Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bend, Bow or Burn

They had always wondered what it would like to stare into the face of imminent death.  Well actually they had never wondered what it would be like to stare into the face of imminent death, but here they were anyway. Three young men who were only doing what they thought was right and now they were to pay the ultimate price. Because they had disobeyed a royal decree they were to be put to death, and not just any death they were to suffer a nasty death.  I mean if you had to be sentenced to death this was just rude.  They were to be thrown into an immense furnace used for firing pottery and apparently the occasional execution. Not a situation that anyone would want to be presented with, but here they were.  And I’m sure at that point they thought of those great words of Yogi Berra’s “The Future ain't what it used to be.”

This is week three of our Old School Sunday School Series, and already we have looked at the stories of Jonah and the Whale and David and Goliath.  How many folks here went to Sunday School as a Kid?  While we weren’t regular church goers when I was a kid, there were times that my parents had me in Sunday School.  And I remember the songs and the bible stories and the grade five boys class in Lower Lincoln Baptist that met in the furnace room. 

And that was the sign of a growing Sunday School, always running out of space and making do.  The teachers taught every week, often for years and years.  And there were take home papers that you could colour, just like the back of your note sheet today.  And there were Sunday School Choruses.  And we are going to sing another one of those this morning, but unlike the past two weeks the preachers not going to lead the chorus, so I’m going to ask Pastor Jason to join me and we will gear up the overhead projector and invite you to stand with us.

Our story this morning happened after Babylon had conquered Israel and the Babylonian King a man by the name of Nebuchadnezzar had ordered that a the most promising young captives from Jerusalem were to be brought to the palace as his personal slaves. 

And the story is about three of those young men whose names were, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  I know of one person who used to call them Your Shack, My Shack and Little bungalow and I had a professor at Bible College who was in the habit of referring to them as Shake the Bed, Make the Bed and in the Bed you Go.  But their names, at least the names you would know them by were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Those however were not the names they were born with.  Those names were Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah,

But part of the slavery process was to erase who they had been so their birth names were taken away and they were given Babylonian names, so that’s when they became Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego..

For three years they were taught and trained in the court of the king and at the end of that period Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were the honour students and were appointed as advisers in the King’s Court.

But that was then and this was now.  If we fast forward ahead three years we discover that King Nebuchadnezzar has come down with a bad case of deity envy, that is he wanted to be God. And if’n you’re God then you should be worshipped and that’s where we come into the story.  We heard  about the first part of this encounter earlier in the scripture reading.  Nebuchadnezzar had a huge idol created and erected.  When the royal musicians played everyone was to bow down and worship the statue, everyone, even exiled Jews. If we had background music here it would change to a minor key signifying that something bad was about to happen.

Now if you grew up in church and Sunday School then you probably already know the story. 

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have been favourites of the king but right now they weren’t making him very happy. 

You see when everyone else bowed, they didn’t.  Must have had something to do with the entire Deuteronomy 5:7-9 You know where it says, Do not worship any other gods besides me.
Do not make idols of any kind, whether in the shape of birds or animals or fish. You must never worship or bow down to them.

However Nebuchadnezzar considered himself a fair King and thinking that perhaps his star pupils had misunderstood the command, perhaps it was the entire second language thing, he gave them another chance.  If Nebuchadnezzar had of been an English speaker trying to convey his message to someone who spoke another language he probably would have simply repeated the initial command, only slower and louder. You know what they say to be multilingual means you speak many languages, to be bilingual means you speak two languages and to be monolingual means you speak English.

The story is told in the book of Daniel and is one of several stories that this book is known for.  Another is Daniel in the Lion’s Den, we are going to look at that one next week.

Where were we?  Oh yeah, bow down or be tossed in the furnace.  And maybe you know the story, and maybe you don't. 

This morning I want to look at the response of  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to the challenge they faced.  Obey God or do what seemed like the smart and practical thing. So where were we?  Oh yeah, King Nebuchadnezzar had this huge stature built and commanded everyone to bow down and worship it when the music played.  But instead of doing that we read the story in Daniel 3:16-18 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, Your Majesty can be sure that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”

This morning I want to talk about their Faith.  They were absolutely convinced that they were doing the right thing and that because of that they were committed to their course of action.  And this wasn’t a mamby pamby “Yes I believe I’m doing the right thing” type of faith, they were willing to put everything on the line.  Talk is cheap, it’s easy to say that you’ll always do the right thing.  But what happens when doing the right thing cost you something?  What happens when taking a stand cost you acceptance with your friends or your family.  We talk about someday having a bigger worship centre, but what happens when your commitment to seeing a new church built cost you money and time.  What happens when your commitment to truth and integrity cost you advancement in your career.  What happens when you are standing in front of the blazing furnace and you are told “Bow or Burn”?

The first thing the boys had faith in was what they were committed to. Daniel 3:16 O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you.  A) Faith in God’s Purpose They knew they were doing what they had to do and because of that they didn’t need to say anything.  They didn’t have to convince themselves and they knew they couldn’t convince the king so why waste their breath. What were they supposed to say?  It wasn’t that they weren’t guilty of what they were being accused of, they were.  I remember getting pulled over for speeding in Australia, a very isolated incident let me assure you. And when the officer approached me he asked if I had a reason for speeding.  A reason for speeding, the only thing I could think of was that it was a beautiful evening, I had the roof down and it seemed appropriate to be driving that fast. So I looked him in the eyes and said “no sir.”  Sometimes there’s no need to say anything.

They weren’t the only ones in the bible who took that approach,  Matthew 27:12-14 But when the leading priests and other leaders made their accusations against him, Jesus remained silent. “Don’t you hear their many charges against you?” Pilate demanded. But Jesus said nothing, much to the governor’s great surprise.

Jesus didn’t have to convince himself and he knew that he wouldn’t convince them.  There are times in your life that you have said what you’ve had to say, you’ve taken your stand and now all you can do is see how it shakes down.  When Martin Luther took a stand against the Catholic Church 500 years ago he was called in front of the powers that be and was offered the chance to recant, which means to change his mind.  Much like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were given a second chance, and Luther said “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”

Let’s keep reading, Daniel 3:17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. Their faith in their action was grounded in their B) Faith in God’s Protection.   Maybe they were thinking back to the stories of how God had delivered his people time after time when they were faithful.  Of Noah and Moses, of Abraham and David and a host of others.  Perhaps they remember the words of the Psalms where David wrote Psalm 55:16-18 But I will call on God, and the Lord will rescue me.
Morning, noon, and night I plead aloud in my distress, and the Lord hears my voice.
He rescues me and keeps me safe from the battle waged against me, even though many still oppose me.

When Peter was in prison and the Roman authorities were going to separate his head from his shoulders God stepped in.  When Paul was aboard a ship that was threatening to sink, God intervened.   We all have experienced or know someone who has experienced the direct intervention of God.  God will protect and keep us.  Jesus told the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane,  Matthew 26:53 Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly?

Sigmund Freud said “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father's protection.”  And I can’t think of any need in our relationship with Christ as the need for our heavenly father’s protection.  We need to realize that God cares about us and we need to be able to say with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego the God whom we serve is able to save us.

And as powerful as their faith was in what they were doing and as strong as their faith was in God’s protecting hand I think that the most incredible and powerful statement is yet to come.  We can stand and say “I believe that I’m doing what is right and I believe that God will take care of me.”  But how many of us have the faith to echo those words with these, Daniel 3:18 But even if he doesn’t, Your Majesty can be sure that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”  You see they had C) Faith in God’s Plan  God will save us, but if he doesn’t then we will still obey him.  God does protect his people, but we all know even if we don’t understand it, that sometimes that doesn’t save us physically, if that was the case there’d be no martyrs. 

Listen to what Peter had to say in 1 Peter 3:12-14 “The eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right, and his ears are open to their prayers.
But the Lord turns his face against those who do evil.”
Now, who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good?

We like hearing that but Peter’s not through because he says But even there it is again But even  if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t be afraid and don’t worry.

One of my favourite sections of the bible is found in Hebrews 11, it is the faith hall of fame. We read about heroes of the Old Testament, people like Noah and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Joshua.  Listen to what the bible says about these servants of God, Hebrews 11:32-35 Well, how much more do I need to say? It would take too long to recount the stories of the faith of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and all the prophets. By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. Women received their loved ones back again from death.

That’s the list I want to be in.  The list of the winners, the victors they trusted God and God came through.  God is good.  But let’s keep reading the same author, the same book, the same chapter, carrying on from the same verse  Hebrews 11:35-39  But others trusted God and were tortured, preferring to die rather than turn from God and be free. They placed their hope in the resurrection to a better life. Some were mocked, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in dungeons. Some died by stoning, and some were sawed in half; others were killed with the sword. Some went about in skins of sheep and goats, hungry and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world. They wandered over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
All of these people we have mentioned received God’s approval because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised.

If I had my druthers I’d druther be in the first group.  But we don’t always get our druthers, do we?  And the people in the second group were serving the same God as the people in the first group.  And we are told by those in the know that there have been more Martyrs in the last hundred years then there were in the nineteen hundred years before that.  And God hasn’t tumbled off his throne, he’s still a good God and a merciful God and we have to believe that ultimately he knows exactly what he’s doing. 

 Over fifty years ago four young missionaries flew to South America to reach a tribe that had never heard the name of Jesus.  One of those missionaries, a young man by the name of Jim Elliot made this statement “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”  It wasn’t very long after he made that statement that he and his companions were killed by the very people he went to reach.  People around the world reacted in shock to the news of the slaughter.  How could God allow that? And yet Jim Elliot’s wife Elizabeth eventually saw that entire tribe come to know Jesus.  Elliot couldn’t have kept his life even if he had of lived to be a hundred.  And yet how many people will live for eternity because of Jim Elliot’s sacrifice?

I remember hearing a story about a lady whose son had cancer, I’ve told it before and no doubt I will tell it again.  One day a friend and her were talking and her friend said “Maybe God will be good and your son will be healed.” To which the first lady replied “God is good whether he heals me son or not.” 

And as the guys stood staring into the flames of the furnace they said "God will deliver us, but if he doesn’t, tough we still won’t bow."  Can you believe in the goodness of God no matter what?

Let’s go back to the story.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s response was not what the king was expecting to hear and he was furious.  He commanded that the three be tossed into the furnace and they were.  From the description given of the furnace it would appear that it was commonly used for executions, that is was constructed in such as way that the accused were tossed in through an opening in the top.  In this case the fire was burning so hot and so furious that it actually killed the soldiers who were escorting the three men.  And so the story ends.  They took a stand for God and they lost.  Good was defeated and evil was victorious, but was it?

Keep listening to the words of Daniel,    Daniel 3:24-26 But suddenly, as he was watching, Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in amazement and exclaimed to his advisers, “Didn’t we tie up three men and throw them into the furnace?”
“Yes,” they said, “we did indeed, Your Majesty.”
“Look!” Nebuchadnezzar shouted. “I see four men, unbound, walking around in the fire. They aren’t even hurt by the flames! And the fourth looks like a divine being!”
Then Nebuchadnezzar came as close as he could to the door of the flaming furnace and shouted: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stepped out of the fire.

And finally they had a D) Faith that was Proven  God was there, he had a plan and it entailed keeping those three young men alive.  They were to go on and play an integral part of the Government of Babylon during the time the people of Israel were in exile and a measly little thing like a blazing furnace wasn’t going to stand in God’s way.  Who was the fourth man?  There have been different theories, some have said it was an angel, others Jesus.  The truth is we don’t know, but we do know that he was there for a purpose. Imagine being thrown into an execution furnace, what would your first reaction be?  Mine would be to scream.  “Ahhh I’m burning” and then you realize against all odds that you were fine, what would your reaction be?  Mine would be to scream.  “Ahhh I’m not burning.” Whoever or whatever the fourth person was I think he was there to bring comfort and reassuring to the guys.   

Because whether we burn in the trials or whether we don’t burn in the trials God’s promise is that he will be there for us.  Hebrews 13:5 God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never forsake you.”   That’s the promise folks.  God will never fail you or forsake you.  Do you believe that this morning?  Perhaps you are standing at the door of your own furnace, my prayer for you today is that you have the faith to not only believe that God will do what is good but also to believe that whatever God chooses to do will be good.  I hope and pray that the prayer of your heart will be, “But even if”

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