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October 16th, 2011

“In the end, I won.”

Daniel 3:8-16

October 13, 2011

Remember the Name

At the risk of starting the sermon on a note so depressing that it may be difficult to recover, it’s hard for me not to connect today’s text in Daniel to the Jewish Holocaust.

Incinerating Jews in a furnace is an obvious connection.  So is the passion to unite a people around absolute loyalty to one leader, and the determination to destroy those who refuse to accept the common identity. 

There are, of course, many points of contrast.  Nebuchadnezzar’s fit of rage vs. Hitler’s frighteningly stoic resolve over time.  The collateral damage of those who lost their lives in Daniel 3 by getting too close to the furnace vs. the ongoing complicity of Hitler’s loyalists.  And perhaps the most significant contrast, the ultimate consequence: three Jews in Daniel 6 who were miraculously spared vs. six million Jews in the twentieth century Holocaust who were not.

In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego declare, “The God we serve is able to save us.”  And God does.  Was God not “able to save” at Auschwitz or Dachau?  If he was able, why didn’t he?  I should warn you: I am asking a question I will not be able to answer.  But it is a question that relates to our everyday lives.

The most sobering day by far of our recent trip to Israel was the day we visited the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.  Cameras were not allowed, so most of us were left with no tangible memories – just a profoundly emotional experience. 

Yad Voshem, the name of the museum, means in Hebrew, “Remember the name.”  Another connection to Daniel 3, where the names Shadrach, Meschech, and Abednego are repeated twelve times in the chapter.  The writer never shortens the list to “Daniel’s three friends” or “the three men.”  He always includes all three by name – Shadrach, Meschech, and Abednego.  Remember the name.

Yad Voshem museum has attempted to catalogue every one of the names of six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.  A separate but connected children’s museum reads aloud the names, ages, and home countries of the 1.5 million children who died under Nazi rule.  It takes three and a half years to read all the names before the cycle starts over.  Remember the name.

The Holocaust is perhaps the most dramatic challenge to faith in all human history.  There is no more blatant offense to the sovereignty and goodness of the God of the Bible than God’s apparent silence and distance while six million of his “chosen people” are persecuted, branded, segregated, gathered, incarcerated, and, many of them, cremated alive.  One would think that would end all talk of believing in God.  Indeed, the “God is Dead” theology arose shortly afterward.  But God did not die, nor did faith in him end.  Why not?  What is it about faith that makes us hold on to it?

The story

Daniel 3 tells another in a series of short stories about young captives taken from Jerusalem in the Babylonian captivity.  When we left them last week, they and the other wise men and astrologers of Babylon had been spared from the king’s threat of execution when God showed Daniel what King Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed and its interpretation.  Nebuchadnezzar had seen a large statue in his vision with a head of gold, and other parts of the body in descending value, representing a succession of kingdoms.  When Daniel told the king what God had revealed to him, the king had said, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries” (2:47).  Daniel and his three friends were all promoted.

Apparently Nebuchadnezzar has not only a short fuse but a short memory.  In chapter three he turns the head of gold in his dream into a enormous statue of gold, nine feet wide and ninety feet tall.  By comparison, our sanctuary is less than 60 feet high to the highest interior point.  Neil Forrest estimated that if Nebuchadnezzar’s statue were pure told, it would have weighed almost 4 million pounds.  More than likely, it was a gilded wooden statue.  But it would have glistened like the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

For the dedication of the statue, Nebuchadnezzar summoned every provincial officer, and also a large band/orchestra of every known musical instrument – brass, strings, and wind instruments.  A herald proclaimed in a loud voice:  “Attention, everyone! Every race, color, and creed, listen! When you hear the band strike up—all the trumpets and trombones, the tubas and baritones, the drums and cymbals—fall to your knees and worship the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Anyone who does not kneel and worship shall be thrown immediately into a roaring furnace”  (3:4-6, The Message).

Everybody did it – except Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  (We’re never told why Daniel doesn’t enter this story.  Presumably he wasn’t in the large and visible crowd.  But neither does he stand up for his friends.  He’s absent, and no one knows why.)  Apparently out of envy, perhaps even as a set up, other government officials tattle on Daniel’s friends.

Livid, Nebuchadnezzar gives the three young men a second chance.  Forgetting that they, like Daniel, serve the God Nebuchadnezzar himself has called the “God of gods and Lord of kings,” he demands their obedience and threatens them with the furnace he apparently has created either as a melting fire for gold, a kiln for bricks, or both.  Speaking of the furnace, he thunders: “Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Their response before the king:   “We will not argue.  If we are thrown into your oven, the God we serve is able to save us.  But even if he doesn’t, we cannot serve your gods or worship your statue of gold” (3:14-16, paraphrase).

Now publicly humiliated before all his kingdom’s leaders, this powerful monarch orders that the fire be turned up seven times hotter, matching his anger.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are bound and thrown into the furnace.  The fire is so hot that its flames kill those who heave the men into the kiln.

Then, in a dramatic end to the story, Nebuchadnezzar looks into the furnace, probably a tunnel of some kind, and sees not three men but four, unbound and unharmed, with the fourth, in his words, looking “like a son of the gods” (25).  We never get further information on who was with them, leaving only speculation.

When the three men emerge from the furnace, they are not only alive but unharmed, unscorched, and unsinged.  Nebuchadnezzar praises the faith of the men, warns anyone against blaspheming their God, and promotes them to even higher positions of responsibility.

Unthinkable

Stories of faith don’t always have happy endings like this one, especially if we’re talking about happy endings that we can see.  Then again, the writer of Hebrews defines faith as being confident of what we do not see (11:1).  Seeing is not the point.

Today I want you to set aside the happy ending and go back to the point in the story where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego declare, “The God we serve is able to save us.  But even if he doesn’t, we will remain loyal to him.”  There is no better statement of faith anywhere.  That’s what faith is.  Faith says God is “able to save.”  But he’s not obligated to save in order for me to believe in him.

If you don’t have faith, that’s crazy talk.  Circular reasoning.  God wins either way.  And nobody can disprove faith because it doesn’t find its ultimate reward until after you die. 

I’m past the point in my faith journey and life where I feel like I need to prove faith – prove that God exists with evidence or reason.  That was the approach of modernism, both in its Christian and non-Christian expressions.  Use logic to corner your opponent – in this case, to corner them into faith.  But that’s not faith.  And candidly, it hardly ever works – arguing people into faith.  If Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had been modernists, they would have given the king a lecture on how idols are inanimate objects and have no power.  They did not.

Nor will I embrace post-modernism, which is so individualistic that it’s all about personal experience.  God is whoever God is to you, and however you experience God.  Stories are the proof texts of post-modernism, and you can find stories to validate any faith in any God.  The concept of God becomes meaningless if he’s privatized. If Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had been post-modernists, they would have said, “Hey, king, we’ve got our god and you have yours.  Since you’re the king, no harm in honoring yours.”  They would have bowed down and not have gone to the furnace.

What these three men did was to draw their boundary line and declare their loyalty to God without a lot of explanation.  They even said, “We will not argue.”  In other words, this is not about making sense.

Why, why, why?  Why did three young men in a foreign culture whose God had allowed the invasion of their homeland and destruction of their temple, whose families had likely died in the turmoil?  It wasn’t quite the same degree, but they had experienced their generation’s holocaust.  They were survivors.  Even the God who had allowed them to witness that faith-destroying crisis was worthy of their loyalty.  Why?

We can’t fully know their answer, but what we do know is what they said.  The reason they held on to loyal faith was that they had considered the alternative.  To bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol was unthinkable because it would affirm that the statue was something other than inanimate molecules assembled at the command of an egotistical monarch.  To serve his gods would validate the absurd notion that anything or anyone other than the one true God had made all things and all are accountable to him.  To cave in at that moment would cause the king and all those watching to feel ratified in the very idolatry that was destroying them.

They considered the options and rejected anything but loyalty.  Their response reminds me of Jesus’ disciples in John 6. Having just fed the five thousand, Jesus turns to a hard teaching that drives the throngs away.  Addressing his disciples, Jesus asks them if they’re going to leave as well.  Peter answers, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of life.”

If you abandon faith, where will you turn?  Karma?  A statue of Buddha? Praying five times a day?  Other rituals or reliance on your own good deeds?  Superstitions and animism? Fate and chance?  I’ve considered the options and I’m going with the God of the Bible.

When you stay with him, you find that time and again he comes through.  He proves himself faithful over and over again.  It’s usually not in the way and time you expect, but you look back and realize he was always with you in the furnace of your trial.

One of the most moving moments in our Israel tour happened late one afternoon when we emerged from the Yad Voshem.  David Tal, our tour guide, gathered us around him in the “Way of the Righteous,” which honors the memory of 24,000 brave non-Jews like Corrie Ten Boom and Oskar Schindler who protected Jews during the Holocaust.  David said you can summarize all Jewish holidays like this:  “They tried to kill us.  They didn’t kill us.  Let’s eat.”

David then continued by saying that as a Jewish boy born in America he never fully appreciated the Holocaust until he married and had children.  His father-in-law was a Holocaust survivor who had lost all his family.  He would never talk about the Holocaust to his children, but when one of his grandchildren had a school project, the grandfather took three days to tell his story, which the family videotaped and turned over to Yad Voshem.  His concluding words were, “In the end, I won.”  He meant that despite the brutal determination of Hitler, the Jews were not extinguished.  In fact, the Holocaust itself had led to their return to a homeland and an independent Jewish state.  Then David said, “Let’s eat.”

Able to save

Faith doesn’t require a happy ending to the story, although faith will never give up on what God can do.  This is what faith sounds like.

When I open my paycheck and find a pink slip, the God we serve is able to save.  But even if I walk out the door with no prospects in sight, I will trust him.

When I fail again to defeat the addiction that traps my soul, the God we serve is able to save.  But even if this is the thousandth failure I will not declare defeat.

When people I love can’t get along with each other, the God we serve is able to save.  But even if I am perpetually in the middle, I will not give up on peace.

When terrorists threaten and dictators destroy, the God we serve is able to save.  But even if my security is compromised, I choose hope.

When someone I trusted has betrayed me, the God we serve is able to save.    But even if the bond between us is irreparably shattered, I will hold on to God’s love.

When the medical test is positive, or the blood work is alarming, or when no test gives an answer to my suffering, the God we serve is able to save.    But even if I live with no answers or answers I do not want to hear, I will be faithful to him until death.

When a God-inspired dream is shattered, the God we serve is able to save.  But I will not allow a thousand broken dreams to end my dreaming of what God can do.

When my child wanders far from God and from me, the God we serve is able to save.   But even if there is no evidence of a change of heart, I will keep my heart open.

When my witness falls on deaf ears, the God we serve is able to save.  But I will still look for ways and times to have the conversation.

When evil has the upper hand in my life or the world, the God we serve is able to save.  But even if my prayer for deliverance is unanswered, God’s goodness will be enough for me.

Amen.

Do you remember what “Yad Voshem” means?  “Remember the name.”  I wonder if a phrase like that was in Thomas a Kempis’ head when he wrote this well-known prayer of faith in the fifteenth century.

 

“Write Your blessed name, O Lord, upon my heart,
there to remain so indelibly engraved,
that no prosperity,
no adversity shall ever move me from Your love.
Be to me a strong tower of defense,
a comforter in tribulation,
a deliverer in distress,
a very present help in trouble and a guide to heaven
and a faithful guide to the courts of heaven

through the many temptations and dangers of this life.  Amen.”

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