Looking Up to Heaven
Looking Up to Heaven
A shattered Colossus
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelly tells of meeting a traveler from an "antique" land who describes the ruins of a great statue in the desert. The head, half sunk in the sand, lies apart from great stone legs still standing on their pedestal. The shattered face yet portrays a sneer of royal arrogance. Words on the nearby pedestal reflect the look on the statue's face:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
But beyond these words and relics the poet relates,
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The words of Shelly's fabled Ozymandias echo in Nebuchadnezzar's prideful claims in this fourth chapter of Daniel. Like the king in Shelly's poem, Babylon's king forgot that time and circumstance erode all the accomplishments of men, making pride absurd. Thirty-two years had passed since Daniel's first interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dreams had burst the king's illusions about this greatness. Now Nebuchadnezzar needed a reminder about the limits of his greatness and glory. One day he walked atop his palace, surveyed his kingdom and said, "Is this not the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty" (Daniel 4:30). He was asking for trouble. And what the king asked for, he got.
Months earlier Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of a majestic tree growing to wondrous heights. In the dream the tree was cut down and stripped of its branches at the command of a heavenly messenger. Only the stump remained, bound with metal bands and drenched with dew. Then, without further explanation, the mysterious messenger said, "Let him be drenched with dew like an animal in the fields, and let him have the mind of an animal for seven years, so that all the living will know only the Most High is truly King" (paraphrase of 4:16-17).
The dream terrified the king, and he again called for Daniel to interpret the vision. The meaning was as simple as it was scary. Daniel told King Nebuchadnezzar that he was going to have a great fall. He was going to lose his mind, believe himself to be an animal, and live in the fields drenched with dew until he acknowledged that God alone is sovereign. When Nebuchadnezzar ultimately regains his mind and rule, he plainly states what "the peoples, nations, and men of every language who live in all the world" are supposed to learn as a result of his demise.
The purpose of this trial is stated three times in chapter 4: "that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets it over the lowliest of men." Each of the three clauses of this key verse contains an essential truth God intends for us to take from the king's experience.
God is in charge; you are not.
The heavenly messenger first rendered his verdict so "that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men." The Most High God is the only true ruler of all kingdoms. We use the word "sovereign" to describe this kind of rule, and a number of Bible translations use that word to describe God's rule in this verse. God reminded Nebuchadnezzar that there is only one true sovereign, the King of kings. Though human power and glory may tempt us to believe otherwise, God's dealings with Nebuchadnezzar caution us always to remember that he is in control, and we are not.
Our smarts, our abilities, our accomplishments do not ultimately determine our futures or provide our security. This is, of course, a difficult truth for a proud and powerful man like Nebuchadnezzar to accept, but it is not much easier for most of us to accept. In a society where John Wayne, Harrison Ford, and Johnny Depp are heroes, independence and self-reliance become the idols of our pursuits. We want to be self-made men and women. We want self-sufficiency, autonomy, and control. From our youngest years we are taught to take charge of our own lives, to make our own breaks. Study longer, work harder, plan better than the next guy—that is how you get ahead. We all get the message: those who strive for excellence hold their destinies in their own hands.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with striving for excellence. God expects us to make good use of the gifts he gives us. But we should remember they are gifts. Talent, brains, and opportunity mean nothing apart from God's provision. If we begin to trust only in what we can achieve—to believe that we are the sole cause of our success—then all around us life will begin to whisper of the foolishness of our faith in ourselves.
From the time my parents were married until I was married and having children, my father worked for only one company. As a highly skilled farm manager, he turned failing farms into profitable ones or managed farms for absent landowners. He remains one of the smartest, hardest working, most honest men I know. I do not mind bragging on my father. He climbed the ranks in his company from staff writer to high executive. For thirty years my father excelled. He was tops in his field, secure in his work. Then the company owner retired.
At his retirement, the owner sold his company to a large corporation that had no place for many long-term employees, including my father. After thirty years of service and achievement, my father was without a job. Decisions made entirely apart from him, actions taken over which he had no control, controlled him and stole his security.
Still, my father is an intelligent, resourceful man. He offered to purchase an "unprofitable" region from the corporation, so he could manage it his own way. They agreed to the deal, and my father set up his own company. The operation quickly turned a profit. In one year he made more money than he had ever made before.
One reason for this near instant success was my father's ability to get the management contract for a huge farming operation near Springhill, Tennessee. The name of this small Tennessee town may sounds familiar. General Motors set up the multi-million dollar Saturn automobile plant there. My readers can guess which tract of land GM purchased on which to construct the plant. That's right! They chose the farm that had become the backbone of my father's new business.
For the second time, my father had security and success taken from him by forces over which he had no control. He was no less intelligent, able, or hard-working than in the thirty years previous, but he was made to realize—as were all in our family—that no one is truly in charge of his own destiny. And we were not the only family to have to face this hard truth. Because of economic realities, GM eventually shut down the Saturn plant, putting many hundreds more out of work. From line workers to the nation's most respected business leaders, we all learned that there are forces larger, more complex, more hidden than any person can control. As much as we may want it otherwise, and as often as we may think otherwise, we are not ultimately in charge. Only God is sovereign.
God uses the experience of Nebuchadnezzar to declare the unreliability of all the human means we may use to assert our sovereignty. The king thought his power, wisdom, and accomplishment were a hedge against the insecurities that face us all. God refuted the sufficiency of each. We can never know enough, do enough, or have enough to have ultimate control over our lives.
Nebuchadnezzar thought his great power made him sovereign (4:30). He forgot how fragile all human greatness is. In twelve months this king went from having power over the world's greatest dominion to not even having power over his own faculties. God merely stirred Nebuchadnezzar's thoughts, and the life of the king fell apart. A mental disease made him into a wild animal. All his political and military power meant nothing when the true Sovereign of all acted. The greatest of human powers is more fragile than we often dare to consider.
Not only do small changes in our minds result in big changes in our lives, but small—even minute—changes have similar results. My favorite baseball team currently has one of the best players ever, Albert Pujols. He is so great because slightly more than every three out of ten times he goes to the plate, he gets a hit. Yet, the worst player on the team gets a hit slightly more than two out of ten times he bats. The difference between being a hero and a heel hinges on the slightest differences in human ability. Game changing plays occur because of flukes and failures. World changing battles are determined by weather and words misheard. Greatness based on human ability is the most fragile of commodities. Neither the physical power of the greatest athletes nor the political and military power of the greatest kings are reliable ways to control one's destiny.
Perhaps human strength is not our first resort in difficult situations. We may be wise enough to see the fragility of our power but believe that wisdom will grant security. Words in relief on the Chrysler building in New York City declare, "Wisdom and knowledge are the stability of your time." We can easily be convinced that superior smarts will rescue us from the insecurities of the world. Nebuchadnezzar surrounded himself with the wise and learned so that he had expert advice for all contingencies. His security, at least partially, rested upon human wisdom.
The problem with human wisdom is always its limits. Nebuchadnezzar's wise men could not answer all his questions, nor can our wise men. Whether they come in brokers' suits, doctors' scrubs, or with attorney's fees, we don't know enough to be certain about much of anything. Investors, who spend millions yearly getting expert market analysis have certainly discovered the limits of human wisdom. Until recently we thought our home values would always go up. We thought Lehman Brothers were the smart guys, and Warren Buffet could not be outsmarted. We thought that "Black Monday" would not come again. We were told the Great Depression could not occur again. Despite all of our timing, subscribing, and consulting, we discovered we were spectators rather than players in the world of finance.
Those of us who do not play at high altitude financial pinnacles nevertheless face the same insecurities. I recently visited parts of the country both in the south and in the west where housing starts have gone from thousands per month to zero per month, where former owners of multi-million dollar mansions are shopping at Goodwill. I have been to parts of the world where tsunamis and hurricanes and earthquakes have undone the financial plans of the most savvy investors. I have friends whose home foundations have cracked, whose neighborhood has become a chemical dump, or whose walls have been infested with toxic mold. Through all this I have come to the certain conclusion that no one knows for sure what will secure our money or our health or our future. We are all just playing the percentages and hoping that we have been wise enough to guess right. No one can plan for all the contingencies. We try to do the best we can with what we know, but we know we never can know enough. There is no security in human wisdom. No one can prepare for all the possibilities.
When most of us consider the fragility of our abilities and the limitations of our wisdom, our response is to do what we can to beat the odds. We resolve to "get while the getting is good." Since nothing is secure forever, we do what we can while we can to prepare for hard times. We try to mass up enough of this world's goods and favors as protection against potential setbacks. We begin to look for security in accumulation. Like Nebuchadnezzar, we may begin to survey all we have been able to build to give us assurance of our security. The trouble is no one can ever amass enough to protect them from all of life's vagaries. Mike Tyson is broke. Evader Holyfield is broke. Months before he died, Ben Edwards, the legendary Christian leader of A.G. Edwards investment company, was interviewed by the St. Louis Business review. He revealed that his investments had been reduced by a factor of ten. "So I don't struggle as much with the temptations of wealth," he said. These men learned what we all know deep down inside: you can never have enough to make you secure.
It's so obvious that our accumulations will not secure us, but even in the church, our actions reveal that we think security comes in heaping up what we can. The more we accumulate, the more frantically we try to hold on to our wealth. We heap up accomplishments only to discover we are building mountains with marbles. The more we add, the more we fear that it will all roll away. So, as strange as it may seem, the wealthier Christians become the less likely to give to God's work. Internal Revenue Department statistics released a few years ago indicate church members who earned $25,000 or less per year gave an average of 6.7 percent of their income to the church. At the same time, members who earned $100,000 or more gave less than one percent. The overall average giving percentage for evangelical Christians in the United States—the most affluent nation the world has ever known—is 2.5 percent. It seems the higher we climb on our mountains of accumulation, the more tightly we hold to our marbles. We apparently do not feel more secure because the marbles are piled higher. We act like such children in the way we cling to our wealth as Christians. We strive to heap up things that will make us more secure only to discover our situations feel no less perilous.
We can be more like Nebuchadnezzar than it is pleasant to confess. If our abilities or hard work have resulted in success, we may believe our security is due to our efforts. We, like Nebuchadnezzar, may scan what we have built, whether it be in terms of academic, commercial, professional, or church accomplishment, and admire what we have done by our ability and wisdom. We've done it! But, that's never the whole picture. We must remember how the events behind our successes fell into place. We had to be in the right place at the right time. Someone opened a door or helped us along the way. If we are honest, we can imagine how a different person here or a different circumstance there would have made all the difference. Although it is difficult to confess that we are not really in charge of our lives, this is a confession God and honesty require.
God gives; we do not gain.
Nebuchadnezzar's life contains a second lesson: not only does he teach us that God alone is in ultimate control, but he teaches us that God must grant what we cannot gain. When we begin to see that human power, wisdom, and accomplishment ultimately cannot account for worldly success, a typical response can be to look for something else in us that will justify God's blessing. Pride still wants the cause of success to be something in us.
The particular temptation of Christians is to explain our success by our goodness. To explain our accomplishments, we credit our moral or spiritual superiority. We reason, "If success is not by might nor by power, then it must be by my righteousness." God answers through Nebuchadnezzar to make it plain that our achievements are not by our might nor by our righteousness but by his grace. The seventeenth verse of this chapter of Daniel continues, "… the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will …." God not only proclaims himself sovereign, he also declares that he grants kingdoms to whomever he wills. There is no human factor. God provides as he determines best. The Lord uses our obedience to bless us, but he is not obligated by our obedience to grant us earthly success.
An honest assessment of our lives in comparison to those around us should reveal the truth about the significance of human goodness in earthly success. If we have accomplished anything, it requires very little reflection to recall worse people who have done far better—and better people who have done far worse. If we hold up our righteous works before God and say, "For these I am blessed," we speak as fools and against Scripture. The Bible says even our best works are only filthy rags to God (Isaiah 64:6). Because of their mixture of human motives and limitations, when we have done all the good works we should do, we are still unworthy servants of God (Luke 17:10).
If we were so foolish as to claim that our accomplishments are because of our moral superiority, then the one who could laugh the loudest at such a claim would be Nebuchadnezzar. He was the richest, most powerful man of his time, the king of earth's kings. He was on top of the world. Was it because he was morally good? Hardly. He was a wicked, cruel, vindictive man. His life should make it clear that there is not a cause-and-effect relationship between human goodness and earthly success. For his purposes God blesses as he knows is best. He is committed to taking care of the godly, but—as we have seen earlier in this book—the godly know that this life is not God's only opportunity to bless. The only explanation for earthly success is God's gracious provision. We never gain as much as God gives.
Grace lies not only behind material accomplishments but behind spiritual attainments as well. God grants Nebuchadnezzar more than an earthly kingdom. By the end of this chapter, this king praises, exalts, and glorifies the King of heaven. Nebuchadnezzar speaks as a child of the kingdom of God. A pagan king gets to claim the truths of God's kingdom. Why? Why did God reach down to touch Nebuchadnezzar's heart and turn him toward heaven? Was the king morally better than his subjects? Had he done more good? No, the answer is definitely not. Spiritually, Nebuchadnezzar was a wretched, pagan tyrant. There was nothing in Nebuchadnezzar that made God deal graciously with him.
This truth of God's unmerited mercy to one who possesses no apparent good in himself is gospel gold to mine in the Book of Daniel. God makes a pagan king a member of heaven's family by grace alone. The same must be true for us. We become members of God's family simply because of his mercy. Despite our sin and guilt, he loves us. He gives the kingdom to whomever he wills despite their unworthiness. No one is worthy or deserving of the kingdom of an absolutely holy God, and yet he claims us. If we have any standing before God, it is because of his grace alone. This may not be a truth we want to hear on our good days, when we are confident of our apparent achievements, but it is a truth we desperately long to hear on our bad days, when we are sure of our spiritual failures. When shame dominates more than success, we must not forget God loves us because of his grace and not because of our goodness. On our bad days, our lives may depend on whether we remember his grace.
Some time ago a young man who had struggled with life-threatening depression years earlier phoned asking to visit. For much of his life, this young Christian wrestled with immorality. His struggle was with a particular temptation which can capture lives and twist the personality. Yet, by diligently seeking the Lord through biblical counsel, my friend had gained victory over his sinful lifestyle. But he called unexpectedly asking to see me again, and I could tell from his tone that there was a problem. He told me the story soon after he arrived. After much accomplishment, he had experienced some financial and family setbacks. His business began to fail, and with the increased pressure his family life deteriorated. His world seemed to be collapsing. The pressure became so continuous, so intense, that he felt he had to find some relief. He sought escape in his old lifestyle. He fell. He fell hard and deep into the old perversity. This time the sin seemed even worse because of his abandonment of the Lord's victory.
My friend confessed all this with great grief and many tears, but the despair I anticipated was absent from his voice. This one for whose life I had once wrestled now spoke of his greatest failure without words that made me fear for his safety. The reason soon was evident.
Following the agony of his confession came words filled with wonder. He explained that since his sinful relapse, he had felt the presence of God more closely than ever. He had found the sin so unfulfilling to his new nature that he knew now it had no more hold on him. He felt free from its grip for the first time in his adult life. His circumstances were also improving on all fronts. He had a new job. The job led him to a new home away from past temptations. As financial pressures eased, family relationships were healing. He even explained that he was able to see and relate to people at church in a way he previously could not fathom.
My friend's self-image, his business, his family life, even his worship, had all improved from the moment of the worst sin of his young life. He was amazed. "Bryan," he said, "it's not supposed to work this way, is it? I betrayed you and all you tried to do for me. I failed God. I turned from his victory in my life. And now, all he is doing is blessing me, and blessing me, and blessing me. How can this be?"
I had the privilege of telling my friend what we all must learn again and again in our Christian lives: "When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:4-5). God's love is not conditioned on our goodness. He does not call us his own because we have been better than others. God loves us simply because he loves to do so. This does not mean we should believe we can sin without consequence. It does mean that God will do whatever is necessary to bring those he loves into fellowship with himself. He may use discipline, as he did with prideful Nebuchadnezzar, to turn us from the consequences of sin. Or, God may use inexplicable mercy, as he did with my young friend to Christ's embrace. But whether God's means are hard or gentle, his motive is always love. Neither Nebuchadnezzar nor my friend deserved God's grace, so God granted what they could not gain through the means he knew was most appropriate for each heart.
My friend had the great privilege of knowing for certain what it takes so many Christians a lifetime to discover: God loves his children because they are his, not because they are holy. They never could be holy enough to merit his love. When they try to become holy enough for him, tying his love to their goodness, they inevitably become hard and cynical. Like children who believe their parents love them only when they are good, Christians who believe they are loved because of their righteousness grow bitter and resentful.
Persons who believe their heavenly Father's affection is conditional, obey him to earn his blessing but they do not like him very much. They honor his standards, but their hearts are far from his. Their assurance of God's love rests on the belief that they are morally superior to those around them. As a result they become judgmental, bigoted, suspicious of other's motives, and the cruelest of gossips. They must always compare themselves to the faults and frailties of others to assure themselves God loves them, and the exercise hardens them in the worst ways. By trying to stand tall on the weakness of others, such people sink into pride. By experiencing God's affection despite moral compromise, my friend was spared such pride and came to know the gracious nature of God's love.
"Bill," I said to my friend, "you never again in your life have to worry if you have become good enough to get, or keep, God's love. Now you know that when you sinned your worst, God blessed you the most. When you were in your deepest, darkest pit of sin, he showed you his love most clearly."
God also showed his love to Nebuchadnezzar when he was at his lowest state. God claimed Nebuchadnezzar not when he was a ruling king, but when he was a raging animal. This sequence helps us remember that grace is not applied to those who have earned it. God is not waiting for us to reach him with the latest tower of Babel. Although pride and guilt both seek to convince us that we must climb to grace, neither speaks truth. When the king stood high boasting about his accomplishments, he knew nothing of God's salvation. Only when he was so humbled that his eyes could only look up to heaven for help did God make him whole.
We, too, must lift our eyes toward heaven and ask God to save us, because we know that we cannot save ourselves by our power, wisdom, or accomplishments. Standing on our righteousness is not helpful either. Although we may fear that God will abandon us because of our sin, we must let God's Word rule over our feelings. We can never do enough to gain God's love, but if we look up to him, even from a pit of misery that our sin has created, then his grace claims us. We do not have to climb to spiritual heights before God will love us once or love us again. God loves only because he delights to do so.
God has never shared his love on the basis of great potential or holy attainment. God chose Israel as his holy nation not because of its greatness, but because it was the most desperate of nations (Deuteronomy 7:6-8). God loved the Apostle Paul though he murdered believers (Acts 9:1, 15). God promised David the lineage of Jesus, knowing the young kid would sin greatly. (2 Samuel 7:11-16). God loved a cruel, pagan king named Nebuchadnezzar when there was no earthly reason to do so. If God so loved those whose lives were so disgraceful, then he can love us, too, though our sin is great. We must not think our sin destroys the love of God, or else, when we need his strength, support, and forgiveness the most, we will suppose him far from us. Our sin is not greater than God's love. We may hold him at arm's distance, but his arms are always outstretched to receive believers.
Of course there are those who believe that if we will teach that God only loves the good people, then believers will be spurred on to greater holiness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Obedience provides for the greater experiencing of God's love, but human obedience does not produce more of God's love. Whenever believers seek to earn God's affection, they focus more on their works than on his work. By making good works the warrant for God's love rather than the result of his love, they ultimately diminish the necessity of the Cross and the redeeming love of the Savior. By depending on their holiness, they deprive themselves of its one true source. Holiness and true righteousness spring from hearts fully aware of the mercy of God. The strongest testimonies come from the most grateful people. Those most grateful are ones humbled by the realization that though they could never gain God's favor, he grants it.
So far Nebuchadnezzar's message is as humbling for us as the account is humiliating for him. Through the pagan king's fall, we learn that because only God is sovereign and grants his kingdom to whomever he wishes, we cannot stand proudly on our abilities or our goodness. When we have neither of these legs on which to stand, we could sink pretty low. But the ancient king is not finished. He knows there is no joy in lowliness, unless we read the remainder of verse 17: "… the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men."
The lowliest get the kingdom. Here is the encouragement our hearts need. No matter what a "low life" we may think we have become, we are not automatically excluded from God's blessing. If a "low life" like Nebuchadnezzar was granted the kingdom, there is hope for the lowliest of us.
No matter how great the sin
As a pastor I wrestle as much to convince believers that they can be forgiven, as I do to convince unbelievers they must be forgiven. Some have been helped simply by considering what a spiritual "low life" Nebuchadnezzar was. He was murderous, arrogant, materialistic, idolatrous, and an enemy of God's people. Yet God claimed his heart. Once the king acknowledged his lowliness before God, the Lord restored him (4:34). If God reached Nebuchadnezzar, he can reach anyone. Though we may have sinned greatly, we are not likely to have sunk as low in sin as Babylon's king. If God can reach a "low life" like Nebuchadnezzar, there is nothing that can stand between us and God's restoration, except a failure to confess our lowliness as this king did.
How deeply the truth of God's love for the "lowly" must penetrate hearts is revealed in the testimony of a young girl from early years in my ministry. She listened to the Gospel as it was presented to her by a college friend. She heard of the sacrifice of Jesus for her sins and, for the first time, faced the seriousness of her condition. Her guilt was overwhelming. Because of past sexual activity, she could not bear to think of approaching God. She said, "God can't love somebody like me. God shouldn't love me." Then the friend said, "It doesn't matter how great the sin, God's love is greater than all our sin." Suddenly the young woman understood what the grace of God really meant. The "lowliest" are loved by God. When we confess that our sin has brought us so low that none but God can restore us, he lifts us up.
No sin is greater than God's love. No truth is more central to our faith. Yet, as familiar as are these truths, they seem remote when we sin. In the throes of our shame we wonder if God truly could love us. We may doubt if he should love us. But if we are ever to be truly whole, then we must recognize there is no sin we have ever committed, or can commit, that the grace of God cannot cover. The truth of God's matchless forgiveness must overwhelm our hearts, or we shall forever doubt him and fear our futures.
As the leaders of my church gathered together for an annual conference, a familiar song struck me with new poignancy. A thousand voices joined to sing "To God Be the Glory." The second verse of the song is this:
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood!
To every believer the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus forgiveness receives.
There is the truth we must always unite to sing. From that first second of repentance, and for all eternity, God's pardon covers the vilest of sin. We must never stop singing these words. Sin too quickly makes grace a faint echo and forgiveness a distant hope. Our hearts—and the hearts of hurting people all around us—easily despair without claiming this promise of God: There is no sin so great that God cannot pardon it.
No matter how hard the heart
Not only does Nebuchadnezzar indicate that God can forgive no matter how great the sin, he teaches us that God can heal no matter how hard the heart. Nebuchadnezzar was hardened to God's truths. He had heard of Daniel's God for years, but rejected the message. Do you know of such a person? Is there someone in your life who has heard the gospel of Jesus Christ time after time but never responded? This person is calloused against God's truths. And, if you really scratch deeply into your innermost heart and mind, you must confess you believe this person cannot be changed. You believe they never will accept the gospel; they are too hardened. You have given up hope of seeing change. You have stopped praying. Though it is painful to confess, to some extent you have even stopped caring. Whoever you might be thinking of, you must remember: it does not matter how hard his or her heart is. God can change hard hearts. If he could change Nebuchadnezzar's heart, God can change the hardest hearts.
A fellow instructor at my seminary told me recently how God had re-taught him the power of the gospel to change hearts. My friend's great-aunt died. A lifetime of selfish and careless living had long since hardened her to the gospel. When someone tried to share the message of salvation with her, she either scoffed or flew into a rage. Her heart was untouchable. Neither she nor any of her immediate family accepted any "religion." My friend assumed there was no hope for her.
After the aunt's death, the family gathered at her house one day to divide her personal belongings. In one box on a bookshelf someone discovered some "religious" books. Since my colleague was the only "religious" person present, the family quickly decided this box was part of his share. He took the books home, but they smelled so much of stale tobacco smoke and a stuffy house that he did not even want to touch them. He put the box of books in his attic and forgot about it.
A few months later, my friend went into the attic on some now-forgotten errand and stumbled upon the box of books. He took one out and was amazed to discover it was a very fine devotional guide. He took other books from the box. Each was a solid book for Bible study or devotions. While thumbing through a commentary on Ephesians, he came upon a handwritten letter pressed between the pages. The letter was written by the aunt and addressed to God. She wrote the letter as a result of her study of God's Word. In the letter she confessed her sins and Christ as her Savior. No matter how hard the heart, God can change it.
If God can bring Nebuchadnezzar to his knees, God can break the wills and win the hearts of our loved ones. So we must pray for the salvation of those God places in our care with the confidence that he is able to break the hardest heart. The battle may be long before it is won. As this chapter begins, it has been 32 years since Daniel first began his testimony of God in Nebuchadnezzar's life. Apparently Daniel had developed affection for the king in the intervening years (4:19), but still the ruler had not responded to Daniel's testimony. Another year passed between Daniel's interpretation of his dream and its fulfillment. Seven more years passed before Nebuchadnezzar lifted his eyes to heaven. A total of 40 years passed before the king responded to Daniel's witness. But the king did finally respond. The message for us is that we must not cease working and praying for a brother, father, spouse, or friend. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. It does not matter how hard the heart.
Me with you
A few years ago, a young pastor, fresh out of seminary, was asked to visit a dying man in a Washington, D.C., hospital. An aggressive bone cancer was eating away the man's life. He was not a Christian. On the few occasions when the pastor presented the gospel there was no spiritual response, but a friendship formed. Through a number of visits, the pastor learned that this dying patient was a remarkable, self-made man. He was raised in Spain by a loving mother who diligently taught her son the truths of faith. He only listened a little. The Franco regime killed his father, and because Spain's official church supported Franco, the boy spurned Christianity. He fled his country as a young teenager and came to America knowing no English. He worked hard and studied hard. He eventually went to college, med school, and then began a highly successful medical career. Despite his early disadvantages, he became skilled, wealthy, and a respected leader in our nation's most prestigious hospitals. He also became more convinced of his atheism. Then came the cancer.
In just a few months the cancer destroyed the accomplishments of a lifetime. His body, once kept in top shape by miles of daily swimming, was devastated. His skills also began to deteriorate with the advances of cancer. With his spirit broken and his body wracked with pain, the man ran out of pride and finally tired of his own answers. When the young pastor next visited, the despairing doctor confronted him: "I have treated depression all my life, but I have no answers for what I'm going through. If your God really has some answers, then you help me with the hell I am going through now. Give me some peace, if you can." The young pastor could hardly begin to think of what to say. He hesitated, grasped for the right words, and then stumbled forward:
"You've gained everything a man could gain in every avenue of life. You have wealth, respect, achievement. These all may have to be put aside before you gain this last thing you want. In every sphere of life you have succeeded, except the spiritual sphere, and to succeed there you must not follow any of the rules you have used before. You cannot conquer the spiritual world by your efforts. To gain spiritual success you must admit your helplessness and inability. You must confess you have nothing to stand on. To enter God's kingdom and know his peace, you must not come as a self-sufficient man but as a helpless child—you must not come as a lion but as a lamb."
Still there was no spiritual response. Little else was said that night. The man talked no more. A few days later the bone cancer progressed to the extent that the man's leg broke spontaneously as he lay in bed. The doctors had to operate to repair the damage despite their patient's weakened condition. On the eve of that operation, unbeknownst to his family, he wrote a note to the young pastor. In a labored scrawl he wrote in Spanish the words which he had memorized years ago at his mother's knee: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord … "—the words of the Apostles' Creed. The note concluded in English with these words: "Jesus, I hate all my sins. I have not served or worshiped you. Father, I know the only way to come into your kingdom is by the precious blood of Jesus. I know you stand at the door and will answer those who knock. I now want to be your lamb."
The man who wrote those words never regained consciousness after his operation. His life was lost, but his soul was won. God can change the hardest hearts and wipe away the darkest sin. He must do it, for we cannot. Our God calls us to put aside all we trust, take pleasure in, or have used to make ourselves worthwhile. He urges us to come to him as a helpless child and then promises us his kingdom forever. When we call to him, without trying to stand on our accomplishments or goodness, but humbled by his mercy for sinners like us, he responds. His voice is gentle and loving. His words echo our desires. He says, "Forever you are mine. The kingdom of heaven is for humble ones such as you."
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.