Rev. Teri Peterson
out of the fire, life
Daniel 3.1, 8-30
1 December 2013, NL 4-13, Advent 1
King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.
Accordingly, at this time certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘O king, live for ever! You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue, and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’
Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar said to them, ‘Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?’
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’
Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace to be heated up seven times more than was customary, and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, ‘Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?’ They answered the king, ‘True, O king.’ He replied, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.’ Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!’ So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them. Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.’ Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
Here we are—the first day of Advent. Today we enter the season of waiting and preparation, the season of trying to hold together both the cultural trappings of the Christmas season and the spiritual importance of waiting in the darkness. It’s not easy, living in this tension. One minute, we’re giving thanks for all the blessings God has given us, the next minute, we’re jockeying in the crowd, trying not to get run over by a reindeer as we search for the best deal. One day we’re singing in a minor key, longing for God’s light to break into the world again, and the next we’re humming Jingle Bells and eating Christmas cookies. But regardless of how difficult it can be, this season matters. Learning to live with both the Christmas cheer and the Advent stillness is important. Looking for the spark of God’s light in the darkness takes practice, and will serve us well when cheerfulness runs out and we’re left wondering what to do next.
Very few people enjoy waiting, though. It feels simultaneously like a waste of time and like hard work. And yet there’s a whole season of the church year dedicated to the practice of waiting on God, getting ready for God’s next surprise, sitting with the stillness until we hear the whisper in the silence. This year I encourage you to be intentional about your looking—keep an eye out for what God might be doing during your regular day. One way to do that is with a practice like the photo-a-day prompt: each day there’s a word, and you take a picture that illustrates that word for you. Think of it as an opportunity to look at the world through a different lens, and maybe see the Spirit moving in unexpected ways.
This is the season of the unexpected. Keep alert, and who knows what you might see.
Nebuchadnezzar saw God and was so surprised he sprang out of his chair in a most un-kingly way. He was a powerful man, used to getting his way. He had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and scattered the Israelites into exile. He sat in Babylon, building an extravagant city on the backs of slaves and paying for it with equally extravagant taxation. He led a fearsome army, expanding his empire by conquering land and dividing populations until they were so intermingled with each other that they couldn’t possibly rise up and fight back. Nebuchadnezzar made the rules, and everyone always fell in line.
Until they didn’t.
It’s hard to not get what we want. For Nebuchadnezzar, it was unthinkable. He’d been born to the throne, spent his whole life with people obeying him, and if necessary he simply took what he wanted by force. The effect on other people didn’t matter to him—he kept his eyes on the prize and never looked at the people he trampled along the way.
This sounds like a familiar story. Perhaps we don’t do this as individuals, but it’s a common theme among nations and corporations, and we do participate in those systems that claw their way to the top with no regard for the welfare of the people involved. Even our language is designed to make them invisible—we say “the poor” “the needy” “the homeless” and “the disabled,” we talk about “diabetics” and “the mentally ill,” and we forget that these are people, with names and stories and hopes and dreams and families, not a condition. We forget that it’s a person who is poor, a person who has diabetes, a person who lives with a disability, and their worth is not defined by their circumstance. It’s a short mental hop from talking about people in this way to actually seeing a condition or a category rather than seeing a person. So often brown skin makes us defensive and wheelchairs evoke pity and a straggly beard or dirty fingernails arouse our suspicion. Meanwhile we’re hunting for the bargain even when we know that the people who make our products or grow our food do so under horrifying conditions and for very little pay. We know that the water and air are being polluted and people are being exploited, and we want what we want and won’t be swayed.
Sometimes it seems as if Nebuchadnezzar lives on in the systems we humans have put in place to ensure that those in power can always get what they want, no matter the cost to others. We confess our complicity in these systems, the ways we benefit from injustice, and we wait for the coming kingdom of God that will make all things new.
And in this season of preparation, this seems like a perfect story to read. Because usually we like to think of Advent as the time when we prepare. We scurry around trying to get ready. We do our best to declutter our souls as we declutter our houses, and we prepare our inner houses to receive the Christ child by decorating and baking just the same way we prepare our houses for a party. But what if Advent is the time when God prepares? What if God is the one doing the work, getting us ready? We know that in the relationship between God and the world, God is always the initiator. Why would Advent be different? The world needs some preparation, sure—but to think we can do that under our own steam makes us more Nebuchadnezzar-like than ever, insisting that we can do it, we can get what we want, we can force things to go our way.
What we find here is that God did something amazing—God showed up, walked through the fire, and changed Nebuchadnezzar’s heart, mind, policies, and personal behavior. And with that preparation, a little bit more light shone through the darkness.
We usually read this story in a way that casts us as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. We’re supposed to stand up for what is right, even at great cost. We’re supposed to trust God to deliver us from every trial, to walk with us through the fire and the flood, to protect us and constantly be by our side. And that is an important message—one we need to hear over and over again, that God can be trusted, that God shows up, that we can act on God’s promise, that we too can walk out of the fire without even the smell of smoke clinging to our clothes.
But honestly I think most of the time we’re Nebuchadnezzar. We want what we want, when we want it, and we’ll do just about anything to get it. And just like Nebuchadnezzar, when God shows up, we too can find ourselves changed, turned 180 degrees around to a new way of being in the world. This story points to things we’d rather not see about ourselves, which is the first preparatory step in any transformation—to see clearly what is. Like any self examination, it burns like fire. But this fire is not destructive, it’s creative and refining, preparing the soil to receive the seeds, and what walks out of the fire is life that grows into the kingdom of God.
May it be so. Amen.