When we are going to grill something for dinner, Matthew and Abigail like to help me start the fire. After I have the charcoal ready to go, they get to squirt on the lighter fluid, strike the match and light the coals. And then of course, gradually, slowly, the flames begin to arise and spread out.
On a number of occasions when we have been doing this I have emphasized the point that lighter fluid is made for this purpose and that they are never to use anything else in lighting the charcoal. They are not to do something dumb like their father once did. And then they enjoy hearing again the story about the time I used gasoline to light the charcoal.
It was an evening when things were running a little later than normal. Amy and I had planned on grilling and I knew she was really ready to get dinner going. I went out to the garage, and much to my chagrin I discovered that we had run out of lighter fluid. It was getting late and I didn’t want to have to tell Amy that I had to run out to the store and get more lighter fluid. So I looked over at the gasoline can and thought that maybe, just this once, I would use gasoline.
Now I knew that using gasoline was not a good idea. I knew that gasoline reacted very quickly to flame – that’s part of the reason it makes an engine go. I knew that I had to be very careful … and I was. I put the gasoline on the coals. I got over on the side of the grill and barely stuck my hand over the edge – just far enough so that the end of charcoal lighter could reach the charcoal.
The instant that I pulled the lighter trigger I began to pull my hand back. And in the very same instant that I did that, the inside of the grill went “WUMPH!” Instantaneously flame erupted from the charcoal in one great burst. I didn’t get burned, but boy did I feel the heat as I whipped my hand out of the way. When it was over, the charcoal was lit and I was ok. But my heart was beating fast – the experience scared me. And I decided there and then that I would never, ever, use gasoline to light charcoal again.
As I prepared to preach on tonight’s text, this experience came to mind. King Nebuchadnezzar has those who deal with the fiery furnace heat it up seven times more than usual. He has them do things differently – more intensely – and the result is that flame of the furnace kills those outside – it kills the men who approach in order to throw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the furnace.
In tonight’s text we hear about three of the young men from Judah who had been taken into exile in Babylon along with Daniel. The Babylonians in fact took three different groups of people back to Babylon. The first group was in 605 B.C. These were the elite of Judahite society, especially the young people. It was a common practice in the ancient world for conquerors to do this. The elite youth were taken to receive training in the ways of the conquering nation. The plan was that then later in life they would return to their own land where they would be pliable instruments of control for the conquerors.
Now the ancient world was polytheistic – it believed in many different gods. It was often assumed that different gods dealt with different areas of life. The one thing you didn’t want to do was to leave out a god and anger the deity. And so people were more than willing to add new gods to the collection they worshipped.
The exception in the midst of all this was Israel. As you know, the First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods.” Yahweh described Israel as his choice possession. He described himself as a jealous God because he would not share his people with the false gods.
With Yahweh’s blessing, Daniel and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had shown themselves to be outstanding and capable individuals. So while Daniel was at the court of King Nebuchadnezzar, the other three young men received positions in which they helped to administer the affairs of the province of Babylon.
We learn in our text that Nebuchadnezzar made an idol that was ninety feet high. He set it up and decreed that when music was played by a whole variety of instruments, everyone was to fall down and worship the idol. Anyone who didn’t would be thrown into a fiery furnace. So dutifully, all of the officials showed up and at the sound of the music they worshipped the idol.
Everyone, that is, except Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Now we need to realize that these three Judahite young men had been placed in positions of authority in Babylon. It’s not hard to image that this rubbed many people the wrong way. After all, these young punks were from a nation that Babylon had conquered! Why in the world were they now in positions of authority over Babylonians?
And so when some of the Babylonians noticed that the three Judahite men didn’t worship the image, they saw an opportunity to deal with them. Like tattle tales they went to Nebuchadnezzar and reminded him about his decree. And then they said, “There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Nebuchadnezzar was furious. He had three men brought before him and stated his decree again. He said, “Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
The king laid down the gauntlet: worship my god or die. But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
This portion of Daniel is written in the Aramaic language and not in Hebrew. Aramaic is a cousin language to Hebrew, but if you haven’t studied it you can’t read it. I took Aramaic my senior year at Concordia College, Ann Arbor and I can still remember when I read this text in the original language twenty two years ago. I was struck at that time – as I continue to be now – by how the three young men faithfully entrust themselves to Yahweh. They are going to be faithful to him no matter what. They believe that if God wants to he is able to rescue them. And even if God doesn’t choose to do so, it’s not going to change anything. They still aren’t going to be unfaithful to him by worshiping Nebuchadnezzar’s idol.
So as I mentioned at the beginning of the homily, Nebuchadnezzar had the furnace heated up seven times more than normal. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were cast into the fiery furnace. And then Nebuchadnezzar saw something strange. He was astonished and rose up in haste. The king declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?’” They affirmed that this was indeed the case. And he replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”
Nebuchadnezzar recognizes that there are not three men, but instead four; that they are no longer bound and instead are walking around in the furnace unharmed; and that fourth figure has the appearance of “a son of the gods.” He saw that God was acting to protect the three men through the presence of an angelic figure. The text doesn’t give us much information about the identity of this fourth figure. Certainly, at the very least it was an angel. Beyond that it may have been the figure often described in the Old Testament as the “angel of the Lord” – a figure often understood to be the Son of God before the incarnation.
The king then bid Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to come out of the furnace. And when they had he said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king's command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.”
In our text tonight we are reminded about the challenge of keeping the First Commandment that we face in our own time. No one is going to throw you in a fiery furnace, but they will ostracize you for seeking to live your faith and to talk about it. Our culture says that everyone can believe what they want – but you had better not claim that what you believe is true. It’s find if it is true for you, but you had better not speak up and say that it is absolutely true for everyone. And so there is ever growing pressure to remain silent.
The season of Lent calls us to take up this struggle. It holds up before us the need to fear, love and trust in God above all things – and to repent and confess those times we haven’t. But it does this in the knowledge that Jesus Christ has already taken his stand with us in the struggle.
In our text tonight we see the angel – perhaps even the Son of God before he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary – standing with the three young men in the furnace. And this reminds us that the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, has taken his stand with us in this world. When he was baptized he stepped into our shoes and began to walk the way that led to the cross. He yielded up his body to the will of the Father in order to receive the punishment against sin that sets us free to be the children of God. And then on the third day he rose from the dead.
Now you have shared in his saving death through the water of Holy Baptism. And because you have shared in the death of the risen One, you have the assurance that you too we will share in Christ’s resurrection on the Last Day.
These things are true for you because of baptism. And so you are called to confess Christ in word and deed to the world. Because of what God has done for you in Christ, you can have the confident trust of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. You can confess Christ before the world, knowing that Christ will confess you before the Father on the Last Day.