Well, if you’re a student newly arrived in town, I wonder what kind of first week you’ve had. I once asked that of a first year who said, ‘Well I’ve actually had a bit of a chequered week – I caused a blaze in the kitchen in my halls and the fire brigade had to come.’ So I said, ‘What were you doing?’ And he said, ‘Cooking pasta.’ So I said, ‘Did you let it boil dry?’ And he said, ‘No I didn’t realise you had to put water on it in the first place.’ How do you get that far through life – not to mention into university – without knowing that?
Thinking back to my own Freshers Week, my main memory is that I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Not because I’m unsociable. But because most of the ‘social’ events had three ingredients which actually make it pretty hard to socialise at all. One was music so loud that you couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. Another was so much free alcohol that whatever they were saying was probably incoherent, anyway. And the other was the pressure to get off with someone of the opposite sex – which of course is the worst possible way to try to get to know someone. And those basic ingredients of Freshers Week haven’t changed – they’re now just far more ‘in your face’. Eg, in my day the Students’ Union was handing out free teabags. These days they’re handing out free condoms.
And the irony is that everyone says, ‘Isn’t it great going way to uni, where you don’t have parents and teachers telling you what to do, and you can be independent.’ And yet every Freshers Week I see a new bunch of students instantly surrender their independence to what peer pressure is telling them to do. But I don’t sit in judgement on that. Because I can still remember what it’s like to be uprooted and transplanted into a totally new place, where everything in you wants to fit in and make friends.
So my question in preparing this has been, ‘What part of the Bible speaks to that situation – to the person who’s either newly arrived in the student scene, or newly returned?’ And the top answer is Daniel 1 – that Old Testament (OT) reading we had. Because if you’re a student, Daniel was about your age. He was a believer. And he’d been uprooted from a home environment shaped by the Bible, and transplanted in the exile to Babylon – which, to use our terms, was the most non-Christian environment he’d ever been in. And if you’re a newly arrived or returned student, you can probably relate to that. So we’re going to ask Daniel 1 to answer the question, ‘How can I make a wise start, or re-start, to student life?’ And the rest of us can translate the answer for our own situation. So would you turn in the Bibles to Daniel chapter 1 to see four lessons on making a wise start or re-start to student life:
First, TRUST THAT JESUS IS LORD, EVEN WHEN IT DOESN’T LOOK LIKE IT (vv1-2)
Look at Daniel 1, v1:
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. (vv1-2)
So what’s that about? Well, we’re in the OT – before Jesus. And God’s people – the OT equivalent of the church – were living in Judah. But they’d become so unfaithful that God allowed this king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to invade them and take many of them into exile. And Daniel was one of them. And in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin I’ve seen one of the gates of the city of Babylon which Daniel would have walked through and seen most days. Because it wasn’t just the Brits who went round nicking things like the Elgin Marbles; the Germans bagged a lot as well – including the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. It’s this huge gate with walls coming out along a processional way, all in stunning blue glazed brick. And along the walls are these huge lions trotting out from the city – as if to say, ‘We’re coming to get you.’ And Daniel had been got.
Well, look again at v2:
And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into [Nebuchadnezzar’s] hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God [ie, things from the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem]. And [Nebuchadnezzar] brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. (v2)
And bringing things from the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem and sticking them in his own god’s temple was Nebuchadnezzar’s way of saying, ‘My god has beaten yours – yours is either weak or non-existent.’ And Daniel would have looked at the tiny minority of believers like himself and their sorry state. And then he’d have looked at the Babylonian majority who believed nothing of the God of the Bible and yet seemed to be far more successful without him. And he’d have been tempted to think that, on numbers and success alone, God looked pretty discredited.
And as a newly arrived or returned student – especially from a Christian background – you may have been tempted to think the same. Eg, I remember one first year who said to me, ‘It hasn’t been the temptations of sex and drink that have been hardest to deal with. It’s been the fact that, for the first time, I’ve been surrounded by friends who are all living without Jesus – and yet they look successful, and even as if they’re enjoying life much more than us.’ And any Christian in our culture – student or not – is going to be tempted to think that, on numbers and success alone, Jesus looks pretty discredited. But look back to the start of v2:
And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his [Nebuchadnezzar’s] hand… (v2)
So that reminds us that it was God who allowed the exile to happen, as a judgement on his peoples’ unfaithfulness. And likewise, the decline of the church in Britain has also been his judgement on the unfaithfulness within it in recent decades. And that’s why Christianity in our culture has got smaller. It’s not because the gospel is untrue – but because the church has been untrue to the gospel. And, anyway, we need to remember that numbers are not the measure of who’s got the truth. So, yes, the majority of people we’ll rub shoulders with tomorrow don’t trust in Jesus. But that doesn’t change the facts – that he really lived, that he really died on the cross for our forgiveness, and that he really rose again from the dead – to show that he’s our rightful Lord and the Judge we’re all going to meet at the end of the day. And if those things really happened then the gospel is true whether 5% or 95 % of people believe it. The difference is that if it’s only 5%, you need to be much more sure of your own convictions if you’re going to be confident and upfront about what you believe. And if you’re a student and settle here as your church, one of the things I hope you’ll find is space to grow into your own convictions. Because whether you’d already call yourself a Christian, or would say you’re still processing your Christian background, you need to grow into your own convictions that the gospel is true – so that you can trust that Jesus is Lord even when it doesn’t look like it.
That’s the first lesson here. The next is:
Secondly, BE AWARE THAT THE WORLD IS OUT TO MAKE YOU CONFORM (vv3-7)
Look on to v3:
Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skilful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king's palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans [ie, Babylonians]. The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (vv3-6)
So that was the equivalent for Daniel of starting at Newcastle or Northumbria. And the similarities are striking. Eg, v3 says that Daniel was among royalty – just like some of you were when Princess Eugenie was studying here. Verse 3 also mentions the nobility – and there’s always a sprinkling of them among the public school set here. In fact, a recent article said that Newcastle is the top university destination for old Etonians (quote), ‘because it’s ideally placed between the grouse shooting of the Yorkshire moors and the salmon fishing of Scotland’! And then there’s the very obvious similarity in v5 that ‘they were to be educated for three years’ – the classic undergraduate course.
But Nebuchadnezzar was no philanthropist. He wasn’t giving them an expenses paid degree out of charity. He was out to make them conform. His aim was to turn them into good Babylonians who’d be the ideal ‘yes men’ for his civil service. And in the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon stand for the non-Christian world in every time and place. And we need to be aware that it’s out to make us conform to its ways of thinking and living. How? Well, look again at the end of v4 – Nebuchadnezzar commanded his staff ‘to teach [Daniel & Co] the literature and language of the [Babylonians].’
So take language first. Language is a very powerful tool for making people conform. Because language carries ideology that people want you to buy into – that’s what political correctness is all about. So just think of the ideologies that these words are trying to get you to buy into:
• ‘Partner’ – as opposed to husband or wife.
• ‘Unwanted pregnancy’ – as opposed to unborn human being
• ‘Inappropriate’ – as opposed to wrong
• ‘Assisted dying’ – as opposed to suicide
And by trying to make us use its language, the culture is trying to make us buy into the ideologies behind the language. And we need to be aware of that.
But then in v5 there’s the literature of the Babylonians. And in our time that would include not just books and what comes at you through the education system, but everything out there in the electronic and print media, TV, films, the internet and so on. Which are also powerful tools for making people conform. Eg, how many people emerge from science GCSE’s or A-levels or even degrees having been conformed into believing that evolution is fact rather than theory? Or how many people doing arts subjects are conformed into relativism or feminism or existentialism or some other agenda without even realising that’s what a writer or lecturer is out to do? We need to be aware of that, too.
There are also the more unsubtle social tools for making people conform – like Freshers Week and the initiation rites of sports teams. And then there are some much more subtle ones – like (in some medical schools) the invitation to medical students just to observe an abortion. But it’s never ‘just to observe’ – it’s the first step in socialising you to accept abortion.
And the lesson is: be aware that the world is out to make you conform. It doesn’t want you to remind it that Jesus is Lord. So it will try to make you live as if he isn’t. So what do you do to avoid conforming? Join a church, join the Christian Union and spend as much time as possible in the Christian bubble? No. Because the next lesson is:
Thirdly, BE STUCK IN TO THE WORLD – BUT DRAW THE LINE TO SHOW WHO OWNS YOU (vv8-16)
Look on to v8:
But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. (v8)
So Daniel didn’t say to himself, ‘I can’t possibly live for God in such an ungodly environment.’ He said to himself, ‘I can live for God here – but only if I draw the line to show who owns me.’
Now it’s not totally clear why he drew the line over food and wine. Some say: it was because the meat would have been non-kosher and broken God’s OT law. But: later in the book he does seem to have eaten their meat in some circumstances – plus: the law didn’t outlaw wine. So, some say: it was because the meat would have been presented to false gods. But: the same would probably have applied to the vegetables – and nothing explicitly mentions that as the issue, here. What is explicit is that they were being groomed to serve the king. Just look at v5 again:
The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king [ie, serve him]. (v5)
And in that culture, eating a portion of the same food the king ate and the same wine the king drank was a sign of your ultimate allegiance to him. So I think that’s the issue here. Daniel saw having the king’s food and wine as defiling in the sense that it would signify belonging to the king, giving ultimate allegiance to him. Whereas the opposite of ‘defiled’ in the OT is ‘holy’ – which means ‘set apart for God’, ie belonging to God and giving him your ultimate allegiance. So I think that’s why Daniel drew this particular line – to show that although he would serve the king, the king would never own him.
Now clearly there are some lines we must draw because otherwise we’ll be going outside God’s will. Eg, the Bible says his will is that we don’t get drunk or anything remotely close – so we must draw the line with alcohol very early on. But even when something is within God’s will, there are times when it may be best to draw a line and not do it, in order to say – to ourselves, at least – ‘My ultimate allegiance is to Jesus.’ So, eg, a Christian friend of mine called Alasdair played for the Cambridge University rugby team. And in the post-match bar session, they’d always try to get him to over-drink. And for a while he just had one pint – which is perfectly within God’s will – and then stopped. But his team-mates would taunt him and basically imply that they thought he really wished he could get drunk like the rest of them, but that his Christian scruples were stopping him. So what did Alasdair do? He went teetotal whenever he was with them and only drank Ribena and lemonade – for which they nicknamed him ‘the Ribena boy’ (nicknames are another powerful way of trying to make people conform, aren’t they? – ‘Drink like us and we’ll call you Alasdair; don’t, and we’ll call you Ribena Boy.’) So Alasdair drew the line to make it absolutely clear where his ultimate allegiance lay. Because he didn’t want to look like someone who secretly wanted to get drunk but was held back by his Christian scruples. He wanted to look like someone who belonged lock stock and barrel to Jesus.
So: be stuck in to the world – but draw the line to show who owns you. Now that always carries the risk of how people are going to react. Eg, if you don’t go along with the initiation drinking games, there’s the risk they won’t have you in the team. For Daniel it was the risk of Nebuchadnezzar getting wind of his stand, interpreting it as treason, and having him executed (and the rest of the book of Daniel shows that Nebuchadnezzar was perfectly willing to do that to people who crossed him). And vv9-15 describe how Daniel committed that risk to the Lord and how the Lord protected him in the stand he took. But for time’s sake I’m going to skip over those verses and end with a final lesson:
Fourthly, GROW IN WISDOM FROM GOD SO THAT YOU CAN INFLUENCE THE WORLD FOR HIM (vv17-21)
Look down to v17 to end with:
As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams. At the end of the time, when the king had commanded that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar. And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king [which means to serve him]. And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king enquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom. And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus. (vv17-21)
Isn’t that striking? Nebuchadnezzar puts them through his three year Babylonian education supposedly to get them up to speed with his other advisers. And by the end of it, they totally outstrip those other advisers, v20 ‘in wisdom and understanding’. How come? Well, look back to v17 again:
As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom... (v17)
Very simply, they outstrip the rest in wisdom because they know God. And wisdom – ie, the moral wisdom of knowing what’s right and wrong and being able to apply that in all the complexities of life – comes from God. And if you know God through Jesus, that’s a great privilege you have over others. So other students and teachers may be cleverer than you, have a higher IQ than you, be able to wipe the floor with you in an argument. But in knowing God and trusting his will as revealed in the Bible, you have wisdom which they don’t. So, eg, while they’re in the dark about how God intended sex to be used – and are misusing it to their harm – you have the privilege of being in the light. You have the privilege of knowing God’s design and being able to trust it and live by it – rather than living by experimentation and getting yourself more and more messed up. Now between us, we’ve made plenty of mistakes in that area and 101 others, for which there is forgiveness. We don’t by any means consistently live within the wisdom God has revealed to us in the Bible. But it’s a great privilege to have that wisdom to guide and guard us – especially if you’ve had it right from the word ‘Go’ through a Christian home. And don’t let the world tell you otherwise – that it’s a straitjacket, or that you’ve missed out. You haven’t. It’s the unbelieving world that’s missing out on life as God meant it to be – however much ‘fun’ it professes to be having.
And that’s why one thing God wants you to do in your time at uni is to grow in wisdom from him so that you can influence the world for him. Which is what Daniel did: he didn’t just come out of his three years with a degree in Babylonian law or international relations. He came out with wisdom, having got to know God far better than he’d done before. And that’s why he went on to have influence for God on Nebuchadnezzar and his country.
And this country needs Christians who’ll do more than just come out of uni as good doctors and teachers and lawyers (and so on) who just quietly keep their heads down. This country needs Christians who’ll influence medicine and education and the legal system and many other areas of public life for Christ. But you’ll only do that if you start as Daniel did. You’ll only take a stand for Christ in the future if you start taking a stand for him now. And if you do end up having influence for him in big ways twenty, thirty, forty years down the tracks, it will be because you started having influence for him in smaller ways today.