Click here for a link to Daniel 3
Growing up, I played tennis. To be honest, I was pretty good at tennis, a fact I neglected to mention to Rachel before we ever played tennis against each other. She refuses to ever play against me again. I played my first two years of high school before giving up, but I really enjoyed tennis.
There's another tennis player who's about my age. He's only about two months older than I am, but his career has lasted a little longer than mine. You may have heard of him. Goes by the name of Roger Federer. He's won 77 career tournaments, including a gold medal at the Olympics, and has a nice sum of $77 million in career prize money, not counting endorsements. Many people would say he's the best tennis player ever. I've never played him, so I can't say that he's definitely better than me, but his record indicates that he would win if we ever played head to head.
Shockingly, Roger Federer lost in the second round of the Wimbledon tournament this week. The chances of this happening were about the same as the chances of me winning Wimbledon.
So here is the question: is Roger Federer still good at tennis?
How about another situation. In 2006, just before I got married, I bought a new car. To this day, Rachel and I disagree over whether it is blue or green, but one thing we do agree on is that it is very, very reliable. In the seven years we have owned it, we've put 115,000 miles on it, including Rachel driving it in Atlanta traffic, where every mile driven should count for 4 miles. Until March, we had never had a single part break on that car. The alternator went out that month, and I had the opportunity to learn how much more expensive alternators have become. It was only $500 more than I had expected. Since then, it has run just fine.
So here is the question: is our car still reliable?
Life is filled with instances that occur outside unexpectedly. These events are often far outside of what is normal, and they cause us to question our understanding of life around us. Plane travel is usually regarded as one of the safest ways to travel, and yet whenever a plane crashes, we instantly wonder: are airplanes safe? We eat at a restaurant we've always loved and enjoyed, when suddenly, we get a terrible meal there. We wonder: is the food still good there? Should I go back? We don't know what to do with these events. We don't have a category for them, and they cause us to question our underlying assumptions. For big events, they cause us to question everything.
For example, we might lose a job, or discover an illness, or go through divorce. In these times, we pray and we pray and we pray, and we also wonder: does God still care about me?
Sometimes, tragedy strikes. We lose a loved one. Terrorists attack. A gunman shoots children in an elementary school. We wonder: Is God still good?
We've all wondered this at times. Life has happened around us, to us, and it doesn't make sense. The world that we once understood seems to lie shattered at our feet, and we can't help but wonder if God is still good. Can God be good and not answer our prayers, even when they are our deepest, most desperate prayers? If it seems that God is silent in the face of death and disease, is God still good?
Here's where we turn to Daniel 3. In this text, three young men, Shadrach, Mesach, & Abednego have been appointed to high positions. They are Jews who worship the most high God, the only God of heaven and of earth, and they have sworn to refuse to worship any other God. This is the first commandment for them, as it is for us. We must worship God alone.
But Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, isn't a one-God kind of guy. He builds a massive statue, 90 feet tall, and commands that everyone in his kingdom should bow down to worship it. Most of the people don't seem to mind, but these three young men refuse to worship this false god. Think of the peer pressure—every other person in the kingdom bows down, and you refuse.
Also, the decree is issued that anyone refusing to bow down to the false god will be thrown into a fiery furnace to peril in a rather painful manner. So there's that.
Shadrach, Mesach, & Abednego refuse to worship the false god, and their refusal does not go unnoticed. Their refusal to worship the false god is brought to the attention of the king, and he is not pleased with their stubbornness. He gives them one last chance, one final opportunity to accede to his request. The choice is clear—worship the false god and everything will be fine, the king days in verse 15. Otherwise, they will be thrown into the fiery furnace to perish.
Shadrach, Mesach, & Abednego face a difficult decision. They can worship their God, or they can live, but they cannot do both, in the words of the king.
What they tell the king is astounding. Your Majesty, they begin in verse 16, a quite respectful beginning considering this man is threatening their doom. We don't need to defend ourselves. The God we worship can save us from you and your flaming furnace. But even if he doesn't, we still won't worship your gods and the gold statue you have set up.
They refuse, preferring death to idol worship. But what they say amazes me. They tell the King that God can save them, despite what the King had said. The King believed that no god could save them from the fiery furnace. Shadrach, Mesach, & Abednego believe otherwise. But notice what they say at the end: But even if he doesn't, we still won't worship your gods.
Even if he doesn't...
Keep in mind—if God doesn't save them from the furnace, they will die a horrible, painful death. If God doesn't save them from the furnace, it will look like Nebuchadnezzar has won. If God doesn't save them, all is lost, right?
Shadrach, Mesach, & Abednego want Nebuchadnezzar to know that God can save them. Even if he chooses not to, it's important to remind him that he can, because this means that God is sovereign and all-powerful. They do not pretend to know the mind of God, and they do not claim to be able to manipulate it. I'm sure that they would prefer that God did save them, but they want to affirm that even if their prayer goes unanswered, that does not change that God is all-powerful, and they believe that God is worthy of worship and praise, even if they must go to their deaths to proclaim that. They think God is so awesome and majestic that death is preferable to the thought of betraying him.
Let's stop right here for a moment. This is a place worthy of lingering. This is a point not to be missed.
Just because God doesn't answer our prayers doesn't mean that he isn't still all-powerful. Just because God doesn't dramatically intervene doesn't mean he isn't loving and good. We don't understand the ways or the mind of God, but just because it appears as though God is not still abiding, that doesn't mean that he isn't here with us, loving us and at work in our lives. Even when it appears as though God has abandoned us, God is still with us, and God is still good, although we may not be able to grasp this fully.
Shadrach, Mesach, & Abednego were willing to bet their lives on this fact. The sovereignty and goodness of God were not on trial when they were thrown into the furnace. That remained true whether or not they survived this situation.
Are we willing to live like this?
Shadrach, Mesach, & Abednego had no plan B. The only fallback option was to worship the false god of Nebuchadnezzar, and they weren't going for that.
Are we willing to live with the same abandon? Are we willing to commit everything to God, without holding something back just in case God doesn't come through in the way we imagine?
God has demonstrated his willingness to always come through for us. It may not be exactly how we imagine it, but God has promised he will never let anything in this world separate us from his presence. He has promised us a place in eternity beside him, promised that we will triumph over victory and death in Christ—and in this way he assures us of his ultimate goodness, despite our setbacks and trials in this life.
Here, in Daniel 3, he demonstrates his presence in an astounding way. Although Shadrach, Mesach, & Abednego are thrown into the furnace that is heated up 7 times hotter than usual due to Nebuchadnezzar's rage at their answer, they are safe and sound within the flames. Indeed, when Nebuchadnezzar peers into the oven, he sees a fourth figure with the appearance of a god dwelling in the flames with them. He is so astounded that he calls them out of the fire, when it is noticed that they don't even smell like smoke. Anyone who has ever walked by a bonfire and then smelled like smoke for the next week realizes what a miracle this is.
In the midst of the fiery furnace, in a trial so hot it killed those standing nearby, the presence of God near Shadrach, Mesach, & Abednego was revealed to all who witnessed it. What I'd like to propose is that God's nearness is only fully understood when we have committed everything to God. When we give our hearts and minds and lives and money and future to God, we begin to understand just how near he always is. I believe that God was near Shadrach, Mesach, & Abednego throughout this entire story, but it was the presence of the fire, the trial of their lives, that revealed that presence.
So here's the question for us: are we willing to emulate Shadrach, Mesach, & Abednego in their complete devotion to God? Are we willing to proclaim that God is sovereign and good, even though we may not fully understand exactly how God is at work? Are we willing to acknowledge that the circumstances of our lives do not dictate God's goodness, but that God is still good and all-powerful, even though we don't fully grasp this?
A life of total commitment to God stood out easily in Babylon. When everyone else bowed down to a false god, those willing to remain standing and risk being thrown into the furnace were obviously those committed to God.
Today, in a land of cultural Christianity, it's harder to stand out. It's possible to go to church and not let the Gospel have any influence on the rest of your life. It's possible to live like everyone else, to be swayed by popular opinion and pursue riches at any cost and self-glory, and yet profess to be a Christian.
So I'd like to propose a few areas we can examine, three ways we can look at our own lives to see if we live in total commitment to the Gospel.
What does total commitment to the Gospel look like? How about we examine our checkbooks to see how we spend our money? Do we let the Gospel lay claim to our entire checkbook? Or do we just give 10% and pretend that God doesn't care what we do with the other 90%? What's it look like for us to beyond the tithe and give more than 10%? What's it look like for us to examine easy expenditures, the money we spend without thinking? The amount of money we spend in American on ice cream could solve many of the world's hunger problems—but we don't think about that when we're buying ice cream. And there's nothing wrong with buying ice cream. What's wrong is spending money thoughtlessly, without paying attention to where it's going, without thinking that there might be a better use for it. God has given it all to us—let us use it all wisely.
Secondly, let's talk about mediocrity. In our work, it might be easy to pursue mediocrity, to let good enough be our best work, to get by without causing any problems. But God hasn't give you gifts to do 'just enough'. God calls us to do our best, to pursue excellence, whether it is in school or your work. It's easy to skate by, and I'd suggest that many people do just that. But if we want to be great stewards of the gifts God has given us, let's pursue excellence in all of our work. Let's commit ourselves fully to using every ounce of the gifts God has given us, and in so doing may our efforts glorify God.
Finally, let's talk about marriage. Much has been made about the Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. And while we can debate that all day, we Christians need to take a look at our marriages. What does it mean for us to pursue excellence in our marriage, to demonstrate faithfulness to the world? How do we commit fully to serving our partners, and in so doing model a marriage ethic for the world to see?
In all things, may we be completely committed to Christ, willing to risk anything, because we know that God is good and that God is powerful. We may stand on this side of the furnace, unable to see exactly how God will intervene, but just because we don't fully understand God's goodness doesn't mean that we can't proclaim it with all of our lives.
Let us pray