Life can be tough. And we come to God, come to church, read the Bible, wanting to feel better. And often we do. But sometimes, God raises our hopes that things will get better, not just that we’ll feel better. We have to live in a world where there’s a mismatch. A mismatch between the promises of God and the realities of life. A mismatch between sermons that invite us to trust God and a life that feels like it’s falling apart anyway.
Daniel knew all about this. He was in captivity, in Babylon. And then he opened his Bible.
There he found the prophet Jeremiah. Chapter 29, verse 10: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place.”
He did his sums and worked out that 70 years was up. What’s more, the Babylonian empire had just fallen to the Medes. There had been a change of regime, and Babylon was gone. It must be time to go home. And yet there he was, still in Babylon.
A mismatch. And that mismatch led him to pray.
We get to listen to him pray. We see what’s going on inside Daniel as he handles that mismatch. And as we listen to his prayers, we’ll learn how to pray. But more than that, we’ll learn how to live in a world that is often harsh, whilst holding the promises of God in our hands.
I want to show us four things that Daniel does in his prayer, things we should do too. Each of those things dodges one danger that we need to avoid as we navigate life as Christians.
Confess your sins
First, confess your sins. Confess your sins. If you do this, you’ll avoid the danger of thinking other people are the problem.
How did the people end up in Babylon? It wasn’t an isolated incident, a bad day with no advance warning and nothing leading up to it.
Way back in the book of Deuteronomy, before God gave his people their own land to live in, he had warned them. If they turned their back on him, he would discipline them. Take away some of their privileges. Send prophets to urge them to come back, to love God with all their hearts. And if that didn’t do the trick, and they continued to rebel, God would send a foreign army and drive them out of their land.
God warned them, and it’s exactly what happened. They did wander. So God did banish them. As Daniel prays in verse 12, they were in Babylon because God was faithful. He kept his word.
So as Daniel comes to pray, he confesses. He confesses that it’s their sin that got them there. He asks God for forgiveness.
So far in the book of Daniel, we’ve thought about the sins of Israel’s oppressors. King Nebuchadnezzar was an insecure thug, a tyrant. Belshazzar enjoyed trampling on God’s stuff. It’s time to remember that Israel are also sinners. It’s them, too.
Here’s the striking thing: He doesn’t exclude himself. As Daniel prays, it’s him too. All the way through, it’s “we”, not “them”. It would have been so easy to have pointed to his countrymen, and said that “they sinned”. After all, we’ve seen Daniel’s integrity. He was upright. He faithfully prayed every day, even when it had him thrown to the lions.
But look. Verse 5: “We have sinned”. Verse 7: “We are covered with shame”. Verse 10: “We have not obeyed”. And so on.
The other easy way to let himself off the hook would have been to blame the past generation. They were the ones who sinned. They went and got themselves exiled. I’ve lived through several general elections. Each time the government changes, they spend the first few years blaming the previous government. “They made this mess, not us.”
Not Daniel. Look at verse 13, and ask what happened once the people had arrived in their exile. “Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come on us, yet we have not sought the favour of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth.”
Even in their exile, they didn’t return to God. They carried on sinning. They ignored God’s truth.
“It’s not somebody else’s problem that we’re here, in exile. It’s ours. It’s mine.”
How easy it is for us to blame the mess on other people. There are some wicked people in the world, it’s true. But we mustn’t blame the mess on everyone but me. The truth is: The sin that is deep within my heart is part of the problem, directly or indirectly.
About 100 years ago, there was a series of letters in The Times discussion the subject: What is wrong with the world? The correspondence ended when G K Chesterton wrote in: “Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G K Chesterton.”
I used to help on a youth camp every summer. A group of leaders would hire a boarding school, and take about 80 teenagers away for a fantastic week’s holiday. The overall leader in charge of the holiday was a most humble man. Every time anything went wrong in any corner of the holiday, he’d apologise. “My fault entirely,” was his mantra.
There’s the first thing we must do. Confess your sins. Avoid the danger of thinking other people are the problem.
Claim God’s promises
Second, claim God’s promises. Claim God’s promises. You’ll avoid the danger of thinking God cannot be trusted.
Daniel discovers God’s promise in the book of Jeremiah. “70 years, and we’re going home!” He could have just sat back, and waited for it to happen. But he doesn’t turn to complacency. He turns to prayer.
One big problem we have in praying is that we do not know God’s will for a situation. Should I pray that I get this job, pass that test, marry the girl, win this election? Or is that not God’s will for me?
How much it would help if God would make his will clear to us!
Then we discover that in fact he has. He may not have revealed his will in many of the details of our lives, but he has on a grand scale. He’s told us his overall plan for the universe, the direction that human history is heading. And he’s made many promises.
The Bible is full of promises of things that God has said he will do. And, like Daniel, we can use them to shape our prayers. Do that, and you can pray with confidence.
So, for example, in Matthew 16, Jesus said this to Peter, after Peter came to see who Jesus really was: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Hades was just the realm of the dead. And then you hear of a church that is beleaguered, struggling – maybe your own church, maybe one elsewhere in the world. Perhaps it’s battling divisions, fighting, false-teaching within. Perhaps it’s facing persecution from without.
Then you see there’s a promise from Jesus: Even the realm of the dead will not be able to overcome Christ’s church. And on the back of that you can pray. “Dear Lord Jesus, you’ve promised that death and hell will never utterly destroy your church. Please protect this church. Keep it safe.”
Claim God’s promises. Avoid the danger of thinking God cannot be trusted.
Concerned with God’s reputation.
Third, be concerned with God’s reputation. Be concerned with God’s reputation. You’ll avoid the danger of thinking it’s all about you.
As Daniel prays for God to restore the people and the city, there are two grounds for his prayer. The first is God’s compassion, his mercy, his character that loves to forgive.
The second is God’s name, which simply means his character and his reputation.
The bit when Daniel actually asks God to step in starts at verse 15. Let me show you how God’s name, his reputation, is what drives this.
Verse 15: “Now, Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day…” God rescued his people. He established his reputation as a rescuing God.
But now look what’s happened. Verse 16: “Our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us.” They’re the laugh of the region, the butt of everyone’s jokes. The newspapers are drawing mocking cartoons that caricature both Israel and her God. “God couldn’t stop Babylon from stealing his pen, never mind his people.”
He goes on verse 18: “Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name.” That’s why Jerusalem mattered. God’s name was there. His reputation was tied up in it.
So don’t delay. This is urgent. Verse 19: “Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.” That’s why it’s so urgent.
For anyone else, it would be selfish and wrong to be so preoccupied with our own reputation. We aren’t the most important person in the world, so we mustn’t want others to think we are. But with God it’s different. He genuinely is the most important person in the universe. So it’s right and proper that everyone thinks the best of him. It’s right and proper that God wants everyone to think the best of him, to love the one who is more lovely than anyone else
1 Corinthians chapter 10, verse 31, says this: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Everything we do, even drinking a glass of orange juice for breakfast, should be done to bring glory to God, to showcase how great he is.
The trouble is, we naturally think we are the most important. Don’t get me wrong. Each of us matters greatly to God. He loves you dearly. But his biggest concern is for his own reputation.
When life is tough, when God’s goodness seems remote, we need to hold on to this perspective. It will help us to pray. It will help us as we tackle each day. Far more important than my own ups and downs is God’s reputation, his name. More than anything, I want whatever will enhance God’s reputation.
There’s a famous quotation from the third act of Shakespeare’s Othello: “Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls: Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands; but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”
But that is about my reputation. Consider this:
The famous investor, Warren Buffett, said this: “If you lose dollars for the firm, I will be understanding. If you lose reputation for the firm, I will be ruthless.”
In these days of social media, blunders travel fast. It only takes one careless employee, and a firm’s reputation can hit the floor.
To be a Christian is to refuse to be wrapped up in my reputation, in my good name. It’s to make your life all about the reputation of another. We care not what people think of us, as long as they think highly of the Lord Jesus.
That transforms your prayer life. And it helps greatly when life’s hardships come along.
Be concerned with God’s reputation. Avoid the danger of thinking it’s all about you.
Confident you’ve been heard.
Lastly, be confident you’ve been heard. Be confident you’ve been heard. You’ll avoid the danger of needing immediate answers.
We’re now into the end of Daniel 9. Here’s what happens. The angel Gabriel appears to Daniel. He was despatched as soon as Daniel began to pray. Gabriel reassures Daniel that he’s deeply loved, highly esteemed in our Bible. And then he tells him that his prayer has been heard.
Verse 24 gives a summary of what Gabriel says: “Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place.”
Then verses 25 to 27 develop this further.
It has to be said, these are some of the trickiest verses in Daniel. They raise all kinds of questions. Are these “sevens” seven years, or something else? Are the numbers symbolic? If so, what do they stand for? Which word went out to restore and rebuild the city? Which anointed one would come? Who is the ruler who will come and destroy both city and sanctuary? And so on.
We won’t be able to untangle all of that in the last few minutes of a sermon on the whole chapter. But actually we don’t need to. Because the main point is actually quite clear.
God will fulfil all of his promises. Verse 24 is pretty much the promise of the whole Bible. God will finish transgression, end sin, atone for wickedness, and bring in everlasting righteousness. He will seal up prophecy, because everything will be here and nothing will need foretelling. And he’ll anoint his Most Holy Place.
God will fulfil all his promises, but not straight away. There will be a period of great progress, seven “sevens” when God acts decisively to keep his promises. But then there’ll be a long period of simply living faithfully for God, trusting he hasn’t gone away – 62 more “sevens”. And lastly, he’ll get there. And those who stand in his way will be taken out, once and for all. The arch trouble-maker will be gone. Right at the end of the chapter: “… until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”
That’s what God says to Daniel. Everything he’s promised will come true. He’ll get to work quickly, but there will be a long wait before everything is done.
That’s the story of the whole Bible. Jesus came into the world, died and rose again. But now we’re waiting, 2000 years and counting, for the final end.
Christmas is nearly here. Most children cannot wait. If you’ve got children, maybe they sometimes ask you for something they really want. Let’s assume that what they ask for is genuinely good for them, does not cost too much money, and so on. They only need to ask you once. You love them dearly. You’ve heard what they’ve asked. If you promise you’ll get something, you’ll get it. … But they do have to wait until Christmas. And waiting can be the hardest bit.
God isn’t going to keep all of his promises straight away. Some will have to wait until Jesus returns. Only then will the world be free of sin, sickness and suffering. But he will get there. It’s guaranteed.
In the meantime, God wants to reassure Daniel that he has been heard.
Gabriel was despatched the moment he started to pray. That’s how keen God is to answer Daniel’s prayer. He’s absolutely thrilled that Daniel is asking him. Daniel only has to start asking, and Gabriel’s off!
The trouble is that waiting can be the hardest bit. Think back to children and Christmas presents. The fact God asks us to wait doesn’t mean he doesn’t love us: We’re deeply loved. It doesn’t mean God’s not going to do what he’s promised. He just asks us to wait.
Be confident you’ve been heard. You’ll avoid the danger of needing immediate answers.
The world can be a hard place to live. Sometimes it must sound like the Bible is giving us a load of empty promises, that don’t really wash in practice.
Well, yes it is a tension to keep trusting God in a messy and hurting world. But that’s what Daniel sought to do, and it’s what God calls us to do.
Start by seeing the problem clearly. The problem includes you. Confess your sin.
Then look at God’s wonderful promises. Every single one of them is true. Pray them in.
Get things the right way round. The sun doesn’t go round the earth; the earth goes round the sun. God is the centre of everything, not you. Let that shape your prayers, your life.
And don’t be fazed when the answers don’t come immediately. God knows you. God loves you. God hears you.
So keep trusting him, and keep living for him.