Scripture Daniel 3
I first learned this story in my children’s Bible that I had as a kid. It was a pretty small book of selected stories, not very thick, and each one-page story had a corresponding image and I vividly remember on the left hand side, the illustrated picture is of these flames done in the style of Eric Carle, with three, skinny brown men with white cloths around their waists, with black hair looking up with pleading expressions on their faces and arms held up in a “help me” gesture. I don’t really remember any other image or story from that book but for that one - and as a child, my take away was about God’s protection in saving these three men from the fiery furnace.
Fast forward maybe 10 years or so and I heard another interpretation of this story - one shared by Larry the cucumber and Bob the tomato in Veggie Tales - and if you haven’t seen the story of Rack, Shack, and Benny working in Mr. Nezzer’s chocolate factory making chocolate bunnies - I highly recommend the watch, it’s on YouTube, it’s aged pretty well - and the take away from that story for me as a 13 year old was about not giving in to peer pressure; don’t do something you know is wrong just because it’s cool or because other people that you like and admire are doing it. Probably a pretty good take away for a teenager, honestly.
It’s amazing how as we grow, stories may stay the same, but we glean different meanings out of them.
The book of Daniel is a fascinating book. The story is set in the 6th century - around the time of Israel's exile. To catch you up on your biblical history, the Babylonians had conquered the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was, and had taken many of the people (primarily important people actually - the nobles and religious authorities) into exile. Taken them away from their homeland. Eventually, these people got to return home and rebuild the Temple because Persia came in and conquered Babylon. Centuries later, Persia was conquered by Alexander the Great. So it's in this period of being ruled by Greeks, in the second century BCE, that the book of Daniel is written. It's written in the second century looking back at an earlier time in Jewish history. The book is part narrative (about Daniel and his friends) and part apocalyptical - which means it contains visions and rich imagery that paint a picture of the end of the current age and advent of God’s kingdom.
I share all this to help better understand what’s going on with the characters in this drama. This book was written to explore the question: “what does it mean to be Jewish - and live in ways that are faithful to God - in the midst of empire - in the middle of a society that doesn’t know or understand our God?” This is a tension they have lived for several centuries at this point - starting with the exile in the 6th century and continuing through the Persians and the Greeks - and even in Jesus’ time, under Roman occupation - that tension was still very real. Now, there probably wasn’t an actual person Daniel - or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego - what happens to them is supposed to represent what Jewish people were thinking and feeling in light of being a minority culture and religion.
That’s where this particular story comes in - Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego -- and these were their Babylonian names. We learn in the first chapter of Daniel that Nebuchadnezzar had changed their Hebrew names - names that had references to the Hebrew God to Babylonian names, containing references to the Babylonian gods. Right from the get go, the tension about identity and faithfulness in the face of empire is there.
All of this tension comes to a head in verse 13 where Nebuchadnezzar summons our three friends and says, “is it true that you don't serve my gods and you don't worship my statue?” He is furious with Shadrach Meshach and Abednego, and he gives them an ultimatum. “If you do not worship this statue, you will be thrown into this blazing fiery furnace and then who will deliver you then? What God will save you?”
And I love their response. They say oh Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If I were 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, oh King, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.
Of course, Nebuchadnezzar is even more enraged at this. He orders the furnace to be heated up more than it ever had before and orders Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to be bound and throws them in. His own guards were killed in this process because the fire was so hot. But then we know the rest of the story. There's a fourth figure in the flames as if an angel were there The appearance of a god it says. And Nebuchadnezzar has a change of heart. In front of all his officials he praises God and promotes the three friends to higher offices and all is made well.
But in that pivotal moment, when the king threatens death and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to worship and say, “if God saves us, great; but if not, we’d rather die than worship your gods or this statue” - I wonder what they were feeling. Fear? Anger? Grief? Calm? Did their voices shake? Was it a planned moment of defiance?
What strikes me is their clarity of purpose. For them, worshiping other Gods was not an area of compromise for them. I’m sure, living as Jewish citizens of Babylon, there were areas of tension they had to wrestle with in order to be faithful to God and to carry out their duties in the empire. They had to figure out which lines they would not cross. It’s clear in this passage that violating two of the 10 commandments - no other gods and no graven images - would not be an area of compromise for them. When their responsibility to the empire demanded that of them, they would rather face death. Their sense of integrity and conviction - more than their hope that God would save them - is what for me stands out as I read this passage again at this point in my life…and in this moment in our history.
Christians, too, live with this tension of how to be faithful to God - and how to be good citizens, especially in our country. Of course, our faith impacts what we believe to be just and unjust, our faith in God informs what we think about policies, but there are many times when faithfulness to God and to God’s realm puts us at odds with living in a secular society. It makes me think about Jesus’ words - we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s - but what does that mean as people of faith who believe and trust that all of what we have belongs to God -- and who are called to follow the teachings of Jesus, even when those teachings could have political consequences?
To be sure, this doesn’t just happen in our country - this kind of tension can even happen in churches - as we’ve experienced rather directly in stepping away from the United Methodist Church and what our commitment to God’s embrace of all people means for us - that’s a line that we wouldn’t cross to stay a part of that denomination- and to be sure, it felt a bit like I was standing in the fiery furnace alongside Sara and Linda as we presented the case for disaffiliation on behalf of you all.
But that line for each of us - the line where faithfulness to God comes before anything else - anything our country asks of us, anything our church may ask of us, anything our job may ask of us - is one that each of us has to discover for ourselves.
The study guide to this series asks a question for reflection: What symbols, figures, or objects are we tempted to worship or idolize today? Certainly worship of certain ideologies or allegiances to symbols may be an area that brings up tension within us - much like it did for Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. Other areas of tension may crop up as our country engages in or supports armed conflict around the globe - and I know many of you remember times when the draft was still happening. There’s any number of issues that may highlight that tension - where what God hopes for may not be in alignment with what is asked of us as part of being a good citizen.
What the story of our three friends highlights for me, though, is that we have to figure out those places for ourselves - and trust that faithful living looks like for us may not be as important for someone else.
The other piece, however, is to be willing to face that furnace when the chips are down. To resist injustice in such a way that understands that faith sometimes will not save us from the fiery furnace but that our faith will sometimes lead us right into the blaze - and we don’t know if God will be with us to deliver us in that moment or if we will be consumed. It doesn’t matter. Our conviction in the laws of a higher moral authority mean that there are things we cannot compromise on and if God cannot save us from the consequences we face, well, then better to suffer for justice than to compromise with injustice….and that even if God doesn’t deliver us, God’s presence meets us in the midst of it all.
So if there are things that are tugging at your heart right now - places of injustice in our world, places where you feel at odds with our culture, places where you are struggling with that tension between faithfulness to God and being a good citizen - you are not alone. If you are being called toward civil disobedience in the tradition of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in the tradition of MLK Jr., in the tradition of so many others who broke civic laws for the sake of a higher pursuit of justice - you are not alone. If you find yourself in the fire because you have found the place for you where faithfulness to God is above anything else that may be asked of you - you are not alone. May you find the strength and courage to stand in those places - in the face of the power and might of everything standing against you - the officials and precepts and treasurers, and satraps and the drums and the musical ensembles - and the Nebechednezzurs. God is with you - no matter what. May you stand in the fire - may it purify and refine you - and may it be a witness for justice. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.