The Writing on the Wall

The picture you see is by Rembrandt, a famous Dutch artist in the 17th century and hangs in the National Gallery in London. It depicts King Belshazzar in the book of Daniel. Belshazzar decides to throw a feast and invites a 1000 of his nobles to attend. And what is the occasion? So everyone can see how manly he is, out-drinking everyone else in the room without falling under the table. And then, when he’s well and truly sauced, he gives orders to bring in the sacred vessels that were taken from the Temple in Jerusalem, fills them with wine, and offers a few toasts to his pagan gods. It’s a blasphemous act of arrogance and defiance that would cause his grandfather, king Nebuchadnezzar, to turn in his grave.

It’s an act however, that doesn’t go unnoticed. Heaven is watching. Suddenly the blood drains from Belshazzar’s face as he sees a hand appear out of nowhere and begins to write on the wall. It spells his judgment. Before the night is over Belshazzar will be dead.

The lesson is a simple one and is made clear by a simple reading of the narrative: God will not be mocked. He will not allow any human power to exalt itself above him. For any human government, institution or individual that exalts itself above God, the writing is on the wall. Its days are numbered.

The setting: party time!

Some time has passed since the end of chapter 4. Nebuchadnezzar has been dead 23 years and it is nearly 70 years since Daniel was deported from Babylon. Daniel is now an old man in his 80’s. Babylon is only a few hours from enemy invasion and collapse. The Medes and the Persians are just outside the city gates, ready to breach the city wall. We can even precisely date the events because Persian military records tell us that Darius’ armies marched into Babylon on 16 Tishri (October 12), 539. According to Daniel 5, the king’s banquet occurred the very night the city fell to Darius. Belshazzar, in his drunken partying state, has only a few hours to live.

“Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar gave orders to bring in the gold and silver vessels that his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, wives, and concubines could drink from them.” (Daniel 5:2)

Nebuchadnezzar had at least a measure of religious respect to recognize that these were sacred objects. After capturing them he put them in the temple of his own god. Belshazzar has no such respect. He’s in charge now and will do whatever he jolly well likes.

What happens next causes Belshazzar and everyone with him to turn cold.

God crashes the party

“At that moment the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the king’s palace wall next to the lampstand. As the king watched the hand that was writing, his face turned pale, and his thoughts so terrified him that he soiled himself and his knees knocked together.” (Daniel 5:5–6)

There’s humour here and it’s not accidental. The Aramaic literally says that the “knots of his joints were loosened.” This could refer to his legs giving way but it more likely means a loss of control of bodily functions as the CSB renders it – “he soiled himself.” With the appearance of God’s fingers on the wall a dark patch appears under Belshazzar’s chair.

Lord Byron, a famous 19th century poet, put the stuttering of the king to verse in Vision of Belshazzar:

The King was on his throne,
The Satraps thronged the hall:
A thousand bright lamps shone
O’er that high festival.
A thousand cups of gold,
In Judah deemed divine —
Jehovah’s vessels hold
The godless Heathen’s wine!

In that same hour and hall,
The fingers of a hand
Come forth against the wall
And wrote as if on sand:
The fingers of a man: —
A solitary hand
Along the letters ran,
And traced them like a wand.

The monarch saw, and shook,
And bade no more rejoice;
All bloodless waxed his look,
And tremulous his voice.
“Let the men of lore appear,
The wisest of the earth,
And expound the words of fear,
Which mar our royal mirth.”

But as the passage reads, no one could. No one, that is, until the Queen mother turns up. She reminds Belshazzar of one in his kingdom who has, “an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and intelligence, and the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems” (Daniel 5:12). Literally – to “loosen knots”; it’s a pun on Belshazzar’s loose bowels. Daniel has the ability to solve messy and knotty problems. “Therefore,” she says, “summon Daniel, and he will give the interpretation.”

And with that Daniel is called in. Belshazzar promises Daniel great rewards if he is able to give the interpretation, but Daniel waves him off.

Instead Daniel reminds Belshazzar how God dealt with his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. He had absolute power and he did whatever he pleased. He gave life and he took life. He promoted whom he chose and demoted whom he chose. But when his heart was lifted up he became arrogant. God brought him crashing to the ground. Then he chides Belshazzar for not doing the same. It’s a very bold move that could have ended up with his head rolling to the ground. But that’s the kind of man Daniel is.

First Daniel translates the writing on the wall: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN.  Then he gives the interpretation:

Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

Sorry Belshazzar, but it’s all over. You won’t be here in the morning. Goodbye.

That very night Darius the Mede took over the kingdom and king Belshazzar was killed. And history records how they did it. The walls of Babylon were massive and considered impenetrable. The Babylonians had also stock piled up to 20 years of food so there was no starving them out. But they had an Achilles heel. The river Euphrates ran underneath the wall giving the city a constant source of fresh water. So what the Medes and Persians did was dig up river an alternative channel for the water to flow. This reduced the amount of water flowing under the walls enough so that they could simply walk in under the walls of Babylon and take it over without firing a shot.

Conclusion

What can we take away from this chapter? What is it that God would have us learn? I think there are two ways in which this can be applied.

The Global Application

There is a message here to nations. There is a message to kings and presidents and prime ministers of every age. Any human government or institution that tries to exalt itself above God will be called to account. The writing is on the wall. Its days are numbered. What would it take, do you think, to bring any one of the world’s super-powers of our day crashing to the ground? What would it take to bring the powerful Kim Jung-un and his regime to its knees? The very one who says, “We don’t do God here.” What would it take?

Four words.

And it is the same for every other superpower, regime and institution in the world.

The Personal Application

What about personal application? There is a warning against complacency. Of thinking we are safe when we are not. Of thinking we are good with God when we are not. “Consider the kindness and severity of God,” Paul warns in Romans 11:22. We must not presume on the mercy of God. We must not be deceived into thinking that because God showed grace to our parents or grandparents, that he is indebted to show grace to us also.

Heed God’s warning from his Word, before it’s too late. Everyone who comes to God, recognizing that they have nothing to offer him in return, crying out to him for mercy and grace that is found in His Son Jesus, will find it. They will cross over from death to life. And they will eat one day at a great banquet God will hold for all those who believe. The only writing on the wall there will be, “Salvation is of the Lord.”

This post was based on a sermon called “The Writing on the Wall.” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

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A Stinky-Leg Story

The title will get you if nothing else will. This post isn’t a thriller, so if you’re not into children’s books and family farm stories you might want to skip this. Otherwise, read on!

I grew up on a dairy farm in Central Hawkes Bay along with my five sisters. There are a number of memorable stories that we share whenever we get together. A few years ago, my sister Jenny decided to capture some of these and put them into children’s books. Another sister, Margery, put her hand up to do the illustrations and her daughter Ezra took over the design work. The result was a series of books called “Tales from the Farm” which have won a number of awards.

Margery, Jenny and Ezra

The first book, The Day Dad Blew Up the Cowshed, is still my favourite, mainly because I can still see the concrete blocks raining down from the sky from the hill we were standing on. This was followed by The Old Truck, The Eel Hunt, and A Very Greedy Tale, a story about Jenny’s pigs escaping and going wild in mum’s vege garrden. Anyway, last weekend a number of us went to support Jenny in her latest book. It’s called Uncle Allan’s Stinky-Leg.

Yes, I know. The mind boggles.

Allan was an in-law to my brother John and would come and visit our farm from time to time from Wellington. He broke his leg one day playing rugby and was off-work and bored to death. What better way to pass the time than visit the farm? He turned up in his little Mini (an iconic NZ car from the 70’s and 80’s) with what looked like the front seat removed (it was in fact just moved back to allow room for the cast on his leg).

Soon after he arrived he hops on the motorbike behind my brother John and they roar off across the paddocks for some fun. Well, if you’ve ever been on a dairy farm you would know that cow paddocks are filled with cow muck. And when you ride over a paddock at high-speed you end up with a fair bit of muck all over you. So, you can image what Allan’s cast looked like when he got back.

Later, Allan started to smell – really bad. So he hopped in the bath and tried dealing to it. But plaster casts and water just aren’t a good mix and it wasn’t long before Allan had an even bigger mess on his hands (or his leg). Now he had a very messy, stinky leg. And no one wanted to get close to him. After a few days he thought perhaps it would be best, in order to keep in good standing with the family (please excuse the pun), to get back to Wellington and sort this stinky leg problem out.

When Allan turned up at hospital the nurses were less than impressed, and gave him a jolly good telling off. They recast his leg and sent him home. But it wasn’t long before Allan got bored again and you can guess what happened next…

All of this was put into a story for kids by Jenny and Margery. And they launched it at Jenny’s home town in Oxford, Canterbury last weekend. Jenny read a good part of the story and then Margery explained the process of how a children’s book is illustrated and put together. It’s quite a business, and needs a few good heads giving objective feedback. I shared a few of my memories of the day and then we sung a song that Rene (Margery’s husband) wrote on the story. Like I said, it was a bit of a family affair!

The book team

The last thing I’d like to say is how amazing it was seeing people from the community appear from nowhere to help set up the room, serve food and drinks and all the rest. As one person remarked, “who are all these people and where did they come from?” They are the Christian community in Oxford and friends of Jenny and Ken. They are always around when help is needed.

Margery, Jenny and the real Uncle Allan

Jenny’s faith is central to her life and central to her books. She prays over every decision and asks God to open and close doors and bless the sale of her books. Well, from what I can see, that prayer is being answered as momentum is growing and she is getting more requests to go into schools and read her books to the children. She often has the kids acting out parts of the story which they always enjoy. I’m looking for a way to get her up here into the Nelson area.

If you are interested in this book or any of the others in the series (they are only $22.00 and make great Christmas gifts), you can purchase them online at their website here: http://www.talesfromthefarm.co.nz. You can also check out their Facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/talesfromthefarm. If you’re a teacher reading this and are interested in a school visit, you can find all the information you need here.

I’ve leave you with a little clip from the launch day. It’s Rene singing the song he wrote about Dad blowing up the cowshed. It’s a little over 3 minutes and I think you might enjoy it.

The Insanity of Pride

People who are in positions of power have a habit of making bold and arrogant statements that they often regret. Whether it’s a case of overstating things, exaggerating the facts, slighting the truth or just plain lying, sooner or later the facts are revealed, and they find themselves with egg on their faces. And we don’t have to look very far to find examples of those kinds of individuals today. Presidents, Prime Ministers and Politicians are notorious for this behaviour.

But they are not the only ones. We all tend to overstate things, talk about our accomplishments, and claim we are the authors of our own success.  When we do this, we are putting ourselves in the place of God, declaring we can do what he can. God is the only One who can rescue us from ourselves, by humbling us until we recognize that he alone is King, and we are not.

King Nebuchadnezzar is a perfect case in point. God has to teach him a very hard lesson – a lesson we can all benefit from. It is all recorded for us in Daniel chapter 4.

I. The Dream Described (1-18)

You will remember that Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in Daniel chapter 2 which greatly troubled him. Well, this one terrifies him. As in chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar calls in his wise men to come and interpret the dream for him. But they are incapable of doing so. Finally Daniel appears.

The king then tells Daniel the dream. He saw a great tree, with leaves and branches stretching as far as the eye could see. Birds nested in the branches and animals found shade under its leaves. But then the tree was suddenly cut down and stripped and the stump bound with iron and bronze. Halfway through it switches from the tree that would be cut down to a person who will be brought down.

The beautiful, great, strong tree represents a powerful person. He will be cut down—just a stump left. He will completely lose his mind and become like an animal, exposed to the elements. The message concludes with these words, which we find repeated throughout the chapter.

“This is so that the living will know that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms. He gives them to anyone he wants and sets the lowliest of people over them.” (4:17)

II. The Dream Explained (19-27)

Then the king looks at Daniel and says, “Now Belteshazzar, tell me the interpretation.” Daniel, with some reluctance summarizes the content of the dream and then gets to the bottom line:

“This is the interpretation, Your Majesty, and this is the decree of the Most High that has been issued against my lord the king: You will be driven away from people to live with the wild animals. You will feed on grass like cattle and be drenched with dew from the sky for seven periods of time, until you acknowledge that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms, and he gives them to anyone he wants.” (4:24–25)

Then Daniel implores the king that there is a way out; divine judgment can be avoided. “Separate yourself from your sins by doing what is right, and from your injustices by showing mercy to the needy. Perhaps there will be an extension of your prosperity.” (4:27)

III. The Dream Fulfilled (28-33)

We are not told in the text how the king responded. We know that he highly respected Daniel – perhaps he listened. Perhaps he amended his ways and bought himself more time. All we know is that 12 months later the King is walking on top of his palace declaring to the world that he is God.

“Is this not Babylon the Great that I have built to be a royal residence by my vast power and for my majestic glory?” (4:30)

Nebuchadnezzar, at this point, has completely lost his mind. He’s speaking like a madman. Wait a minute, you say, didn’t Nebuchadnezzar oversee the building of Babylon? Wasn’t he responsible for many of its beautiful temples and huge walls and its famous hanging gardens? On a small-scale, perhaps yes. But when we step back from it all, the answer is no.

Think about it: where did Nebuchadnezzar get his wisdom and his abilities? Where did he get his great leadership skills? Did he choose to be born into a royal bloodline? Did he choose to be the son of a great King at the height of the Babylonian empire?

Pride blinds. Pride warps our thinking. Pride looks at our success and achievements and says, “I’m the author of that.” But we’re not – God is. It is God who created us and gave us intelligence and skill and ability to reason. He chose the country we were born in and the century we were raised in. He gave us the opportunities for our talents to grow and flourish in. He determines our appointed times and boundaries of where we live in (Acts 17:26). Pride overlooks all of his and says, “No, it’s all because of me. I’m the author of all this.”

That’s insanity, to any sane person.

Imagine if I went around today and claimed that I discovered electricity because I turned on the light. You’d say that is insanity. Yet we do the very same thing when we claim to be the author of the gifts God has given us.

So what did God do in Nebuchadnezzar’s case? He humbled Nebuchadnezzar by making him less than human. He turned him into an animal.

“While the words were still in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared that the kingdom has departed from you. You will be driven away from people to live with the wild animals, and you will feed on grass like cattle for seven periods of time, until you acknowledge that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms, and he gives them to anyone he wants.” (4:31–32)

Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity is actualized. One moment he is surveying his royal kingdom, the next he is ripping off his clothing, making strange snorting noises, and running on all fours, totally naked and stark, raving mad. But God was gracious to Nebuchadnezzar. His insanity was only temporary. It was only for a season – to teach him a vital lesson. Eventually, he came to his senses:

“But at the end of those days, I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up to heaven, and my sanity returned to me. Then I praised the Most High and honored and glorified him who lives forever” (verse 34)

The once proud and prosperous pagan king now openly praises the Living God. The chapter concludes with these words:

“Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt, and glorify the King of the heavens, because all his works are true and his ways are just. He is able to humble those who walk in pride.” (verse 37)

This story serves as a warning for us all. Pride affects our ability to reason. Pride distorts our perspective of the world. It prevents us from seeing clearly and thinking objectively. And once we have succumbed to it, we are completely at the mercy of God to be rescued from it. We can’t repair our own pride. God must do it for us. Humility must be given to us.

But there is a part we can play in it. We can avoid the path of Nebuchadnezzar. And that is by simply accepting, with gratitude, everything we have as a gift of God. We were nothing until God made us something. And we only got to the place where we are because of God good provision and kindness. We did not earn nor deserve any of the good gifts that we have. They came to us purely by grace.

Let us learn from the pride of Nebuchadnezzar. It would be insane to do otherwise.

This post was based on a sermon called “Nebuchadnezzar and the Tree of Doom” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

Spitfires, future sons-in-law’s and male friendship


Finally, a movie has come out for men, or at least, something that men admire and appreciate. There’s been a steady stream of (excuse the term) ‘chick-flicks’ over the past few years that leave guys like me wanting. Some of them are bearable and one or two of them have actually been quite good. But if it wasn’t for my wife I wouldn’t bother.

So when the movie on the Spitfire was released from the UK a few weeks back I knew I had to find a way to see it. My wife was scheduled for an overnight surgery this past week (nothing too major, just a fix-up on a bike injury a few months back) which meant I had a free night. And what better way to spend it than invite my future son-in-law to go and see it.

It was about a 25-minute drive to the cinema. Now some might consider this a great opportunity for me to talk to Shea about his soon-to-be role as a husband or how the wedding plans are going or perhaps draw out some detail on how he intends to provide for my daughter.

But we didn’t talk about that. Instead, we discovered to our surprise, that we had a common interest in World War II aircraft and in particular, the Spitfire. Well, that lit up the conversation real fast. All the way there we talked about the Spitfire engine, the Spitfire design and what the Spitfire had over its German counterparts. On the way home, we talked about the Spitfire’s remarkable speed, some Spitfire design faults and the Spitfire pilots. And in between, we watched 100 minutes of pure Spitfire flying bliss, with the roar of the v-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engine reverberating around the theatre walls. I was definitely in my happy place (and so I think, was Shea). When we got back to my home we said our goodbyes, and both agreed that it was indeed, one excellent night out.

You say, “That’s just nuts. Women would never do that.” No, they wouldn’t. And that’s the difference between men and women. Men, when they are simply enjoying time together, don’t tend to talk about other men or women and their relationships or things of that matter. And they don’t tend to talk about ten different things, as women often do. They are happy to talk about two or three things – or preferably one thing that really interests them both.

Like the Spitfire. Now that’s really interesting.

This is the stuff that builds good male comradeship and companionship. Shea and I will talk about personal things and marriage plans and duties of the husband and all that stuff. When we need to. We’ll do it properly and we’ll do it well. But it won’t take two hours. It more likely might be ten minutes. As our friendship grows and the comradeship deepens we might spend longer.

My male colleague in pastoral ministry is Sean. We meet every Wednesday for mentoring and support. Much of our talk IS about people and relationships and the difficulties in some of those relationships. That’s because we have to. It’s part of our job. But when we’re off duty we are more likely to talk about our favourite preachers and theologians or what we’ve been reading lately. While we drive we like to laugh about bad drivers on the road and Sean tells me about some of his interesting episodes he experienced as a Cop.

That’s what male companions do. They talk about things that interest them and things that make them laugh. It’s a way of de-stressing. And I believe every man needs that.

C.S. Lewis said this regarding companionship:

“Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

So, find another guy who shares a similar interest with you – preferably something you don’t share with everyone and go spend some time together. It’s good for your mental, emotional and in many cases, spiritual health. Aside from that, you’ll find it immensely refreshing. It’s the way God has wired you.

I recommend the Spitfire movie as a good place to start. But that’s just me.

Afterthought: World War II planes have been an obsession for me since childhood. I spent hours pouring over books and magazines, learning about their design and fighting capabilities. There was something about the Spitfire that captured my imagination (as it did countless thousands of others, as the film reveals). Its speed, its power and its elegance – there was really no match for it. I often wished I was born a few decades earlier so that I could have been one of those young pilots who would take it into the skies. The reality was many of those young pilots were shot down and killed on their first few sorties. Some of them never even got close enough to see an enemy plane, let alone shoot it. It was a dangerous game.

Now I fight a war of a different sort – a battle over the souls of men and women. The enemy is far worse than Adolf Hitler and its weapons are far deadlier than an enemy fighter plane. There isn’t a whole lot of glory in this fight and nor is there a home crowd to cheer you on. But the future rewards are far greater, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, or even for that matter – a seat in a Spitfire plane.

Faith in the Furnace


We return to the story we were looking at from Daniel chapter three. King Nebuchadnezzar made a gigantic statue (of himself, most likely) and then forced everyone in his kingdom to pay homage to it. When they hear the sound of the horn, flute, base-guitar, pipe-organ and drum (not quite, but it fits with the story), every man and his dog is to fall facedown in front of it.

It might sound completely ridiculous until we consider what is happening in our world right now. Take North Korea for example, and Kim Jong-un’s farcical parades, with people in their thousands bowing down to his image. Or consider what is happening in our own backyard, with the forced veneration of the great god secular humanism and it’s empty rhetoric. It’s forced compliance of the populace. Bow down or else. And it is amidst these difficult circumstances God’s people have to make a choice: serve God or serve the system. Bow to King Jesus or a man-made substitute.

We are told in Daniel chapter 3 verse 7 when all the people heard the cacophony of noise they fell down on their faces. Nebuchadnezzar got the result he wanted.

Almost.

Three were left standing. And it was Nebuchadnezzar’s cronies who spotted them. This is where the story really heats up (excuse the pun). The king’s cronies come slithering before the king and dob them in.

“There are some Jews you have appointed to manage the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men have ignored you, the king; they do not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” (vv. 11–12)

These are serious charges. This is high treason. So Nebuchadnezzar drills them; “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I have set up?” Picture in the background, in full view of all the furnace of blazing fire, belching smoke into the clear, blue sky.

“Now if you’re ready, when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, drum, and every kind of music, fall down and worship the statue I made. But if you don’t worship it, you will immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire—and who is the god who can rescue you from my power?” (verse 15)

It is right at this juncture that we come to the very heart of things. King Nebuchadnezzar is asserting his power over and above all other powers, including Almighty God. Yet these three young men calmly, confidently and courageously take their stand. They reply to the king,

“Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, then he can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” (vv. 16–18)

This is beautiful, isn’t it? For three 17-year-olds, this is absolutely brilliant. Notice two things:

  1. Their absolute confidence in the power of God. “Our God… is able to deliver us.” We are utterly confident in God’s power. Nothing is too hard for him.
  2. Their complete submission to God’s will. “Even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve our god or ship the statue you have set up”.

Note that they don’t promise more than God promises (unlike many TV preachers of our day). They don’t presume to know God’s will in this matter. They don’t put words in God’s mouth. If God wants to deliver them, he can do it. But he may not. He is free to do as he pleases. “Either way, we want you to know, O King, we’re not going to do it. Read our lips. No. N-O.”

At this point, Nebuchadnezzar completely loses it. We’re told the expressions on his face changed (I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t smiling) and gave orders to heat the furnace seven times hotter than normal. Then he has the elite of his soldiers tie them up. Then he has them throw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in. The furnace is so hot, they are incinerated in the process. Look what happens next:

“Then King Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in alarm. He said to his advisers, “Didn’t we throw three men, bound, into the fire?” “Yes, of course, Your Majesty,” they replied to the king. He exclaimed, “Look! I see four men, not tied, walking around in the fire unharmed; and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” (vv. 24–25)

So what’s going on here? Who is this fourth figure? Many are quick to declare this is a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus – the second person of the Trinity. We need to be careful at this point. The text does not actually say that. It could just as easily have been an angel. What is important here is to see when it came to the furnace – when we are in the midst of a fiery trial, God is with his people. The king then rushes to the furnace door and he calls out,

“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, you servants of the Most High God—come out!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out of the fire.” (verse 26)

He calls his officials to come and examine them. “Not a hair of their heads was singed, their robes were unaffected, and there was no smell of fire on them” (verse 27). They are utterly amazed.

God has shown King Nebuchadnezzar who is really in charge. The king had boasted, “Who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” The God of Israel delivered them out of his hands.

Conclusion

So what is the main lesson of this chapter? Simply this:

The Living God is able to deliver his children who refuse to serve other gods.
He is able to deliver them not just from the fire, but in the midst of the fire itself.

And how does it end? It ends with Nebuchadnezzar exclaiming loudly,

“Praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! He sent his angel and rescued his servants who trusted in him. They violated the king’s command and risked their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.” (verse 28)

It’s hard not to read that with a sense of scepticism, isn’t it? We know you Nebuchadnezzar, and those like you, whose lips don’t always line up with their life.

“Therefore I issue a decree that anyone of any people, nation, or language who says anything offensive against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego will be torn limb from limb and his house made a garbage dump. For there is no other god who is able to deliver like this.” (verse 29)

From fiery furnaces to being drawn and quartered. I fear that nothing has really changed for Nebuchadnezzar at all.

But I hope it has for you, after reading this story. I hope that you see that no matter how good you think you are, you are not good enough to save yourself from the furnace, the furnace of God’s judgement. I hope you see your need for a Saviour, and willingly give your life to him. And I hope that when the day comes when your faith is on trial, it will be the kind of faith that will enable to make you stand.

Why men are leaving the church (and how we might get them back)


We have a problem here in the West. Our men are leaving the church. Of course, huge numbers of men don’t even come to church. But that too is part of the problem. And for the few that do regularly attend, they are often bored and unengaged.

I called the men of our church together for a breakfast a couple of months ago (that’s about the only way to get men to come to something these days: feed them). When asked who the special speaker was going to be I replied, “I am. I’m going to talk about why men’s ministry has been failing and how we can get back on track.” Over 70 blokes turned up and we nearly ran out of food.

After some food and friendly talk, I got up and addressed them with some sobering news:

“In the UK, over the last 20 years, 38% of believing men left the church. For men aged under 30, nearly 50% left in the same period of time. I suspect the numbers here in New Zealand aren’t much different. We’re in a crisis fellas. And if we don’t do something about it, we’re not going to have any more men in the church – here at Grace or anywhere else.”

“OK guys, so tell me why you think this is the case. Shoot. There are no women here and the place is not bugged.”

Some hands immediately shot up. Here were some of the answers:

  • Men often find church a bit of a bore
  • Today’s church isn’t built for men, it’s built for women
  • Worship songs go too long and are all about feelings
  • Men aren’t good at small talk; women often are
  • There’s a lot of talk about being loving, caring and sharing and almost nothing about being strong, courageous or risking – the stuff men are wired for

I glanced down at my piece of paper. They nailed just about every point I had down. These guys aren’t dumb, I thought to myself. They see it.

“OK, I said, “So here’s what we’re going to do about it. This isn’t a silver bullet, and it might need tweaking along the way. But we’ve got to try something. Nothing going to change the way we are going.”

A plan for the future of men’s ministry at Grace. The small group ministries feed into the big events. The 4×4 groups are the heartbeat of the whole thing. Without them it will fall over.

I then gave them a vision for a way ahead for men’s ministry at Grace. Big events (like men’s breakfasts, fishing trips etc) are OK, but they don’t transform lives. Nor do they build close community. And if we are going to succeed, we have to build community. My plan was to have small groups of men – no more than four, meeting regularly together in their own time. The key is to get the bible opened – at least for a portion of the meeting. There’s where the transformational power lies. That’s how men’s lives are changed. Meeting together just to shoot the breeze (what we often call “fellowship”) just doesn’t cut it.

It looks something like this:

 – Plan a weekly meeting before work, after work or at lunchtime (max. 1 hour)
 – Share for a few minutes how your week has gone
 – Read a portion of Scripture together, out loud
 – Talk about what God is showing you
 – Pray for each other and leave

I then had slips of paper distributed to all the guys and had them indicate their preference for the day, time and area they would like to meet as a cluster. About 75% responded. Then, with the help of some others, we arranged all the men into groups. A number of them are now up and running. But the true test of whether it succeeds is time.

I met with my cluster group for the first time after work last Monday in the local Mall. One of the guys, Shane is a new Christian. After some brief introductions and ordering a coffee, we got down to business. I started by having us share our testimonies – the story of how we come to faith in Jesus. Then we opened the book of 1 John and read the first chapter out loud. I gave them a few minutes to look over the passage again and think about what it was saying. “OK,” I said, “so what is God showing you? What is this about?” After some discussion, we concluded the focus was on this word “fellowship.” But in amidst all this, a whole bunch of questions came up (mostly from Shane, who was eating this up) about the Word, the Spirit, the Trinity, the difference between disciples and Apostles – things that matter but we often don’t talk about. It made the discussion come alive and the two other men in the group – Gavin and Vern, were speaking into Shane’s life with God’s truth. I sat back and watched. If I could duplicate this 3 or 4 or 5-fold in our church I thought, we’ll turn this whole town upside-down.

It will be interesting where things might be 6 months or a year down the track. There are no guarantees. All I know is we have to try something.

I went to that cluster meeting a little apprehensive about how things would turn out and left walking on air. In talking about the meaning of true fellowship in the bible, we actually experienced it. I think this is how God intended things from the start.

Especially for us men.

Having the Courage to Stand


Daniel chapter 3 has to be one of the most well-known and most loved chapters in the Bible. It is not only interesting, it is full of satire. The author is having the time of his life poking fun at a king with an ego the size of an elephant and his pathetic little minions, who all bow down to his silly statue like puppets on a string. The only ones willing to stand up to him are three Judean teenagers who look him straight in the eye and say, “Sorry Neb, but we ain’t going to bow.” In the end, they are rewarded for their faith and God delivers them from the flames. “Hurrah for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego,” we say and then tell our kids to be good little boys and girls like them.

But is that really what the author wants us to take away from this? If we were to put the comedy and heroics to one side, we are left with some challenging questions. What if God decided not to deliver Daniel’s three friends from the flames? What if they were all incinerated – what would we tell our kids then? 275 Protestant leaders were burned to death under Queen Mary. What about them? Thousands of faithful Christians are burned, tortured and murdered in various places today. What about them?

Moreover, whenever we place ourselves in stories like this, our tendency is to align ourselves with the three young heroes. We prefer to see ourselves as faithful and courageous like them, and not like the mad king who erects idols of his own making. But when we look at reality – the things we buy, the things we love, the things we live for and are infatuated with, well – we see something quite different. These idols of ours are no laughing matter. They put us on the wrong side of God and make us objects of his fury. When faced with a different kind of furnace – the furnace of God’s wrath, who will save us then?

Let’s take a closer look at the story. Back in chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a statue made of different materials, which represent earthly kingdoms. Daniel interprets the dream and tells him he is the head of gold and other kingdoms will surpass him. Eventually, God’s kingdom – the stone cut without hands, would replace them all. The chapter ends with the king declaring to Daniel, “Your God is indeed God of gods, Lord of kings” (Daniel 2:47).

Well, it looks very much like he’s changed his mind on all that because here we find that he has made a gold statue – of himself. His jaw-dropping 90-foot image, with the sun’s rays dancing off its gold surface, dazzled the minds of his subjects. They are all enthralled and don’t need much encouragement to fall flat on their faces in front of it.

It’s state-sanctioned idolatry. It’s forced veneration – of man and the things he has made. And we’ve seen many forms of it throughout history: communism and fascism and all forms of totalitarianism. Control the economy, restrict free speech, prohibit all opposition parties, and force every individual to comply. And they all have their venerated leaders – whether its Rome’s Caesar, Soviet’s Stalin, Germany’s Hitler, China’s Mao, Japan’s Emperor, or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

Any religious practice that takes place in these regimes is either outlawed or very tightly controlled. Christians are permitted to worship freely in China for example – but only in the state-sponsored and state-regulated churches. Underground house-churches remain heavily persecuted. It is similar in some parts of the former Soviet Union.

And don’t think we safe from it here in the West. Belief in the God of the Bible is tolerated, as long as you keep your beliefs private. Keep it out of the public square, otherwise we’ll shun and mock you. We don’t want any of that prayer nonsense in our Parliament or Bible in our schools. In fact, we don’t want to hear anything about the bible at all – especially that rubbish about God creating us male and female. Talk to us about spirituality and getting in touch with your inner self. But don’t tell us there’s one way to God or in fact, that there is only one God. We simply won’t have it.

It might not be a 90-foot statue, but it’s forced compliance all the same. In the clash of kingdoms – the kingdom of God versus the kingdoms of men, we are left asking: “who has the courage to stand?”

From my vantage point in this safe little corner of the world in New Zealand, I’m really not sure. All I know is that most of us are lying low and trying not to attract too much publicity. I don’t think we’ve been tested severely enough yet. When we are, I have to ask myself, will I have the courage to stand? Will I be prepared, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, to stand my ground and say, “Sorry NZ, but I will not bow to your state-sanctioned, atheistic secularism.”

Think of the excuses Daniel’s three friends could have made:

“God knows the pressure we’re under. We don’t want to lose our witness. Let’s just pretend to bow”

“Sometimes you’ve got to compromise a bit otherwise people will think we’re too narrow”

“Imagine the good we can do if we keep our jobs. We can help people”

“Hey, everyone else is doing it. It can’t be that bad.”

Sound familiar? The call of Jesus seems pretty clear:

“If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it. For what does it benefit someone if he gains the whole world, and yet loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and that of the Father and the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23-26)

There’s not a lot of wiggle room here. Jesus is calling us to thorough, uncompromising loyalty and devotion. So, when it comes to a choice between Jesus and the world, between God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of men, and between biblical Christianity and human secularism, what will it be?

As one of my favourite lines of Bob Dylan goes, “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’ve got to serve somebody.”

“Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua said to the people of Israel (who remained uncommitted and undecided, sitting on the fence). “As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14-15)

In my next post, we’ll look at what happens when three brave teenagers face the flames, for the glory of God. The results, as you will see, are quite encouraging.

This post was based on a sermon called “Faith in the Furnace.” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.