October 18, 2015

Live It Out

If you are a Kansas Basketball fan 2008 was one of the greatest years ever.  And, since I was six and not yet really aware of sports beyond t-ball when Danny Manning and the Miracles won the championship in 1998, 2008 was for me the greatest year ever to be a fan.  Most of the game was enormously frustrating.  Kansas played well, but John Calipari, the coach of Memphis at the time, true to his coaching style had a bench full of one-and-done players several of whom have gone on to be stars in the NBA (Derrick Rose, for instance).  With 2:09 remaining in the game, Memphis hit some free throws to put them up by 9.  The score was 60-51.  While that’s a lot of time in a basketball game, 9 points is hard to come back from.  You need to score at least three times while preventing your opponent from scoring any just to tie the game, four if you want to win.  Two minutes and nine seconds isn’t a lot of time for that.

After Memphis’ free throws, Kansas dutifully drove down the court and Darrell Arthur made a long two-pointer; 60-53 with 1:54 to go.  That’s better, but still quite a hurdle to clear.  But then something happened that changed everything.  Rather than narrate it, though, you can just watch it.  That steal, pass, and three pointer changed the entire flow of the game.  Kansas had just scored five unanswered points in less than 20 seconds.  They were simply down before, but now they were down with momentum.  The momentum, of course, culminated in another Kansas miracle, Mario’s Miracle.  It looked about like this.  At that point the outcome was pretty much a foregone conclusion.  Memphis had had all the wind sucked out of their sails and about fifteen minutes later, this happened.

Now, as time has passed since then, Mario Chalmers’ game-tying three has been elevated to the ranks of some of the most clutch basketball shots ever.  When you go to a KU home game now they have a highlight video play just before introducing the home team that mostly centers around that shot and it gets Allen Fieldhouse rocking so loud it almost makes your ears bleed.  But while that shot was certainly the glory point of the game, it wouldn’t have happen without a game-changing moment 1:40 earlier.  While Chalmers’ shot sealed the deal, it was Sherron Collins’ three to bring the game within four points that made the deal even possible.  Furthermore, if you were paying close attention, Chalmers didn’t come down the floor with the ball in the final seconds.  Collins did.  It was his assist there at the end that made it happen.  Chalmers may rightly be celebrated as a hero, but Collins was a game changer, and you can’t have a hero without a game changer.

In our culture today it often feels for Christians like we are down by nine with two minutes to go and zero momentum behind us.  Pew Research released the results of a huge study on the religious landscape in the country a few months ago and it found that the number of folks claiming no religious affiliation is on the rise while the total number of churchgoers in the country is doing just the opposite.  Not long after came the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v Hodges which officially changed the definition of marriage for all 50 states.  Now, opinions on the wisdom and rightness of the decision are all over the map, but what we can all agree on is that it was a decided move away from the teachings of historically orthodox Christianity which have had a profound influence on our country for a long time.  More recently, California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, signed a bill legalizing physician-assisted suicide in the state.  In a subsequent but less publicized move, he also signed a bill that requires pro-life crisis pregnancy centers in the state to inform their clients about the services of local abortion clinics, but which does not also require abortion providers to inform their clients about the services of local pro-life crisis pregnancy centers.  Closer to home perhaps you heard the story about the ODU fraternity that hung “welcome” banners from their across-from-campus house with lewd and offensive messages on freshman move in day.  If you want more stories along these lines to illustrate the point just turn on the news when you get home.  You’ll find them.

Indeed, as our culture moves further and further from anything recognizably Christian in its major beliefs and practices as far as Christians are concerned, we need a game changer.  Actually, we don’t need a game changer.  We need to be game changers.  We need to take on the role of Sherron Collins in the 2008 KU-Memphis NCAA Championship Game and be game changers in our culture.  It doesn’t mean we need to kill ourselves to do anything particular spectacular-seeming—most of us could easily talk ourselves out of an ability to do that and just forget about the whole thing.  It could be that we “merely” serve up an assist to the guy or gal who nails it, but our culture needs the impact of the Gospel and it’s no use waiting for somebody else to have it.  Jesus called His followers to be salt and light in the world and never before in any of our lives have we had such an opportunity to follow His command as we do right now.

The question remains, though, how do we do this and what does it look like in action?  Well, for the next six weeks in a series called Game Changer: How to Impact Your World, we are going to be talking about that very thing in both Bible study and here in the service.  We are going to be guided in this effort by the story of a young man named Daniel and the challenges he and some of his friends had to overcome when they found themselves plunked down in the middle of a culture that did not know, appreciate, or care about the religious worldview they had been taught and believed for themselves was the right way to live.

This morning, though, in the first part of this series we have an important question to answer: How do we get started on this?  I mean, it’s good and all to know we need to do it, but for a task like this one we need to know where to start.  This morning that is exactly what I’m going to tell you.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Daniel 1 with me.  Let’s take a look together at the beginning of Daniel’s story and I think the answer will come out as we do.

From Daniel 1:1: “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.  And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God.  And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god.  Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans.  The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank.  They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king.”

So let’s just get a bit of context here.  The year is 605 B.C. and the people of Judah have finally run out of rope.  After some brushes with destruction staved off by a return to God some years before the people had finally exhausted God’s patience and the time for judgment was upon them.  The instrument for this judgment was of course the Babylonians under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar of the Hanging Gardens fame.  Babylon was the big dog on the world scene at the time and with God’s permission (because they couldn’t have done it otherwise) they were going to destroy all but a remnant of the people of Judah.

Now, when it came to expanding his empire through conquest, Nebuchadnezzar was a genius.  What he would do was come in with his army and in devastating fashion destroy the capital city and all the most important military outposts of whatever nation was his target du jour.  He killed a lot of people and very likely did so in such a way that would totally demoralize the rest.  Anybody who fought would be wiped out with any trace of their existence being scrubbed from the earth.  He would then have his servants search through the remaining population and pull out anybody who struck them as the best of the best.  This group of people was escorted back to Babylon.  Once there they were treated like royalty.  He gave them a warm and comfortable place to sleep, plenty of food to eat, and great wine to drink.  He set them in front of the best teachers in the land and gave them an education the likes of which they would probably have never experienced back home.  His real goal, however, was not educating them, but indoctrinating them.  He wanted to make these folks the most dedicated and loyal servants of the Babylonian Empire in all the land.  In doing this he was creating a culture in Babylon where really smart people were a dime a dozen, where everybody was beautiful, and where all the best ideas and advice were centered.  In this way he made sure he always had great leaders, wise military strategists, and brilliant cultural and political advisors in place to keep Babylon at the top of the international pile.  Not many leaders in the history of the world were as blessed with clear foresight as Nebuchadnezzar was.

It was into this program of indoctrination and reeducation that a young captive named Daniel and his three friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were introduced.  That they were even there suggests pretty powerfully that these were bright kids.  They were just the kind of kids—teenagers probably—that Nebuchadnezzar wanted because they would be especially pliable to the new ideas he was preparing to feed them.  The whole thing started by giving them new names.  Names are powerful and a new name given by someone else conveys a degree of authority and power over a person.  These new names could have communicated two things to the boys: 1. We own you; and 2. You are part of us now.  Look at v. 6: “Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah.  And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.”

So then everything is running just like it was intended to run.  These four were placed along with a bunch of others in a swiftly flowing stream that would lead them right to the place of becoming loyal Babylonians in every sense of the word: language, culture, diet, politics, religion, and so on.  For them they were down not just by nine, but by more like 9 million points and there were just a few seconds left on the clock.  They needed a game changer.  The only problem was: there wasn’t anybody else.  If anybody was going to change the game for them, it was going to have to be them.  So that’s exactly what they did.  Check out how.

Verse 8: “But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank.  Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself.”  In other words, what did Daniel do?  He put his foot down.  He said, “I’ll speak your language, I’ll learn your culture, I’ll even learn about your religion, but I’m not giving up on my God and if there’s a way I can consciously set myself apart as dedicated to Him, I’m going to do that.”  But, it wasn’t like he chose anything obnoxious to the people around him in order to set himself apart.  Some people think that in order to stand out for God they need to do something that will render them obnoxious to the rest of the world.  But God doesn’t call us to be an eyesore if we can help it.  He calls us to be faithful to Him.  We are to be faithful in both the small and the big.  Most of the time, though, we don’t have the chance to be faithful in the big.  Most of us live our lives in the midst of the small.  Daniel and his friends recognized this and stepped out to be faithful in the small: they would reject the food from the king and instead eat a much more humble diet that would serve to remind them of whose they were and what it meant to be set apart for Him.

And, yet lest you think this was some risk-free venture on their part, something small to the point of being insignificant, think again.  Come back to the text at v. 9: “And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, ‘I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age?  So you would endanger my head with the king.’”  In other words, there were lives at stake here and not just those of Daniel and his friends.  If they didn’t come out of this three year process to the king’s satisfaction it wasn’t just them who would pay the price.  Everybody the king had assigned to make sure they turned out like he wanted would have been on the chopping block as well.

But you see, Daniel and his friends had something that is the first thing we all need to have if we are going to be game changers in our culture; if we’re going to effectively engage our world for Christ.  Look at the next part of the text here with me and then we’ll talk about what this is: “Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, ‘Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink.  Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.’”

What’s going on here?  When the chief eunuch responded, “I don’t know about this,” Daniel replied, “Just test us and see how it goes.  If we fail the test we’ll join in with everybody else and eat like them, but if we pass, we get to choose our food.”  What is that?  How does a 14, 15, maybe 16 year old boy look in the face of a high ranking government official in the midst of a reeducation camp located in what amounted to a five star luxury resort with all the amenities they could imagine which was designed to brainwash him into becoming a committed citizen of the nation that just destroyed his own and say, “You know what?  I’m not going to do that”?  I’ll tell you how: he had put his foot down.  He had decided what he believed and what he was willing to do about it.  He had decided what things were essential to him and he wasn’t going to budge on those regardless of the consequences he faced for it.  He had decided to put his whole trust in God and let God take care of Him no matter how dicey was the situation he wound up in because of it.  Perhaps to put that more simply: he had conviction.  He became a game changer in his situation because he had conviction.  If you want to be a game changer in your situation and have an impact on your world for the Gospel, the process will start when you figure out what you believe and what you’re willing to do about it.  It will start, in other words, when you develop conviction.  If you want to be a game changer, you need to live your life with uncompromising conviction.  Plant your feet and stand strong.  Live your life with uncompromising conviction.

Now, that sounds easy to say, but you and I both know it’s not so easy as it sounds.  When the stream is flowing hard in one direction, resisting it takes a ton of effort and if you let down your guard for a minute you’ll find yourself being pulled down the stream by the current.  This past summer we took the boys to Water Country USA for the first time.  We were admittedly nervous about trying to chase three boys down in a place we’d never been before, but with Lisa’s dad there to help us we had a blast.  Well, as we were nearing what was going to be the end of our day there, we finally found what we thought was the lazy river.  We were all pretty tired and decided a nice relaxing float down the river would be a good end to the day.  If you have been to the lazy river at Water Country USA, though, you know that our expectations fell somewhat short of being met.  What we discovered was that this was not so much a lazy river as it was a rushing river.  It was all we could do to stay on the little vests they provide.  (Whatever happened to inner tubes???)   It was even more challenging keeping the boys from going under as we were whisked around the course.  Noah could mostly hold his own with a life vest, but the current was strong enough and he was small enough that we had to work to keep up with him.  There were also a couple of times, though, when we were the ones who had gotten too far ahead.  We had to slow ourselves down and even stop in order to let him catch up to us.  I’ll tell you: putting your feet down in that current was a bruising experience.  The ground is rough so people don’t slip but that just serves to cut your feet if you don’t land right.  The river was clogged with people and so the great likelihood was that you were going to be bumped by someone and would find yourselves several yards downstream before you got settled again.  Then there was the actual current.  If you let yourself get even a smidgen less than as aerodynamic as you could be it was all you could do not to get swept away.  It was a constant fight just to maintain position.

Listen, that’s what it was like for Daniel to stand with conviction in the rushing onslaught of Babylonian culture coming at him.  He faced all the pressure in the world to merely go with the flow.  If he wanted to go a little slower than everybody else that was fine, but he needed to be moving.  Yet that was exactly what he didn’t do.  He lived his life with uncompromising conviction.  But, friends, this doesn’t just describe Daniel’s situation.   This pressure to go with the flow and fierce opposition for resisting it is exactly what we are finding in more and more places in our culture.  Without clear, uncompromising conviction we are going to be swept away.  If we want to be game changers, we need to live our lives with uncompromising conviction.  Live your life with uncompromising conviction.

But still, what does this look like.  I mean, the story of Daniel is great, but what he did got recorded in Scripture!  How are we supposed to do something that dramatic?  What opportunities do we have to stand for God in spectacular, attention-grabbing ways?  Well, for most of us, probably none…but neither did Daniel (at least, not at this point in his life).  His story didn’t get preserved for God’s people to read about and celebrate until the end of time because he did something obviously spectacular in the eyes of all the people around him.  No, the reality is that outside a select group, nobody knew about what he had done.  What more, among the folks who agreed with him at least on the principle that following Yahweh was better than following the gods of the Babylonians, there were perhaps some who thought he was being overly dramatic, choosing the wrong battle to fight, and put some pressure on him to just eat the food and not make a fuss that’s going to cause the Babylonians to look down on the rest of us.

No, Daniel didn’t do anything obviously spectacular.  What he did was plant himself firmly in light of his convictions and refuse to go along with the fast flowing stream of culture against him regardless of the consequences he faced for it.  Making such a stand even in something small like the food you choose to eat causes ripples.  If forces the current to change and go around you.  Well, when you live your life with uncompromising convictions; when you’re the only thing in the current that isn’t moving, there is a very great likelihood that you are going to have collisions with folks who don’t share your convictions, who are going with the flow.  Those don’t usually go well…especially if you slow down their progress by your unwillingness to budge on some issue.  Now, we know the end of Daniel’s story and things went really well for him, but he couldn’t see that until he got there.  I heard about a young man who while in college got a job at a cable company monitoring overnight programming.  It wasn’t a great job, but he was dedicated and worked hard and did good work.  When he graduated, the company offered him a permanent position with a big raise, better hours, and more responsibility.  But, the new responsibilities would have required him to monitor numerous different cable feeds including several adult channels.  It would have been easy to say, “You know what, I just won’t watch those.  This is too great an opportunity to pass up.”  Most anybody would have understood and respected that decision.  But his convictions held that viewing pornography was not right, it is not a morally neutral thing even if the viewing is incidental.  He asked if there was a way to avoid it, they said no, he didn’t compromise on his convictions, and turned down the offer.  While I suspect he has gotten a job since, I first heard his story months after it had happened and he still had been unable to find another job.  He lived his life with uncompromising convictions and initially he received nothing for it.  God didn’t swoop down and give him another—better—job.  He just had to endure the pressure of the current.  Kind of like Daniel.  But, God honors those who honor Him and now this kid’s story has been shared with tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people and I suspect that in more ways than one, he has been a game changer.

You and I can individually be game changers if we will simply live our lives with uncompromising conviction.  But if we work together, something really cool happens.  While the current flows fairly smoothly past a single obstacle, if this single obstacle joins up with other single obstacles, yes, the pressure on all of them initially increases, but eventually, if they don’t move and if they get large enough, the current changes.  It parts earlier to go around them and what gets created is a safe haven in the midst of all those obstacles that the current doesn’t touch anymore.  It is a place where objects caught in the current can find rest from the constant motion and even a new home that is stable and secure.  Life can flourish in places like this.  Have you figured out what I’m describing yet?  Come on, now: a place where several or even numerous individuals have planted their feet and are living with uncompromising convictions and are together creating a safe haven from the pressures of the world where real life can flourish.  That’s the church.  When you live your life with uncompromising conviction, you can be a game changer.  When we live our lives together with uncompromising conviction, we can be world changers.  We can together create a place where life can flourish.  But, while convictions are powerful, this is only the beginning, and as you come back over the next few weeks we’ll see together the full picture of how we can be game changers.  In the meantime, live your life with uncompromising conviction.