Sermon, Pentecost 13C, the Story Week 18,
Exile: Faith in flames
Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25, Luke 12:4-7
19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace hea ted seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.
24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?”
They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.”
25 He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”
26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!”
So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, 27 and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.
I am definitely a bit of a culture watcher. One thing that intrigues me about our Aussie society is this whole business of tolerance. We are all supposed to tolerate everything and everyone and it is seen as being old fashioned or difficult or small-minded or dangerous if we even utter a slight objection.
But tolerance is a funny thing. It is a good thing. It can sound good on the outside. But if you delve deeper into its inside, it can be used as a tool to coerce and control people; and so, become a force that leads to more violence, oppression and pain.
As we hear of God’s people in exile in a pagan culture whose King demands that his people worship the gods of his choosing, we ponder tolerance from a believers point of view.
In the pagan culture of Babylon, Daniel and these three amigos experience the pressure we all do still – to bow down or trust in other things, people, teaching or ‘gods’ more than the Lord and his promises given by his Word.
But here, whether among the lions or in the furnace, they avoid a path of least resistance or over-the-top fighting resistance, but display a path of patient and respectful resistance.
Now, please note here that King Nebuchadnezzar was NOT demanding that Daniel and the other three, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, worship him or Darius or some of the many other gods on offer exclusively. The king is asking that they bow down to Babylonian gods IN ADDITION to their own God.
Why is he doing this? Because to only worship one God would be far too exclusive; and exclusivity leads to extremes and that is dangerous for a king. For anyone to worship one God above all others and so proclaim the God to be the only God would be closed minded, out of touch, not modern enough, and the worst thing a person can be in a multi-cultural society of many gods or no gods – ‘intolerant’, judgemental, a bigot, lacking in humility, openness…. Sound familiar?
So, in Babylonian society everyone is free to worship any god they wish as long as no one says that their god is The God that all need to worship.
Why would a king demand this of citizens? Mostly for civil peace and harmony and the maintaining of power.
In our times we are hearing that all religion is intolerant – something to be avoided like the plague! The only way to peace is to have no god, or any god you choose, but no one god exclusively.
But this a flawed belief for three big reasons.
- Demanding tolerance is intolerant! Demanding that we don’t speak our faith is in itself being intolerant of us! You are demanding from us exclusive adherence to your belief! That is intolerance too!
- Some things must never be tolerated by anyone– oppression, violence, hate, injustice, abuse of any kind.
- Worshipping a God is not about power or control or even influence. At its very core the church is not just a holy morality club, but a community of people in relationships in relationships with a loving, gracious heavenly Father who loves all people.
Nebuchadnezzar shows all three flaws.
The King is all about power and control. He could see that Someone was at work among the three men in the furnace. The King is impressed! He knows power when he sees it! But, did you notice, even though the King is impressed, he is not converted to living faith in this God of love. The King never addresses God as his God but only ever as the God of the three men in the flames.
In fact, all the king can see is power – and he likes it! When it comes to religion the King can only see from the outside. All he can see when it comes to gods and worship and religious belief is power and control.
He demands tolerance but cannot live it. Notice how extreme he is in his judgement about this God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? The King declares he will kill and cut into pieces anyone who does not add the Jewish god to their pantheon of worship and burn down their home! Tolerance demanded by force is no tolerance and leads to more violence and oppression.
He tolerates the wrong things and so, creates more things we should never tolerate – injustice, violence, oppression, cruelty.
How do you view worship? How do you view you’re the church? What do you tolerate and what do you not tolerate. Reflection on these deep questions will reveal where your heart is at – where your real gods are.
Religion without relationship with the One who creates, saves, guides out of sheer love for each person is just a club or a power game or a cause of hatred and violence like they say.
But friends, on the inside, at the heart of our faith is a living relationship with the Lord of all lords who has saved us from the fiery furnace of hopelessness and human despair by his gracious death and rising for us, we hear four things that make all the difference and bring true peace to the world.
Trust that God is gracious and he is involved.
These three friends and Daniel were not alone in flames or among the lions. The Son of God, was already on the job with his people. He still is, even more now since he rules and fulfils all things. He is involved and active with you and through you in this furnace.
Live patient and respectful resistance: Daniel and these three men simply stand in a patient resistance against false teaching and pressure to trust in other lifeless things. They don’t take the path of least resistance. They do take the path that trust in the grace and promises and word of God invite us into – the path of patient resistance with respect and love.
Not demanding but inviting. Notice they are not demanding the king worship the Lord but they simply invite all to see what they see and hear what they hear of the Lord.
Not power but grace in weakness: Notice that their faith seems have little to do with power. Indeed, in their weakness they bear the strongest witness. It is when the flames go higher that the faith shines brighter in this part of the Story.
What are we modern fire walkers inviting people to belief anyway? Surely it is the God whose power to love and accept and change the world is given in weakness! The apparent weakness of a bloodied man on a torture instrument at the hands of injustice for the sake of us all.
Our task is not to make people believe by force but to invite them to see the man on the cross, the blood, the suffering and the glory of such a love.
We don’t want people in our tolerant town to only agree that there is a God and have influence over them in some way. We desire that many people here truly experience and know Jesus personally and his Father as their Father and his Spirit as their wisdom and their counsel and their power for loving all the more.
That is why we are here. That is why we are talking about making ore use of this building, being involved in our schools, being embedded in this community in clubs, associations and relationship.
We want them to get on the inside of Christianity and see its beating heart – the man of love.
How? The way of patient resistance, not least resistance, resistance by human power but grateful, longsuffering, self-sacrificing and patient resistance.
Through us fire walkers and lion dwellers, he fights our fires and tames our tigers and the Story and the promises and the plan goes on.
Chapter 18, Daniel in exile
Timeless Truth: the faithful prosper while the faithless fall.
Chapter Summary (Have someone in your group read the summary section.)
Judah’s best and brightest were deported to Babylon when Jerusalem was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies. Daniel and his trio of friends were among their ranks. King Nebuchadnezzar introduced them to their new homeland by enrolling the four young men in his exclusive three-year “How to Live Like a Babylonian” Training Academy. Students were lavished with food and wine from the king’s table and invited to enjoy the cosmopolitan pleasures of the world’s most sophisticated city. Daniel and his companions graciously resisted. They asked for vegetarian meals so they could stay faithful to Jewish dietary laws. The king’s official worried that their meager diet might leave them pallid and weakened, but God blessed their choice with academic success and physical stamina. They flourished and the ruler of the world’s greatest empire took notice.
The king awoke one morning having been greatly troubled by a dream. He demanded an explanation of its meaning from his wise men and also expected them to tell the dream itself as a guarantee of accuracy. Failure was no big deal except for the accompanying death sentence. The request was impossible, of course, except that God revealed both the events of the dream and their meaning to his servant, Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of a four-layered statue. Its head of gold represented Babylon’s might. The remaining layers of silver, bronze, and iron symbolized world empires that had not yet risen to power. Daniel’s interpretation satisfied the king and saved his life and the lives of all the magicians and wise men in the kingdom. King Nebuchadnezzar promoted Daniel to ruler over Babylon, made high-level officials of his three friends, and worshipped Daniel’s God.
This devotion, however, was only temporary, as the king’s advisors played to his pride. He built a gold statue in his own honor and all were commanded to bow down and worship at its feet. Daniel’s three friends, Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego, were faced with a grim choice: idolatry or death. They refused to bow. The king was enraged and ordered them to be thrown into a fiery furnace. They defied the king’s last chance order and chose to remain faithful even in the face of death. The fire was stoked and the young men were bound and thrown into the inferno. An astonished king watched a fourth man join them as they walked unbound and unharmed through the fire. And once again the king praised their God.
Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by Belshazzar. King Belshazzar threw a grand party using the holy goblets they had stolen in the raid of Jerusalem’s temple. The LORD sent him a mysteriously written message that appeared on the wall of the banquet hall. The king was terrified…for good reason. Daniel explained that the message said the king would soon meet his Maker. That same night the Persian army invaded Babylon. Belshazzar was killed and Persia became the silver layer in the statue King Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of years before.
The new king, Darius of Persia, gave Daniel a promotion. Daniel’s rivals were jealous and plotted his death. They deceived Darius into signing an irrevocable decree forbidding prayer to anyone except the king. The penalty was a single night stay in a cave of hungry lions. Daniel responded by doing as he had always done; he knelt and prayed. Of course, the king’s officials felt “duty bound” to bring such dangerous activity to the king’s attention and Darius was forced to throw his trusted servant to the lions. So, the king spent a restless night and rose in the morning to find that Daniel was safe and sound in the lions’ den. And the great King of Persia worshipped Daniel’s God.
While Daniel, his friends, and the other exiles were kept in Babylon during the seventy years of captivity. The prophet Jeremiah carried out his duties in the ravaged city of Jerusalem. Jeremiah sent a letter of hope to the captives reminding them that God would one day bring them back to Jerusalem and encouraging them to prosper even as exiles in a foreign land. Daniel had done just that. He watched the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms and remained faithful. In the great Upper Story of God, Babylon had been a detour rather than a destination.
Icebreaker Question: What’s one of the strangest dreams you can recall?
- Daniel stands out among the prophets. How is he like other Old Testament prophets and how is he different?
- Jerusalem and God’s Temple were in ruins and most of the Jews were living in exile. It is easy to see how one could lose faith. What helped them hold on to faith? What helps you hold on to faith when you experience difficulties?
- Look back at God’s covenant with Abraham (p. 13 or Gen. 12:1-3). How was it fulfilled through Daniel and his three friends?
- Compare the story of Daniel with the story of Joseph. Do you view difficulties the way they did? Why or why not?
- List the various ways that God revealed His supernatural power in this chapter. What message did God’s actions send to the exiles? What impression did He make on the gentile leaders?
- When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the golden idol, they did not know whether God would save them or not. How do you stand up for God when you know the results could be disastrous?
- How did Daniel regard the various governmental authorities? Look up Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-2, and Titus 3:1. How should Christians regard governments?
- How did God show Himself to be sovereign over human kingdoms and rulers? How does this help you view our world today?
- Jeremiah’s message (p. 260-261) was sent in a letter from Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylon. What was God’s Lower Story and Upper Story promises to them?
In the time remaining ask your group members to share any of their personal reflection insights from their journal entries.
Chapter 19, the return home
Journal your answers to these questions as you read through the chapter this week. You may wish to read one day and journal the next, or spread the questions over the whole week.
- If you had been an Israelite exile in Babylon when King Cyrus permitted your return, would you have returned to the Promised Land or would you have remained in Babylon? Why?
- How had the LORD’s 70-year discipline affected the people of Israel? Have you experienced personal change as a result of the LORD’s discipline?
- What did Israel’s enemies do to undermine their efforts to rebuild their temple (p. 265)? When have you experienced a similar situation wherein someone tried to undermine something important to you? How did you respond?
- Read pages 266-267 and list the reasons the temple work had ceased. Do you struggle with misplaced priorities? What are some ways you can reprioritize your life?
- Some were disappointed that the new temple was no match to the glory and beauty of Solomon’s temple. How can such comparisons be dangerous? According to Haggai’s second message (p. 267-268), what is the remedy for their – and our – discouragement?
- Haggai the Prophet encouraged the people to get back to work on the temple building project that had stalled for sixteen years (p. 267). Are there areas of your spiritual growth that have stalled out?
- Review Zechariah’s message of hope and promise. What did God promise the faithful Israelites He would do? List the ways they were to respond to God’s grace (p. 269). How do you rate in these areas?