Rudolph’s glowing red nose was great gift—misunderstood, difficult, even dangerous—but a gift nonetheless. Using clips from the Rankin-Bass holiday classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, I share insights about the gifts that God gives us by relating the TV special to the experiences of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Sermon Text: Daniel 3:8-25
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
The following is my original manuscript. The video clips from Rudolph that I showed in church are included.
In keeping with the spirit of Christmas, I guess, it’s fitting that this classic Christmas special begins with an unusual birth. No, it’s not a virgin birth—and God knows Rudolph’s parents are not at all like Mary and Joseph. Notice the first thing Rudolph’s mother, Mrs. Donner, says when she sees her son’s glowing nose: “We’ll simply have to overlook it.”
Overlook it! Oh my goodness! So Rudolph’s mother can’t conceive for a moment that this unusual feature of her son’s anatomy is nothing more than a problem that needs to be solved—or at least hidden. From her perspective—and her husband’s perspective and even Santa’s perspective—there’s just nothing good about it at all. She can’t conceive for a moment that far from being a problem, it might actually be a gift or a blessing in some way!
And why do these people feel this way? Because it’s not what they expected!
But let’s not judge them too harshly. We’re probably not so different.
In a new book he wrote with his wife, an English pastor and theologian named Andrew Wilson reflects on his experience parenting his two young children, who have autism. Having children with special needs, he writes, is like being at a dinner party at which all the other guests receive a “chocolate orange” for dessert. Do you know what a chocolate orange is. I think it’s a British thing—but it’s chocolate in the shape of orange wedges that comes wrapped in foil. So you watch all of your friends receive creamy, sumptuous chocolate oranges. But instead of getting a chocolate orange for dessert, the host of the party hands you an actual orange. Wilson writes:
Special needs, like the orange, are unexpected. We didn’t plan for them, and we didn’t anticipate them. Because our children are such a beautiful gift, we often feel guilty for even saying this, but we might as well admit that we didn’t want our children to have autism, any more than we wanted them to have Down’s, or cerebral palsy, or whatever else. Give or take, we wanted pretty much what our friends had: children who crawled at one, talked at two, potty trained at three, asked questions at four, and went off to mainstream school at five… So there are times, when we’re wiping the citric acid out of our eyes and watching our friends enjoying their chocolate, when it feels spectacularly unfair, and we wish we could retreat to a place where everyone had oranges, so we wouldn’t have to fight so hard against the temptation to comparison-shopping and wallowing in self-pity. We know that oranges are juicy in their own way. We know that they’re good for us, and that we’ll experience many things that others will miss. But we wish we had a chocolate one, all the same.
So oranges are good, he says—they’re delicious, they’re nutritious, there’s simply nothing wrong with having an orange—any more than there’s something wrong with Rudolph’s having a shiny red nose. In fact there is so much that’s right about an orange. But we look around and what does Wilson say? We look at our friends and we “comparison-shop”: Why can’t we have what they have? What we have is great, but… it’s more difficult, more challenging. It’s not what we expected.
Which brings us to the Christmas story. Think of Joseph. Talk about not getting what we expected! First, he has to deal with his hurt and bruised feelings when he imagines that his fiancée has cheated on him. Then he has to deal with the fact that his first-born son won’t be his own—that he will only be the child’s adoptive father. Nothing at all wrong with that; it’s just not what he expected. Then he has to uproot his family and move to Egypt, when he finds out that the jealous King Herod is out to murder his son. Finally, even after that Herod dies, he still can’t return to his ancestral home of Bethlehem the way he plans, because another Herod is on the throne there, and he’s even worse.
This isn’t at all what Joseph expected; it isn’t what he planned on; it isn’t what he dreamed of. His life was a thousand times more difficult than he thought it would be. But has any man in history been more blessed than to be chosen by God to be the adoptive father of the Son of God, Jesus Christ? No way!
The point is, God will often give us “gifts,” which, from our perspective, we would just as soon return to the store and get a store credit to buy something else. So the question is, will we trust that what God gives us will be good for us—whether it’s what we want or not?
That is one of our main challenges as Christians! To trust that God knows what he’s doing!
In this next clip, you’ll meet an elf in Santa’s workshop named Hermey, who, like Rudolph, is going to struggle because he’s different. Next we’ll see Rudolph himself lose the privilege of joining in any reindeer games.
So Hermey the Elf and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer don’t fit in.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in today’s scripture could relate to this! They know all about not fitting in. They are Jewish exiles in Babylon who, like Daniel, had risen to a high rank in King Nebuchadnezzar’s administration. Nebuchadnezzar liked them—at least until he asked them, along with everyone else who served him, to bow down and worship a giant statue that the king had built for himself. And because these three faithful Jews feared God more than any man—even the most powerful man in the world—they refused to bow down.
Even though the king was threatening them with execution by fire—in the fiery furnace—they still refused.
Nebuchadnezzar was beside himself in anger. Because, in a way, this most powerful man in the world was powerless against these three men. What do I mean? Well, he could kill them, of course. He had the power to do that. But he didn’t have the power to make them bow down. In all his years as king of the most powerful nation, he’d never met anyone like that. Everyone else he’d met placed an absolute value on their lives. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, by contrast, placed absolute value, not on their lives and on saving them, but on God and their relationship with him. Nothing was more important to them than that.
Likewise, following Jesus is about learning to place a relative value on our lives—and all the things in them—while placing an absolute value on God.
I say “learning” to do that because I know I’m not there yet—and you’re probably not either. Yet we strive together to do that.
While we’ll likely never face the kind of life-or-death choice that these three friends faced, we do face daily, hourly, moment-by-moment decisions that test whether or not we place our highest value on God.
Will we pass the test?
In that song that Hermey and Rudolph sang, they say the following: “We may be different from all the rest/ But who decides the test/ Of what is really best?” Who decides the test of what is really best? That’s a great question, although I imagine that Hermey and Rudolph would answer it differently from me. They probably think the answer is no one… No one “decides the test of what is really best.” One way is as good as any other way. Therefore, all these other people shouldn’t judge us for being different.
But that’s not quite right. There is someone who decides the test of what is really best. It’s God. He tests us, and then he judges us based on whether or not we pass the test. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced the test of committing idolatry or being thrown into the fiery furnace, they knew that they would have to answer to God—that God had a definite idea of what the best course of action was for the three friends in that situation. And his opinion—his judgment—was the only one that mattered. That’s how they could face the furnace. It’s not that they faced the furnace without fear. But as much as they feared dying a horrible death there, they feared God even more. They feared disobeying God more than they feared Nebuchadnezzar.
Do we fear God in the same good way that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego feared God?
In the first part of this sermon, I made reference to Rudolph’s nose being a “gift”—a misunderstood and unappreciated gift, but a gift nonetheless. Well, if it’s a gift, it certainly comes with a lot of trouble! It addition to causing Rudolph to be ostracized from his friends, his family, his fellow reindeer, even Santa himself, his nose also attracts everyone’s worst enemy, the Abominable Snow Monster. Later, the Snow Monster will even threaten to kill Rudolph’s parents and his girlfriend, Clarice.
Now let me give a spoiler alert and tell you that the story has a very happy ending for everyone involved—as I’ll show you in the next clip. But to get to that happy ending, it involves a lot of suffering on Rudolph’s part. And this is another aspect of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that’s worth emphasizing. Before Nebuchadnezzar throws them in the furnace, he asks them, “What god can possibly save you from this furnace?” And they answer him, “Our God can, and we believe he will. But even if he doesn’t, you need to know that we’re still not bowing down.”
So here’s the amazing thing: The three friends are not at all certain that God will deliver them. They know as well as we do that, often, faithful servants of God die—as we’ve seen so many Christian martyrs die in the Middle East over the past couple of years. So it’s not a guarantee that God will rescue them from the flames. And while it’s true that God does end up rescuing them, it’s only after he makes them endure the worst part of the furnace. What do I mean? Well, think about it: Suppose they had died in that furnace. They would have died instantly, the moment they were thrown in. That’s not the worst part—the worst part is first wrestling with the decision of whether or not to bow down to the statue, and then, once that decision was made, anticipating being thrown in—thinking about what it will be like, fearing the flames. God did not rescue them from any of that hard stuff! They had to deal with all of it, endure all of it, suffer through all of it.
God did not rescue them from their suffering. And he doesn’t promise to rescue us from ours. But as we can see in this next clip, our short-term hardships can be redeemed.
Earlier in the Rudolph movie, Clarice, Rudolph’s girlfriend sings a song to him in which she says, “There’s always tomorrow for dreams to come true… We all pretend the rainbow has an end/ And you’ll be there, my friend, some day.” It sounds like wishful thinking when she sings it; it sounds like a fairy tale. But the truth is, because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s not—not for those of us who trust in Jesus. The rainbow does have an end. How do we know?
Well, for one thing, notice what Daniel 3, verse 25, says: Nebuchadnezzar looks into the furnace and sees not three but four figures. He says, “I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” From the beginning of the church, Christian interpreters have seen in this verse a reference to the pre-incarnate Christ. These three men could be saved from fire because Christ himself, through his suffering and death on the cross, suffered the fiery wrath of God’s judgment against us—died in our place, suffered hell in our place. That’s how any of us will be saved!
And now, because of their faith, Christ was with these men in this trial by fire, and he promises to be with us in our own “fiery trials” as well!
And not only does he promise to be with us, and to give us his peace, he also promises to work through our trials, and transform them into something good. Even in the case of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, he uses their astonishing faith to witness to Nebuchadnezzar, a pagan, and bring him eventually to saving faith in our loving and merciful Father. Because they endured that trial, a lost person was found!
And in a similar way, we see all this good that came from the so-called “problem” of Rudolph’s glowing nose. God used Rudolph’s amazing gift to change the lives of everyone for the better. May God use our gifts in a similar fashion! Amen.
 John C. Lennox, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism (Oxford: Monarch, 2015), 144-5.