Daniel: The Fiery Furnace

sermon on Daniel 3:1-30
The name Hananiah means “Yahweh (or the LORD) is gracious. Mishael is  “Who is like God?” And “The LORD keeps him” is the translation of Azariah.

And you’re wondering why in the world I’m mentioning these three names of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Who has heard of them? Okay, who has heard of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Well, then you’ve heard of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah! They’re the same guys! Just with different names.

But it highlights an important detail for us. These men with names that directly named their faith, their connection to God, this identity was taken away from them in exile, under Babylonian captivity. After they were dragged away from Jerusalem, they lost their names and were forced into new roles for foreign king Nebuchadnezzar—though judging from his moniker, we have to admit the Babylonians names aren’t too shabby but even kinda fun. The prophet Daniel himself gets called Beltshazzar. Maybe I’ll start referring to Dan McGown as Beltshazzar McGown.

Although, for Dan and for Daniel and for these three other men, what might be gained in a fun name is a loss of identity and connection. Names ending in –el or –iah (think Nathanael or Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah) meant connection to the Hebrew God. But the Beltshazzar swapped that as a prayer to a Babylonian god, as “Bel help the king.” Similarly, Abednego is “servant of the god Nebo.” These name changes were changes of allegiance.

That gives a sense of what’s riding on this story of the fiery furnace. Besides that dangerous conflict of colliding cultures, I want us also to hear some subtlety. I’m not sure this story is best received as the risk of martyrdom and a faithfulness in the face of death. Sure, there are people undergoing persecutions in large and small ways all over our world today. There were the people killed in the mosque in Egypt after Thanksgiving because they belonged to the wrong sect. In smaller but vital ways, there’s also the difficulty of being Muslim in the United States, of the ostracizing and worse. But I’m not sure it’s most helpful to hold this story as if it’s about a God who will offer salvation and deliverance from enemies and death if you believe strongly enough and confess your faith heartily enough.

Instead, for a more helpful sense of the dilemma these guys were facing, I want to point away from the ordeal of the fiery furnace for a second to what is perhaps an even more terrifying situation of what exile meant. It’s not just being stuffed into blazing heat cranked up to seven times its normal searing intensity. No, maybe even worse for some perspectives, these poor guys, these sad captives in Babylon, the tragic fate of these people was that they were forced to be… VEGETARIANS! Oh, the horror! Hadn’t they already suffered enough! Appalling, right Debra? Because the Babylonian meat would break their dietary restrictions and cause them to violate the religious standards and understanding of how they maintained relationship with God, they refused to eat the normal rations and tried to survive without meat, if you believe that could even be possible.

And if you thought it was miraculous that the three young men weren’t incinerated in the fiery furnace, you’ll be incredulous at the earlier note that they stayed as healthy as everybody else, even without eating meat. It’s shocking! It’s amazing! It’s ludicrous!

Now, I want to pause for a second for you to understand I’m not being totally flippant. I’m not poking fun at the story. It’s not that I’m failing to take this seriously.

Rather, this story itself is meant to be taken lightly, to be some comic relief. There’s importance in that term—that humor can relieve some suffering and some worry. That’s what this story intends, for the people back in Bible times and for us now.

See, this isn’t only a story about how strong your faith is and whether God will do something about it when you’re put into the rotisserie oven. This is meant to reinforce your faith when things aren’t particularly going how you’d wish, and to lighten your mood, and to lighten the load a bit.

We heard the reading in the King James Version to highlight some of that, to give it its original sense of theatre. Those long, detailed, repeated lists that go on and on and are repeated over and over are meant to sound silly! There’s a pompousness to it that’s supposed to portray a farce.

For our ears, that’s accentuated when we hear that the marching band assembled to toot the horn of the king not only has cornet and flute, but also a sackbut. If you thought Nebuchadnezzar was fun to say, then you were just waiting for the sackbut! We hear an edge of the ridiculous regal procession of princes and captains, the treasurers and the counsellors. But we may catch some extra sense when the King James Version mentions that amid that ignorant throng were governors, judges, and sheriffs, and we may begin to sense this not as an old one-time story, but as a drama, a comedy of errors that plays out in our life, too. Through the hilarity, a king who started out so authoritarian and arrogant was manipulated by his jealous staff, went into blind rage, full of fury, but wound up praising in exclusive terms the very God he was trying to dismiss.

Now, while admitting truth can be stranger than fiction, I would say that generally if we’re looking for a repetition of these events or characters in our lives, then we may have too narrowly confined the meaning of the story. Whether our aim is with a hopeful chuckle about clueless leaders coming around to our side, or is with the serious dread and regret of Jewish lives not saved from the ovens, this isn’t really a story of that kind of direct application. If we’re waiting for somebody to set up a 90-foot tall golden idol or effigy or whatever and demand we bow down to it, then this is left as a laughable little fairy tale, without impact on our lives.

But if we understand it as hyperbole, as overstatement, as dramatized for effect, then we can see connections all over. If this story is simply about the challenge of where our faith collides with culture and what is dominant, then that turns up the metaphorical heat. Where do we symbolically bow down in the wrong direction, offering our lives to what usurps the place of God? How should we be living while in this strange country?

Would we be prompted to confront our leaders? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t need to start this confrontation; they probably could’ve figured their actions and decisions wouldn’t make much of a difference. So should we see this story as a parable about what to do in the face of an ignorant, careless government?

But let’s take it down another notch. Forget about being tossed in a furnace. If we determined that it was what we needed to do to live faithfully, would we eat only vegetables? Would we risk our jobs or our social standing at school? Would we sacrifice our place on a sports team, or our income that we prefer to use to give ourselves a little bit of luxury? Would we give up some core part of our identity? This gets awfully serious and awfully implicating and awfully quick. It means we need some humor in our stories!

But if you’re not feeling scorched quite yet, here’s a blisteringly timely seasonal paragraph some of you may have read in Christian Century, about Christmas as

glittery rituals [it says] that have no biblical basis or meaning and become a kind of alternative religion competing with Christ. How many children can pay attention to the meaning of incarnation when they are encouraged to focus on gingerbread houses, candy canes, ornamented Christmas trees, and Christmas lights? Santa is no Saint Nicholas. He’s a Coca-Cola advertisement symbolizing the complete secularization of Christmas, replacing Jesus’ poverty, vulnerability, and self-sacrifice with magic reindeer, a pile of toys, and “Ho, ho, ho!”*

I don’t know about you, but that one burns a bit. I like Christmas and our decorations and the lights in the darkness and the mood of it all and am obviously endeared to St. Nick. I certainly don’t want to imagine that in any of that I’m venerating an allegorical 90-foot Coca-Cola statue.

But raising those small, hard questions in a humorous, outsized way is only one aspect of this story of the fiery furnace. There’s this personal interrogation of what I would do if I were in their place, and—even more difficultly—what I do in my own place.

But the other aspect of this story is God’s place. And that is—it should go without saying—the more vital aspect, much more than what you do or don’t do. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego recognize it. They didn’t see this as putting either their faith or putting God to the test. One of the most interesting lines of the whole story is their statement that it doesn’t matter if God saves them from the fire or not.

I find that to be astonishing and terribly important. It’s not that if you believe strongly enough then you’ll deserve miracles. The three men didn’t earn escape for displaying extraordinary devotion and faith. It wouldn’t disprove God if they didn’t emerge from the fire. More than your identity or circumstances, this is about God’s identity.

For that, three godly wrap-up points:

  1. No matter how high and mighty somebody thinks they are or how much they want to claim for themselves, they can never displace God. That’s why Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego wouldn’t bow down, but also why it didn’t matter what happened to them.
  2. Still, I think we can tentatively say that God’s preference, God’s design, the will of God, would not be for people to be chucked into a furnace, not to be made to suffer.
  3. And finally, the presence of the fourth divine Son of God in the furnace, that we can take as gospel. Jesus is with you, even when you are oppressed and suffering and in danger, even when things aren’t going right. In the words that (at least sort of) ended the prayers at Jean Oliversen’s sister’s memorial service yesterday, nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus: neither death nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor Nebuchadnezzar nor sackbuts, nor loss of identity, nor fiery furnaces, nor barbequed pork, nor a chimney with Santa Claus. And that’s no joke.

* https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/why-my-church-stopped-decking-halls


The comic relief, according to the King James Version:
Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, whose height was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof six cubits: he set it up in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent to gather together the princes, the governors, and the captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up. Therefore the princes, the governors, and captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, were gathered together unto the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Then a herald cried aloud, “To you it is commanded, O people, nations, and languages, That at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king hath set up: And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.” Therefore at that time, when all the people heard the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of music, all the people, the nations, and the languages, fell down and worshipped the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.

At that time certain Chaldeans came near, and accused the Jews. They spake and said to the king Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live for ever. Thou, O king, hast made a decree, that every person that shall hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image: And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth, that one should be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar in his rage and fury commanded to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Therefore they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spake and said unto them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up? Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of music, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and God will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: therefore he spake, and commanded that they should heat the furnace seven times more than it was wont to be heated. And he commanded the most mighty soldiers that were in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their coats, their hosen, and their hats, and their other garments, and were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Therefore because the king’s commandment was urgent, and the furnace exceeding hot, the flame of the fire slew those soldiers that took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace.

Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellors, “Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said unto the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “Lo, I see four people loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the mouth of the burning fiery furnace, and spake, and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, ye servants of the most high God, come forth, and come hither.” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, came forth of the midst of the fire. And the princes, governors, and captains, and the king’s counsellors, being gathered together, saw these men, upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was an hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them. Therefore Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent an angel, and delivered these servants who trusted in God, and disobeyed my command, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God. Therefore I make a decree, That every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort.”

(Daniel 3:1-30, King James Version)