Sunday, November 26, 2017

God With Us

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 forever! 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 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. Daniel 3:1, 8-20 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our story today is one of the stories about God’s people when they were in exile—after the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and the remaining people had been removed from their country and forced to live in Babylon, a foreign country.

Last week, we heard from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah told God’s people that they should invest in the welfare of their new land. That, even though they were exiles in Babylon, they should “move into the neighborhood” and become part of it. That their new country’s welfare would become their welfare.

Today, we turn to the book of Daniel. This is a little bit later in time than Jeremiah. The book of Daniel is a collection of stories that was intended to tell people how they should live while they were in exile. 

It’s what we call “resistance literature.” These are stories that meant to help God’s people resist a culture that was going in a place or in a direction that they didn’t want it to go.
Our story today is about three young men. Does anyone remember their names? (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego)

So, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had followed Jeremiah’s instructions. They had “moved into the neighborhood” and had become leaders in the government. 

We heard the story earlier. But, let’s watch a short video that gives us a quick summary of their story.

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is the story of what to do when someone says you can’t keep the first commandment. (Do you remember what the first commandment is?)  

One of the things we hear in the story is that Daniel uses humor as a weapon. Daniel recognizes that humor and satire can be one of the most important tools we have that can bring life out a situation that feels desperate. When it feels like there’s no hope.

We see this in our story today.

First, there’s the goofy orchestra. 

Then, there’s the statue, which is 90 feet high and only 9 feet wide, like a 90 foot tall toothpick. Also ridiculous.

And, then, there’s King Nebuchadnezzar. (Can you say that three times fast?)

Now King Nebuchadnezzar is kind of a buffoon. He’s really full of himself. He insists that the people bow down and worship his statue. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego don’t, well he gets really angry. So angry, in fact that he has the fire increased 7 times. 
Even with this, he’s still not able to be effective against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

When we look at Nebuchadnezzar and how ridiculous he is, we start to roll our eyes. As soon as this begins with someone who is a weighty figure the tide has already begun to turn. We—like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—might feel threatened, but as soon as we can roll our eyes, we realize that we’re not really held captive. That we can have a different point of view. This is what Daniel does so well. He uses humor and satire to show the people of Israel that they aren’t really held captive. He uses it to give them hope. It is then that the people begin to resist.

This is what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do. They are prisoners of conscience. Their refusal to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue is an act of civil disobedience.
They refuse to renege on their basic faith commitments. They are not willing to sell out their most basic convictions. 

Do you hear what they say? In verse 17, they say to the king that if God is able to rescue them, then let God rescue them. And, then, in verse 18, they say that if God doesn’t, they still will not serve Nebuchadnezzar’s gods or worship the ridiculous statue he has set up.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego don’t know where this will lead, but, they know they must not let go of their most basic commitment—and that is to worship the one true God.
This is important for us to hear. God does not spare us from the fire. But, God is with us in the fire. And God’s life-giving purposes can be accomplished in and with and through the fire. God is faithful even in the midst of trouble. 

How is God’s presence with you in times of trouble? 

When have you been in your own “fiery furnace”? 

When have you been in a tough situation when things were not going very well?

Have you ever gotten in trouble?

Turn to your neighbor for a few minutes to share your response or responses to any or all of these questions. Be sure to give your neighbor a chance to share, too. And, if you prefer not to share, you should feel free to think for a few minutes about how you might answer these questions.

I’m wondering if, as you were sharing or thinking of your story, how many of you mentioned others—perhaps friends or family—who helped you get through your own times of trouble? Or your own “fiery furnace”? Or the people who helped you through a tough situation when things weren’t going so well? Or, even when you were in trouble?

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is the season when we remember God with us. It’s the time when we hear how Jesus put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood. It’s the story of the incarnation.

God getting born in a barn reminds us that God shows up in even the most forsaken corners of the earth, even in the midst of a fiery furnace.

Everything in our society teaches us to move away from suffering. To move out of neighborhoods where there is high crime, to move away from people who aren’t like us or who don’t look like us. To move away from people who we perceive, perhaps, as weaker or not as smart or good looking or wealthy or whatever other reason we come up with to keep us apart from them or afraid to be in relationship with them.

But the gospel calls us to something altogether different. Throughout the history of the church, there have been movements of believers who have gone to the desert, to the slums, to the most difficult places on earth to follow Jesus.

As followers of Jesus, we are to laugh at fear, to lean into suffering, to open ourselves to the stranger. To be the presence of Christ for those who need help or for those who are in trouble.

For some, like Staff Sergeant Cory Hinkle, it may mean an incredibly heroic gesture. 

Staff Sgt. Hinkle, who is an Iraq combat veteran, was on his way home from the National Guard base in Charlotte, NC, when he witnessed a head-on collision right in front of him.

When he saw one of the cars begin to smoke, while others might have run in the opposite direction, Sgt. Hinkle ran toward it. The driver of the vehicle, 28-year-old Brandy Guin, was having trouble getting out because of a broken ankle she had sustained in the collision.

Sgt. Hinkle charged ahead. And, even when the shocks started to explode and hot debris was flying everywhere, he shielded her with his body and said, “It’s going to have to go through me to get to you.”

And although he was hit in the ankle by a piece of debris, he saved this mother of two. 

He said that he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

But, being Christ-like in our world, doesn’t always mean engaging in life-threatening heroic gestures.

Like the story of this young college student. According to his roommate, who posted this picture online, this young man calls home every week to help his younger sister with her high school algebra homework.

Or perhaps it's the story of this cashier in a Walmart in Mississippi that was posted on Facebook by a woman named Spring Bowlin.

When the cashier gave the elderly man in front of Miss Bowlin in the checkout line, he looked back at her apologetically and started to take handfuls of change out of his pockets. According to Bowlin, he miscounted and started to get flustered, saying, “I’m so sorry.” She noticed that his hands and his voice were shaking.

Then, the cashier offered to help. Bowlin wrote, “This beautiful cashier takes his hands and dumps all the change on the counter and says, ‘This is not a problem, honey. We will do this together.’”

Once the transaction was finished, Bowlin thanked the cashier for patiently helping this elderly man. The cashier shook her head and replied, “You shouldn’t have to thank me, baby. What’s wrong with our world is we’ve forgotten how to love one another.” 

And, then there’s the story of Deputy Matt Holman and Robert Morris. Let’s watch their story.

God came to earth to be with us. God does not promise that our lives will be free from hardship. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the statue, they made a stand for God, knowing that the punishment for such actions was death. They faced the possibility of dying together not knowing whether God would deliver them. What they did know, though, is that, no matter what happened, God would be with them. 

In the same way, no matter the circumstance, we, too, know that God will be with us. Often we experience this through other people. God sends many helpers to help us in times of need. When family or friends or, sometimes, even complete strangers walk with us through hardship or difficulty, they help to share our load. And we are comforted by their presence. 

We, too, can provide this same ministry of presence to others who are facing their own challenges. To be with them. In the same way that God came to earth to be with us.

We do this because God loved us so much that God entered into our world to be with us, even though it meant experiencing betrayal, hunger, pain, and death.

God knows hardship. God knows our hardship. And God promises to be with us. 


In this Advent season as we begin this first Sunday in the fire, may all of us know that God is present with us in the fires of our lives. That God is faithful to us in the midst of trouble. May we help others to know this in our Christ-like presence for them. And may this story of hope be encouragement for us in the midst of difficult times. 


Preached November 26, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
1st Sunday in Advent
Readings: Daniel 3:1, 8-30; John 18:36-37

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