Bow or burn - Daniel 3

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 1st June 2003.

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‘The art of leadership’ wrote Tony Blair back in 1994, ‘is in saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.’ So let me tell you about two experiments carried out in the Unites States which illustrate just how easy it is to get people to say yes. The first is the Milgram experiment carried in 1963 where volunteers were required to test a man who was strapped to a chair with an electrode attached to his wrist. The volunteer was told that the experiment was designed to test human tolerance to pain. Now the man had been required to memorise a text and if he repeated it correctly then the volunteer did nothing, however, if he stumbled at any point he was to flick a switch which sent an electric shock and the shocks grew progressively more powerful as the errors increased. In fact there was no electric shock , it was all fake, the man was just acting. Yet the volunteer didn’t know this, because the real purpose of the experiment was to see how far people would go in obeying orders. The results were for more shocking than anything alleged electric current. No fewer that 65% of them blindly obeyed their instructions going on to administer shocks up to 450 volts-way beyond the lethal voltage. Brian Masters in his autobiography ‘Getting Personal’ said this of the Milgram experiment, that it ‘demonstrated beyond question that timid, kindly decent souls could become monsters if offered the chance.’

Well if that surprises you, listen to what the Asch experiment demonstrated. Three people were shown three lines on a screen and were asked to say which was the longest. Again, unknown to one of the volunteers, the other two were in fact experimenters. The longest of the 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.

Now these two experiments help to explain, in part at least, why Hitler for example, and many other tyrannical rulers both before and after him, have been able to get people to commit the most horrific crimes and then to deny the evidence of everything around them. The control and manipulation of people to serve a common goal is not as difficult as it may seem. In fact it is all too easy to get people, even religious people, to believe and behave in ways which defy all reason and humanity. It is far easier to say ‘yes’ than it is ‘no’.

And tonight 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 it is especially at times like these that God’s people should be the one’s shouting ‘no’ the loudest. So do turn with me to Daniel chapter 3 as we look at this fascinating story under three headings.

First of all a unifying strategy vv 1- 7. Nebuchadnezzar has a problem and it is 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 throughout the near and middle east are very mixed bag. So how do you create a sense of unity out of such unstable diversity? Well, you create a myth. For Hitler it was the Dolschstosslegende (the stab- in- the- back myth) that is, the reason why Germany lost the First World war was due to an international Jewish and Communist conspiracy and it was Germany’s destiny to overcome this because of Aryan supremacy. Sometimes powerful symbols are used to bind a diverse people’s groups together, think of the role the Stars and Stripes plays in the United States. Well Nebuchadnezzar was to create a myth to end all myths and use a symbol so potent it was simply overwhelming. The myth was that the strength of the nation resided in its ruler and the symbol of this power was a monumental statue ninety feet high and nine feet wide. Remember that 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 a statue, however impressive, is a going to be little more than a depository 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 an undertaker 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, and 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- these are the most recent imports into Babylonia-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 was a visual and musical feast. Who could resist it? Very few. Nebuchadnezzar may have been the first to realise the almost hypnotic power of clothing political ideology in religious dress but he wasn’t the last. Geobels, 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 Furher almost invariably arriving late so heightening people’s expectancy were all designed to create the right atmosphere whereby the crowds could be effected in whatever way the leadership chose. There was a deliberate ‘religious’ feel to those meetings so that a common psyche was created whereby the ‘many’ functioned as one. That is what we have here. There is this 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 otherwords, toast the King or you will be toast!

Now 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 without 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- the belief everyone is expected to accept? Well, that religion is purely subjective and experience is everything. That it is not a matter of fact but faith. It is what you feel more than what you know. As such it is all relative and 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 ...different, different beverages appealing to different people. The essence of religion we are told, is to be located within in terms of intuition not without in terms of objective revelation by a personal and transcendent God. 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. The result is that God is excluded from telling us what to do. And anyone who will not tolerate this state of affairs is not to be tolerated because such people make for social instability. So in the Radio Times this letter appeared: ‘ I don’t want to pre-judge the man (and of course he has been), but I agree that it is a little worrying that Jonathan Edwards, a devout Christian has been appointed to Ofcom’s content board. To redress the balance, may I nominate Peter Stringfellow (the owner of lap dance nightclubs) ?’ Now why should it be worrying to have a devout Christian give their reasoned view on Ofcom’s content? Why is it not equally worrying to have an atheist or a humanist or a Buddhist as if these others have no axe to grind? Well, it is because Christians believe in absolutes and that will absolutely not be tolerated. 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.

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 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 that is significant given the penalty Nebuchadnezzar had decreed for disobeying his command-death. You see it was ‘the Jews’ these people wanted to be rid of. 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 God’s people. You see to obliterate the Jews meant putting an end to God’s promise of salvation made to Abraham. Sure we have a focus here on only three of these exiled Jews, but you can be sure 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, the threat of reintroducing the very thing that put the Jews into captivity in the first place- religious compromise. Idolatry was the cancer which had recked havoc on Israelite society, worshipping other gods alongside YHWH. The question is would they do it again? So the Jews are caught on the horns of a satanic dilemma. Stand firm and you die-that is the end of God’s plan. Compromise and face spiritual death- again marking the end. Do you see? So what are they to do? Follow the third option- doing the right thing and leaving the consequences to God. And that is what these three did 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 writer who has is Don Carson who preached here last year. 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). Do you believe that? Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did. This is where they drew the line and so they tell Nebuchadnezzar straight. First, notice there is none of this : ‘ O King’, in the introduction, it is plain ‘ O Nebuchadnezzar’ - on this point he is a mere man, his kingship is a total irrelevance-he is wrong and they don’t have to explain their actions to him. In fact they are not primarily accountable to him at all but a higher authority- the King of Kings. I gather that one of the techniques taught the SAS in order to withstand interrogation is to imagine your interrogator in their underwear, it makes them less intimidating. Well, when we are faced with someone who is intimidating us because of the stand we are taking, and they may be very impressive people, powerful people- a boss, a tutor, or even a church leader- we are to see them in their spiritual underwear- against the backdrop of Almighty God who one day is going to interrogate them. Second, they put their trust on the power of God v17. Of course, the God who made fire can deliver them from the fire. They had got their theology right. But thirdly, they humbly submitted to the word of God- v18. God has made it clear in the first two commandments that there should not be even a hint of idolatry. 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. 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’. It is not doubt or unbelief, it is the humble acceptance of God’s sovereign freedom.

And 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. And 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 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! 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 humanly speaking. But what about divinely speaking? 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, and that is 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. This was no dream Nebuchadnezzar was having. Did you notice how the rich and powerful who 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.

But what was it that really impressed Nebuchadnezzar to bring about such a change in attitude that he ends up declaring Israel’s God as the true God? The miracle? Well, yes- v28- ‘the God who sent his angel and rescued his servants.’ But there was something else , -v 28b he was so struck, ‘They trusted in him and defied the kings commands and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.’ That gets people everytime- 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, accommodate 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. Sure we will be considered a nuisance, but far better to be thought of as a nuisance than as an irrelevance. Some of you are finalists and will soon be leaving. Let me tell you that the decision you make now whether or not to stand firm for Christ will make or break you in the future. One of the joys of the CU reunion weekend we have just had was to see how 30 years later men and women were still going on with the Lord inspite of tremendous heartaches and setbacks for some. Where do you think that resolve began? When they were young. We need Shadrachs, Meshaks and Abendegos in great numbers today, of both sexes and from all ages if under God we are going to see our culture turned. And we are not to be afraid as to whether we will make it or not, we are to trust, trust that Jesus is as good as his word, that in the fiery furnace of testing, the fourth figure will be there with us, he has said so, ‘I will be with you even to the end of the age.’

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