by David Baer, December 3, 2017
Text: Daniel 3:1-30
Eric Liddell was fast. At the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, he took gold in the 400 meter race, and bronze in the 200 meter. In the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, he explains to his sister, who is concerned that his track career is distracting him from the missionary work he’s been called to do, “God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.” He’s faced with a crisis of conscience, though, when he finds out that the 100 meter heat is going to be held on a Sunday. For him, the Sabbath is a day set apart to honor God, and so he refuses to run in that race. Liddell faces down pressure from the British Olympic Committee and the Prince of Wales himself, but ultimately spends that Sunday in the Paris Church of Scotland, where he delivers the sermon. It was a hard choice, but it was the right one for Liddell, whose enjoyment of running is completely inseparable from his relationship with God. And it makes people sit up and take notice. When Liddell is preparing to run the 400 meter race, American sprinter Jackson Scholz hands him a note expressing his support: “It says in the Good Book, ‘He that honors me, I will honor.’ Good luck!”
Have you ever had one of these moments? Your deep values and convictions are the structure that keeps your self standing upright. Have you ever been caught in a situation where you had to make an uncomfortable decision to keep the structure of your life intact? I once turned down a job for reasons of conscience—I still think it was the right decision, and I wish I could say making that decision felt as good as it was right. Have you ever had to stand fast under pressure? Our story from Daniel this morning is a story about integrity, where three Jewish young men are willing to face the ultimate consequences for not compromising their belief that their worship and praise belonged only to God. And it’s a story about the difference that this kind of powerful witness can make.
One thing you have to understand about the book of Daniel is that it is resistance literature. Our Jewish neighbors will be celebrating the first night of Hanukkah in a week and a half. If you know anything about the history of this festival, you know it celebrates a miracle that happened during the Jewish people’s fight for independence from the Greek kingdom that ruled over them. The emperor Antiochus Epiphanes outlawed the Jewish faith, banned the practice of circumcision, and erected an altar to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem, where he ordered that pigs—ritually unclean animals to the Jews—were to be sacrificed. As the ancient Jews suffered persecution for practicing their faith, they told stories about heroes from the past who stood up to powerful emperors. The book of Daniel is a collection of these stories, put together to give hope to a suffering people. The underlying message here is, “Remember the faithful ancestors who came before us, and how strong they were. We can be strong too. Hang in there!”
Resistance literature is meant for reading when the times are difficult, when you need to remember who you are, and to be strengthened as you try to maintain that identity. We Christians are a people who carry a story about God’s love for the world, a message of grace that makes people equal, regardless of nation, race, language, sex, or station. We belong to Jesus Christ, who was born poor, to a poor family; whose first sermon in his home town announced good news to the poor; who spent time with the poor, the sick, and the forgotten; who identifies himself so strongly with the most vulnerable among us that he tells us whatever we do to them, we do to him as well. But these days whether it’s in the streets of Charlottesville or in the halls of power, you hear voices bullying and denigrating people based on where they’re from or what they look like or who they love. And you hear powerful people telling us that we are not our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, that we’d do better to have our society focus its attention and resources on wealthy people and the businesses they own. Can you remember who you are, who you’re meant to be? Can you stick up for what’s right, when the time to bear witness comes?
Let’s talk about a story of three people who did just that. Last week we read from the book of Jeremiah, and we heard about how the Babylonians carried the Jewish people into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah urged the people to settle down in their new home, and many of them did. Some of them farmed. Some of them started businesses. Some of them joined the civil service. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were members of the Judean royal family who were given a place in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court, where they continued to practice the traditions of their ancestors, such as keeping kosher.
Now, King Nebuchadnezzar is a prideful, arrogant, vainglorious buffoon of a ruler. One day he decides he wants everyone to bow down to a giant statue that he had erected on the plain of Dura. And he invites all of his nobles and officials to come and worship the statue, and when they hear the band play they flop to the ground. But someone takes notice that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren’t taking part in the ceremony, and takes pains to point this out to the king. The king questions them, and orders them to bow down to the statue. But they refuse, with these powerful and pointed words: “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.”
I want to highlight these words, because this is really the most important part of the story. They hope and pray that God will rescue them from the fiery furnace. But their decision to stand firm has nothing to do with whether God may or may not reward them. It’s the right thing to do, because of who they are in relationship to God.
Nebuchadnezzar’s anger is fierce. He orders the furnace heated up to seven times the usual heat. He orders his best, strongest guards to throw the men into the fire, and they do, though the guards are killed in the process. Nebuchadnezzar’s rage is self-destructive, robbing him of his best guards. But then something astonishing happens. The king sees the three men not writhing in agony as their bodies are consumed, but walking around unharmed in the middle of the fire. And there’s a mysterious fourth figure there with them, someone who, in the king’s words, “has the appearance of a god.” Nebuchadnezzar calls out to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, calling them “servants of the Most High God,” the term that non-Jews use when they want to show honor and respect to the God of Israel. He invites them to come out of the furnace, and when they do everyone there can see that they’re all right.
Nebuchadnezzar’s anger has evaporated into awe and amazement at the power of God. He issues an edict that anyone who dishonors or insults the God worshiped by these three men should be put to death, recognizing the uniqueness of the God of the Jews: “there is no other God,” he says, “who is able to deliver in this way.” (Personally, I would have hoped that Nebuchadnezzar would have learned his lesson about the destructive futility of trying to impose his beliefs on his subjects through violence, but I suppose we’ll have to settle for baby steps!)
I want to underscore how amazing this story is. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have turned the heart of a powerful, violent king. And they didn’t need an army. They didn’t need wealth or prestige. They didn’t need to kill or even harm anybody—it was Nebuchadnezzar’s fault that his guards died, not theirs. They didn’t try to escape. All they did was submit themselves to violence, rather than worship an idol. Theirs was a nonviolent resistance to evil, and it was powerful. Twenty-four centuries later, Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to them in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as inspiration for his non-violent resistance to segregation.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the season where we look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus. The prophetic books of the Old Testament wrestle with the reality that God’s people suffer occupation and exile and persecution. And some of it is put down to their own mistakes. But the prophets also point forward to a time of homecoming and restoration, especially of the royal line descended from King David, God’s Messiah, God’s anointed. During the season of Advent, we tap into that longing and expectation from the place of our own sense of exile—in so many ways, we are not living where we want to be. We experience estrangement in our relationships with each other, estrangement from our own bodies, estrangement in our social institutions, estrangement from nature, and estrangement from God. Where do we find hope in our own exile?
The prophetic hope in this story is that fourth figure in the furnace, the one who, according to Nebuchadnezzar, “has the appearance of a god.” God is present with those who bear witness to what is right, each in their own way. “When I run, I feel his pleasure,” says Eric Liddell. His running career was a testimony not only to what God had made him—one of the fastest men on earth—but to the honor and gratitude that belong to God. Martin Luther King, Jr., found God’s pleasure in leading others in living out the truth that all people are created equal, to the point of giving his life. God is there when people give witness.
Where do you feel God’s pleasure in your life? Where do you bear witness to God’s plan for you and for our world? Is it offering some food or some of your time to a homeless family? Is it sticking up for a coworker who is being treated unfairly? Is it walking together with a friend through the last days of that friend’s life? None of these things are going to put your life at risk, but they all involve sacrifice of some kind. And they make people sit up and take notice. There are still fiery furnaces in our world. Some of them burn people up for the faith they practice, or the country they come from, or the color of their skin. Some of them burn up the poor and vulnerable. Some consume those without friends or advocates. But we put our trust in the One who walks among the flames, who meets us there. Thanks be to God. Amen.