Text: Daniel 3:1, 8-30 and John 18:36-37
Nebuchadnezzar. That’s just a fun name to say. Say it out loud with me. Neb-u-chad-nezz-ar. Then there’s Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Or Rack, Shack, and Benny. Any Veggie Tales fans out there? The bunny, the bunny, oh, I love the bunny.
This story is so big and the message of hope is obvious that it pretty much preaches itself. Some of you are hoping, “Maybe he’ll just pray and we’ll be done.”
I have a confession to make. As a preacher, this particular story, on this particular day has presented an interesting challenge. Today we begin Advent and this is a time of slowing down, breathing deeply, and waiting in silence.
The big question today is this.
What does this story about the fiery furnace in Daniel 3:8-30 have to do with Advent? How does such a big, noisy story fit with such a quiet season?
There is a second question, that might be even more interesting, and more scary. What does any of it have to do with me? Like I say to my Catechism students, “So What?”
We’ve heard the story itself, but let’s zoom back a little and frame the story before we go any further.
Last week we looked at Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, and saw that there was a new bully on the block. The Empire of Babylon, under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar, had defeated the Assyrian Empire and had pushed the Egyptian Empire back into Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar was king of the hill for the moment.
Pastor Mark showed us this image. It is a famous sculpture that shows the Babylonians taking all the gold from the Temple that Solomon built and carrying it to Babylon. King Nebby didn’t just take gold. He took a group of young men, the cream of the crop, and brought them back to Babylon to be trained in the Babylonian government. Among this group were four young men named Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
It is interesting to note that Jeremiah’s story and Daniel’s story overlap. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet was in Jerusalem and watched the city get sacked. Eventually he was captured, taken away to Egypt, and never heard from again. Daniel, on the other hand, gets taken away to Babylon and becomes a famous character in history.
King Nebuchadnezzar did something very significant in Jerusalem. He destroyed the temple that Solomon built. Imagine this. Your center of worship is gone. You have been relocated hundreds of miles away into a foreign culture, that worships different gods. What do you do? How do you feel? That is called exile, and it lasted for 70 years.
I ask the question again.
What does this have to do with Advent, and what does it have to do with us? Are we in exile today? I mean, we have a place of worship. This is our home culture, right?
I would like to say that the church is in exile. Let me take a minute and show you what I mean. It all has to do with understanding the idea of The Kingdom of Heaven. Look at the Gospel lesson again.
In John 18:36, Jesus stands before Pontus Pilate. Jesus is on trial just before his execution, and Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews. Look what Jesus says. “My kingdom is not from this world.”
This gets a little confusing for me. Jesus began his ministry by saying,
“The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news.”
In other words, the Kingdom is right here, you can enter it right now. But here, in John 18, he says that the Kingdom is not of this world. What’s going on?
Here is an important thing to remember about the church and the Kingdom of Heaven.
We live in two worlds at the same time.
When Jesus said that his Kingdom is not from this world, he did not mean that there is a Kingdom of Heaven that is up there in another galaxy or another place and that someday, after we die we are going to go live on billowy clouds. He said that his Kingdom was not from, or out of, this world. That means it does not follow the ways of this world. The kingdom of God is not an alternate space, it is an alternate way of being in the same space.
Jesus brought the Kingdom of God and it is spread throughout the world and present in every culture. God’s dream for the world is that the Kingdom would grow and there would be peace on earth, good will toward men. That people would love God and love their neighbors. The church is called to live in that Kingdom, right now and to be a witness to the reality of that Kingdom within her host culture.
The Kingdom of God is here, but not yet fully realized. We wait for the day when the Kingdom of God is fully come, and the Promises of God are fully realized. Until that day, we are a lot like the people of Israel, strangers in a strange land, waiting for the Promise, looking for hope in exile.
So, how do we treat our host culture?
Last week Pastor Mark taught us the first lesson from Jeremiah. We need to pray for the well-being of the city. We are not to live in violent opposition or in a spirit of animosity. We are to be humble and seek to truly live in peace and mutual love with our host culture.
Today, from this story in Daniel, we learn a second lesson about how to treat our host culture. We can’t bow down to its idols. God is calling us to non-violent, faithful resistance to the gods of the host culture.
That’s what the story of the fiery furnace is all about.
Look again at the 3rd chapter of Daniel. It is on page 807 in the pew Bible if you didn’t bring your own Bible today.
It’s a simple and powerful story.
King Nebuchadnezzar had let power go to his head. He thought he was a god, made a giant statue of himself, and demanded that everyone in the country bow down to it and worship it.
Three of his government officials, men who were among the boys he brought from Jerusalem and trained to be part of his government, respectfully declined.
Look at what they said to him.
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.
Thanks, but no thanks. We will serve in your government. We will live in peace among your people. But we will not bow down to your gods.
People, and power systems, do not like to be resisted. It usually doesn’t go well. So, Neb threw them into the furnace to be destroyed.
They were not destroyed, however. God was with them. Hey look, our theme for this year. God with Us. They were miraculously delivered from the flames, and, even more miraculously, King Nebuchadnezzar was converted!
Look at what King Neb said,
They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.
So, here’s the question for us. How are we supposed to apply this today?
When was the last time someone asked you to bow down to an idol?
I have two suggestions.
First, we need to remember that today, right now as we speak, there are countries and powerful political systems that have made it either illegal to be a Christian or are putting severe, violent pressure on the Christians to either convert or get out.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not an anti-Buddhist, or an anti-Islamic message. The fact is that Christians have used this violent political tactic for centuries and it was equally wrong. This is about the destructive forces of power and greed that force political systems into violence and genocide.
As citizens of a free country it is our duty to be aware of our brothers and sisters who are suffering and do something about it. There is a website called the Voice of the Martyrs at www.persecution.com that gives details about this and how we can help.
That is important, but it still begs the question. What about us?
The second suggestion asks this question. Are there any gods in Anoka county that we are being pressured into worshipping?
What do you worship?
Worship is defined as that to which you give the best of your time, talent, and treasure.
In our host culture in the United States, we are given this wonderful luxury called the freedom of religion and the right to choose to worship anything we want. So, what do you worship?
I think there are many, many gods in Anoka county that demand our worship and draw us away from worshipping God.
Today, on this first Sunday of Advent, I want to focus in on one. Consumerism. This god has gotten so big and so loud and so all-consuming, that the season of Advent has been completely swallowed up by it. The fact is that I didn’t even know what Advent was before I came to Grace.
Consumerism is all about creating merchandise, convincing people they need it, and the public consuming it and being hungry for more, more, more, me, me, me, faster, faster, bigger, better. Bow down when the music plays.
But, Advent is about waiting.
Advent is about realizing that we are in this world, but we are not of this world. We worship the King of Kings, and we wait for the day when God’s Kingdom will be fully realized. When people are not defined by their possessions or power, but by the integrity of their hearts.
This Advent I leave you with a simple challenge.
Let’s not bow down to the high-speed chase of Christmas consumerism. What if, at least once a week, you gathered as a family, or with a group of friends, turned off all the electronic devices, turned off the lights, lit some candles, had a nice, simple meal together, read scripture, prayed, talked, and laughed together.
Let’s take a deep breath, and find our hope in exile.