In May, I was in NYC for my brother’s graduation from college, and while I was there, I wanted to find the right kind of walking shoe for the summer. I started looking through shoe stores in SoHo for the slip-on tennis shoe I had in mind, but by the time I walked into the second store on Broadway, I had given up my crush on ked-look-alikes and moved on to a leather oxford with a bit of a heel. Where did that desire come from? I’d never spent a moment looking at them online before my trip, or in any stores once I’d arrived; I hadn’t even noticed that there were any pairs that style in stores, but suddenly, I was overcome with this burning desire for oxfords. I moved from store to store, in pursuit of the perfect pair.
Many of you are aware I’d been taken in by the ubiquitous advertising of the fashion world—leather oxfords with a small heel are all the rage for spring. After a few days of walking around in New York City, seeing the shoes on women on the street, on billboards on buildings and in the subway, and on manequins in store windows, the image had lodged itself in my head, and I had no idea it was weaseling itself in there until I had a sudden and unquenchable thirst for these classic leather shoes.
In today’s Scripture lesson (Daniel 1:8-15), Daniel just isn’t refusing Babylonian biscuits and gravy, or turning down a grass-fed filet. By “not defiling himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies,” Daniel is standing up to the lie that Babylon is trying to pass off on him. Daniel knows the truth—life is found in no one else, there is no other god or person or philosophy or lifestyle on earth that gives the kind of life that following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does.
Actually, our language has done us a great favor— “Babylon” continues to be a label used to describe those things in our world that are corrupt and evil. We are called to be Daniel here, today, in 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina. We are called to reject Babylon, to purpose in our hearts to not defile ourselves with the portion of the king’s delicacies. We are called instead to eat fruits and vegetables, those things which will truly build us up, give us the energy we need in order to live good, joyful lives, attuned to God and to each other.
Just like Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as the Tempter offers Jesus bread, and the ruling of kingdoms, and the service of angels, there’s nothing inherently evil about bread or being a world leader or about angels’ help. There’s nothing wrong with wearing beautiful clothes, or watching television, or enjoying grass-fed filet mignon.
How many more malicious desires and ideas take root in our minds and hearts when we’re not looking? Television like the Real Housewives might be one—have you ever noticed what happens to you after you watch shows like that? I’ve found that I’m usually crankier, more tired, and most discontented with my life than I was before I sat down on the couch, even though my purpose in sitting down to some mindless TV was to relax. I’m less-relaxed, less-calm, less-rejuvenated when I finish Millionaire Matchmaker or Scandal. These shows lull me into new expectations about how exciting and shiny and sexy my life should be; my little bungalow with its husband, and garden, and German Shepherd in South Carolina suddenly looks very, very dull—and it happens without me realizing it. I snap at my husband and I roll my eyes at vacuuming; surely the Real Housewives don’t have to deal with dog hair or with ironing.
How about Don Draper? We are desensitized to advertising all over and around our lives. Just like suddenly developing an urge for those oxfords, it’s a given matter of course that the ads on the edges of our pages while we surf the web are related to the shopping sites we visited earlier in the day, and the emails we receive in our inboxes are tailored to appeal to our particular weaknesses and consumer habits.
It is a lie to believe that what we ingest doesn’t matter. Our culture is becoming very aware of the importance of the sorts of things we eat, but by the same token, our culture tries to tell us that what we watch and read and talk about and worry about and focus on doesn’t matter, it doesn’t shape us nearly as much as the food we put in our mouths. This is the lie of Babylon that Daniel identified and purposed in his heart to resist.
We’re being lulled to sleep, thinking that what really matters is whether we are eating ethical shrimp or fair-trade zucchini. Though ethical food and fair-trade practices are vitally important to our lives as Christians and citizens of this created world, we ought to spend at least as much time considering the kinds of influences we allow in our own lives and in the lives of our families. Are we ingesting the kinds of television shows, music, radio programs, novels, movies, and conversations that help us to stay awake, or do the lull us to sleep?
It’s not a coincidence that we read Daniel wanted to eat vegetables—celery and kale do not make you want to take a nap. They keep you alert. Babylon wants to make you fall asleep; to not realize what is happening to you until it’s too late. We are the proverbial lobsters or frogs in the pot on the stovetop. Just a little bit of discontentment sneaks in to start with, we repeat the same annoying story about our spouse or best friend, and after a few times, we start to believe it. The water starts to warm up, and we start to believe the lie that others’ lives are naturally more glamorous and peaceful than ours. Soon, the water is boiling and we’re cooked—we didn’t even notice it.
This is what happened to Walter White in Breaking Bad—a timid high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer without having smoked a day in his life. He eased up next to evil under the guise of providing for his family by starting to cook and sell very pure, very cheap meth. A few seasons later, he’s a drug kingpin in the Southwest.
My friends, we live in Babylon. We are strangers in a strange land. We are offered all sorts of shiny delicacies by the king every day. As we notice all the moments that shove tempting, sleep-inducing food beneath your nostrils, let us remember Paul’s words: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
A version of this sermon was preached at Downtown Church in Columbia, SC, on July 20th, 2014.