Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sermon: Daniel 3: 1-30

Let’s just all get on together, and recognise that your beliefs are as valid as mine. So long as you don’t offend anyone else, then you can believe what you like - in private. The public arena is no place for faith. This is my truth, tell me yours

These are the kind of things that we hear these days - that for the good of society, we need to unite around common values of tolerance, and human rights. Tolerance becomes the god of our age - or perhaps it is materialism, as we all become so focused on pursuing wealth and comfortable living.

So how does the believer take a stand for the Lord? Are we in a new terrible time which Christians have never seen before? We hear a lot about post-Christian Britain - is this a new bad thing for us to deal with?

In our reading today, we find that God’s people through the Bible have had to contend with opposition and that standing for God is not a new thing. We’re going to divide the passage into three sections - the Challenge, the Conviction, and the Confession. So first, the Challenge.

Nebuchadnezzar is king of Babylon, having conquered many lands and nations (including Jerusalem). Perhaps inspired by the dream of the statue in chapter 2, he has this gold statue erected on the plain of Dura, near Babylon. An impressive statue - 90 feet tall, and 9 feet wide, nearly the height of the Statue of Liberty (151 foot).

To celebrate the new statue (we’re not told what it is - whether Nebuchadnezzar himself, or one of his gods), he invites the civil servants - that big list - from all the provinces to attend. A gala day. Like the inauguration of Barak Obama last year - a huge crowd, a civic occasion. The orders are given - when the band plays music, then everyone must fall down and worship the golden image.

And so, the band strikes up, and all at once it’s like a Mexican wave as the crowd fall to their knees. Brian Walker, a journalist, remembers from his childhood when Cardinal D’Alton visited Londonderry: ‘We were standing in Waterloo Place craning for a decent view when suddenly everything cleared. An open topped limousine entered the square with the cardinal inside... in that second the crowd had seemed to vanish. In fact everybody had fallen to their knees, leaving only me and my daddy upright - or so I remember it, and giving me the best view in town.’

You can imagine the TV cameras at the ceremony, and as the music plays, the overhead camera swoops over the crowd, everyone bowed, and then it zooms in on these three standing up - like an island in the sea of people. Who are they? Why won’t they bow down?

The Chaldeans - the native Babylonians, the wise men, come to accuse the three, and Nebuchadnezzar is furious! He gives them another chance - music plays, bow down, everyone happy. Otherwise, he’ll throw them into a fiery furnace. Look at verse 15. Here is the challenge: ‘If you do not worship... and who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?’

Nebuchadnezzar sees himself as all important, all powerful. Who can save these three petty people from his hand? Nebuchadnezzar is enforcing a godless unity - bringing all the ‘peoples, nations and languages’ to worship his statue, asserting himself as head over all. He just can’t believe that anyone will dare resist him.

Meeting the Challenge, we have the Conviction of the three. Look at verses 16-18. (Read) Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego have no appeal to the king - they are guilty as charged. But even 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.’

What god can save? Our God can save - our God is able. There’s your answer, Nebuchadnezzar. The three know their God, and know their history - the Lord God is a God who saves - rescuing Noah and his family from the flood in the ark; rescuing the children of Israel from Egypt through the plagues and the Passover. Our God is able! They have confidence in God - not based on themselves, but on the power of God to save his people.

In a sense, that’s all that needs to be said. After all, we know the end of the story, we know what happens, and how they come out safe. God is able to save and he will. But they don’t stop there. Yes, God is able to save - but he may in his sovereign will decide that his purposes are best served through our death: verse 18 ‘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.’

It’s the same as Peter and the apostles centuries later, who were arrested for teaching about Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem: ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ (Acts 5:29). In such a contest, there is no contest - God is the one to obey, not the temple authorities, or Nebuchadnezzar, or anyone else who seeks to stop the people of God being the people of God.

They aren’t rebelling because they know that rescue is sure. Remember - many believers are martyred - yet they still refuse to bow the knee to a false god or an idol.

What about us? Are we determined to stand firm, no matter the outcome? Are we convinced that God can save, but that even if he doesn’t we will serve him? These are the things to decide on in the quiet times, to make small decisions for God every day, so that when it comes to the big things, we can stand firm. Remember chapter 1 - and the ‘small’ matter of the food they ate?

Perhaps there’s a culture of silence in your workplace - everyone goes along with the cheating on time sheets, or knocking off early - will you go along with it, or will you stand firm, refusing to compromise for the sake of an easy life?

Their conviction leads to Nebuchadnezzar acting in fury. The furnace is heated seven times hotter than normal (something that isn’t really needed). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are bundled up in all their clothes, bound up so that they can’t move, and they’re thrown into the furnace. The flames are so strong that the strong men throwing them into the furnace are themselves killed.

Nebuchadnezzar is watching to see them burn, when he is astonished! The men aren’t bundled up, they are walking about - and there are four of them! Much ink has been spilled on the identity of the fourth person - who in Nebuchadnezzar’s words ‘is like a son of the gods.’ In verse 28, Neb says that God sent his angel to deliver his servants - perhaps it’s an angel, or perhaps it is a pre-incarnate appearance of the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son (Jesus). Either way, the purpose of the person is to show that God is with his people in their trials, that God is saving his people, rescuing them in the time of distress. Remember that these are Jews, the people of God during the time of exile, far away from Jerusalem.

God has saved his people - the fire had no power over them, their hair not singed, their cloaks not harmed, and no smell of fire. What god can deliver you out of my hands?

Nebuchadnezzar has a confession of sorts: He declares that the three are servants of the Most High God (26), and blesses God for his rescue: ‘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.’

He understands what God has done for his people, he has seen the salvation with his own eyes - and yet it appears that it is one step forward, two steps back for Nebuchadnezzar. Look back at the end of chapter 2. There he declared that Daniel’s God was ‘God of gods and Lord of kings’. Yet by the start of chapter 3 he has forgotten that and set up the statue to be worshipped in honour of himself and his own gods. So here, while he says the words, he doesn’t seem to be genuinely converted.

He’s like the crowds who witnessed the miracles of Jesus, but remained in their unbelief. Even seeing God’s saving acts with his own eyes doesn’t change old Nebuchadnezzar. Look at the very last words of Nebuchadnezzar in the chapter: ‘there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.’ No other god - that includes the so-called gods of Nebuchadnezzar!

Friends, Nebuchadnezzar points us to a real danger for us who sit under the Scriptures every week - we hear of God’s saving acts, we perhaps even know that Jesus died for our sins, as the way for us to be saved. Yet still you do nothing about it. It’s head knowledge - a fact to know, but it hasn’t changed you. you haven’t recognised that God is Lord over all. You just continue in your own way.

Don’t be like Nebuchadnezzar. Instead, learn what he failed to learn - and see that God is king over all, much more powerful than the ruler of the Babylonian empire, much more powerful than anyone you know. God is the one who can deliver us out of the danger we face. As we talked with the children earlier - God is the one who rescues his people - through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Let’s be clear - today there are pressures on all of us to conform to the way the world wants us to be - in work, in family life, in how we spend our money and how we look and dress. As in Nebuchadnezzar’s day, there’s a godless unity, a godless conformity. We just want to fit in, to be the same as everyone around us - our neighbours and friends. But Daniel 3 is calling us to stand firm, to ‘not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.’ (Romans 12:2) Perhaps there are specific areas in your life where you know you need to stand firm - perhaps even a public stand. What’s it to be? ‘Our God, whom we serve is able to deliver us... but if not... we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image.’

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 24th January 2010.

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