We’re currently in the middle of a sermon series on the Old Testament Book of Daniel, and today we come to, after Daniel and the Lions Den, what is probably the second most famous story of the book - it’s the story of the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the story of three men who are thrown into the fiery furnace after refusing to worship anything other than God himself, and who remarkably, through God’s help, somehow survive and live to see another day. It’s a truly awe inspiring story of three men who demonstrate a level of courage and faith in God seen in few other places in the bible or throughout history for that matter. And after reviewing the story this past week, we’re going to look at the story over the course of a couple weeks – looking at the first half today, followed by the second half next Sunday.
Yet before we dive into the story itself, let’s briefly set the scene. Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are currently in exile, strangers in the foreign land of Babylon, under the reign and rule of King Nebuchadnezzar, and over the first couple chapters we’ve watched how Daniel and his three friends, through some combination of their ability, their steadfast faith, and God’s direction and provision, have somehow found themselves placed in significant positions of leadership as they serve under King Nebuchadnezzar.
(And just to clarify quickly here, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are simply the Babylonian names given to Daniel and his three friends, also known as Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They’re just different and interchangeable names given for what, are in fact, the same three people.)
All that said, we’re now ready to look at our story for today, the story, or at least the first half of it that Alan just read. And though it may at first seem to be a story that is far more extreme or radical than anything you and I have ever experienced ourselves, I think we’ll find that we share more in common with it that we might initially think.
The chapter begins by telling us that King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue …
And this is a massive, can’t miss statue, some sixty cubits tall, some 90 feet or so. Now, what exactly the statue represents, we can’t say for sure. It may be one of the Babylonian gods that Nebuchadnezzar worships, although it’s probably more likely that it’s a statue of Nebuchadnezzar himself, in part, because of the way the narrator consistently uses the phrase “the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up” over and over and over again
And Nebuchadnezzar calls for a dedication ceremony, where we’re given this long list of people who are going to be there, which is, in many ways, a way of telling us that pretty much everybody who’s anybody will be there. That is, everybody who matters in Babylon, everyone who has power and authority and status and good standing will be there to worship this thing.
And at this ceremony, the people are told in very certain terms of what will be expected of them and what will be the consequences if they don’t fall in line, where they will either bow down and worship the golden statue or be thrown into the fiery furnace in what you would only assume could to their certain death. In short, their choice is simple and the stakes are severe – it’s either worship or die, with nowhere to hide.
Now, at first glance, all of this seems so radical and so foreign to anything you and I experience today. After all, we don’t have a habit of worshipping golden statues nor are we sentenced to death if we don’t. And in general, here in America we experience a level of religious freedom far greater than in other parts of the world and especially compared to the ancient civilizations and empires past such as Babylon.
Nevertheless, I think there are a couple straight lines that we can draw between what Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego experienced in Babylon long ago and what you and I as followers of Jesus experience here today. Here’s the first:
1) The prevalence and pervasiveness of idolatry
Here in our story, the Babylonians are worshipping a golden statue, or in other words, an idol. And humanity’s struggle with idolatry is a running theme throughout the bible, and given stories like ours today, we may be tempted to think of idolatry as something limited to people bowing down and worshipping things like golden calves, large statues, totem poles, things like that. And that, to be clear, is one kind of idolatry. But yet, the bible also defines idolatry much more broadly, and warns us against a kind of idolatry that is far more subtle and insidious in nature.
And that is, idolatry is anything that we look to for our ultimate sense of meaning, and purpose and worth. Idolatry is anything that we look at and say, “I have to have this … otherwise, life isn’t worth living.” And these things that we idolize aren’t necessarily bad things. In fact, they are often good things. Good things that we want too badly. They’re good things that we’ve made ultimate things.
So what are some of the idols that our culture struggles with today? Well, gosh, where to begin. On one hand, we worship and idolize physical and tangible things such as our spouse and kids, our money or possessions, our health or entertainment. Yet we also worship and idolize more general and intangible things such as comfort, power, control, success, approval.
You may have noticed as Alan was reading that there’s a ton of repetition in this first part of the story, maybe obnoxiously so – where the narrator constantly repeats certain phrases, especially this repeated refrain of “when you hear the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum and entire musical ensemble.” Okay, okay we get it. And then we see how automatic and ingrained this idol worship has become for the Babylonians, where it says, “as soon as the people heard the sound, they fell down and worshipped.” You see, it’s become so ingrained for them that it’s become second nature. Pastor Mark Labberton has an interesting name for all of this, describing it as "the mesmerizing rhythms of our culture." And in many ways, that’s what idolatry looks like for us today – often so subtle yet so embedded and entrenched in the greater culture.
For example, think about sports for a minute. Do you think we ever get too caught up into whether our sports teams win or lose? Of course we do. After all, fan is short for fanatic.
Or consider our desire for status and approval, or that feeling of need to keep up with the Joneses. I recently heard a quote that said, “We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t even like.” My goodness, what a near perfect and sobering analysis American consumerism today.
And finally, here’s one more - over the past few decades, our culture has elevated romantic love and marriage and the need to find a soul mate to a place that is incredibly misguided and unhealthy. Where we communicate that in order to live a full life you need to be married, all while someone totally forgetting the fact that Jesus, who as God who showed us what it looked liked to live a full and flourishing human life, was, well, single.
The point is this – though they may be a little more subtle and less obvious, though they may not be as glaring and in your face as a 90ft golden statue, truth is, we’ve got idols all over the place, more idols that we can even count, and even more, we need to be aware of the fact that you and I are capable of making an idol out of just about anything.
So friends, where might there be idolatry in your life? Where in your life do you see ways in which bad things have been made into good things or how good things have been made into ultimate things? Chances are you (or the ones who know you well) may be more aware of your idols now more than ever as one of the things I’ve noticed and others have made similar observations, is that the coronavirus and all of the disruptions it’s brought to our everyday lives and rhythms have surfaced and exposed our idols like few times before.
For example, I know that my sports fandom can be an idol at times, and when there were no live sports for like 4 months, that was absolutely crushing. But yet, on a deeper level, these last 6 months have surfaced the fact that control is an idol of mine – as I love to plan and prepare and dream and look ahead and yet, because of the uncertainty of everything lately I am so painfully aware that I have little to no control at all. And I don’t like that!
Friends, what are your idols? What are the cultural idols that you’ve bought into without thinking that are almost second nature? And how the last few months surfaced those in new and maybe painful ways?
That’s one of the connections to this passage – the prevalence and pervasiveness of our idolatry.
Now, here’s the second.
2) The cost and courage of faithfulness
As we established, everyone in Babylon, both the nativeBabylonians as well as all of the Jews who have been brought over from exile are told in very certain terms what will be expected of them when it comes to worshipping this golden statue and what will be the consequences if they don’t fall in line. Simply put, it’s either worship what we tell you to worship, idolize what we tell you to idolize or else you’ll be thrown into the fiery furnace. No ifs, ands or buts, there’s no in between and nowhere to hide.
And so far in the book of Daniel, we’ve seen how Daniel and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, have neither assimilated fully into the culture, nor have they fully isolated themselves from it, rather they’ve engaged the culture in all the right ways, all while refusing to compromise on their beliefs and values. And here, as they’re given this ultimatum, they have no choice but to stand out, they refuse to worship what the King has commanded to worship, they refuse to worship anyone other that God himself.
And here we see both the costliness and courage that is often required of our faithfulness. Clearly there is a significant cost in choosing to be faithful and obedient to God and in worshipping God alone – in refusing to bow down and worship the golden statue, they are putting their lives on the line.
And in addition, their faithfulness had to have required an incredible amount of courage, maybe we could even say a supernatural amount of courage. Here these three guys are in a foreign land, they’re the outsiders, and here they likely surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of people, who are bowing down and worshipping the statue, and yet these three guys are standing pat, standing tall above the crowd, unbelievably defiant. I can’t even begin to imagine the courage and faith and sheer chutzpah required of these three men.
Truth is, both then and now, there will at times be a cost associated and courage required in our faithfulness, in our obedience. No doubt about it, it takes courage to go against the grain and swim upstream. And though the cost of our faithfulness and obedience today may never be intense persecution and death, though it may never be as steep and severe as what those three men faced long ago, we should be prepared and not surprised if our faithfulness comes with a cost. For example, maybe our faithfulness will implore us to say yes to some things and no to others in ways that run up against the culture, ways in which our faithfulness will keep us from opportunities to advance our businesses, or move up the corporate ladder or turn a greater profit – similar to the story I shared a couple weeks ago about the man in finance to told his business partners that he refused to accept any profits from the shady and seedy business they were talks with.
Friends, I’d be curious to hear if and when you’ve experience these own moments in your own walk with Jesus. Moments where you’ve felt the cost or needed the courage. Maybe it was in a moment of being asked to share why you believe what you believe with a stranger or family member, maybe it was standing against some kind of injustice taking place around you, maybe it was a moment where you were tempted to compromise, something at work or at home, or anywhere else. If by chance you all have a story like that, I’d love to hear and maybe I can share it in a future sermon to encourage and challenge us all.
All this said, there will at times be a cost associated and courage required in our faithfulness. But yet hold onto these words, as on the night before Jesus died he told his disciples, “In this world, you will face trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Alright, we’ve got to wrap this up. I want to share with you a couple more things and set things up for next week.
Eventually Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego get found out for not obeying the king’s command and Nebuchadnezzar is furious. After all, he’s the greatest king in the world. How dare anyone not worship what he worships and do as he says? And he’s so incredulous that he essentially gives them each a second chance, he reminds them of the stakes – it’s either worship or die – he gives them one last chance to change their mind and come to their senses, where it’s as if he’s figuratively and literally asking them, “Guys, is this really the hill you want to die on?”
And here’s how they answer the king, these are some of the most courageous and defiant words I think in all of scripture. They say,
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 17 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. 18 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 that you have set up.”
I’m mean, c’mon now. Almost gives you goosebumps, right? It’s like straight out of a movie.
I confess I find their words both inspiring and yet deeply convicting. Inspiring because of their remarkable faith and courage, their willingness to die even though they know that while God is capable of saving them from the fiery furnace, they can’t say for certain that he will. I’m inspired because I want to have that kind of faith and courage, the kind of faith and courage to face the fire. And yet I’m also deeply convicted because I know I so often don’t. Truth is, if I’m really honest, most days, I associate most with the average Joe who’s practicing idolatry just like everyone else.
And if by chance I speak for you as well, well then good news, this communion table is for you. For friends, as we take the bread and eat this cup, we are reminded of Jesus himself, who faced a fiery furnace all his own as he went to the cross, who though he knew the cost, faithfully and courageously completed the mission set before him, paying the price for all the times we failed to give him the worship that he’s due, and even more renewing the relationship between us and God so that you and I can worship him forevermore.