Advent 1 (NL)
December 3, 2017
Daniel 3:1, 8-30 (Fiery Furnace)
Before we get into our story, let’s set the scene. The story Daniel writes takes place during the exile. King Nebuchadnezzar has plundered the city of Jerusalem, and forced its residents to take refugee status, leaving their homes to relocate primarily in Babylon. Some of those Jews were actually given positions of high status – like Daniel himself and his three buddies, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who had been appointed over the affairs of the king. But high position or not, the Jews living in Babylon were oppressed: they were not allowed to own a Torah (their scripture), or circumcise their sons (as God commanded), or keep the Sabbath. And now, as we will see at the beginning of today’s story, they are being asked even to give up the most basic tenet of their faith: the first commandment. They are faced with the problem: do we take the path of least resistance and do what the king says, hoping that eventually God will lead us back home and forgive our sin? Or, do we stand up to the king and refuse to abandon who we are?
One other quick note before we get into this – this story is a form of political satire. We see political satire all the time today, in which elements of the truth are exaggerated to make a point or poke fun, and that’s exactly what Daniel is doing: the idol is impossibly large, the astrologers are know-it-all narks, and the king is painted as a big buffoon with rage issues. It’s really a pretty funny story. So – here it is!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
The Israelites were living in despair – unable to live into their identity as the chosen people of God, unable to worship, longing for their homes, uncertain for their future. Today, when we find ourselves in despair about a situation, we often look to humor for relief, and that is just what Daniel does here: he offers into this time of great despair, this piece of political satire. I think sometimes we get stuck in thinking that everything in the Bible happened just as it says, or something close to it at least, but to view it that way loses the richness of the biblical witness. Sometimes things aren’t true because they are factual. They are true because they draw us into deeper reflection on an essential truth of our faith, and in so doing draw us closer to God. In a time in which cries of “fake news!” have us questioning what we can believe, satire may get a bad wrap – but satire never claimed to be fact. Its purpose is to poke fun at something by exaggerating it, and in so doing, point us toward – and help us to see more clearly – a deeper truth.
So maybe this story happened just as Daniel says, and that would certainly have value. But I think this dramatic story is even more important and valuable for what it shows us about God, and about faith, especially as we enter today into this time of Advent and hopeful waiting and expectation for the coming Christ.
So, let’s start with that question… what truth about God does this story draw us into? I think there are many, but today, the truth that I need to see is this: that God is trustworthy.
The first and most basic way we see that God is trustworthy is in recognizing that God’s law wins over human law. We see this in the defiant act of the three men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Or rather, in their lack of an act. You see, the problem wasn’t that they did something, but that they didn’t do something: they refused to follow the orders of a pompous, arrogant, populist king, and instead to uphold the law God laid out in the 10 Commandments. In particular, the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” called this resistance an act of civil disobedience. He writes that civil disobedience “was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.” This letter of King’s, you may remember, was written to the clergy during the civil rights era, urging them to resist the laws of the land that went against the laws of God – namely, urging them to actively resist the racist practices and attitudes of the day. As he sat in jail, he wrote this strongly worded letter in particular not to the clergy who disagreed with him on racial issues, but to those who agreed with him, yet did nothing to push against the unjust, unfaithful laws.
It’s a brilliant use of this story. You see, the three men could very easily have just followed the silly command of Nebuchadnezzar. It would have been the path of least resistance, easy, at least in the short term. Their lives, their jobs, and their families would all be kept safe. There was no imminent risk involved in that decision. They could have done this, and maintained hope that God would understand and forgive them for their sins, knowing as God did that they were in a pretty tough, life-or-death sort of situation. Yet they don’t choose the path of least resistance. They choose what is right and faithful. They choose God’s law, because they know God’s law to be loving and true – even if it wasn’t, at that time, popular. The story of the fiery furnace offers us encouragement that following God’s law at any cost will always pay off in the end – not because it is easier, or because it reaps immediate benefits, but because it is God’s, and God is trustworthy.
A second point to glean from this story is in three simple words: “but if not.” When King Nebuchadnezzar gives the three men an ultimatum, saying they can bow down or be throw into the furnace, they say, “We know our God will save us.” That in itself is very trusting! But they don’t leave it there; they take it to the next level: “but if not,” they say, “we still won’t bow to your statue.” But if not. In those three words, the men declare that their trust and hope in God is unconditional. Their trust and hope are not based on God coming through for them. They are based on the mere fact that God is God, and is worthy of their devotion.
This is the point that my heart is really wrestling with this Advent season. I want to have a “but if not” faith – a faith that does not depend on the outcome, does not depend on God coming through for me in the way I had hoped. I want to have a faith that is solid and hopeful, even if things are not going that way I would like, even if, as is so often the case these days, I look around and think, “What is happening to this world?” I want the “but if not” faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego… yet I find myself wondering, “How do we hold onto hope, no matter the outcome?” How do we hold onto hope when the Nebuchadnezzars in our lives are demanding our loyalty, our time, or our hearts? When we feel our core values, even our very selves are in danger if we don’t choose to follow the path of least resistance? How do we live into the hope of which God assured us in our baptism?
“We believe God will save us from this threat,” the three men say, “but if not, we still will not compromise on that which is essential to who we are. We will not bow to that which does not give life.” Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego show us in their statement that maintaining trust in God is what is needed to maintain hope. They couldn’t be sure of the outcome. That furnace was awfully fiery, and death seemed certain. But because of their unconditional trust in God, they could maintain hope. You see, hope doesn’t mean everything will turn out okay. We sometimes confuse hope with optimism. No, hope is about imagining tomorrow differently. It’s about trusting in a reality that you can’t yet see, but yet you still know is in God’s hands, and knowing that if it is in God’s hands, then it will result in freedom. As we imagine that tomorrow, the one in God’s loving, freeing hands, we can begin walking toward it. That walking – that is hope.
And this brings us to the final point about trusting God: trusting that as we walk in hope, God walks with us. We see it in that fourth figure in the furnace – walking around with the three men, formerly bound, and now unbound. When I hear this story, I’m not moved by the fact that their hair didn’t get singed or that they don’t even smell like smoke (though I do love those details!). I am moved that their deliverance came in the form of God being present with the men, as they faced what threatened them, and that when God became present, they were unbound.
And that unbound presence – that is what this season is all about, after all, isn’t it? It is the promise of Emmanuel, of God-with-us. It is the hope that comes from upholding God’s law, knowing that if God commanded it, then it will bring life. It comes from living confidently a “but if not” faith, a faith that does not depend on outcomes, but only on the knowledge that God is trustworthy and good, more so than any earthly ruler or any tempting quick fix or any unresisting path. And it comes in the hope of knowing that wherever we walk, Christ, Emmanuel, walks with us.
Today, as we begin the season of Advent, let us in the spirit of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, find ways to resist: resist false idols offering false promises, resist unjust demands on ourselves and on the vulnerable among us, resist ever giving in to something that compromises who we are as children of God and followers of Jesus. Most of all, to resist falling into the despair that comes when one has no hope. With Christ as our light, and the fulfillment of promise on its way, there is nothing to despair. For through every fiery furnace of life, our God unbinds us and walks with us.
Let us pray… Trustworthy God, your very presence gives us hope. As we face the Nebuchadnezzars and fiery furnaces of life, make us confident in faith, and assured in hope, so that as we walk forward in hope we can be assured that you will be Emmanuel, God-with-us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.