The three friends in today’s scripture exhibited great courage as they faced being thrown into the fiery furnace. Notice that they weren’t completely confident that God would rescue them from their terrible fate: “But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
We all face bad situations over which we have little or no control. What do we do? How can we face those situations with faith? That’s what this sermon is about.
Sermon Text: Daniel 3:8-30
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
You probably heard about the Korean airliner that crashed while attempting to land in San Francisco last week. Mercifully, so far, out of 307 people onboard, only three were killed. Not that it isn’t horrible when this sort of thing happens, but the crash obviously could have been much worse. I used to fly frequently when I was an engineer, and I never paid much attention to the flight attendants’ instructions about what to do in the event of an emergency landing. It never really mattered to me that the seat cushion could be used as a flotation device. I figured that unless the seat cushion could also be used as a spare airplane, then I was pretty much toast. Right?
Then you occasionally hear about successful crash landings like last week and think, “Well, maybe there’s a small chance I’d survive a crash.” Who knows? My point is, pay attention to the flight attendants, kids!
Sometimes in life we face situations at least a little bit like last week’s plane crash: It’s as if we’re strapped in a plane that’s going to crash, and we’re powerless to do anything about it. We have no control over the situation. We didn’t choose this for this to happen—any more than the passengers onboard that airliner chose to crash. They chose to go to San Francisco. They assumed the negligibly small risk that doing so might lead to a crash. So… here we are. Stuck. This bad thing is happening. What do we do now?
Isn’t this a little like the situation that the three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, faced in today’s scripture? The Babylonian king, King Nebuchadnezzar erects a giant gold statue, an idol, and demands that all the courtiers and government officials throughout the empire bow down and worship it. Having been warned in dream in Daniel chapter 2 that his kingdom was on shaky ground, he likely wanted to tighten his grip on the empire. Given how divisive religion can be, what better way to consolidate his power than to impose a single religion on everyone?
Most pagan people back then were polytheists anyway—meaning they believed in multiple gods—so what’s the harm of adding one more into the mix?
If you’re a faithful Jew, however, exiled in Babylon after your homeland of Judea has been conquered, well… You know there’s only one God, and he’s told you that he’s a “jealous” God. And he’s also told you in no uncertain terms that bowing down and worshiping any other god is a major sin—literally a breaking of the first two of the Ten Commandments.
Last year you may have heard about a Christian pastor in Iran named Youcef Nadarkhani, who was facing the death penalty and was scheduled be hanged because he refused to renounce his Christian faith. He was repeatedly hauled before a tribunal and given chance after chance to say publicly that he would no longer practice Christianity or try to convert people to the faith. And if only he did that, the authorities would let him go. His life would be spared. And this pastor and father of young children refused to do so, even though it looked like this decision meant his death. The Iranians finally caved in to international pressure and released him.
His example inspires me and terrifies me a little bit—because I can’t help but wonder what I would do under those circumstances.
What would I do under the circumstances that these three friends faced? They were in a large assembly of people. Everyone else was bowing down. Who would judge them if they did as well? Who would even know? Besides, if I were them, I wonder if I wouldn’t rationalize it in some way: “I could bow down—but of course I wouldn’t actually be worshiping. I could just pretend to be worshiping. I could cross my fingers behind my back. I could be worshiping God while other people thought I was worshiping this idol. “Besides, I could do more good for God’s kingdom by staying alive than by being thrown into this fiery furnace. Besides, I have a wife and kids to think about—who’s going to take care of them if I get myself killed? And it’s just one little sin… God will forgive me!”
No… to their great credit, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had the integrity not to bow down, even when their lives were on the line—even after Nebuchadnezzar gives them a second chance to bow down or else be thrown into the furnace. And please notice something: they weren’t completely sure that God would perform a miracle and save them. “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
I’m glad they threw in that “even if he doesn’t” qualification. Stories like this one, in which God works a miracle to save someone—or like the many miraculous healings in the Gospels—might remind us in a painful way of experiences we’ve had in which our prayers for healing went unanswered—and we didn’t get the miracle healing we prayed for, or we didn’t get the miraculous deliverance we so desperately wanted. More often than not, life seems to run its course without God’s miraculous intervention. What do we make of that? Is God not really there? Or if he is, doesn’t he care about us?
One theologian talked about the problem of unanswered prayer this way, which I find helpful: He said that most of the time we like gravity. We want to live in a predictable world, governed by predictable laws. We want to know for certain when we get out of bed in the morning our feet will touch the ground. Most of the time, gravity works out well for us. Except when through the consequences of our own free will we find ourselves on the wrong side of a fast-approaching boulder. Then we want God to make an exception for us. “In this case, God, please prevent gravity from working!” And maybe God will answer that prayer and work that miracle. But if he did this sort of thing routinely—and constantly made exceptions to the laws of physics for us when those laws hurt us—before long, the world would no longer be a predictable and stable world. Far from having our feet touch the ground, we might float away.
But here’s an incredibly important point: Even if we find ourselves on the wrong side of that fast-approaching boulder, it doesn’t mean that God wanted us to get crushed. It doesn’t mean it was God’s will. That’s Calvinist theology, and we Wesleyan Christians disagree strongly with our Calvinist brothers and sisters on this point.
I often here a version of this kind of theology in pastoral care situations when, for example, a child dies, and a grieving parent says something like, “I don’t know why this happened, but I know that everything happens for a reason.” And—well—I suppose it’s true that everything happens for a reason, but that reason isn’t necessarily God! It might very well be the devil, but it isn’t necessarily God! Brothers and sisters, we live in a fallen world in which evil is a real force—in which people, including you and me, under the influence of Satan, do evil in our world. We live in a world in which Creation itself—again, under Satan’s influence—is corrupted. We pray each week in the Lord’s Prayer for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven because we recognize that God’s will often isn’t done here—at least on this side of the Second Coming and resurrection, when God will redeem our world and make everything all right.
I began this sermon talking about being in bad situations over which we’re powerless, we have no control, we can’t do anything about it. Like those passengers on board that airliner last week, we’re strapped into this plane and it’s going to crash. Like the three friends in today’s scripture, we’re being led by armed guard to this fiery furnace, and we can’t fight back or overwhelm them or do anything to stop them. It’s clear from scripture and our everyday experience that we can’t count on God to rescue us from every evil circumstance, but… We can still count on God. And we can still face every evil circumstance with faith and hope.
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, wrote a profoundly good book called Man’s Search for Meaning, in part about his experience as a survivor of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. He survived Dachau and Auschwitz. Even in the face of evil at its worst, Frankl said, he and his fellow prisoners in these death camps had a choice. He wrote:
Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate…
No matter what happens to us, Frankl said—even if it’s the gas chamber—we always have the freedom to choose whether or not the circumstances we face will crush our spirits or become an opportunity for spiritual growth. In the very last paragraph of his book, he wrote: “We have come to know man as he really is… Man is that being who invented the gas chambers at Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
A friend of mine—who’s too young—was recently diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s—like Michael J. Fox. He was telling me that he’s grown so much closer to God through the experience, and all these good things have happened since his diagnosis. He said, “If only I didn’t have this,” and he showed me the tremor in his arm. What I would tell him is, maybe you don’t get to have one without the other. Maybe God has transformed this really evil thing—Parkinson’s disease—into a strange and difficult blessing.
Just like God transformed this evil furnace into a strange and difficult blessing for these three friends. Please notice: This strange and difficult blessing wasn’t available to the three young men before they entered the furnace. And the blessing wasn’t available to them after they left the furnace. And the 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 fire first. The blessing only comes through the trial. The blessing only comes through the hardship. The blessing only comes through the suffering.
Here’s the good news: God loves us with a love from which neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation shall be able to separate us—including a fiery furnace, or a gas chamber, or a crashing airliner, or a terrorist attack, or a terminal illness, or a drunk driver, or an IED on a road in Afghanistan or Iraq, or a miscarriage, or a bankruptcy, or a business failure, or unemployment, or drug addiction, or divorce, or even a wakeboarding accident, as a young person in our community experienced this week. No bad thing in the world—including the worst thing in the world—has the power to separate us from God’s invincible love.
Didn’t God prove that on the cross of his Son Jesus—on which the worst evil of men and the worst evil of devils—were no match for God’s love.