Today we move from Jeremiah, the prophet who told the people of Judah that they were going to go into exile, to the Book of Daniel. The Book of Daniel is interesting, because, although we Christians count this book as one of the books of the prophets, the Jewish people do not—they categorize this book as a writing. And as we look at the book, we can see why. Daniel is very different from the prophets that we have encountered up to this point. The first six chapters of the book contain stories of righteous Jewish men, including Daniel himself, maintaining their Jewish identity while they are in exile in Babylon. The remaining six chapters of this book contain apocalyptic visions given by God to Daniel. We see none of what Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah have been doing by giving the people the words of God. Nevertheless, there is much of value in this unique book, and so we Christians do count Daniel as one of the prophets.
The story that we have before us today is one that is familiar to us from Sunday school. As I mentioned before, this takes place among the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Last week I talked about how, in 597 BC, the Babylonian army had come in and captured all of the Jewish royal family and nobles and forcibly removed them from Jerusalem to Babylon. Well, about 10 years later, in 587 BC, the country of Judah revolted again, and in response, Babylon invaded, destroyed the Temple, and took most of the people who were left into exile as well. So now there is a large Jewish community in Babylon, and they are asking these questions: Where is God? Why did God allow the Temple to be destroyed? And how are we to live in this strange land? How do we maintain our Jewish identity with all of these strange gods and customs around us?
In response, we have the story of the three young men and the fiery furnace, along with other stories in Daniel, such as Daniel in the lions’ den. But today, let’s take a look at the fiery furnace. In chapter 2, we find out that because Daniel had interpreted a dream correctly for King Nebuchadnezzar, the king promoted Daniel and gave him great power over the country of Babylon. Daniel then appointed the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as officials under him. So, these four young Jewish men had assimilated into Babylonian society enough so that the king entrusted them with great power. But, the story also tells us that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not the true names of these three young men. Their original names were Hananiah, which means “God is gracious”; Mishael, which means, “Who is like God?”; and Azariah, which means “God keeps him”. So, think about that for a moment: these three Jewish men, who had the very name of their God woven into their names, were renamed with names that referenced the Babylonian gods. How do they keep their Jewish identity in a world where the king rips their very identity away by the act of renaming them?
The answer to that question comes in the story of the fiery furnace. They may have been given new names in order to better fit in with Babylonian society, but these three men never forget who they are and whose they are. They are Jewish, and they worship the Lord, the one true God. They belong to the one true God, and they trust that their God will deliver them from the worst that the Babylonian king or anyone else can throw at them. But even if God does not deliver them from the fiery furnace, they would rather die than change who they are under pressure from other people. Well, we know how the story goes: the three men are saved from the flames, and when King Nebuchadnezzar looks into the furnace, he sees a fourth man in there who “has the appearance of a god”. And when the three young men are let out, they are miraculously unharmed.
As I read through this story again in preparation for today’s sermon, this is the question that arose in my mind: In 21st century North America, where we have the freedom to worship God, and we do not expect to die for our faith, why do we teach this story to our children? After all, it is rather terrifying. What do we hope our children will learn from it? So, I posted the question to the Narrative Lectionary Facebook group to see what kind of answers I might get from the “hive mind”. One answer was this: that it inspired the person towards that kind of commitment to God that these three had. Well, that’s a good answer, but it lays the commitment on us. And we will eventually fail in that commitment, because we are sinful human beings. I think the better answer, and the one that we should be teaching our kids in Sunday school, focuses on that fourth person who appeared in the flames. You know, the one who “had the appearance of a god”. And that is this: when we encounter our own “fiery furnaces” in life, whatever they may be, Jesus understands and is with us through the flames.
Because here is another interesting piece of information about this story of the three young men and the fiery furnace: it is one of the readings for the service of the Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil is the service that takes place on the night of Holy Saturday, as God’s people wait with eager expectation for the news that Jesus is risen. Originally it started out as an all-night service; today, the length of the service varies depending on the individual church. There are twelve Old Testament readings assigned to this service as the people of God listen to their story of salvation that culminates in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Some of these may be omitted if you don’t want the service to last too long. But one of the readings that is not omitted is this story of the three men and the fiery furnace. I believe this is to remind us that Jesus endured his own fiery furnace when he died on the cross and descended to hell, and yet, like these three young men, he was raised from the dead.
Jesus understands all the pain and the suffering we undergo because he also underwent pain and suffering on the cross, and he walks with us through our fiery furnaces. And even when things don’t turn out the way we hoped or expected, Jesus is still there beside us to encourage us to keep going and to promise us that he is with us and that he will, one day, fulfill the promise of our own resurrection from the dead. This is what we should be emphasizing as we teach this story to our children, because, even though we have the freedom to worship as we please, we may be tested as we live out our faith in our daily lives.
As one example, there are certain cities in different places across the country who have made it a crime for people to bring food to the homeless. Now, I want to give people the benefit of the doubt here. Those in power may have concerns about the safety of the general public. But this means that Christians who are in the ministry of feeding the homeless by bringing food to them, rather than making them come to a center of some kind, have a decision to make. Will they stop the ministry that they’ve been doing? Will they make some adjustments to the ministry and take the chance of missing some of the people they have been serving? Or will they continue their ministry and risk being arrested for violating the law? That is a decision that each person or group of people will have to make. And knowing the story of the fiery furnace may encourage people to continue doing what Jesus has called them to do, knowing that they may be arrested, but also knowing that Jesus will be with them through the trial as they live out their faith.
But more even than that: this story, especially when seen through the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, is about hope. The three young men hoped that, even if they died in the flames, God would vindicate them for holding on to their identity and standing up for what they believed. Through this story, God gave hope to the exiles in Babylon that they could hold on to their Jewish identity, even in a strange land, and that one day, they might live out their lives in peace and freedom from those who would oppress them. And for us Christians today, this story is also about hope: the hope that we have in Jesus, who was born for us, who lived for us, who died for us, and who was raised from the dead for us. We have hope that, even though things in this world don’t always turn out the way we want them to, and even though it seems like evil wins more often than good, Jesus will one day return and set all things right, and that the kingdom of heaven will reign on earth.
We are a people of hope, and today, the first Sunday of Advent, we begin that season of hope. But we are not hoping for Jesus to be born. Jesus has already been born. We are hoping for Jesus to come again and to set all things right. Spreading that hope to everyone we meet means telling people about the good news that Jesus is Immanuel, God with Us, in every situation that we encounter in life. Spreading hope in Jesus means that, like the three young men in the furnace, we remember who we are—God’s children—and whose we are—we belong to God and we are loved by God. Spreading hope in Jesus means that, no matter what happens to us in life, the good, the bad, and the ugly, that God is with us. So go out and do not be afraid, and live out the call that God has placed upon your life. Amen.