Wednesday, April 5, 2017
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
The story of the fiery furnace and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who are thrown into the flames yet come out unsinged, is pretty remarkable. It's one of those "Sunday school stories" that we teach to our children because it tells us something amazing about God and about faith. "Those three men believed in God with such faith that, even though they were thrown into the fire, they were not harmed," we tell them. And there is no doubt that it is an amazing story of faith and God's deliverance. But I think that the real power of this story comes not in the fiery furnace but in the conversation before it, and, if we only judge the power of God and the faith of these three men by the outcome, we've missed the point.
Along with Daniel, for whom this book of the bible is named, these three were exiles in Babylon. They had lived in Jerusalem when the city fell to the Babylonian siege, and they were carted off to a far away land where they became slaves of Nebuchadnezzar. The Book of Daniel was written to chronicle the lives of these exiles and portray for God's people what it means to be faithful under extreme circumstances. How will they stay true to their Jewish faith despite living away from home? How will they worship without the Jerusalem temple? How will they keep kosher? How will they carry on as faithful children of Yahweh when Yahweh is presumed to be back in the holy land? Nebuchadnezzar is a narcissistic megalomaniac who has assumed semi-divine status and who demands absolute obedience and loyalty. Anyone who crosses him--anyone who questions his power or rivals his control--is likely to be killed.
This story is about their struggle, and their faith has gotten them into trouble. Nebuchadnezzar had set up an image of gold and had commanded that, whenever the appointed music began to play, everyone was to stop what he or she was doing and fall down to worship the image of opulent wealth and projected power. Of course, a faithful Jew cannot do so. To worship--literally to bow down, to prostrate oneself as a sign of obedience, reverence, and allegiance--anyone but God alone is forbidden. And so these three stood upright, refusing to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar's image. They knew the punishment--to be thrown immediately into the fiery furnace--but they stood up anyway.
Nebuchadnezzar was furious. "Is it true," he asked them, "that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up?" He gave them a choice. "I'll give you another chance. If you are ready to fall down and worship whenever the music begins to play, you will be spared. But if not, you will be thrown into the furnace, and who will save you then? What god can rescue you from the heat of my anger?" And then the three men offered the most profound statement of faith in reply: "If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up."
Actually, the NRSV seems to do their response injustice by linking the "if" of the conditional statement with God's ability to save them: "If God is able to deliver us..." Most other translations (e.g. CEV, ESV, NIV, KJV, RSV) render it as "If this be so, God is able to deliver us..." Their unwavering faith suggests that they have no doubt that their God has the power to deliver them. Whether he will or not seems to be the real question. And the remarkable part of their faith is their willingness to accept a tortuous death and still not doubt God. "We believe that God is able to save us," they say. "But, even if he doesn't, know this: we will never serve your gods or bow down to the golden image you have set up." Their faith in God does not depend on whether God shows up in dramatic fashion to rescue them. Even if they die at the hand of this evil, godless tyrant, they still believe in the God of their people.
Might these words have been written for us as well? The Book of Daniel is not only a chronicle of the lives of the exiles who lived in Babylon. It was written as a source of encouragement and instruction for those who find their faith in God challenged by the secular authorities of the world. Sometimes the rulers of the earth are aligned against God and God's ways. Sometimes the faithful find the precepts of their faith in conflict with the laws of the land. What should they do? How do they remain faithful? To which authority will they give their allegiance? To which god will they fall down and worship?
We have the luxury of living in a country that has enshrined the free exercise of religion in its laws. Rarely is the conflict between our faith and our government as serious as the conflict that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced, but that does not mean that our faith is not challenged or threatened by those in positions of authority. In the face of earthly power, how do we stand up for the kingdom that God has inaugurated with the humble, self-sacrificing, reign of Christ? How do we challenge those who attack the way of peace and love? How do we stand up for those whose voices have been silenced by a tyranny of irrational fear?
We respond in faith--faith like that of these three exiles. Their faith does not depend on God answering their prayer in a particular way. It is not defined by God's willingness to show up in the way that they demand or even in the way that they need. Their faith is not proven in the fiery furnace. It is proven in their willingness to offer themselves--their whole lives--to the uncompromising belief that God is God and that God's ways are the true source of life and hope. Will that be our stand? Will we let our faith be our strength even in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity? Will we trust that God will use our faithfulness to help establish God's kingdom more fully in this world even if it costs us everything? Will we believe in God and God's ways so completely that we will stand up for justice and peace until it comes or until it costs us our lives?