This has been a crazy couple of weeks for our family. The last time I preached was on Easter Sunday, and in my sermon, I talked about one of the many promises of the empty tomb which is the reality that because the tomb is empty, we know that suffering, disease, and death have a shelf life. I also mentioned that since my mother received back surgery to correct a disk that was pinching one of her nerves about two months ago, that she had been battling a bacterial infection and was recently hospitalized to clean out the infection that had potentially spread to her spinal column. Two days after our Easter service, I received a call from my aunt shortly after I walked into my office at the church; I could tell that she was very emotional. I asked her what was wrong, she proceeded to tell me that my mother was unresponsive, and her kidneys were failing. It appeared that my mother’s life was hanging in the balance.
To give you a sense for how fast my mother’s health was deteriorating let me give you a brief timeline: On April 5th, her kidneys were shutting down. By April 6th, she was completely unresponsive. I got on the very first flight I could on April 7th to Fort Myers, FL. On April 9th, we learned that she had suffered a stroke. Later in the day, my mother was put on dialysis, and upon learning that I was not only my mother’s firstborn son, but also a pastor, I was told by her nurse who is also a Christian: “I believe that you are able to hear what I am about to tell you, so I am going to just say it: Your mother is in very, very critical condition and I am not sure she will pull through this.” My mother is only 63 years old; to have a bacterial infection in your body is very serious, to have suffered a stroke is a very serious, to experience kidney failure to the point of needing to be put on dialysis is very serious, but to suffer all three at the same time is dire.
Now, I need to be honest with you. My preparation for this sermon has been reduced to an ongoing meditation over these verses in multiple flights, in multiple airports, between tears, with tears, inside the hospital, outside the hospital in the parking lot, on long walks, and in the local YMCA where I workout every time I visit with my mother and stepfather. All the while I have not doubted the goodness of a sovereign God who loves me, but have instead clung to that truth while pleading for my mother’s life to be spared. How does Nebuchadnezzar’s epiphany of the reality of who God is after experiencing seven years of insanity inflicted upon him by a God who loves him (too much to leave him to his idols), speak into our broken world full of suffering and death? What was the epiphany? Look with me at Daniel 4:34-35,
“At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:34–35)
For the sake of time, I will reserve a fuller treatment of Daniel 4 next week. What I want to do with the time that we have today is answer how the truth of verses 34-35 is good news for the people of God. So let me state what it is that these verses are saying then unpack my statement. According to Daniel 4:34-35, God is eternally, paternally, and benevolently sovereign.
God is Eternally Sovereign (34b)
We are told that King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream. Some scholars believe that this is the same king described in the first three chapters, others think it is Nabonidus who is believed to have taken the throne from Nebuchadnezzar’s family and identified as Nebuchadnezzar in the same way that Saddam Hussein did before Iraq was invaded. I will talk more about the significance of this next week; regardless of who the king is, the point is still the same: Nebuchadnezzar, the kings of nations, and all the inhabitants of the earth are “accounted as nothing” (v. 35).
Every day that I was in Florida, I visited with my mother to read the Bible to her and to pray over her. On April 8th, while she was unresponsive, I read to her through tears, Isaiah 40. One of the verses says of God: “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales…. To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isa. 40:15, 18). The answer is that you can’t compare God to anything that comes close to him because he is infinitely greater than all things! All the kings of the earth and the nations that they rule are together likened to a droplet of water in hand of the Almighty!
Daniel 4 begins with the lesson Nebuchadnezzar learned from being humbled by God: “How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation” (v.3). While walking on the roof of his royal palace, the king forgot who he was in light of who God is which was evidenced by his own thoughts: “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (v. 30). Listen, it is not only arrogant to think that you are the captain of your own ship, but also insane to believe that it is your power and might that determine the ultimate outcome of your life. You are alive today because God allowed you to wake up this morning, not because of a piece of cloth you put over your face or 6 feet between you and the person next to you.
My mother did not end up with kidney failure because of something careless she did. She did her research, met with several surgeons who were experts in their field, picked who she believed to be the best doctor, and ended up with a bacterial infection that led to kidney failure and then a stroke. I can respond to what has happened to my mother as the result of chance and random circumstances, but by doing so, I must conclude that any of the following is true of God: distant, uninterested, incompetent, or nonexistent. The Bible leaves no room for any of those conclusions. In fact, in Daniel 4, God is referred to as, “The Most High” six times in reference to Nebuchadnezzar’s place on earth: The “Most High God” rules not only in heaven but on earth (see vv. 2, 17, 24, 25, 32, 34).
If God is indeed eternally sovereign, then there is nothing in himself that he needs to improve upon. To be eternally sovereign means that he had no beginning and will have no end. He is the standard of all that is right and good.
God is Paternally Sovereign (v. 35a)
For God to be paternal is for God to be fatherly. I understand that for God to be paternally sovereign, he must be an especially kind God. When reading Daniel 4, it is easy to conclude that the story is entirely about Nebuchadnezzar’s self-exalting pride and how God humbled him, but don’t miss Daniel in the story. At this point in the story, Daniel is between the ages of 40-50. For a good thirty years he has lived in Babylon as an exile. Think about the two men for a moment. Nebuchadnezzar was the king of the most powerful empire while Daniel remained a slave. Nebuchadnezzar lived in a palace surrounded by a harem while Daniel remained single, castrated, and alone. Nebuchadnezzar owned the known world while Daniel was an alien with no family and no hope of decedents to carry on his family legacy. Daniel had lost everything after he was carried off to Babylon while Nebuchadnezzar gained the world. Many would have thought it to be perfectly reasonable for Daniel to be bitter at life and angry with God, but he wasn’t.
For some who hear that God, “…does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?” is not good news. However, for Daniel, a God who is eternally sovereign must be paternally sovereign. How so? If God is eternally sovereign, then he must be moving all of history towards something and according to Daniel 7 and 12, that something is really, really good. According to Daniel 2:21-22, it is an eternally and paternally sovereign God who, “changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.” Repeatedly throughout the Bible we are assured of a God who is able to move people, time, and history to accomplish his purpose for his glory and our good. God even uses calamites according to Isaiah 45:7, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.”
As we will see later as we work our way through this sermon series, Daniel understood that God was moving and working in his life to accomplish and create something beautiful. However, this is something we all too easily forget.
After visiting my mother twice on Thursday, April 8th, I decided to get a workout in at the local YMCA gym. During my workout, Joe walked up to me to thank me for wiping down all the equipment I used. As Joe and I talked, I learned that he is a 77 year old veteran who served two tours in Vietnam. Before I had the chance to tell Joe anything about myself, he shared his frustration with me about “Christians” who think that suffering only comes to those who anger God. I also learned that Joe attended seminary and has studied multiple religions during his lifetime. He told me that he believed that the reason why people suffer is because we did this to ourselves and that God stepped back and is out there somewhere allowing us to continue making a mess of our mess.
I told Joe why I was in Punta Gorda, and that I also serve as a pastor in Cheyenne, WY. In response to his statement about God watching from a distance with a hands-off approach to our suffering, I told Joe that I come at the whole suffering thing from a different perspective from what I read from the Bible. I told Joe that I am convinced that God in very much involved with us in the midst of our suffering and that he is turning it around into something beautiful. I shared with him about my son’s narcolepsy, my wife’s multiple surgeries to address her chronic and debilitating pain, and I shared with him my mother’s life-threatening and dire medical condition. Then I said something that I needed to be reminded of in that moment and what I would need to hold onto that very next day; I said to Joe: “It is an arrogant thing to assume that I am able to judge just how good God is by my own standard of goodness.” I then said, “Joe, if God is God then he does not need to get better at being good; we need to get better at being good, not God.” Joe said to me: “Wow, I never thought of it like that before.”
The reason why Daniel 4:35 is good news, is because God is perfectly and inexhaustibly good. God is so good, that he can even use something so evil as the crucifixion of Jesus and turn it around into something so beautifully for our good and his glory, just as the apostle Paul reminds us of in Romans 8:31-34:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Romans 8:31–34)
God is paternally sovereign in that he is for his people and not against them.
God is Benevolently Sovereign (v. 35b)
If God is eternally sovereign, and if he is paternally sovereign, then he must also be benevolently sovereign. To be benevolent is to be generous. What do I mean? What I mean is that if God has no need to improve upon his goodness, then all that comes into our life is not purposeless or happenstance. Even if it does not make sense to you, you can still lean into the God who is for you and not against you! Consider the bookend verses of the book of Job which is the story about one man who seemingly lost everything: Job begins, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (1:21); Job ends with, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). In other words, the story of Job is essentially a lesson that God is eternally, paternally, and benevolently sovereign over all things.
You can respond to suffering with the understanding that God is for you and will one day use your pain and tears for a purpose that is redemptive and beautiful, or you can respond in a short-sighted way that only sees God as distant, mean, abusive, or uninvolved. Let me tie this up by sharing with you something that happened to me on what was the most difficult day for both my stepfather and I that illustrates how we sometimes feel.
When we learned that my mother had a stroke on Friday, April 9th, we cried. That afternoon, I decided that I would spend the day at the hospital to visit with my mother and to pray. When I arrived at the hospital, I was told I would need to wait until the nurses were finished prepping her for what would be her first dialysis treatment. When they were finished, the nurse found me in the waiting room, and it was then that I was told that she was in “very, very critical condition.” I was only permitted a few minutes to visit with my mom before they started the dialysis; during that time, I read Psalm 121. Maybe I read that Psalm to remind myself of something I needed to hear again, maybe I thought my mom might be able to hear me, looking back on that day, I think it was for both reasons I turned to Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper…” (Psalm 121).
After I prayed over my mother, I decided to get some air and pray just outside the hospital. Everyone who knows me understands that when I am troubled, I pace. I found a nice shady spot under some trees to pace and pray. One of my prayer requests had to do with what I should do regarding my conference I was scheduled to attend with Bryan, Scott, and another friend of mine. On a pastoral level, this has been a challenging year for me. Leading through a pandemic in the midst of divisive politics and racial tensions has been a challenge to say the least. The ‘Together for the Gospel’ Conference theme this year was titled: Jesus is Greater. The schedule of the conference included six breakout sessions and eight keynote messages, and lots of worship surrounded by lots of people in Indianapolis. So I prayed for wisdom, and I contemplated the possibility that my mom might night live. While I was praying and pacing, something happened to me that I had not experienced since I was child: a bird pooped on my head!
I think the only word that came out of my mouth was: “Really!” Then after I cleaned myself off and moved myself away from the dangers that loomed in the trees above. I laughed. Then the though occurred to me that most people feel like what happened to me is a metaphor of their entire lives: getting pooped on by life’s circumstances. I can assure you in the moment that bird pooped on me, God’s response was not: “I got him!”
God is for you and not against you. What he is doing in my mother’s life, what he is doing in your life, and what he is doing in my life is the same! He is using the circumstances of your life for your good. You might not see it now, and you might not see it on this side of eternity, but he is turning the hard things in your life into something beautiful. I know this because of what I read in Daniel 4. I know this because of what I read in Holy Scripture and my experience of God is that he is eternally, paternally, and benevolently moving all things towards reversing the curse of sin, and making all things new through the work he accomplished through his Son on the cross and through the empty tomb. God is able to do this because he sovereignly does all things according to his, “will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth.”
I am able to cling to the goodness of God in hope, with the confidence that a good God is working his sovereign will, even if things do not go the way that I hope and pray because God does not need to improve upon his goodness.