+ At War with the Starlings II by Laura Marks, oil on wood panel, 24″ x 48.” Laura has been an artist-in-residence at Fuller Northwest, where she also taught as an adjunct professor. To see more, visit www.gildymarks.com.
President Mark Labberton recently preached in Fuller’s All-Seminary Chapel on Daniel 2 and our volatile political landscape, and we offer the audio and full transcript (edited for clarity) as a resource to help promote honest conversations about power, politics, and the church’s role in post-election America.
Last week when chapel was happening, I was landing in Pennsylvania on a trip that had been long scheduled, and it wasn’t possible for me to be here. My heart was with you across the whole country. I kept thinking and praying about the significant events that had occurred, about the election and its implications, about the significance that it had for many in our community and for the varied opinions that people have about political things. It certainly gave me a great sense of concern and sadness for how much this moment in American history pulls back for many people an acute sense of what they already experience as vulnerability, an experience which is now made that much more dramatic, poignant, and fearsome.
It was really overwhelming to me when I finally landed—and I just want to say how incredibly grateful I am to [Fuller’s interim director of chapel] Julie and the team for what they sought to do in leading a complicated community in a very tender time, to hear and respond to events and our own experience and to hear and respond to the presence of God in the middle of such a raw, living theater moment. It’s all happening in real time—there’s no such thing as a careful rehearsal for a moment like that. Everybody arrives as live theater; it’s only live theater, and it is live theater every day. And it’s live theater in ways that cause many people an acute sense of anxiety and fearfulness, within the Body of Christ as well as beyond the Body of Christ. So it is a very significant thing to be able to gather here. I’m very sorry that I wasn’t here last week, but I’m grateful for the honesty of the worship, the desire and the cries of being simply overwhelmed.
The text that we’re going to look at today is the second in a miniseries we’re doing this fall on the first several chapters of the book of Daniel. Daniel, as you’ll remember, was written for the people of Israel in exile. It’s about what happens when God’s people are stripped of all of the signs and security of the temple, of Jerusalem itself, of the evidences of God’s presence. All of that is now violently taken away. In the context of that exposure, now taken to Babylon, we’re suddenly strangers in a strange land, where every cue is taken away, every security has been removed, and the raw pressure of power and especially Nebuchadnezzar’s own egotistical mania is drawn to such extremes. It is into this context that Daniel and his friends suddenly land.
In the first chapter, they are called to simply practice their identity. They practice their identity every time they sit down and eat, and though they live in Nebuchadnezzar’s house, they belong to Yahweh. I couldn’t think of a more important theme in our lives, in this place and time: that we get clear about our identity. What is so raw about this time in American life is that for people across the whole political spectrum, there is a sense of vulnerability and violence that has been going on in relationship to issues of identity. We experience reality differently. There’s conflict, there’s hierarchies, there’s power, there’s abuses of power, and in the middle of all that, somehow, there’s a need for God’s people to be really clear about who we actually, really are. Each of us is made in the image of God, for the purposes of God, with the dignity of God—whoever we are and whatever our circumstances and social location. And furthermore, we’re not just recreated—in Jesus Christ we are redeemed. We’re called out to be the sons and daughters of God in a way that’s meant to give to us a gift our own humanity alone simply isn’t adequate for.
Chapter Two is a very interesting and unexpected chapter. In Chapter One, Nebuchadnezzar is the person with all of the power, and now in Chapter Two, the chapter begins with a brief summary that Nebuchadnezzar has had a nightmare. He has such a ferocious fear of this dream and its possible implications that he goes to what he hopes will be a source of spiritual insight and wisdom, the soothsayers and enchanters of the day. He calls them forth and explains to them that this time he’s so desperate for an authentic spiritual word that he asks them as a kind of a test, “I need you to be able to tell me both the dream and the interpretation,” and then, you can imagine it in a courtly scene, they say in a polite way, “No king, that’s not how it works. First you tell us the dream, and then we would be happy to tell you the interpretation.” And he says, “If you don’t provide me both the dream and the interpretation, I’m going to rip you from limb to limb.” That gives us a visceral sense of how desperately maniacal he is, but also how anxious he is for some kind of authentic word. They say, “But nobody can do this,with all due respect. You’re asking for something that’s unachievable because no one can do this—only the gods can do this, and in fact, it turns out they’re not with us.” He makes it clear that not only is he not going to start again, he’s going to intensify and demand even more severely that this is the thing that actually happens.
He begins to gather the enchanters and the soothsayers and appoints Arioch to oversee their death, this savage destruction of their life. It’s interesting that the text simply says that when they did this, they couldn’t find Daniel and his friends. They had somehow already distinguished themselves enough that perhaps this would be a great opportunity to include them in the fold of those that were going to be killed. The text makes some very interesting comments about what happens, and I want to follow this a little bit more carefully in the text, because it says some unexpected things. After we hear about the way the set-up goes and their response, we hear this at verse 12: “Because of this, the king flew into a violent rage and commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed. The decree was issued, the wise men were to be executed, and they looked for Daniel and his friends. Then, Daniel responded with prudence and discretion to Arioch.” Now, these are not words that describe anything that we can see or intuit about the soothsayers and enchanters and magicians of the day. They were responding out of the poverty of what they had to bring—which was really nothing. They really didn’t have anything to bring to the crisis. Nebuchadnezzar wants someone who can actually bring something to the crisis, and here, in part, Daniel distinguishes himself by being somebody who could exercise discretion, prudence, and judgment in the context of this moment.
He goes to Arioch, the king’s executioner who had gone out to execute the wise men of Babylon. This is not a person you would necessarily welcome having a conversation with. This is the person who actually holds your life and, it seems suggested by the text, has every implement at hand to actually secure your destruction. And suddenly there’s an enquirer at hand who’s supposed to be in the group of people who are about to be killed, but in this case Daniel, with prudence and discretion, steps forward and asks a question: Why? Why is this so urgent for the king?
Now the text doesn’t really tell us what Arioch says, and it’s interesting to speculate how he might have responded. It just says that he explained the matter to Daniel. I wonder what the explanation was? “Well, I work for a madman; because he’s flown off in this rage again, because he’s desperate, because this time the gig is up. We’ve done our song and dance, and it just hasn’t proved enough, and therefore this time it’s really beyond the pale.” Who knows what Arioch might have said. So Daniel went in and requested that the king give him time and he would tell the king the interpretation. It’s very interesting that Daniel has a sense of clarity, a sense of calm, and a sense of confidence that the God that he worships is a God who shows up when everything else has gone wrong.
“Daniel went in and requested that he be given time and he would tell the king the interpretation. Then Daniel went home and informed his companions, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, and he told them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery so that Daniel and his friends, with the rest of the wise men of Babylon, might not perish.” (vs. 17-18)
So, the first thing that strikes me is that this call to prayer is truly a desperate cry. This isn’t a kind of spiritual rudimentary exercise. This is an actual act of spiritual desperation, an act of crying out to God to give them something they wouldn’t otherwise get. And notice this: they do this for the sake of their enemies, their competitors, the ones who actually ratted them out. This is going to happen even more in Chapter Three, when the very people whose lives are being saved here are the very people who turn them into the king for not bowing down to the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
They pray for their welfare and the welfare of their competitors. In a certain evangelical speech, that wouldn’t happen—but rather: We’re going to prove that our God’s better, and we’re not going to pray for our competitors. We actually want to show that we are the ones who have triumphed. This is a distortion, a clear and profound distortion of power, and it’s part of what this text suggests that needs to be unmasked. “When the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision in the night, and Daniel blessed the God of Heaven” (v. 19). The prayer is worth a lot of meditation.
“Blessed be the name of God from age to age for wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons, he deposes kings, and sets up kings. . . . He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those that have understanding. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with him. To you, O God of my ancestors, I give thanks and praise, for you have given me wisdom and power and have now revealed to me what we asked of you, for you have revealed to us what the king ordered.” (vs. 20-23)
Before anything to do with Nebuchadnezzar, the crisis of the moment, the requests for more time and the urgency of having your body ripped limb from limb, Daniel pauses to reframe all reality in light of something that is so much greater than Nebuchadnezzar. So much greater than his fear, so much greater than his use of power and his abuse of power, so much greater than the politics of the moment, so much greater than the melodrama of the enchanters and soothsayers and magicians, so much greater than the crisis of the fact Israel has been taken captive, so much greater than the captivity itself. This is a framing of reality by remembering and rehearsing who it is that actually holds all reality. And it turns out, in Daniel’s mind, that it’s this God: “All wisdom and power are his, he changes times and seasons, he deposes kings and he sets up kings” (vs. 20-21). There’s something so much bigger than the rage-a-colic that’s in front of him in the form of Nebuchadnezzar. It’s the greatness of this God who holds all things, and that God—whose wisdom and power frames even Nebuchadnezzar—is the one who is able to give wisdom. He gives wisdom to the wise. We don’t achieve it, we don’t dig it out, we don’t prove it, we don’t make it up. It is in this context a revelation and a gift and knowledge to those who have understanding.
And this God holds mysteries. The text doesn’t suggest in any way that human beings actually see into the darkness. He’s wanting to specifically say that it’s really God who sees hidden things, who sees the actual nature of the darkness. We feel the darkness, we experience the darkness, but we don’t necessarily penetrate an understanding of the darkness. This is what makes evil and sin so distorting and so elusive and so hard to transform, because in fact it is literally beyond us. Light dwells with him, and so they give thanks to God for wisdom and power, and for this revelation.
Now it’s really imaginable at a moment like this that Daniel and his friends might arrive to Nebuchadnezzar in a triumphalist way and say, “We won. We got the gold pass, and we got the dream and its interpretation.” It could’ve been extremely self-serving. This is what makes the story that continues so profound.
“Then Daniel went to Arioch whom the king had appointed to destroy the wise men of Babylon and said to him, do not destroy the wise men of Babylon. Bring me in before the king, and I will give the king the interpretation. Then Arioch quickly brought Daniel before the king and said to him, ‘I have found among the exiles from Judah, a man who can tell the king the interpretation.’” (v. 24)
I love that. How exposing is that to our endless self-interest. Daniel goes to God empty-handed, God provides, Daniel and his friends come back with what God has provided, and now Arioch says,
“I have found among all the wise men of Babylon, the very thing that you oh king have needed.” The king said to Daniel, whose name is Belteshazzar, ‘Are you able to tell me the dream that I have seen and its interpretation?’” (vs. 25-26)
Daniel basically answers the king, “No, I’m not able to do that.” It’s almost the exact inverse of Arioch, who says, “I have found among the wise men of Babylon.” Now Daniel starts by saying no actually, I don’t have anything to bring to you because in fact, “no wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show you, the king, the mystery that you’re asking for.” (v. 27) Actually it doesn’t come from us, so no, I don’t have anything to bring you. But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days. He makes this link between the fearsomeness of the dream and Nebuchadnezzar’s power which is on the line, and now God is speaking to Nebuchadnezzar. It wasn’t just God speaking to Daniel; God was speaking to Nebuchadnezzar, and now through Daniel, that understanding is brought clear.
“Your dream and visions in your head as you lay in bed were these: to you O king as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be here after, the revealer of mysteries disclosed to you. But as for me, this mystery has not been revealed to me because of any wisdom I have, more than any other living being—but in order that the interpretation might be known to the king and you may understand the thoughts of your mind.” (vs. 28-30)
There is in this moment an exceptionally important insight for what it means to live as a faithful exile. It is radical dependence from start to finish. It doesn’t just start with a cheap and brief testimony to God. Now, it’s all the way into the very core. Actually, all of this is only really about God’s grace, and I don’t actually bring anything to the table. To make it clear, I’m the deliverer of something that didn’t come from me, and it’s for you. It’s for you in a way that I couldn’t have possibly given you, and therefore it is an act of God’s grace. The interpretation is ultimately about the unfolding decline and ultimate destruction of Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. That’s the fearsomeness of this dream. This anxiety that the person at the top of this food chain learns that ultimately the whole thing is going to collapse—it was for him a nightmare. This is not going to go on; you’re not eternal, your kingdom is not eternal, it’s not all powerful, it’s not all seeing, it’s not all providing.
He goes on to express all that God has given, how the kingdom will ultimately unravel, and how it’s finally going to collapse. And then he simply says, this dream is certain, and its interpretation is trustworthy. Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face and worshiped Daniel. He’s just been told the nightmare is just as bad as he thought, and now it’s authenticated that it’s really going to be true, that it’s all going to come crashing down. Then Daniel receives in response from Nebuchadnezzar an act of worship. Now his theology is a little twisted, and his idolatry is a little confused.
“Then Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face, worshiped Daniel and commanded that a grain offering and incense be offered to him. The king said to Daniel, ‘Truly your king is God of gods and Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.’ Then Daniel and his friends are promoted and given a blessing.” (v. 47)
The thing about this chapter that strikes me is that it’s all about getting power clear. Fundamentally, Nebuchadnezzar has a completely distorted understanding of his own power. He thinks it’s unlimited, he thinks it’s his own prerogative, he thinks it’s his own will. Any power like that is delusional. Any power like that is fundamentally based on lies. Any power that claims that kind of insight is destructive. It’s full of all kinds of self-justification and self-interest that Nebuchadnezzar iconically represents. The trick is what to do in the face of all that. In this moment, combined with that extraordinary power is this sense that there is an even greater power which is, in this case, fear: fear that grips Nebuchadnezzar about his dream for which he has no answer. He doesn’t even have clear knowledge, let alone a response or answer for how he is going to defend himself against the destruction of the kingdom. You don’t hear in the text any suggestion that Nebuchadnezzar therefore armed his men to make sure that they could endure. No, he just receives this as a fact: it is going to come down. And in the context of that truth, Nebuchadnezzar’s response is first to be genuinely hungry.
It’s really worth remembering that even people with great power may have even greater need. People who appear to have something may not actually have it. It may be that the very people who have the illusion of their own invincibility are actually acutely aware just how vulnerable they are. In the end, after psychoanalyzing this text, Nebuchadnezzar is just a poor little man. He’s a puffball inside this amazing Oz-like reality where somehow it’s all projected to be so much greater—but at the core is this trembling, fearful, anxious, uncertain person. Power often shows itself in that way, and the trick is to not be deluded by that and to be able to do what Daniel and his friends do: to reframe that by a much greater power, by the reality of a power that exceeds anything Nebuchadnezzar might have ever held—and let that be the place of dependency and hope and courage and insight.
Now I think about this text in relationship to the moments we’re facing as a nation, the challenges we face on this campus, and the need to get power clear. It will never be the case this side of glory that power will be rightly ordered. It will always be susceptible to places of structure and abuse, but that is no rationalization whatsoever for doing anything other than taking the abuse of power, the distortion of power, the way that power can be self-serving and used against other people, and putting all of it inside the boundaries of God’s own just, faithful, and gracious power. This has to redefine power as it lingers in our hearts, in our minds, in our bodies, in the contexts of race, politics, economics, gender, class, both physical ability and disability—we’ve got to be able to know and experience that there is a God who holds us as we thrash.
This is the live theater of what’s happening here in Daniel, and it’s the live theater of this campus, and it’s the live theater of our nation. There is this confusion over power, and it’s for all kinds of reasons that we’ve got to be committed to justice—because justice is about the right ordering of power and injustice is about the disordering and abuse of power. This matters. It matters to the kingdom of God. This is partly why Daniel and his friends are such witnesses to a God whose power can order and graciously heal and renew and call people into fearsome things in order to be able to actually get clear about what’s true and what’s not.
We have to be people who admit that we are caught in that drama. We all have different places in the drama, and we all have different places where we hold power and where we don’t hold power, where we feel abused by power and don’t. There are people in the array of our community, and certainly in the array of our nation, who have far less power, and the greater disparity between those with more power and those with less power, the more we need to let the kingdom of God redefine realities of what power is really meant to be for. It is meant to be received as gift, it’s meant to be stewarded as a humble offering, and it’s never supposed to be used against other people. It’s supposed to be used for the sake of nurturing the reality of what it means to be a people made in the image of a God who sees and acts and serves with power, not abuses and distorts and subverts power for our own selfish reasons.
Part of the reason the country is so racked over this is we’re so unclear, and people feel as desperate as Nebuchadnezzar felt—we’ve got to get somebody somewhere who’s going to do something! But in the midst of that we can make all kinds of decisions that have very little to do with the truth, that have very little to do with reality, very little to do with the justice and character of God, and it’s in that vortex that we’re now caught working out our own campus life, our own personal life, and our own national life. It’s no wonder it’s a problem. It is a minefield, and the possibilities of the abuse of power are as high right now as they have been at any other moment.
Therefore, right now, our call to do what Daniel and his friends did is even more important—can we place this turmoil, all of the reality of our own lives, our campus life, and our national life in the context of a God who holds all this? When I affirm that “Jesus is Lord,” what I’m meaning is not he’s the one who blesses what is. That’s not how I understand that affirmation. I’m not saying that because “Jesus is Lord,” therefore what is is what God intends—I’m not that good of a Calvinist frankly, and that’s not my vision of how God’s will is actually worked out in the world. There are all kinds of things that God allows in the world which occur that God did not in any way intend or desire. My hope and desire in this context for us is that we’ll be people like Daniel and his friends—and acknowledge that all of this needs to be brought into the context of God’s greater power that alone sees in the hidden and dark places, that alone is going to unmask power in its distortions and reframe it by the character and righteousness and truth of God. That is our common quest.
We are in different places on that journey. Our social location, our experience, our racial background, our age—so many things will affect where we see ourselves in that narrative. But that is the narrative that the Body of Christ ought to take as our great burden together and in as deep a unity as we can. Not because we always agree, but because we’re called to this God who holds all mysteries and who alone sees in dark places—and can and does bring about repentance and humility and brokenness and lament but also hope and restoration and reconciliation. This is only possible if we actually put it in the light, the light that Daniel and his friends have named. That, friends, is a text of hope for us because the God who holds all of our thrashing, our fears, and our anxieties sees and knows this and alone can lead us into the light. Let’s pray.
God, by your grace, as individuals, as a community, as people in this nation—whether we’re citizens or here from other parts of the world—we cry out to you, O God, order our power. Crucify it. Help me, help Fuller, help this community, help our nation to name the truth, to never let power trump that greater reality which is yours, to never be predatory with our influence, to never fail to try to hear and see and understand other people’s reality and not simply our own. O God, we cry out to you, a God who holds the mysteries, sees into the darkness, and offers light. O God give us these gifts, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.