Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Monday, September 17, 2012

"Even in the Fire," 9/9/12

Daniel 1:1-7, 17-21
In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods. 3Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, 4young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans.

5The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. 6Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. 7The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.

17To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams. 18At the end of the time that the king had set for them to be brought in, the palace master brought them into the presence of Nebuchadnezzar, 19and the king spoke with them. And among them all, no one was found to compare with Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; therefore they were stationed in the king’s court. 20In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. 21And Daniel continued there until the first year of King Cyrus.

As we read this passage I’d like you to notice the humor. Notice also what gets repeated over and over, and what the author might be trying to tell us with that.

Daniel 3:1-28
King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. 2Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

3So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. When they were standing before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, 4the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, 5that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.

6Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” 7Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

8Accordingly, at this time certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews. 9They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! 10You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue, 11and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. 12There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O King. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

13Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. 14Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? 15Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?”

16Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 17If 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. 18But 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.”

19Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace heated up seven times more than was customary, 20and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. 21So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. 22Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire.

24Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” 25He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” 26Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!”

So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them.
28Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.
Last week we talked about God sending Israel and Judah into exile because the nation had lost its way and turned away from God. Different prophets emphasize different failings: the writer of 1 and 2 Kings emphasizes idolatry, Isaiah talks a lot about oppression of the poor. However you look at it, Israel and Judah had forgotten who they were supposed to be.

            Today’s passages remind us that even in exile, God is still with God’s people. We follow Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as they find favor with the king and his officials. We also follow as those officials become jealous of these rising stars, partly because of their success and partly because they are different. That’s a story that repeats several times during the Book of Daniel and elsewhere in scripture. It’s also a story that’s familiar in our own time: difference is frightening and those who are insecure will often turn that fear into discrimination and oppression.

            In the context of Daniel and the exile, the question that the story asks is: what does it mean to be different? What does it God’s people in exile? What does it mean to be set apart by God’s calling? As God’s church, these questions are still important for us today.

            We finished the sermon last week with a letter from the Prophet Jeremiah encouraging the exiles to build full lives in Babylon, because God would be with them there. We see that attitude in action with Daniel and his friends. They took the exile and made the best of it. When they were offered the opportunity to be educated in Babylonian wisdom so they could serve in government, they took it. And they served with energy and enthusiasm, even though they were serving their captors.
            So the passage gives a resounding “yes” to the question of whether we can work with people who don’t share our faith.

At the same time as they served faithfully and well, they didn’t loose track of who they were; they didn’t forget God. They didn’t let success at work blind them to their first priority, which was belonging to God. So even though they knew it could cost their lives, they didn’t worship Nebuchadnezzar’s statue.

Their faithfulness to God wasn’t hidden either. They could have made excuses to themselves about pretending to worship the statue but being faithful to God in their hearts. Instead, they honestly stated their faith and were ready to take the consequences. That’s a fantastic testimony and a great example of living by our convictions in tough times.

They were officials of the king and they were servants of the living God. Both roles were important, but when they come into conflict, it was obvious which came first.

That’s the key to living with integrity for us as well. We all wear different hats; we play different roles in our lives. We are parents and children, employees and citizens, but above all, we are disciples of Jesus Christ and children of God. Most of the time these roles fit together well, but sometimes we will find ourselves conflicted between different loyalties.

            So being God’s people in exile, being marked by God’s calling means that we work with others, we commit to whatever work we do, and we choose God first when our other loyalties conflict. Maybe your boss wants you to do something that seems unethical; maybe it feels like to succeed at work you have to compromise your principles. The truth is that faithfulness to God doesn’t always lead to workplace success; sometimes just the opposite. Sometimes we will suffer for doing the right thing. In exile and in life we can usually be successful and faithful, but sometimes we have to choose.

            The choice can be deceptive too. When Israel and Judah were independent, it seemed like they had everything they needed to be faithful. Instead, whether from fear or from the corruption of power, they turned away from God. In contrast, when Daniel and his friends were in exile, where the incentive was to turn away to the gods of the “winning side,” they stayed faithful to God.

            It turned out that power was a harder trial was than weakness. Religion mixed with power couldn’t be faithful, but faith separated from, even threatened by government power stayed true.

When religion and the government are intertwined, they use each other to maintain their power. Remember Jezebel using an invented religious charge to have Naboth killed so she could take his vineyard for King Ahab. Remember Ahab and Jezebel deciding they could strengthen their power better through the worship of Baal than through following the Lord. In contrast, look at Daniel and his friends, following God regardless of the cost.

That’s the opportunity our new era has given us. We often long for the “good old days,” when the church was powerful and the pews were full. We long for the days when the church could tell society what to do and culture understood Christianity. In fact, our lack of power as an institution now frees us to follow God alone. The church’s loss of political and social power gives us to the freedom to be Daniel, to be Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

As we return to the school and church year, as summer’s different pace gives way to the joy and the grind of our regular work life, let’s embrace the courage and freedom of the exiles. Our passage calls us to embrace our work as a calling, but to remember that the one who calls us comes first. Success is welcome, but it can’t define us. We belong to God, the word and the sacrament teach us well.

Thanks be to God.

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