Faces of Our Faith: Shadrach, Meschach & Abednego
The Rev. Bart Smith
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 23, 2018)
Daniel 3 (selected verses)
The Scripture passage from Daniel 3 was rearranged into play script for worship.
King Nebuchadnezzar made a gold statue. It was ninety feet high and nine feet wide. He set it up in the Dura Valley in the province of Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar then ordered the chief administrators, ministers, governors, counselors, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the provincial officials to assemble and come for the dedication of the statue that he had set up…
The herald proclaimed loudly:
Peoples, nations, and languages! This is what you must do: When you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument, you must bow down and worship the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Anyone who will not bow down and worship will be immediately thrown into a furnace of flaming fire.”
So because of this order as soon as they heard the sound of [the instruments], all the peoples, nations, and languages bowed down and worshipped the gold statue…
At that moment some Chaldeans came forward, seizing a chance to attack the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar:
“Long live the king! Your Majesty, you gave a command that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument should bow down and worship the gold statue. Anyone who wouldn’t bow and worship would be thrown into a furnace of flaming fire. Now there are some Jews, ones you appointed to administer the province of Babylon—specifically, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—who have ignored your command. They don’t serve your gods, and they don’t worship the gold statue you’ve set up.”
In a violent rage Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were brought before the king.
Nebuchadnezzar said to them:
“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: Is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I’ve set up? Bow down and worship the gold statue… But if you won’t worship it, you will be thrown straight into the furnace of flaming fire. Then what god will rescue you from my power?”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar:
SHADRACH, MESHACH, ABEDNEGO:
“We don’t need to answer your question. If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t, know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.”
Nebuchadnezzar was filled with rage, and his face twisted beyond recognition because of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In response he commanded that the furnace be heated to seven times its normal heat. He told some of the strongest men in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and throw them into the furnace of flaming fire. So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were bound, still dressed in all their clothes, and thrown into the furnace of flaming fire. (Now the king’s command had been rash, and the furnace was heated to such an extreme that the fire’s flame killed the very men who carried Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to it.) So these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell, bound, into the furnace of flaming fire.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in shock and said to his associates,
“Didn’t we throw three men, bound, into the fire?”
They answered the king, “Certainly, Your Majesty.”
“Look! I see four men, unbound, walking around inside the fire, and they aren’t hurt! And the fourth one looks like one of the gods.”
Nebuchadnezzar went near the opening of the furnace of flaming fire and said,
“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, Come out here!”
Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out of the fire… The fire hadn’t done anything to them: their hair wasn’t singed; their garments looked the same as before; they didn’t even smell like fire!
“May the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be praised! He sent his messenger to rescue his servants who trusted him. They ignored the king’s order, sacrificing their bodies, because they wouldn’t serve or worship any god but their God. I now issue a decree to every people, nation, and language: whoever speaks disrespectfully about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s God will be torn limb from limb and their house made a trash heap, because there is no other god who can rescue like this.”
Then the king made Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego prosperous in the province of Babylon.
The name of a coffee shop in Goodrich, Michigan is inspired by this story. I saw a picture of the sign on Facebook this past Monday. Are you ready? “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abeantogo Coffee Roasters.” A-bean-to-go. Their motto is even better: “Master Roasted, Never Burnt.”
This is not the first “courage in the face of adversity” story in the series we’ve been engaging, the Faces of Our Faith. Last week Queen Vashti had the guts to say “no” to the Persian king Ahasuerus’ outrageous request to dance in front of inebriated partygoers. Her “no” paved the way for Queen Esther. Two weeks ago the five Daughters of Zelophehad walked right up to Moses and the other men at the Tent of Meeting and demand a portion of their father’s land along with their uncles. Their boldness changed Israelite case law. And the week before that, the midwives to the Israelites, Shiphrah and Puah, defied the pharaoh’s orders to kill all the newborn Hebrew boys. Their defiance saved the lives of innocent children. Our Biblical ancestors are a courageous bunch!
Add to that legacy Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Ever heard of them? After the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, they were Judeans who were hauled off to Babylon and along with their friend, Daniel, made to work for Nebuchadnezzar. When the four young men arrived in Babylon, a court official gave them Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
They performed quite well at court: “Whenever the king consulted them about any aspect of wisdom and understanding, he found them head and shoulders above all the dream interpreters and enchanters in his entire kingdom” (Daniel 1:20). At one point Nebuchadnezzar had very disturbing dream about a statue, much like this one he built in our text for today. Daniel interpreted the dream for him, predicting that his kingdom will eventually fall to a greater kingdom.
But Nebuchadnezzar builds this gargantuan monument to his own ego anyway. And he demands that the whole kingdom pay homage to it. But being faithful Jews, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah refuse to worship a graven image. Think of it as not standing for the national anthem…
Now, having just received a promotion of sorts, the four men were ratted out by Babylonians who were likely jealous or threatened by these Judean outsiders. They told the king: “They don’t serve your gods, and they don’t worship the gold statue you’ve set up.”
Nebuchadnezzar yanked them into his throne room. Enraged, with a face contorted with anger, he demanded they bow down before the golden statue. “I’ll throw you into the furnace!” he threatened, “Worship my gods or else! Which god will save you from the furnace?”
Their reply? “If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t, know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.”
Did you catch that? “If our God is able to rescue us from the furnace… then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t… we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue…”
What’s striking to me is that they don’t know that God will rescue them. They might trust that, but they have no guarantee. Even before Nebuchadnezzar they leave open the possibility that their God, the God of Judea, won’t come through. Yet they remain faithful. They step into the furnace.
You know the rest of the story. Nebuchadnezzar cranks up the furnace. God rescues Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. A happy ending.
This story was originally written to give hope to people exiled to a foreign land. It was written to inspire faithfulness, loyalty to God in the midst of oppression.
But what happens when people aren’t rescued from the proverbial “furnace”?
We know too many of those stories— stories of people persecuted, abused, or even killed for who they are or what they stand for. So in exploring this story, I wonder what it means to have not only courage in the face of adversity, but also to be faithful and maintain integrity… even when God might not come to the rescue.
That question brings to mind Viktor Frankl. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who is best known for his, memoir Man’s Search for Meaning. If he wrote it today, I like to think he’d call it Humankind’s Search for Meaning. The book is an extended reflection on his horrible experience of Auschwitz and what it taught him about the purpose of life and what gave strength to those imprisoned there. For Frankl, it boiled down to three things: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty. He wrote this:
The experiences of camp life show that [people do] have a choice of action… [A person] can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress… Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
That phrase “a vestige of spiritual freedom…” reminds me of the story of a person named Jim Zwerg. Have you heard of him? He was a Freedom Rider in the Civil Rights Movement. He lived in Tucson for a while, actually. In an interview in 2013 he described his experience of being brutally attacked while traveling through Alabama in 1961. After departing Birmingham headed for Montgomery…
At the Montgomery Greyhound station they were greeted by a mob with hammers, bats and bricks — no police protection in sight.
Seatmates Zwerg and [John] Lewis, dressed in suits, stepped off the bus first.
TV crews took the first blows, eliminating their ability to bear witness to the assault. Then the mob descended on the students.
Knowing no other way to prepare, Zwerg bowed his head. He asked God to keep him nonviolent and to forgive his attackers.
“In that instant, I had the most incredible religious experience of my life,” Zwerg said. “I felt a presence with me. A peace. Calmness. It was just like I was surrounded by kindness, love. I knew in that instance that whether I lived or died, I would be OK.”
That internal freedom in the face of adversity that sustains us; that core that cannot be violated, that cannot be owned, that cannot be overcome; that’s where God meets us. That’s spiritual freedom, that’s where God is is most present. That’s where God, the fourth person in the fire, is most faithful in the manifold “furnaces” of life.
Featured image: A Sanctified Art LLC. Used with permission.