Helping People Connect with God in an Increasingly Godless Society.

How can we help people connect with God in an increasingly godless society? Fewer Canadians are calling themselves Christians. Fewer are committed to attending church. Fewer people turn to churches in times of spiritual seeking. People now look for wedding officiants instead of pastors. People now desire a celebration of life rather than a Christian funeral. There is no doubt that Canadians have been turning away from Christianity. With this being the trajectory, are we able to help Canadians connect with God?

In Biblical times Babylon was more godless than Canada. King Nebuchadnezzar makes Prime Minister Trudeau, President Trump, and President Putin, all look like angels. Yet in Daniel, chapter 4 we see something remarkable:

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. Daniel 4:37 (NIV)

Nebuchadnezzar, a far-from-godly king over a truly godless empire made a God-connection! God’s people were very much in the minority, so we cannot give credit to prayer in schools, or Bible based laws. Church attendance was at an all time low! There is therefore hope for Canadians. If Nebuchadnezzar can make a God connection, anyone can. There are lessons for Canadian Christians in Daniel, chapter 4.

First, note Daniel’s heart:

“Upon hearing this, Daniel (also known as Belteshazzar) was overcome for a time, frightened by the meaning of the dream. Then the king said to him, ‘Belteshazzar, don’t be alarmed by the dream and what it means.’
“Belteshazzar replied, ‘I wish the events foreshadowed in this dream would happen to your enemies, my lord, and not to you! Daniel 4:19 (NLT) 

Daniel’s heart broke for Nebuchadnezzar. There is no doubt about Daniel’s heart for God. However, Daniel also had a heart for Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was moved by what he knew would happen to the king. Keep in mind that this is not a good and godly king. This is a not a friendly empire. This king had thrown Daniel’s friends into the fire. This king had threatened to destroy all the wise men, including Daniel, when they were unable to discern his dream. This empire had invaded Daniel’s homeland and taken people, including Daniel, as captives. Yet, it touched Daniel’s heart that Nebuchadnezzar was about to experience misfortune. Daniel was loving the enemy long before Jesus taught us to do so.

Do our hearts break for those who experience disconnect from God? Nebuchadnezzar was very different from Daniel. He had a different background, grew up speaking a different language, followed a different religion, and therefore had different values. Do our hearts break for those who would seem to be very different from us?

Do our hearts break over the struggles and misfortunes of others, even perceived enemies, or do we say, “told you so”? Do our hearts break for people? Do we faithfully love others? Broken hearts will be the evidence.

Second, note that Nebuchadnezzar’s connection with God was a journey.

Nebuchadnezzar had glorified Daniel’s God before, in chapter two. That did not stop him from throwing Daniel’s friends into a furnace in a fit of rage in chapter three. Chapter four ends with a stronger connection between the king and God than ever before. Yet there is likely more distance to go in Nebuchadnezzar’s understanding of the divine and his relationship with God. The path to, and with, God can be a long journey.

A relationship with God is always a journey. In previous Kanye West albums I have heard some Christian thoughts. In his latest album, called “Jesus is King,” there are nothing but Christian thoughts. Kanye is on a journey! Yet Kanye calls into question the ability of established Christians to walk that journey with him:

Said I’m finna do a gospel album
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Feelin’ like nobody love me
Told people God was my mission
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me

https://genius.com/Kanye-west-hands-on-lyrics

Helping people connect with God is a great privilege, at any point along the journey. Daniel never gave up on Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel never wrote the king off, but served him with heart. Do we give up on people? Have we given up on Canada? Do we engage with people, serving others as Christ served us? Or do we isolate ourselves? Worse, perhaps we might prefer to isolate them. Are we faithful in our journey with people, as they are on a journey in their relationship with God? Relationships will be the evidence.

Third, watch for God’s heart work.

There was an essential ingredient that Nebuchadnezzar needed for a better connection with God. He needed humility. In Daniel chapter 4, God, not Daniel, takes Nebuchadnezzar on a journey of self-awareness and God-awareness:

29 Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”
31 Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. 32 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”
33 Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. . . . 34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. . . . 37 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. Daniel 4:29-34,37 (NIV)

Nebuchadnezzar is taken on a journey from thinking he is the best, with no need for God, to an awareness that he is, and has, nothing without God. Nebuchadnezzar does not make a vital connection with God until he is humbled. He needed some heart work, and God brought about that heart work.

People will not connect with God without some heart work. Merely sharing information won’t establish a God connection. Hearing the truth is often not enough. Daniel could say it, and he did. But Nebuchadnezzar did not learn it until he experienced it. The king had all the information he needed. Daniel put it in his head. However, the king did not have the humility to accept it until God prepared his heart. Still, it was important that Daniel say it. Are we committed to faithfully sharing the Good News of God’s love in Christ, even when we are being ignored? Are we faithful in engaging people’s minds, while we look to God to open hearts? Prayer will be the evidence.

Conclusion

Fewer people seem to be making a connection with God in our not-so-Christian-anymore society. We might despair. But there is hope. If Nebuchadnezzar can make a vital God-connection, anyone can. Daniel was involved in that connection. We can be involved also. Are we faithful in our love for people, really and truly loving our neighbour, even our enemies, as Jesus calls us to? Are we faithful in our journey with people, every step of the way, even the smallest steps, even steps sideways or back? Are we faithful in engaging people’s minds, while we look to God to open their hearts?

(This “Shrunk Sermon” is from a series on The Book of Daniel which begins here)

Ready for the Furnace? The Courage to Worship God When No One Else Does.

I will give you one more chance to bow down and worship the statue I have made when you hear the sound of the musical instruments. But if you refuse, you will be thrown immediately into the blazing furnace. And then what god will be able to rescue you from my power?” Daniel 3:15 (NLT)

Are we ready for the furnace? Do we have the courage of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who chose the furnace over worshipping the king’s statue? Do we have the courage to worship God, and God alone, while we live in a society that does not worship God?

1 King Nebuchadnezzar made a gold statue ninety feet tall and nine feet wide and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. 2 Then he sent messages to the high officers, officials, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the provincial officials to come to the dedication of the statue he had set up. 3 So all these officials came and stood before the statue King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Daniel 3:1-3 (NLT)

Imagine the scene; all the important people form across the Babylonian empire are gathered to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. The statue was impressive, but so was the king himself, the gathering of officials being proof that he had such power over such a large empire. However, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not as impressed with the king and his statue as everyone else:

But there are some Jews—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—whom you have put in charge of the province of Babylon. They pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They refuse to serve your gods and do not worship the gold statue you have set up.” Daniel 3:12 (NLT) 

Given the ultimatum to worship like everyone else, or be thrown into the furnace, they chose the furnace:

. . . we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” Daniel 3:18 (NLT)

Why did they have such courage? How could their courage be so impressive, when the king, the king’s statue, the king’s power, and the king’s empire, were all so impressive? Why choose the furnace? Likewise, why were early Christians so courageous when Rome, and the power of Rome, seemed so impressive? Why did they choose the lions? Why be courageous in our worship of God today, when so much else seems so impressive? Why not cave?

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego worshipped God courageously because they knew that God alone is worthy of worship. No matter how impressive Nebuchadnezzar, or his statue, or his power, or his empire might be, God is more impressive! By the end of the story the statue is forgotten.

Then the high officers, officials, governors, and advisers crowded around them and saw that the fire had not touched them. Not a hair on their heads was singed, and their clothing was not scorched. They didn’t even smell of smoke! Daniel 3:27 (NLT)

The story begins with all eyes on the statue, it ends with all eyes on God!

Are we ready to take a courageous stand when it comes to worship? People have worshiped seemingly impressive gods in every culture. Richard Foster, in his book “Celebrating the Disciplined Life,” speaks of three things which might tempt us to cave in our dedication to God; the worship of money, sexy and power. I’m sure we can each add to this list the things that draw our eyes, that demand our worship. However, at the end of the day, by the end of the story, we will go from all eyes on such things, to all eyes on Jesus. No matter how impressive the people or things are that we worship today, they will be forgotten in the end. God will be front and centre.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego know that God alone is worthy of their worship, no matter what happens to them.

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. 18 But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18 (NLT emphasis added)

God is God, He is worthy of worship. God is God, and is worthy of worship whether He rescues us today or not. As we consider God’s people in exile in Babylon, the Babylonians might seem to be more powerful, for now. As we consider the early Christians, the Romans might seem to be more powerful than God, for now. As we consider our own lives, cancer, or some other disease, or ageing, or the consequences of a car accident, might seem more powerful than God, for now. However, God is God, even if there is no rescue from the furnace, or the lions, or disease, or violence, or whatever, for now. But the story is not over.

Do we know that God is worthy of our worship, even if there is no rescue? You might get sick. Many people may pray for you. You might die anyway. Is God not powerful enough to answer the prayers and rescue us? There is a bigger rescue operation underway, in Christ. By the end of the story, we will realize that God, who demonstrates his power and his love in Christ, is more impressive than anything that comes against us. All will realize Who is worthy of worship at the resurrection.

We often experience God best when we are not rescued, when we are not kept from the difficulties we pray we never experience. Consider Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego in the furnace:

24 But suddenly, Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in amazement and exclaimed to his advisers, “Didn’t we tie up three men and throw them into the furnace?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, we certainly did,” they replied.
25 “Look!” Nebuchadnezzar shouted. “I see four men, unbound, walking around in the fire unharmed! And the fourth looks like a god!” Daniel 3:24-25 (NLT)

There is discussion as to whether Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or an angel, was the fourth person Nebuchadnezzar saw walking around in the furnace. However we understand it, we are meant to know they were experiencing the presence of God. “The experience of God’s being with his people . . . comes only in the furnace, not in the being preserved from it” (Kennedy). We will experience God best in the furnace experiences of life, even when that is the experience of death. In being thrown to the mouths of the lions, many Christians have been thrown into the arms of God.

One last thing; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego went back to serving the very people who tried to kill them. They continued to participate in a godless society, serving godless people. Their attitude was: “I will serve you, but not your gods.” As we seek to worship God alone, can we commit to serving those who have no such desire? Do we have the audacity to hold up God alone as worthy of worship, even when threatened with a furnace? Do we have the compassion that drives us to serve others, even those that might threaten us with a furnace? If so, we will be following in the footsteps of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, not to mention Jesus.

(This “Shrunk Sermon” is from a series on The Book of Daniel which begins here)

Are Non-Christians Thankful for Christians?

As we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving this past weekend, we might wonder if anyone expressed thanks for Christians. Would such a notion have entered anyone’s head? If you keep up with the media, you might think no one could be thankful for Christians. We only hear about the bad apples among the clergy and the mistakes of high profile Christians. We don’t typically hear about all the good that is done. TV shows often portray Christians as being the bad guys, the weird or scary people. Perhaps it would be a miracle if someone said “I’m grateful for Christians.”

We have such a miracle in Daniel chapter 2. In the opening chapter of Daniel the ruling Babylonians attempted to turn wise young Jewish men into good Babylonian wisemen. However, Daniel and his friends were determined to retain their Jewish identity and dependence upon God. Surely this is not going to end well! There is indeed a clash of world-views in chapter 3, but something remarkable happens before that:

46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar threw himself down before Daniel and worshiped him, and he commanded his people to offer sacrifices and burn sweet incense before him. 47 The king said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is the greatest of gods, the Lord over kings, a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this secret.”

48 Then the king appointed Daniel to a high position and gave him many valuable gifts. He made Daniel ruler over the whole province of Babylon, as well as chief over all his wise men. 49 At Daniel’s request, the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be in charge of all the affairs of the province of Babylon, while Daniel remained in the king’s court. Daniel 2:46-49 (NLT)

The Babylonian king is obviously very thankful and very impressed not just with Daniel, but with the God Daniel serves. Daniel alone was able to help the king. Despite the fact Daniel was different, and from a minority group, Nebuchadnezzar is impressed, and thankful.

Back to Canada in our day where Christianity no longer has the influence it once did. Could anyone be impressed with, or thankful for, Christians? Let us look to another time in which Christianity had even less influence in society. Was anyone impressed with, or thankful for, Christians in New Testament times?

Some people in Jewish and Roman society were not impressed at all, and certainly not thankful. Consider Jewish religious leaders, like Saul before he became a Christian. He would have liked the Jesus followers to just go away and take their Christianity with them. Consider merchants dependant upon the sale of idols, such as we read of in Acts 19. As Christians didn’t spend their money on idols, the idol merchants were becoming idle merchants as people turned to Jesus. Consider people who liked the status quo, like those we read about in Acts 17.

Was anyone grateful for Christians in New Testament times?

Yes, let us consider some examples. Consider people who were poor, who would have benefitted greatly from the kind of help we read about in Acts 2. Consider women whose husbands became Christians and put a new effort into loving them sacrificially (see Ephesians 5:25-33). Consider women whose husbands became Christians and now focused their sexuality in faithful and selfless ways (see Hebrews 13:4). Consider slave masters whose slaves became Christians and began serving them as if they were rendering service to God (see Acts 6:5-8). Consider slaves whose masters became Christians and began treating them like brothers and sisters (see Ephesians 6:9, and the Book of Philemon). Consider people of lower classes who found themselves on equal footing with people of higher classes in the church community (see Galatians 3:28). We can think of women who were affirmed in greater ways than ever before (see Mary’s commendation by Jesus for taking the place of a disciple Luke 10:38-42). We can think of anyone dependant upon someone, who, in becoming a Christian, had given up drunkenness (see Ephesians 5:18). We can think of infants of parents who formerly would have “exposed” their children, a practice of letting unwanted infants die. We can think of anyone in relationship with someone whose activity, and very character, was changing as they grew in their relationship with Christ:

19 When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, 21 envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Galatians 5:19-23 (NLT emphasis added)

Though certain people were unimpressed and not at all grateful for Christians in New Testament times, many would have been thrilled at the changes happening as a Christians lived Jesus-focused and Spirit-filled lives. There were also people who were thankful for everything changing in their own lives. Consider the gratitude of those who came to know about the love of God because a Christian shared the good news with them (See, for example, Acts 16:25-34).

As in New Testament times, some are neither impressed with, nor thankful for, Christians today. However, when we live Jesus-focused and Spirit-filled lives, good things happen in us, and around us. Jesus-focused ethics bring positive changes to our behaviour. The Holy Spirit creates positive changes in us. Many will be grateful.

We may have expected a clash between a Babylonian king and a young Jewish wiseman in the Book of Daniel. Instead, we have an expression of gratitude from Nebuchadnezzar for Daniel. Let us keep in mind that Daniel appeared before the king, not with an axe to grind, but with help. In our day we might expect a culture clash as traditional Christian values meet the brave new world that is developing around us. If all we have is an axe to grind, that clash will certainly happen. However, if we are living Jesus-focused, Spirit-filled lives, people will be thankful.

(This “Shrunk Sermon” is from a series on The Book of Daniel which begins here)