St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 6th April 2014
Reading – Daniel 9:1-19
Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at the whole subject of prayer in our sermon series. We began by looking at Abraham and how he prayed for others. We moved on to David and saw what lessons we could learn about thanksgiving. Then there was Elijah at the top of Mount Carmel confronting unbelief, and last week we thought about Samuel and the whole business of listening. In some ways it’s been rather like a quick sprint through the “Who’s Who” of the Old Testament, and yet I hope you’ve seen that, even though these men were great heroes of faith, they also were weak and fallible just like us, and had to learn so much about the nature of prayer.
Now today we are moving on to the last of the Old Testament characters in our Lent series, Daniel. I guess if we know much about Daniel, it’s from the events in the first half of the book – the lion’s den, the writing on the wall, the fiery furnace, all wonderful stories that have produced sayings and images that have passed into our everyday English language. The second half of the book is a lot more obscure, and therefore we don’t tend to read it as much. But buried deep within it, there is this remarkable prayer that I first read many years ago, and which has stayed with me ever since as a model example of confession. I don’t mean confession in the sense so many understand it, as a formal rite said before a priest in a place of worship, but confession as the pouring out of a broken heart, in a way that I find both profoundly moving and also deeply challenging.
What leads Daniel to pray in this way? Well, to help us understand Daniel’s prayer, I want to take a picture from everyday life that I hope you will find helpful. So imagine, if you will, you have come home with some new furniture you have to put together yourself. You carefully unpack the box. You make sure you have all the bits of wood, and you carefully open all the little plastic bags so you don’t lose any of the fiddly little tools or screws, and you spread out the instructions. After much scratching of the head, and not a little puzzlement, you begin to put your new wardrobe together. You insert part A into part B, using screw E and Allen key Z. You think you are doing it all right, and you eventually get it finished, but you suddenly realise to your horror, you’ve still got a major part left over, or a panel’s in back to front. So what’s gone wrong? Maybe there’s a problem with the instructions. You check and check again, maybe you go online to find out if there’s a misprint. But no, there isn’t. The fault is yours, and even though you can’t see it yet, you have to go back through it all to see where you’ve gone wrong. Does that sound familiar?
A couple of generations before Daniel, there arose a prophet called Jeremiah. Now the thing to realise is that Jeremiah was not a cheerful chap. He went round pointing out how useless was the religion in ancient Israel and how the Lord was going to bring disaster. He told everyone clearly that unless they mended their ways they would be carried off by the king of Babylon and their way of life would be destroyed. But no-one heeded his message. It was only once the king of Babylon came and indeed destroyed ancient Israel that Jeremiah was finally accepted as a true prophet and his words recorded for posterity.
Yet the remarkable thing about Jeremiah is that even though he predicted so much woe and misery, he also told the people that God’s judgement was not the last word. Indeed he wrote a letter to the people that King Nebuchnezzar had carried off into exile, with this promise that: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. (Jer 29:10). Now if you’d lost everything and found yourself living in a strange land under the rule of a cruel king, I guess that promise would be pretty precious to you, wouldn’t it? If someone reliable tells us something good’s going to happen on a certain day, you are going to be looking forward eagerly to when that day comes.
The problem for Daniel was that as he came to the Lord in prayer, the seventy years were up. He had been carried off to Babylon when he was still young and now he was a very old man. He had been waiting for most of his life for this word of Jeremiah to come to pass, and more than once he had staked his life on the Lord being the one true God – that’s how he’d ended up in the fiery furnace and in the lion’s den, after all.
But now the time was up and nothing seemed to be going on. So what had gone wrong? There were only two possibilities – either the instructions Jeremiah received all those years ago were wrong, or there was some fault on behalf of God’s people. Well, Daniel knew his God. He had spent a lifetime praying faithfully three times a day, and he knew God could be trusted. So the problem was not with God’s instructions. The problem had to be with God’s people. And so he puts on sackcloth and ashes, turns away the offer of food and he prays.
And what a prayer Daniel offers!
4 I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed: “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, 5 we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws.
6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.
7 “Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame–the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you.
Have you, I wonder, ever prayed a prayer anything like this? I certainly know I have rarely, if ever, done so. But maybe, just maybe, there is an example here we ought to follow. After all, if there’s one way all of us can grow as believers, it’s to learn from those who, like Daniel, have been walking with the Lord over many, many years. They have so much to teach us about faith and perseverance, as well as the nature of the God we worship, and it can be both a real privilege and joy to hear their stories.
So what lessons can we learn from Daniel’s prayer?
Well, firstly we can learn how Daniel accepts responsibility on behalf of the people for what has happened. Listen again to his words: We have sinned… We have been wicked and rebelled… We have not listened… We have not obeyed. You see, if we’re genuine about seeking a fresh start with the Lord, we need to honest about what we have done.
The trouble is, in today’s world, we are just not that good at accepting responsibility. We like to blame our background or our genes. We like to blame other people. We even like to blame God. But Daniel does none of those things. He doesn’t blame the faults of the Israelite educational system or some flaw in the national temperament: “Yes, Lord, I know we’ve done wrong, but you know, that’s just the way we are”. Nor does he blame what has happened on other people: “Yes, disaster has happened, but it was nothing to do us. It was politicians what got us into trouble”. Nor does he even blame God: “Yes, Lord we’re in trouble, but it’s all your fault. If you really cared for us, you wouldn’t have let this happen”.
No, Daniel is honest and brave enough to accept that he and the people with him are paying the price for their own folly and stupidity. And that’s just such an important first step in confession. After all, when we come before the Lord with all our faults and shortcomings, our natural tendency is to make excuses. We don’t like to admit that we have got things wrong, that we are guilty as charged. Indeed there are people who perhaps spend many, many years hiding from the truth they need to acknowledge, that they are sinners in need of grace and mercy and forgiveness. I even expect there are one or two such people this morning.
Well, all I can say, is if you want a relationship with the Lord that is genuine and real, then you need to become before the Lord on His terms, not yours. And the first step to make is to say, “Yes, Lord, I have sinned, I have been wicked and rebelled, I have not listened, I have not obeyed”. Are you, I wonder, prepared to pray like that? You may find that kind of prayer difficult or embarrassing or awkward. But the history of the church tells us that revival happens, both individually and corporately, when men and women are prepared to get down on their knees and confess their need of God.
And maybe one reason why the church in this country is in such trouble is that we don’t see a lot of this kind of confession going on. Yes, we mumble the words of a confession in our liturgies every Sunday morning, but do we really think about what we are saying? We have sinned against you and against our neighbour, in thought and word and deed. If that’s true, as I believe it is, then that’s serious. We need to take radical actions to make amends, and doing serious business with the Lord has to be the first step.
Daniel accepts responsibility. Secondly, Daniel admits the truth of God’s word.
It’s hard to imagine just how terrible were the events of 587 BC. After a siege of some two years, there was famine in the city of Jerusalem. People were hungry and desperate, and eventually their resistance crumbled. The Babylonian army broke through the city walls, and soon there were foreign troops marauding through the streets, doing what invading troops are wont to do. Death and destruction spread like wildfire and nothing was sacred. Even the temple, the most sacred place in Jewish religion, was burnt to the ground and whole families were carried off wholesale to Babylon, most never to return again.
So why did God allow this to happen? Was this some random of act of history He couldn’t control? Or some evil He struck on an innocent, unsuspecting people? Well, no. Many hundreds of years earlier, God has spelt out in the Law exactly what would happen if the Israelites kept on rejecting His grace and His mercy. And just in case they forgot, He sent prophet after prophet after prophet with exactly the same message, to repent and to avert the disaster that in the end would surely come. But the people did not listen. Indeed rather than welcoming these prophets, they persecuted, imprisoned and even killed them. That’s why in the end God allowed these events to happen. Not because He was helpless to stop them happening, or delighted in inflicting punishment. But because after about eight hundred years His patience had finally run out.
As Daniel says in verses 11-13:
11 All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. “Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you.
12 You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing upon us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem.
13 Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favour of the LORD our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth.
Brothers and sisters, is there not a lesson for us in our days? Now let’s be clear – the Bible tells us of all kinds of blessings for those who love and obey the Lord, and quite rightly we claim the promises we find of grace and mercy and forgiveness. But, and this is something we tend to forget – the Bible also tells us of what happens when we choose to ignore the word of the Lord, when we refuse to listen to the Lord and obey His commandments.
For example, a couple of weeks ago we heard these words from the third chapter of John’s gospel: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Familiar words, maybe, that we love and treasure. But we conveniently ignore the verse that comes a little later on: Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. If that is God’s word, then it tells us there are serious consequences for those who fail to believe. But do we actually take such a warning from God on board?
Again, I look at the church in our time and I wonder where are the people who really heed the promises and the warnings of God’s word. It seems to me, rather, that we have turned the love of God into a kind of excuse to justify any kind of behaviour and that we are more concerned to keep in step with the world than with than with the word of God. And until this attitude changes, I suspect we are not going to see the growth that we all long for and desire.
Daniel accepts responsibility for what has happened. He admits the truth of God’s word. But finally, and this is important to note, He appeals to the nature of God’s mercy.
Because, you see, when it comes to confession our focus needs to end up on God, not on us. Yes, we need to recognise our shortcomings. Yes, we need to recognise the truth of God’s word. But we don’t go through the act of confession simply in order to make us feel bad about ourselves or to leave us feeling judged and condemned. We go through the act of confession in order to turn back to God in humility and faith, trusting that in spite of everything He will still forgive us and restore us back to Himself.
But of course, the question arises, how do we know God will really forgive us? I know when talking to folk over the years, that’s a very real and very live question. They may have done something they think is so terrible, or they may so ashamed of something they’ve done, they are convinced there is no way God can forgive them. Oh yes, they can accept God can forgive some people, and some people might be good enough to receive forgiveness, but a fresh start for them? Surely that’s impossible.
If that’s what you believe this morning, then I want to challenge you to think again. Because when you go forward to the New Testament you find the story of a man called Jesus who died on a cross and rose again. Did Jesus just die for good people? Or for people whose lives are sorted? No, because actually there is no-one who is good enough or godly enough ever to receive forgiveness from a totally pure, totally perfect God. Yet the wonderful news of the New Testament – as the apostle Paul, a former murderer and persecutor, puts it – is that: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
So when we pray as Daniel did: O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! will God answer our prayer? The cross tells us, yes He will.
Now I could go further into Daniel’s prayer and explain further what He prays, but I think at this point it is important that we stop and apply all this teaching to ourselves this morning.
Today, God is calling you to accept responsibility for your actions. “Yes, Lord, I have sinned, I have been wicked and rebelled, I have not listened, I have not obeyed”.
Today, God is calling you to admit the truth of His word. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
Today, God is calling you to appeal to His mercy. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
So today, what response will you make? Will you dare to be a Daniel and come openly, honestly and humbly before the Lord your God and confess your need of Him? Because if you do, you will find there is more grace and mercy and forgiveness that you can ever imagine.