April 3, 2016

Daniel 1:1-16

I think everyone knows that our normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  Anything above or below that could be cause for concern.

What if we could measure our spiritual temperature?  What if we could measure on any given day how close we felt to God?images

If we are honest, most of us would confess that life events affect how close we feel to God.  How we feel on the inside is often affected by what’s happening to us on the outside.

Now you might think that when things are going great, we all feel close to God. That’s true for some, but for others it might cause them to think they have no need for God.  So just because things are going well that doesn’t mean someone feels close to God.

If we are suffering, this may affect how we view God and how we respond to God, too.

I believe that suffering changes our spiritual temperature.  It moves us in some way.  It might move us closer to God or further away from God, but I don’t see how we can suffer and not see life differently.

When we are challenged in ways that cause us great pain, some people question what they believe and why they believe it.

thIn the book of Job, Satan challenged God to prove that Job, the most blameless and upright man on earth, did not serve him just because God blessed him.  Satan was convinced that if all Job’s blessings were removed, Job would curse God.

Job rightly challenged the belief of his friends that his suffering was not due to some wrong doing on his part.

However, his spiritual temperature did change because of his suffering.  He became arrogant in his defense of himself and he lectured God, sounding as if he knew more about how to run the world than God, for which he repented and was forgiven.  But he never turned away from God through all of his suffering.

As a pastor, I have listened to people who felt distant from God because of some event or series of events that left them spiritually cold.  The events of life crushed their understanding of God.

When you believe that your life is ruined, over, in shambles, lost, in despair, in crisis, that no one cares, especially God, or that you will never find joy, peace, or happiness again, what do you do?

If you do not believe your faith in God will change that situation, your spiritual temperature is at dangerously low levels.

Do you call your faith “bunk” and give up on God?  Do you run to another religion?  Do you become an agnostic?  Do you say, “Oh, what does it matter?” and go out and make poor moral decisions as an effort to escape your pain?

Listen to the story of Agnes.

From the time she was a young girl Agnes believed in God.  She said she wanted to do great things for God.  She said she wanted to “love Jesus as he has never been loved before.”  I’d guess you could say her spiritual temperature was running hot.  http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2011/fall/faraway.html?start=2

Agnes had an undeniable calling.  She wrote in her journal that “my soul at present is in perfect peace and joy.” She left her home. She became a missionary.  She gave God everything. (Ibid)

And then it felt as if Jesus left her.  She wrote: “Where is my faith? Deep down there is nothing but emptiness and darkness …. My God, how painful is this unknown pain … I have no faith.” (Ibid)

I do not know if something traumatic happened in her life.  She doesn’t say.  I have known people who have had traumatic experiences and even though God’s word promises us that God is with us, if you took their spiritual temperature you would discover that their faith was on life support, because they felt far away from God, distant and isolated, abandoned even – the way Jesus must have felt on the cross when he cried out unto God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Agnes struggled to pray.  She wrote: “I utter words of community prayer and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give. But my prayer of union is not there any longer. I no longer pray.” (Ibid)

She still worked.  She still served.  She still smiled. But she spoke of that smile as her mask, “a cloak that covers everything.” (Ibid)

This inner darkness continued on, year after year, with one brief respite –for nearly 50 years. God just felt absent. (Ibid)th-3

Such was the secret pain of Agnes, who is better known as Mother Teresa, a woman the Catholic Church is about to make a saint. (Ibid)

We know her story because she wrote letters that were meant only for her spiritual directors, but as the process of canonization has been made public, these letters have now been published. (Ibid)

Perhaps Mother Teresa has given us a new definition of integrity.  Integrity is being true to doing what is right, because we know it to be right, even when our spiritual temperature is low.

When we are on fire for God, is there anything or anyone that can stop us from doing good?  When we are on fire for God we will buy a ticket to North Korea and get off the plane and start preaching to the North Koreans, as if we were Stephen sharing his faith before the religious leaders and not caring that they were about to stone him for his views about Jesus.

th-2But how are we to maintain our fire for God or even care about what is right when we cannot feel the presence of God or when events in our lives cause us to question what we have come to believe or understand about God?

Mother Teresa was once told that the “feeling” of the presence of Jesus was not the only or even the primary evidence of his presence. (Ibid)

She was told that Jesus himself said that by their fruit—not their feelings—you shall know his true followers.  In fact, the very craving for God was a “sure sign” that God was present—though in a hidden way—in her life. (Ibid)

Mother Teresa is being canonized not because her spiritual temperature always registered high, but because of the fruit of her labors, because of her faithfulness.  We don’t have to feel as if we are channeling the voice of God in order to show the love of God.

In the 6th Century B.C., the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried many of its strongest and brightest people away into exile.  Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.

How do you suppose they felt after being uprooted from their homes and carried off to a foreign land and forced to learn a new language, new customs, and a new way of living in every way?  Their old way of life was completely wiped out and they were forced to assimilate into the Babylonian way of living.

We have no first person accounts of Daniel’s feelings toward God about these events. If we knew his spiritual temperature, my guess is that he wasn’t feeling too chipper about God or his life.

What we do have are the decisions he made once his life was taken from him and new requirements were placed on him.

One of the first things that happened was that Daniel and his three friends were assigned a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table.

Now you might think this was a good thing.  Compared to all of the other people that got carried away into exile, these guys were chosen to eat from the king’s table.  However, this placed them in quite a quandary.  If they didn’t eat and drink what they were given, they would be punished.  If they did, they would violate their integrity because this would violate the dietary laws of their religion.

Notice the shrewdness and gentleness that these men showed as they negotiated these obligations placed on them.

Daniel began by asking the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.  This was risky.  This meant he had to share his reasons for not wanting to eat the king’s rations. It also meant Daniel had to share something about his faith. The chief official could have made things harder for Daniel.

Instead, God caused the official to show Daniel favor and sympathy “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.’” (v. 10)

Is it too much to believe that when we are trying to do the right thing, God goes before us to prepare the way?  That does not mean our path is always paved with success.  Sometimes it gets more difficult, but when we maintain our integrity, others can be threatened, but when we are faithful before God, we are going to find a blessing somewhere.

God wants us to maintain our integrity even when our spiritual temperature is low.  God wants us to do what is right even when we don’t feel like doing what is right.

What if we reacted to situations solely only on our feelings?   What if did unto others as we would like to do unto them?  If I did unto others the way I wanted to do unto them instead of the way Jesus told me I should, I might end up in jail.

Instead, we are to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” the basis for our acts of integrity. We can do this regardless of how close or how far away we are feeling to God at the time.

In this case, while the official was sympathetic to Daniel’s plight, he was not a risk taker and he did not grant Daniel’s request.

Now Daniel could have said, “Well, God, I have reached a dead end.” Instead, he continued to work with what the system gave him.  It gave him the guard, whom the chief official appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.

So Daniel cut a deal with the guard to given them nothing but vegetables and water for ten days and at the end of those ten days to test them, which he did.  At the end of those ten days the guard decided they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food so he took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.

If we maintained our integrity only on those days we felt close to God, how would we do?  Feelings can mislead us.  Integrity is doing what is right because we know it to be right, even when we don’t feel like doing it.

If you are overcharged, return the money.  If you make a mess, don’t leave it for the next person to clean up.  If you make a mistake, admit it and apologize.  If someone is expecting you, show up on time.  If you make a promise, keep it.  If you make a commitment, follow through.  If you don’t like yourself today, treat yourself like you do because Jesus loves you enough that he gave his life for you.  Speak the truth in love.  Don’t cover one lie with another.  Don’t cheat on exams or the government out of what you owe.  Keep your word.  Be slow to speak and quick to listen and you can keep a lot more of it.

Every day, we have opportunities to practice integrity.  People who know us, know whether we are people of integrity.  Our reputation extends before us like an early morning shadow.th-4

They also know whether we are people who make decisions just for ourselves.  They know if we are people whose decisions benefit just the establishment or the empowered.   They know whether we are people who are justice seekers, people who look after the best interest of all concerned even when that means making decisions that are not popular.

People know when we are making decisions based on principle, on God’s principle, and not because we are looking for attention or a way to promote ourselves.

Integrity is something we build every day through our choices and habits.  If integrity were a bank account, would you have a good balance?

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, was able to take Daniel out of Jerusalem, but he could not take Jerusalem out of Daniel.  Daniel learned integrity.  He had been taught it through his faith in God.  While the temple was destroyed, the faith of God he’d learned in Jerusalem was still in him.

The world can take a lot of things from us, but if Jesus is in us, He’s not going to leave us or forsake us regardless of the tragedies that come our way.  None of us are exempt from them coming.

People will hurt you and they will do a lot of things that will tempt you to forsake your values and your integrity.  When you’ve been carried away from your Jerusalem and you don’t feel close to God, it’s still up to you how you will respond.  God is still present.  His word still stands.  You will be tempted to call it all bunk, but instead, you can choose to be faithful.

Be like Daniel and his friends.  Be like Agnes.  Regardless of how you feel at the moment, choose to do what’s right.  Leave the results and the feelings to God.  See if something good doesn’t happen in your life and in the lives of others.  See if your integrity doesn’t stand the test of time last for the ages.