Whom will you serve?
Reading: Daniel 3:1-30
To whom do you pay the most attention? Who do you listen to and to whom do you offer your loyalty.
We are faced with challenges everyday and we should pause to reflect a little. Do I listen to God or am I simply too concerned with other voices that I have no time for him? Perhaps those other voices seem so much more pressing and immediate that we allow ourselves to be swept along without really ever stopping to think about what we’re doing at all. Perhaps it hasn’t dawned on some of us yet that God wants us to live our lives in a certain way and not in another. Maybe today he wants you to change the way you live as you hear his voice.
The passage before us this morning shows us that what the world expects of us can be the polar opposite of what God requires of us. The three young Hebrew men faced just such a stark choice: they had to choose whether or not they were going to listen to their God and follow him when their circumstances were so full of stress and seemingly so unpromising.
While the challenges we face may not be as extreme as those faced by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego we must not assume that we are in the clear. The world has many ways of trying to squeeze us into its mould. The question then for all of us is will I trust God or won’t I?
Images, idols and worship
In ch.2 Nebuchadnezzar dreamed a dream and in it he saw a vision of an image. Chapter 3 records how Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t get the image out of his mind and so built himself an image, it was a statue, an idol. The construction of this idol and the instructions Nebuchadnezzar gave concerning it set the stage for all that will follow.
The construction of this image was, in itself, an act of rebellion on Nebuchadnezzar’s part. Even if we were to leave to one side the question of idolatry Nebuchadnezzar’s act involved a rejection of God’s plan and purpose. Nebuchadnezzar did not respect divine sovereignty and the way he built his statue declared that he thought he knew better than God and could thwart God’s plans for the future. Thousands in the world today act just like him and I hope that if you are one of them you will recognise how foolish such a stance is.
Nebuchadnezzar had been privileged to see an unfolding of the divine plan and his own important place in the grand scheme of things. But that was not good enough for Nebuchadnezzar. He did not want to be just the golden head and he rejected the divine plan to replace his empire with a succession of ever-more fragile ones. No Nebuchadnezzar thought he could thwart God’s plan and so his image was of gold from head to foot!
How easily men and women act as though they know better than God! How easily they push his word aside! Are you one of them?
Sometimes the way of the world is comparatively easy but sometimes the way of the world is harsh and difficult. False religion and idolatry makes their own demands on men and women and there is a time when the cost will have to be paid in full.
Nebuchadnezzar’s religion was a burden that weighed heavily on the people:
It was set up in Dura – well away from the capital city and hence to get there for worship involved considerable effort. There are religions in the world today that try to make a virtue out of this sort of effort as though one can somehow gain merit with God by doing certain things and going certain place. Worshipping Nebuchadnezzar’s gods and his image might please Nebuchadnezzar but it would never please the One True Living God.
Be careful you don’t fall into that trap!
And Nebuchadnezzar was sure to add some incentives, inducements, to worship: be sure you do it or beware the fate of the fiery furnace!
And the ways of the world remain fundamentally unchanged as men and women are pressured into conformity with the prevailing orthodoxy of the day. Here in the west the picture of a fiery furnace might appear somewhat extreme but in other parts of the world physical threats and intimidation, arrest and summary execution are a daily reality. Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world – try asking survivors in the recent bombings in Sri Lanka, talk to the families of victims of Boko Haram or Isis. The list could go on and on.
Even in the advanced west academics can risk their careers if they take the Bible too seriously. Members of the medical profession can be hounded for offering to pray with a patient. Bakers can be dragged through the courts at tax payers’ expense for not wanting to support what God calls insupportable. At the very least don’t be surprised that those who oppose you resort to name-calling: maybe you have been, or will be, called a bigot, a homophobe, an islamophobe etc. Name-calling is a way of pinning prejudice on an opponent and used when their arguments are weak. And all that in our tolerant day!
So Nebuchadnezzar with his newly constructed image demands absolute compliance to his whims and wishes and you’d better watch out if you don’t render it.
A Touch of the Ridiculous
I don’t know about you but it seems to me that the writer of the book wants to mock the pomposity of this man Nebuchadnezzar and his over-inflated ego and his I-know-better-than-God plans.
The repetition of the titles of all those officials who must do his bidding, or else. The repetition of the names of the musical instruments... How petty this great king can be – indeed how petty all those who oppose the One True Living God can be. And the repetition of the refrain about the image Nebuchadnezzar had set up makes it clear that he really was opposing God.
Yes, I know Nebuchadnezzar is a dangerous man wielding serious power but he is a man when all is said and done and it is God who rules over all as even Nebuchadnezzar declared at the end of ch.2 but which he seems to have quickly and conveniently forgotten. But you, the believer, must not forget this.
Well, finally all the cohorts are gathered, all the instruments sound forth and the vast majority of the assembled crowd are happy to bend – what a small price to pay to avoid the risk of alienating the king. And, yes, these were the "successful ones" – no fiery furnace for them. But we also need to recognise the short-sightedness of their behaviour. This is not the whole of the Bible and this episode doesn’t contain all the Bible has to say to us.
Yes, the majority avoided falling into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar that day but the writer to the Hebrews in the NT warns of a greater danger than that exists:
Heb.10:31 "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
A couple of chapters later he explained why:
Heb.12:29 "for our God is a consuming fire."
Indeed he and he alone is worthy of receiving the acceptable reverent worship of men and women.
The Faithful Stand Out
While everyone fell on their faces there were a handful of exceptions. Three men with Babylonian/worldly names made it clear that they did not have Babylonian/worldly hearts. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego will not bow and worship the gods of Babylon or its idols.
This act did not go unnoticed and it wasn’t long before word got back to Nebuchadnezzar who wasn’t best pleased.
Why was the whistle blown on them?
Perhaps it was payback time. The Chaldeans were amongst those who had failed to help the king with his dream in ch.2 while these three along with Daniel had succeeded and been promoted. Perhaps jealousy was involved too: why should these foreigners get such preferential treatment? Maybe the Chaldeans just felt thwarted as to their own hopes and ambitions.
Whatever it was that drove them their intent was malicious v.8 and they made sure that they made these Jewish foreigners appear in the worst possible light as they deliberately reminded Nebuchadnezzar of his orders, his threatened sanctions and his generosity towards men who were, in their opinion, not the slightest bit grateful.
Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They must follow his orders. He tries to appear magnanimous – let them not repeat their earlier behaviour and all will be well. But Nebuchadnezzar repeats his threats. He doesn’t expect to be disobeyed again. Resistance is futile he seems to say. After all he is the all-powerful king is he not? No god is powerful enough to counter the mighty Nebuchadnezzar!
How arrogant and proud sinners can be! And if you haven’t repented of your sin and put your trust in Jesus you are just like him in your own little way for you are somehow fondly imagining that the One True Living God is not going to reject you for refusing his Unique Son whom he has offered to us, the only Saviour who can bring us to God.
As you consider this foolish puffed up King Nebuchadnezzar think again about how you are living your own life, you don’t want to be found to have acted as stupidly as him!
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had already made up their minds as to how they were going to respond to the king, they don’t need another opportunity because they have no intention of bowing to his will nor do they feel any need to argue their corner. Instead all they do is to make a declaration of intent: they will continue to serve their God, and they will never serve the gods of Babylon.
These are in fact the only recorded words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the entire Bible but what words they are occupying the very centre of this chapter. Far from home in a foreign land they might be but they shared the faith of the people of God, a faith that Jesus would later reaffirm:
Deut.6:4-5 "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. "
This is the stance taken by men who were determined to live according to the principles that Jesus would later urge on all his hearers:
Lk.12:5 "I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!"
Here is how Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego expressed their faith and their determination to live it out:
They know their God has all the power necessary to deliver them from the worst excesses that Nebuchadnezzar might have in store for them
But they don’t know whether it will be his purpose to deliver them
However the right thing for them to do is to obey their God and leave the consequences to him. And the right thing to do is to put God and their allegiance to him first
The same challenge confronts us and it is a challenge that comes regularly too. We may well have resolved at some time in the past to put God first but am I doing so today? Are you?
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego have left us an important example: they didn’t try to negotiate with God along the lines of we’ll trust you if you will deliver us. No, they let God be God and so must we.
The Gloves Come Off
Nebuchadnezzar can’t get his own way and he becomes apoplectic. Any pretence of a reasoned or measured attitude is abandoned as this tyrannical despot shows his true colours. In our day it is not such a despot we have to worry about it is our tolerant society that will suddenly reveal how utterly intolerant it is of those who don’t toe the party line, or show their approval of the majority view.
Orders are sent to get the furnace ready and everything must be done quickly for the king is in a rage. The order says to make it as hot as they possibly can – that’s what it means to heat it seven times more than usual - and they do, they make it dangerously hot.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are bound and led to the furnace somewhat incongruously dressed in their coats and hats.
And now we hear of some unfortunate by-products of Nebuchadnezzar’s foolish policy, some collateral damage. In his desire to deal with these three obstinate Hebrews, Nebuchadnezzar had ordered some of his best soldiers to carry out his dirty work. These men die in carrying out the king’s commands. How destructive the ways of the world are!
And now, finally, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego fall into the furnace and get their come-uppance for having the audacity to be different. Nebuchadnezzar moved a little closer – he wanted to have a good view of things.
And what a shock awaited him!
He didn’t see three rebels being reduced to ashes but he did see four characters walking about safe and unimpeded! What on earth was going on? And that fourth individual – he was something else, something very special indeed!
God was involved and he was not only protecting his faithful servants he was keeping them company too! It was maybe an angel but more likely the Lord Jesus in his pre-incarnate state who was there in the furnace with his faithful followers. While Jesus doesn’t promise to deliver all of his followers from troubles and difficulties he does promise to never leave them alone and here in far off Babylon he was standing firm with his followers.
Nebuchadnezzar called to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego "come out of the fiery furnace" – it was something he had never imagined he would do but, you see, it wasn’t him who was in charge of the situation it was God.
The Hebrews came out and everyone could see that they had been unaffected by the fire – their clothes weren’t burnt, their hair wasn’t singed and there wasn’t even a whiff of smoke on them. God knows how to look after his own and is more than capable of doing so! We can trust him.
Nebuchadnezzar and another knee-jerk reaction
We saw back in ch.2 that Nebuchadnezzar had been impressed by the God of the Hebrews though his declarations had little if any effect on him personally. Now we see more of the same. Some people say they would believe if only they saw or experienced a miracle – Nebuchadnezzar saw and experienced more than one but all it led to was words and words; his behaviour was hardly affected in any positive way at all. How inappropriate it was of him to back up his call to worship the God of the Hebrews with further threats and menaces. Nebuchadnezzar continued to be a worldly man impressed by his own importance. Yes, he was ready to mouth some nice sounding religious words at times but at heart he was all wrong.
I hope that none of us are like Nebuchadnezzar. The One True Living God is not looking for men and women who will put on a religious facade he is looking for those who will worship in spirit and truth (Jn.4:23-24). But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.
This episode ends, as did that recorded in ch.2 with promotion. How often God is generous and kind to his people!
However Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did not serve God with a view to what they might get out of it in material worldly terms. They walked by faith in the Living God doing what they knew to be right.
May the same be true of us too.