Behold Your King! Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel Help Us Think About Power.

“Behold your king!” This is how a cat would probably want to be introduced into a home. When we introduced a cat recentlyIMG_0281.jpeg, the dogs were terrified at first! Thankfully, they are now friends. People throughout history have clamoured for power and authority. Unfortunately, many have been terrified and terrorized as a result. Perhaps you know someone who likes to be introduced with “behold your king.” Perhaps it is you.

We like power. We don’t like being at the losing end of power. We may feel that certain people have power over us in some way. We may feel like we have lost power due to situations, whether financial or health related. Cancer may seem to have all the control, for example. Power itself is neither good, nor bad. Power and influence can be a wonderful life-giving gift. Good things happen when influencers influence well. Power can also be a terribly destructive problem. How shall we deal with power, whether our influence over others, or their influence over us?

The concept of power is central to the Book of Daniel. The Babylonian empire has it all. God’s exiled people seem to have none. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, has it all. Daniel and his friends seem to have none. God speaks into this power arrangement through a dream to Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel, chapter 2. Daniel is given the interpretation to share with the king.

Now imagine you are the king. Imagine how great you would feel when Daniel begins the interpretation of your dream like this:

37 Your Majesty, you are the greatest of kings. The God of heaven has given you sovereignty, power, strength, and honor. 38 He has made you the ruler over all the inhabited world and has put even the wild animals and birds under your control. You are the head of gold. Daniel 2:36-38 (NLT)

Wow! You are something else indeed! The top dog, the ruler, the “greatest of kings,” the “head of gold.” Yes, the king has great power. But do you notice something subtle within the interpretation? However powerful the king is, God is more powerful. The king only rules because God allows it. There are two things to note.

First, since God has given Nebuchadnezzar power, the king is accountable to God. Even the king is accountable to Someone in how he uses his power. King David of Israel knew this when he said “The LORD is my shepherd” in Psalm 23. David was not just referring to God’s care for him when he called God his shepherd. He was looking to God as his king, as the One he was accountable to, as the more powerful One.

Every person of influence is accountable to God. We all have influence of some sort. We do well to call upon God as our shepherd. Is our influence in line with God’s leading? Are we using power in ways, and towards ends, that are in line with God’s Kingdom? Is the Lord our shepherd as we influence? Look around at the current leaders of our world. Are they being led by the Shepherd?

Second, since there is Someone more powerful than the king, the king’s power is limited. This would have been a comforting thought to God’s people in exile as they lived under Nebuchadnezzar’s power. It will all turn out how God says, not Nebuchadnezzar. This is still a comforting thought in our day. Someone is in charge Who has greater power than anyone or anything exercising power over us. It will all turn out how God says it will, not how cancer says it will, or addiction, or any kind of disease or troubling situation in our lives. All powers are limited. God’s power is not.

There is something else worth noting in the interpretation:

39 “But after your kingdom comes to an end, another kingdom, inferior to yours, will rise to take your place. After that kingdom has fallen, yet a third kingdom, represented by bronze, will rise to rule the world. 40 Following that kingdom, there will be a fourth one, as strong as iron. That kingdom will smash and crush all previous empires, just as iron smashes and crushes everything it strikes. Daniel 2:39-40 (NLT) 

The king’s power is only temporary. There will be other kingdoms. Nebuchadnezzar’s  rule will end up being really only a “blip” in the history of the world. All rulers, kingdoms, empires, and governments are only temporary.  All shall all give way someday. But there is a Kingdom that is everlasting:

44 “During the reigns of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed or conquered. It will crush all these kingdoms into nothingness, and it will stand forever. 45 That is the meaning of the rock cut from the mountain, though not by human hands, that crushed to pieces the statue of iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold. The great God was showing the king what will happen in the future. The dream is true, and its meaning is certain.” Daniel 2:44-45 (NLT) 

There is a Kingdom that is everlasting, because its King is eternal. The rock which smashes the statue is uncut by human hands, in contrast to the statue which is fashioned by human hands. It is God’s Kingdom. God sets up His Kingdom in contrast to the empires and kingdoms which people create.

There are differing interpretations around the identity of the empires represented in the statue of Nebuchandezzar’s dream. We can be quite certain, though, that the kingdom of God is to be identified with Jesus:

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:14-15 (NIV)

36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” John 18:36 (NIV) 

All empires and kingdoms are only temporary. Any destructive power that is over us, is only temporary. This would have been a hope filled message for God’s people in exile. This too, shall pass. This is still a hope filled message for us when our troubles seem unending. This too shall pass. All troubling powers overs us shall be replaced with God’s future for us.

We should also recognize that any influence we have is only temporary. Therefore, who’s kingdom is it better for us to invest in? Our own? Or God’s? There is a contrast in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream between what humans can accomplish, and what God can accomplish. When we build up an empire, it is something easily destroyed and replaced. When God builds a kingdom, it is eternal, and therefore worthy of our investment.

Like God’s people in exile, when someone else’s power and influence threatens our destruction, we look to the coming Kingdom. All earthly powers are limited and temporary. This, of course, also means that our own power is also limited and temporary. Therefore we do well to harness our influence for God’s Kingdom purposes.

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

Who’s In Charge Down Here?

Who is in charge down here? Life can make us wonder. Is God in charge? Are we ever in charge? It might feel like the battle goes to the strong and the bullies are in charge. World history reads like a list of bullies giving way to bigger bullies. Personal relationships are marked by bullies taking charge. This past Sunday marked the International Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women. How long has humanity been around and women are still being bullied by men? Perhaps disease is in charge, or finances, or whatever we might be addicted to. Who is in charge down here?

It is a question the people of God in Daniel’s day could ask. They were well acquainted with big, brutal empires. If it is not the Egyptians, it is the Assyrians, and if not them it is the Persians. The first part of Daniel chapter seven affirms that this has been and will be the experience of God’s people. Daniel was given a vision of four terrible beasts arising out of the Sea. This is symbolic of the rise of four successive empires that are brutal. Bible scholars have seen these as symbolic of a mix of the Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks and Romans. Whichever empires they refer to, the bullies are in charge. This is an affirmation of what God’s people were experiencing; yes, it seems that bullies are in control down here.

However, there is a crucial moment spoken of in Daniel 7:

As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened. Daniel 7:9-10 (NRSV)

Brutal empires seem to be charge down here, but that is only until we are reminded Who really sits on the throne in the heavens. The imagery used in the passage above speaks to the wisdom of God and to judgement. Indeed, judgement comes next:

I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12 As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. Daniel 7:11-12 (NRSV)

The Kingdoms are stripped of power.  So who is in charge?

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. Daniel 7:13-14 (NIV)

The Son of Man is in charge. In other words, the beast-like empires give way to someone who knows how to rule like a real gentleman. According to some Bible scholars, the original readers would have focused on this as a promise to the whole people of God rather than to the Messiah. That is, Israel will someday rule instead of these empires. However, Jesus did something remarkable. At various times he referred to himself as “son of man.” He goes on to explicitly make himself the focus of Daniel 7:

Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” 61 But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
62 Jesus said, “I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’
63 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 64 You have heard his blasphemy! Mark 14:60-64 (NRSV emphasis added)

Looking back to Daniel 7, Jesus is the one who “approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence” (Daniel 7:13). We see elements of this is what we call the ascension of Jesus:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:6-11 (NRSV)

While the disciples were asking about the kingdom of Israel as a political entity, fact is, Jesus is now the king. As per Daniel 7, Jesus has taken his rightful place as the one in charge, now all nations are to worship him. His disciples are to be members of His kingdom, calling others to trust and worship the true king:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 (NRSV)

Jesus is the rightful ruler, the better ruler, the one who reigns as a good and humane king unlike the empires that were described as beasts in Daniel 7. Jesus is a better ruler than anyone or anything else that tries to take charge in our world or in our lives. The awful things in life can make us wonder who is in charge. It might not feel like God is. It certainly might not feel like we are. Part of trusting Jesus, is to trust that Jesus is the king,  the good king, the coming king, and we are already his kingdom people.

Though the bullies may take charge and we may be victimized by life circumstances, when all is said and done we are not victims, but victors in Christ. Let the bullies do their worst, the true king has done and will do his best!

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:54-57 (NIV)

Empire, or Kingdom?

Will we ever wake up in a world with no violence or conflict? We see it on the news, we hear about it in the lives of people around us, maybe we experience it personally. Yes, there will be a day there will be no more conflict. Christ will return and there will be

a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away . . . And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.'” (Revelation 21:1,5 NRSV)

But are we to just wait for that day, putting up with all this conflict until then? The prophet Nahum will help us find our way.

Nahum points us in the right direction by pointing out what happens when we get on the wrong track. Nahum is a prophecy to a people who had been on the wrong track. The Assyrians were on the track to empire. Nahum had the task of telling them that they had reached the end of the line. There are three problems with the track to empire.

First problem with the empire track; empire is temporary. Much of the history of the world is a history of the empire after empire seeking to become the biggest and best. The history of the world teaches us that they all fall in the end. Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, it doesn’t matter, empire is always temporary.

There is a better track; the track that leads to the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is eternal. We may struggle to understand the book of Revelation, but the main message is really quite simple; empires rise and fall, but the Kingdom of God is eternal.

So are we building towards empire, or Kingdom? Are we building for things that are temporary? Are our time, talents, and treasures going toward things that last?

Second problem with the empire track: empire destroys relationships. In empire living, there are only allies or enemies. The peoples within and around an empire are either going to help the empire get bigger, or they are going to get in the way and be a threat.

There is a better track, one that leads to the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God, there are only neighbours. Jesus taught us to “love thy neighbour as thyself” and then went on to define our neighbour as anyone and everyone.

When we meet people, do we see them as either allies of enemies? Do we see them as either being useful to us, or in our way, and even a threat? Or do we simply see them as neighbours to be loved?

Third problem with the empire track; empires are built through brute force and brutality. Nahum tells of this, for example:

Ah! City of bloodshed,
utterly deceitful, full of booty—
no end to the plunder!
2 The crack of whip and rumble of wheel,
galloping horse and bounding chariot!
3 Horsemen charging,
flashing sword and glittering spear,
piles of dead,
heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
they stumble over the bodies! Nahum 3:1-3 (NRSV)

Yet she became an exile,
she went into captivity;
even her infants were dashed in pieces
at the head of every street;
lots were cast for her nobles,
all her dignitaries were bound in fetters. Nahum 3:10 (NRSV)

In building empires, countless of people were killed. For those who lived, eyes were often gouged out, tongues cut off, people sold off and removed far from home. So brutal were some empires that even unborn babies were ripped from their mother’s wombs, and orphaned infants dashed to the ground. This is how empires struck fear in their enemies. Better to surrender to the power of a “better” empire, than experience it firsthand. Nahum’s prophecy is about the Assyrian empire experiencing what it dished out to others.

All who hear the news about you
clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped
your endless cruelty? Nahum 3:19 (NRSV)

There is, thankfully, a better track, the track that leads to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is built with a different kind of force: “not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit” Zechariah. 4:9 (NKJV).

Jesus said “those who draw the sword, will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:62-54 NRSV). Jesus was doing two things when he refused to use violence at his arrest in Gethsemane. He was taking the Kingdom track for our sake, so that we might be forgiven rather than destroyed. But he was also giving us an example to follow, an example of Kingdom thinking, Kingdom living, Kingdom dying. Jesus call us to pick up the cross and follow, which means to trade empire for Kingdom. We are to become Kingdom people, good news people.

We are empire people when we show up with swords and guns and bombs. We are Kingdom people when we show up with the Spirit of God: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Galatians 5:22,23 (NRSV). Do we show up to our relationships with swords or the Spirit? Do we show up on Facebook, Twitter and other social media with swords or Spirit? Do we show up ready ready to fight people? Or to fight with people against the evil in their lives? Do we show up as empire people or Kingdom people?

You might perceive a problem with the Kingdom track. It does not seem to take into account your suffering at the hands of another. It is unfair. You deserve vengeance. And perhaps you are right. It is unfair. However, the prophecy of Nahum, though addressed to the Assyrians, was for the encouragement of Israel when they experienced what seemed to be very unfair treatment. Having been on the wrong track for a long time, Assyria has reached the end of the line. However, nowhere in the prophecy of Nahum is there a call for Israel to take up arms. There is no need. We can think of Paul’s word to the Christians in Rome who also knew a thing or two about being treated unfairly:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21 (NRSV)

Every day we wake up to violence and conflict. Every day is an opportunity to live as God’s good news people. Every day is an opportunity for Kingdom rather than empire. While we may not feel we have much influence in conflicts around the globe, the ones close to home are opportunities for Kingdom building.