Monday, January 07, 2008

Have Some Resolve

In America we are blessed with at least four different times throughout the year where we, as a society, reflect on our past. And for the most part, we are either compelled to do this because of tradition or we are compelled to do this because of some other means.

The first of these times of reflection is most likely the least enjoyable of them all, and it occurs every year on April 15th. Tax day. This is the only time of reflection that we are compelled to observe and carry out that uses the threat of negative legal and financial ramifications. It has often been lamented by people that nothing is certain except for death and taxes. Although not a Biblical proverb, history shows that some form of tax is a constant in any society. However the Bible does declare that it is appointed for man “once to die and then judgment.” (cf. Heb 9:27)

In America, at least, tax day is the day when all of our previous year’s financial earnings, spending, and savings decisions come into the light and we are held accountable for them. I’ve often thought that of any day out of the American calendar, April 15th would be the day where there would be the most cultural receptivity to preaching concerning the Day of Judgment by Almighty God. Perhaps at no other time is personal accountability displayed with the same severity and meticulousness anywhere in our society than it is on tax day.

The second time of reflection comes just less than three months later, but in distinction from tax day, this is one day that is treasured and loved. July 4th, Independence Day, is the day when virtually all of the things that are important and distinct about America as a nation are remembered, celebrated, and honored. Specifically we look back at the 231 years of our national history and remember the many battles, wars, and lives lost that have the nation has endured because of the stated reason of either protecting our own people and nation or freeing other peoples and nations. On this day, as a nation, we look back with pride on where we have come from, and we look forward with a sense of duty and honor to this same nation and its preservation.

The third time of reflection is, in my humble opinion, perhaps the most important one but it has been so diluted that it has the least focused attention on it. This begins with thanksgiving and ends with Christmas. The problem is not with either of these two holiday observances, but the problem is that the duration of the “season” of thanks is usually around one full month. But perhaps the more important reason why so much the thankfulness of the “season” is lost is that it is forced off of center stage because of football games on Thanksgiving. Perhaps a societal ‘nod’ to a day of gluttony where, instead of being thankful for the food that we have been provided, the presentation, preparation, and consumption of the food becomes the center stage that takes the focus away form the provision of the food and its provider.

Sadly, Christmas encounters a similar problem with food and the focus on or around it, but that takes a far distant second place to the blows that materialism and coveting deliver to this time. How true is it that the most frustrating and stressful time of the American year is centered on Christmas? And it is not stress over properly worshipping God or honoring His Son, but is over getting a Nintendo Wii or some other “hot” item for your son, daughter, relative or friend when the item itself is in short supply. Or it is the social pressure to spend yourself into the poor house so that your kids don’t complain that they don’t have the toys that the Jones’ kids do.

So, as a culture we, to our shame, tragically miss a time to meditate on the graciousness of God our Savior and sustainer much as ancient Israel did. And we all know what happened to Israel when they had turned their backs on God. Eventually, God gave them over to their lusts and desires for other gods, and their nation was never again the same. It was divided in two and then separately conquered by godless nations as an instrument of the just judgment of God on His people. There will be a restoration, one day, under the leadership of Christ Himself, but it has been around 2500 years since the height and power of that nation and we don’t know when Christ will return.

At last we come to the fourth and final time of reflection in our society. December 31st, New Year’s Eve, is the time where society as a whole seems to look back on the previous year and take stock of where we’ve been, what we’ve done and really examine where we want to be, and then attempt to make decisions to steer us in that direction. And whether you’ve made a habit of making New Year’s resolutions, or you’ve resolved not to make a New Year’s resolution, I think that it is a good thing for Christians to take stock in where we are spiritually, where we’ve been spiritually, and where we would like to be spiritually. And whether you do this on December 31st, February 23rd, your birthday, your anniversary, or every 7th Wednesday, I believe that this is something that we all should do.

And it is with the thought of resolutions in mind that I come to the text for today. There are at least a few places in the Bible where we get a picture of a decision or a resolution to do or not do certain things. One of the places that I looked at was in the story of Job. Job made a covenant with his eyes that he would not “gaze on a virgin” (Job 31:1). Now I only searched for statistics posted for how many Christians, laymen and clergy, have either dabbled in porn or are seriously struggling with porn, and I was shocked. The ways in which lust and other sexual sin manifests itself varies between men and women, but at least half of the men and nearly ¼ of the women in American churches struggle with this type of sinfully lustful gazing. And this is only the number of people who admit to having some sort of problem with this issue. It doesn’t deal with the untold numbers of people who were to ashamed or proud to admit this issue on an anonymous survey.

As shockingly applicable as Job’s covenant with his eyes is, the most profound and important resolution was made by Christ in the garden. Jesus Christ did not want to endure the agony of the cross, and He prayed that the cup of God’s wrath would pass from Him. However, He resolved to go through the most extreme combination spiritual and physical agony that anyone could ever experience. Now, He did this for the joy set before Him (cf. Hebrews 12:2), but it was not a pleasant experience or something that He looked forward to in and of itself.

With these two examples of personal resolve in mind, I think that the book of Daniel gives us a good picture of the benefits that come from the type of resolution that is grounded in a desire to honor and obey God. To do that, I want to look at the situation that causes a need for a resolution.

The situation here is that Judah was overrun and conquered by Babylon because of God’s judgment upon Israel for forsaking Him and His commands. We see here that a good number of the young men of privilege, those from families of royal nobility, who were among the captives deported to Babylon, were set aside for special service.

We don’t know how many captives there were, but there were four mentioned by name and they were apparently a small part of a much larger group. And all of these captives were to be completely and totally indoctrinated and assimilated into Babylonian society. Now, on one hand, there might have been some nationalistic pride from many of these captives that would have caused them to rebel in some way. They were, if nothing else, Israelites who had been taken captive by a pagan and gentile nation. On the other hand, the majority of the nation had abandoned God and was not faithful to Him anyway. And so if a pagan gets taken from his home but is put in a position of privilege, how likely is he going to be to rock the boat if his present situation is as good as its going to get?

These young men, boys actually and perhaps just in their early teens, were to be indoctrinated so totally that even their names had to be changed. And what is interesting about this is what their Hebrew names meant compared to what their Babylonian names meant.

  • Daniel means “God is my Judge.” Belteshazzar means “the Prince of Bel” or something relating to the god Bel.
  • Hananiah means “Yahweh has been gracious” whereas Shadrach means “servant of Sin.”
  • Mishael means “who is equal to God” whereas Meshach means “the shadow of the prince.”
  • Azariah means “whom Jehovah helps” whereas Abed-nego means “servant of Ishtar” or “servant of Nebo.”

The changing of their names was a direct assault on their religion and identity. As you can see in chapters 3 and 6 of Daniel, the implication was that their religion should have changed as well, and not just their names. It was all of these factors contributed to the need for these young men to make a decision. They needed to make a resolution about how they were going to act.
“But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king's choice food or with the wine which he drank;” (Daniel 1:8a)

A question that I have is why would it have been a defiling thing to eat the king’s food and drink his wine? The food of a pagan king, in all reality, would not have been restricted to the kosher foods dictated by the Law of Moses. There would probably be pork placed before them, and it was forbidden for a Jew to eat pork. But perhaps more than that, the idolatry that was so often associated with food and meals would have been unavoidable. We can see a glimpse of how “religious” the parties may have been by how Belshazzar used the vessels of the temple and “praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” during his final debauched party (cf. Daniel 5:4). Similarly, it was not uncommon for wine to be used to offer praises to pagan gods. (cf. Jer 7:18; 19:13)

So their diet was yet another place where these young Hebrews were being assaulted. And it was at this point that they finally said “No.” And they didn’t just say “no” out of nationalistic pride or self willed disobedience, they said “no” so that they would not defile themselves before God. And just like any other resolution that has ever been made, if this resolution had any hope of becoming a reality and not just a pipe dream, it must be put into action. And so now we see what action was taken in this regard.

Why they chose to take a stand on the dietary situation and not with their names or other compromises that they had to make, I don’t know. But I do believe that it is not a sin to be called a name. But it would be a sin to be defiled by disobeying God’s commands. They understood this, and they sought to be faithful to God.

In order to achieve their resolution, they had to get permission to have other food provided for them. And it is a testimony of God’s grace and favor to them in this situation that Ashpenaz agreed to the 10 day trial run of their request. The fact that after this short time there was a positive and noticeable difference to their appearance was also a proof that God was moving in this situation. And it was because of the success of this trial that Ashpenaz continued to break a command from his king. If the outcome had been different, or perhaps if he’d been caught when the results were less than the king hoped for, his life would have been over. This capitulation of Ashpenaz to the requests of Daniel and his friends truly shows just how deeply God was working in this situation. And I believe that it is in this story and the way in which God moved in the lives of these boys and their slave master that we see a principle that the New Testament clearly articulates.
“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

This resolution on the part of these four young men was the first of at least two notable ones in each of their lives. The second resolution that the three friends had to make came with the threat of being thrown into a fiery furnace, whereas Daniel’s came with the threat of being tossed into a den of hungry lions. Both times these men held their ground. And both times they were both condemned to death and the mode of execution was carried out. But they were spared for the glory of God.

What is most applicable to us about these second situations is not the miraculous deliverance by God that they experienced. That is wonderful, awesome, and glorious. But the most impacting statement, perhaps of any, came from the three when they spoke to their heathen king and, with the reality of a fiery death before their eyes, said,
17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 "But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Dan 3:17-18)

So looking forward to 2008, what types of resolutions can we make that will be glorifying to God? In what way can we attempt to not defile ourselves with what is presented to us before our eyes, whether to gaze at or consume? Some of the very simplest things may need to be augmented and revitalized so that we can be strong when sin and temptation is at our fingertips.

Many people resolved to read through the whole Bible last year. I am sure that I am not alone, but I have hit Leviticus and Numbers somewhere in February or March and I just couldn’t make it through. I’m not saying that that’s a good thing; I’m just trying to honest in how it has been for me in the past. Conversely, there are probably many people who made the same resolution but they struggled through those difficult and sometimes tediously long and confusing sections of Scripture and made it through the whole year. Way to go! How much of a joyous accomplishment is it to have read the whole Bible in one year.

But, whether you read through with one of these schedules, you simply read through a book over and over throughout a month and do a different one each month, or you just make a point to read a small passage daily and meditate on God and His Word, we all need to resolve to keep up with our current studying and meditation on Scripture, or we need to kick it into gear and pick it up a bit. Because it is the Word of God, as applied in the way that only the Holy Spirit can do it, that provides us all things for faith and godliness as well as wisdom in all of life’s situations.

I think that we can and should take a good hard look at our lives and everything that seems to swirl around us to see where we might be defiling ourselves before God. We should look to see where we are defiling ourselves as well as what we might be asked to do in the future that would be defiling. And like Daniel, Azariah, Hananaiah, and Mishael, we should purpose in our hearts not to defile ourselves with the sinful plate that is set before us. Like Job, we should make a covenant with our eyes not to gaze upon those things that so ensnare us and cause us to sin in so many destructive ways.

If we do these things as well as resolve to feed and meditate on God’s Word as well as to be devoted to prayer, we will grow in our conformity to Christ.

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