'And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.' (Luke 24:25-27)

Sunday, 11 March 2007

The Fiery Furnace: Daniel 3:13-30

My other sermon from Daniel so far. This was originally preached on 19th November 2006.

Idols are all around us. The cult of the celebrity is everywhere – on tv, in newspapers, and on the internet. Just think of the X-factor, or Pop Idol. What about the crowds that flocked yesterday to get a glimpse of Tom Cruise at his wedding?

However, it’s not just celebrities who claim our allegiance and worship. Our society is obsessed with money and wealth; getting and spending. The expectation is for us to join in the worship of wealth – so how do we react in the situation? Our friends, colleagues, families expect us to bow down and worship money, just like them. What will we do?

Our Old Testament reading tonight brings us to Babylon, during the time of the exile. The leading citizens of Jersualem had been carried off to Babylon, and the temple destroyed. What would the Jews do then? These people of God – without a temple, and so far from home – what would they do?

Would they merge into the surrounding culture, make themselves comfortable in Babylon, and start worshipping the Babylonian gods? Or would they maintain their faith and trust in God, despite being so far away?

Especially since the king, Nebuchadnezzar, had unveiled a new statue to be worshipped. The status was rather impressive – ninety feet high, nine feet wide, and made of gold. At the dedication ceremony, all the chief officials, rulers and civil servants were present.

The order came from the king that when the orchestra played – that whole big list of instruments – ‘the horn, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music’, then the people were to fall down and worship. If they decided not to worship, then they would be thrown into a blazing furnace (6).

Can you imagine a big crowd of people standing around the image? All waiting on the music? Think of some of the big gatherings of people we have seen recently - the Live Aid concerts, or …

And so, the music started, and the people fell down to worship. Right across the plain, people are prostrate… except for those three people still standing – so noticeable on the landscape. Who are the three? And what are they doing, still standing?

The three men are Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – friends of Daniel, and fellow exiles. Already in the book of Daniel we have met them – in chapter one they also refused to eat the king’s meat which had been sacrificed to idols. And there they stand, in disobedience to the king’s command.

Straight away, some of the astrologers come up to the king to report what had happened. Ever since the Jews had come to Babylon, the astrologers weren’t keen on them – already, the astrologers had failed to interpret the dream of Nebuchadnezzar in chapter two, while the Jew Daniel had done it. Later, they would fail Nebuchadnezzar with another dream, and also Belshazzar’s writing on the wall. So when they had this chance to get the Jews thrown into the furnace, they would take it. In doing so, they would also prove their own loyalty.

But notice, in verse 12 that the astrologers say ‘there are some Jews… who pay not attention to you’ – does this mean that other Jews were going along with the flow and worshipping? Were they encouraging the three to also bow down?

It’s here that our reading began tonight – with Nebuchadnezzar in a furious rage. Who were these people to not be worshipping him and his gods? Did they not know that if they were in his culture, they should do as he did? So he has them brought before him, and gives them another chance. If they fall down and worship, well and good, But if not, then they will be thrown into a blazing furnace.

Notice the challenge he sets – ‘Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?’ To Nebuchadnezzar, his image was obviously the most powerful god, because he was ruling. It seems to be a power play – if I’m king of this vast empire, then my gods must be more powerful than all the other gods.

For Nebuchadnezzar and his loyal followers, the question was obviously meant to be rhetorical – needing no answer… the answer was obviously no. No other god could rescue them from his hand.

What would you do, if you were in that situation? Facing a hostile, angry king who threatens death – horrible death in a furnace – if you don’t bow down. After all, how hard would it be to lie down on the ground for a minute or two? He wouldn’t know what you were thinking. And it would mean you could continue to serve God in the king’s service.

What did Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego do? They answered the king: ‘we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O King. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’

To Nebuchadnezzar’s challenge, they show their faith in God, believing God is able to rescue them and save them. The confrontation is set up. Nebuchadnezzar’s gods against God. But even more than that – the three go further. Even if our God doesn’t save us, we still won’t serve your gods.

This is no fair weather faith – which only lasts as long as things are going well. Here, in front of the king, the one who transported them so far from home and who wants to force them to worship other gods, they defy him, and declare their total trust in God. Even if God won’t save them miraculously – that’s his choice – they will still serve and worship only him.

You can see the blood vessels standing out on the head and neck of Nebuchadnezzar – he’s raging with these men. And so he acts out of his rage – the furnace is made seven times hotter, and the three will be thrown in.

To make sure they can’t escape, they are tied up – wearing all their clothes and blankets around them for good measure – to make sure there’s plenty of stuff to burn. The commentators seem to suggest that the furnace had one opening at the top, and another at the bottom. Into the top opening they are thrown, by the strongest, best soldiers in Babylon. Yet it is the soldiers who perish from the heat and the flames.

The three men find themselves in the furnace. Nebuchadnezzar watches to make sure they are burned up. And as he watches intently, suddenly he gets a fright. The three men had been tied up, thrown in as if in a sleeping bag, yet now he can see them walking about freely, unharmed, and not only three – but a fourth as well!

The fourth looked like ‘a son of the gods.’ Who could this be? The son of the gods – later, in verse 28, Nebuchadnezzar refers to him as an angel – the angel of the Lord. But some would see this as a pre-birth appearance of Christ, being present with his people in their trouble.

Nebuchadnezzar had set the challenge – what god will be able to rescue you from my hand? The three had answered that their God was able. Nebuchadnezzar now saw with his own eyes that this was so – their God had rescued them, but not only that, had been present with them in their trials.

As the king says himself, in paying tribute to God, ‘Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.’

So how does this apply for us today? Do you face pressures to conform to other people’s expectations – or to join with other people’s worship of celebrity or money or false idols? These idols which threaten to take the place of God.

How will you respond? Will you go with the flow, or will you go against it and stand your ground? We may not face the furnace – yet there are still consequences to our actions – maybe being isolated in work, or being thought of as eccentric…

In the midst of these trials, we find that God is with us – his angel was present with the three; his presence is with us. Maybe not saving us out of the trial immediately, but being with us in the trial.

And let’s pray that as we live for God, showing our faith by our actions, others will see, and give the praise to God, as Nebuchadnezzar also praised the Most High God.