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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Some Things are Worth the Heat (Daniel 3)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 29, 2017; Text: Daniel 3

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:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: Praise to the Lord - Alleluia (LOBE DEN HERREN; arr., chorus Nockels)
Singing Together: Prince of Peace (You are Holy) (Imboden, Rhoton)
Song of Confession: We Fall Down (Tomlin)
Hymn of Sending: How Firm a Foundation (FOUNDATION)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Today we continue in a series from the book of Daniel. The overarching question this series is addressing is this: “What does it mean to serve God in the world today?” In Daniel 1-2 we’ve seen the importance of being distinct in the world. We’ve seen how it is possible to honor and serve God even when we are up against impossible situations. We’ll revisit that theme today. And we’ve seen that God’s metric for us is not results, but faithfulness. God will do what he wants with that, but what he asks of us is faithfulness. We’ve also seen in the man Daniel an example not of blind obedience, but thoughtful and wise faithfulness: considering when and what and how to act and speak for God’s glory.

Today we are back with King Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel’s three Hebrew friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, named here by their Babylonian names. Their faithfulness will be put to the ultimate test.

90 Foot Ego (vv. 1-6)

The third chapter of Daniel opens with King Nebuchadnezzar building a gold statue, 90 feet high and 9 feet thick. He invited “everybody who was anybody” to the dedication. And then he demanded that, when the music played, everyone – every race, color, and creed – kneel and worship the statue… on pain of death.

There are a number of things that could be said about the statue. But I’ll try to roll it all together with this: didn’t he just have a terrifying, recurring dream about a statue that signaled his impending doom?! That was just last week, last chapter! The best I can figure is that this is a ruler with a 90-foot ego deciding he would fight fate and fight God Himself. He’s not going to go down without a fight, even if he has to fight the very God of Heaven (whom he acknowledged as “God of gods, Lord of kings, and revealer of mysteries” in chapter two!).

So what’s the solution to successive, weaker kings and nations taking his place? And the solution to a heavenly kingdom greater than all of those? He builds a giant golden statue – like the one in the dream where the head of gold represented him – but now the whole thing is gold. The meaning seems clear; his rule and his kingdom were going to be the one that lasted, the only one. And everyone would acknowledge his reality. And there would be no worship of a God in heaven; all would kneel and worship THIS statue. And all races and religions would yield to this one. All those who might represent the kingdoms that would follow his or the gods who might challenge him; all would have to kneel to him.

Indeed, his ego and his fear were as large as the statue he built. And this would present another impossible situation to God’s people.

Race, Religion, and Respect (vv. 7-15)

I already mentioned the role that race and religion played in this scenario. Nebuchadnezzar was demanding that all threats to his own power yield to him. But some Babylonians stepped up to single out the Jews. The Jews represented both a racial-ethnic and a religious challenge to the king’s demands. And, as we know from history and experience, singling out OTHERS is a means to elevating yourself. The Babylonians who wanted to secure their place in the king’s good graces would benefit from calling out the Jews, particularly the leaders like Daniel and his friends who had enjoyed an influential role in the King’s life up to this point.

It is a testimony to their position that Nebuchadnezzar brought them in to ask them personally where they stood. Nebuchadnezzar even gives them a “second chance” but doubles down on his demands for complete allegiance, even if that means the death of some of his trusted advisors. Their ultimate allegiance is more important than their counsel or truth.

Then he asks this startling question that stands in contrast to the end of chapter two: Who is the god who can rescue you from my power? Well, it’s the God who revealed your dream, who spoke unpleasant but real truth to you, who would guide you if you would listen. It’s the one you acknowledged as “God of gods, Lord of kings, and revealer of mysteries.” But Nebuchadnezzar insists on all yielding to him, even God in Heaven.

What’s Worth Everything? (vv. 16-23)

In verse 16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answer King Nebuchadnezzar, though they do more than name the God who can rescue them. They demonstrate that they are already free from Nebuchadnezzar’s power because even his thread of death does not hold power over them. They will not serve a false god or worship the gold statue. They say:

Your threat means nothing to us. If you throw us in the fire, the God we serve CAN rescue us from your roaring furnace and anything else you might cook up, O king. BUT EVEN IF HE DOESN’T, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, O king. We still wouldn’t serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up. (vv. 16b-18)

Do you hear the conviction and power and faithfulness in their statement? Even if God doesn’t miraculously solve this new impossible situation, they will worship and serve God alone. Before we know the ending of the story, before they know what God will do, they stake everything on serving God.

What holds that kind of value in your life? Anything? Do you have any core conviction or allegiance that’s worth everything to you? The scripture declares this to be true: before what God has done for you, before we have breath or life or purpose, God is all in all. There is none like God. The first commandment recognizes this: you shall have no other gods. God is God alone, worthy of worship, worthy of our allegiance and devotion, worth everything to know and serve. These three Jewish men knew this and bore the ultimate faithful testimony in the face of the ultimate price.

This enraged Nebuchadnezzar. It played upon his fears that he was not actually in control. He rushed to heat up the furnace and get the men in there, resulting in the death of several of his own men. And it would be enough for the story to end there. That is the faithful story that has been played out again and again in history, with faithful men and women sacrificing everything to serve God above all else.

But in addition to all that, God showed up.

When God Shows Up (vv. 24-30)

This is probably the part of the story you know the best. Nebuchadnezzar realizes that the three men are still alive – and walking around – in the furnace. And a fourth figure has joined them. And the fourth “looks like a son of the gods.” (v. 25) Whether an angel, as Nebuchadnezzar describe the figure, or the second person of the Trinity, a pre-incarnate Christ as some scholars believe, God sent an intermediary to protect and accompany the men in the flames.

Nebuchadnezzar calls the three men out, acknowledging them as “servants of the High God.” (v. 26) All those around examined them and discovered they were completely untouched by the fire.

And Nebuchadnezzar declares:

Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! He sent his angel and rescued his servants who trusted in him! They ignored the king’s orders and laid their bodies on the line rather than serve or worship any god but their own. (v. 28)

Then Nebuchadnezzar goes on to modify his decree: no one is allowed to speak against this God, for “there has never been a god who can pull off a rescue like this.” (v. 29) And he went on to promote the three men in leadership in Babylon.

Another “impossible situation” and I would again focus your attention on human faithfulness in the midst of it. The outcome is good for the three men, for their lives were spared. But that was not necessary for them to serve God faithfully. Nebuchadnezzar recognized a greater power at work, but did not come to see the truth or have it transform his leadership. He was on to new death threats and we will see that God was not done. And if we remember Pharaoh in Egypt, God continued to show up dramatically with a short-term response from Pharaoh and then a hardening of his heart. The outcome we might look for isn’t always going to be present, nor may it even be the point.

As amazing as this rescue was, the point is not that God will pull you out of your own fiery furnace situation. Rather, the great heart of this story is that there is a God above all and He is worthy of our ultimate worship and service. Period.

What does it mean to serve God in the world today? It means recognizing the true order of things, that there is a Most High God to whom we belong. And no powers, demands, or allegiances in this world are worthy of our worship and service as God is. Serving God in the world today starts with recognizing that “body, mind, and soul, I belong to God.” And these three faithful men remind us that serving God is not only saying ‘yes’ to God, but also ‘no’ to that which conflicts with our ultimate allegiance and hope. Amen.

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