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Hope in Exile

In the beginning, God didn’t build a city or an empire. He planted a Garden. And in it, He placed His image: Human beings. The Garden would be an organic Temple where God alone was worshiped. Until the image-bearers turned their gaze in on themselves. Centuries later they would construct a city, Babel, and in it, they’d build a Tower for their own renown. Babel became a babbling mess, but humans have ever since been bent on idolizing themselves.

In his book, Surprised by Hope, NT Wright describes the dynamics of self-idolatry in detail, worth quoting in full:

“When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around. Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sex objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.”

These were the same temptations of self-idolatry that have faced the people of God throughout history.

But let's jump to the time of the Babylonian Exile where we meet a man named Daniel. In the first few verses of the book of the same name, we’re told that Daniel and his friends were Israelites from the tribe of Judah, led away as exiles to Babylon. The city was obsessed with building its own imperial image. Recall in Genesis 11, where the people of Babel tell themselves: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (v. 4). Babylon wasn’t interested in being God’s image-bearers. From Genesis to Revelation, Babylon stands in total opposition to God and His people, with its Old Testament climax at the destruction of Jerusalem and exile in 587 BC.

Exile was a cunning tactic used by the Babylonians to erase the identity of the nations they conquered. So in the first chapter of Daniel, we read of King Nebuchadnezzar’s attempt to “Babylonify” his Jewish captives by bringing the cream of the crop to Babylon. They were to be educated in the literature and language of the Babylonians for three years followed by employment in the king’s palace. The aim was to get them to look like Babylonians, to walk and talk like Babylonians, even to eat and drink like Babylonians. They would be coerced to join the ever on-going, God-defying, self-glorifying construction of a spiritual and cultural tower of Babel.

But Daniel and his friends stood firm. As a faithful Jew, Daniel “resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank” (Dan. 1:8). Daniel knew that it was only God in heaven who could reveal the meaning of the king’s dream (Dan. 2:17-19). As worshipers of the One True God, Daniel’s friends refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, no matter the fiery consequences (Dan. 3:12). And as a servant of the Living God, Daniel continued to pray boldly to God alone three times a day despite the threat of being thrown into the Lion’s Den (Dan. 6:10). Daniel could refuse the summons of Babylon and its self-idolatry, because He worshiped the One True God.

In chapter seven, Daniel comes face to face with an imposing figure that dominates the rest of the book:

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed."

The Son of Man would ascend to the Ancient of Days, to take up His Kingship over all the world. Daniel had come face to face with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. His allegiance wasn't to any earthly master, but to the world's true Lord. And his hope in the One True King informed his every decision as he lived as part of a minority in a domineering culture. Our identity informs our loyalty and our loyalty informs our actions. When our identity is in Christ and our loyalty is toward Him, our actions will glorify Him too, no matter the pressures of the prevailing culture. It's an inside-out kind of thing.

If we base our identity on anything apart from God and His Word, we’re like that foolish man who builds his house on the sand (Matt. 7:26-27). The rains come, the flood rises, the wind beats against the house of your life, and it comes crashing down. In his book “Here & Now: Living in the Spirit”, Henri J.M. Nouwen wrote “Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity and power is a false identity- an illusion! Loudly and clearly he says: 'You are not what the world makes you; but you are children of God.” As a child of God, Daniel was able to reject the false identities of success, popularity and power – the building blocks of the Tower of Babel. Instead, Daniel trusted God to be the builder of his house. The trials did come. But the Rock stood firm. And the Heavenly Architect was pleased. When finally, as an old man, he passed away, one could imagine Daniel being welcomed into God’s presence with a warm embrace, saying “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23).

Tragically, the Jewish Exiles did not follow Daniel’s example. When they returned to Judea, they brought the heart of Babylon with them. The prophet Haggai rebuked them for rebuilding their own houses while the temple lay in ruins (1:7-11). They were making a name for themselves. And it gets worse. When they finally do get around to reconstructing the Temple, the priests themselves defile God’s house by building their own rooms within the sanctuary (Neh. 13:4-9). The very place dedicated to the worship of God’s Name, had become the place where Israel worshiped itself. This self-idolatry continued through the Hasmonean period after the Maccabees, coming to a head with Herod the Great, who embellished the Temple through what was probably the largest scale construction project in Jerusalem’s history. All for the sake of his own fame. And the High Priests had joined in. No wonder Jesus saw it necessary to cleanse the Temple (Mark 11:15-19). The Temple had become another Tower. Our churches and ministries can similarly be fronts for the same self-idolatry if Christ is treated as a supporting act to the "look-at-us" show.

Jesus came to build a Kingdom not of this world, unlike Babylon. He would be the One to build His church. We’re not the architects, engineers, or even the stone masons working on His house. We’re just the stones. Living stones, hewn out of the Rock itself, rejected by people but precious and chosen by God (see 1 Pet. 2:4-6). All we need to be is available. May we, as Exiles in a spiritual Babylon, be known as a house built on the Rock, good and faithful servants over a little, people greatly loved. Loyal image-bearers until He comes. Just like Daniel.

Walk with the King... you bear His image.

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