Well, if you're a new student, I wonder what kind of first week or so you've had. I once asked someone that after this Welcome Service and he said, 'Well it's been a bit of a chequered week. I set the kitchen in halls alight 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 to be eighteen without knowing that?
My memory of my own Freshers Week is that I couldn't wait for it to be over. Not because I'm unsociable, but because all the events had three ingredients which make socialising impossible. One was such loud music you couldn't hear anyone. Another was so much alcohol that what you could hear was incoherent anyway. And the other was the pressure to get into bed with someone – which is the worst possible way to try to get to know people. And those ingredients haven't changed – they've just got worse. For example, no-one was handing out free condoms in my time.
And the irony is that everyone says, 'It's great going away to uni, because you don't have parents and teachers telling you what to do – you can be independent.' And then every new generation of students instantly surrenders their independence to what Freshers Week peer pressure is telling them to do. But I don't sit in judgement on that, because I remember what it's like to be uprooted and transplanted into a new place, where everything in you wants to fit in and make friends.
So my question in preparing this was, 'What part of the Bible speaks to that situation?' And my answer was Daniel chapter 1 – because if you're a student, Daniel was about your age. And he'd been uprooted from a home environment shaped by the Bible, and transplanted in the exile to Babylon – which, in our terms, was the most non-Christian place he'd ever been in. So we're going to ask Daniel chapter 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 please turn in your Bible to Daniel 1, which says four things about living wisely in a really non-Christian world. And the first is this:
1. Trust that Jesus is Lord, even when it doesn't look like it (vv1-2)
Look at Daniel 1.1-2:
"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."
So we're in the Old Testament – before Jesus. And God's people – the Old Testament equivalent of the church – were living in Judah. But they'd been so unfaithful to God that he'd allowed this king Nebuchadnezzar to invade them and take many of them into exile – including Daniel. And in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin I've seen one of the gates of Babylon which Daniel would have seen most days. It wasn't just the Brits who went round nicking things like the Elgin Marbles; German archaeologists did as well – including the entire Ishtar Gate of Babylon! It's a huge gate with walls coming out along a processional way, all in stunning blue brick. And along the walls are these lion figures trotting out from the city – as if to say, 'We're coming to get you.' And Daniel had been got. Well, look again at verse 2:
"And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into [Nebuchadnezzar's] hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God [i.e. 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."
And bringing things from the Lord's temple and sticking them in his own god's temple was Nebuchadnezzar's way of saying, 'My god has won. So yours must be either weak or false.' Daniel would have looked at the pathetic minority of believers like himself, and then at the Babylonian majority, who believed nothing of the God of the Bible and yet looked very successful, and he'd have been tempted to think that God really did look discredited. And we'll be tempted to think the same.
So for example, I remember one first year saying to me, 'It's not the temptations of sex and drink that I've found hardest. It's the way that I'm surrounded by people all living without Jesus – and yet looking really successful, and like they're enjoying life more than us.' In other words, atheism looks like it's won. And Christianity looks either weak or false. But look back to the start of verse 2:
"And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into [Nebuchadnezzar's] hand…"
So that's a reminder that it was God who let the exile happen, as a judgement on his peoples' unfaithfulness. And in the same way, the decline of the church in Britain has also been God's judgement on its unfaithfulness. And that's why Christianity in our culture has shrunk. It's not because the gospel is untrue. It's because much of 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 around us 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 everyone's going to meet in the end. And because those things really happened in history, they're true for everyone – and they remain true whether 95% or 5% of people believe them. The difference is that if it's only 5%, you need to be much more sure of why you believe the gospel is true, 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 and help to grow into your own convictions. Because whether you'd call yourself a Christian already, or whether you'd say you're still just thinking it through, 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 thing Daniel 1 says to us. The second is this:
2. Be aware that the world is out to make you conform (vv3-7)
Look on to verses 3-6:
"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 [i.e. 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."
So that was the equivalent for Daniel of starting at Newcastle or Northumbria Uni. And you can see the similarities. For example, in verse 3 there's 'the nobility'. So they'd be like the really well-off public school guys and girls who clog up Jesmond with their Golf GTIs. In fact, one article I saw said that Newcastle is the top university choice for old Etonians (quote), "because it's ideally placed between the grouse shooting of Yorkshire and the salmon fishing of Scotland"! I'm sure you took that into account when applying. Then in verse 4 there's the similarity that Daniel had been vetted for knowledge and learning. He'd done UCAS and got his grades. And then in verse 5 there's the most obvious similarity that 'they were to be educated for three years' – the standard undergraduate course.
But Nebuchadnezzar wasn't paying their tuition fees out of the kindness of his heart. He was out to make them conform. Because his aim was to turn them into good Babylonians who'd be docile, loyal 'yes men' for his civil service. Babylon stands for the non-Christian world everywhere. And we need to be aware that it's out to make us conform. How? Well, look again at the end of verse 4 – Nebuchadnezzar commanded his staff
"to teach [Daniel & Co.] the literature and language of the [Babylonians]."
So take language. It's such a powerful tool for making people conform, because it carries whole ideologies. That's what political correctness is all about. So just think of the ideologies behind these examples of language:
- '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 killing
- 'Gender identity' – as opposed to gender
And by trying to make us use its language, the culture is out to conform us to its ideologies.
So there's language. But then, verse 5 there's 'the literature' as well. And for us today, 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 social media, which are also such powerful tools for making people conform. For example, how many people are conformed, by the science textbook(s) they've been fed, into believing that evolution is fact rather than theory? Or how many people doing arts subjects are conformed into relativism or feminism or existentialism without even realising that's what a writer or lecturer is out to do?
So, language and literature make people conform. As do the far less subtle tools of manipulation – like Freshers Week and sports team initiation rites. But there's one other 'L' that Nebuchadnezzar used, and that was luxury – or living standard. Look at verse 5:
"The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank."
Last year, the Queen spent £1.4 million on food for entertaining, with wine sometimes £60 a bottle. That's the kind of stuff Daniel was getting, which was a dream standard of living, compared to Castle Leazes food, or compared to self-catering pasta and the odd eat-as-much-as-you-like-for-a-fiver blow out in China Town. But the danger is that we will conform either to get or to protect our standard of living. I heard a talk last week by the journalist Peter Hitchens. He's an atheist-become-Christian. And he said Britain is now worryingly like the Soviet Union, where he worked for many years, because a kind of state atheism and morality is being imposed by Government. And he said they don't make us conform by threatening our lives (old fashioned Soviet style) but by threatening our livelihoods – our jobs and standard of living. He said:
"It's… particularly clear to those who work in the public sector that there is no job security and… no advancement if you will not conform, especially to the… Equality Act [which is the new morality being enforced on us]."
And whether you're studying to get a job, or already in one, Christians may have to be willing to lose jobs in this country in order to be faithful to Jesus.
So that's the second thing. 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 how do we avoid that? Do we retreat from the world and just live in a 'bubble' with other Christians? No. Because the third thing Daniel 1 says is this:
3. Be stuck in to the world – but draw the line to show who owns you (vv8-16)
Look on to verse 8:
"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."
So he didn't say to himself, 'I can't possibly live for God in this ungodly environment.' He said, 'I can but only if I draw the line to show who owns me.' It's not clear why he drew this particular line. Some say: it was because any meat would have been non-kosher and against God's Old Testament law. But later in the book he does seem to eat their meat – and anyway, God's law didn't outlaw wine. So, others say: it was because the meat would have been dedicated to false gods – just like Muslims dedicate Halal meat to Allah during slaughter (you do realise that's what Halal meat is, don't you?). But probably the same would have applied to vegetables – and anyway, that's not explicitly said. What is explicitly said is that Daniel and his friends were being groomed to serve the king. Look at verse 5 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 [in other words, in his service]."
And in that culture eating a portion of the king's food and wine was a sign of ultimate allegiance to him. So I think that's the issue: Daniel saw that having the king's food and wine would defile him in the sense that it would signify belonging to the king, giving ultimate allegiance to him. Whereas the opposite of 'defiled' in the Old Testament is 'holy' – which means 'set apart for God', belonging to God, 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. For example, the Bible clearly says his will is that we don't get drunk – or anywhere near – 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 – at least to ourselves – 'My ultimate allegiance is to Jesus'.
So, for example, a Christian friend called Alasdair played for the Cambridge University rugby team. And in post-match bar sessions, they'd always try to get Al to over-drink. And for a while he just had one pint and then stopped. But his team-mates were always baiting him and basically saying, 'Look, the way you drink a bit means you must really want to drink like the rest of us – it's just these weird Christian scruples that stop you.' So what did Al do? He went teetotal when he was with them, and only drank Ribena and lemonade – for which he was for ever after nicknamed, 'Ribena boy'. So he drew the line to make it absolutely clear where his ultimate allegiance lay. Because he didn't want to look like someone who really wished he could get hammered 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. And the longer we leave it to do that in any new situation, the harder it becomes. So do it early. And if you've failed to, and messed up even this past Freshers Week, then take that to Jesus, who died to forgive you everything you'll ever get wrong, ask his forgiveness, and get going again.
Now drawing the line always carries the risk of how people will react. For example, if you won't do the initiation drinking games, there's the risk they won't have you in the team (pathetic as that is). For Daniel it was the risk of Nebuchadnezzar getting wind of his stand, seeing it as disloyalty, and executing him – which the rest of the book shows he was perfectly capable of doing to people who crossed him. And verses 9 to 15 describe how, instead of giving in to fear about that, Daniel trusted that risk to the Lord, and the Lord upheld him in his stand. But for time's sake I'm going to skip those verses and end with a final lesson, which is:
4. Grow in wisdom from God, so you can influence the world for him (vv17-21)
Look down to verses 17-20 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 [in other words, entered his service]. 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."
Isn't that striking? They get this Babylonian education supposedly to get them up to speed with the other advisers, but by the end of it they totally outstrip them "in every matter of wisdom and understanding". How come? Well, verse 17 again:
"As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom..."
So they outstrip the rest in wisdom because they know God. And wisdom – in other words, the ability to see and do what's right and best in life – comes from God. And if you know God through Jesus, that's a priceless privilege you have over others. Because in trusting his will as revealed in the Bible, you have wisdom they don't. So, for example, 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 – of knowing God's design, and being able to live by trusting it – rather than living by experiment and getting yourself more and more messed up in the process.
Now between us, we've made plenty of mistakes in that area – and 1,001 others. Christians continually fail to live within God's will, for all of which, like I just said, there is ongoing forgiveness. But it is a priceless privilege to have God's wisdom to guide and guard us – especially if you've had it from the word 'Go' in a Christian home. And don't let the world tell you otherwise – like you've been missing out. It's the unbelieving world that's missing out on life as God meant it to be – however much it projects the image of having fun.
And all of that is why, whatever else you do at uni, one thing God wants you to do in your time here is to grow in knowledge of him and wisdom from him, so you can influence the world for him, which is what Daniel did. He didn't just come out of his three years with a Babylonian Combined Studies degree. He came out with wisdom, having got to know God better than ever before.
That's why if you're a Christian new to town, you need to find, and settle quickly into, a good church. Christian Unions are helpful but optional. But being anchored in a church that'll teach you the Bible well is essential for growing in your knowledge of God in a way that sets you up for life. So please don't leave uni with a degree level knowledge of engineering or French (or whatever it is) but still with only a Sunday school level knowledge of your God.
Daniel went on to influence both Nebuchadnezzar and his country because he grew like that. And this country desperately needs Christians who'll do more than just come out of uni as good doctors and teachers and lawyers (and so on) who quietly keep their heads down. This country needs Christians who'll influence medicine and education and the legal system and every other area of 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 small ways, today.