November 1, 2015

Getting in the Game

How many of you have seen one of the commercials from the Foundation for a Better Life?  They are from a project called Values.com which runs television commercials, bill boards, radio ads, and print ads encouraging people to take up any one of a number of different virtues into the regular practice of their lives.  They encourage things like literacy and kindness and compassion and hard work and over 100 other things—values that if practiced on a culture-wide scale would lead to a better life for everybody.  The TV ads in particular are variously inspiring or challenging.  One of my favorites is one of the older ads for sportsmanship.  Really, though, as I see it, it’s not actually an ad for sportsmanship.  It’s an ad for something else—maybe a couple of something else’s.  Take a look and see what you think.  .

Certainly that young man practiced good sportsmanship, but what other virtues did he put on display?  How about honesty?  He was committed to telling the truth and to tell it even when it was going to cost him something.  In Psalm 15, King David rhetorically asks God about the kind of person who gets to be with Him.  At least part of the answer is a person “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.”  But I think there is another value even more clearly on display here than honesty and that’s courage.  You’ve been in a place before where honesty was easy.  It was to your advantage to tell the truth and you were glad to do it.  If you have young kids then you know that they are usually glad to be honest when telling the truth is likely to result in their brother or sister getting in trouble.  But this was a situation where honesty was not easy.  This was the title game, it was a close game, the play got called their way which meant they had a chance to win it, what more his esteem in the eyes of his teammates who were all pushing him to be dishonest was on the line.  To give all of that up just for the sake of honesty…well, that takes courage.  He persisted in telling the truth in spite of the pressure to not do so.  He took a stand when the time was right and changed the game—this game perhaps not for the better, but the game of his life and maybe even the lives of his teammates was no doubt much improved.

This morning we are in the third part of our church-wide teaching series, Game Changer: How to Impact Your World.  If this is the first part you have caught and you want to catch up you can go to the church’s website and find the previous two parts of the series there.  But just to get everybody on the same page this morning, the whole idea for this series is that as we go through our lives we all find ourselves from time to time in a place where the things around us are not like they should be.  What’s more, they are headed in a direction we don’t want them to go.  This could be on the level of the whole culture or it may be just in our family, but however exactly the details play themselves out, the game needs to change.  Not only that, we’re the ones who need to change it.  God has us where we are for just such a time as this and while He can still accomplish His plans without us, He has invited us to be a part of them and if we want to know the abundant blessings of joining in with what God is doing we need to be ready to have an impact.

But, the idea of being a game changer can be pretty daunting.  Even if the game is taking place just within our own families it can be really intimidating to think that we have to affect it in some way.  Having a clear process in place would sure be a confidence booster for us.  Well, that’s a big part of what this series is intended to accomplish.  In the first part we talked about where this process begins.  It begins when we develop conviction and make the conscious choice to stand on those convictions regardless of the consequences we face for it.  And as we have said a couple of times now, while that sounds really fancy to say it like that, developing convictions simply means we figure out what we believe and what we are willing to do about it.  The thing is: you do this already in some areas of your life without realizing it.  There are beliefs you have which are absolutely core beliefs for you and on which you are not willing to budge no matter what.  Now they may be connected to things that are totally trivial or enormously significant, but the point is that you have beliefs like this.  The trick is to make sure that your core is populated by things which are eternally significant and not just passing fancies.  The trick is to make sure your convictions are entirely informed by Scripture and not whatever the latest cultural fad happens to be.  In any event, your work as a game changer will begin when you develop these convictions and stand on them.

Now, the next logical-to-us thing after this would be to do something active to change the game.  We have our base of operations and now we need to get to work.  Well, we’re right in that, but as we talked about last week, the kind of work we need to get to is not necessarily what comes first in most of our minds.  No, once we have put our feet down, the thing we need to do first if we are going to engage our world for Christ is pray.  Prayer connects us with God’s plans and it is His plans that will ultimately change the game, not ours.  And so just like Daniel and his friends did when confronted with the challenge of an angry king’s irrational decision-making, if we are going to have an impact on the world around us, we need to start by dropping to our knees and looking up so that we know where to go.

Well then, surely once we have stood our ground and opened with prayer it is time to get down to something that feels a lot more productive to us, right?  I mean, when do we actually get to start changing the game in a way we can see?  I get that.  It just doesn’t seem right to feel like we’re sitting around when it looks like there’s work to be done all around us.  Rest assured, our time to get into the game, so to speak, will come.  The challenge for us will be to be ready when that time comes.  Because, once we’re in the game, trying to change it, we’re going to be working against someone with a vested interest in seeing things continue in the direction they are already going.  Our opponent doesn’t want things to change and he’s going to bring the full current of culture and the pressure of the status quo against us if we try.  Listen, it takes courage to step out into that flood and the initial results may not go well for us.  But if we’re ready to stand with courage and pay the price such a stand requires, the final results will be pretty spectacular.

Yet still, as before, hearing about doing this kind of thing and actually seeing it in action are two different things.  With that in mind, let me take a few minutes and show you what this looks like.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way back to Daniel.  In Daniel 3 we find that after committing themselves to be game changers, Daniel’s friends are finally given an opportunity to take a stand for God and have a huge impact on their world.  But it is not an impact that comes without cost.  Check this out with me starting right at the beginning of the chapter.

“King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits.  He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.  Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent to gather the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.  Then the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasures, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces gathered for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.  And they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up.  And the herald proclaimed aloud, ‘You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.  And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.  Therefore, as soon as all the peoples hard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.”

Okay, so what’s going on here?  Remember the dream the king had that Daniel interpreted for him with God’s help?  It was a dream about a huge statue that in part represented the dominance of his own kingdom over all the other kingdoms on earth.  The point of the dream was that his and some other empires were going to rise up, but God would break them down.  Well, Nebuchadnezzar pretty much stopped listening after Daniel said something about his kingdom being represented by a huge golden statue.  He got really excited about that idea and so he built the statue.  He built it 90 feet, 9 feet across, and at the very least completely covered in gold if not made entirely of it.  This statue would have been an incredible sight to behold.  He built it, then he put it in a big public square, then he invited all of the officials in the kingdom to come and worship before it.

Daniel is not mentioned in this particular story at all which is probably because he was a high enough ranking official thanks to his dream interpretations that he wasn’t expected to be at the king’s shindig.  But Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (who are referred to throughout the story by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, respectively)?  Remember that Daniel himself had appointed them as governors in the province of Babylon.  They not only had to be there, but were expected to be a part of the crowd worshiping the statue.  The problem was, just as they didn’t before, they weren’t going to budge on their conviction that God is the Lord and there is no other and nothing other than God is worthy of our worship this time either.  In other words, they weren’t going to bow down to the statue.

Now, this would normally perhaps not be too big a deal.  I mean, the word was probably out that this particular trio did things a little differently than everybody else and in most instances this mostly just got ignored as long as they got results.  But this time was different.  There were some folks in the kingdom—namely the Chaldeans who were no doubt embarrassed that Daniel had been able to both tell the king his dream and interpret it when they had not been able to—who were jealous of the trio and the position they had been able to obtain in spite of being members of a people the Babylonians had conquered.  As a result, they were watching this strange triad to see how they responded to the command to bow down and worship the statue.  When they didn’t, the Chaldeans immediately ran and reported the disobedience to the king.  In what came next they finally got their chance to get into the game.

Check this out back at v. 13: “Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought.  So they bought these men before the king.  Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, ‘It is true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up?  Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the [instruments], and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good.  But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.  And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?’”  In other words: You’ve got one more chance and then I’m going to make an example out of you.

It’s probably a mark of how highly the king thought of them that he even gave them a second chance, but you can see what’s going on here, right?  This is their chance to stand for God.  Are they going to be ready and willing to stand for God, or are they going to bend before the incredibly strong cultural pressure they are facing?  Reading this story in the Bible has a way of sucking out all the tension and drama of a scene like this, but let’s not overlook it.  These guys were standing in the presence of what was probably the most powerful man in the world at this time and he was staring right at them and demanding the answer to a simple question: Are you going to do what I tell you to do, or are you going to do something else?  And by the way, if you don’t do what I tell you I’m going to make certain that you die a painful death.  As far as they were concerned their lives were literally on the line.  If there was ever a time to take a courageous stand for God, this was it.

Well stand they do.  Come back to the text with me at v. 16: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter.  If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us form the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.’”  Remember that last part of the king’s challenge to them?  What god will save you from me?  Their answer: our God can and because of that we’re not going to bow down to your statue.  That’s awesome, isn’t it?  With all the pressure in the world pushing against them they stand strong and refuse to yield.  You go boys!  But what comes next reveals just how radical their courage really was.  Look at v. 18: “But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”  Did you catch that?  That had absolutely confidence in God’s ability to deliver them from whatever the king had in store for them for refusing his command.  But even if He didn’t deliver them in the manner they were no doubt hoping He would, they still weren’t going to do it.  In other words, “Our God can deliver us from your fiery furnace and if He does, that’s great.  But even if He does not, we’re still not going to do it.”  If you want to change the game, that’s the kind of attitude you have to bring to the party.  If you want to change the game you have to be ready and willing to stand for God.  Be ready and willing to stand for God.

Well, what comes next is just cool.  Not unexpectedly, Nebuchadnezzar isn’t exactly thrilled with their answer and commands that the furnace be heated seven times hotter than normal.  I’m not sure how they would have measured that, but the point is that he wanted them to make it as hot as possible (perhaps hoping to scare them into giving in?).  They make it so hot that when it comes time to shove the trio in for their punishment the guards who are assigned to the task are themselves killed by the blast of heat (my guess is that they accidentally breathed in the super-heated air when the doors were opened and it burned up their lungs from the inside out).

So the three friends are shoved into the insanely hot furnace and everybody there just watches to learn the lesson of what happens when someone crosses the king, so they can be utterly convinced that there is no one more powerful than the great King Nebuchadnezzar.  But then the totally unexpected happened: “Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste.  He declared to his counselors, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?’  They answered and said to the king, ‘True, O king.’  He answered and said, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.’”

Then Nebuchadnezzar does the only thing he can think to do.  He yells into the fire: “Hey guys, come on out of there.”  When they emerged from the furnace it was as if they had never been in there at all.  Their clothes were not burned.  Their hair was not singed.  They did not even smell like smoke.  It was like the whole thing had never happened…except it had…and everybody there had watched it happen.  Nebuchadnezzar responded then in the way he had responded before when he encountered the One True God: “Wow!  We need to make sure that everybody is following this God because He’s better than any of the gods we are following.”  Now, does that mean his newfound devotion to God stuck?  No, probably not.  But by being ready and willing to stand for God, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego made an impact that they would have not otherwise made.

Folks, when we have found our own place to stand on conviction and have committed ourselves to consistent prayer about, the odds are very good that we are going to do have the opportunity to take a stand for God in some way.  It may not be in the obviously public and spectacular like these three had.  It may not be in the life-threatening like our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq are facing.  But God’s not interested in our being spectacular as far as the people around us are concerned.  He’s interested in us being faithful.  As far as God is concerned the person who takes a stand in her family to shift them back in the direction of an active faith when they were before headed in some other direction has accomplished something just as spectacular as what these three did.  Your stand may be in something that nobody even knows about, but if you’re standing for God, you’re going to change the game.  If you want to change the game be ready and willing to stand for God.  Be ready and willing to stand for God.

Before you do it, though, there are three things you need to keep in mind all of which we can see in this story.  The first is this: We never know when an opportunity will come from God to stand on our convictions and change the game so we need to be ready all the time.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t know this was coming.  They weren’t planning on this.  They were just being faithful where God had placed them.  It was their commitment to living with uncompromising convictions and staying connected with God’s plan through prayer that put them in a place where they were ready and willing when the moment came.  Because we similarly don’t know when God is going to give us an opportunity to take a bold stand to change the game we too need to live ready.  Be ready and willing to stand for God.

The second thing to keep in mind is that when our time to take a stand comes and regardless of the form it happens to take, we need to stand with boldness, but with a boldness that is heavily tinged with gentleness and respect.  When the apostle Peter was writing to a group of Jesus followers who were living in a hostile culture he advised them to be always ready to give an answer for the reason for the hope that they had.  That sounds great.  We should always be able to answer our critics, to respond to those who would otherwise call us to compromise our convictions in light of the culture.  But then he added one more piece: do this with gentleness and respect.  Responding in kind when challenged rather than with kindness may get our point across, but it will be at the expense of our witness.  Daniel and his friends understood this.  Every time they stood before someone and had their convictions challenged they unfailingly responded with the utmost of gentleness and respect.  They addressed the king in culturally appropriate ways.  They never demanded their way, but asked for it with reason and tact.  They did not make themselves obnoxious to the people around them, but made themselves well loved by as many who would and indispensable in their positions.  They changed the game not with force, but with love.  We need to be ready and willing to stand for God, but if our stance doesn’t reflect His character and invites a harsh response, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves for the consequences and God’s not going to save us from those.  Be ready and willing to stand for God, but always do so in the spirit of Christ.

There’s one last thing to keep in mind and this one is perhaps the most important: Our stand will likely come with consequences and God will not necessarily shield us from them so we need to be prepared to pay them trusting all the while that He will indeed honor our stand and will one day make things right again.  Think back to that sportsmanship commercial.  You think that player didn’t pay a price for taking a stand?  Think about if his team had lost the game because of his commitment to honesty.  What if that had been the NBA Championships or the Super Bowl?  What if in one of the Royals-Mets games a player scored the series-winning run, but missed a base in the process…and told the umpire about it.  What if your stand puts a relationship in jeopardy?  What if it puts your job at risk?  What if you have to break a law you know isn’t just?  There will be consequences for our taking a stand.  They may be cultural, they may be relational, they may be occupational, they may be legal, they may even be physical, but there will be consequences.  God may deliver us from those like He did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but He also might not.  Many times God merely sustains us in the hardships that follow taking a stand and then uses our testimonies to have an even greater impact.  It’s cool when someone proclaims: “I took a stand and God kept anything bad from happening to me.”  It’s even more powerful, though, when someone proclaims: “I took a stand and paid for it through the nose, but God has sustained me in spite of it and I’m going to keep following Him.”  Friends, whatever the consequences may be, the end results will be worth it.  If we are changing the game in favor of an advance of God’s kingdom into the world, things will only get better than they are currently.  Now, the road to that place may well be rocky as many of our brothers and sisters both past and present have discovered—as perhaps some of you know—but the end result will always be life.  It will be a game that has been changed to bring hope and peace and joy to all who play it.  It will be a game that has been changed by someone willing to stand for God.  Be ready and willing to stand for God.

If you want to be a game changer, this is how you do it: you take a stand for God and let Him do the rest.  You stand on conviction.  You stand when He has called you to stand, a call you’ve received by staying connected with His plans through prayer.  But above all else, you stand.  You stand ready; you stand willing; you stand for God.  If you want to be a game changer, be ready and willing to stand for God.  Be ready and willing to stand for God.