Different is Good
Embrace Your Exile Status
Good morning Chapel family! I hope you’re all enjoying the beginning of fall. What a gorgeous week this has been, hasn’t it? I had some good walks outside with Norma Jean; I had some great hikes—which is where I do some of my best thinking and praying. I did decide to stay away from the ocean this week, by the way. I thought you’d be happy to hear that. But I’m so glad to be living in North Jersey this time of year, aren’t you? There’s no place like it!
So, this past Friday night we had our annual Vision Summit for Chapel volunteers. And I want to thank everyone who participated. We had a great group both in person and online. And I just want to say “thank you,” if you’re volunteering in any of our ministries, just for being faithful at such an unusual time. We keep saying that everything feels a little different this year, and it does. But we believe that God is in all of it. And we don’t think the different-ness is necessarily bad. In fact, we believe that different can be good.
Which brings us to today. Today is the start of Common Ground, which is the teaching series that begins each new ministry year. So during these six weeks, the entire Chapel family is on the same page: our sermons, our small groups, our Chapel Students and Chapel Kids—everyone is focused on the same thing, learning and growing together. And the theme for Common Ground 2020 is “Different is Good,” based on the book of Daniel.
Now: that concept—“different is good”—is a popular idea in our culture. Wouldn’t you agree? If you went out on the street and asked people, “Do you think it’s good to be different—to not be like everyone else?”, I think most people would say, “Definitely! Be yourself!” If you posted on Instagram or Facebook, “Different is Good,” you’d probably get a lot of likes. Right? Our culture celebrates uniqueness and diversity. But here’s the thing: the kind of differentness that Daniel teaches us is not necessarily the kind of differentness that our culture celebrates. So as we begin the series, let’s talk about a few kinds of differentness that Daniel is not talking about.
First, it’s not about Coolness. Sometimes we choose to be different because we want to stand out and be cool, or popular. When I was a junior in high school, I was an early adopter of parachute pants. I’m not proud of this now. If you don’t know what parachute pants were, they were those shiny, tight nylon pants with zippers all over them. So when everybody else was wearing jeans to school, I wore my parachutes, because I wanted to look cool. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being unique in how you dress or how you look, and you may actually look very cool (unlike I did); I’m just saying that’s not the kind of “different” Daniel is talking about. It’s not about coolness.
Secondly, it’s not about Stubbornness. Sometimes we choose to be different because we take a prideful pleasure in not conforming. I will never get a cell phone. Why not? Because we got along fine without them for thousands of years. True, but we also got along without light bulbs and antibiotics, but now that we have them, things are a bit nicer. Nope—not gonna do it. It’s a mindset that relishes playing the role of the contrarian. And listen: we Christians need to be careful here. Because we are called to be different—in fact, that’s what this series is all about! But sometimes we dig in our heals and take a stand less out of obedience to God, but more out of stubbornness and pride. We like feeling embattled and persecuted: The government’s out to get us; the media’s out to get us. That’s not what Daniel is talking about. This is not about stubbornness.
Third, it’s not about Social Acceptance. Sometimes I hear people say, “I grew up with a certain set of beliefs, and that’s what my family expected of me. But when I went to college, I decided to reject the beliefs of my family, because I finally started thinking for myself.” But when you look a little closer, you realize they didn’t really start thinking for themselves; they actually just traded the approval of one social group for the approval of another social group. Does that make sense? So it sounds noble to say, “I’m different—I’m thinking for myself,” but the human desire for social acceptance is so strong, that’s usually a major factor. So Daniel isn’t talking about a differentness in order to be accepted by a different group of people.
And then, finally, it’s not about Selfish Actualization. What do I mean by that? Well, in psychology, self-actualization is the highest level of personal growth you can achieve. It’s when you’re living with meaning and purpose, and you’re fulfilling your potential as a human. That’s a great thing! But more and more, in Western culture, this becomes “selfishactualization”—and I think I made that term up, but here’s how the thinking goes: my first responsibility is not to God or to my neighbor or even to my family; my first responsibility is to be true to myself. Robert Bellah, who’s a sociologist at UC Berkeley, calls this “expressive individualism,” and he says this is the one unifying value in our culture today: “I have to be myself and express myself, no matter what anyone else thinks. No matter how it affects other people.” So if you feel some sense of responsibility to anything outside yourself, let it go. Let it go. There’s no right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free! I don’t care what they’re going to say. The cold never bothered me anyway. If you don’t recognize those lyrics, ask someone younger than you. I’m not trying to pick on Disney; I’m just saying this mindset is everywhere in our culture. And that’s not the kind of different Daniel is talking about.
So…our culture sometimes resonates with the idea of being different, but very often it’s being different for the sake of coolness or stubbornness or social acceptance or selfish actualization. Daniel invites us to a different kind of differentness. So the obvious question is: what kind of different is Daniel talking about? That’s what we’re going to talk about over these next six weeks.
I strongly encourage you to dive in and get the most out of this series. We have a team that’s putting together daily devotionals based on each week’s message, so to sign up for those, just go to our homepage at thechapel.org, and right on the bottom of that page, you’ll see “Get Daily Devotionals,” so just click on the “signup” button. When you sign up, you’ll also a get a link to a special video that I’ll be filming every week, to help you dig deeper. And of course, if you’re not yet part of a small group, that’s the single most important thing you can do to connect and grow here at The Chapel. So even if it’s just for the six weeks of Common Ground, please get in a small group.
Alright! Let’s start at the beginning: Daniel chapter one. Hear the Word of the Lord…
1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.
3 Then 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— 4 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. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. 5 The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.
6 Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 7 The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.
8 But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. 9 Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, 10 but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you.”
11 Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” 14 So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.
15 At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. 16 So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.
17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.
18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20 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.
21 And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus. This is the Word of God.
I want to give you three words to hang this message on. And here they are: Exile, Courage, and Influence. Exile, Courage, and Influence.
So first: Exile. The book of Daniel starts at a very dark time for the nation of Israel, because Jerusalem has fallen. It was around 600 BC, and Babylon was the strongest kingdom in the world. When they started attacking Jerusalem, Jerusalem had tried to join forces with Egypt and resist them…but finally they just couldn’t hold them off. So this was a terrifying moment if you lived in Jerusalem. Because the Babylonians were brutal people. They were known for having absolutely no restraint in the way they conquered. It says they came to Jerusalem and “besieged” it. And there’s a lot packed into that little word, “besieged.” There was burning of buildings, and looting of treasuries, and rape, and killing people indiscriminately. That was their style.
And then—the most devastating thing—they got to the temple. The Jerusalem temple was the symbol of God’s blessing and God’s presence among his people. And the Babylonians entered the temple and stole the sacred items, and brought them back to Babylonia and put them in the temples of their gods. So this was the ultimate shame for the people of Judah. It felt like the end, and some of them wondered whether God himself had been defeated.
Now, interestingly, the Babylonians didn’t treat all of their captives in the typical way. Usually, conquering nations would make their captives slaves. Forced labor. But Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, was smart. He realized that this conquered nation had some sharp people. So why not sort of re-program them and incorporate them into our leadership? So he said bring in just the cream of the crop—young men, in great physical condition, smart, quick learners—and put them through a crash course in all things Babylonian. And we get introduced to three of that select group: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The king assigned them a daily amount of food from his own table—that must’ve been nice. He assigned them three years of training. And he gave them new, Babylonian names.
Try to put yourself in the position of one of these four young guys. You’ve just seen the horrors of having your country taken over. You’ve been forcibly taken from your homeland and brought to a strange place. And now you’ve been chosen to be part of this elite group. And here’s the challenge—here’s the ethical dilemma: you’ve always thought of yourself as God’s people. You’ve always been surrounded by fellow believers. And now all of a sudden you’re in a strange place. The temple of God isn’t there. The laws of God mean nothing to these people. Everything looks and feels different.
So how does this relate to us? Well, if we choose to follow Christ, we will find ourselves in a very similar position. I’m not saying we’re exactly like Daniel and his friends. We haven’t been dragged out of our country and put into the service of a foreign king. But listen to what the new Testament says about believers in Christ: in the book of Hebrews, it says the heroes of our faith “admitted they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” In Peter’s first letter, in the New Testament, he addresses his readers as “exiles scattered through the world.” In Philippians, it says our true “citizenship is in heaven.” And Jesus said if you follow him you’ll still be “in the world,” but you’ll no longer be “of the world.” So when you’ve chosen the kingdom of God, you will not feel completely at home in this world. You’ll feel a tension between the world you’re living in, and the kingdom you truly belong to.
Do you know that feeling? That feeling of not quite belonging? You see something on TV; youl have a conversation with somebody at work; you read a Tweet or a Facebook post, and you’ll see all these people agreeing with it and liking it, and you’ll go, “Man, I feel so different.” Do you know that feeling? “I feel like I’m from a different planet.” That’s how Jesus said we would feel, and that’s what Daniel and his friend were experiencing. The strange position of being an exile.
And as exiles, Daniel and friends had some decisions to make. How should they respond to these really amazing opportunities presented to them: a Babylonian education; a Babylonian diet; Babylonian names? I mean if they received those things, would that be betraying God? And if they refused those things, would that basically be a death wish? The position they were in—and the position that we are in—called for discernment, and it called for courage.
And that’s our second big word: Courage. We talked earlier about the power of social pressure. We are truly wired to crave the approval of the community. And especially the approval of the powerful people around us, right? I mean, it feels good—it feels safe—to be accepted by the important people in our lives. And you know Daniel and his friends felt that pressure to conform. So what did they do?
Well, when it came to their new Babylonian names, it seems like they were okay with that. Maybe they decided names just didn’t matter that much. Call me whatever you want; that doesn’t change who I am. Okay, how about the Babylonian education? They received that too. Now, that doesn’t mean they accepted everything they were taught. But they took it all in—they sat in the classes about Babylonian history and language and culture, and some of it was probably fine; other stuff was Babylonian propaganda and Babylonian religion, so they had to sift some of that stuff out. But in general, they were okay with the education.
But there came a point where they drew the line. You know where it was? Verse 8: But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. Why? Why the food? Well, the key word is that word “defile.” It means to become unclean or polluted before God. And there could have been two reasons for that. Probably, some of the food was on the “unclean” list for Hebrews—it was off-limits for God’s people. But also, probably some of that meat and wine had been used in the worship of Babylonian gods. And these faithful, Hebrew men just could not, in good conscience, receive that. So they made a hard choice. A courageous choice.
Let me ask you something: When’s the last time you made a courageous choice? I mean, specifically, as a follower of Jesus, living in this world, when is the last time you made a choice that was culturally risky? Just like Daniel and his friends refused the food and wine from the king’s table, are there ways that you’ve refused to conform to what our culture expects of you? It’s so easy to blend in, right? It takes courage to be different.
But it’s important to see how Daniel expressed his differentness. Pick it up in verse 9: 9 Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, 10 but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. (Remember that line—“I am afraid of the king”—we’ll come back to that in a minute).Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you.”11 Daniel then said to the guard… 12 “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. So he proposes this little experiment. But I want you to see two things. First, how did Daniel relate to his captors? Sometimes in our differentness, we can dismiss and demonize people, right? We can come off as superior to them. Daniel could have said, “I’m not going to eat your filthy food.” But he treats this fellow human with love and respect. That’s really important.
But here’s the more important thing: remember the chief official said, “I’m hesitant to do this…why? Because I fear the king.” Do you realize that what you do and what you don’t do…what you risk and what you don’t risk…is ultimately determined by what you fear the most? The official feared the king more than anyone else—which made a lot of sense—the king was powerful. And I’m sure Daniel had some fear for the king also. But here’s the thing—and this makes all the difference: Daniel feared God more. He feared God more. That’s where his courage came from.
If you find yourself easily caving in; never taking a stand; always conforming to what the people around you expect, ultimately it’s because you fear people more than you fear God. It’s that simple. So when push comes to shove, you do what’s expected of you. But Daniel had somehow developed a relationship with God where he had such a respect and reverence for God, and he also had such an affection and love for God, that the idea of disappointing this great God was unthinkable. That was Daniels’ secret. That’s the kind of different that Daniel models. He was different because he loved and feared God more than anything else in the universe. And that’s the kind of different God invites us to.
So the more you cultivate that kind of relationship with God, the more you will develop some backbone—some spine—to make some tough decisions. Because listen: as an exile in a strange land, we probably shouldn’t receive everything offered to us, right? Some things are like the Babylonian name and education—they’re fine. But some things are more like the king’s food and wine, and we should refuse it. And knowing the difference is going to take wisdom, and prayer, and knowing Scripture really well. But ultimately it’s going to take courage.
Maybe you work in an industry that puts profits ahead of everything else, and it’s going to take courage to make less on a deal so you can treat people with respect. Or you work for a company that’s breaking environmental regulations because it’s more convenient, and it’s going to take courage to refuse to participate in that.
Maybe everyone you hang around with is liberal and progressive, and you agree with so many of their beliefs. But you see in Scripture that every life is created in the image of God, and you can’t get comfortable with abortion rights. And it’s going to take courage to respect your friends, but still speak up for human life.
Or maybe everyone you hang around with is conservative, and you agree with so many of their beliefs. But you see in Scripture that God is passionate about welcoming and caring for immigrants and refugees, and you can’t get comfortable with conservative immigration policy. It’s going to take courage to respect your friends, but still speak up for the refugees at our borders.
I thought Pastor Dave said we’re not going to be political! We’re not. These are not political issues; they’re moral issues. They’re biblical issues. And they rise above any one political party. And here’s what I’m saying: it takes courage to be guided by God’s kingdom, and not by a party platform.
Or maybe everyone you hang around with—whether they’re liberal or conservative—regularly mocks and demeans the other side. And it’s going to take courage to refuse to participate in that, and to treat people who differ with you with honor and respect.
Look: it is so easy to blend in! When’s the last time you made a courageous choice?
When we do that—when we have such a high view of God that we act with courage, something happens. And that brings us to our last word, Influence. Look at verse 18: 18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20 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. And then look at this—verse 21: 21 And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.
You know what that means? It means that Daniel stayed there—serving—in prominent roles—having influence as an exile—for, you ready? How many years do you think Daniel was there? About 65 years. 65 years! He showed up there as a teenager, and at the end of the book he’s an old man. That’s a long time to be an exile! But in that time—we’re going to see this over the next few weeks—he had incredible influence on the people around him. He continued fearing God, he continued loving the people around him, and God used Him in huge ways.
Listen: when we have the courage to be different, something happens. Certain doors open that would never be open if we just blended in. People develop a true respect for us. People seek us out, because people respect courage. We also make some enemies! But we have influence. And it’s an influence we can use for God’s glory, and for the good of people.
You guys know my story: if it weren’t for people who chose to be different, I would not be here today. If it weren’t for a couple of guys who decided to live out their faith in Kappa Sigma fraternity at Virginia Tech in the mid-1980s, I would not be here today. And I’ll bet many of you would say the same thing: the people who most influenced your life were the people who weren’t afraid to be different. Because when we choose to be different, for the right reasons, good things happen.
So…when’s the last time you made a courageous decision to be different? Maybe it’s time.
We’re living in a world where there’s tremendous pressure to fit in. What does it mean to follow Jesus in a culture of conformity? As an exile in Babylon, Daniel shows us that different is good. He demonstrates not only how to resist the influence of culture, but how to be an influencer of culture, bringing grace and truth to the relationships and communities where God has placed us.