Worship in Exile – Sermon – 5 July 2020

Welcome

Welcome to worship this morning. This is the first Sunday since March that some of us will be experiencing worship together in the sanctuary. That said, we know that there are many who are not ready for this, and for so many reasons. We encourage you to follow your conscience on this matter. A team of leaders have worked hard to ensure that the sanctuary is clean and there are procedures in place to ensure your safety, prepared for when you are ready to join us. Until that time, we will continue to post services on-line and deliver to those who do not have internet access. You may notice that the services are a little bit different, however it is our intention to continue to make sure that everyone who wants to stay connected to their church family and worship has the opportunity to do so. As always, if you have any questions or would like to talk, please do not hesitate to contact me, Tracey or Laura, or anyone in FBK leadership. We hope that today represents a first step in the long process of getting back to sharing worship and fellowship together.

Prayer

We pray this morning to You, O Lord, from our scattered locations and times. Please hear our hearts together, and bless them, reminding us that we are Yours and no matter where we are or how downcast our souls may be, You are near and always will be.

We especially pray for those who are ill, and those suffering the most from the isolation of these days. Give us patience and love for them, even as we receive patience and love from them.

As we worship today, may we not focus on empty seats in the sanctuary, or even our own too familiar walls. Instead, may we focus our hearts on You alone.

In Jesus Name we pray, amen.

Song: How Great Thou Art (Carrie Underwood)

Message: Worship in Exile

Introduction

As I am writing these words, I am expecting that we will be beginning the process of moving back to worshipping together in the sanctuary. Even so, it isn’t certain that it will be this week! Living in uncertainty seems to be one of the themes of 2020! But even if we are back together, it will definitely not be “back to normal.” There will be only a fraction of our usual attendance, far more rules, a new tension in the air that seems to go with these times. Also, there will be no singing, no visiting in the hallways before or after the service, and no programs for children.

The truth is, our Sunday mornings will probably feel like a bit of a let down for quite some time. I expect it will be crystal clear to everyone that it isn’t over! The good thing is, our faith isn’t supposed to be just about Sunday morning anyhow!

Daniel in Exile

In the Jewish world of the Old Testament (as it is today), the Sabbath was on Saturday (the last day of the week) in accordance with the story of creation and the 4th commandment. And so, on that day the people would go to the Temple in Jerusalem if they lived close by, or to their local Synagogues if they lived further away. Their worship was not that different from ours (other than the fact that men and women were separated) as it included gathering, music, scripture reading, prayers, sermons and socializing.

That was the norm for much of the thousand plus years between the giving of the law and the establishment of the church, but it didn’t always happen. There were times when worship of God was not a priority to the Israelites, and there were times when it seemed to be almost impossible. Sometimes it was because most people had forgotten about God and had turned instead to the gods of their neighbouring nations. At other times it was because they were in exile – uprooted from their homes and sent far away.

My Experience with ‘Exile’

While I admit there are a number of critical differences between my own experience and the experience of exile, I do remember a little what it is like to be uprooted and placed far from home – although in this case it was completely my choice.

At the age of 18 I left home to attend Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. I remember thinking it was a far away place, when in reality it was just a little longer than a 1 hour car ride. Still, for those 4 years I didn’t come home most weekends (it was a much longer bus ride!). While my church attendance when at home on Sundays was very close to 100%, it was pretty dismal when I was in Waterloo. As a confession, I can only remember going a handful of times over the 4 years, and even then it was a quick, “get in and get out.”

You see, this was the first time in my life no one was forcing me to go to church, there was no expectations on me. It was my first taste of freedom and I exercised it by choosing to blend in with everyone around me rather than use this transitional time in my life to take my faith seriously. I am not proud of that choice, but it was an honest one at that time of my life, and God used it – as God does – to eventually help me to re-engage with church as a choice just a few years later. That said, the bottom line was that I chose to stay home and set God aside for awhile; a self-imposed exile from worship.

My choice to stay home was different from the choice we have faced over the last few months. Our experience has been more like a true exile – prevented from physically coming together on Sunday mornings.

But no one has prevented us from taking part in worship!

Reflect

Consider your response to our “exile from worship” over the last 3 months. Have you seen it as an opportunity to skip worship and do what you wanted? Or have you hungrily grabbed hold of worship in any form that you could because you knew you needed it in your life? Or has your experience been something in between?

Daniel

While there are a number of examples of life in exile in the Bible (Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus escaping Herod’s threat and hiding in Egypt; or the Apostle John on the Island of Patmos in his later years), the most clear example of life in exile from the Bible is given to us in the Old Testament book of Daniel. The Northern Kingdom had been defeated years earlier by Assyria, and eventually the Southern Kingdom was defeated and almost completely destroyed, with some of the best and brightest taken away to Babylon to serve their king.

In the first chapter of the book of Daniel we meet 4 of these young men (Babylonian names in brackets): Daniel (Belteshazzar), Hananiah (Shadrach), Mishael (Michach) and Azariah (Abednego). Over the first 6 chapters of this book, we see these devout young men living in a far-off land, showing us how they remained faithful to God, even when they were forbidden from worshipping together, or even worshipping at all!

Read Daniel 1:6-20

6 Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 7 The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.

8 But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. 9 Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, 10 but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your[a] 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.”

11 Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” 14 So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.

15 At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. 16 So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.

17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.

18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. 

The Four Friends and their Diet

In this initial account of their lives in exile, we see these young men facing the temptation to set aside God’s dietary laws. These laws were not just inconvenient (no Rabbi’s/Priests meant no kosher markets), it became dangerous for them to even try to comply. The 4 of them were under tremendous pressure to give in and conform, and given their circumstance it would have been tempting for them to believe that God would look the other way.

But rather than compromise on a commandment that they understood to be non-negotiable, they proposed to live on a vegetarian diet (which didn’t need to be officially blessed) rather than the more rich and nutritious food from the King’s table. Those in authority over them were concerned about this choice – but agreed to let them give it a try. The result was that they thrived on this more restrictive diet, and received it as a gift of God for their willingness to be obedient.

I wonder if there were more young men from Judah than just those 4. I wonder what they thought as they watched this unfold. I wonder if the 4 faithful friends felt the temptation to not make waves and go along with the much easier decision to conform. And not only that, I am sure that most of us would have seen this as an opportunity to take advantage of a great privilege and luxury.

Yet they chose to remain faithful to the law of God. A choice that was most likely one of a long line of choices made over the years. A choice that came out of their conviction that while they were called to be captives who served a foreign king, their primary calling of serving the One True God could never be altered. These convictions not only helped them pass this test, but would be a further foundation for greater tests to come.

We no longer live under the Law, but under grace. We have the freedom in Christ to eat whatever we want; to eat without fear of compromising our faith – even if it may compromise our health! But the point of this isn’t about our stomachs, it is about our hearts and souls. Even with all of our freedom, we still face a similar choice every day: Will we choose God over the immediate gratification of our lessor desires?

Sadly, we know that we don’t always choose God, even when we clearly know what He wants for us; even when we know deep down that our choices are hurting us. These 4 devout young men inspire us to live with integrity – to make choices that are consistent with what we say we believe.

Reflection:

Can you think of a choice you made that you knew was wrong, but you did it anyway? Quietly ask God to bring it to your attention, name it for what it is – sin, and through sincere repentance ask Him to forgive you.

The Tests Continue

The King’s Furnace

In Daniel chapter 3, the stakes are raised for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The text tells us that King Nebuchadnezzar had a huge 90 foot statue built and had commanded all of them to bow down to it, under punishment of death. The text tells us that the 3 friends refused to compromise their faith by obeying this decree, making the officials and the king so angry that they were ordered to be burned alive in a furnace. One of the most powerful words of Scripture are recorded in Daniel 3:16-18, words that reveal the depth of their convictions:

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego before King Nebuchadnezzar [FreeBibleImages.org]
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego before King Nebuchadnezzar [FreeBibleImages.org]

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and He will rescue us from your hands, O king. But even if He does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Those are pretty gutsy words to say to the king of Babylon – the most powerful man in the world at the time – especially when he is about to execute you! They didn’t plead with either God or the king for their lives, but were content to trust God, even in their deaths! When their years of choosing Him over and over again was put to this ultimate test, they chose God over expediency, over comfort, even over their own lives.

It is never a question whether or not to worship God when you believe in Him like that!

Reflection:

Have you ever found it easy to bow down to a false god? The gods of money, security, success, pleasure, popularity …? Could you remain faithful to God even if you knew He might not rescue you from the furnace? Is your faith an, “Even if …” faith?

The Lion’s Den

Daniel’s test in chapter 6 was similar to the 3 friends, but it was also different. In Daniel’s case, some jealous co-workers plotted to get rid him because they believed Daniel was being favoured – to their disadvantage. A law was drafted that seemed reasonable and advantageous to the king: anyone who worshipped a god other than the king himself was to be put to death.

This prohibition against worshipping his own God did not stop Daniel, and so he continued to worship the One God he had always worshipped. There were no temples or synagogues for Daniel to go to, and it appears he could have kept his worship a secret, but that wasn’t what Daniel did. Daniel continued to worship God in the way he always had, seemingly in plain sight for anyone to see.

In this case, the king ( the Persian King Darius now – there had been a regime change) would have rather not banished Daniel to the now famous lion’s den, but a law was a law and he was bound to it. Just as his friends did when they faced their imminent execution, Daniel did not deny the charges, or try to plead for his life. Instead he placed his hope firmly in the God he had refused to stop worshipping – no matter the consequences.

Daniel tells King Nebuchadnezzar that he is still alive [FreeBibleImages.org]
Daniel tells King Nebuchadnezzar that he is still alive [FreeBibleImages.org]

We who have known this story from childhood, know very well that God chose to shut the mouths of the hungry lions, much to the surprise of everyone except Daniel. We also know that those who had tried to manipulate the king into killing Daniel did not fare so well.

We need to remember that God would not have been proven any less powerful if Daniel had become a martyr that day. The point was that Daniel had given himself to His Lord, and there was nothing that could change that!

Reflection:

How about your faith? How about mine? Can we say that we would stand up for God even in the face of death? The truth is, we probably will never really know the answer to that question because we live in a part of the world where martyrdom is very rare. But it does happen to people every day. If you can, spend a moment putting yourself into the place of Daniel at the mouth of the lion’s den, or the 3 friends at the entrance to the furnace. What would you do? What would I do? And is there any way to become faithful followers of God like those 4 young Jewish men?

Conclusion

It has been good for us to be together today, but for those here in the sanctuary, let’s face it, it just isn’t the same. The music, masks, tension, lack of fellowship, no small groups, no coffee time together – it just isn’t how we want it to be, and it won’t be for a while to come. We are like the Israelites in exile.

But the same God who never abandoned the 4 friends in Babylon, is still present with us. He has never changed. And while things will continue to be difficult and often disappointing, it is still the same God we turn to in worship, whether we are together or alone.

The essence of worship is not just that we are together – that is a gift from God, but it isn’t the whole of the matter. The essence of worship is Daniel in his room choosing to pray to God even though there was the possibility of dire consequences for him; the essence of worship is Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to bow down to any God other than the One True God of heaven.

Our exile is real – this isn’t what we want and it isn’t how it will always be. But God is the same today as He was 3 months ago; and the same as He was 3,000 years ago! And so, whatever the circumstance, whatever the threat, whatever the size of the congregation, whatever the location – we are compelled to worship!

Song – Heart of Worship by Matt Redman

In the 1990’s, British song writer and worship leader Matt Redmond had found that while his church had become world famous for its’ original music, there was a feeling of staleness in their worship services, like something was missing. They had become consumers of worship music, rather than truly singing the songs as an offering to God. This caused the leadership to suspend music for a short while in this church that had become known for their songs and singing.

When they resumed singing, Redman wrote a song that told of how this time away from music had opened up a path to a much more meaningful future.

Sing the words of this song in your heart, as our closing prayer to God.

When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come.
 Longing just to bring something that’s of worth, that will bless Your heart.
 I’ll bring You more than a song, for a song in itself not what You have desired.
 You search much deeper within through the way things appear,
 Your looking into my heart.
 I’m coming back to the heart of worship and it’s all about You,
 It’s all about You, Jesus
 I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it, when it’s all about You,
 It’s all about You, Jesus.

Benediction

The Lord bless you and keep you,
The Lord make His face to shine upon you.
The Lord turn His face toward you,
And give you peace,
Amen