Come Out of the Fire

Daniel 3 – Come Out of the Fire

But if not.

It’s these 3 words that should stop you in your tracks: but if not. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are facing death at the hands of the king and they are speaking, perhaps what could be their final words – a profession of faith: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 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.”

Now, imagine what they’ve seen. Their home and the temple in Jerusalem have both been destroyed. And they’ve been dragged off with countless other Israelites against their will. Imagine the violence they have seen, the death and destruction. They know they may not live, just as they’ve seen their friends and family die. Yet their faith remains.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have been chosen as leaders, to be groomed and trained to lead in the Babylonian government. They are handsome, they are bright. They are faithful, which is what the king doesn’t value or see in them. Their statement of faith looks ridiculous in the face of imminent death, in the fire being stoked for them. Isn’t it true that that the most infuriating aspect of radical faith is its adamant refusal to be impressed with the obvious – in this case, worship of a golden statue and the blaring call to blind loyalty.

Now what would you or I do if we were faced with the very real threat of death in direct relationship to our faith in God? I suppose we could rationalize that we could bow down and then, you know, still pray to God to forgive us and that we still love God and not this statue. And we would still be alive. But then, when ever, if ever, does our faith actually find traction if not at that point? What kind of shape is your faith in after “but just this once” after another?  Is there any faith left at all?

That’s the power of these 3 words: but if not. But if not, say the 3 men. We believe that God will save us, but if not – we will remain faithful and we won’t serve your gods or worship our rationalizations. But if not is a foundational statement of faith.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon on this text in 1962 entitled But If Not and he talks about an IF faith and a THOUGH faith. He says that IF faith is based on if things go a certain way, a way preferable to you, a way without suffering or hardship, then you will have faith. It’s conditional. It’s based on God proving Godself in your life. But the THOUGH faith acknowledges the reality of the fire, the tough times, the suffering. And instead of disqualifying the faith, instead of using what is before them as evidence of there being no God, THOUGH faith says I still believe. The THOUGH faith sees these things as a part of faith. These things go hand in hand with faith.

Indeed, this radical faith means the 3 men enraging a king who has been made to look totally ineffective and foolish, standing in the shadow of his monstrous golden statue, his expectations that they will follow him without question and bow down to his golden statue. And so they are cast into the fire.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are practicing civil disobedience. They are refusing to abide by the law of the land in light of the law they know that lies at the center of their faith: Love the Lord your God with all of your heart. Nothing else gets this kind of love. Nothing. Not country. Not family. Not being right. Not sport team, not job.

They won’t sacrifice their relationship with God because doing so throws everything out of whack. Once your worship of God, your loyalty to God is chipped away at, then how can anything else stand? Because if our identity and our stance in the world is based on our love of God and that is the first thing to go, how can we love anybody else, ourselves included, if the first thing to go is our loyalty to God?

Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego have already lost their home land, their place of worship, and probably countless friends and family, either left behind or killed. They’ve lost status as citizens – they are refugees. And they’ve also lost their names. And their names signify identity and heritage and their religious beliefs. In the first chapter of Daniel, these 3 men are referred to by their birth names: *Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Hananiah means “God is gracious” and Mishael means “Who is like God?” and “God keeps him” for Azariah. Their new Babylonian names have direct relation to the gods the Babylonians worship.

So they’ve lost everything, even their names, but they continue to live into their core identity as Children of God. Keeping the first commandment of having no other gods.

Here we are in the first Sunday of Advent, the season we actively wait for the birth of Jesus as we explore stories of people in exile. And today, we pray for Jesus to lead us out of the fire. And while certainly we are promised everlasting peace, we know that sometimes to follow Jesus in our every day life leads us right into the flames. And it doesn’t feel good, does it.

The heat has been turned up as the #metoo movement impacts our nation and our every day lives and, I hope, signals a shift in our culture.

I watched the heat get turned up as 12 clergy were arrested as they read scripture to senators debating the tax bill that has now been passed.

The heat is turned up on our city council and on us as citizens of this community to be a home for all people as writing a statement of welcome has drawn bigoted commentary from citizens of Hutchinson.

The first commandment is at stake for Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego. Will we worship just the One God only when it is convenient, fits into our schedule? And it is at stake for our lives here and now, too. Will we answer a faithful “but if not” too?

God is faithful to us. It’s why we wait together in this season of Advent. It may not always feel like you imagine faith is supposed to feel when someone you love is sick or dying, or as a relationship is falling apart, or you’re living a life you don’t recognize. But the truth remains… God is faithful to you. God will always be faithful to you. God will meet you in the flames & walk with you into the hottest part of those flames. And God will come out of the flames with you.