The heat is on - Daniel 3
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Back in 1994 Tony Blair said that, ‘The art of leadership ‘is in saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.’ So let me tell you about an experiment carried out in the Unites States which illustrates just how easy it is to get people to say yes; it was called the Asch experiment. What happened was that three people were shown three lines on a screen and were asked to say which was the longest. But unknown to one of the volunteers, the other two were in fact experimenters. The longest lines were always perfectly obvious. After a couple of rounds in which they all chose the correct lines, the two experimenters began to choose the same wrong line. At first the volunteer would protest and point out the truth, but astonishingly quickly he would go along with the opinion of the other two, choosing to believe what he knew to be false. So on this point at least it does seem that Tony Blair was right, it is far easier to say ‘yes’ than it is to say ‘no’.
And this morning we are looking at an example of the way in which a whole world was brought to the point of saying ‘yes’ when it should have been saying ‘no’ and how God’s people are to respond when the heat is on- it is the famous story of Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace.
First of all note the unifying strategy of vv 1- 7. You see, Nebuchadnezzar has a major problem, a problem which all rulers of vast empires face, namely, how to unify groups of people which are culturally, religiously and politically diverse. The countries this man has subjugated are very mixed bag indeed. How do you create a sense of unity out of such unstable diversity? Well, what you do is to create a myth. For Hitler it was the Dolschstosslegende (the stab- in- the- back myth), Here it was claimed that the reason why Germany lost the First World War was due to an international conspiracy between the Jews and the Communists and it was Germany’s destiny to overcome this by way of Aryan supremacy. Also powerful symbols are sometimes used to bind a diverse people’s groups together, think of the role the Stars and Stripes plays in the United States for example. Well, Nebuchadnezzar was to create a myth fostered by a symbol. The myth was that the strength of the nation resided in its ruler which was symbolised by a monumental statue ninety feet high and nine feet wide, can you imagine that? Do you remember last week how Nebuchadnezzar had dreamt of a giant statue of which the head was made of gold and Daniel had told him he was that head? Obviously that was not enough for him, now the whole statue had to be made of gold. But you know a statue, however impressive, is a going to be little more than a public toilet for the pigeons unless it is used effectively, hence high drama and music. Notice in v 2 that anybody who is anybody is to be there at the performance; all the powerbrokers, the rich, the famous and influential. And you can be sure that they were regaled in their finest outfits which would make Elton John look like dustman on strike- v3 So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it. . This was stage management at its best which would make Peter Mandleson envious. The power of music was not lost on Nebuchadnezzar either, hence this repeated list of all the musical instruments in vv 5, 9 and again in v15. Instruments were used from every culture- in fact three of the instruments are mentioned in Greek, the only Greek words in the book. So these are the most recent imports into Babylonia. That means that here was a nation very much ‘with it’. So this was the Royal Jubilee Festival in the Park and a religious service from St Paul’s Cathedral all rolled into one. It is a visual and musical extravaganza which is designed to ‘wow’ everybody. Who could resist it? The answer- very few. Now let me say that while Nebuchadnezzar may have been the first to realise the almost hypnotic power of clothing political ideology in religious dress he wasn’t to be the last. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, used exactly the same tricks of the trade. He once said, ‘We do not talk to say something but to obtain an effect.’ That is why the torchlight Nuremberg rallies were so carefully orchestrated and deliberately aped the mass religious meeting. The giant swastikas draped over the auditorium, the dazzling uniforms, the party chiefs lining the platform, the adrenaline pumping marshal music of the bands, the synchronised raising of arms in the air, the Fuehrer almost invariably arriving late so heightening people’s expectancy were all designed to create the right atmosphere whereby the crowds could be swayed in whatever way the leadership chose. There was a deliberate ‘religious’ feel to those meetings in order to create a common psyche whereby the ‘many’ functioned as one. That is what we have going on here. There is a combination of enticement and intimidation; did you notice that in v6? Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.’ In other words, toast the King or you will be toast!
Now friends, here is the warning. We automatically think that ‘unity’ is a good thing. The Bible would disagree. There is such a thing as Babylonian unity, a unity devised by man for man but without any reference to God. It is the unity of the tower of Babel. This Babylonian unity is at its most potent when technological expertise is harnessed with religion to create a common spirit which is uncritical, unthinking and led by the emotions- like a technology which could so readily produce a statue such as this. Well, let me say there is a Babylonian unity here in our society, a spirit of the age which most people, including some Christians, buy into without even being aware of it. And it is one which is being disseminated with remarkable effect through the technology of the media. So what is the gold statue we are being called to worship today, what is the belief everyone is expected to accept? Well, it is the view that religion is purely subjective and experience is everything. That belief is not a matter of fact but faith. It is what you feel more than what you know which is important. As such it is the height of arrogance, let alone bigotry, to claim that one religion is right and the others are wrong. And so it all becomes a matter of taste. Who dares to claim that the taste of wine is better than the taste of beer, both are alcoholic drinks, they are just, well ...different, different beverages appealing to different people. The essence of religion we are told, is to be located within in terms of mystical intuition not without in terms of objective revelation by a personal God. Isn’t that what most of your friends think? And you can see why this is to be preferred. It means that no one can say what is right or wrong , we are free to decide what is good and bad ourselves- we are the measure of all things, and so like Nebuchadnezzar’s statue god is made in our image, not we his. That comes out when people say, ‘I like to think of God as such and such’, From one standpoint who cares what people like to think, the real issue is what is true. And anyone who will not tolerate this state of affairs is not to be tolerated because such people make for social instability. It tell you plainly, in a world which is being brainwashed to say yes to whatever is the latest degradation, those who say ‘no’ must be silenced. And if you are a committed Christian expect that to happen to you.
And that is what the next part of our story shows as well as how we are to respond- an uncompromising stand vv 8-18. Now it is very important to note that Nebuchadnezzar did not forbid people from following their own religion and worshipping their own god. He was a political realist and to that extent followed a liberal ‘live and let live’ policy. It is just that in addition to worshipping their own god, people were to bow down before his statue at an appointed time. And we see how illiberal the liberals can be in v 8 ‘At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews.’ Now what is significant about that given the penalty Nebuchadnezzar had decreed for disobeying his command-death? Well, it was all about the ‘the Jews’, they were the folk these people had in their sights. They couldn’t give two hoots about whether Nebuchadnezzar’s decree was being kept; they wanted to be rid of God’s people, that’s the point. Of course, this would not be the first or last time that Satan would be at work behind the scenes using political powers to attempt to eradicate the people of God, Old Testament or New Testament. You see, to obliterate the Jews meant putting an end to God’s promise of salvation made to Abraham. Put simply no Jews, no Saviour. Had they all been killed then, there would have been no Jews in Bethlehem 2000 years ago- no Jesus you see. Sure we have a focus here on only three of these exiled Jews, but you can be certain that the whole Jewish race was under threat if they stuck to their guns and said ‘no.’ But when you think about it, that is a big ‘if’ and highlights the fact that there was a double threat. Sure, there was the threat of death by being thrown into the fire, but there was a more insidious threat, namely that of reintroducing the very thing that put the Jews into captivity in the first place- religious compromise. Idolatry was the cancer which had wreaked havoc in Israelite society, worshipping other gods alongside YHWH. The question is would they do it again when threatened with death? So the Jews are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Stand firm and you die-that is the end of God’s plan. Compromise and face spiritual death- and that’s the end of God’s plan –you see? So what would you do? I will tell you what they did-they follow a third option- do what is right and leave the consequences to God: this is a great answer they give, just listen, vv 16- 18 ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."
Have you ever asked yourself the question whether there are things worse than death? One person who has is Don Carson. This is what he writes as he had to reflect upon the very real possibility of his own death having just been diagnosed with a life threatening illness: ‘I would rather die than end up unfaithful to my wife; I would rather die than deny by a profligate life what I have taught in my books; I would rather die than deny or disown the gospel. God knows there are many things in my past of which I am deeply ashamed; I do not want such shame to multiply and bring dishonour to Christ in years to come. There are worse things than dying.’ (How Long- p 120). Could I ask: do you believe that? Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did. This is where they drew the line and so they tell Nebuchadnezzar straight- we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.’ In other words, we know you are a king, but who do you think you are? And they do so trusting in the power and faithfulness of God- v17- If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.. Of course, the God who made fire can deliver them from the fire. They had got their absolutely theology right. However they humbly submit to God’s Word come what may-- v18- ‘But even if he does not, we want you to know O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up’. God has made it clear in the first two commandments that there should not be even a hint of idolatry amongst his people. What is an idol? Anything which takes the place of God and without which we feel we cannot live. So although God could deliver them, he has not promised to deliver them. So even if he doesn’t they will still remain loyal to him any way, letting God be God. Putting it another way they are willing to trust God in the face of any ‘if not’. You see, what it boils down to is being able to say: ‘Lord, I believe that you are able to protect me and my family from all danger and illness, but even if not, I will not bow down and serve the god of bitterness. I believe you are able to preserve my job and reputation if I take a stand for what I believe to be right and just, but even if not, I will not bow down and serve the god of cowardice and go the way of the world. I believe you are able to open the door into that job or ministry that seems right for me to pursue, but even if not I will not bow down and serve the gods of anxiety and despair. I believe you are able to help me find a life partner and enjoy all the normal gifts of marriage and family, but even if not I will not bow and serve the gods of self pity, I will serve you.’ We are not to be afraid of the ‘if not’. This isn’t unbelief; it is the humble acceptance of God’s sovereign freedom.
And just look at the result- an unquestionable salvation- vv 19-30. Why record all this detail? For two reasons. In the first place it shows the irrationality of Nebuchadnezzar. So what that the furnace was heated up to seven times hotter than usual? The normal heat would have burnt them to a crisp just as well. So what that the strongest soldiers in the army bind them up? It makes no material difference at all- you are bound or not whoever does the job. It is irrational and all show. And just how stupid anger and pride turn a man is reinforced by the fact that in v22 the heat is so intense it kills his own soldiers-good move that was-killing your own men! But on the other hand such detail does show the impossibility of escape. Even James Bond couldn’t get out of this one no matter how many gadgets Q may have supplied him with. They are finished from a human point of view aren’t they? But what about from a divine point of view? Look at vv 24-25. Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, "Weren't there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?" They replied, "Certainly, O king." He said, "Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods."
Here we have a literal fulfilment of a promise of God made to the Exiles back in Isaiah 43:2 ‘When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy one of Israel your Saviour.’ And then in v 5 ‘Do not be afraid, for I am with you.’ There was a fourth figure in that furnace. Was he the angel of the Lord, the pre-incarnate Christ perhaps? No one is sure. But one thing is for sure, Nebuchadnezzar saw him as one who ‘looks like a son of the gods’ -i.e. this was a divine person, this was someone beyond all human comprehension and control-that is why his eyes were popping out on stalks and he was reaching for the valium.. Did you notice how the rich and powerful that had been called to witness his great statue in v 2 are here to witness God’s deliverance in v 27? There was not a singed eyebrow in sight.
Now let me ask: what was it that really impressed Nebuchadnezzar such as to bring about a mega change in attitude such that he ends up declaring Israel’s God as the true God? Was it the miracle? Well, yes- v28- ‘the God who sent his angel and rescued his servants.’ But there was something else wasn’t there? Verse 28b tells us what really struck him- ‘They trusted in him and defied the king’s commands and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.’ That gets people every time- the courage of Christians to take a stand. We tend to think the reverse don’t we? We think that if we just keep quiet, don’t rock the boat, soft peddle what we believe, compromise a little here, a little there, then people will think we are so nice they are bound to want to know about the Christian faith. No they won’t. They will ignore it. But if they see it means so much to us that we are willing to suffer for it, then they will start to ask questions and begin to take us seriously. Certainly folk may consider us to be a nuisance, but far better to be thought of as a nuisance than as an irrelevance.
But let us be clear about this: the faith of these three young men did not appear overnight, and you know what? Neither will ours. The Christian writer, Francis Schaeffer commenting on this passage says, ‘Strong warriors for Jesus Christ, men and women of faith, are not created instantaneously; they do not come forth mechanically; they grow. No man has stood in a great place who has not, by the grace of God, stood in lesser ones before. If a person cannot stand in a lesser place, how will he be able to stand in the centre of his own culture in front of the 21st century’s own kind of fiery furnace? To be a man or woman of faith requires training.’ That is so right! Friends, do you know where that training begins? It begins right here as we listen and apply the word of God, as we pray for each other, as we support one another and live out that faith day by day wherever God has seen fit to put us.
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