Working our way through the book of Daniel, we have reached the dizzying heights of chapter 9. This is one of the most argued-about chapters in the whole Bible. God speaks to Daniel, Daniel responds in prayer, and God answers the prayer in a very confusing way. Let us deal with the confusing part first, then work backwards through the chapter.
In verses 20-27, we have God's answer to Daniel. For many people, this is one of the most important passages in the whole Bible. I think they are mistaken, but the correct interpretation will have to wait for another occasion. Instead, we have time to make three brief observations.
God replies to Daniel's prayer. He does answer our prayers, and very often He does this by replying to what we say. Very often, we pray like Daniel and ask God to do something. And very often, the only answer we are prepared to accept is that what we pray for actually happens. Many people would have their prayer life transformed if they only understood that when we talk to God, He will talk back to us.
God's answer is bigger than Daniel's request. We don't have time this morning to look at how God's answer addresses Daniel's concern. What is clear is that Daniel prays about what has happened in the past and what needs to happen now, and God's answer is to talk about things that must happen in the future.
Daniel has to understand what God is doing here and now in the light of his wider plans. In the same way, what God does with you here and now and how He answers your prayers will only make sense in the light of His eternal purpose.
God's answer is obscure. People have argued about the meaning ever since. Sometimes God's word to us demands an immediate response, but sometimes what we have to do is to store up His word, remember it, and be ready so that when the time comes we can recognise that this is what He was talking about, and respond accordingly. Don't expect everything God says to you to make perfect sense here and now.
In verses 15-19, Daniel concludes his prayer.
15 Now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. 16 O Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our fathers have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us.
17 Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, O Lord, look with favour on your desolate sanctuary. 18 Give ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. 19 O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.
Notice why Daniel is praying with such confidence. When we pray, very often we try to convince God to answer this prayer because the need is so great and the person we pray for is so deserving. We are almost saying: God, I know You don't usually answer our prayers, but please make an exception is this case because so-and-so really deserves Your help and they really need Your help right now.
If anyone could pray that kind of prayer, Daniel could do so there and then. God's people needed a miracle to return them to the land, and the time of exile, according to God's own word, was now over. But that is not how Daniel prays.
Instead, Daniel acknowledges that they don't deserve a miracle: "We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy." He does not base his request on their need, but on God's reputation: "For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name."
Even in the best Christian circles, we need this reminder. We get confused between prayer and magic. Magic is an attempt to achieve what I want, to pursue my goals by supernatural means. Prayer is the way in which we can achieve what God wants, and pursue His goals.
In verse 2, we read:
In the first year of Darius' reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.
God has said the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. The seventy years were up, so what does Daniel do? Does he just sit back and wait to see God's purpose unfold? Of course not! Verse 3:
So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
Sometimes Christians confuse faith with fatalism. Fatalism says: God has spoken, it must happen, so I don't have to do anything. Faith says: God has spoken, it must happen, so I must play my part.
Faith recognises that God's purposes are achieved through human beings acting in obedience to God's words. God spoke to Daniel through the Scriptures. God spoke, and Daniel responded in prayer.
God does not speak to us to satisfy our curiosity. He does not speak to satisfy our desire to have answers to all the questions we dream up: He speaks so that we may act, either now or in the future.
What if Daniel had not responded in faith and prayed? We are not told, but I believe it was God's purpose to bring His people back to the Promised Land, so I suspect that He would have spoken to another, and another, until He found the response He was looking for. God's plans will be fulfilled - the question is whether you and I will be a part of those plans, or left somewhere on the sidelines.
I remember years ago, a speaker asking a question, or, rather, sharing a question. Talking about Mary, Joseph and the Christmas story, he said: I wonder if Mary was the first girl that Gabriel had approached? It's a thought.
If we are to understand Daniel's prayer, there is one question we need to be very clear about. Why had the Children of Israel been taken into captivity? In essence, the answer is very simple: they had ignored God's word.
4 I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed: "O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, 5 we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. 6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.
God's laws are not about individual piety, but about relationships - our relationship with God, and our relationship with other people. When we look at the ten commandments, the first four are about our relationship with God, and the next six about our relationship with other people. The laws are about worship and social justice. True worship is only possible in the context of social justice.
The same message is found throughout the prophets. We are all familiar with the passage in Isaiah 61, which Jesus quotes in Luke 4 and applies to His own ministry.
61:1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners...
When you come down to verse 6, the people who do these things will be called ministers of our God. You don't gain spiritual authority by being a good person or praying a lot - you get it by seeking to achieve justice for the poor.
I could spend all day just picking out passages that give this same message. Just one more will have to do: three chapters earlier, in Isaiah 58, we find the same connections being made.
6 "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter - when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
It is very simple: if you want God to answer your cry, you have to feed the hungry and loose the chains of injustice. If you want God to treat you as though you matter, you have to treat other people as though they matter.
What is wrong with the society we live in? The list is almost endless. The needs are obvious, they stare us in the eye. The real question is: what is God saying to us about the problems in our society? What does He want His people today to be doing about them?
Why had the Children of Israel been taken into captivity? They had ignored God's word. They had failed to set the oppressed free, so they had lost their freedom. They had not shared their blessings, so they had lost them. This seems to describe the position of many Christians today.
The way to spiritual blessing is to use your time, money and other gifts from God to bless other people. I don't want to use this sermon as a recruiting drive just for the Crisis Centre: many other groups are also working to address the problems of need, poverty and homelessness, working so that the people who are enduring these things may experience God's blessing.
If you want to live as a follower of Jesus, the question is not whether you will play a part in blessing other people, helping them in practical ways, caring for the poor and the hungry - the question is: what part will you play? I leave you with a final quote from Jesus, Luke 16:11.
If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?
This world values money - many people devote their lives to getting and keeping it. But it is only 'worldly wealth' - destined to be destroyed when this world comes to an end. We have the privilege of following Jesus and discovering the true riches we can gain from Him and share with other people. He invites us to follow Him, shows us the way and enables us to respond. Isn't He amazingly good to us?