Community of Witness
God's Plan Of Redemption
God's hope for mankind has been dashed by our freely made choice to be independent of relationship with him. Instead of being recipients and givers of divine love we chose to be self-sufficient. Rather than being his beloved bride we gave ourself to his enemy.
What will God do now? In terms of his rights, his attributes there are three broad options;
In the light of God's rightful anger at the utter folly of our choice and the enemy's actions, it would have been entirely reasonable for him to have simply eradicated creation. Who could stop him? He spoke the universe into being, he could just as easily speak it out of existence. But whilst His attributes enable him, his character prevents it. He created us for love not as dispassionate objects. we are not worms to be trodden on, we are creatures of immense significance and objects of his unfaillng love.
He will now demonstrate both his ability and right to destroy whilst pointing to this deeper reality. The story of Noah is the story of a God who has the right and ability to destroy but who is determined to redeem. Through one man lifted high above the earth on something made of wood, God would save the world. The Spirit would look for a place to rest through which he could fulfil God's plan and a rainbow will seal the wonder of God's character. He will never use destruction as a solution to our folly.
God created us to be part of his extraordinary family. In this mind-blowing act of hospitality, God opens up the divine circle of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit so that we could enter in. We have rejected this offer. How natural, how reasonable if God in response to his broken-heart should simply choose to close the circle. Who could blame him if he withdrew back into this eternal loving relationship, ignoring and shutting out all the pain that our fall caused?
The story of Babel demonstrates that God is of course capable of withdrawal. After generations, God speaks within the trinity 'Let us go down and see....' In picture language, God shows that he has for a period withdrawn and is now choosing to see what has befallen mankind in his absence. In the face of the arrogant wickedness he sees his repsonse is not to withdraw again, but to engage. He mitigates the effect of wickedness by slowing down the progress of evil. He confuses the languages. In this God demonstrates that whilst it might be a reasonable response, God will not withdraw, he will persistently engage, mitigating the effects of evil, slowing down, reducing the impact of our folly.
And so a God of love does the only thing he can. He plans for our redemption, ultimately of course in another man lifted high above the earth on wood, but first, he will seek to demonstrate what loving relationship with him could have been like. He wants to prepare the world for it's saviour by saying 'look what it can be like, isn't it wonderful? Don't you long for it in it's fulness? Well, here he is'.
To do this, God will build a community of witness with whom he will relate as if nothing has gone wrong. He will provide a social framework in which they can operate that is a simalcrum, a foretaste of the real Kingdom. He will take faith and accept it for a season as a substitute for actual right choices. He will relate to their hearts as if they had actually been changed when in reality it only the external behaviour giving the appearance of such transformation. But even then there will be enough of his extraordinary love and life to blaze through the death and darkness. Enough of God revealed to make all people want more, to yearn for the reality.
Before The Kings
A People In A Place
In order to create this community of witness, two things are needed! A people and a place in which they can live distinctively in God's love. These people won't be any better or worse than anyone else. They are not going to be chosen because of their unique suitability, they are simply going to be chosen. Once they are a people they are not going to better than other nations, nor are individuals going to be saved simply by virtue of being a part of this group. No, it is simply a group of ordinary people formed by an extraordinary God to be living witnesses together of His love. A community whose only purpose for being a people is to demonstrate what relationship with God can be like. A beacon to attract others, a worked example to make His love real, a people who would thereby prepare the world for the one who would make it really possible for all people.
And so God begins.
At some point in his life, God has spoken to this man. 'Go to a place - to Canaan'. And Terah responds, he begins the journey from Ur to go to this land, he takes his family and starts out. God is going to create a people in this new place.
But he stops. He gets so far then goes no further. We can guess at the reason, the place where he settles becomes known as Haran - the name of his eldest son, who tragically dies on the journey. Grief intervenes and God's promises seem unattainable. Life closes in around the pain we feel. Terah could have allowed God's comfort to rescue him, to continue into the fullness of all that God had called him to. Could have known the reality that there is a season for grieving, but also a season for joy. But he doesn't and he too dies short of God's promise.
Terah's tragedy and the decisions that follow don't just affect him. Our choices never do. God had in mind a people and a place for them. At this time in history the people of the region were nomadic, Canaan had no settlers. It was a fertile land, suitable for settling, perfect for a community of witness, ready for them to establish themselves without hindrance. But God also knows that the enemy will be at work in other people - encouraging them to take the land or themselves. God's intent is out in the open now, it has been communicated, the enemy is aware of it. Now it is urgent that this embryonic community get to the land.
So God says to Abram, 'leave your extended family, everything that will slow you down, and go to a land that I will show you'. He knows the destination of course, his father was headed there with them. But he doesn't know the route, that's open and needs God's guidance. Terah in staying lost perhaps 40 years. Now there needs to be some pace injected to get to the land ahead of the enemy.
Abram responds to God, he gets up to go, but takes Lot his nephew and his entourage with him. He accepts the vision God has, but not the timing. Hebrews tells us to 'lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely and run with perseverance the race that is set before us'. The picture is clear. When God says go, we are to go. When he says leave that behind, we need to lay it aside. Abraham takes Lot. It leads to more and more delay. Firstly, it just takes longer to travel as many than it does with few. Two herds, two sets of people, two agenda's. Eventually Abraham sees the problem and they split up. But this leads to more delay as Lot becomes entangled in Sodom. By the time they finally reach the edge of Canaan they are more than half a century late and as scripture puts it 'the Canaanites were in the land at that time'. A nomadic people group who, there name implies, would one day make the land their own, were wandering in Canaan. The enemy has placed people there ahead of God.
The whole plan is that the community that Abraham would become is to be a blessing to other nations, not a source of battle. So, given that these are nomads who may yet leave the land, God turns Abraham around for a season.
Of course, there are two sides to what God is doing, delay means there is a problem regarding a place, but there is the perpetual problem for Abraham's faith - where are the people? God has promised him that his descendents will be like the stars in the sky, but here he is, an old man, with a wife well beyond child-bearing age. Paul tells us in Romans that 'no doubt concerning the promise of God caused him to waiver...' This faith empowers God to perform the miracle that is Isaac. The place may be a problem, but slowly, the people are coming!
By the time we get to Joseph, the people have finally entered the land - those who would become the Canaanites have wandered elsewhere. But there is a problem, they haven't had long enough there to establish, to convert to an agrarian society. They are in Canaan, but they are still nomadic in their minds and lifestyle. There is no planting, no harvesting, no storing. Because of the delays, they haven't been here long enough to make the transition. So now, when the climate turns against this lifestyle, starvation threatens. From a spiritual warfare perspective, the enemy, having delayed them for decades, having displaced them for a season, now wants to destroy them. He has failed in the end to prevent them from having a place so now he will attempt to stop them being a people. But God hasn't withdrawn from the situation, he is battling on their behalf, mitigating the effect of the delay. he hasn't set things up for them to fail, to destroy them - his plans for them are good, to give them hope and a future. God as ever, will find a way of redeeming.
He dreams of a day when Joseph fulfils the potential that he sees in him. And he shares those dreams with Joseph. What ensues is a wonderful picture of how God works through even the sinful choices we and others make and is still able to acomplish the dream. Not his own folly nor the hatred of his brothers, not the despair of slavery nor the lust of another mans wife, not the wasted years nor the king's prison will prevent God's hopes being realised. Joseph's choices of faith allow God to redeem and rescue him from the enemy's plans and bring him into Pharoah's sight. His courage and humility in contrast to his earlier pride show how God has used even the evil outcomes to shape and refine Joseph.
Now, as the de-facto leader of the nation, Joseph is able to provide a place of safety for this starting community of witness. Seven years of plenty, seven of famine. Jacob and the extended family, the start of God's people, come to Egypt mid-way through the years of famine. They come in order to survive these last years. It might have been reasonable to stay an extra year or two whilst the region's economy stabilised. A maximum of five years additional delay to the people settling in their place.
But as is so often the case, they become trapped in a place of comfort that is not ultimately the place of blessing. We saw it in the life of Lot, we see it in the story of Ruth. No-one sets out to end up in slavery, but if we do not act in God's timing, we end up trapped. In this case what should have been a small number of years ends up being perhaps a hundred times longer.
Yet even in slavery, after 400 years, God keeps his promise to build a people. The 12 tribes increase, even as oppression grows. They may not have their place, but depsite the enemy's evil intent against them, they are becoming a people. Fear and death are the trademarks of the enemy. He creates fear in the heart of Pharoah - Joseph's descendants are so numerous they seem to present a threat to Egypt's security. So the midwives are commanded to kill male offspring of the Hebrews. In this context Moses is born and adopted into Pharoah's house.
As a child he learns about his heritage, his people, his God - as a young adult he learns to be a prince. When he sees a fellow Hebrew being badly treated he acts as a prince and kills the egyptian. He is right to identify with his people, just as Jesus does at his baptism, he is right to choose them over his privileged position. He is right too to feel a sense of injustice and to recognise that he is best placed to act. But the timing and means are wrong. Just as with Abraham, Moses does the right thing ahead of God's timing. So much of the story of God's dealing with us is about our delaying. We are perhaps 500 years later than we should be at this point because of people's reluctance to respond as God would have them. But just occasionally we see the reverse, where people act in their own strength, in their own timing ahead of God's design. In both cases it leads to pain.
For Moses it means he must run away from the place of privilege and influence. Who knows how God might have used him to win Pharoah's heart and mind had he stayed? But instead Moses will spend 40 years learning how to be a shepherd. It is as a shepherd that God leads us, not as a prince.
We see this clearly in the battle that ensues. Time and again God demonstrates that he is more powerful than Pharoah and every time he fails to respond. Pharoah has chosen to set his character in his power, his wealth, his status. God sets his power and status in his character. Eventually, as the first-born of an entire nation is killed, Pharoah releases (temporarily) the people to go to a place. As they miraculously cross the Red Sea they are once more a people headed for a place. God's plan, despite the intervening years, has not changed.
It is an eleven day march from the edge of the Red Sea to the edge of the Jordan (Deuteronomy 1), it would have taken slightly longer as God did not intend the people to fight - and there were people in the way of the direct route. So after 430 years in Egypt plus some 70 years of previous delay, the people are perhaps two weeks from being able to settle in their own place. But of course now there is a problem. What would have been a simple task has now become a significant project. Before the land was empty, ready for it's inhabitants. But now the nomads have settled and built cities. The people will have to battle to establish themselves in their place. Blessing will now only come as victory is won.
As the people approach the Jordan they send in 12 spies, one from each tribe. It is clear they are not yet a people. There is insufficient trust between the tribes, everyone wants their own man to report back. There is also no trust between the people and their God. The spies are sent, not to ask the very valid question 'how can we receive God's promise?' but rather the faith-less question 'Can God keep his promise?'. All the spies report the same thing regarding what God had said about the place he had for them. It was wonderful, fertile, accessible, central and visible. The perfect place to be a community of witness. All also mentioned one other thing. There were giants in the land.
Why had God not mentioned them? Firstly because they weren't there at the point when the people could have first entered. It is their delay that has given the enemy the opportunity to bring in giants. But secondly, they are only giants. They may seem impressive to other people, an insurmountable obstacle to them. But to God they are really not a problem.
But their presence spooks the people and they refuse to go in. Now, in addition to the 500+ years delay, there will be another 40. In Eden we had God's provision, his presence, his protection, his power, his purpose. Here the people have his provision (Manna), his presence (Cloud, pillar of fire), his protection (bronze serpent), but they lack his power and his purpose. They are a generation on the wrong side of the Jordan, waiting to die.
Finally, this people are about to enter a land which will become their place for witness. Sadly, because of their persistent delays, their lack of response to God's loving lead, it is no longer a free land, but one with settled people who have had a further forty years to train and fortify their cities. It is important to note that God had done everything he could short of overriding people's will, to avoid this very outcome. Now his plan to win back and bless all nations will begin with war.
Moses is dead, the iconic leader has gone. In his place God appoints Joshua. Not the commander of the army (which might have seemed the more natural choice when war looks inevitable)but Joshua - a leader qualified by his closeness to God - a man who every spare moment was found at the Tent of Meeting - the place where God was. In commissioning Joshua, God commands him to be dilligent in following all that he says (unlike those who have gone before who followed in part - thus causing the delay). Further, he tells Joshua to be very courageous, a clear implication that there will indeed be things to provoke fear. The antidote to this fear was the promise of God's unfailing presence. God is love, perfect love we are told casts out fear.
Under Moses the people found their identity as 12 tribes and insisted on sending one spy per tribe, highlighting their disunity. Yet they were called to be a people, one nation. The spies under Moses went in with this question 'can we do it?' and came back with 10 saying 'no'. They saw the giants, felt like grasshoppers and decided that in their own strength they were unable to win. They submitted to fear because they did not recognise the God of love and his presence. Now under Joshua, the man who knows God, they will send only two spies and this time to ask a different question 'how will we, under God, take this land'. It is analogous to the questions asked by Zechariah and Mary. Zechariah's question reveals unbelief and leads to the loss of speech and therefore witness, Mary's reveals faith and results in the very presence of God in Jesus.
In many ways the spies mission fails spectacularly. They return without a strategy, having been spotted by the enemy and having only reconnoitered a brothel! Yet what they discover is of profound importance to our understanding of God's plan. Rahab tells them that the knowledge of what God had done on Israel's behalf had caused great fear in the Canaanites. 'Our hearts melted before you'. But the key to this is the point at which they were afraid: 'when we saw what your God did, bringing you out of Egypt across the red Sea'. The key thing to note is this. If the people had crossed the Jordan miraculously forty years previously, if they had not submitted to fear - then the people of the land would have been easy to defeat - in fact there is every chance that there would have been no bloodshed. 'Our hearts melted before you'. In reality, the giants were afraid of the God of the grasshoppers! But the grasshoppers had no such trust in their God and submitted to fear. Now, the Canaanites have asked the question 'If they don't trust their God, why should we fear him?' and had gone on to train and fortify their cities. Because the Israelites had failed to fulfil their call - to demonstrate God's nature & character - His true nature, visible through the parting of the Red Sea, has become masked by the people's unbelief. If the Israelites had stood in faith, been the people God had called them to be, they would have had a place to witness without a battle.
This must have been hugely distressing to Joshua. Very easy under those circumstances to walk away from the call, to say 'see what you've done, see the mess you have created, well get on and sort it yourselves, you didn't listen to me...' But instead, he humbly leads the people into battle.
Now, having crossed the Jordan, it falls to Joshua to determine the strategy. He is the one who all those years ago, along with Caleb, bravely proclaimed that giants are no obstacle to God. And so he alone heads off towards Jericho to seek God's plan. As he approaches he sees what in the distant must look like the biggest giant he has ever seen. It stands between him and his objective. Either he must put his brave words into action and face the giant or return in fear without hope or strategy. Faith without works is dead.
Joshua remembers God's words of commission and confidently approaches, then incredibly, challenges the giant. 'Are you for me or for my enemies?'. The giant responds simply 'Neither. I am for God and as commander of the Lord's army, I have now come'. Here is the one who will win the battle, who has the plan. If Joshua does not face his fear and trust God, he never gets to hear the strategy or know just who is fighting for him. But in taking the courageous step of faith, he gets it all.
Taking the Land
Of course God doesn't just speak to Israel, he is the God of all nations, he longs for all people to know him and receive his love. That after all is the very purpose for bringing a people to a land - to demonstrate this. So God has spoken to the Canaanites. In Abraham's time, he encouraged them to nomadically leave the land. In Moses time, to fear him and prepare to leave. If they had trusted God, he would have given them somewhere wonderful to live - and the benefit of a worked example of how to live in his presence. Instead they have freely chosen to harden their hearts just as had Pharoah and now the people will get the land inch by inch, life by life.
This is a tragedy of enormous proportions. The disobedience of those who would become Israel led to the delay in the first placeand their fear and unbelief compounded the problem. But the unresponsiveness of other peoples led finally to conflict. The very opposite of the love God was seeking to demonstrate.
The period of the Judges highlights the different aspects of the character God is trying to reveal through having a people in a place. The judges act as a mirror to the wider population of how they are doing with reference to their mission. The people finally have a place, but in order to be like God in their love for one another they must be distinctive, they must be different as God is different, holy as he is holy. A key measure for this is the extent that they press into clearing the land of those who will not be distinctive - whether those within the nation who reject the call, or those outside who refuse to respond to what they see of God's grace. It is worth noting then that the judges are not of themselves representing God, they are not judges because they are holy - in fact many were not - they are judges because of what God does through them.
The story of Ruth occurs during this period and illustrates how, on occassion, the plan worked and Israel blessed others by loving the way God loves, the result of course, a woman from the land of curse is redeemed and becomes the great-grandmother of king David and finds her place in the line of the greatest King - Jesus.
They were called to be a people in a place to demonstrate what relationship with God was like. After half a millenia of delay, they are finally in a position to fulfill their call - to be blessed so that they could be a blessing.
In order to represent God, they will need to be different to the rest of fallen humanity, by following the 'laws' God had given them, they had the opportunity to do so. They are called, their purpose rests on this - to be different in the same way that God is different.
Yet here, tragically, they reject God once more. Rather than being distinctive, the people cry out time and again 'give us a king - we want to be like the other nations'. Instead of embracing the love of God in a distinctive relationship, they demand to be the same as everyone else. As in Eden God warns them of the consequences, then, out of love, allows them to choose.
They have rejected God's purpose, now they reject God's ways. Instead of choosing a king onthe basis of God's heart and values - a character based assesment, they look instead at the outward and choose Saul, who looks every inch the sort of king that other nations have. But whenever we make choices that exclude God, we also exclude the supernatural dimension that would take the choice out of the scope of this world. They choose Saul on human terms - now the best they can hope for is that he will, in his own strength, prove stronger than kings chosen on the same basis. They have brought themsleves into the wrong arena - they have lowered themselves from undefeatable heights of Heavens choices to the fallible and frail choices of man. And so it proves. When Saul faces a bigger man than himself - a giant, he has no resources other than himself to overcome him - and fails through fear. By contrast David who the world rejects as a mere boy is able to overcome the giant because his choices are Heavenly based. His choices enable the king of the universe to empower him, making him undefeatable by mere men, no matter how large. One more time, a man of faith will face a giant and in the power of God, utterly defeat it.
Under David the kingdom grows to be about as large as it would ever be. Here, finally, are a people in a place, able to demonstrate to the world what loving relationship with a loving God can be like. At the height of this Kingdom, David would travel around every town and village, knowing that in reality, only the presence of the king can truly ensure the life of the kingdom in that place. About every two years he would tour the nation - riding on a donkey. A herald would precede his vist by a few days - the exact date and time of his visit would be uncetain, the herald's presence simply meant it was soon. 'Prepare the way of the King' would be they cry and at some soon time, the king would come 'Behold your king, riding on a donkey'. The law said that anyone form highest noble to poorest slave had the right to lie down in fornt of the donkey and make it stop. The person was then able to plead their case, to ask for justice, to be freed from slavery, from persecution, to have wrongs set right. They would hear the herald with joy because for them, they knew that indeed, the kingdom was at hand. The full force of a just, fair, loving kingdome. The King of Kings would tell everyone the same good news - that the kingdom was close, that the king was coming soon. At the culmination of his ministry, he too would come to establish that kingdom, riding on a donkey.
After David, the kingdom grows some more under Solomon - and the people in a place begin to be efective as a witness to the nations. People come from far and wide to see this extraordinary thing. As an example, the Queen of Sheba comes to marvel and enquire. But rapidly thereafter, the human intervenes. Solomon falls to the same vulnerability as his father - an immature response to women. The kingdom descends into godlessness and after him divides in civil war. Far from the unity of love that God has destined them for, the world sees greed, lust and division.
Thereafter a pattern emerges that becomes all too familiar. A bad king is followed by a worse king, the worse king followed by yet more evil. A rapid and horrific descent into depravity. That which was intended to be a light to the nations, blackened and hideously disfiguring the image of God that it was intended to display. And in his mercy, out of his desire for all nations to see, God intervenes and through prophets or the rediscovery of the law, calls the people to repentance and restored relationship. Yet every time, within one or two generations, the old ways return, the ways of the world sweep back. Finally, at the end of second Chronicles, we read that 'the people sinned until there was no remedy'. Ultimately, they receive what they had chosen. The people who had for so many generations said 'we don't want to be different' become so like the surrounding nations that they become totally absorbed int to them. Ten of the twelve tribes are lost.
A God who is love must allow choice. He can persuade, can demonstrate, can make absolutely clear the differnt outcomes. But then he must let go. Love does not insist on its own way. There have to be just outcomes to the choices in order for the choices to be real. But a God who is love and therefore just, must somtimes defer that justice in order to have mercy on those who have not yet seen His love. So God persists, generation after generation, deferring or mitigation the consequences of the people's choices. Not only for their sake, that they might turn back to His love, but also for the sake of witness to the nations around who will otherwise never see who God is.
Of course this is analogous to the life of an individual. We may not receive in this life the just outcome of our choices. For the sake of others, that judgment may be deferred. But ultimately, what we have freely chosen will be sealed for eternity. If we have spent a lifetime resisting God, persistently staying outside of His love, longing to be the same as everyone else rather than being part of God's distinctive communtiy, then at the end God will give us what we have desired and chosen. It will break His heart, but our chooices leave Him no choice.
Now there remains just two of the twelve tribes. A much smaller people, and no longer in their own place. The Babylonian and Persian empires would in turn displace the people from a place. Taken from thi historic land of Israel and the place that signified God's peace - Jerusalem, the city of peace, the people are dispersed. Three stories tell how God nonetheless uses this remnant and sometimes groups of two or three even now to be a visible people, a light shining with His love.
The story of this extraordinary wonan, Esther demonstrates some key aspects of God's ways. The enemy has been empowered by the poor choices of the people God wanted to use as a visible outworking of His love. He has warred against God's plans, used their weakness to tempt them into being like everyone else rather than being distinctive. Has captured and exiled the remaining two tribes - defeat for God's purposs seems the only option. Yet God is able to use this remnant 'where two or three are gathered...' and in a story full of pictures of what was to come, saves and redeems, demonstrating to the nations who He is.
Towards the end of the story come some of the most famous words in scripture. Esther is fearful of the wrath of the king should she invite herself into his presence.
Mordecai sent this reply to Esther: “Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”
Mordecai knows the truth. The King, has done hideous, ungodly things in choosing his new queen, the enemy has used this to try and complete the destruction of God's people, using the greed of Haman and the lust of the king. Yet God protects and works within this evil to have two of His people at the heart of government; Mordecai and Esther. Mordecai recognises God's hand in this - it patently isn't what God would have wanted or planned - the effective rape of hundreds of women as part of the 'beauty contest' to find a new queen, yet God works within it and Mordecai says: "Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?". Maybe God has found a way in the midst of this evil to do something redemptive. Maybe this is your moment to win victory, to make all that pain worthwhile. Yet as ever, redemption is costly. Faith must be exercised, personal safety put on the line. And Esther wants to run away, just as later, Jesus would want to do in Gethsemane. And here Mordecai reveals even more of his knowledge of God's ways... He is absolutely confident that God will find a way of preserving some who will be His visible people. "deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place" He know's God has worked towards Esther being the means of salvation, it is her blessing to minister God's grace in this way. Moreover, if she takes that courageous step, a whole generation will be saved. But Mordecai also knows that God gives choice. If Esther refuses, she personally will miss out on the wonderful work prepared for her, and she and her whole generation will die - but God's plan will not ultimately be thwarted. Though we may not see how, God will find another way.
Wonderfully of course, Esther takes the faith-risk and the enemy is defeated, God using the very thing he had purposed for harm as the means for his destruction. It is a spiritual principle that we see throughout scripture - the Romans 8:28 victory in which 'all things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose'.
Nebuchadnezzar was a tyrant, but a clever one. Whenever he conquered a new nation he chose the best and brightest young people who he brought to his capital and trained them for governing. They undertook a three year education into the culture, history and language of Babylon. They enjoyed the best that the nation could provide. At the end the second best group were sent back to their province as governors - fully immersed in the new culture and sympathetic to it, but also sensitive to their old culture and well able to govern sensitively. The best group however were retained at the heart of government, forming a council of wise advisors to the King - a group known as The Magi.
Of course this process is the very opposite of what God wanted for His people. He had called them to be distinctive in order to be a visible witness to who He is. This process took the distinctive and converted it to sameness. It homogenised, mixed up, made everything the same. Daniel and his three friends were selected for this process of assimilation. And they refused it. Instead, even when it htreatened their lives, they insisted on being distinct. They rejected the food and wine, relying only on the food they ate as Jews. They refused new names, Daniel never being known by his Babylonian name. They refused to worship any god other than their God. They refused to stop praying to their God and finally, they refused to acknowledge the supreme authority of the King. Finally, even in exile, a group who acted as a people, visibly representing the true character and nature of God. And even though they were only few in number, because of their faithfulness, the blessing of it continues 'a thousand generations'.
Within this story, we see a profound understanding of how faith works in practice. When faced with death by burning, Nebuchadnezzar asks them 'now who will save you from my hand?' They wisely reply 'Our God is well able to save us, but even if he does not, we will not worship you'. They recognise the attributes of God - his omnipresence and almighty power. But they equally recognise His character - a love that allows choice and which must at times allow bad things to happen to good people. They understand too that they are in a battle that is not predicated on power alone, but on human and demonic choice. Daniel would describe how God heard prayer and acted immediately, but that this assistance and intervention was delayed for several days by the spiritual battle that ensued. Fundamentally, they know their eternity is secure, they know God can and will want to save, but their trust is not in God's attributes or the outcome of the immediate battle, but in His character.
That which is of eternalimportance will be safe, nothing can touch it.
And so they stand firm, through lion's dens and fiery furnaces. In the midst of it Jesus is made visible. 'I see a fourth who looks like the Son of Man...' Where two or three gather in His name, there He is. The people in a place, demonstrating God to the world - with extraordinary results.
Four hundred years later, in a godless society, the legacy of Daniel's Magi lives on: 'About that time Magi from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
Finally, under Artaxerxes, the Persian king, some of the people are allowed to go back and live in Jerusalem. But it is a devestated city and only a few people choose to undertake what will require significant cost. It is a place which will require re-building, which is vulnerable to attack. It will be hard work, risky and result in a much lower standard of living for those who choose it. Yet it will be at the heart of God's plan to have a people in a place. As so often happens, the hard work of establishing a foothold in what was enemy territory, or of regaining ground lost, takes so much effort that the purpose is all but forgotten. Although houses and infrastructure were slowly being rebuilt, it was to na avail in terms of the reason to be there. There was no worship, no temple for God's presence, no peace in the city of peace.
Nehemiah, the trusted food-taster to the King recognised this and it brought great sorrow to his heart. He was glad that people coud re-settle in the city, but doubly disappointed that this was to no good purpose. The walls that would provide security, peace to the place of peace were in utter ruin. Without that peace, the temple could never be rebuilt and the witness to who God is could not be restored. So at great personal risk, similar to Esther he asks the King for permission to bless the Jews.
With authority granted, he encourages the people to set aside their personal agenda, to lay down for a season their own profession and join together to rebuild the walls. As the work begins, so does opposition. Small and personal at the start, it quickly grows. From one man - Tobiah, to a group so large they can only be described as 'our enemies'. From expected sources such as the surrounding nations to the unexpected - some of the Jews themselves. As the wall grew, so did the opposition and risk to life. Nehemiah orders some of the workers to act as guards and protectors to enable the others to continue work. Yet even with this in place, plots and threat grow until it seems the work cannot continue.
As was ever the case, where kingdom building is undertaken, the enemy will do all he can to thwart, delay and destroy. Finally in chapter 6, as the opposition reaches a crescendo, Nehemiah writes 'And so...' Humanly one expects the next words to read 'we stopped the work and went home defeated.' But instead, what we read is 'And so... the wall was finished'
This is how it is in the Kingdom. The cost may be high, the risk very real. But ultimately God wins. Love never fails.
Finally, God himself becomes the centre of a community of witness. LukeJesus comes to demonstrate what God is like. 'If you have seen me you have seen the Father'. He comes to establish a 'light to the world', a 'city on a hill' a new visible community of witness, not just able to show a facsimile of the real kingdom, but to establish the real kingdom. No longer relating to each other and God as if sin had not intervened, but demonstrating the actual reality and power of a community gathered in the purposes and love of God, made new, unhindered by rebellion. Ekelesia - groups of people cleansed and brought to life by God, loving one another and God with everything they have. Making the God who loves and holds nothing back visible. 'Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I..'
Church, the new community of witness, called with the same purpose. At the end of His time physically on earth, Jesus, having won back all that was lost in Eden mandates this first church: 'All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, therefore, go into all the world and make disciples...' He instructs them to wait in the place of peace until they were empowered by the Spirit then they were to go, in their two's and three's, as church, visibly taking Jesus into the world, bringing kingdom life, transforming that which had become desert into paradise. Just as Adam and Eve were commanded in the garden 'have dominion / authority over the natural world, go from the garden in this power and transform the world into a similar paradise'