Before the advent season I had been looking at the book of Daniel, and am returning there today.
Nebuchadnezzar is the king of Babylon, the leader of the empire, and as such is the personification of all empire. We have much to learn from him.
“I, Nebuchadnezzar, was living in my palace in comfort and prosperity. But one night I had a dream that frightened me; I saw visions that terrified me as I lay in my bed.” The king is having bad dreams again. Before, he had dreamed about the giant gold statue that was destroyed when a rock from heaven struck its feet. Now he’s having more nightmares.
He’s having trouble sleeping at night, and when he does sleep, he’s always having these bad dreams. Does that sound familiar at all?? Why is the king having bad dreams? After all, he’s the king. He should be sleeping comfortably in that palace, shouldn’t he? But instead, he’s having dreams that terrify him as he lays in his bed.
Sounds like the king has an anxiety problem. He’s number one, king of the great empire of the world. Just like here in America, we are the great empire of the world. We are obsessed with being number one. We are obsessed with looking out for number one. And we have the worst anxiety in the world. Not India, or Ethiopia, or Colombia. Here in America, where we have it all, we have the highest levels of anxiety and depression in the world. We don’t even attempt to get 8 hours of sleep at night, and even what we do get is restless, broken sleep. We have bad dreams. Then we are up at the crack of dawn to get after it, to play our game of competitive acquisition. We have to play the game because this is the only game we know. It’s what we learn from the time we are very young. We learn our advertising and our commercials. We learn that we just can’t be happy unless we have a bigger house, we can’t be happy because Mr. Jones up the street just bought a nicer car than we have. We can’t be happy unless we get some new clothes, new toys.
Just like Nebuchadnezzar, it’s all about being number one. No other nation has the anxiety we live with every day. We live with our anxiety because we formed by the liturgy of the empire, the liturgy of advertisers. We have to have more, get more and do more. If somebody else is getting more than us, it will keep us up at night. I know, I’ve been kept up at night thinking about work, thinking about all I have to do to be able to get all I have to get.
Jesus never told us to live this way. He never said to consider the kings and emperors. He never said to consider the Jones’s. He said to consider the lilies. “Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? “And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?” Matthew 6:27-30 NLT
What we learn from Jesus here is very simple. Life is not a competitive game. Life is a gracious gift. If we view life as a competitive game of acquisition, the result will be that we live with constant anxiety. We will be kept up at night with our anxiety and nightmares, just like king Nebuchadnezzar. He has all he could ever dream of. Yet like all empires, like all people who are worried about having more and getting more, and every empire who gets to be number one and must stay number one, he lives with constant anxiety and nightmares.
Back to Nebuchadnezzar and his latest nightmare. He calls his intelligence team in and tells them his dream. ‘While I was lying in my bed, this is what I dreamed. I saw a large tree in the middle of the earth. The tree grew very tall and strong, reaching high into the heavens for all the world to see. It had fresh green leaves, and it was loaded with fruit for all to eat. Wild animals lived in its shade, and birds nested in its branches. All the world was fed from this tree. “‘Then as I lay there dreaming, I saw a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven. The messenger shouted, “Cut down the tree and lop off its branches! Shake off its leaves and scatter its fruit! Chase the wild animals from its shade and the birds from its branches. But leave the stump and the roots in the ground, bound with a band of iron and bronze and surrounded by tender grass. Now let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the wild animals among the plants of the field. For seven periods of time, let him have the mind of a wild animal instead of the mind of a human. For this has been decreed by the messengers; it is commanded by the holy ones, so that everyone may know that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world. He gives them to anyone he chooses— even to the lowliest of people.” He dreams of a tree that grows all the way into the heavens…just like the Tower of Babel. It oversees the whole world, birds make nests in its branches, and the whole world is eating from its fruit. He has a whole agency of advisors, but none of them can figure thus dream out.
You and I probably could take a crack at it, but none of the Kings advisors can – except for Daniel. Because Daniel is the only one with a different story, a different script for his life. All the kings advisors are Babylonian, and only know the Babylonian story and script of life. But Daniel has a different story, and a different script. Daniel is Jewish, he was raised with the story of the Hebrew people. Every Passover, really every sabbath, he was formed by the stories of Moses and the exodus. He knows the story of how Moses went to Pharaoh and said “Let my people go!” He also knows that Pharaoh said “No!! If I let you go…who’s going to make my bricks!!” Pharaoh needed those bricks, so he would not let God’s people go. He needed those bricks for his empire. Daniel knows how eventually not one, not two, but ten plagues came against that empire. He knows that if you persevere in mistreating the poor, you will eventually unleash all kinds of societal plagues that will ruin your empire.
So Daniel interprets the dream for Nebuchadnezzar. ““Upon hearing this, Daniel (also known as Belteshazzar) was overcome for a time, frightened by the meaning of the dream. Then the king said to him, ‘Belteshazzar, don’t be alarmed by the dream and what it means.’ “Belteshazzar replied, ‘I wish the events foreshadowed in this dream would happen to your enemies, my lord, and not to you! The tree you saw was growing very tall and strong, reaching high into the heavens for all the world to see. It had fresh green leaves and was loaded with fruit for all to eat. Wild animals lived in its shade, and birds nested in its branches. That tree, Your Majesty, is you. For you have grown strong and great; your greatness reaches up to heaven, and your rule to the ends of the earth. “‘Then you saw a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, “Cut down the tree and destroy it. But leave the stump and the roots in the ground, bound with a band of iron and bronze and surrounded by tender grass. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven. Let him live with the animals of the field for seven periods of time.” “‘This is what the dream means, Your Majesty, and what the Most High has declared will happen to my lord the king. You will be driven from human society, and you will live in the fields with the wild animals. You will eat grass like a cow, and you will be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven periods of time will pass while you live this way, until you learn that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses. But the stump and roots of the tree were left in the ground. This means that you will receive your kingdom back again when you have learned that heaven rules. “‘King Nebuchadnezzar, please accept my advice. Stop sinning and do what is right. Break from your wicked past and be merciful to the poor. Perhaps then you will continue to prosper.’” It is not looking good for the king. The fruit of his tree is bad, and the watchers in heaven have decreed it must come down. God is looking for fruit of justice and righteousness, but just like Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar is abusing and mistreating the poor. Isn’t it interesting that this is the only sin identified by Daniel of with the king must repent in order to save himself? King Nebuchadnezzar, please accept my advice. Stop sinning and do what is right. Break from your wicked past and be merciful to the poor. Perhaps then you will continue to prosper.
The king listened to a Daniel, maybe he considered his warning. But he went right back to his beastly ways, and eventually he had to suffer the consequences. ““But all these things did happen to King Nebuchadnezzar. Twelve months later he was taking a walk on the flat roof of the royal palace in Babylon. As he looked out across the city, he said, ‘Look at this great city of Babylon! By my own mighty power, I have built this beautiful city as my royal residence to display my majestic splendor.’ “While these words were still in his mouth, a voice called down from heaven, ‘O King Nebuchadnezzar, this message is for you! You are no longer ruler of this kingdom. You will be driven from human society. You will live in the fields with the wild animals, and you will eat grass like a cow. Seven periods of time will pass while you live this way, until you learn that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses.’ “That same hour the judgment was fulfilled, and Nebuchadnezzar was driven from human society. He ate grass like a cow, and he was drenched with the dew of heaven. He lived this way until his hair was as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails were like birds’ claws.” Daniel 4:28-33 NLT. A year goes by, and the voice comes down – “Chop down that tree!” The king’s nightmare was fulfilled. He is sent into the wilderness to live like a wild animal. He lived out in the wilderness and ate grass like a cow. His hair grew long, his nails were like a bird’s claws.
Here’s the message to Nebuchadnezzar – if you want to act like a beast, go ahead and be a beast. Nebuchadnezzar goes insane and forgets that he’s human. If you move into being inhumane, you can forget who you are. You can forget that you are even human. You can lose you humanity. If you are humane, if you are human, you will not forget those lower on the societal or economic totem pole than you.
After seven years…God has mercy. “After this time had passed, I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up to heaven. My sanity returned, and I praised and worshiped the Most High and honored the one who lives forever. His rule is everlasting, and his kingdom is eternal. All the people of the earth are nothing compared to him. He does as he pleases among the angels of heaven and among the people of the earth. No one can stop him or say to him, ‘What do you mean by doing these things?’ “When my sanity returned to me, so did my honor and glory and kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored as head of my kingdom, with even greater honor than before. “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and glorify and honor the King of heaven. All his acts are just and true, and he is able to humble the proud.” The king’s sanity returned when, after seven years of being a beast, he finally recognized that there is a God above. God’s rule is everlasting, his kingdom will last forever. His tree will never be chopped down. When he repented of his sins (his sanity returned), Nebuchadnezzar was restored to all glory and honor, even more so than before.
Here’s something we need to recognize – God’s salvation is not just for some far off time when we are going to die and be whisked away to heaven. When we accept Jesus into our lives and walk in His ways, His salvation is not just about the afterlife. He didn’t come to take us to heaven when we die of our heroin addiction. He didn’t just come to fly us off to heaven when we’ve finished wasting our lives in a porn addiction. He didn’t come to take us to a glorious heaven to be enjoyed after we’ve ruined our lives on earth with our alcoholism, our gambling addictions, our adultery, our drug addictions, our arrogance, our pride, our anger, our lust. He came to save us from our addictions, save us from the way we want to live our lives, so we can live the life He wants us to have here!! He came to save us from our beastly tendencies and show us what it means to be human. Yes, we will go to heaven when we die…but Jesus wants us to begin living like we are in heaven while we are still here!! Remember – “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:10 ESV
By the way – Jesus knew the book of Daniel very well. Many of the descriptors he uses for himself come from Daniel. And he told us this little tidbit about the kingdom of God. “Then Jesus said, “What is the Kingdom of God like? How can I illustrate it? It is like a tiny mustard seed that a man planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds make nests in its branches.” Luke 13:18-19 NLT. Don’t doubt for minute that those listening to this story did not think of the book of Daniel when they heard this. Don’t think for a minute that Jesus wasn’t thinking about this.
The kingdom of God is like a seed planted in a garden that grows and becomes a tree…the birds make nests in its branches. And the world can eat it’s fruit. It will never be chopped down, because it’s fruit is good. It doesn’t have the bad fruit of empire, the fruit of oppressing the poor and looking out for number one. It has the fruit of the kingdom, the fruit of justice and righteousness.
Empires always get chopped down. As Nebuchadnezzar tells us – God is just and true, and he is able to humble the proud. If we are formed by our dominant culture around us, we will buy into the insanity of empire. We will buy into the liturgy of our advertisers. We will live as though life is a game of competitive acquisition. “Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.” 1 John 2:15-17 NLT
To be Christian is to belong to a counter culture in the midst of a dominant culture that breeds the insanity of empire. We need to not be formed by the liturgies of the advertisers. Don’t live life like it’s a competitive. Live life like it’s a precious gift. Live by our creeds, scripture, prayer, worship, and sacred stories. Live in the dominant culture, but as a counter culture.