Molded Through Suffering

Has God’s ‘still, small voice’ ever failed to get through to you, and then what follows feels like you’re being hit over the head with a 2×4? If so then you’ll be able to relate to King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel chapter 4. The gentle approach didn’t work, so God had to shift to Plan B.

Join us this week as we learn from the mistakes of a King who is not so different from us.

Today we’ll be in Daniel 4 where we continue with the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s liberation from pride. Last time we learned that God is opposed to pride. And it’s not because God has a big ego, but because pride is anti-community and anti-servanthood and anti-love. We learned that God is the most humble being in the world — that the Trinity is the ultimate expression of humility and servanthood and submission. And because we’re invited to be part of that community, we said that as a church we need to declare war on pride. * We said we would acknowledge our dependence on God. * We would have a Daniel kind of conversation where we ask a friend to address our blind spots in the area of pride. * We would let God interrupt us at times with what Bonhoeffer called the ministry of interruptions. * And we would be kind to those Jesus called, “the least of these.” I don’t know how this last week went for you, but Nebuchadnezzar has a real hard time with this issue. Last week we saw that God tried one approach with Nebuchadnezzar and Nebuchadnezzar didn’t do so well. So God has to go to plan B. And I want to talk today about these two approaches that God takes because he takes them not only with Nebuchadnezzar, but with people like you and me as well. These approaches are very real, and it makes a huge difference which approach we respond to. In the first plan, which we saw last week, God seeks to reason with Nebuchadnezzar. Now, God always prefers this plan. I think one of the great statements in Scripture is in the Book of Isaiah where God’s people are being stubborn and unruly and defiant and God says to His people: Come let us reason together. Isaiah 43:26 That’s an amazing statement because God doesn’t have to do that — he doesn’t have to reason with stubborn, fallen people. He could just impose his will. He could have his way. But he pays us this amazing compliment of treating us as human beings and honoring our freedom. He appeals to our minds and our wills; and desires that we would choose what is good with an open spirit. Ron Wallace, an Old Testament scholar who writes on Daniel, says this approach, which God takes with Nebuchadnezzar at first, is like the parable of the sower and the seed. Jesus tells a story about a sower sowing seed. He says the seed is God’s Words, God’s thoughts, and the sower takes his little seeds and just scatters them everywhere. But it really depends on the “soil” — on the condition of our hearts — what will happen. Where our hearts are soft and open and uncluttered, where the soil goes deep, then the seed will bear fruit, and there will be amazing growth. Where the soil is shallow or hard, resistant, or real cluttered, the seed doesn’t have much of a chance. When the soil is hard — when your heart or my heart is hard — it closes itself off from God’s gentle offer to “reason together.” Now, that’s what happens in this story with Nebuchadnezzar. God is very clear about what Nebuchadnezzar needs to learn. Look at Daniel 4:17. The dream first comes to Nebuchadnezzar and the dream is recited. Then in verse 17: The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people. Daniel 4:17 Now, in case Nebuchadnezzar should miss that message, it’s repeated again. Look at verse 25. This is from Daniel now giving the interpretation of the dream. He says to Nebuchadnezzar: You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes. Daniel 4:25 Now in case Nebuchadnezzar is still unclear about it, look at verse 32: You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes. Daniel 4:32 God is not subtle or obscure about this lesson with Nebuchadnezzar. This is an open book test. Nebuchadnezzar knows what’s going to be on the final. God gives him this dream; it’s very vivid. Furthermore, God gives him Daniel, a wise, spiritual friend to explain the dream. And in verse 27, you remember from last week, at the end of his explanation Daniel says: Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue. Daniel 4:27 It may be. It depends, it all hangs, on whether or not the soil, Nebuchadnezzar’s heart, is open and receptive and responsive to the seed, to God’s reasoning with him. If he will receive this seed, let it take root, bear fruit, become a student in the school of humility, it may be that all will be well with him. Alright, let’s read on and see what happens. Verse 28: All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” Daniel 4:28-30 So God plants his seed and then God waits to see if it will bear fruit. From verse 29, how long does God wait? Twelve months. God gives Nebuchadnezzar a whole year. He’s so patient. Every day Nebuchadnezzar wakes up for a year. Every day he chooses to push this dream and its meaning out of his mind. Every day he says, “I will not bend my knee to this God. I will not do justice as He asks. I will not show kindness to the poor and to the oppressed. Not today. I’ll build my gardens and my palaces and my wall. I’ll spend my money the way that I want to.” * Maybe he thinks God is bluffing. * Maybe he thinks he’s clever enough to outsmart God. * Maybe he tells himself that one day he will pay attention, one day he will give God his obedience. But not today. He tries hard not to think about the dream at all. And I’ll bet he avoids Daniel for that whole year. Until one year later, the seed that God sowed in him is so dead that he’s become a complete slave to all the arrogance and self-centeredness that God so strongly cautioned him against. He gives it free reign. He’s unchecked in his spirit now. Therefore, God is going to have to go to plan B. And plan B is going to be much more painful for Nebuchadnezzar. For if people refuse to listen to God without pain, he will use pain if he has to. It’s never his first choice, but he will use it. It’s really up to the person. Nebuchadnezzar’s not the only example of this. This is quite a clear pattern in Scripture. There’s a story in the Bible about Jonah. God plants a seed — God reasons with him, gives him a word, “Go to Nineveh and proclaim the news that the people ought to repent there.” And Jonah resists. He hardens his heart, gets on a boat and goes the opposite direction. So God goes to plan B. Do you remember what it is? He sends a storm, Jonah is thrown overboard and he gets swallowed by a large fish. Now it’s a very effective attention-getting device. If you get swallowed by a large fish, it will get your attention. That’s plan B. I think of Pharaoh. You know when you stop and think about it, it’s pretty amazing. God sends Moses to reason with Pharaoh, to give him words: “Let my people go.” Pharaoh says, “No. I’m not going do it.” So eventually God goes to plan B. And if you know the story, you know plan B involves things like gnats, and frogs, and flies, and grasshoppers. Essentially the Midwest in the middle of summer. And Pharaoh never did submit to God right to the end. He resisted right through to the end. I want to pause here for a moment because God may be trying to sow a seed in you today. God’s been saying, “Come, let us reason together.” He does this in a gentle way. Maybe it looks like this: I read about a politician who was making an idol of his work. His heart was shriveling up, and he called his son one night and said, “I’m not going to be home to tuck you in tonight.” And this is the fifth night in a row that he was going to miss bedtime. And his son said, “Well, wake me up when you get home.” And the dad said, “No, I can’t do that. It will be too late.” And his son said, “Wake me up no matter what time it is because I just want to know you’re here. I just want to know you’re home.” And the father writes, “To this day, I can’t precisely explain what happened to me at that moment, but suddenly I knew I had to leave my job.” It was just a word. * Maybe God has been speaking to you through an uneasy conscience. And you’ve been ignoring it. * Maybe a friend has tried to tell you about a concern they have for you, like Daniel did with Nebuchadnezzar, and you’ve just blown it off. * Maybe there’s some area in your life where you’re not letting God be God. Where you’re not saying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” * Maybe it’s a pattern of deceit. * Maybe it involves sexual misbehavior. * Maybe it involves a lack of concern for the poor. Occasionally you hear a message about this and you know you ought to come clean, and get help, and turn around. You know you’re defying God. And you’ve been doing this now day after day, and week after week, and month after month. And you find if you just get distracted, if you just get cluttered — that feeling, that uneasiness, will go away. So I want to tell you right now. When God wants to reason with you, when God comes in gentleness with that still, small voice, don’t ignore him. It’s foolishness to ignore God. It just is. Maybe you think God is bluffing. He’s not. Maybe you’ve been saying to yourself, “Someday I’ll get around to giving God my obedience.” Listen to what Psalm 32:8 says about these two approaches. God says: I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle. Psalm 32:8 By pressure and pain. That’s plan B. “Don’t be that way,” God says. “You don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be treated like that.” But people do. And I’m just concerned because I think God may be saying to you, “Come, let us reason together. Let me sow a seed.” And you’ve been saying, “No.” You need to stop saying no. You need to listen to him and respond to him. Well, Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t. God’s so humble. Through the dream and through Daniel, God says, “Come, let us reason together.” Nebuchadnezzar says, “No. Not today. Not me.” So God goes to plan B. And plan B involves much more drastic measures. This is going to hurt. He sends Nebuchadnezzar on an involuntary sabbatical. He’s going to lose his throne, his wealth, his community, even his sanity. God will have to use some pressure and some molding to reshape Nebuchadnezzar’s character. Now the image here is the image of a potter who’s working with clay. And I want to make this real visible today so we’re going to watch a video; and then I’ll read a passage in Jeremiah. Video: The Potter’s House Jeremiah 18 is a classic passage about this picture and was written precisely in Daniel’s day. Israel had been disobedient, they had refused to reason together with God, and their exile was part of the way God was having to deal with his people to gain their attention. Jeremiah 18:1 says: This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand. Jeremiah 18:1-6 This is a classic passage on God taking the approach with his people of a potter working with clay. In this kind of metaphor, the clay stands for you and me. And the potter stands for who? God. Now, when it comes to doing pottery… I’ve had a little experience. I’ve done some work with play dough when my kids were little. Does that count? I know how frustrating working with play dough can be. I remember trying to create stuff and it rarely turning out the way I intend it to. And this text talks about the idea of a potter working on something that doesn’t turn out right. With pottery you get to a point where just a touch here or there is not going to help it become what you want it to be. And when that happens, you have to take the piece of clay and start over with it. And do you know what happens with the clay when a potter starts over with it? He smashes it. He presses it together with a lot of force. He molds it around again to get it to where it’s workable again. Then he slams it on the wheel and starts over. If you work with children you understand this dynamic when it comes to working with human clay. A good parent, when you think about it, always prefers to use reason with the child. A good parent always prefers plan A. Both because it’s gentler, and because the best option is for the child to willingly choose what is right and good, rather than having it forced on them. A good parent always prefers to use reason. Let me ask you a question: Does an appeal to reason always work with a child? Is it always effective to say to a 3-year-old, “I earnestly appeal to your better nature to stop pulling your sister’s hair. This could cause physical and psychological pain and require therapy one day.” No. 3-year-olds don’t always respond to reason. This is why parents need things like time-out chairs and grounding privileges and tranquilizers and stuff like that. A truly loving parent knows sometimes you have to go to plan B. You have to tell a child they’re going to need to spend a little time on the potter’s wheel. They’re going to feel a little pressure. And the writers of Scripture talk about this dynamic. This is Hebrews 12. The writer says: My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” … For what children are not disciplined by their father? Hebrews 12:5-7 You see, this discipline, this molding process, is not always pleasant — not for the clay, and not for the potter either. I was listening to a podcast abut parenting. The approach was — “Parenthood is essentially about lowering your standards.” And that’s kind of understandable, isn’t it? Because to discipline and mold and shape a life is hard work. It would be easier to say, “Just let it slide. Let their characters slide. Let bad habits go uncorrected. Let potential go unfulfilled. Lower your standards.” I think the same thing is true for a potter. Sometimes the potter is not gentle with the clay. I think if clay had feelings it would complain when the potter decides to slam it down on the potters wheel. The clay probably doesn’t want to be remolded. The clay would probably say. “Would you consider lowering your standards? Could you just accept a few flaws and imperfections?” You see, if the pot doesn’t matter — if I’m just making an ashtray with play dough, then I’ll accept any number of flaws. But if it matters, if it’s going to be a work of art in the hands of a master craftsman, it’s going to take some molding and some shaping. You may be on the potter’s wheel right now, and it hurts. You’re tempted to pray something like this: “God, couldn’t you just lower your standards? Because this time on the wheel is too painful for me. So wouldn’t you just let my character go unchanged or let these habits go uncorrected? Couldn’t you just lower your standards?” I’m going to say more about being on the potter’s wheel in a few moments. Right now I just want you to understand… You are in the hands of a master craftsman who loves you more than you can know. So trust him. Just say to him, “Mold me, shape me. I put myself in your hands. I trust what you’re doing with me.” But don’t ask him to lower his standards. A great father would never do that. A great artist would never do that, because the vessel matters too much. It matters too much. That’s the lesson of the potter and the clay. Okay, now back to Nebuchadnezzar, because he’s going to go on the potter’s wheel. He resisted plan A so he’s headed for the potter’s wheel. He walks on the roof of his palace, looks around. “This is the great Babylon that I have built by my might for my glory.” Look at Daniel 4:31: Even as the words were on his lips, God wants to ensure that Nebuchadnezzar makes the connection between what he just said and what he’s about to experience. He wants Nebuchadnezzar to go through some real-time humility. Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Daniel 4:31 You’ve probably had an experience when you were humbled and it was painful, but it put who you are in perspective. Well, Nebuchadnezzar is going to set a new standard in this regard. A voice comes from heaven in verse 31: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.” Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird. Daniel 4:31-33 Think about that. He had the greatest palace in history. He built the premiere city in the world, and hanging gardens, one of the ancient wonders of the world. He did it all on the backs of the poor while they suffered and were enslaved and died, but he never saw them as anything but tools — and now he’s one of them. He would not listen to God so he ended up on the potter’s wheel. And now he’s homeless. And I wonder if the thought ever occurred to him, “What did I ever do for the homeless when I had the opportunity to do so much for them?” He used to brag about how he had Ph.D.s from Harvard working for him, wise men at his beck and call. Now his whole world is just confusion and darkness. Men, whose fathers and brothers he killed for his walls and his gardens and his palaces and his battles, now laugh at him or pity him. Mothers shield their children’s eyes so they won’t have bad dreams from the very sight of him. This is his life now, on the potter’s wheel. Day after day. Week after week. How long does it go on? “Seven times,” the writer says. We’ve already seen how in ancient times, in the book of Daniel in particular, “seven” is used as a metaphor for “a lot.” — * “But the righteous stumble seven times.” * “The fool says that he is wiser than seven men that answer with discretion.” * “Make the furnace seven times hotter than usual.” How long is seven times? We don’t know, it might be seven years. But the primary idea is — “as long as it takes.” And how long will it take? We don’t know. But the potter knows. The potter has impeccable timing. As long as is required for Nebuchadnezzar to walk in the shoes of the weak, and the poor, and the uneducated, and the unattractive, and the unconnected, and the despised — those that he had never seen. Until he learns to see them, until he begins to learn something about compassion and wisdom, which for all his supposed greatness, he had very little of. Until it comes to dawn on him that all he had before, that he thought was the result of his might and his power and his glory, it was all just a gift. He didn’t deserve it. He never earned it. He could lose it in a heartbeat, and would one day stand accountable to God. It would take as long as it took for him to learn, because he insisted on learning the hard way. He had to learn about the one qualification that God was looking for in his heart, and it was the last thing he expected. Look back at verse 17. You might not have noticed this; this is quite remarkable. Verse 17: The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people. Daniel 4:17 The Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of the earth, gives them to anyone he wishes, and sets over them the lowliest people. What does that mean — the lowliest of people? Does it mean people who are low functioning or have a real low IQ? Not necessarily, although God can use anyone. It’s precisely what Jesus talks about when he says: Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave. Matthew 20:27 It’s the law of the kingdom of God. Greatness in the kingdom is defined by servanthood. It’s what we see in the “lowliest man,” in the biblical sense, who ever lived — the carpenter from Nazareth who humbled himself to the point of death. Therefore, God has exalted him above every name. And at the name of Jesus, one day every knee is going to bow, and one day every tongue is going to confess — including Daniel’s tongue and Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego’s tongues, and one day old Nebuchadnezzar’s tongue — that the lowliest of all is in fact the Lord of all. Nebuchadnezzar is going to have to stay on the potter’s wheel until he learns about life in the kingdom. And not just that he intellectually learns about it, but that he wants it and submits himself to it. And I’ll tell you the turning point for it. This is always the turning point for people on the potter’s wheel. Verse 34: At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven. Daniel 4:34 Now understand when he uses that phrase, he’s not just saying, “I happened to glance up at the sky.” This is not just about where he was directing his physical gaze. Nebuchadnezzar is saying: “Finally. I was SO consumed with myself, never really saw anything or anyone but me, never really saw anything to do but my agenda, never was really impressed by any glory but my glory. I, Nebuchadnezzar, finally looked at the one whom I had been avoiding my whole life. “Deep down inside I knew I had been displeasing him all along, but I did not want to face it. I did not want to face him. “Finally, after all that time on the wheel, as long as it took to understand the nature of the kingdom and my place in it, finally, I raised my eyes toward Heaven. “Finally I looked with my heart and soul and mind and strength. I looked to God because I had nowhere else to look. I went to God because I had nowhere else to go. I raised my eyes toward Heaven. I realized he was my last, best, and only hope.” And, of course, that was all God was waiting for. It’s such an ironic thing. When Nebuchadnezzar was on top of the world, ruler of the planet, an empire builder, God was deeply distressed by his heart and his life. God was not impressed by Nebuchadnezzar at all. And now despised, humbled, homeless, broken, insane, he raises his eyes towards heaven and finds a father who loves him with an irrational love and has been waiting all this time — seven times — for his son to come home. * Maybe you’re on the potter’s wheel today. * Maybe you messed up really bad in some area of your life, maybe for a long time, and you’ve been paying a price. * Maybe you’ve been wrestling with the wrong attitude, with something that was blocking your heart, and now you’re experiencing brokenness. * Maybe you’ve damaged another person badly and you know it, and consequences have been severe for you. * Maybe the truth is you’ve been building your own kingdom. * Maybe it involves your job, maybe it involves school. But the truth is, you’ve really been building your own little Babylon and now it’s all falling apart. * Maybe you don’t even know why. Maybe you’ve done nothing wrong, you’re just experiencing pain because that often happens. I believe God wants us to know today — When we hit bottom, we need to look up. We need to raise our eyes toward heaven — our last, our best, and only hope. This is a remarkable thing to me. Nebuchadnezzar looks up, his sanity is restored, and then his immediate response is to praise God. He said: At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. Daniel 4:34 This is a real striking thing to me — he doesn’t respond to this experience, to these years by saying, “I can’t believe all the years I’ve wasted; I’ll never recover from this humiliation and embarrassment.” All this time he’s spent out of his mind. This whole era of his life, which he’ll never get back, is gone. And there’s no expression of regret or despair; just worship and praise and joy. Why? Because now he understands. Now he understands that nothing is wasted in the hands of the Father. Nothing — not a day, not a moment. So if you’ve been on the potter’s wheel for a while, if you’re really ready to submit, to raise your eyes towards heaven, to say, “Alright, God, I’m in Your hands,” then all these years, which, from the outside, look like a total loss of power and influence and opportunity, are in fact the greatest gift you’ve ever received. It’s not a loss at all because nothing is wasted in the hands of the Potter. Alright let me pray for you and then we’re going to sing to him, to the Potter, in just a moment. Blue Oaks Church Pleasanton, CA