The Axe is at the Root
A sermon based on Daniel 4:19-37
Sunday, December 8, 2013 – Advent 2A
One of my college roommates was a dreamer. Not in the sense that he had big plans to change the world. And not in the sense that he was a space cadet, daydreaming when he should have been focusing. I mean he had a lot of big dreams while he slept. And apparently they were very vivid dreams. He would talk in his sleep. He would walk in his sleep. He would wake me up asking where the VCR was because we would fail Greek if we didn't get it back to Professor Deutschlander by 3am. Sometimes it would take some effort in the morning to convince him that what he dreamed wasn't real. And I admit, we'd often have some fun at his expense because of his dreaming.
Are you a dreamer? Have you ever had a dream that was so vivid, so real, that when you woke up, you weren't really sure if it had actually happened or not? Have you ever had to call someone to verify that it was just a dream? If so, you might understand how King Nebuchadnezzar may have felt one morning. He had a dream that left him terrified. While he slept he saw a massive tree touching the sky, visible to the whole world, full of fruit and shade caring for all the animals beneath its branches. But then an angel came from heaven and ordered that the massive tree be cut down. And Nebuchadnezzar woke up.
"What did the dream mean?" he wondered. Surely, it had to mean something. It was too vivid, too real to be the product of late night snacks. It had to be a message from God. But what did it mean? So he called one of his advisors, a man named Belteshazzar, who had a track record for interpreting dreams with insight and precision that could only come from God. (You know this man as the prophet, Daniel.) And Daniel interpreted the dream of Nebuchadnezzar. We read about it in Daniel 4…
19 Then Daniel (also called Belteshazzar) was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him. So the king said, "Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or its meaning alarm you."
Belteshazzar answered, "My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries! 20 The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, 21 with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the beasts of the field, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds of the air— 22 you, O king, are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth.
23 "You, O king, saw a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, 'Cut down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump, bound with iron and bronze, in the grass of the field, while its roots remain in the ground. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven; let him live like the wild animals, until seven times pass by for him.'
24 "This is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: 25 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes. 26 The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules. 27 Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue."
I. Be Humbled in Repentance
Interpreting dreams for a king can be risky business. If the king didn't particularly care for your interpretation, well, let's just say, the life expectancy of an interpreter of dreams was usually pretty short. Understandably, Daniel was terrified at the thought of breaking the news to the king and a bit perplexed at how he was going to do it. He would certainly have no fun at the expense of his dreaming king. But Daniel answered to another King, a King of even greater authority than Nebuchadnezzar. He answered to the Most High. He answered to God. So Daniel faithfully reported the message of warning to the king of Babylon.
And he offered this sound advice: Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue."
Does that advice sound familiar? Sounds a lot like what John the Baptist said to the Israelites, doesn't it? "The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Matthew 3:10) So, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." (Matthew 3:2) It sounds a lot like the advice that God gives to us. Jesus said in Revelation 3:19 "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent."
So what happened with Nebuchadnezzar? The story continues…
28 All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 he said, "Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?"
31 The words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven, "This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. 32 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes."
33 Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.
Sadly, Nebuchadnezzar didn't follow Daniel's advice. Oh he may have toned it down a bit in his wickedness. He may have been a bit kinder to the oppressed. But he didn't get at the root of the problem: the pride and arrogance that consumed his heart. And he suffered the consequences. Insania zoanthropica is a mental illness that still happens today sometimes. It's where a persons is convinced he or she is an animal. For seven years Nebuchadnezzar lost his sanity. He believed he was an animal. With hair grown long and wild, mangy like dirty feathers, his nails grew long and curled like claws. He slept on the ground, ate grass in the wild. He literally went insane because of his pride.
But you know, all of us by nature are Nebuchadnezzars. We too like to have our backs patted, our wonderful qualities praised, our good deeds recorded and reported. Pride is still a very big problem for a lot of us. "Thank you God, that I'm not like those other people," we may think. "Look at all I've done! Look at all I've built for the glory of my majesty!" Pride is the poison in the root that kills the whole tree. And you know that the Proverb is true today that "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." (Proverbs 16:18) You know that "every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Matthew 3:10)
The greatest virtue before God is not courage, bravery, intelligence, or even purity, but humility. Without humility, no true repentance. Without true repentance, well… "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor… burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:12)
So what do we do? How do we humble ourselves before our God? Well, we start with an honest self-evaluation. Take a perosnal inventory. See how well you're doing. Have a hymnal handy? Turn to page 156. There you get a pretty good tool for self-assessment. Ask yourself, "How well [have I] carried out my responsibilities as…
· A husband or wife or single person, as a parent or child, an employer or employee, a teacher or student?
· Have I loved God with all my heart, gladly heard his Word, and patiently endured affliction?
· Have I been disobedient, proud, or unforgiving?
· Have I been selfish, lazy, envious, or quarrelsome?
· Have I lied or deceived, taken something not mine, or given anyone a bad name?
· Have I abused my body or permitted indecent thoughts to linger in my mind?
· Have I failed to do what is right and good?"
This self-assessment is one that no honest person can walk away from thinking, "How wonderful am I!" It will bring about a change of mind—and that's what repentance really is: a change of mind—about who we are, how good we are, and well we're doing before God. It will humble us, and strip us of our ungodly pride. Then, when we "realize [we] have sinned against God and deserve his punishment… [we] confess before God all [our] sins, those which [we] remember as well as those of which [we are] unaware. [We] pray to God for his mercy and forgiveness." (CW, pg. 156)
Don't wait for God to take away your sanity. Don't wait until you're forced to live like an animal. Don't wait until the Reaper comes with the winnowing fork in his hands. For then it will be too late. No! Today! Right now! "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20 and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus." (Acts 3:19-20)
II. Be Exalted by Grace
Okay, pop quiz: Who wrote the book of Isaiah? Right. Isaiah. Who wrote the book of Micah? Micah. Good. You're two for two. Who wrote the book of Matthew? Did you guess Matthew? Right again! Now, who wrote the book of Daniel? Daniel… and…? King Nebuchadnezzar. He wrote a part of the book of Daniel. He wrote a portion of the inspired Scriptures. He wrote God's Word. That's significant, I think. I think it gives us a pretty good indication of where Nebuchadnezzar is right now.
You see, Nebuchadnezzar didn't stay crazy. By the humility that God brought about by his insania zoanthropica God also humbled Nebuchadnezzar's heart. He humbled him to lead him to a godly repentance that not only repented of his sin, but that also turned him toward heaven, toward the true God, toward the Most High. This is what Nebuchadnezzar wrote:
34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.
His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35 All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: "What have you done?"
36 At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.
Seven years later, the wild homeless man, with nails and hair grown obscenely long, with seven years of dirt caking his body, finally humbled himself, surrendered himself toward God and "raised [his] eyes toward heaven," as if seeking God's mercy.
And God showed mercy. He restored Nebuchadnezzar's sanity. He restored his honor and his kingdom. He restored his friends and his throne so that Nebuchadnezzar "became even greater than before." What mercy! What grace God showed to exalt Nebuchadnezzar and lift him up after he had humbled him for a while.
And if Nebuchadnezzar could turn toward God and surrender himself to God's grace, how much more confident can we, who have seen the work of the Savior, be as we surrender ourselves to God's mercy!
Nebuchadnezzar lived in the wild eating the grass like an ox to become humble. God sent preachers like John who lived in the wilderness eating locusts to lead us to humble ourselves. Nebuchadnezzar lived like a beast to learn humility. Our humble Savior was born among beasts to save us from our pride. The road to heaven is narrow and big heads just can't fit through its gates. But thank God that our Savior's head was pierced with thorns, not just to take us down a notch, but to lift us up to heaven.
Go back to page 156 in Christian Worship: "How do [you] receive his gracious forgiveness? His Word assures [you] that Jesus led a pure and holy life for [you] and died on the cross for [you] to pay the full price for all [your] sins. Through faith in Jesus, [you] have been clothed in [your] Savior's perfect righteousness and holiness." And today he gives you the added assurance by his very body and blood to forgive your sins and sweep away any doubts about his love for you.
So trust in Jesus' forgiveness won for you! And you'll be able to humble yourself without fear! Of course you're a sinner! One who's forgiven in Christ! Trust in Jesus' forgiveness won for you and then you will have true repentance. For true repentance isn't just turning from sin in sorry and humility. It's also turning toward heaven, toward the Most High, toward God's grace given to you in Christ. That's the difference between the repentance of Judas Iscariot and the repentance of Simon Peter.
And that kind of repentance isn't really our work. It's God's. He humbles, just as Nebuchadnezzar said: "Those who walk in pride he is able to humble." He exalts, just as Peter said: "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus." (Acts 3:19-20)
So let him do his work! Be humbled in repentance. Be exalted by God's grace. And then respond! Produce fruits in keeping with repentance. Do as Nebuchadnezzar did: "[Praise] the Most High… [honor] and [glorify] him who lives forever… praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just." "Daily thank and praise him for his love to [you]. With his help… fight temptation, do [your] best to correct whatever wrongs [you] have done, and serve him and those around [you] with love and good works." (CW, pg. 156)
And as you do, he will continue to humble you as needed. He will continue to exalt you by his grace. And that's not just a dream. It's a promise. In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.