Well, if you're a new student here, I wonder what kind of week you've had. I once asked a first-year that after this Welcome Service. And he said, 'It's been quite a chequered one. I set the hall kitchen on fire and we had to call 999.' So I said, 'What were you doing?' And he said, 'Cooking pasta.' So I said, 'Don't tell me you let it boil dry?' And he said, 'No I didn't realise you had to put water on it.' How do you get to be eighteen and into uni without knowing that? Doesn't that come up at interview any more?
Well, my memory of my Freshers' Week is that I was glad when it was over. Not because I'm unsociable, but because all the events had three ingredients which made socialising pretty impossible. One was such loud music that you couldn't hear anyone. Another was so much alcohol that what you could hear was incoherent. And the other was the pressure to get into bed with someone – which is the worst way of trying to get to know people.
So I don't know how you've found it. But if you're a new student, I do know that you've just been uprooted from home, and transplanted into a totally new place – where on the one hand you've got massive freedom to do what you want; and on the other hand you've got a whole lot of pressure trying to make you conform and do what other people want you to do. So my question in preparing this was, 'What part of God's Word speaks to your situation?' And the answer came back: Daniel 1. Because if you're a student, Daniel was your age. And he'd been uprooted from a home environment shaped by the Bible, and transplanted to exile in Babylon – which, in our terms, was the most 'non-Christian' place he'd ever been. So we're going to ask Daniel 1 to answer the question, 'How can I make a wise start, or re-start, to student life?' And the rest of us can translate the answer for our own situation.
So would you turn in the Bibles to Daniel 1, which says four things about living wisely in a non-Christian environment. And the first is this:
1. Trust that Jesus is Lord, Even When It Doesn't Look Like It (verses 1-2)
Look at Daniel 1.1:
"In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god."
So we're in the Old Testament – before Jesus. And God's people were living in Judah. But they'd been so unfaithful that, in judgement, God allowed Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, to invade them and take many of them into exile – including Daniel.
And in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin I've seen one of the city gates of Babylon, which Daniel would have walked through. Because it wasn't just the Brits who made off with things like the Elgin Marbles; German archaeologists did as well – including the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. And it's this huge entrance with walls coming out along a processional way, all in stunning blue brick. And along the walls are these lion figures trotting out – as if to say, 'We're coming to get you.' And Daniel had been got.
Well, look again at verse 2:
"And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into [Nebuchadnezzar's] hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God [in other words, things from the Lord's temple in Jerusalem]. And [Nebuchadnezzar] brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god."
And bringing things from the Lord's temple and sticking them in his own god's temple was Nebuchadnezzar's way of saying, 'My god has beaten yours.' And Daniel would have looked at the tiny minority like himself who did believe in the God of the Bible, and then at the Babylonian majority, who didn't – and yet who looked so strong and successful. And he'd have been tempted to think that the Lord was completely discredited.
And so will we be. For example, I remember one first-year saying to me at this time of year, 'It isn't the temptations of sex and drink that I've found hardest to deal with. It's the way I'm surrounded by people all living without Jesus – and yet looking so successful, and even like they're enjoying life more than we are.' And with some people predicting the decline of the church in Britain to zero, it can feel like secularism has won – 'My god (or not-belief-in-God) has beaten yours.' But look back to verse 2:
"And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into [Nebuchadnezzar's] hand…"
Which is a reminder that it was God who let the exile happen, as a judgement on his peoples' unfaithfulness. And in the same way, the decline of the church here is also God's judgement on its unfaithfulness. And that's why Christianity in our culture has shrunk. It's not because the gospel is untrue, but because the church has been untrue to the gospel. But where churches are being true to it, there's growth and life – look at South America, or Africa, or China.
And, anyway, we need to remember that numbers are not the measure of who's got the truth. So, yes, the majority around us don't trust in Jesus. But that doesn't change the facts – that he really lived, and really died on the cross for our forgiveness, and really rose again from the dead – to show that he's our rightful Lord and the Judge whom everyone's going to meet in the end.
And because those things – Jesus' life, death and resurrection – really happened, the gospel remains true whether 95% or 5 % of people believe it. The difference is that if it's only 5%, we need to be much more sure about why we believe it's true, if we're going to be confident and upfront about it. So if you settle here as your church, we won't assume anything of you; and one thing we hope you'll find is space to grow into your own convictions – because you can't live on your parents' convictions, or your brother's or your youth leader's. So whether you'd call yourself a Christian already, or you're still just thinking through whether you believe all this, you need to grow into your own convictions – so that you can trust that Jesus is Lord even when it doesn't look like it.
That's the first thing Daniel 1 says. The second is this:
2. Realise that the World is Out to Make you Conform (verses 3-7)
Look on to verse 3:
"Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skilful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king's palace [in other words, to serve the king], and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans [ie, Babylonians].
The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah."
So that was the equivalent for Daniel of starting at uni. And you can see the parallels.
For example, in verse 3 there's 'the nobility'. So they'd be like the well-off public school set who clog up Jesmond with their Minis and Fiat 500s. In fact, an article I read said that Newcastle is the top university choice for old Etonians (quote), 'because it's ideally placed between the grouse shooting of Yorkshire and the salmon fishing of Scotland'! I'm sure you took that into account in applying…
Then in verse 4 there's the parallel way that Daniel had been vetted for knowledge and learning: he'd done UCAS and got the grades.
And then in verse 5 there's the most obvious parallel – that 'they were to be educated for three years'. But Nebuchadnezzar wasn't paying their tuition fees out of the kindness of his heart. He was out to make them conform. He wanted to turn them into good Babylonians, programmed with Babylonian Values, who'd be loyal 'yes men' in his civil service.
And in the Bible, Babylon stands for the non-Christian world everywhere. And we need to realise: it's out to make us conform. How? Well, look at the end of verse 4 again – Nebuchadnezzar commanded his staff, 'to teach [Daniel & his mates] the literature and language of the [Babylonians].'
So first there's 'the literature of the Babylonians' – the stories and myths their culture was built on. And for us today that would include the story of evolution – which says, 'Once upon a time, there was no Creator who put you here – so there's no-one who defines what's right and wrong, so you're free to do whatever you want. And there's no-one who's made you a specific gender – so you're free to declare yourself to be whatever you wish – and so on, and so on.' No wonder that story goes so unquestioned in our culture – because it lets us do whatever we please.
And for us 'the literature of the Babylonians' would include everything coming at us from school, university, the electronic and print media, TV, films, the internet and social media. They're all powerful tools for making people conform, and we need to filter them critically all the time. And let me add that you also need to filter everything you hear here at church – don't suspend your critical judgment, but keep asking, 'Is what he is saying what the Bible is actually saying?'
And the same goes for 'the language of the Babylonians', as well, because language carries ideology, doesn't it? So just think of the ideologies behind these examples of language:
• 'Partner' – as opposed to husband or wife.
• 'Unwanted pregnancy' – as opposed to unborn human being
• 'Inappropriate' – as opposed to wrong
• 'Assisted dying' – as opposed to killing
• 'Them' or 'ze' – as opposed to he or she
And by trying to make us use its language, the world is out to make us conform to its ideologies.
So, language and literature make people conform – as do the far less subtle tools – like Freshers' Week and sports team initiation rites and so on. But there's one other tool that Nebuchadnezzar used – the third 'l': language, literature, but then also living standard. Look at verse 5:
"The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank."
Last year, the Queen spent £1.5 million on food for entertaining, with wine sometimes £60 a bottle. And that's the kind of thing Daniel was getting. Which was a dream compared to Castle Leazes food; or self-catering pasta (with or without water). But the danger is that we'll conform either to get or to protect our living standard – our comfort.
I've quoted before from the journalist Peter Hitchens – who's an atheist-become-Christian. And he says Britain is now worryingly like the Soviet Union, where he worked for many years, because a kind of state atheism and morality is being imposed by Government. And Hitchens says they don't make us conform by threatening our lives (Soviet style), but by threatening our livelihoods – our jobs and therefore our living standards. Quote: 'It's becoming particularly clear to those who work in the public sector that there's no job security… if you will not conform, especially to the… Equality Act [which is the new morality being enforced on us].'
So that's the second thing. Realise that the world is out to make you conform. It doesn't want you reminding it that Jesus is Lord. So it'll try to make you live as if he isn't.
So how do we avoid that? Do we just retreat into a Christian 'bubble'? Well, no – because the third thing Daniel 1 says is this:
3. Be Stuck into the World – But Draw the Line to Show Who Owns You (verses 8-16)
Look on to verse 8:
"But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself."
Now it isn't clear why he drew this particular line. Some say: it was because meat would have been non-kosher and against God's Old Testament law. But later in the book he does seem to eat their meat – and, anyway, God's law didn't rule out wine. So, others say: it was because the meat would have been dedicated to false gods – like Halal meat is dedicated to Allah during slaughter. But that would probably have applied to vegetables, too – and, anyway, it's not explicitly said.
What is explicitly said is that Daniel and his mates were being groomed to serve the king. Look at verse 5 again:
"The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king."
And eating the king's food and wine was a sign of ultimate allegiance to him. So I think that's the issue: Daniel saw that it would defile him in the sense that it would signify belonging to the king, lock, stock and barrel. Whereas the opposite of 'defiled' in the Old Testament is 'holy' – which means 'set apart for God', belonging to God, giving your ultimate allegiance to God. So I think that's why Daniel drew this particular line – to show that although he would serve the king, the king would never own him.
Now clearly there are some lines we must draw because otherwise, we're going outside God's will. For example, the Bible clearly says his will is that we don't get drunk – so we need to draw the line with alcohol very early on. But even when something is within God's will – like having a responsible drink – there are times when it may be best to draw a line and not do it, in order to say, 'My ultimate allegiance is to Jesus.'
So, for example, I have a Christian friend called Alasdair who played for the Cambridge University rugby team. And in post-match bar sessions, they'd always try to get Al to over-drink. So for a while, his 'Plan A' was to have just one pint and then stop. But his teammates would just pressurise him to have more – saying in so many words, 'You're obviously a drinker like us – so why not drink properly?' Which wasn't the message he wanted them to get at all. So he decided to go tactically teetotal – that was 'Plan B' – and he only drank Ribena and lemonade, which earned him the nickname, 'Ribena boy'. But it drew the line – to make it absolutely clear where his ultimate allegiance lay. Because he didn't want to look like someone who really wanted to be one of them but was held back by some funny Christian scruple. He wanted to look like someone who belonged to Jesus, lock, stock and barrel.
So: be stuck into the world – but draw the line to show who owns you. And the longer we leave it to do that in any new situation, the harder it becomes. So do it early. And if you've already messed up in that during this past Freshers' Week, then take that to Jesus, who died to forgive everything you'll ever get wrong, ask his forgiveness, and get going again.
Now drawing the line always carries with it the fear of how people will react, doesn't it? For example, if you won't do the initiation drinking games, the fear that they won't have you in the team. For Daniel it was the fear of Nebuchadnezzar getting wind of his stand, seeing it as disloyal, and executing everyone involved – which the rest of the book shows he was perfectly capable of doing to people who crossed him. But instead of giving in to fear, Daniel trusted that risk to the Lord – who upheld him in his stand. So look down to verse 9:
"And God gave Daniel favour and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, 'I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.'"
And yet, having said that, this 'chief eunuch' then seems to go along with it – or at least to turn a blind eye, which is all that Daniel needs. Verse 11:
"Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 'Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king's food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.' So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king's food. So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables."
So in chapter 3 you get the miracle of the rescue from the fiery furnace; in chapter 6, the miracle of the rescue from the lion's den. And here in chapter 1 you get the often-overlooked miracle that, after ten days on a vegetarian diet – nothing but lentils and Quorn – they're still outstripping everyone else in the gym. Which has to be a work of God!
Here's the last thing from Daniel 1:
4. Wait for the Lord to Reveal How Wise You Were to Side with Him (verses 17-20)
Look down to verse 17:
"As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.
At the end of the time, when the king had commanded that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar.
And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.
Therefore they stood before the king [in other words, entered his service].
And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king enquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom."
So they didn't just outstrip everyone else in the gym. They outstripped them in wisdom and understanding of life. Because they had a relationship with the Creator and Lord of life. So you can imagine that, back in Freshers' Week in Babylon, people had laughed at Daniel and his mates: 'What a bunch of weirdoes! Don't they know how to have fun?' But they're not laughing any more in verses 19 and 20, are they? – on graduation day, when Daniel and his mates get the top jobs.
Which is not to say that if you're a Christian you'll unfailingly come out with a starred first. But it is to say that if you walk through your student years in relationship with the Creator and Lord of life, you will have a better time than those who don't – however happy an exterior they present; and you will be better prepared for life than those who don't – however successful they may appear in limited spheres like academics or sport or whatever. Because you'll outstrip them in the wisdom and understanding of life – which is what really counts, and which only comes from knowing the Lord.
So while the world is wondering why on earth you side with him, wait for the Lord to reveal how wise you were to do so. And remember: that's a long game. So for example, plenty of people will be telling you if you're a Christian that you're missing out by keeping sex for marriage. And right now you might be tempted to believe them. But fast forward ten, fifteen years –and many of those people will be sadly damaged by the way they've played that side of life, and sadly less able (or even unable) to make a life-long commitment to someone else.
So, wait for the Lord to reveal how wise you were to side with him.
Well, to finish, look down at verse 21:
"And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus."
Which is the kind of verse we easily skip over, isn't it? It's easy to cry, 'Boring historical detail. Let's get on with chapter 2.' In which case you've just missed the punchline of chapter 1.
Because just think about it. Who was king at the start of the chapter? Who looked in control and invincible? And what culture with its values and ideologies looked to be sweeping all before it? Well, Nebuchadnezzar, and Babylon. And who at the start of the chapter looked weak and defeated and pitiable? Well, Daniel and his mates.
So now look at verse 21 again:
"And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus."
… who defeated Nebuchadnezzar's successor, overran Babylon, and made it part of his Persian Empire.
So do you see the point? By verse 21, where is Nebuchadnezzar now? Dead and buried. And where's Babylon's culture now? In the dust of history. So who was really wise? The people who sided with what looked in control and invincible and unchangeable? Or the people who sided with the Lord?
Remember that one day the culture and values (like so-called 'British Values') and ideologies (like LGBT etc) that seem so invincible right now will fall. And if you're a believer, remember that one day you will ultimately be with Jesus in his kingdom, after all other kingdoms and cultures have fallen. And on that day, above all, you'll know how wise you were to side with him.