One of the benefits of preaching through books of the Bible is that we are fed the whole counsel of God’s Word and not just a pastors pet passages or topics. Also it means that we will hear sermons on hard texts, like this one which is considered one of most difficult in the NT. It’s a hard text for two reasons. First, it’s hard because there are some hard to understand phrases in it. Second, it’s hard because it’s about suffering for righteousness sake and that’s hard for many of us white, upper middle class, Americans to relate to. Christians in America represent a very small percentage of Christians in the world, less than 1%. American history is a very small percentage of world history, less than 5%. So American Christianity is a very tiny picture of Christianity. Because this is all we know we tend to think this is how it is everywhere. That bubble has been burst a bit by the images of ISIS killing Christians and waves of Christians fleeing their countries. For most Christians in the world today they know what it means to suffer. For most of history Christians have known what it means to suffer for their faith. For most Christians in most of the world through most of history being a Christian was not safe. I remember well preaching in Albania and feeling very much out of my depth. What business did I an affluent white American have preaching to poor Eastern Europeans just coming out of 50 years of severe atheistic Communist tyranny, every Christian living under the threat of death? So how do I preach this text to you in a way that is both faithful to the passage and relevant? Where are the connection points for us? It’s a hard text. Maybe we could try to put ourselves in the wooden shoes of our Dutch forefathers who came to this part of Washington and labored long and hard to clear the forests and give us this fruitful and abundant crop land. But that wasn’t suffering for their faith. Maybe we could try to put ourselves in the boots of those who laid down their lives for us so we could enjoy all this freedom and prosperity we have today. Lots of people suffered and died for our sake. But that wasn’t suffering for their faith. Maybe we could try to put ourselves in the bare feet of those fleeing for their very lives all across the world today because of their faith, many of them dying at the hands of ruthless terrorists. But all of that is so distant and remote, a faint thought. Oh, once in a while we feel a little sting from what some people in Bellingham say about Lynden. Maybe a bit from those who differ with us on some moral or political or social issue. A few of you are in families where there is someone who opposes you and your faith outwardly, vocally. For others it’s peer pressure.
Because of the occasion today I am skipping ahead to I Peter 5 and his exhortation of elders. The text has application to all leaders, pastors, elders, deacons, spiritual leaders, community leaders, teachers, parents, employers, all who have some position of leadership or authority. So don’t tune out just because you are not an elder. If you are a person with some spiritual oversight or influence in someone else’s life then there is application here for you. Also don’t tune out because we are all under the spiritual leadership of our elders and that has implications for all of us, and certainly for how we respond to our leaders and pray for them.
The book of Daniel is about faithfulness. God delights in faithfulness and honors faithfulness. God puts a high premium on faithfulness and tests it and builds it. Is not your faith more valuable than gold? Faith matters, character matters, truth matters, principles matter, ethics matters, piety matters, faithfulness matters. Not our location, not our vocation, not our reputation, not our situation. Daniel and his friends showed their faith in God by trusting their lives and their health to Him. They depended on God to give them increased strength and health though a vegetarian and water diet. Even after just ten days they were better because they depended on God and trusted in Him. But if we see the book of Daniel as just about Daniel and his friends faithfulness we are seeing too little. Daniel is not as much about the faithfulness of Daniel and his friends, as it is about the faithfulness of God to them. Let’s notice how God does that.
The Personal Spirit. Someone asked Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, if God existed. He replied, "The question is not relevant. If there were a God, man could not comprehend him anyway. So what good would it be to have such a God?" He believed there was no way for God to be personal and knowable. He is not alone. When Hindus or even some Jews talk about God they are thinking of an influence or an impersonal force or an energy source of some kind that radiates from some place out there. Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons think of the Holy Spirit as like magnetism or electricity or gravity. They aren’t thinking of a person with personal characteristics and personality. Whatever it is it’s impersonal, without knowledge or emotion. The idea that there is a God and that this God is a personal God is foreign to all other religions. It’s one thing to consider God is a spirit, but to consider Him to be a personal Spirit is an altogether different matter. That’s a game changer. I know that we don’t generally think of the Bible as having much comedy in it but the one place you find it is in the prophets when they write about other gods and idols. They use a mocking and sarcastic tone as they make fun of people worshiping objects they have made themselves.
Rivers are a wonderful creation of God. They bless us in countless ways. We are blessed here in Whatcom County to have the Nooksack River. Our agriculture depends on it. All of us depend on it for our drinking water. All rivers have something in common. They are never naturally straight. Rivers meander and curve and wind their way along. Why is that? Because rivers always follow the path of least resistance. They only flow downhill and as soon as they encounter an obstacle they go around it. Rivers are crooked because they follow the easiest path. You never find a straight and narrow river. A crooked person is a person who follows the easy way, the path of least resistance, the way of comfort and ease. Our text this evening is about a straight and narrow person and how to be like that.
Was Daniel a real person? The book bears the name of Daniel, but it doesn’t start out with Daniel’s name the way other prophecies do. Isaiah 1:1 The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Jeremiah 1:1-2 The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, 2 to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. Every other book of prophecy begins with an identification of who wrote it. They almost all start with something like “The word of the Lord came to …” But Daniel doesn’t which causes some to call into question its authorship. For most Christians in the pews we take for granted that it’s true and it’s written by a prophet named Daniel.
I heard recently about a new Survivor reality TV show. “Six married men will be dropped on an island with 1 car and 4 kids each, for 6 weeks. Each kid plays two sports and either takes music or dance classes. There is no access to fast food. Each man must take care of his 4 kids, keep his assigned house clean, correct all homework, complete science projects, cook, and do laundry. The men must wear makeup daily, which they must apply themselves, either while driving or while making four lunches. They must attend weekly PTA meetings; clean up after their sick children at 3:00 a.m., and get a 4-year-old to eat a serving of peas. The kids vote them off the island, based on their performance. The last man to win gets to play the game over and over again for the next 18-25 years...eventually earning the right to be called ‘Mother’” (Mikey’s Funnies). I want to bless and encourage the women of First CRC this morning. It is Mother’s Day and my thought will certainly apply to all mothers, but I want to give this word to all the women here, mothers, grandmothers, wives, single moms, single women. First CRC is blessed among churches to have many godly women and Scripture is clear, women who love and fear the Lord are to be honored and praised even in public. Our text is a familiar one and a common Mother’s Day text. Proverbs 31:28-31.
Change can be hard, big changes even harder. Changing homes or jobs, moving to a different state unsettling. Changing countries and cultures and languages is maybe the worst. A number of you have immigrated and you know firsthand the challenges that presents. Take that a step farther, being forced to move against your will and being able to take only what you can carry on your back, being forced to live in hostile enemy territory, that’s a challenge unimaginable to us, yet we see pictures of that every week on the news. Because of the advances in modern communication we are forced to witness the brutality and savagery of wicked and evil men who indiscriminately and casually destroy and rape and pillage and kidnap with little regard for human life. It is one thing to be forced to flee for your life, it is yet another to be carried off into captivity. In the first you have a measure of control over your destiny, in the later you are force marched with cruelty and torture and little regard for your personal needs or comforts or afflictions. Psalm 137 is a heart wrenching lament sung by Jews forced into exile over 500 miles from Jerusalem. They are sitting on the banks of the Euphrates in the huge city of Babylon, the capital and center of the Babylonian empire. They are a conquered people now subjected to a pagan ruler, Nebuchadnezzar and an evil empire every bit as brutal as ISIS. Their loyalty to Jerusalem (Zion) is significant, it was the earthly dwelling place of God in His holy temple. Remember the religion of the OT was much more strongly tied to a geographical location. The temple in Jerusalem was where the daily and special sacrifices were made, where the people made annual pilgrimages. Their religion was very rooted in a physical location. So to be exiled from that was far more traumatic than it would be for us who’s faith is spiritual, in our hearts. The center of their whole national life and identity was in ruins the temple, the king’s palace, the dwellings places of the Levites and priests. It would be like if an invading army destroyed our capital buildings and White House and monuments and places of government.
This morning’s sermon is brought to you by the letter N and by the numbers 8 and 22. N is the Hebrew letter that begins each of these eight verses. Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem, twenty two stanzas of eight verse each, each stanza beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I wonder if Jewish parents use it to teach their children their ABCs or in their case their ABGs, aleph, beth, gimel. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible with 176 verses. A remarkable thing about this Psalm is that it is written about one thing. Almost every sing verse has one subject in mind. It is a Psalm written in praise of the Bible. It’s a love song about Scripture. How can a person praise the Bible for 176 verses? Wouldn’t you run out of things to say and ways to say it? You would think that 176 verses just about the Bible would become repetitive. Yet it’s like the Psalmist is holding a diamond, looking through every possible facet of that diamond, and in every facet he finds new beauty, treasures, depths, yet another quality that Scripture possesses. It’s amazing how many different words he uses, each with a different shade of meaning, to describe this book. He uses six of them just in our text. Your word, your righteous rules, your law (Torah), your precepts, your testimonies, and your statutes. In other stanzas he uses commands, commandments, ordinances, judgments, promise, and ways. Verse 105 is one of the most familiar verses in Psalm 119 and one of the most familiar in all the Bible. We were reminded just a bit ago of the great value of songs that put Scripture to music and put it into our hearts and minds from childhood on.