Saturday, April 1, 2017

But If Not...

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Daniel 3:16-18

I am stirred by bold declarations of faith in God. My most favorite Bible vignette is when David comes to the battle lines to see the army of Israel hiding in fear from the giant, Goliath. Filled with righteous indignation, he declares, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he dares to defy the armies of the living God?”. His jealousy for God’s glory intersected with his faith in God’s power and resulted in a great victory for the nation and the beginning of his ascent to the kingship.

Similarly, my hero is Elijah the prophet. I would love to have been there when he challenged the prophets of Baal to a showdown. The premise was simple, if improbable: whichever god answers his servants by sending fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice is truly God. This man of God had great faith; it had already not rained for 3 years at his word, and now he was challenging the reigning religion to a “God-off”. As the story unfolds, Baal is predictably absent but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reveals himself in spectacular power. It gives me goose bumps!

Just slightly behind David in brazen declaration is the story of the three Hebrew children, taken into captivity. Hauled away from their home as teens or young men, Daniel and his friends Hannaniah, Mishael, and Azariah (their Hebrew names) resolved to hold firmly to their faith in God. The don’t assimilate into the Babylonian culture, but maintain their ritual and dietary purity in obedience, faith, and worship of the God of their ancestors.

Later, Daniel and his friends are promoted to positions of high influence in the empire. Yet, there comes a time of testing. The king set up a massive golden idol and sent out a decree that whenever the music played everyone was required to fall down and worship the idol. The penalty for failure to comply was to be immediately thrown into a furnace. The story of Shadrach, Mesahach, and Abednego (their Babylonian names) in the Fiery Furnace is well known to most Sunday School children. Yet there is a depth to this story, leading up to their profound declaration of faith that is not often exposited.

Babylon was a fundamentally multicultural society. As the armies conquered a people, the native people would be deported and the land eventually settled with other people. In the case of Israel, the best and the brightest were brought to the capitol to join the cultural elite. Sociologically, it was a brilliant strategy, simultaneously crushing the identity of a conquered people and integrating their intellectual capital into the society.

This multiculturalism necessarily fostered polytheism. Every society had its own religious practices and deities. As they were integrated into society, they brought their beliefs and customs with them. Such polytheistic societies are actually inherently atheistic. Intrinsically, we know that all beliefs are not all true. In fact, multiple conflicting beliefs cannot all be true. Yet the willingness to accept them is based on an implicit understanding that none of them are really true. But “just in case”…

The people of Israel threw a wrench into the monkeyworks. Although deported and dispersed multiple times since Joshua first took possession of the promised land, they have retained their identity as God’s chosen people and (with varying degrees of devotion) maintained their belief and worship of Jehovah. So it was with these young men. They maintained an unswerving devotion to the God of their ancestors. That devotion absolutely proscribed worshiping of idols.

Malicious men whispered in the king’s ear that these Israelites refused to obey his command. The king, of course, was outraged. These weren’t random strangers but trusted officials. If the men in his cabinet could not be counted on to obey his words, how would the people react? He called them in for a reckoning, and gave them one last chance, including this ultimatum:

“But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:15b)

This is the context in which they make their famous declaration. Now, understand that preceding this encounter, they had already made up their minds that they were not going to bow before the idol. They knew the penalty was death, and they were prepared to pay the price. This was the depth of their faith, that they would rather die than disobey God. And as they well called in to the king, they were surely thinking, “this is it” but steeling their resolve not to turn away from their faith.

But when the king rages at them and says, “who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands”, I believe the Spirit of God came upon them and stirred them up even more. The king was basically saying, “I’m the most powerful person on earth. You will obey me or suffer the consequences and no one can stop me.” Their response to this arrogance is to the point. Our God is able to deliver us from you. You may be the most powerful man on the planet, but our God made the planet and allows you to reign. He is greater than you and can stop your plans if he wants.

This is David-level stuff! When faced with an insurmountable (humanly speaking) obstacle that stands in defiance of God’s holiness and glory, the man (or woman) of God is justified in drawing themselves up to the full height of their faith and staring down the obstacle. Giants? No problem. All-powerful king? Inconsequential. Fiery Furnace? Walk in the park. Literally.

But the most powerful declaration of faith is the one they walked in with. Yes, I know God is able to deliver me from whatever situation seems hopeless in my eyes. But even if he doesn’t… I will still trust in him. Selah

You see, the lesson in this story is not that God will never let you burn. Rather it is two-fold. First, that there is no circumstance that is too hopeless for God to overcome. He’s just that big. Facing a mountain? God is bigger. Lost in an ocean? God runs deeper. Surrounded by enemies? God is more powerful. Nothing is too great for God.

Second (and more important) is that our faith should not be conditional. The object of our faith is the one true God, creator, sustainer, and redeemer of the universe. In the end, his glory will be magnified. Our confidence is in his power, yes, but more so in his character. As servants of the true King, we are willing to be spent for his purposes. If that means suffering persecutions, we will rejoice and be glad. If it means facing shame and disgrace for his sake, we look forward to a heavenly reward.

Got your own story of brazen faith? Share it with me. This is what gets me going!

1 comment:

  1. Joseph. Favored by his father and hated by his brothers. Sold into slavery, taken to Egypt, falsely accused and imprisoned while his brothers convinced his father he was dead. His ability to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh enabled him to leave prison and to be richly blessed in authority. Years later, his position allows him to save his family from famine and Pharaoh gives Joseph the land of Goshen for his extended family. "What you meant for evil, God has used for good." God took the family of Jacob Israel to Egypt via the blessings of Joseph despite their cruel jealousy and imposed evil. There the sons of Jacob Israel grew into a mighty nation despite eventual slavery. For thirty years they enjoyed prosperity and then, a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph came on board and forced horrific conditions for fear of the growth and power of the Israelites. Four hundred years of making bricks did not bring about their deaths. Instead it strengthened them and for four hundred years they made babies and the tribes of Israel grew larger and larger in number just as God had promised Abraham. Even today, the Jewish people are blessed despite the hatred, holocaust, and bias. Still they survive. What is being excluded from a book club because I won't read certain books compared to the Coptic Christians martyred on the sands of Libya? What the world means for evil, God will use for good. This I believe. Throughout the ages since Christ died on a cross, people have been willing to die for Him. The historic church is full of stories of those saints dying to self for Him. The story of the young men refusing to bow to the idol is, like you say, so much more. It is not giving in to the easy thing, the everything is okay thing, oh, go, ahead, everybody else does it so just do it, thing. It is knowing God, living for God, obeying God, and trusting that even if death comes, you did not betray the One who was and created you, the Merciful One who is and set standards not to harm you but to protect you, and the Mighty One who will one day come, Faithful and True, riding on a white horse. Is it too much to ask that I, too, be faithful and true? That faithful and true should be my standard even if in a moment of weakness, like Peter, I fail? How good is our God? How merciful is our God? What man means for evil, God will use for good. May I always be strong for Him yet willing to accept his gracious mercy in weakness. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor. Love yourself enough to live for Him and not the world.

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