First Week of Advent: Life in Exile

We lit the first candle on our Advent wreath today. The first day of Advent traditionally is a day of repentance.

Julie and I took some time to confess a few things to each other and then chugged eggnog with chocolate-chocolate chip cookies. Not a bad way to spend the first day of Advent.

Of course part of my Advent this year includes some meditations on the Exile of Israel. The Israelites were exiled in part by the Assyrians around 720 BCE and then completely by the Babylonians around 586 BCE.

Though some Israelites returned to the land about 70 years after this devastating event, the Jewish nation has never truly recovered and remains scattered throughout the world. In a time when the power of deities were closely tied to a territory, the presence of God with his people wherever they are is an important lesson found in Daniel.

The book of Daniel sets out to explain how the Israelites should live in exile and even under foreign rule in their own land. Daniel tells us about God’s care for his people in the present and the hope of his coming justice in the future.

In case you missed my little introduction last week, I have chosen the theme of exile for Advent because that is the essential state of the church. We are a people in a foreign land who live in the here and now of God’s intervention, but also await his coming reign that will bring true peace and justice.

Jesus set into the motion the coming of God’s rule on earth through his incarnation. Christmas is about a beginning of the end. The deliverance the Daniel and his people longed for came with Jesus Christ. And so, while we wait for the coming day of our Lord, we turn to an old story about waiting for deliverance in a foreign land.

From Daniel Chapter One:
1:8 But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the royal delicacies or the royal wine. He therefore asked the overseer of the court officials for permission not to defile himself.
1:9 Then God made the overseer of the court officials sympathetic to Daniel. (NET Bible)

We could say a lot about the first chapter of Daniel and I encourage you to read it all, especially the striking second verse: “Now the Lord delivered King Jehoiakim of Judah into his power, along with some of the vessels of the temple of God. He brought them to the land of Babylonia.” Notice that God is somehow even in control of this horrible situation right from the start.

In a time of disillusionment and despair, we find Daniel and his three friends. All are brilliant and able. They no doubt were on the path to prominent posts in the land of Israel. Exile changed all of that.

We aren’t quite sure why Daniel refused to eat from the king’s table, but it is likely that either the food was ceremonially unclean from a Mosaic Law standpoint or the food had been offered to idols first, which remained an issue for Jews and Christians even after the coming of Christ.

Whatever his motivations, Daniel decided in faith that he must avoid this food in order to remain holy and set apart for God. And here we see God take action. Not only does the Lord grant Daniel favor in the eyes of his caretaker, he is made wise and healthy so that he is among the king’s most trusted advisor’s.

The message here is not one of diet or practice so to speak. This story speaks to the holiness of God’s people in the face of easy, commonsense compromise. Daniel was not in a position to bargain, and yet he looked to the Lord to find a way that he could avoid sin even if it seemed inevitable.

I know that we can hardly imagine anyone turning down unlimited amounts of the finest food. Who would want to make a fuss after your entire nation has been destroyed and scattered all over the earth? Didn’t it seem that God had given up on his people?

Even after enduring his disobedient and unfaithful people for years on end, the Lord was still looking for those would turn to him and set themselves apart. In the case of Daniel, his faithfulness not only benefited himself, it also brought blessings to the land of Babylon, the people who were his enemies. The king and his people had the advantage of God’s wisdom conveyed through his servant Daniel.

This is not to say that God always brings the kind of deliverance we’re looking for. When it’s your time, it’s your time. We can’t explain how it all works, but through it all God is present for those who will turn to him.

May God be merciful to us as we turn to him in faith and ask for his forgiveness. May his people set themselves apart from compromise and live in the power of the Holy Spirit.