Sermon 06-17-12: “Sunday School Heroes, Part 3: Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego”

In this sermon, I talk about finding the courage that we need to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Living the Christian life, after all, isn’t about playing it safe. Sometimes, in order to receive the blessing that God wants to give us, we have to go to the furnace first! The blessing only comes through the trial. The blessing only comes through the hardship. The blessing only comes through the suffering.

Sermon Text: Daniel 3:8-30

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Did you happen to see what Nik Wallenda did on Friday night? He didn’t do all that much. The guy gets on on national TV for simply taking a 30-minute stroll. Big deal! He wasn’t even walking very fast. Of course, the fact that he took a stroll across Niagara Falls on a tightrope might have had something to do with why he was national TV!

I hasten to add that because the ABC network didn’t want someone falling to their death on live TV, they insisted that he wear a safety harness—which he didn’t end up needing, of course. But if you saw how high he was, and how wet and slippery and dark and unbelievably frightening it all was, you just can’t minimize his accomplishment. I couldn’t walk on solid ground if millions of people were watching me on live TV! I’m sure I would trip and fall. And here’s this guy walking on a tightrope across Niagara Falls! Not only that… as he’s doing so, he’s chatting calmly with ABC’s news anchors, saying how blessed he is to have this amazing view of the Falls!

How do you do that?

Well, if you’re like Nik Wallenda, who is a deeply committed Christian, you do it through faith and prayer. Naturally. I stand in awe of that kind of courage, which comes through faith in God alone.

And likewise, in today’s scripture, I stand in awe of the courage of these three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were Jews who got deported as children from their home in Israel to live in Babylon after Judah fell to the Babylonians. They were groomed from an early age to serve in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court, and they had achieved great success doing so.

Everything was going fine for them, in fact, until the king built a gi-normous gold idol and ordered all his royal officials to bow down and worship it. The three young men knew God’s Word. They knew that to bow down to this idol would be to break the first two commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me” and “you shall not make or worship idols.” So they refused, and they faced being thrown into the fiery furnace because of their refusal.

Now… They believed God could save them from the furnace, and they hoped that God would save them. But they knew that salvation was far from guaranteed. “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.”

Don’t you love that? What integrity! Some of you will remember the beginning of the book of Job. The angel known as the Adversary is having a hard time finding someone with that kind of integrity. What about Job? God asks. Job is a righteous man if ever there was one! And the Adversary says, “Does Job revere God for nothing? Haven’t you fenced him in… and blessed the work of his hands…? But stretch out your hand and strike all he has. He will certainly curse you to your face.”

So the Adversary believes that Job is only in it for God’s blessings. Take all those blessings away, and Job will surely turn against God. In a similar way, we could ask: will Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego turn away from God when it looked as if their blessings had run out?

As many of you know from painful personal experience, this isn’t a hypothetical question for you. Maybe you’re a parent who, like Lisa and me many years ago, suffered a miscarriage. Maybe you’ve suffered the loss of a child. Maybe you’ve experienced the untimely death of a loved one. Maybe you’re facing an unexpected, life-threatening illness yourself. Let’s face it. Sometimes, as we serve God, it looks like the blessings have run out. And when they do, will we be faithful?

One of my favorite singer-songwriters is Terry Scott Taylor, who is also a Christian. In the early-’80s he suffered the loss of his grandfather while, around the same time, he and his wife miscarried their first child, a daughter. He wrote an album about faith in the midst of profound loss. In a song about the miscarriage, he sings, “No, I could not hold this child in my arms/ So I let her go and she floated to heaven/ She’s up in heaven/ A loss, a gain/ God knows her name/ ‘Cause she’s up in heaven.”

And that sounds good and comforting, but then the song breaks down, and it’s just Taylor’s voice, and he sings something almost shocking in its brutal honesty: “A father gives/ The Father takes/ A father gives/ The Father takes/ Her on up to heaven.” Have any of you fathers been there? Suppose we had the faith to stare life’s greatest challenges in the eye and say, “If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue me or the ones I love from this crisis, then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t, know this for certain: I’m not going to stop loving my God, I’m not going to stop serving my God, I’m not going to stop believing in my God who has graciously given me life and breath for however long he gives it to me.”

There are no guarantees in life. I am not entitled to a single moment of it. I am not entitled to a life without pain or trial or suffering. Instead, every moment of life is a gift, and it’s up to me not to take it for granted. God, on the other hand, who gives me this life as a gift is entitled to expect my faithfulness and my obedience and my love for however long he chooses to keep me here. Amen?

I heard a ghastly story told by a Korean theologian on one of the Disciple videos about an incident that happened during the Korean War. The North Korean Communists, who are fiercely anti-Christian, arrested a group of a dozen or so Korean Christians at a church. They were holding them at gunpoint, and they asked them, one by one, if they believed in Jesus—while a gun was pointed to their heads. These Christians knew that if they wanted to survive, they were supposed to say “no,” they don’t believe in Jesus. And all of them did say no, except for one woman, who remained faithful. According to the story, the North Koreans were so impressed by this woman’s courage that they ended up executing everyone except her. Her life was spared. Of course, she didn’t know that that would be the result when she confessed Jesus.

This story haunts me, to be honest. It haunts me because I can’t help but imagine myself in that frightening situation and think, “What would I do?” What would I do if someone were holding a gun to my temple, asking me if I were a Christian, and threatening to blow my head off if I said yes. I hope—I hope, I hope—that I would make the right choice. But my life has never been threatened on account of my faith. Besides, I’ve denied Jesus in thought, word, and deed when the stakes were much, much lower. How about you?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m going to Kenya in September with a mission team from the Peachtree Road United Methodist church. A friend from seminary named Leslie, who’s on staff at Peachtree Road, invited me to go. I’m going to teach Wesleyan theology and church polity to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors there. People are so hungry for the gospel in Africa that we can’t start churches fast enough. We as a church can’t train and equip pastors fast enough to serve those churches. I’ve been interested for years in what the Holy Spirit is doing in that part of the globe, and I’m grateful that the Lord wants me to play a very small role in winning men and women, boys and girls in East Africa to Jesus Christ. I have no doubt that the Lord is calling me to go.

And yet… when I found out that it was really on—that it was really happening—I confess with shame that there was a small part of me that didn’t want to go… that was afraid to go. In part because my friend Leslie, who went last year, told me that it was, for her, an incredibly difficult trip, the hardest thing she’s done in her life. She described one occasion when her group from Peachtree Road visited a large slum in Nairobi. And when they got out of the car, they were immediately surrounded by hundreds of people crowding in—too close for her comfort—looking for handouts. She said she had never before been afraid for her life until that moment. And then there are all these scary-sounding diseases lurking around for which you need to get inoculated. This experience is outside of my comfort zone. The point is, it would be easier and safer to just stay home.

To put your mind at ease, I have since met and talked to the Methodist missionaries who live in Kenya, whose house we’ll be staying at as we do this work. And I’ve talked to other clergy colleagues who’ve gone there, and loved it. The experience changed their lives and had a profound impact on their ministries. And they never felt unsafe for a moment.

But at first I was apprehensive, and I shared these apprehensions at staff meeting. It just so happened that it was the very week that our own Rev. Larisa Parker had fallen off her bike on the greenway and broken her foot, and she was hobbling around on crutches that day, in great pain and discomfort. I’m not making fun of Larisa. I’ve fallen while riding my bike before! It happens! But I was sharing my misgivings about the trip, and leave it to Turner Lee to say something profound, as he often does: He said, “Look at it this way, Brent: you could get killed riding a bike on the greenway, or you could get killed doing the work that the Lord has called you to do in Kenya. Which would you prefer?”

I totally got Turner’s point. I hope not to get killed doing either, but life itself is dangerous. And being a Christian isn’t about playing it safe all the time. The fact that I always want to play it safe is my problem. It completely goes against the spirit of our Lord who tells us that if we want to be his disciples, we must take up our cross—our instrument of torture and death—and follow him. And that whoever wants to save their lives will lose it and whoever loses their life for his sake will find it. I wish sometimes that there were a safer, easier, less stressful way of being a Christian, but Jesus says there isn’t.

Besides, please notice something else from today’s scripture. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace, a mysterious fourth man was in there with them—protecting them, preserving them from the heat and flame. It was an angel—and this angel represented God’s own presence with them. They experienced God in a unique and profound way in the midst of this trial. Whatever was happening to the three young men in the fiery furnace, it was such a blessing that Nebuchadnezzar had to order them to come out! They weren’t even in a hurry to leave! How is that possible? I don’t know…

But what I do know is this: this strange and difficult blessing wasn’t available to the three young men before they entered the furnace. And this blessing wasn’t available to them outside of the furnace. And this blessing wasn’t available to them in spite of the furnace. This blessing was only available to the three young men because of the furnace. And the strange and difficult truth is that, sometimes, if you want the blessing, you have to go through the furnace first. The blessing only comes through the trial. The blessing only comes through the hardship. The blessing only comes through the suffering. Can I get an Amen?

Some of you aren’t so sure about Amen-ing that. That’s O.K. God is going to show you what I mean if you keep trusting him!

When I was a child, I was deathly afraid of swimming. I didn’t want to leave the baby pool when it was time to leave the baby pool, and then later I didn’t want to leave the shallow end when it was time to leave the shallow end and jump into the deep end. One time my father wanted to teach me to swim. He held my arms at first while I kicked with my legs. I was starting to float on my own, without Dad’s intervention. He was beside me, guiding me. But see, I knew where the water got above my head. It had the little loop thing on the side of the pool, where the lifeguards sometimes put a rope across, you know? As we got closer and closer to this invisible line, I started panicking, flailing around, protesting, “Dad, I can’t go any farther. I’m going to drown.” And my Dad told me something that was strangely comforting. He said, “Son, if I were willing to let you drown now, you would have been dead a long time ago!”

What he meant was, “I’ve taken pretty good care of you in the past, and I’m not going to stop taking care of you now. Why would I do that? I haven’t stopped loving you. Trust me. Haven’t I earned your trust?” And he had. Dad never stopped taking care of me for as long as he lived, and guess what? The Lord is taking care of Dad now.

God’s Word is telling us today: Trust in the Lord. Jesus has taken good care of us in the past, and he’s not going to stop taking care of us now—because he hasn’t stopped loving us. He loves us as much today as when he willingly went to the cross to suffer and die for us, in order to bring us into a saving relationship with God. And because of this great love, he’ll take care of us in the future, no matter what fiery furnaces we have to face, until one day we arrive safely on the other side of death and resurrection into his kingdom. Jesus wants us to trust him. Hasn’t he earned our trust?

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