Bruce Van Blair
Sunday, June 19, 2016
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
CHILDREN'S STORY AND SERMON
THE BURNING FIERY FURNACE
There were actually four friends, but this is the story of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, three young men of Israel who were carried captive into Babylon when King Nebuchadnezzar conquered all Palestine. These young men came from prominent and well-to-do families, but when Jerusalem was destroyed, they were carried off to a foreign land as slaves.
However, because they were handsome and intelligent and well-educated, they soon found themselves assigned to the king’s court. They were put under the instruction of the king’s chief personal steward for proper training. His name was Ashpenaz, and one of the first things he did was give them decent names so that Babylonians could feel more comfortable with them. Hananiah was now called Shadrach; Mishael was now called Meshach; Azariah was now called Abednego.
Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and their friend Daniel all rose to prominence in their new land, and we will not tell those stories today. After Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had been promoted to chief administrators of the province, Nebuchadnezzar decided to pay special honor and tribute to his gods. So he had a golden idol set up – ninety feet tall and nine feet wide – and he sent out a summons to all the land that everyone should worship and bow down before the golden image he had set up. Anyone who did not prostrate themselves before the idol would be thrown into a burning fiery furnace. You may find it hard to understand, but some people seem to think that the best way to get people to be really religious is to threaten to burn them with fire if they do not think and pray like they are told.
Lots of people in Babylon were used to doing what they were told to do. Why make a big deal out of it? The king wanted everybody to bow down, so the best way to get along in the world was to bow down. Why make a big fuss? It didn’t really hurt anything or take very much time. If that’s what makes the king happy, make the king happy.
Except Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had a special problem. They really did believe that a true and living God existed. No idol of any kind, no matter how impressive or rich, could fairly represent this true God. And if you worship a God you do believe in, how can you pretend with gods or idols you do not believe in? So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not bow down before the golden image. They went about their business and did their work, and they went on worshipping their own God as before.
Of course, not everybody in Babylon was pleased that these young men from a foreign land had risen to such responsible and important positions. It is called “jealousy.” Some people cannot stand to see others succeed. If you do anything well, there will always be some who will try to take you down or make you look bad. So these jealous people went and told King Nebuchadnezzar: “Did you know that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – your own administrators – do not fall down and worship the golden image you have set up?”
Nebuchadnezzar was used to people doing whatever he said. It had not crossed his mind that somebody would actually rather die than bow before the image. He had meant it as only a gesture; a way to express unity and enthusiasm for the Babylonian way of life.
But he had made the orders too clear. Now that it was brought out in the open as a public challenge, he could not back down, no matter how much he might personally like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. So he confronted them publicly. If they would fall down and worship the golden image, well and good. But if not, they would be thrown into the burning fiery furnace.
When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego still refused, Nebuchadnezzar started to get angry. “Do you think some god is going to save you from my power if you refuse?” he asked.
But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego said, “O King, we have no need to answer you on this matter. If there is a god who is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, it is our God whom we serve; our God will deliver us from your power. [We do not know that our God will choose to do so, but we have no doubt that our God is able. Either way:] Be it known to you, O King, that we will neither serve your gods nor worship the golden image you have set up.” They had it made – they were rich, prominent, successful, comfortable, able to take care of their families – and now they were throwing it all away.
Well, Nebuchadnezzar was no longer angry – he was livid. He flew into a rage, like people often do when they know deep down inside that they are really, really wrong. He ordered that the furnace be heated seven times hotter than usual. Then they bound Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and threw them into the furnace. The fire was so hot that the men who carried them and threw them into the furnace were themselves killed by the heat.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was dumbfounded. He sprang to his feet and said, “Was it not three men whom we threw bound into the fire?... Yet I can see four men walking about in the fire, free and unharmed.”
Who was the fourth?
Well, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out of the furnace unharmed, and Nebuchadnezzar made a law throughout the entire land that nobody should ever speak a word against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego or interfere with their way of worship. Then he restored them to their former positions, with even greater privileges and authority than they had before.
TO BED YOU GO
[Note: This sermon was first given two weeks before Christmas]
We have struggled at times with the nature of Christmas celebrations, what that is like in the culture around us, and how it connects (if at all) with the Message of freedom and life and love that we have in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. We have concluded (or at least many of us have) that we must carry Christmas with us, or we will not find it “out there.” And if we do carry the inner Christmas with us, then we will also find it out there in endless symbols and experiences, and all our Christmas decorating and shopping and celebrating will be very instructive and truly part of our pilgrimage.
I really appreciate your response to the concept of carrying our inner awareness of Christmas with us. That truly is the dynamism of the Christian Life – of living in the presence of the Holy Spirit. And while we are talking about and contrasting the inner with the outer, we have this incredible encounter between Jesus and Pilate from one of our Scripture passages today. We will not go into it very far or we would be here for hours, but let me bring the context back to light.
Here is this seasoned and cynical Roman soldier and politician. Pilate is, in the name of Rome, absolute ruler of all Judea and Samaria. He does not understand the details of Jewish custom or religion, but he does represent Roman justice. He just wants to figure out enough of what’s going on so he can take care of it – make a decision, get everything back to normal – so he can go home and be left alone. (Some of us can still identify with that approach to life, or even that approach to Christmas.) For Pilate, there is only one dimension to life, and he is not going to comprehend very much about Jesus. None of us can see anything beyond our own ceiling of awareness. Pilate’s ceiling is pretty low, and Jesus has no ceiling at all. They do not have very much in common.
Before Pilate stands a quiet, simple peasant, from all outward indications. There is no friend in sight. There is no advocate anywhere. Jesus does not look like much of a threat. Pilate has been told that Jesus is dangerous to the Roman Empire and deserves execution. You can just imagine Pilate standing there, trying to figure out what’s going on. To him, this man does not look like a match for Rome’s youngest, greenest soldier, yet he is supposed to be a threat to the entire Roman Empire?
You can feel Pilate trying not to smile. Is this a joke? Is he supposed to take this seriously? Is somebody setting him up? But everybody has been acting very serious about it, so Pilate tries to get into it.
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus: “Did you come up with that question all by yourself?”
“Don’t play games with me! I don’t understand you people, but your neck is on the line here, so you better talk straight and make it clear. What have you done to end up here before me?”
Think of how many ways Jesus could have replied: “What have I done? I heal the sick, raise the dead, talk about God’s power and caring, bring hope to the people, show them that parts of Heaven are around them and available even now.” But Jesus realizes that Pilate can hear nothing beyond the one dimension he sees. So Jesus says the only thing He can – an invitation for Pilate to look a little higher than he ever has before: “My kingdom is not of this world.” My kingly authority comes from elsewhere. Pilate has no inkling of what Jesus is talking about or of who He is. To converse further would be fruitless. Even so, Pilate tries to release Him.
But you know the story. Pilate was wrong on all counts. In less than three hundred years, this “simple peasant” would overthrow the Roman Empire in a way Pilate could not have imagined in his wildest dreams. And Jesus has overthrown many empires since, up to and through the present day. He even overthrows personal empires; afterwards, some of us call it grace.
Now, let’s go back to the story we just told the children. Do you remember the stupid jingle about “Shadrach, Meshach, and to-bed-you-go”? We have at least three generations of people who do not know anything but that about the story. Hard to say why the jingle stuck; it has nothing to do with the story. It is a jingle that does not go “all the way.” Kids grow up, remember the jingle, and get in trouble for it. Nevertheless, they insist on using it with their own children.
The story of the burning fiery furnace is a story of incredible bravery and determination. It is the theme song of the Maccabean Revolt. “Be it known to you, O King, that we will neither serve your gods nor worship the golden image you have set up.” It is a story about people who will worship God or die for it. It is a story about people who will stay faithful no matter how great the persecution. It is a story that is emblematic of all the great struggles in human history wherein people have fought and died to claim or maintain their freedom.
Jesus knows this story well. For Him, it is recent history. He lives in a time when the residue of the Maccabean Revolt is fresh. Patriots are claiming that this is the solution to Roman domination just as it had been to Seleucid domination, and that if the people are brave enough and faithful enough, God will give them the victory. Some are actively trying to get Jesus to join this camp. Many are convinced that this is already Jesus’ camp, and that He is only hiding His military intentions for the proper time.
Do you feel it? Jesus cannot come until after we have tried our own kind of wars and revolutions to save our world. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have to come before Christmas. Do you see that? The contrast is enormous. The concept is so incredible that it takes the breath away, and at times we can hardly believe our ears. “My kingdom is not of this world.” My kingly authority comes from elsewhere.
Following Jesus will never lead to a Maccabean Revolt. As much as this kind of bravery and sacrifice stirs the blood and draws our respect and admiration, it is not the WAY of the Christ. Neither is it a way that has ever redeemed history or changed the way of the world. It is impressive, but it is not enough and it never lasts for very long. We have an outer-world kind of revolution; Jesus comes to introduce us to an inner-world kind of revolution.
Christmas is about Incarnation: a leader – from God and of God – to lead us into a New Kingdom, a new kind of revolt, a different level of patriotism altogether. And Herod – alias every corrupt ruler anywhere in the world at any time – will try to kill the Christ. That is not fact; that is truth – timeless and inevitable truth.
But I have a question for you. (I would not have it for you if I did not have it for myself, though even spreading this around does not help any.) Do you think that signing up for Jesus’ unseen Kingdom will be less rigorous than signing up for an earthly, seeable kingdom? Put another way: Do you think that the burning fiery furnace is only applicable to people who are patriots in an outer, physical kingdom, but not for patriots of an inner, spiritual kingdom?
A soldier goes through boot camp and learns how to take a rifle apart and put it back together again and, depending on skill and aptitude, learns discipline and trains to be an effective member of the team. Yet I know many Christians who could not take Luke’s Gospel apart, never mind Romans or Revelation, and if they ever did, they would surely never get it back together. But they have few qualms about claiming to be good citizens of the Kingdom, and they think they would be willing to serve if there ever should be a fight. They do not seem to know that the fight is already going on all around them all the time, and that the Lord has long since called and called for them to come join the fray and do their share. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew there was a fight, and they chose accordingly.
Well, today we have things to do, and it all depends upon God anyway. I just wanted to remind us that Christmas is a lot more fun and we understand it a lot more clearly when we start hearing “jingle bells” and “Merry Christmas” as a call to arms. While “arms” typically means weapons, our weapons are different. They are weaker than Rome’s youngest, greenest soldier – and stronger than time or death.
No matter what you do with that kid in the crib, He’s going to end up asking for your entire life. You will have to serve either His Kingdom or some other. He will never settle for both. Cheers!
Copyright 2016 by Bruce Van Blair. All rights reserved.