Jim Zazzera, Faith Presbyterian Church
Have you ever been an alien? Not a creature from another planet, but a resident in a land
where you were not at home with the language, the culture, the customs. Perhaps some of you are or have been aliens even in this land, in the United States, in Sacramento.
Recently, Lena and I were traveling outside this country, and we were temporary aliens in some other cultures. Even though we were traveling in Europe, a familiar culture to us, we still felt the strangeness of not being at home.
Many things were different .Some things differences were trivial – even silly. Did you know that in Austria, mustard comes in tubes like toothpaste? Some things were more challenging. Long German words were not the easiest thing for us. Some things were kind of fun. How great it was to discover a chalet every few miles on a Swiss mountain trail! Some things were dangerous. There were a few times we had to save each other from London traffic! Yet wherever we went, we were constantly reminded that we weren’t in Kansas (or Sacramento) anymore!
To understand today’s story, we need to understand what it must be like to be an alien. It is helpful to have a sense of what it must have meant for Jews to live in Exile.
This story takes place not in Israel or Judah but in Babylon, the heart of an empire in what is now modern day Iraq. The Jewish characters in the story are living in exile from their ancestral home, under the rule of a foreign king, surrounded by customs and habits that were not native to them, removed from the city of Jerusalem and the Temple and challenged by the religions that did not give allegiance to the God of Israel. They were exiles and aliens – they were not at home.
Daniel 1 reminds us of the background of today’s story:
In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it…Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans.
While these men were fortunate in being taken into the royal court, they were fully expected to accomodate to Babylonian culture. They were to fit in with the elite classs called the Chaldeans. It was so important for them to embrace the culture, that these men were given Babylonian names: Hananiah became Shadrach, Mishael became Meshach, and Azariah became Abednego.
The particular chapters that precede our today’s reading give us some sense of the challenges these people faced as they sought to maintain their faith while becoming part of the Babylonian culture.
Chapter 1 describes the education and preparation of these men to serve the Babylonian King, but also describes Daniel’s resistance to the Babylonian diet. He would not eat what was served to everyone else. In all probability, Daniel was trying to maintain his own ritual purity as a Jew, and devised a plan which not only avoided the typical Babylonian menu, but allowed him and his companions to develop more physical strength and wisdom than any one of the King’s servants. In the end, scripture tells us,
In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.
Evidently, Daniel’s alien diet plan worked in Babylon!
Chapter 2 is a story that features Daniel again, this time for his ability to interpret dreams. King Nebuchadnezzar had been having nightmares, and he called for the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and Chaldeans. The king asks these leaders to not only interpret his dream, but to tell him exactly what his dream is. They refuse, saying that “no one can reveal this to the king except the Gods.” At their refusal, the king commands that all these “wise ones” should be destroyed. But before the executions, Daniel gets wind of this, and he and his companions seek out the wisdom of their God, the God of Israel. God enables Daniel not only to interpret the King’s dream, but to tell him exactly what the dream was about.
The dream itself was a dream of a a huge statue representing the king’s current rule and the empires of the earth. Though it celebrates Babylonia as the ‘golden head’ of the statue, the end of the dream reminds Nebuchadnezzar that there will be kingdom that will “crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end.” The conclusion of the dream is that God’s kingdom shall stand forever.
Evidently, Nebuchadnezzar is satisfied with this interpretation given by God, falls on his face to worship Daniel, prays to the Daniel’s God whom he calls the “God of Gods and Lord of kings” and then gives new power and position to Daniel and his friends. Again, these men have figured out how to make their way as aliens in the land.
But all this is the setup for the drama to follow. Perhaps inspired by his own dream, Nebuchadnezzar decides to create a huge statue of his own image, about 100 feet tall. The king has a dedication ceremony for the statue and the passage carefully reminds us of all the important people who were invited. Still, not content to simply stroke his ego, in this dedication ceremony he also demands that everyone worship at this statue and acclaim him as a God. In fact, he crafted a little (almost comical) method to get people to do this.
We are told in verse 5:
when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue.
Like some late night talk show theme song,every time the band played – people were commanded to bow in worship. And as if to underline this, anyone who didn’t worship was to receive a free one way trip to a fiery furnace where they would be destroyed.
As you can imagine, this did not sit well with the Jews who were part of this king’s court. For you see, to worship Nebuchadnezzar as a god would mean unfaithfulness of the God of Israel. And so it happens that the king finds out, from “certain Chaldeans” —perhaps a bit jealous of these young Jewish men—that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not bowing down in worship of the statue.
In keeping with his personality, Nebuchadnezzar flies into a “furious rage” and asks that these men be brought in for questioning. It is this questioning that is the heart of the story. It is this questioning that shows the true character of these men. In short, the king asks, “are you ready, when you hear the music, to fall down and worship the statue?” If not, you will be thrown into the “furnace of blazing fire,” and the he adds these provocative (and almost cynical) words:
and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answer quickly, simply, and profoundly. Let me quote it exactly:
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 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.
They are willing to go to the mat for their faith in God. They do not waver at all in their commitment to this God. Though they are exiles seeking to be at home in this strange land,
there is a line they will not cross. They are willing to be cast into the fire. They are willing to stand up for what they believe.
Some of you might know that this is Reformation Sunday, a day when we remember the lives of those who were foundational to our faith as Protestants, and who sought to bring faith back to parts of the church that had gone astray. At their best the Reformers of the 15th and 16th Century offered a corrective to the abuses of the church in their day. And though the Reformation was rocky and imperfect, many reformers paid for their commitment to Christ with their lives.They saw an institution in dire need of change. And so they challenged the powers of both church and state.
The church (and this world) is always in need of reforming. And standing up for what we believe always costs us something. For Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, it meant that they would be cast into a furnace. For many of the Reformers it meant death, excommunication, or imprisonment.
What might it mean for you?
Think about it, what if God is calling you to be a person of peace in a violent society? How will that go for you? What if God is calling you to be a generous person in a world marked by greed and materialism? How will that go for you? What if God is calling you to demonstrate accepting grace in institutions that are set on excluding people? How will that go for you?
We may not have to walk into a furnace, but we pay a price nonetheless. Our actions may not have the dramatic impact of a 16th century reformer, but we can still be called to radical faithfulness.
There is another interesting (and important) thing in the passage about how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego respond to the king. And it is something that causes me an even deeper appreciation of these men. They say, “if the God we serve can deliver us – that is great—but if not…” we will still not serve your gods or worship at your statue.
BUT IF NOT. Isn’t that a curious thing to say? If God chooses to deliver us – we celebrate that. But if not – but if not – we will still be faithful. Could you do that?
It was a more contemporary reformer, Martin Luther King, Jr. who helped me see this insight in a sermon he preached on this very text. I love what he says about it right in the middle of his sermon:
It came to the point after saying “Our God is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, but! if he doesn’t deliver us, we still are not gonna bow.” “But if not” — do you get that? That these men were saying that “Our faith is so deep and that we’ve found something so dear and so precious that nothing can turn us away from it. Our God is able to deliver us, but if not…” This simply means, my friends, that the ultimate test of one’s faith is his ability to say “But if not.”
You see there is what you may call an “if” faith, and there is a “though” faith. And the permanent faith, the lasting, the powerful faith is the “though” faith. Now the “if” faith says, “If all goes well; if life is hopeful, prosperous and happy; if I don’t have to go to jail; if I don’t have to face the agonies and burdens of life; if I’m not ever called bad names because of taking a stand that I feel that I must take; if none of these things happen, then I’ll have faith in God, then I’ll be alright.”…
There is a “though” faith, though. And the “though” faith says “Though things go wrong; though evil is temporarily triumphant; though sickness comes and the cross looms, neverthless! I’m gonna believe anyway and I’m gonna have faith anyway…”
Is my faith an “if” faith or a “though” faith? If my faith a conditional faith or it is a “nevertheless” faith? I am not sure I know. Yet I pray for that deep “though” faith.
You see the ability to say “but if not” is critical to our life with God. The ability to say “no matter what happens, no matter what I see, I will follow you!” That is the demonstration of real faith. Because we will not always see God’s intervention. Because we will not always feel God’s presence. As resident aliens here in this world, we will struggle with many challenges and pressures.
Jesus himself anticipated this in his own teaching: Remember when he told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The world gives us a recipe for “saving our life” but we are often called to lose the life the world offers us. Because our hope in not in what the world offers. Our only source of hope, our only source of power, our only source of meaning is in the one we follow, Jesus, who is known to us as the Christ. He is the one there with us in the fire. He is the one, in life and in death, whom we follow.
Next Step 10-26-2014
Reread the passage. This is a vivid story. What stands out to you? What makes you wonder? What makes you smile? What challenges you?
This story is set in the time when the Jewish people were in exile from their home in Israel & Judah, when they were aliens in another place. Have you ever been (or felt like) an alien? What did you do to fit in? What did you hold onto that made you stand out?
What can you say about King Nebuchadnezzar from this passage? What was his character? Does he change or grow in this story (read though the end of the chapter for more insight).
How would you describe the response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to the King’s demands? Have you ever known anyone like that in your experience? Describe them.
Have you ever stood up for something in the face of strong opposition? What were the consequences of this “standing up?”
Read verses 17-18 again. The three men affirm that they believe God will deliver them from the furnace. But they continue, “but if not…” and assert that whether God delivers them or not they will still not worship the King as God. Think about your own faith. Would you still follow Christ knowing that your faithfulness may not be rewarded with deliverance from difficulties?
Read verses 24 and 25. Nebuchadnezzar notices that not only are the three men not burned up, but that there is someone else in the furnace with them. Who is this? (The passage does not really say.)
In his sermon on this text, Martin Luther King Jr. comments, “if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live.” Those are strong (even harsh) words – but they make an important point. What would you be willing to die for?
Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25) This is one of Jesus’ most difficult and profound sayings. What does it mean to you?