God in the furnace (Daniel 3) [Sermon 12-3-17, Advent 1)

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December 2, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for December 3rd, 2017. First Sunday of Advent, 2017.

Text is selections from Daniel 3.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.


Why Daniel 3 scares me

Our lesson today contains what are, for me, some of the most terrifying words in the entire Bible.

It’s when King Nebuchadnezzar gave Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego one final opportunity to bow down to his big gold idol, and escape the wrath of the blazing furnace. And he asked them: If I toss you into that furnace over there, then what god will be able to rescue you from my power?

But those three men wouldn’t budge an inch. Not even a millimeter. They told him: 

If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up. (Daniel 3.17-18)

Those words, right there. Those words give me chills.

It absolutely terrifies me to imagine myself put in a situation like that. Where I have to choose between loyalty to God and not dying in some awful way.

It terrifies me because I’m not absolutely sure I’d make the right choice in a situation like that.

The story we heard today scares me because it convicts me. 

Especially when I remember the context of our story. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were just kids when God sent his people into exile in Babylon. The exile was their punishment for injustice and idolatry. Idolatry that included making their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to other gods (Jer. 32.35 NASB).  So when I put myself in Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s shoes—about to be made a burnt offering in the name of some foreign God—it kind of makes me mad.

To be honest, if I was in their shoes, I would protest. I would say:

You know what, God? We’re not the ones who did all those awful things! It was our parents and grandparents, and their parents and grandparents. We’re here in Babylon doing what you told us to do—seeking the peace and prosperity of our cities. Why should we have to atone for their sins?

I’d say:

Our ancestors made you angry because they offered their children as burnt offerings to other gods. So how are you any better than our parents, God? You’re doing the same thing they did!

I might even say:

God—why should we put our lives on the line for you? What have you done for us lately?

I’m not proud that this would be my gut reaction if I was in their place. Just being truthful.

What really convicts me about their story is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego hadn’t even been told about resurrection yet. As far as they knew, if they burned up in that furnace, that was just the end.

I have this big book, called The Martyrs Mirror. It was written by persecuted Anabaptist Christians in the 17th century. And it tells the story of people who died for their faith in Christ from the first century up to 1660. And yes, many of the stories in that book convict me, too.

Probably the most famous story in this book is the death of Dirk Willems. You may have heard me tell this story before.

The authorities had arrested Dirk Willems for his preaching, and had him locked up in a prison tower. He was on death row, and he knew it. But one day, he found a way to escape out a window, and began to run across a frozen pond to freedom. A prison guard was chasing him across the frozen pond, and the ice underneath the guard cracked and he fell into the freezing waters.

Dirk Willems knew he had two choices. He could keep running to safe territory and save his own life. Or he could turn around and save the guard’s life. But he’d probably be returned to jail and executed anyway.

Dirk Willems could have just kept on running, to safety. Instead he heard the voice of Jesus, reminding him to love his enemies and do good to his persecutors (Luke 6.27-28). So Dirk Willems obeyed Jesus. He turned back and fished the guard out of the icy waters.

And a few days later, even though the guard pled for mercy on his behalf, Dirk Willems was burned to death.

If it was me, I’d probably have let that guard drown. I’d tell myself he died while following an unjust order, and he deserved whatever happened to him. Kind of like the soldiers we heard about in our story today, who burned to death tossing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the furnace.

Our fiery furnaces

What about you? Maybe you’re here today and you’re like me. You’re secretly, quietly thanking God that you’ve never been put in a situation like Dirk Willems; or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were in.

Maybe you would have waffled before Nebuchadnezzar’s threat. Maybe you’d have let that prison guard drown. And maybe you’d even have very unselfish reasons for it. I mean, most of you here have people who depend on you, right? Your wife. Your husband. Your children. Your aging parents. Your employees. Your coworkers. Your cats. Wouldn’t it be irresponsible of you to get yourself killed just to prove a point? Who would take care of the ones you left behind?

But you know what? You know as well as I do that we’re just talking hypotheticals here. As much as the fear mongers constantly have us wringing our hands over persecution, we aren’t experiencing anything like what happened to the men we’ve heard about today. We may sometimes be laughed at, disagreed with in public, or inconvenienced. But we aren’t being persecuted. Sorry y’all, but the girl serving your coffee wishing you “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” isn’t persecution! I don’t know why we feel entitled to global corporations honoring our holy days. We have sisters and brothers all over the world who are enduring real persecution. They are being put in terrifying situations where staying faithful to God means making life-or-death choices. Like the people whose stories we’ve heard today.

But you know what? Maybe we’re not facing persecutions like some of our sisters and brothers in the faith have in the past, and still are today. But all of us are, or have been, or will be put in really tough situations that challenge our faith and test our relationship with God. Maybe you’re going through something, or you have gone through something that’s strained your relationship with God. Made you wonder if God really is there, really cares about you, really listens to your prayers.

Maybe you’re experiencing—or someone you love is going through—some serious illness. Something painful or chronic. Something that might even lead to death.  Maybe it’s trouble in your marriage. Or your work. Maybe you’ve experienced loss of income and you don’t know how you’re going to make ends meet.  Maybe you’re worried sick about the choices your kids are making with their lives. Maybe you’re here and you’re dealing with trauma. You were abused. You’ve been bullied. You’ve seen things nobody should have to see, and things have been done to you that no one should have to suffer. Or maybe you’re dealing with the darkness of depression and anxiety. Maybe some days you don’t even know how you’re going to get out of bed. Maybe some days you question why you should even go on at all.

Now, if you fit into any of those categories, please talk to somebody. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing it with me, that’s okay. But talk to somebody. And with some of these you really need to talk to a doctor or a therapist or even legal authorities, right?

But here’s the thing I want you to see. I’m about to share some hope you can carry with you right now. That thing that’s casting a shadow over your life; that’s keeping you awake at night; that’s stealing your joy; that’s threatening to destroy you; that thing you can’t escape; that may even be testing the limits of your faith in God—that’s your fiery furnace.

And when we left Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, their hands were tied—they were completely helpless—and they were being tossed into a fiery furnace.

God is with us in the fiery furnace

And that’s where I want to pick up their story again, and show you something you really need to hear and understand. Daniel 3.23ff:

So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, securely tied, fell into the roaring flames. But suddenly, Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in amazement and exclaimed to his advisers, “Didn’t we tie up three men and throw them into the furnace?” “Yes, Your Majesty, we certainly did,” they replied. “Look!” Nebuchadnezzar shouted. “I see four men, unbound, walking around in the fire unharmed! And the fourth looks like a god!”

Did you hear that? That fourth guy looks like a god. Biblical scholars are divided over whether that was an angel, or whether it was Jesus himself, before the Incarnation. I tend to lean toward the interpretation that it was Jesus in the flames with them, protecting them, but it really doesn’t matter much. Either way, God rescued them. God was with them in the flames.

God didn’t prevent them from going into the fiery furnace. But God was with them in the fiery furnace.

God went through the flames with them.

And that’s the good news in this story for you—that God will go with you through whatever your fiery furnace is. That God was already with you through whatever fiery furnace you’ve already been through, even if you weren’t aware of it. The fact that you’re here is a sign that he was with you. And if you’re currently entering some fiery furnace—know that God is with you now.

This isn’t a quick-fix, everything is better now kind of good news. It’s the kind of good news that gives us hope and courage to sustain us as we go through the flames.

The point of our story is:  No matter how bad it is, God is with us, and God is in control.

So here’s what the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego challenges us to do. It calls us to trust God with a faith so deep and so relentless we’d stake our lives on it that God is with us and God is in control. No matter how hopeless things look, or how empty or lonely we feel. Your challenge isn’t necessarily to die for this faith—it’s to live in it, and live it out.

To know that God is with you through every fiery furnace.

To take God at his word when he says: I will never leave you or abandon you (Heb. 13.5).

And as you go through whatever fiery furnace you’re facing, you can hear God’s assuring word: Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine … When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched and flame won’t burn you (Isa. 43.1-2).

Because when we go through those fiery furnaces, it’s not enough just to believe that God is in control somewhere out there. You need to know God is with you. At your side. We need to know and feel that God is at work in and among and through us and our lives. Otherwise, the fiery furnace may absolutely leave our trust in God a pile of ashes.

Seeking the presence of God

So here’s my challenge to me, to you, to us. For the next week—just seven days—I want you to join me in seeking God’s presence. Let’s look and listen and wait for God. Through prayer and meditation. I mean talking to God like God is right there in the room with you. Even if it doesn’t feel like God is there. One of the strangest things we humans do is assume that just because we don’t feel God’s presence, God must be absent. But it may be the noise of the world, our lives, our troubles, our fears drowning out the presence of God.

So create a space and a quiet time, every day this week. Just for you and God. Maybe you can chat with God at red lights on your commute. My wife says she does some of her best praying in the shower, while she’s washing her hair. She has plenty of hair to wash. Maybe you can have your morning coffee with God. If it helps, pull up a chair for God—right in front of you. Or maybe three chairs—one for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And just talk to God. Tell God your burdens, your fears, your pain, and your joy. Confess your sins and your doubts. Protest and complain and lament the things that trouble you. Celebrate your successes and victories with God—even the small ones. But be sure to leave silent space for God to answer you. Be still and know that he is God. And look and listen for God’s presence and God’s voice in the events of your life. In your blessings. In the words and voices and care of the people you love.

My prayer is that God’s presence will break through and overwhelm you. And you will know you are not alone; you’ve never been alone; and you never will be alone.

Imagining God with us

Now today I’m not asking us to go out and get ourselves killed or intentionally put ourselves in harm’s way, like Dirk Willems; or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

I’m asking you to imagine what we could do, what we could accomplish, what we could endure, what risks we would be willing to take, what kind of people we could become if we absolutely knew and felt God with us. 

How would we speak to each other, to our families, our neighbors, our coworkers if we were absolutely aware that God is in the room, listening to what we say?

How would we look at that person who annoys us or is too needy or frustrates us, if we knew God was right there with us? And maybe we heard God say, I know that person’s story way better than you do, and they have a hundred good reasons for the way they are. Do you think we’d become more willing to show them the same patient grace God gives to us?

Those days when you don’t think it matters if you get out of bed and show up for life, and you struggle to see how anything you do matters—what would happen if you were convinced that God is with you, and you absolutely matter to God?

If you’re here today, and you’re in one of those fiery furnaces we talked about—what changes when you can see and feel and hear Jesus walking with you through it? Holding you up with his wounded hands, his wounded feet walking beside yours? When you can see him looking into your eyes, and hear him tell you: I love you. And I know how hard this is. I know because they did it to me, too. But I promise you, it gets better. How much hope would that give you?

And church, what kind of creativity and beauty and love would we unleash among ourselves, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in this city—if we could absolutely feel God’s Holy Spirit living and working and moving among us? Convicting us. Inspiring us. Opening our eyes and minds and hearts to all of the creativity and beauty and love God has to offer.

Because if God is with us through the fiery furnace, God is also there for all the little mundane, everyday, ordinary stuff, too. Even the things we might think are insignificant. God is with you when you’re taking out the trash. Balancing the checkbook. Doing your homework. Walking the dog. Changing a diaper. Cooking dinner. Folding the laundry. Drinking coffee. Helping your elderly parent button up their shirt. Watching Home Alone for the umpteenth time. Whatever. God is there with you.

And when we know God is with us, in all of those mundane moments, it changes everything. It gradually dawns on us that everywhere we stand is holy ground, and even the most mundane moments can be and will be used for the glory of God.

Even the fiery furnaces of our lives will be used for the glory of God. Because when God has led us through them—and usually only then—we will see that they were blazing with the fires of hope for those who come after us.

At least, that’s what God did with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s fiery furnace. And I have no reason to doubt that God will do the same with my fiery furnaces, or yours.

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