Daniel 4: “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.”
I. Recognize the Craziness around us: a craziness of god-like thinking and wanting.
What would have happened if the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had returned to France from exile, not just once, as he did to fight the Battle of Waterloo, only to lose and get sent back to exile, but again, to try a third time for the throne he had already lost twice? That was the point of a delightful movie, made over fifteen years ago, called, The Emperor’s New Clothes. In it, a switch is made on the island of Elba, where Napoleon lived his last years in exile, so that a Napoleon look-alike stays on under British imprisonment. Meanwhile, the real Napoleon has been smuggled onto a ship, bound for France. There, some spies and agents await him, ready to declare him emperor and try, one more time, to help him conquer and rule Europe again.
But things go awry. For one thing, the Napoleon look-alike so enjoys the pampered life of luxury under British control that he conveniently neglects to declare himself for the impostor he is. And his captors are none the wiser. So the real former emperor of France has to live like a poor man and a beggar under the name of Eugene Lenormand, waiting for a declaration from the Island of Elba: “I am not the emperor—he is among you.” But it never comes. In fact, the impostor so much enjoys his life of Riley that he dies in that role, probably of too much wine and rich foods. From then on, all his efforts to declare himself the real Napoleon are met with laughter and scorn. “They just took away the last person who thought he was Napoleon! Take a number and stand in line!”
Among the peasants and the poor of inner-city Paris, Napoleon meets a boy and his mother, a grieving, recently-bereaved widow. She falls in love with him, and he with her. But when he keeps insisting that he is the Emperor Napoleon, and that soon, she shall be Empress of France and all Europe, she thinks he’s having crazy spells. She weeps and pleads with him to come to his senses and accept all the simple joys and pleasures of life already available to them, and not to risk it for some loony-tunes scheme for overthrowing the government.
But Napoleon remains un-dissuaded until one night a wrong turn lands him inside the walls of the grounds of a hospital and asylum for delusional and hallucinating patients. Especially for a certain kind of delusional and hallucinating patient. All of them are walking around with their hands inside their coats, with hats turned sideways on their heads, claiming to be Napoleon, Emperor of France and conquerer of Europe. Seeing such craziness, the former Emperor can’t help but wonder, “Which one of us is crazy, and who is sane?”
And that gets him to wondering: Is my quest for empire crazy? And the human cost of sending thousands of young men off to kill, conquer and die for my pride and ambition, what is that, if not crazy? Or that they would obey my orders to do so, at the cost of their lives, their loves, their homes and their humanity? Or that, having failed twice already, and at such terrible human toll, I should try it again? Especially when I already have enough to make me happy: a woman I love, who loves me, and her son, who looks up to me like a father, unlike the son I had by the empress Josephine? That’s the choice before the emperor: not so much if he would be king, but how he will be king, where will he be king, and over what kind of realm. Will he try again to rule a vast, un-manageable and corrupt realm taken by force, and ruled by fear, or a simple, sacred, peaceable and manageable realm of hearth and home where a queen and a prince already have given him their loyalty, out of love, which is already his for the pleasure of his love and loyalty in return?
I won’t tell you how Napoleon decides. But we know how King Nebuchadnezzar decided, for he could have turned in his crown and his scepter any day of the year. But he didn’t. According to today’s text, it was in fact taken from him for a time.
Archaeologists and historians have no independent record that I am aware of to the effect that, for seven years, Nebuchadnezzar was absent from his throne while he wandered the hillsides eating grass like a cow. But its not the kind of thing that the Babylonians would have wanted to post on their official imperial monuments. The unity and durability of their empire depended upon the emperor being seen as perfect, infallible, even as a god.
On the other hand, from what little I know of Babylonian religion, I wonder if his spell of madness may have impressed the priests and the magicians, astrologers and sorcerers in his court, who would have seen him crawling around on all fours and grunting, and thought, “Cool! He is indeed touched by heaven, a true son of the gods.” It would be entirely possible, within the magical, mystical pagan mind of much of the world even today, that people would believe that they could—and did—change places and shapes with animals, rocks, trees and other creations. If they had enough magical, mystical power to do so, of course. It happened all the time in their myths, magic and legends. Kind of like the man who told his doctor, “I keep feeling like I’m really a dog.” The doctor asked him, “How long has that been going on?” To which the patient answered: “Oh, a long time, doctor. Ever since I was a puppy.”
But the Jewish Bible says that Nebuchadnezzar only thought he was a beast. And so he acted like one. True to the human condition, it was when Nebuchadnezzar believed most that he was a god, that he became the most bestial and animal. And thereby the story also says what was unspeakable, dangerous and subversive in its time to say: that anyone with so much unlimited power and who cultivated and enjoyed the worship of others was in danger of going stark raving crazy. Because absolute power can corrupt more than our morals. Or that to give such power and worship to another human being, or to claim them for oneself, was already stark raving crazy. It might also be saying to Daniel’s friends, and to future generations of God’s people, that now that the impressive grandeur and glory of Babylon the Great is getting old and you’re starting to see how it has feet of clay, and that, in its success and excess it is sowing the seeds of its own coming decay and destruction, even while people worship it and their leaders, if you see through all that, you’re not the crazy ones. If you have started to wonder if this non-stop imperial compulsion to always either expand or die is crazy, or if the tendency to overreach and conquer more territory than it can control, defend and maintain is crazy, and to always stir up trouble on its margins to destabilize its neighbors and thus make enemies out of needed allies is crazy and self-defeating, then, no, you’re not alone. You can trust your God-given perceptions. Don’t give in to the worship of the emperor, his empire, and his gods going on around you. Its all crazy. And their days are numbered.
When Nebuchadnezzar got down on all fours and began eating grass, maybe it was not so much that God made him crazy. Rather, maybe God simply lifted the veil on the craziness of believing that our own powers match those of God; that we are entirely self-made people who alone are responsible for all the good things we have and have done. There’s even some irony in the fact that the king whose symbol and mascot was a four-footed animal– the lion– came to look like a lion, with a shaggy mane and long claws, but was reduced to acting and eating like a cow.
This is not just an ancient thing. In our recent economic turmoil, we have suffered from some of the same crazyness: banks, businesses and brokerage firms that got too big to fail, but which almost did fail after they went for wealth and rewards that were too good to be true. Or for nations to try policing the world and build other nations while their own bridges fall and their schools fail is also Nebuchadnezzar-like crazy-ness.
And its not just a political or a business thing. The one dark side of our wonderful new computerized technological world is that the more we can conceivably do, the more we are often expected to do. Or the more we may feel ourselves obligated to do. For example, how many of us grew up printing our own photos? Now we can, and its good fun if you have the time, the skill and the pieces of technology that communicate with each other. If not, it can be an exercise in sheer frustration, and a waste of time. The other morning I pushed the print button on my computer and nothing happened at my personal printer. It still hasn’t happened, and I’m not sure why. Its too complex for me. In my befuddlement I remembered how “printing” used to be something I did with a big fat number two pencil on a Big Chief tablet on a slanted wooden desk during second grade. And I started to miss those days.
New versions and advances in technology are being hawked to us all the time, on the self-evident virtue that they are new and improved. But will they really free up time for more important things, or will they eat up our time, take us away from God, creation and each other? If we suspect that that may be the case, it doesn’t mean that we’re crazy. And should the newest, latest thing break down, we see the other side of the coin: the more we can do, the more we are expected to do, until we can’t, for reasons beyond our control. And then we’re left more helpless than we were back in the days of number two pencils and Big Chief tablets. I call this compulsion to do as much as we can, because we conceivably can, “obligation inflation.”
Speaking of “obligation inflation,” yesterday we started that nine week non-stop season of holiday observances that someone called, “HalloNewThankMas.” I especially love the Advent and Thanksgiving parts. But it seems that there’s barely time to catch one’s breath after one big bash before the next one starts heating up. And if last year we sent 125 Christmas cards and attended 3 holiday parties and spent $600, then obligation inflation means that this year the pressure is on to send 145 cards, attend 4 holiday parties and single-handedly try to rescue the economy.
In the face of all this crazy-making obligation inflation, it might us help to survive and find our way if we remember that we serve a God who has been known to say No, a timeless God who even rested on the seventh day of creation. To survive and stay sane we must learn to recognize the craziness of imperial thinking and its attendant obligation inflation, and to hear instead the still, small voice of God reminding us that he is God and we are human, as Daniel did, and to trust our gut instincts, whenever we need to say, “That’s too much, that’s too far, or even, that’s just plain crazy.” That’s my first point this morning: learn to recognize the craziness of this imperial mindset that disdains our human limits and which constantly reaches for god-hood, whatever the cost. Sometimes, the most godly thing to say is “No” or “Enough.”
II That we regularly push the reset buttons on our sanity through prayer and worship.
And whenever we do recognize the craziness around us and taking root within us, then we need to push our sanity reset buttons. Which leads me to my second point: that we regularly reset our sanity buttons through prayer and worship; that we even think of prayer and worship as how we re-set our sanity buttons. People sometimes tell me, “My reset button is going for a walk in the woods, or a run, or listening to good music.” Which is great. Keep it up. But Christian prayer and worship have this element and this purpose that running, waling, yoga or good music may lack: they challenge the most supreme craziness, the hardest one to recognize and remove– the craziness of Nebuchadnezzar, believing ourselves to be entirely self-made people, no, make that, self-made gods.
For me, its not enough to challenge this craziness and push the reset button just once a week in worship, though that helps. Every day, every morning when I pray, there’s something settling and cleansing about lifting the eyes of my soul, up from all the undone and sometimes undo-able things clamoring for immediate attention, lifting them heavenward, to see and to remember who is God, and who is not.
Especially this week. It has been an especially busy week for me, and not just me alone. When my head starts buzzing with such busyness, I have found solace again and again in the words of the Psalm, “and then my soul remembered God (Psalm 77: 3).”
That’s when sanity returned to Nebuchadnezzar. “I raised my eyes toward heaven,” he said, “and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.” Indeed, that was sanity, remembering who God is and that we are not God. That’s the second step of Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step programs: “I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.” Believing that there is a power greater than ourselves IS sanity, as well as one of the first steps to it. When we do that, then the surprising thing is that we find out just how really truly remarkable we already are, how high and wondrous it already is just to simply be human.
III LIVE LIKE TRUE ROYALTY, IN SUBMISSION TO GOD
And that leads me to my third point: that we find our true glory in submission to God. Glorify God through prayer and worship, yes, but also through our simple human loves and labors, within our simple human limits. Just being human was already plenty for King Nebuchadnezzar to marvel at and rejoice over, without getting all full of himself. And so there is plenty for us to marvel at, even within the limits of our human knowledge and powers. Just to grow a garden, just to love and be loved, just to be able to talk, read, sing, laugh, love, tell jokes and stories, to be human, that’s pretty powerful stuff already.
If anything, I would say that maybe King Nebuchadnezzar’s problem was that he didn’t look high enough, that he wasn’t bold and daring enough, that maybe he was actually too limited, (dare I say, too humble?) in his boasting and his rejoicing. For he was only looking at worldly, temporary cities and towers and powers and walls and wonders and battlements and monuments. He was only looking to himself, and to his own powers and potential, when his heart rose up in boastful exaltation. He was rejoicing in great and glamorous things, all right, but great and glorious only in comparison with other human kings and empires. How puny.
In our propensity toward Mennonite humility and simplicity, which I encourage in this day of runaway arrogance and complexity, let us also remember that we are given, by God’s Word, a right and even an invitation to boast and to revel. But not in ourselves, nor in our works. “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord,” said the Apostle Paul.
Don’t settle for making comparisons based on the world and on people, like Nebuchadnezzar comparing himself with human kingdoms around him and before him. He was a big fish, all right. But only when compared to all the other minnows, in a very little pond. Let God and his eternal kingdom be the gold standard by which we measure ourselves and all things. While that might keep us humble and simple—how far we fall short of the glory of God—it will also give us every right and reason to rejoice and to revel. Again, not in ourselves, but in God and his love for us.
If anything, then, we are too timid. Jesus was not timid when he stood before Pilate, bound and beaten, and Pilate asked him, “Are you a king?” I can just hear the irony and surprise in his voice. Are you, this seemingly helpless and defeated man, betrayed and abandoned by his friends, humiliated by his enemies, rejected by his peers, probably already bruised, with one eye closed, by the beating he had taken by the mob and the henchmen of the Sanhedrin, are you the King of the Jews?
Jesus did not deny, but affirmed, “Yes—it is as you say….but my kingdom is not of this world.” That is either the stunning truth, or it is madness and presumption beyond the scale of Napoleon or Nebuchadnezzar. And if that is not wild enough, Jesus taught his disciples, ordinary, poor, suffering, oppressed and troubled men and women, to pray and to read the Bible as though they were kings and royalty too. Whenever we pray Jesus’ prayer and call God, “Father,” that comes right out of the Psalms for the enthronement of Israel’s kings and queens. “Today you are my Son; this day have I begotten you (Psalm 2). “Son of God” is a term of royalty from the Psalms. Jesus, “Son of God,” teaches us to pray like sons and daughters of God: kings and queens.
In which case, either Jesus is crazy, or he is right: that all who receive him become royalty and join him on his heavenly throne. We become kings and queens not over ever-expanding and warring empires, but royalty over our own realms of the soul, royalty in relation to God, not the world, royalty in our own hearths and homes, in our lives and our loves, not royalty who fight other royalty for dignity, territory, and glory, but royalty who bring out the royalty and dignity and glory in everyone else.
The proofs and signs of our royalty and our majesty are not the great works we do with little love, like King Nebuchadnezzar building the most impressive city on earth, by conquest and killing. Instead, our royalty is displayed in all the little things we can do with great love. Compared to God-given royal powers and titles like that, Nebuchadnezzar was humble and timid to a fault. To just settle for the title of some self-proclaimed semi-divine king of the greatest kingdom in the world of the time, when he already was a human being, a child of God and could have been royalty in the kingdom of God, now that is stark raving loony.
Nebuchadnezzar’s sad story of a crazy stupid choice—to consider himself a god for all the things he had done– tells us three things: 1) to recognize and be on guard against such craziness in the world around us, so that it doesn’t get into us; 2) and when it does, because it does, to reset our sanity buttons on a regular basis, especially by prayer and worship of the God who is God; and 3) find our true glory and honor where it really lies—in the One who made us and redeems us, and in the way he made us: human beings, the ultimate wonder of the universe, children of earth and heaven’s King, joint heirs with Jesus the Son, seated with him on his throne, saved and redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. What titles could match that? What more could we possibly want that would be less than all that? Why, that would be…. crazy!