn’t going to happen overnight.
You take any problem area where God needs to work in your life, and it probably will not be cured overnight...because God doesn’t work that way. God’s process of transformation is long, drawn-out, and usually filled with hard work because that is how real change happens. Significant and meaningful change takes time.
Health is not found in a fad diet or the latest pill or energy drink. It means eating less and moving more and making wise choices. Healthy relationship happen after years of integrity and being trustworthy and loyal.
Sometimes God will free people of things instantaneously. I have seen people who struggled for years to quite smoking, turn it over to God, lay their pack of cigarettes down, and never touch them again. I have seen people do that with drugs, alcohol, and all sorts of things...
But the deeper, and probably more damaging sins...those take time. Greed. Anger. Bitterness. A complaining spirit. Impatience. Faithlessness. A lack of integrity. Lack of generosity. These things...the sins that are more easily hidden or disguised take time...I mean we can see when you drink, smoke, and chew! We can hear you when you cuss out your neighbor! But we can’t always tell if you have a prideful heart. We can’t see the bitterness and seething anger within you...those sins are more dangerous to your spiritual lives, and take the longest to root out.
And it is so easy to get discouraged as you work through these character issues. You work for weeks and month and years...and then something happens you find yourself exhibiting some of the old habits. We keep coming back to this, but our spiritual growth is really about progress not perfection. Patience starts with you being patient with yourself.
Some people laugh at me because I keep a pretty detailed spreadsheet of my weight and workouts. If I don’t then when I’m in the midst of a bad workout and feel like quitting, I am tempted to think...this is getting me nowhere! But when I look back at the previous weeks and months...I see that I have grown. I am going farther or I am doing it faster or I am lifting more than before.
This is why the spiritual discipline of journaling is important for many Christians. You are recording your spiritual life and journey...the daily interactions and the failures in a journal...and then over time you are able to go back and read and see how you have grown.
Others will us a spiritual director to help them, much like a coach only for the spiritual life. And the spiritual director will give them challenges and talk and listen...and over time give them feedback about how they are progressing.
Whatever it takes to grow we must be willing to do...but we also have to understand it is going to take time. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Don’t excuse bad morality or character flaws that you are aware of with trite statements like, “I’m forgiven not perfect.” But also don’t beat yourself up when you falter after genuine attempts to grow.
God is a God of grace and mercy as well as justice and truth. He rejects those who use His grace and mercy as an excuse to do as they please... But He rewards those who pursue Him. He encourages those who are struggling and pushing through...because He understands that real progress takes time.
So you build the spiritual muscles. You understand the time this is going to take...You also
Learn to pay attention.
The Holy Spirit is always at work in your life, and it isn’t how you might think. Too often we look for God in the big signs and coincidences of life. We want to hear the voice or get the revelation from our Scripture reading...
But the Holy Spirit works on our character by sending us people to interact with...putting us in situations to challenge and test and grow us... He works in the everyday...the normal...the mundane things of our lives...
Let’s say God wants to grow you in being more loving...he is going to challenge you to work with someone who is hard to love. He will use the heated discussion you and your spouse are having.
He wants to grow your patience...you’re right...he will use the regular, everyday situations of life to help you improve your patience. Long lines at the BMV. Traffic accidents...He will use them all.
Romans 8:28 reminds us, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” There are going to be tests and challenges that God places directly in our path to help us grow. There are also going to be things that happen in our life that, while God doesn’t cause them, He certainly uses...He redeems...He grabs them out of the pile of horrible things that happen and uses them to grow and stretch us...so they are not just “another bad thing that happened to us...but they are transformed into something that can make us better.
Our goal is to pay attention to how God is working in your life. You will often see the same idea or concept come up over and over in your Scripture reading. The pastor will preach on it. Your friends will say something about it. A prayer ministry team member might pray it over you out of the blue. Someone might have a word of knowledge that connects to something.
We are not talking superstitious coincidence. We are talking about grand themes where God is pointing out things in our lives...sometimes even sin we need to stop...but something, someway He is at work...
And He will do it through the every day interactions and activities of your life.
So often we look for all the special spiritual things we have to add to our lives...the 3 hours of prayer...and 2 hours of Bible reading...and retreats...and special church services...and all kinds of things...God works through those things, but God is most active in the everyday things we are most likely to overlook
Jim Cymbala, in his book Fresh Power, writes, “While Christ’s work on the cross...was the only way to settle the problem of guilt, sin, and condemnation; the coming of the promised Holy Spirit was God’s way of changing human beings from the inside out. The law given to Moses had failed on this very point. It was in itself holy and just, but the problem was the sinful nature within people.
Now the Holy Spirit dwelling in the hearts of believers would conquer the age-old dilemma of ‘I want to be different but can’t. I know what’s wrong, but I keep doing it anyway.’ This empowerment by the Spirit would be the dynamic source throughout time for all who live and labor for Jesus Christ” (Pages 16-17).
To steal an illustration from a fellow pastor...
Living this out is a journey...we must learn to live...left foot...right foot.
I need to be more generous...left foot...get rid of some stuff....right foot...give some money away.
I need help with my finances...left foot...spend less...right foot...make more
I need to grow in my relationship with God...left foot...get up tomorrow morning and read and pray...right foot...live it out during the day...left foot...get up the next morning and read and pray...right foot live it out during the day.
One of my favorite movies is the Dead Poets Society.
Despite Mr. Keating calling his students to walk to the beat of their own drum...the reality is you will walk to the beat of someone’s drum...you will keep in step with some drummer in your world. You may keep in step with the culture around you. You may keep in step in with your friends, or family, or the expectations of others.
Or you will live by the Spirit and keep in step with Spirit.
Ah...self-control...I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say, “If only I had some self-control!” or “If only I were more disciplined!” What they want...what they need is self-control.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I said it!
The next two message may be the most important messages of this entire series. Without them our ability to produce the Fruit of the Spirit just falls apart. Self-control may be the most important of the Fruits...because without self-control none of the other qualities are possible.
Let’s walk through the list
Love- without self-control we can’t really demonstrate love. How many times has a relationship, built on love, been destroyed because of some one didn’t control their words? We cannot demonstrate love when say insensitive things to those whom we are to show love. We cannot demonstrate love when we lose control of our urges and cheat on our spouses. We need self-control.
Joy- Having joy means controlling the attitudes and thoughts that want to get us down. Depression is caused by many different things...chemical imbalances, medications, illnesses that take over our body...but so many times depression is simply a matter of thinking about the wrong things. We look at the dark side rather than good things in our lives. Joy mean controlling where we focus our attention...am I going to look at all the stuff I don’t have or learn to live joyously with the stuff I do have.
Peace- means controlling our urge to fight back. It means we control our desire to win at all costs...to be right...our desire to be heard.
Patience- means controlling our desire to be first or to not be inconvenienced or to have what we want when we want it.
Kindness- means controlling our desire to act out of our moods rather than react in response to a human being created in God’s Image. It means being aware of other people and treating as we would want to be treated.
Goodness- means controlling our desire to keep everything we get...
Faithfulness- means controlling our desire to quite...to give up...to do what we want.
Gentleness- means controlling our desire to swing either toward unrestrained anger or toward apathy and disengagement...to find the appropriate response
Without self-control...we simply cannot live out the Fruit of the Spirit. Each one requires us to control ourselves and what seems so natural because it is part of our broken, fallen nature inherited from Adam and Eve. If we are to make progress in the spiritual life, we must learn self-control.
We must learn to control our thoughts and attitudes.
We must learn to control our time and our schedules.
We must learn to control our actions.
But is it more than simply controlling ourselves. I would guess that many us tried that...tried harder to control ourselves.
You have struggled to control your appetites for years...and yet you face the bulging belly.
You have struggled to get your devotional life on track. It works for a while, you wake up or stay up and for a week or so...and then it starts to fade away.
You attempted to control yourself, but after awhile it just stops working.
The Dangers of Self-Control
There is a dark side to self-control.
Richard Foster writes,
“Our ordinary method of dealing with ingrained sin is to launch a frontal attack. We rely on our willpower and determination. Whatever may be the issue for us—anger, fear, bitterness, gluttony, pride, lust, substance abuse—we determine never to do it again; we pray against it, fight against it, set our will against it. But the struggle is all in vain, and we find ourselves once again morally bankrupt or, worse yet, so proud of our external righteousness that “whitened sepulchers” is a mild description of our condition.”We believe with just a little bit more self-control we can control any problem we have, and when that fails to work we stop doing anything at all.
But here is the secret, Richard Foster writes, “When we despair of gaining inner transformation through human powers of will and determination, we are open to a wonderful new realization: inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside. We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God. It is a grace that is given…”
If we could manage our sinfulness and become better with self-control...we would have no need for God or his grace. For thousands of years the Jews attempted, through self-control and willpower, to live out the law, but, as Paul says earlier in Galatians 3:21, “For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.”
That is why Paul says in Titus 2:11-12, “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age...”
The grace of God has appeared...and it is that grace that teaches to say “No!” and to live the self-controlled, godly lives...
Our need is for true, inner transformation and that comes through the work of God. So that even our self-control is enlivened and bolstered by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us. Self-control is not me learning to control my “self". It is allowing my “self" to be controlled by the Holy Spirit.
So how does this all play out in practice...
Self-Control means Strategic Distraction
In the 1960’s Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology gave what is now known as the Marshmallow test. His team of researchers would place a marshmallow in front of a kid and tell them they could eat the marshmallow at any time, but if they waited until the researcher returned to eat the marshmallow they would be allowed to have two marshmallows.
Psychologists assumed the children’s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it became obvious that every child wanted the extra treat. Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”
The Bible puts it like this:
1 Corinthians 6:18, “Flee from sexual immorality.”
1 Corinthians 10:14, “Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.”
1 Timothy 6:10-11, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.”
2 Timothy 2:22, “Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”
Sometimes the best offense is a good defense! Sometimes it means getting out of the situation.It means, as Walter Mischel says, to “avoid thinking about it in the first place.” Flee...get yourself away from the temptation.
You must learn to flee...to distract yourself. Self-control is not staring down the enemy and winning...it is finding creative ways to take yourself out of the hot situation that causes all the problems. Walter Mischel goes on to say, “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”
When I was about to graduate from Seminary, one of my professors gave us a quick but helpful talk. He had just read some statistics about internet pornography usage by pastors. He told us...if you can’t find a way to control...get a sledgehammer and bust up your computer. It may not cure inner problem, but it certainly means you won’t be using the internet as an easy access point to indulge.
Maybe you find yourself moving in an unhealthy direction with someone who is not your spouse. You flee that relationship. You stop opening their emails...deleting them immediately. You unfriend them on Facebook. You ignore their calls and delete their messages without listening to them. You find ways to get yourself away from the temptation.
Maybe your temptation is to overeat. Pay attention to what triggers it. Are you bored? Go find something to do away from the possibility of food. Are you depressed? Get professional help to treat your depression or call up a friend and go hang out with them.
Are you impatient? I have heard that slower, smoother music while driving makes you less aggressive...I may need to try that. Taking some deep breaths. Leaving a bit earlier so you are not in a rush.
Can’t control your temper? Try counting...just not around me.
Can’t control your spending? Cut your credit cards into tiny pieces. Stop looking at catalogues and shopping websites.
So often we try to stare down the problem...we think self-control means facing down the enemy. The best self-control means knowing when to get out, knowing how to distract yourself, and even, when possible, to not get into the tempting situation in the first place.
Self-Control means having a defined goal.
So often we fail to live God-pleasing lives because, really, it isn’t our goal to do so. We may say it is with our words, but our actions and, if we are honest, the deepest desires of our hearts do not reflect it.
We want the American dream...big house, 2.5 kids, a nice car, and a steady job with regular promotions.
We want comfort and health...no sickness and no set-backs.
There are a thousand different things in our lives that fight to be our ultimate goal.
But when you have a steady direction...a goal...a purpose...a desire to see something happen...that changes everything. Suddenly your ability to stay self-controlled is enhanced...like self-control on steroids!
Just think about it for a minute. Some of you are in customer service jobs. Do you remember the last time you wanted to verbally tell off one of your customers? They are on the phone, or, worse yet, standing across the counter from you...angry, upset, and yelling. You wanted to give them a piece of your mind...may even give them a solid right hook...
And you didn’t. You smiled. You spoke nicely. You calmly controlled your response.
Why didn’t you choke the life out of that belligerent jerk? Because you had a goal. You didn’t want to lose your job. Maybe it was a more positive goal...you understood they weren’t mad at you they were mad at the situation or the way the company had treated them and you would be mad if you were in their place...so your goal was to help them.
When we have a goal self-control is easier.
We want to fit into that nice dress for our 10, 20, 30, 40 year reunion...self-control is a bit easier.
We want to keep our jobs...a bit easier.
When the ultimate goal of our lives is to please God...to live a godly life that reflect Him to those around us...self-control becomes a bit easier.
Paul talks about his own push to be self-controlled in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
I strike my body and make it my slave...all in service of his ultimate goal.
What is the real goal you are aiming for? Is it to live out the Fruit of the Spirit? Is it to live a life that pleases God? If it is, then spiritual self-control, while not perfect, certainly gets a boost.
Self-Control Requires Practice
In another research project, Walter Mischel, lead researcher on the Marshmallow test, “gave delay-of-gratification tasks to children from low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, compared with that of children in [wealthier areas].
He says, “When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,” he says. “And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.”...the real challenge is turning those tricks into habits, and that requires years of diligent practice.”
So often we want to be spiritually healthy and have God-pleasing lives right off the bat...but quick-fix solutions is not how God does it. Spiritual transformation...moving from a self-centered, sinful human being to living out the Fruit of the Spirits...takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice.
The spiritual disciplines (Bible reading, prayer, fasting, worship, fellowship, silence, etc) are meant to form us into people who hear God's voice and do His will. They give us opportunities to practice
Fasting may be our most powerful and least used weapon in the modern church. In fasting we learn, we practice, denying ourselves what we really want when we want it. I want food...I’m fasting...I practice telling my body “No!” I am fasting from television or media or digital devices...I practice telling my inclinations, “No!”
So when the time comes for something much bigger...I have learned in the small things, through fasting, to tell myself, “No!” I have learned that I don’t need that to survive. I will live and can live quite happily without it. I have denied myself in the past of food, or caffeine, or sugar, or media, or any number of other things and I was fine.
We practice everyday by seeing each moment as an opportunity to grow...that time spent in a really long line is an opportunity for us to control our impatience...to practice breathing...and to wait. That person behind us in line is an opportunity to control our need to keep everything we have and be generous. That person who says something mean to us is an opportunity for us to practice love...kindness...to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Proverbs 25:28 reminds us, “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.”
The image here is life where the enemy can come and go as they please...take whatever goods they want...ravish the city...steal its children...use and abuse it.
When we lack self-control the Fruits of Spirit are an impossibility for us. It is the difference between a child clunking around or an unskilled person randomly hitting notes...and someone who, through years of practice, has mastered the ability to connect the notes into a song.
Guitar...have someone chunk across the guitar...this is what a life looks like that lacks self-control...
But when you allow the Holy Spirit to come in...when you practice the disciplines that build your self-control muscles...when you have a life that has learned the art of Holy Spirit empowered self-control...it sounds like this...[have someone play with skill].