"Some People Never change?"#88-09
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on November 1, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Daniel 4
You've probably heard this phrase before; I'm almost certain of it. You might've even said it. It's usually said when a person is frustrated or disappointed in someone who's let them down for the umpteenth time. See if you can fill in the blank: "Some people never ..." Change, right? Some people never change. What does that mean? I don't think I've ever heard it as a compliment. It's usually said with this tone, "Some people never change." You might've seen examples of this. You knew someone, "That guy was as mean as a snake when he was in school and only meaner still now that he's old." Smart people tell us, "Don't try to change people." Some might even say, "People never really change." On the other hand, you could cite examples of people who have changed, profoundly changed, changed for good. Well, there's exceptions to every rule, of course. There are exceptions to the rule. The question is what do we make of the exceptions practically? What do we make of them? When you're dealing with a person who seems to be a lost cause to you, what do you make of that person?
How do you know whether or not that one day they might prove to be an exception to this rule: that some people never change? The Old Testament book of Daniel tells of a surprising exception to this rule. In what is now modern day Iraq, there are many archaeological digs. People have been digging around there for more than 100 years. And in these digs, they find lots and lots of bricks, bricks that once belonged to beautiful buildings, bricks that bear a name. Hundreds of bricks, stubbornly, unchangeably stamped with one very proud name, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Daniel 4 speaks of this Nebuchadnezzar and God's power to make exceptions to our rules.
Daniel 4 is unique because it is a first-person account from Nebuchadnezzar himself. It's a letter from King Nebuchadnezzar to the nations in which he tells how he became a changed man. It seems that he has written this letter in the last decade of his life, perhaps when he was in his 60s or early 70s. And for the last 30 years, he has been invading and pillaging and conquering, doing what Babylonian kings do. He stomped down all those people and stamped all those bricks because he wanted people never to forget his legacy. But now near the end of his life, he's a changed man. What happened? For the last 30 years or so, Nebuchadnezzar has gotten to know a Jewish slave named Daniel. Daniel was captured by the Babylonians and taken into forced service to serve the king, Nebuchadnezzar. And over time, he became one of Nebuchadnezzar's most trusted advisors. Daniel grew up in Babylon. And when Nebuchadnezzar wrote this letter, Daniel was probably a middle-aged man, maybe in his 40s. Over the last three decades, Daniel has witnessed how the one true God, his God, has used him and his friends to have a profound influence on this pagan king.
And now the king of Babylon is starting to look toward the King of the Jews for hope and inspiration. Nebuchadnezzar is starting to change, but not so fast. We all know that people like Nebuchadnezzar don't really change. He's the king of Babylon for crying out loud, people like him don't change. Besides, this Jewish story about the one Creator God—all-powerful, good, and wise, and benevolent who created everything out of nothing, and then when His human creatures fouled it all up, He chose a people and promised to send a King who would restore the original goodness of the creation, change the world and change people—this sounds like a fairytale to the Babylonian ear. In the Babylonian story of the world, things never really change. People never change. For the Babylonians, there is no good Creator God who created everything in the beginning. In the beginning, it was survival of the fittest—chaos and bloodshed, wars and revolution. In the beginning, there was a war of the gods, and these gods hunted and preyed on one another until one group of gods evolved and reached the top. The Babylonian gods, of course, and the Babylonian gods then from the mangled corpses of their defeated foes created humankind to be their slaves. And the most prominent of humans is the king of Babylon. And the king of Babylon's job is to reenact this violent victory of his gods by waging a war against everyone everywhere as long as he sits on the throne. It sounds harsh, but that's just the way it is.
Some things never change, or so the story goes. And this is what King Nebuchadnezzar has believed and acted out for the duration of his adult life. That's why he stamped all those bricks. But now, the Nebuchadnezzar that we meet in Daniel 4 wants to leave a different mark on history. He's a changed man. Now, his old way of imagining the world still clings to him, you can hear that in the letter, but you can also hear how he's changed. Daniel, his trusted advisor, has taken the words of Nebuchadnezzar and incorporated them into his book, his witness to the one true God.
So, listen to the king's own account of how he became an exception to the rule in these excerpts of Daniel 4.
"I, King Nebuchadnezzar was at home in my palace, contented, prosperous, when I had a dream that made me afraid. As I was lying in bed, the visions and images passing through my mind terrified me, so I commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be brought before me to reveal the meaning of the dream for me. I told them the dream, but it's meaning they could not make known to me. Finally, Daniel, who is also called Belteshazzar after the name of my god, in him is a spirit of holy gods. I told him the dream, I said to him, 'Belteshazzar, I looked and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the earth. Its height was enormous; the tree grew great and strong so that its top touched the heavens. It was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant. On it there was food for all. Underneath, the wild animals found shelter and the birds lived in its branches. From it, every creature was fed from it.
"In my vision as I was lying in bed, I looked and there before me was a watcher, a holy one coming down from heaven. He called in a loud voice, 'Cut down the tree, cut off its branches, strip its leaves, scatter its fruit. Let the beasts flee from underneath it and the birds from its branches. Let it stump with its roots bound in iron and bronze remain in the ground, in the grass of the field. Let it be drenched with the dew of heaven. Let it dwell with the beasts. Let its heart be changed from that of a man, and let it be given the heart of a beast instead, until seven times pass by for it so that the living may know that the Most High rules over the human kingdom and gives it to whomever He pleases, and sets over it the lowliest of men.'"
And Belteshazzar answered, "My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its interpretation to your adversaries. The tree that you saw that grew large and strong with its top touching the heavens, visible to the ends of the earth—your majesty, you are that tree. You have grown great and strong. Your greatness reaches the heavens, your dominion extends to the distant parts of the earth. Your majesty saw a watcher, a holy one, saying, 'Cut down the tree and destroy it, and leave its stump on the ground.' This is the meaning; it is a decree of the Most High is against my lord the king. You will be driven from humankind and dwell with the beasts of the field until seven times pass by for you, until you know that the Most High rules over the human kingdom and sets over it whomever He pleases. The command to leave the stump in the ground with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you know that heaven rules. So then, your majesty, be pleased to accept my counsel. Break away from your sin toward what is right. Turn from your guilt by showing mercy to the oppressed, perhaps your prosperity will be prolonged."
Now, at this point, Daniel breaks from the scene, and he relays the details of what happened next. Nebuchadnezzar did not take his advice, at least not initially. He continued to boast in his greatness. And then about a year later, God humbled him, struck him with some sort of mental illness, and he began to behave like a beast. He let his hair grow like the feathers of an eagle, and his fingernails curled in like talons. And then, Daniel brings Nebuchadnezzar's voice back in to tell us how it ends.
"At that time, I Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason was restored to me, so I blessed the Most High. I honored and glorified the One who lives forever because His dominion is an eternal dominion, His kingdom endures forever. My nobles and advisors sought me out and I was reinstated to my kingdom. Now I, King Nebuchadnezzar, I praise, I exalt, I glorify the King of heaven because everything He does is right, and all His ways are just. And all those who walk in pride He is able to humble."
As I listened to Daniel 4 this week, one thing became apparent to me. Daniel actually cares about Nebuchadnezzar. He cares about this violent, arrogant tyrant. He cares for him and he believes that his God has the power to change him. Daniel knows that his God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving sins, pardoning transgressions, removing guilt, Daniel knows his God is working not to destroy this man, but to change him, to call him to turn in faith toward life with the one true God.
Did Nebuchadnezzar come to faith? Will he stand with the faithful in the resurrection when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead? Will he be in that number when the saints go marching in? I sure hope so, but I don't know. I do know that if our God had the power to raise His Son, Jesus, from the dead—and He did, then He can change a person, any person. I suppose this is why we say, "Some people never change." It's not all people, but some people never change. But how do you know which kind you're dealing with? And what would it cost you if you were to hope, if you were to believe, that every difficult person you meet is an exception to this so-called rule? What if you believe that no person is a lost cause? What if you believe that no one is outside of the sacrificial love of Jesus? What if you believe that no one is beyond the transformative power of God's Word, yourself included? What would you lose if you believed that? Maybe some heartburn, maybe some bitterness and resentment. And maybe you'd gain some patience and understanding, so much so that you might stop altogether saying this phrase, "Some people never change." And instead you might say, "Jesus changes people. Jesus changes people."
There will still be cases of exceptional unbelief and unrepentance, cases like Judas who betrayed Jesus. There will be awful cases of people who do terrible evil that horrifies us, and baffles us, and reminds us that we are not in control. Even if we are voters in the most powerful democracy of the world, we do not rule over the human kingdom. We do not have the power to change anyone, but we know the One who does. We know the One who set over the human kingdom, the lowliest of men, the crucified Man. His Son, Jesus, whom He raised from the dead. Jesus, the King of the Jews, is risen from the dead. In Him, God made the exception, the rule. So I believe it's true, Jesus changes people, and you are no exception. Would you pray with me?
God, Father, all-powerful, You alone can recreate, You alone can reorient, You alone can redeem the human heart. By the power of Your Word, Jesus the Messiah, enliven the words and witness of Your people around the world to change hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. Living hearts that look to You in faith through the same Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.
Reflections for November 1, 2020
Title: Some People Never Change?
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For free online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. And now back to Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you Mark. Today I'm visiting with Dr. John Nunes. He's the president of Concordia College in Bronxville, New York. New York. Thanks for joining us, Dr. Nunes.
John Nunes: Great to be here.
Mike Zeigler: So John today is All Saints' Day, and I've heard you use this phrase about the word "tradition." You say that tradition has to do with the living faith of those who are deceased, the living faith of the saints. Why does that phrase speak to you?
John Nunes: Jaroslav Pelikan is the person who coined that phrase, and he has a little book called The Vindication of Tradition. You know, sometimes people put down tradition and say, "Well, that's the stuff in the past." And this phrase is what he's addressing. He says, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead." And then he contrasts that and turns it on its head, and he says, "Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." So he's essentially saying tradition is a good thing, traditionalism, not so good.
Mike Zeigler: It's not impersonal practices, but it's the living faith of those who've gone before us, and that's what All Saints' Day is about, is commemorating, remembering that living faith that goes on.
John Nunes: Yeah, for me, that living faith, and that notion comes alive when I think about my father, and I'll say his name, Neville Nunes, who died in October of 2016. He was just an incredible educator. He was a role model for me. He taught me the faith. He taught me how to fold my hands and pray. And he is in many ways still with me. The faith that he believed and confessed is the faith that I believe and confess. And it unites us and keeps us together. In other words, God keeps that tradition alive in me. And I remember him, and there's a great power to remembering those who have gone before us. It's the living faith of the deceased.
Mike Zeigler: Last week we mentioned the book that you co-authored with Alberto Garcia, it's titled Wittenberg Meets the World: Reimagining the Reformation at the Margins. And John, in the book you suggest that we would be blessed to remember a saint that few people in North America might be familiar with, an Ethiopian pastor named Gudina Tumsa.
John Nunes: He was just a remarkable figure in the growth of the Ethiopian church, Mekane Yesus. Mekane Yesus itself is a great term. It means the "place of Jesus." They call their church body the place of Jesus in the Amharic language.
Mike Zeigler: I like that.
John Nunes: And Tumsa was one of the leading founders of this church body. He in the 1970s refused to capitulate or to give in to the Marxist government. The Marxist government told the church that it must preach the tenets and the teachings of Marxism. And Tumsa, as the leader of that church body, refused to do so. And he was arrested because of that. And they tortured him. They released him and he went back to his pastors in his church body, and he said, "If the government prohibits us from proclaiming the Gospel, we have an obligation to proclaim it twice as much." So they arrested him again and tortured him again. And this time he died. But the faith that he believed, taught, and confessed, grew and grew, and that church continued to explode in its growth. When people see people making sacrifices, like the sacrifice that Tumsa made, they ask themselves, "There must be something about this belief in Jesus that is really real that would lead someone to give his or her life for the faith." I wish we could capture some of that in North America.
Mike Zeigler: In the book that I mentioned earlier, Wittenberg Meets the World, you talk about how followers of Jesus are called to practice that kind of faith that you were just mentioning, and that kind of way of being community—a community that's not defined along ethnicities or nationalities, but defined by Jesus Christ. So how has the way that we are called to be community as the church different than other ways of being a community?
John Nunes: I love that this day is called All Saints, but not just like saints who are just like us, but all saints. And I believe that we as Christians have a unique opportunity that social movements and social justice movements don't have. I think we understand at a deep level what sin is. If anyone says that he or she is without bias, they deceive themselves and the truth is not in them. But we can confess our sins and God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins of racism, our sins of bias, our sins of prejudice towards other people. And God will provide for us a pathway forward that is built on reconciliation. The reconciliation that Jesus Christ has won for us. Why? Because we couldn't figure out how to do it ourselves. So I believe that we have a unique opportunity as Christians to bear witness to the reconciling, forgiving, community-making power of Jesus Christ.
Mike Zeigler: You tell an interesting story at the end of your book about when you came as a new student, a freshman, to Concordia University, Concordia College Ann Arbor, and coming up against that categorization of people. Tell us that story.
John Nunes: I like to describe it as the day I discovered I was black. Because I got to Concordia College, and they had this campus census data forum, and the first category was black. My father is very black. He's Afro-Jamaican, black and proud, say it loud, Marcus Garvey. So I checked that box and then the next category was white. So my mother, she's Scottish highland see-through white, translucent. So I checked that box. And the next category was a Spanish surname. Our last name is N-U-N-E-S. We have no idea how we got the name. It's actually Sephardic Jewish, but that wasn't on the form. But Nunes is a Spanish kind of name, so I checked that box. I think I had every box checked except maybe Asian Pacific Islander. And the next day the guy who keeps the census came to me and he had an apoplectic fit. He said, "You can't be all these boxes. You got to be one thing." So I wondered to myself, "Why can't I just be the child of God that I am? Why do I have to fit into some kind of box?" What I love about Christianity is that there are no boxes. The boxes have been obliterated. The dividing walls have been torn down by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)