Into the Fire

When we don’t want someone to understand what we are saying, we talk in code.  We use words or phrases that “they,” whoever “they” are, won’t understand.  When our boys were little, we didn’t talk about going out for ice cream…Lori and I would talk about possibly getting  i-c-e-c-r-e-a-m.

Interestingly, we use the same strategy with our dog.  We don’t talk about taking him for a “walk,” (he’ll go nuts, and head straight for the door,) rather we contemplate a w-a-l-k.  Because while Kennedy’s English is pretty good, he still is terrible at spelling.

Language codes have been used throughout history.  During World War II, the British Broadcasting Corporation would broadcast news throughout Europe.  Hidden within their broadcasts were words or phrases that formed codes aimed at resistance cells in France, Italy, Poland or Belgium.  These codes would give the resistance important information about what was going on, or directions about an action they should take, or a warning about something the Nazi’s were up to.  These codes were a lifeline for resistance fighters.

Our Old Testament scripture reading today from the Book of Daniel, the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, is a code…a secret message.

The events in our story were set somewhere around the year 650BC, that is, 650 years before Jesus, during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar.  However, the story itself wasn’t actually written down, and shared until maybe 500 years later, around the year 150BC.  In fact, scholars believe that the book of Daniel was the last book of the Old Testament that was written, just 150 years before the birth of Jesus.

So why was the book of Daniel written so long after these events took place?  Because the people who put pen to paper…well…in their case, quill to scroll…were using the story to send a message, a code, to those who had been defeated in war, and an underground resistance movement that was trying to overthrow their oppressors.

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and King Nebuchadnezzar walked the earth during a time of Jewish history called “the exile.”  Israel had been defeated by the Babylonian Empire.  The people had been forced off of their land and had been scattered across the region.  Many had been enslaved, and many more lived in poverty and hunger.  In the story, King Nebuchadnezzar is portrayed as a kind of an egocentric self-important buffoon who loved the trappings of his office.  He created a statue and required that when people heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, they would drop what they were doing, fall down to the ground, and worship the golden statue.  Whoever did not comply would immediately be arrested and then thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three faithful Jews, simply refused.  When everyone else dropped to the ground, they remained standing. They took the first commandment seriously:  They would worship no God other than the God of Israel.  This threw the King into a rage: no one resisted his will and lived to tell of it!

The three were arrested and brought to him for immediate judgment.  He asked if they had a defense.  They replied: ““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.”

Well, this put the King way over the edge, and he had the furnace stoked so hot that when the guards opened the door to throw in the 3 men, the guards themselves died from the blast of heat.  When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego entered the furnace, however, nothing happened.  They were protected.  And when the King looked inside, he saw not three people…he saw four.  And the fourth, had the appearance, scripture says, “of a God.”

The King immediately called the three out of the furnace and decreed that the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had to be the one…the true God on high.

And he immediately decreed that all the people of his Kingdom would now believe in and worship the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego…and that if they didn’t, they would be arrested and torn limb-from-limb.

So…well…he got part of the lesson right.

A good story is one where the reader or listener is able to place themselves in the drama…we can see ourselves living it out.  That’s what we do in this story.  We think “how would I handle that?”  “Would I have the courage of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego?”  “Could I stand and defend my faith this way?” And so naturally, the focus of the story turns to the faithfulness and courage of these three…which makes sense.

But there is a bigger picture here that becomes clear when we remember the context.  Remember, this story was actually written down and shared 500 years later, during another time of pain and anguish for the Jewish people.

It was the same story, but different persecutors.  Instead of the Babylonians, it was now the Seleucid Empire that was in power over the Israelites.  Under the harsh rule of the Empire, the Jewish people were forbidden from practicing their religion.  In fact, they could not even speak out loud of their God.  The punishment for breaking this law was death.

And so, 500 years after it happened, the events surrounding Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the buffoonish King Nebuchadnezzar… was written down and shared.  Why?

It was a code.  It was a secret message.  It was a story of resistance.  But even more it was a message of encouragement and guidance to a people who were now literally living “behind enemy lines.”

The secret message was this:

  • When you are in the fiery furnace, you are not alone.
  • When everything has been taken away from you, you are not alone.
  • When you are living on that fine line between life and death, you are not alone.

The secret message to the Jewish people was:  You are not alone.  Remember your history…remember your heritage…and most importantly, remember your faith!  God is with you!

This message could not be spoken out loud, but it could be hidden within this story.

For us, when we hear this story, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are the main characters, and the primary plotline is about their faithfulness…that they kept the faith.  And that’s not unimportant.

But for those who read or heard the story in the year 150BC, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were not the key characters of the story.  The most important character for the Jews who had been defeated and scattered was that mysterious fourth figure, who was in the furnace with the three.  And the primary plot line of the story wasn’t the faithfulness of the three, it was that God, who had always been portrayed as being distant from the people, was with them.  God was right there!  That is the point of the story.  That is the secret message!

On April 12, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was arrested in the City of Birmingham, Alabama as he was participating in a non-violent protest.  Some historians have described his treatment in jail as “brutal, and “inhumane.”

On April 16th, Dr. King wrote an open letter, which came to be known as the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”  It was a letter where he criticized white pastors, who through their silence and inaction, were complicit in racial discrimination.  “Injustice anywhere,” wrote King, “is a threat to justice everywhere.”

King was living in his furnace…it was his exile.  He wrote that it was the presence of God, protecting him, and inspiring him to stay focused on the dream of justice for all of God’s people that got him through that time.

My friends, I’ve got bad news and I’ve got good news.  First te bad news:  we too are people in exile.  We don’t always recognize it, but we don’t live in the world that God intended.  The world we live in is not God’s vision.  It is sinful, broken, violent and divided.  Because of sin, we are living in exile from God’s paradise.  We live in the furnace.

But the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego reminds us that there is good news:

First, we are not alone in the furnace.  Just like with those three, God is present with us.  As surely as there was a fourth, “God-like” figure in the furnace with those three men, Jesus walks with us today.  And while the furnace is hot, you are protected.  You are not alone.

And God promises that you, child of God, through Jesus’ love, will step out of the furnace.  Because of the resurrection, the door opens, and God promises that you will step into the light of love and grace.  That is where we are intended to live.

This familiar story…one to love and remember…was a code for the Jewish people.  But it is also a code for you and for me.

  • It is a code that reminds us that we too are loved
  • It is a code that reminds us that we too are worth being saved
  • It is a code that reminds us that our call is to be God’s hands here, and to make our world reflect God’s paradise for all of God’s people
  • It is a code that reminds us that God stands with us and with all of God’s people who feel like they are living in the furnace…who are feeling exhausted, or beat down, or angry, or sad, or whatever…

It is a code that reminds us that God is right here…in the furnace with you.  And you are protected.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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