Meg Peery McLaughlin
August 2, 2020
Our story from the Old Testament today begins with King Nebuchadnezzar making a golden statue and commanding everyone to bow down and worship it whenever they heard the sound of the horn or else they’d be through into a furnace of blazing fire. The king learns that three Jews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who worked for the king in the province of Babylon, did not pay any heed to this law. So the King brings them in and asks if it’s true that they will not bow down. Here is their reply, beginning with verse sixteen of the third chapter of the Book of Daniel.
“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.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
This week our Presbytery had a meeting via zoom.
One of the more important things that that governing church body does is examine candidates for ordination and shepherd new ministers into their calling to serve the church.
At this meeting, one such candidate was asked
What does it mean to you that God is sovereign?
I wish I’d had the forethought to jot down this young woman’s answer.
So often the sovereignty of God is described in the language of God being in charge,
the way my first born likes to be in charge of the ipad.
This young woman said something like,
“Even when it seems otherwise, love reigns.
That is what I mean when I confess the sovereignty of God.”
Today’s story is best remembered by the names of its characters:
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego,
and while it’s a favorite of children,
no many preachers have preached on it,
for it never shows up in the lectionary,
but I will tell you that every scholar agrees that the book of Daniel,
where this story is found, the book of Daniel is all about God’s Sovereignty—
God reigns. And God alone.
Nothing else that we may worship—no idol—has power like God does.
It’s the first commandment out of the ten: You shall have no other Gods before me.
God and God alone is the one who comes through,
and we’d be crazy to put our trust in anyone, or anything else.
And maybe it seems cut and dry,
but I tell you what when everything comes unraveled in life- like it has this year
well, its not altogether strange to wonder what has the upper hand in our lives, is it?
And I’m not talking about other Gods, other idols like
wealth, or status, or success,
or whatever else we put an awful lot of worth into.
I’m talking about the things that keep us up at night these days
the questions like
is small mindedness and sadness actually in charge?
do death and despair reign rather than love?
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were asked to bow down to the statue and pledge their allegiance to King Nebuchadnezzar’s god.
Maybe this seems like some old bible story that no one ever uses anyway,
but how many times are we asked to bow down to hopelessness
to bend under tragedy, genuflect to grief.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego get thrown in the fire.
The epitome of defeat, the flames of despair.
But here’s the thing – they don’t burn up.
That’s what I originally remembered about this story.
Not even their tunics are singed.
It’s an amazing story. God is Sovereign. God carries them through.
What I had forgotten about this story, and maybe you had to,
was that there was a fourth man in the fire.
Nebuchadnezzar asks his men, “Wait, how many men did we put in there?”
They assure him he counted right: three. Just three.
But the King sees four men, unbound, walking in the middle of the fire. Four.
Earlier I said that there weren’t too many scholarly articles about this story as a whole, but oh, all kinds of people like to talk about this fourth man.
You’d think people would be wondering how in God’s name
grown men can survive in a furnace fired up to 7 times normal heat
but mostly there are all kinds of theories about just who was that extra guy?
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s companion.
Some say it was Jesus, before Jesus’ birth is even recorded.
Some say it’s an angel, a messenger of God.
Others, a protector, as God’s people had used as guide and shield through the Exodus.
The Aramaic actually reads that he had the appearance of “the sons of a god”
perhaps as in the whole host of heaven there to surround them.
Frankly, I don’t know what to say about this mysterious figure
except that I’m glad he was there.
I’m glad that these three brave souls did in fact have a fourth man.”
Because sometimes we need a fourth man.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we don’t like to be alone.
All of us want, and truthfully need, someone to stand in the fire with us.
Someone who will simply be present.
Anne Lamotte called that kind of friend, “God with skin on.”
I can buy that.
Someone – flesh and bone—to be with us.
Last week in a pastoral visit one of you,
one of you who knows too much about the brokenness in the world,
I heard this. “I wouldn’t have survived, without our church friends.”
If I understand the text,
it seems to me this story could be trying to tie two truths together:
the sovereignty of God and the practice of friendship.
What if, church, what if part of the way we witness to the truth that love does reign
what if that witness is enabled or at least strengthened when we do it together?
What if our trust in God deepens through the gift of friendship?
Of having a fourth man? Of being a fourth woman?
If every good friendship is a sanctuary in a broken world,
then, UPC, may we build a great cathedral
amid these covid days.
In the next few weeks, you’ll be hearing more about a congregation-wide eight-week small-group initiative. Groups of about a dozen will meet online or distanced outside in a backyard. Together, we’ll read scripture and share stories, we’ll process all that is going on in the world around us through the lens of faith. In these groups we’ll say yes, the sadness in this world is strong. But it is not God. In these groups we’ll say yes, racism has a grip on us and this nation. But it is not all-powerful. In these groups, we’ll say yes, the grief of this year and of your heart will change your life. But it is not in charge of your life. We do not have to bow down.
But perhaps the most important thing
we could do is to become the fourth man, the fourth woman, for one another.
We’ll build friendships,
which may actually be
the radical and transformative
work of God.
We’ll stand together in the fire together and
proclaim that even when it seems otherwise,
May it be so. Amen.