Immigration is one of the biggest challenges for our nation. What kind of welcome do we give those from other lands? How many can we welcome? And the big question: How do they fit in? How do they integrate into life here?
One option is to form a ghetto. They don’t integrate. You get a section of a town or city where the majority are from a particular cultural background.
Take the train west out of London, past Ealing, you go through Southall. 55,000 people, the vast majority of whom are from India or Pakistan. Walk down the main street, the colourful clothes, the styles of shops, the smells of spices, you could almost be in an Indian market street. The railway station has bilingual signs – English, and Punjabi. It’s a happy, safe and very Asian community.
Increasingly, we don’t want ghettos in Britain. So we go for the other common option – assimilation. If people want to live here, they need to speak our language, know our customs People take citizenship tests to make sure they understand democracy, eat enough fish and chips, and can recite the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special.
Being a Christian can feel a little like living in a foreign country. The letter of 1 Peter calls Christians foreigners and exiles. We live in Kemsing, but our citizenship is in heaven. We serve a different king, we have different values, from the people around us.
Traditionally, Christians have responded in the same two ways. Some retreat into a ghetto. Shield yourself from anything that is not Christian. All your friend are Christians. Spend your time in the company of Christians. Church takes up your spare time. The world out there is to be suspected, best avoided where possible.
Others assimilate. Blend in. You’d never know there was anything different about them. The ultimate compliment comes from their friends. They say: “You’re not at all what I thought a Christian would be. You drink. You swear. You’re just so … normal.”
This is a world that would be familiar to Daniel and his friends. This Autumn we’re going to look at the book of Daniel together, starting today. Chapter 1 sets the scene. We meet the main characters, the situation in which the stories of the book will unfold. It does so by telling a fascinating story in its own right.
As a child, I once got stuck reading a book, because I started with the prologue. Once my parents told me to start at the first chapter, I was away. You don’t want to start a book with thanks to the writer’s aunt. You don’t want to start a play reading two paragraphs on each actor in a programme. It’s best to meet the characters in the story. That’s what Daniel 1 does for us. We’re thrown straight into an all-action first episode.
The year is 605 BC.
We’re watching the clash of two great empires.
On the left we have the people of Judah, which is what’s left of the people of Israel. Their king is Jehoiakim. Their capital city is Jerusalem. Its centrepiece is the magnificent temple built by King Solomon.
On the right we have the Babylonian empire, superpower of the day. Their king is Nebuchadnezzar.
The book opens with tragedy. The Babylonian army deports the nobility of Jerusalem. Stage 1 that would eventually lead to the total destruction of Jerusalem, temple and all. It happened because Israel had turned her back on her God, mixing in worship of the gods of other nations. God had warned many times. But it’s tragic.
More than anything, it’s a tragedy for the God of Israel.
Nebuchadnezzar took some articles from God’s temple in Jerusalem. Gold and silver treasures. And he placed them in the treasure-house of his own god.
Kemsing school has a trophy cabinet. On display are prizes won by group from the school in various competitions. Nebuchadnezzar had one, too. In goes his latest conquest: The God of Israel, symbolised by the articles his gods let him take from the temple.
A tragic day. And so it as that some Judeans found themselves quite literally in a foreign land. Ruled by a foreign king. In a land where foreign gods are worshipped.
They are captives, underdogs, the defeated ones. Prize specimens from Judah. But not good enough to stop Nebuchadnezzar from building his empire.
Daniel chapter 1 tells us of 4 specific Judeans: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. They’re important for the whole book. Chapter 1 is the story of how these defeated Judean exiles came to be lead officials in the royal court of Babylon, right through to the end of the empire.
The story was designed to be an encouragement to the ordinary Jew of the day. And down the ages since, it’s been an encouragement to many ordinary Christians. People like us, who also have to live in a foreign land.
How does a story of defeat encourage us as the people of God? Because it’s a story that shows God is very much still around.
Three things about the God of Daniel chapter 1.
God is still in control
Firstly, God is still in control. God is still in control.
Everything God does in Daniel 1 is behind the scenes. If our divinely inspired narrator didn’t tell us what God was up to, we’d never know.
To any observer, this looks like God’s defeat. He’s the weak one. But then look at verse 2: “And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand.” God delivered them. God gave them to Nebuchadnezzar. He wasn’t conquered. He was still in control.
On the face of it, that’s devastating. There’s only one thing worse than God not being able to hold onto his people. That’s God deliberately letting them be taken.
Picture the local football team. The goalkeeper lets 5 goals in one match. Was it that the other team were just too good for him? That would be bad enough. But, no. He deliberately let them past. That’s awful.
But that’s what God does. He deliberately lets them go.
It’s what they deserved. It’s what God had said he would do. But actually, it’s not devastating. It’s wonderfully reassuring.
The reason God sent his people into exile was in order to win them back. It’s to teach them that they can’t enjoy his blessings without him. This is not divorce. It’s discipline.
Which means it’s wonderful that God was still in control. If the exile was because God had lost control, there’s no guarantee he’d ever get his people back. He might not be strong enough.
But God is still in control. His purposes will win out. They may worship other gods in Babylon, but God is God in Babylon.
As he is today. In countries like Saudi Arabia where Christians are heavily persecuted. God is in control. In modern Britain, the popular vote is going against Christianity. We’ve voted against God as a nation, but we’ve not dethroned him. He is still in control. In your work place, when it’s a hard place to be a Christian: God is still in control.
God is still with his people
Second, God is still with his people. God is still with his people.
The most able Jews are selected to join the Babylonian civil service. This includes Daniel and his three friends.
To do that, they had to have a three year education. A bit like becoming an undergraduate.
Verse 20 tells us what happened when they had their viva, their oral exam at the end of their training. “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.”
That’s quite a result. They got the best first class degrees in the whole of the university. By miles.
Why did they do so well?
Partly, they were able. Verse 3: “The king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility – young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace.” They were the cream of the crop.
Partly, they worked hard. Verse 4: “He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.” That’s harder work than it sounds. Writing was done in primitive letter called cuneiform. Tiny etched marks to learn to decode. The literature was vast. All kinds of legends and omens, to familiarise people with the language, the culture, the way of life of Babylon. It was a hard work slog.
Able. Hard working. Yet neither of those was the real reason for their success. Yet again, God was at work, behind the scenes. Verse 17: “To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning.” Once again, God the giver.
They may be far from home. They may be in a land where the majority don’t recognise their God. The government may have different gods. But God is still with his people. There is nowhere they could go where they are beyond his reach. Beyond his care. Beyond his protection.
God is still with his people.
God doesn’t guarantee will get top marks in every exam, or get every promotion we apply for. Daniel’s God had disappeared from sight, and sometimes it will feel like that to us. But even when it feels like God has vanished, he hasn’t disappeared. He isn’t disinterested. He never leaves his people’s side.
God is still with his people.
God is still Daniel’s Lord.
Third, God is still Daniel’s lord. God is still Daniel’s lord.
Daniel and his friends said yes to a lot. I’ve already talked about their education. They were thoroughly indoctrinated.
They said yes to new names. All of their old names alluded to their relationship to their God. They all end with either “el”, or “ah”. Daniel. Hananiah. Mishael. Azariah. But their given new names, that probably all refer to the Babylonian gods. The lead god was named Bel. And Daniel becomes “Belteshazzar”, “May Bel protect his life”.
They said yes to a lot. But they drew a line at the food.
I spoke to someone who worked on Whitehall, and they told me that the quality of the canteens differ. The best food is to be found in the Treasury. That’s where you need to work, if you want a good solid lunch. Daniel and his friends were offered royal food and wine. Not a work canteen at all – food brought directly from the kitchens at Buckingham Palace. And it’s all free.
He said no.
We’re not told why. No to royal meat and wine. Yes to vegetables. Some people think it’s about the Jewish food laws. Others think the food might have been offered in a god’s temple. Others think it would have left Daniel in the king’s debt. None of those theories quite explain exactly what happened.
We don’t actually know what it was about the food. But something was wrong. Daniel could see that this would be one compromise too far. Maybe this was just the one thing he had some choice over. Who knows? So he said no.
The issue was one of loyalty, and one of identity.
Daniel had decided that his prime loyalty would be to his God.
Compare verse 7 with verse 8. Verse 7, the chief official gave them new names, literally set new names on them. Verse 8, Daniel resolved not to defile himself, literally set on his heart not to defile himself. The chief official is setting new names. Daniel sets a seal over his heart. His heart is for his God. He will remain loyal.
Then compare verse 9 with verse 10. The official is torn. Verse 9: “Now God had caused the official to show favour and compassion to Daniel.” He wanted to help. God, again behind the scenes, made him sympathetic. But he’s torn Verse 10: “I am afraid of my lord the king.” He’s afraid of his lord. Meanwhile Daniel is seeking to please his lord, the living God. Who is going to be lord? To whom will he be loyal?
God is still Daniel’s lord. God reigns in Babylon. But God also reigns within Daniel’s heart.
In some parts of the world, Google don’t just run an office. They run a campus. Many employees live on sight. There is free food, free gym, free haircuts, free laundry, free eyebrow shaping, free healthcare. And on, and on. Why? They want to take away the things that get in the way of you doing your job. But more than that, they want you. There should be nothing you need that they cannot supply. You live and breathe Google. You’ve breathed them in so deeply that you’re part of them and they’re part of you.
Now do you see why Daniel said no to free food?
Babylon has just swallowed up Judah. Babylon wants Daniel and his friends to become Babylonian. Prime loyalty: Babylon.
But that’s what Daniel won’t do. He’ll gladly serve the king of Babylon. But God remains his Lord.
Babylon may swallow Judah. But Daniel will not swallow Babylon.
Jesus said that no-one can serve two masters. You can serve earthly masters as an expression of your loyalty to the king of heaven. But you cannot have two ultimate masters, who define your identity, who command your final loyalty.
God is still Daniel’s Lord.
Now, all of this begs lots of questions.
What happens if there’s another occasion when the officials aren’t so co-operative? What if Daniel is pushed to cross the line, and he isn’t allowed to say no? Will this go on forever? Will the exile end? What of God and his kingdom? When will God be seen in the open, rather than acting behind the scenes in a hidden way?
We’re only in Daniel 1. These are the questions that will drive the rest of the book.
For now, how do you live as an immigrant? You’re a citizen of heaven, but you live in another country where God is not known.
Jesus calls us to be salt and light. Salt, distinctive. Belonging to God our Father. Light. Shining out for him into the world that does not know him.
Daniel and his friends do not retreat into a ghetto. And neither must we. They serve God and his people at the highest possible level. The world is the stage where we live out our walk with God.
But neither must we assimilate, but swallowed up.
You may be many things. A husband, mother, child, employee, member of the community in Kemsing. But before you are any of those things, if you love and follow Jesus, you are his. You are a citizen of heaven. You are a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are an adopted child of God.
That is who you are. Live and breathe that. In the world, but don’t let the world squeeze your real identity out of you.