I haven’t ever been exposed to a fiery furnace like the one described in our reading this morning, but I have driven on Clemson Boulevard and Woodruff Road in the month of December. I’ve never been asked to worship a golden statue that is 100 feet high and ten feet wide, but I have been asked to worship a vast economic machine that demands consumerism to drive it and make it successful in the month of December. I’m not used to musical instruments being played while I am about my daily activities which are intended to prompt me to immediately drop everything I’m doing and fall to the ground in prayer, but I know the mesmerizing and hypnotizing effect of tinsel and flashing lights and incessant Christmas carols calling me to worship at malls, department stores, and restaurants.
So while at first glance this text does not seem to fit in Advent very well, it is actually an excellent introduction to the season. How do we focus on the humble Savior at the heart of this season amidst the loud talking heads making pompous pronouncements and the manipulated worship of false gods which cannot save?
Last week we found the people of Israel defeated and exiled to Babylon. Jeremiah wrote them a letter telling them they would be there a long time, seventy years, so they should quit thinking about going home for now and do what they could to be at home in Babylon with as normal a life as possible. Build homes, he said. Plant gardens. Get married. Have children. Work for the good of the city where you are for now, because how it gets along will be how you get along.
In today’s story we find people heeding that advice. Daniel and his friends have learned the language, received a Babylonian education, worked for the welfare of Babylon in many ways, and have been rewarded for their service and diligence with positions of authority.
We should not find this surprising. We have had many of the best and brightest from other countries come to our shores to be educated and to work. They are physicians who treat us when we are sick, researchers, computer experts, CEOs, leaders in government, members of the military.
Daniel became ruler of the whole province of Babylon, reminiscent of Joseph in Egypt. At Daniel’s request, the king appointed his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be in charge of the day to day affairs of the province.
Like many political leaders through the ages, King Nebuchadnezzar wanted to use religious devotion to control people and to magnify himself. So he had this enormous statue created and commanded that when the music played everyone everywhere was to fall on their faces to worship the statue. Anyone who did not do this was to be thrown into the fiery furnace.
This requirement did not fit into the religious beliefs of Daniel and his friends, who were Jews. King Nebuchadnezzar obviously had no clue about that fact. He assumed they had assimilated fully into Babylonian culture, politics, and religion. But some of the Babylonian men who had been passed over for promotions when these foreigners had been given the good jobs had watched Daniel and his friends carefully for something they could use to bring them down. Their faith, which prohibited them from worshiping idols and false gods, was just the ticket. They told the king that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would not bow down to worship the statue, and the king was furious.
He called them before him and asked if it was true that they did not serve his gods and worship his statue. He said, “I’m going to give you one more chance. When the music plays, if you go down on your face to worship everything will be fine. If not, you go in the furnace immediately.”
They told him there was no need to play the music because they weren’t going to do it. If God chose to deliver them out of the fiery furnace, so be it. But if God did not choose to deliver them they still were not going to worship the king’s gods and statue.
The king is so enraged by this refusal that his face is distorted. He orders that the furnace be cranked up seven times its usual heat. He gets his strongest men to bind them and throw them in the furnace, even though they plan no resistance. The furnace was so hot that it killed the strong men who threw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the furnace. But Nebuchadnezzar watched in amazement as the three men walked around in the furnace unharmed and were joined by a fourth. Nebuchadnezzar called them to come out, and the three men did, unharmed by the fire. He made a decree prohibiting anyone from speaking against their God, and he gave them a promotion.
This is a really important story for people of faith about what it means to be in but not of the world. Unless we go to the desert to live in a cave as a monk or hermit, or into the mountains to live as a survivalist, we are part of a culture, a society, and we either have to throw our lot in completely with that culture or make some decisions about lines that we will not cross even if “everyone else is doing it.”
Christians are in the bizarre situation of having had the special day of Christmas co-opted by the culture we live in to the extent that it is left unrecognizable. Non-Christians celebrate Christmas just as fervently as Christians do, it just doesn’t have anything to do with Christ for them. Christians have to work really hard to make sure we don’t get totally swept up into the cultural celebration of Christmas. Otherwise the humble Savior born in a stable in Bethlehem is quite overshadowed by what has grown into a 100 foot tall gold statue inspiring awe and wonder and even worship.
We are focusing on symbols of the season and preparation for Christ’s coming as we decorate God’s house today and in coming days. Those symbols are fine when the candles and lights point us to Jesus, the light of the world; when the tree and greenery speak to us of the everlasting life won for us by Jesus. But when decorating just leads us to pride – look at how beautiful our church is, look at how well decorated my home is – then we are building a statue to ourselves and wanting others to be impressed and envious. Are you called to worship in this season by music like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and “Savior of the Nations, Come,” or by music like “All I Want for Chistmas,” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus”? I’m not saying we can’t enjoy both, but which is at the heart of the season for us?
As we begin Advent this year, let’s allow Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to be reminders that the essentials of our faith are not to be sacrificed to cultural gods. We are called to stand against being conditioned to the Pavlovian response of hearing Christmas music and responding by rushing to the store to worship the enormous gold idol of consumerism, envy, and greed; of seeing ads with families laughing around a crackling fire and feeling cheated if we find ourselves going through a sad time; of thinking that since Jesus was born once there is no longer any need for watching, waiting, hoping, praying, and preparing for the coming of the King of kings into our lives and our world.
And even if God does not deliver us from the traffic jam on Clemson Boulevard; and the insipid, tacky consumeristic ads and store displays; and the rolled eyes from our children because we don’t celebrate Christmas the same way their friends’ families do – well, let’s still resolve that we aren’t going to sell out and worship those other gods.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
December 3, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church