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Sermon blog: Faith in the fire

July 22, 2015

  Faith in the fire

Daniel 3

Today we look at a story of extraordinary faith. Faith that is shown by action, bravery and in the face of danger and death itself. The faith of three young men.

The background of this story is well known to many of us but is well worth repeating for old and new listeners alike.

Our story takes us back to around 605 BC. Jehoiakim was the King of Judah. The opening verses of Daniel describe how Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon had come and besieged Jerusalem.

Jehoiakim was defeated; and many articles from the temple in Jerusalem, items of great value, were seized and taken to the treasure house of Nebuchadnezzar’s god in Babylon.

It was a victory for the invading king, but the words in the opening verses of the book of Daniel are interesting. “The Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand”.

In other words God had a plan and this was all part of it. Nebuchadnezzar was in an amazing way being used to fulfil God’s purposes for God’s people.

Judah had a special covenant relationship with God. Along with all Israel, he has rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and led them to a new home, their promised land. He has given them their law through Moses and defeated their enemies.

His promises to them of prosperity are balanced with warnings should they be unfaithful to him.

From early days they test him by worshipping idols, by forgetting to obey his law, by being too quick to adapt to the lifestyles of those around him.

There is a continuing predictable pattern; when they are unfaithful they are defeated in battle. When they cry out to God in repentance he sends rescue.

Now it is a bad time again. Jehoiakim is described as a king who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord”, as had too many of his predecessors. Jehoiakim had been warned of the consequences of his behaviour on the nation. The prophet Jeremiah wrote on a scroll of the disaster that God had planned, God expressing the hope that people would turn from their wickedness.

Rather than leading by example and repenting, Jehoiakim threw the scroll piece by piece onto the fire. Did he think these things would never happen?

Well now it was happening!

And four young men are caught up in this situation.

Often in these conquest situations no mercy was shown to the defeated nation and no one was left alive, but all treasures were taken away. But it seems Nebuchadnezzar had a very practical approach not just to what things he could use, but also to what people he could use.

There were human resources who would be useful to Nebuchadnezzar and his kingdom.

The king was looking for students for Babylon University. Never mind Oxbridge. Nebuchadnezzar wanted only the best, the crème de la crème.

The requirements were set out:

• Royalty and nobility

• Young men

• Physically fit

• Perfect faces

• A* grades at A level

• The highest practical skills

Certainly most of us men here today would have been on the shortlist!

The course was a three year degree course in the language and literature of their captors. And the prospects top jobs in the civil service.

But unlike a normal degree course, these students got no junk food. They ate and drank from the king’s table.

In all the circumstances this was a great opportunity.

We do not know how many were offered places but we are introduced to four.

• Daniel

• Hananiah

• Mishael

• Azariah

To complete the transformation they were given new Babylonian identities:

• Belteshazzar

• Shadrach

• Meshach

• Abednego

Strangely, after being introduced to the four you will almost never hear the names Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah mentioned. We don’t member them by those names.

On the other hand while Daniel’s name has been changed we are never allowed to forget that he is Daniel.

Somehow does he stand out more than all the others, true to his own country and his own God? The words we have read today strongly suggest that would be a wrong conclusion to draw.

All four men we are told right from the start, under Daniel’s leadership, resolved not even to “defile themselves with the royal food and wine”, and the Fab Four emerged as the early high fliers.

It is interesting that in today’s passage we read nothing about Daniel, but he must surely have been caught up in the events as they unfolded. Was he away on royal business? It is hard to think that he would have shown any less faith and bravery than his 3 companions.

King Nebuchadnezzar has experienced the power of the God of Daniel and the others, as Daniel has interpreted his dream. He acknowledged “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings”. All four are promoted to higher positions.

But the impact is short lived. Nebuchadnezzar does not bow his knee to the God of gods.

Rather it’s time for him to show himself as the king of kings. The ultimate power.

And so he organises some building.

Something big. And very expensive. And, at best, of no use at all!

It’s a statue. 90 feet high. And 9 feet wide. Solid gold. We are not told whether the statue was an image of anyone in particular. Was it of Nebuchadnezzar himself? We don’t know.

What we can tell from the dimensions was that it was over 20 feet higher than the Angel of the North. And if it was an image of any human being it would have been a very skinny human being!

Whoever or whatever it was meant to be, Nebuchadnezzar certainly intended to make his mark and stamp his authority on his kingdom.

All the top government officials and civil servants are summoned for the dedication ceremony. And they stand as one.

The one who announced to Daniel that his God was the “God of gods and Lord of kings” now summons those who stand there to bow down and worship this enormous stick of metal. Somehow he had now slipped back to the stage of considering something he himself had made would be more worthy of worship than the God of gods.

Too many of us are like that. We have no time for the God of gods. The one who made us and the world we live in. rather we worship the lives that we have built. We put our energies in to building something as useless as a 90 foot gold stick. Maybe very impressive to all that look on, but ultimately with no power to save us.

It may be too that like this king, we have experienced something of the true God working in our lives, but now that is a distant memory, as we depend more upon the things we can see and touch, the luxuries that make us feel good.

The instructions are detailed.

When you hear the trumpet blast?

When you hear the drum roll?

No. The king seems to be very specific about the makeup of the orchestra to be on hand:

Horn, flute, zither, lyre, pipes were the lead instruments. Along with all kinds of music. Not sure whether that means all musical instruments will do, or whether it means they were to play a combination of classical, pop, jazz, rock and folk. For all I know it might have been one horrible racket!

But it seems clear that the sound would be instantly recognisable.

And the call was to an instant response.

Bow down and worship.

In this age of tolerance, we might think, well that’s OK if people want to do that. Won’t catch me wasting my time on this though.

But of course these Babylonians had ways of making you bow down. Perhaps some thought “what good can this possibly do?”

Of course they were given a choice.

1. Bow down and worship or

2. Die! Thrown into the fiery furnace and burnt alive

Not much of a choice. So it’s not surprising that we find in verse 7 that everyone bowed before the golden image.

Pointless in itself, but as a demonstration of Nebuchadnezzar’s brutal dictatorship, it could not fail. Ruled with a giant gold stick and a rod of iron.

All though is not as it seems, as we have watched the crowd, we have failed to see 3 courageous men who literally stood out from the crowd.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Not everybody noticed, but some of the king’s astrologers did. Possibly men who had been to university with Daniel and friends. They turned informer and told the king of the blatant disobedience.

Are there times when you need to make a stand for what you know is right? When you know that God is calling you to live differently to those around you. Are you under pressure at work to work in a way you know is against God’s word? Are you under pressure from friends or family to behave in a particular way? Time to stand up. You may be right but you will not always be popular.

Triumph and pride turn to rage.

A furious king summons the 3 dissenters.

He asks them if what he has heard is true. He adds “no god can save you from the punishment I have planned”. So much for the God of gods and Lord of kings.

Nebuchadnezzar is THE power.

First the king might expect some kind of explanation, excuse, apology.

He doesn’t get one.

The one who acts like he is God is brought down to size. While the multitudes have worshipped him and done his bidding, whether out of loyalty or fear, 3 men have no fear of him, and while they are plainly men of standing in his kingdom, they plead a higher loyalty.

“We don’t need to defend ourselves to you about this”.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego make perhaps the most amazing statement of faith and trust in God in the Bible.

“You can throw us in the fire, but our God is able to save us from the fire, and rescue us from your wrath”.

They trusted God to step in and change things. He can do it. It is a great thing to believe that in any and every dark and difficult situation in life, you can know a God who is able to deliver you.

Perhaps they even knew of and relied on Isaiah 43:2:

“When you pass through the waters,

    I will be with you;

and when you pass through the rivers,

    they will not sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire,

    you will not be burned;

    the flames will not set you ablaze”.

I recently preached on Psalm 22. Whilst the song is hugely prophetic, it no doubt reflects somehow that David was going through a dark time in his life.

We all get them. Even kings. In amongst all his doubts he called on God to deliver him.

“And when you do that Lord, I’m going to make sure everyone knows. I’m going to shout about your goodness in the temple. My people will know about what you have done. And people all over the world will hear about it from me.”

That’s a great thing to do. To let people know what God has done for you. It’s great when things have gone well and you can give praise to God.

Today faith is like that for a lot of Christians, particularly some high profile ones. It is no problem to trust in God because he will give me everything I want, Riches. Perfect health. A trouble free life. It’s easy to trust God in a life like that. But life isn’t like that!

But when I was talking about possibly the most amazing statement of faith and trust in God in the Bible I wasn’t talking about verse 17. I meant verse 18.

“Actually your majesty. We believe God can rescue us from certain death in the furnace. But even if he is not planning to rescue us, there is no other god we are going to serve. And we’re certainly not bowing down to a giant gold stick.”

That’s the kind of faith we sang about in our opening song. “I’m going to bless your name in the ‘land that is plentiful’ but also on the ‘road marked with suffering’. I’m going to praise you when you answer my prayers and keep praising when you don’t”.

This is a real faith and trust we are reading about today. And it’s shown in the ultimate situation, facing death at the hand of a tyrant king.

In his book “Stretch” Gerard Kelly describes these 3 men as having elastic faith.

1. Their faith is rooted in who God is, not in who they are

2. Their faith is rooted in God’s goodness, not in his power

They have no special confidence in themselves. Their trust is in God.

But interestingly they are not ultimately looking for God’s power to change Nebuchadnezzar’s mind, or to paralyse the soldiers or blow out the fire.

Their trust is in God’s goodness. He never changes. Great is his faithfulness.

As the psalmist wrote “He is good, and his love endures forever”. Beyond death. Beyond the days of Babylonian domination.

They love God for his person, not for his performance.

Can you imagine a faith like that?

The need for this kind of faith is very real.

We are increasingly conscious of the numbers of Christians around the world who are paying the ultimate price for their faith. Like Shadrach Meshach and Abednego, they will trust in God whatever the outcome.

You and I might get laughed at. We might find that people dismiss our Christian behaviour. We might even face some hardship. Broken relationships or perceived or real discrimination at work. Is our faith wide enough for that?

Prayers for healing, or deliverance or mountain moving may seem to go unheard. Is our faith deep enough and grounded enough for that?

Is our faith in ourselves, or our health, or our finances, or our relationships?

Or is it in the God who loves us?

For our three friends there was a miraculous deliverance. The furnace was heated up so that even the soldiers who threw them in were burnt to death.

But before their escape there was something even greater. In the midst of the fire, they were not alone. The king saw not just 3 men, but another, maybe some sort of angelic being. He was there with them. Many would say this was an Old Testament appearance of Jesus himself.

For our 3 friends, they had the best of both worlds. They had company in the flames and they escaped harm. For some people escape does not come but we can be reassured that Jesus is with us in the time of fire. Our trust can be in him, in his goodness, as Shadrach Meshach and Abednego trusted, whatever the outcome.

If God was with them in the fire, he was with them as they stood before the king.

Jesus knew what it was to stand before men who had earthly power. He knew what it was to be asked to explain himself.

He stood before them “and said the only power you have over me is what God has given you”, but for the most part he stood silently before his accusers. He fully trusted God as he walked to the cross.

God is good. He was in his plan.

For Nebuchadnezzar this is not the end. Again he praises God. He is in awe of the faith of the 3 men. Anyone who says anything against this God, will die. Typical Nebuchadnezzar.

He is still some way from recognising his need to worship the true God and him alone, but one day that will come to pass. When he finds himself at the end of himself, he will come to “praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just”.

This was the kind of faith that he had seen in action when 3 friends from Judah refused to bow to a statue of gold.

I wonder what impact our faith can have on others. Maybe we will never know.

Let us pray that we will have faith to trust the God who is good in very situation of life.

A faith that may not change the situation always as we would want, but may change those who see and hear us, and will ultimately leave us in the safety of God’s hands, eternally.

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