This week, after a couple of weeks off – one of them unexpected – I was privileged to be back in the pulpit. We dove into the third part of our series, How to Be Faithful When No One Else Is. This week we explored Daniel 3 and the well-known story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace. We marvel at their faithfulness and God’s miraculous rescue of the trio, but something even more powerful lies at the heart of the story when it comes to our challenge to stand on faithfulness even when we are standing alone. Let’s explore this together to see what it is. Thanks for reading and sharing.
When was the last time you did something that left you feeling accomplished? When was the last time you checked something off your list in a way that made you feel satisfied? It feels good to do big things. It feels good to do smaller things too. It feels good to be making forward progress. Some of you know that I enjoy building metal models. They come in a nice, little kit with detailed instructions and sheets of metal that are pre-painted and laser cut so you can snip them out, fold them accordingly, and build things like this Stormtrooper. Putting the last couple of pieces into place and finishing these feels really good. It’s satisfying to finally throw away the empty scraps of metal that used to hold all the little pieces in place.
Maybe you don’t build metal models—and I don’t blame you because they are difficult, tedious, and enormously frustrating when you’ve spent hours on them and then screw up such that you can’t finish them—but you have your own lists of things you like to get accomplished. It could be cleaning out a closet or pantry, completing a project around your yard or house, checking off work tasks, accumulating a certain set of things, winning a sports or academic award, and so on and so forth. Whatever it is, it feels good to get it done. Yet human inertia does not pull us naturally in this direction.
Our inertial pull is in the direction of doing nothing. It takes real effort to accomplish anything of any kind of enduring value. Those kinds of things just don’t happen on their own. They don’t happen first in a sequence of events either. They come after smaller things have been done along the way to build a foundation for the bigger things to rest on. What this means is that if we are going to accomplish anything of great significance, it is going to come from a pattern doing a whole bunch of smaller things along the way. The big things look really cool when we get to them, but they don’t happen out of nowhere.
This morning, we are in the third part of our teaching series, How to Be Faithful When No One Else Is. The big idea for this series of conversations has been that the culture around us is changing. People used to talk about America’s being a Christian nation. While we can debate whether that was ever true historically speaking, what really isn’t up for debate is the fact that whether or not we have ever been one in the past, we aren’t one now. And as our culture more and more vigorously embraces a worldview that is not simply different from the Christian worldview, but openly antagonistic to it, we may have more freedom than ever before, but we are also more opposed and even vilified than ever before. The result of this is that when we stand on our confession of Jesus as Lord, there is an ever-increasing chance we’ll be standing in that moment on our own. Given this, it is important for us to know not only how, but what it looks like to stand firm in our faith after the pattern of Jesus. Using the pattern of Jesus as our lens, the stories of Daniel and his friends striving to stand firm in their faithfulness to God’s covenant with Israel offer us some really important examples to follow in our own lives.
We started our journey off marveling at the courageous faithfulness of Daniel and his friends to request an exemption from the menu King Nebuchadnezzar planned for them after taking them captive from Jerusalem to Babylon in the wake of his initial victory over the city. The king wanted to make good Babylonians out of all his captives, but their request to not eat the food he provided for them risked undermining his process as well as offending him personally. Thankfully, God had their back, and their display of a faithfulness that was not just courageous, but humbly so, reminded us that faithfulness always requires courage.
Then, a couple of weeks ago when I put Nate on the spot to come up with a sermon in a little over an hour (and didn’t he do a great job that morning?), we saw in the next part of the story that faithfulness requires carefulness. Not long after the potential food fiasco, the king had a dream that bothered him immensely, and he put the lives of all the wise men in the kingdom on the line unless one of them could tell him not only what the dream meant, but what the dream was in the first place. With his life on the line, Daniel was willing to speak up to intervene in the situation. Yet the marvel here isn’t simply that he spoke up, but that he spoke with such wisdom and care. His words were perfectly suited to the moment in their tone and intent. Our words need to follow suit if we are to remain rooted in our faith in Christ.
Well, what we see Daniel and his friends starting to do is to create that pattern we were talking about a minute ago. A pattern doesn’t appear in a moment. But eventually, the daily decisions we make accumulate to become a life pattern. And when we live a life pattern long enough, it will be tested. What that testing looks like is going to vary. Sometimes it will be held up against the standard of reality to see if it meets those exacting demands. Sometimes it will be tested by the world to see what kind of substance it is made of. Daniel and his friends had committed themselves to a life pattern of faithfulness to the Law of Moses. In the next part of the story, we are going to see the pattern of specifically Daniel’s friends, Hananiah (Shadrach), Meshael (Meshach), and Azariah (Abednego) put to the ultimate test. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to Daniel 3 and we’ll look at this together.
Now, we don’t know when this next story took place. The original Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, puts it in the 18th year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, but we don’t know whether or not that’s a reliable date. Given that this chapter follows on the heels of Daniel 2 and its telling of the story of the king’s dream about a great statue, some folks have tried to argue we see the king trying to build that statue here, but the truth is we’re not sure about that either. What we do know from the text is that “Nebuchadnezzar made a gold statue, ninety feet high and nine feet wide.” It was almost certainly not solid gold, but merely overlaid with gold, but that was still a really big statue. Also, we don’t know what the statue was an image of. There is plenty of speculation out there, but we don’t know and it really doesn’t matter. Continuing, “He set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.” We don’t know for sure where that is, but it was likely somewhere public and prominent. You don’t build a statue like this and put it where not many people are going to see it. And the king definitely wanted everyone to see this one.
“King Nebuchadnezzar sent word to assemble the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasures, judges, magistrates, and all the rulers of the provinces to attend the dedication of the statue King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.” He wanted all the important people in the kingdom there for his big unveiling, so, as v. 3 tells us, they all came. He didn’t just want them there to see it, though, he wanted them to worship before it. “A herald loudly proclaimed, ‘People of every nation and language you are commanded: When you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, drum, and every kind of music, you are to fall facedown and worship the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. But whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.’” And so, because he was the king, and because this kind of command wasn’t unheard of in the ancient world, when the music queued up, the people fell down.
Well…most of them did. There was a trio who had committed themselves to worship only another God. Neither this gold statue nor any other false substitute was going to garner their devotion regardless of the penalty associated with their refusal. And, because they were “come heres”—and successful ones at that—there were some “from heres” who took the opportunity to take them out. “Some Chaldeans took this occasion to come forward and maliciously accuse the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘May the king live forever. You as king have issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, drum, and every kind of music must fall down and worship the gold statue. Whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. There are some Jews you have appointed to manage the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. These men have ignored you, the king; they do not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.’”
Now, from a policy standpoint, the refusal of these three to obey his orders was a real problem for Nebuchadnezzar. They were pretty high ranking members of his administration. When the boss issues an order that his ranking officers refuse to keep, that can’t be allowed to stand. His authority in the eyes of the rest of his followers is on the line. If they can refuse to obey him without consequence, then why should anyone else listen to him or respect his authority? So, Nebuchadnezzar had to deal with this from a leadership standpoint. Of course, we know this was an unjust and evil order today, but again, this kind of thing wasn’t unheard of in the ancient world, so most everybody just played along. What the king didn’t understand—couldn’t understand—was that these three had sworn their devotion to another God and weren’t backing down from that. And what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Conflict.
“Then in a furious rage Nebuchadnezzar gave orders to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king. Nebuchadnezzar asked them, ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I have set up? Now if you’re ready, when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, drum, and every kind of music, fall down and worship the statue I made. But if you don’t worship it, you will immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire—and who is the god who can rescue you from my power?’”
Now it was personal. It was personal for the king and it was personal for the trio. The king’s authority in the eyes of his subordinates was on the line. For Daniel’s friends, the substance of their faith was being put to the test. How were they going to respond when their commitment was being held up against the demands of their culture and they were being told to choose one or the other? Thankfully, we don’t have to wonder. Look at v. 16: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied to the king, ‘Nebuchadnezar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, then he can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.’”
Stubborn insubordination it was. If the king was furious before, he was volcanic now. These three had not simply refused to obey his command, they were insistent that their devotion to their God superseded their devotion to him. And perhaps if the king had simply commanded them to worship the statue without challenging their devotion to God or His power, they wouldn’t have responded like this. But he didn’t. And so they did. And the king completely blew his lid. He called for the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than normal. How could they measure that? They probably couldn’t. This was just a way of saying he wanted it to be as hot as they could possibly make it. While they were ramping up the temperature, the king commanded some of his most elite soldiers to tie up the trio and throw them into the flames. The heat from the fire was actually so intense that when these soldiers were exposed to it, they died from the blast in what had to have been terribly painful. For their part, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedbego fell headlong into the furnace with their hands still bound.
Now, I suspect most of you know what happens from here. After the trio fall into the furnace, Nebuchadnezzar somehow looks down into the furnace, but instead of seeing only three roasting corpses, he sees four men up and walking around like they don’t have a care in the world. And the fourth one “looks like a son of the gods.” The king, utterly baffled by what he is seeing, calls them to come out of the furnace, and when they do, not only are they unharmed by the flames, but their clothes don’t even smell like smoke. Nebuchadnezzar is so impressed by this that the same king who some number of years ago praised this God in whom their faith was so securely rooted and who had evidently forgotten all about that, issues a new proclamation that if anyone speaks against their God he “will be torn limb from limb and his house made a garbage dump.” Apparently that was the only curse the king knew.
As impressive as that all is, though, that’s not the most impressive part of the story. Of course God can do something like that. Why would we expect anything less from the one who created the world and everything in it? No, the most impressive part of the story is in vv. 16-18 when the trio responds to the king. Let’s double back there and reflect on their answer to Nebuchadnezzar’s challenge of the power of their God for just a minute. Listen again to what they said: “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, then he can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he can rescue us from the power of you, the king.”
Now, just that part there would have left the king’s heading exploding with anger like a Looney Toons character. The rank insubordination here had to be galling—especially when done so publicly. While they were absolutely careful, respectful, and tactful with their words like Daniel was last week, we should have no doubt about the fact that they were throwing down the gauntlet before the king. This was transforming right before the eyes of everyone watching into a contest of wills and power not of the trio and the king, but of their God and his. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had become pawns in a much larger game. Yet they were willing and active pawns who had absolute confidence in their king regardless of the power of the one who happened to be seated on the throne in front of them.
This confidence is borne out in their refusal to give the king an answer as to who they imagined could save them from his power. “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question.” In other words: You really don’t want to hear the answer anyway. You believe yourself to be all-powerful and mighty. The God we serve is greater still. If He really is who we believe Him to be, then of course He can rescue us. He can rescue us not only from the power of the fire, but from your own power which you believe to be even greater than the power of our God. Our God is the greatest power there is.
The trio’s faith, though, went beyond this confidence of a rescue by their God from the threatening circumstances before them. Perhaps to put that another way, their faith was not in what their God could do for them, but in God Himself. Can you say the same thing? Can you say that your faith is in God and not simply what you think He can do for you? If your faith in God is rooted mostly in what He can do for you, then when it looks like He’s not going to come through in those things, you’re going to be looking for somewhere else to place your faith, somewhere or someone who will deliver on the things you are really seeking. This kind of faith can easily hide among a genuine faith in God. Someone with this kind of faith can hide among the genuinely faithful in a church for a long time without anyone being the wiser. As long as his family is together and happy and successful, he will be singing the praises of God every chance he gets. After all, God seems to be coming through on the things he is seeking, so why wouldn’t he sing His praises? As a song I recently heard for the first time from a Christian hip-hop band called Beautiful Eulogy puts it: “When a good God gives good gifts, we generally tend to twist the list, and take the list of good gifts that God tends to give and make general gods out of gifts.” That’s tough to spot in others. It’s doubly difficult to spot in our own lives.
This kind of faith looks good in the eyes of the world. Who wouldn’t want this kind of faith? This faith seems to bring the very material blessings we are taught to seek. Even when circumstances appear to turn south, these folks will still cling to their profession of faith. The moment things turn back around, the proof of their claims is right there in the pudding. Yet the moment God doesn’t come through, all bets are off. This is not how you stand on a foundation of faithfulness when no one else is. It is the form the faith of the crowd often takes. It was not the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Look again at v. 18: “But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” That is, “Our faith is in our God, not in what He might do for us. As a result, we’re not bowing down to your statue or your gods even if we die in that fire for our refusal.” Friends, this is how to be faithful when no one else is. The person who is going to be faithful even when no one else is, is the person who is willing to take a Gospel stand even when that stand is costly for them. Sometimes being faithful means taking a Gospel stand even when it’s costly. That’s exactly what this trio of remarkable young men did here. And they did it before there was a Gospel on which they could stand. Their faith was rooted entirely in the character and power of the God revealed in the Law and by His actions toward and on behalf of their people over the past millennia of history. Whether or not He happened to exercise that power and character to their benefit in their current situation was going to have no bearing on their faith in Him or their willingness to stake their lives on who He was. Sometimes being faithful means taking a Gospel stand even when it’s costly. Listen: We have even more reason to be willing to stake our lives on His character and power because He has demonstrated them for us in a far more significant way than He ever had for Daniel and his friends. We have the cross and the empty tomb. We can stand firmly on that truth, on the Gospel, even when it is terribly costly, because we know we will never be put to shame for such efforts. Sometimes being faithful means taking a Gospel stand even when it’s costly.
But there’s something else here we dare not miss. We delight in this kind of a display of genuine faith. And we should. What Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did here was amazing. We should look to examples like theirs and strive to live our lives to follow suit. We should dream of the moment when we can stand firmly on the Gospel in a way that people will still be talking about in 2,500 years just like my boys dream of hitting the winning basket in a championship game. Do you remember, though, what we talked about just a little while ago? As good as it feels to accomplish incredible things like this, such accomplishments don’t come out of nowhere.
Sometimes being faithful means taking a Gospel stand even when it’s costly, but we have to consider carefully what kind of a cost we have in mind. You see, some costs we are more willing to pay in certain circumstances than others. For instance, potentially paying the cost of our lives when we are confident such a cost really isn’t going to be demanded of us—after all, God saved these three, wouldn’t He do the same for us if we were in the same position?—is a cost we’ll gladly sign up for given the chance. We’ll sign up for that because glory is lauded on everyone willing to say they’d have been right there with this faithful trio and we want glory. Yet without a foundation to stand on already firmly in place, standing in such a moment isn’t something any of us will be able to do. That is a cost far beyond what we will be able to afford if we have not been saving up for it in the weeks, months, years leading up to that moment—a moment whose coming we will never be able to anticipate even as we imagine ourselves declaring, “But even if,” in the face of our persecutor.
So then, what cost are we really willing to pay to be faithful when no one else is? Sometimes being faithful means taking a Gospel stand even when it’s costly. How about the cost of inconvenience? Taking a stand on the Gospel is only rarely found in the big and flashy. It is far more often found in the quiet and in the inconvenient. It is inconvenient to love others when they won’t love us back or are otherwise hard to love. It is inconvenient to put others first when we have our wants and desires to see satisfied. It is inconvenient to respond with kindness when we would much rather respond in kind. Or how about the cost of embarrassment? Refusing to go along with the crowd into some sort of sin could be a real reputation killer in the eyes of peers we would much rather impress, all things considered. Not showing up at this or that place or taking part in this or that joke because of our commitment to the Gospel can hurt our social standing.
None of these kinds of things are particularly big things. In fact, most of them are small. But they are Gospel stands and they have a cost. And if we aren’t paying these small, daily costs, there’s no real reason to think we’ll be willing, much less able, to pay the much larger costs we imagine ourselves paying with boldness when a great deal more is on the line. Sometimes being faithful means taking a Gospel stand even when it’s costly.
Imagine being the kind of people who aren’t afraid of any cost the Gospel might demand, big or small. Imagine that being there in a moment when the blazing furnace is waiting with its gaping maw and not really being much bothered by it because our spiritual muscle memory has kicked in such that we are simply doing what we always do. We’re doing what we always do…because taking a Gospel stand even when the cost is miniscule is something we’ve been practicing over the course of the rest of our lives. That is, it’s what we always do. The cost really doesn’t matter to us anymore because our faith is solidly rooted in our God and not the things He may or may not do for us. Sometimes being faithful means taking a Gospel stand even when it’s costly. Actually, check that, being faithful always means taking a Gospel stand even when it’s costly. Following Jesus demands that we take up our cross daily. Crosses are always costly. But we take them up because the tomb was empty on the third day. Because the tomb was empty, we can be faithful even when no one else is. Sometimes being faithful means taking a Gospel stand even when it’s costly. Let’s get standing.