Taking a stand – a report of Duncan’s sermon this morning on Daniel 3

jesus-light-of-world-500x331

Sunday was the First Sunday in Advent – the start of a new church year, when we reflect on the coming Jesus and prepare for Christmas. Duncan began his sermon by quoting John 1:1, 4:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

This ‘Word’ of which John wrote was Jesus himself. ‘Light’ and ‘life’ – both of which we find in Jesus – are major themes in the gospel of John.

So why, Duncan, does the lectionary give us the story in Daniel 3 to look at this Sunday? It’s a story about three Jewish men facing persecution by fire in Babylon as a result of their religious convictions. Why is this story of fire and persecution assigned on a day when we are reflecting to light and life in Christ?

Duncan suggested that it is against the background of dark things that the light is truly appreciated.

He told us about an interview he saw on the news this week. It was about

An ex-soldier who had been locked up in a jail in Chennai in India for over four years.  Earlier this week, without any immediate warning, all the charges were dropped, and within a matter of hours this man found himself in a luxury hotel facing the world’s media.

From the darkness and squalor of a prison cell to the light of freedom, and the prospect of seeing his mother face to face for the first time in four years.

What he said really struck Duncan: ‘There are no words in the English dictionary to sum up how I am feeling at the moment.’

That story illustrates the contrast between darkness and light. It’s ‘the stuff of real life’, as Duncan put it.

How does God bring us into light and life in a word of oppression, fear and uncertainty?

That’s where the story from Daniel the Prophet’s book, encourages us.

Faith in God alone challenged

It’s a later part of the story Duncan was preaching on last week from the book of Jeremiah. The people of Judah had been taken into exile in Babylon by the conquering Assyrians under Nebuchadnezzar, and the city of Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BC.  The prophet Jeremiah’s message to them, as we saw last week, was that they should live in the present with faith and hopefulness in the context of the different culture by which they were now surrounded, praying for the prosperity of the city where they were exiles.

But inevitably there was conflict. The Jews believed in Yahweh, the one true God. Babylon was almost an idol factory – Daniel 3 begins with a description of a massive new idol which the King had set up.

The stage is set for a crisis. On the one hand, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are to work for the good of the Babylonian Empire. ‘But,’ said Duncan, ‘there is a red line in terms of their allegiance to the Empire which they cannot cross, and it is rooted in their faith in One God.’

Hadn’t God commanded in the first of the ten commandments

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:2-3)

The challenges we face

The challenge to us is this – what do we do when we are required or expected to do something which contravenes our faith and our whole value system?

The Book of Daniel was written as an encouragement to resistance.

We’re not instructed  to bow down to massive statues, but, Duncan continued

There is no shortage of situations in our lives where there is a potential for conflict between our commitment to God and the demands of the surrounding culture.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego engaged in a campaign of civil disobedience. It doesn’t matter what is done to them – they were not going to do anything which is in opposition to their faith in the One True God.

Martin Luther King Junior challenged the prevailing laws of racial discrimination in the United States – and ultimately gave his life for this cause. During a period of imprisonment he likened the civil disobedience in which he and his followers were engaged with the activities of the three men in Daniel 3. He wrote in  a letter:

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchannezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.

Where are our red lines?

‘How far are willing,’ Duncan asked, ‘to sell out on our most basic convictions in life before saying no?’

He reminded us that when Hitler came to power in Germany, only a tiny minority of Christians were prepared to challenge his ideology and actions. Today, Vladimir Putin has wide support from the Russian Orthodox Church, which appears to be silent about his flagrant human rights violations.

‘Where are our red lines,’ Duncan challenged us.

What pressures or situations within our culture are we prepared to resist because they are out of step with the faith and values of the Kingdom.

I’m struck by the fact that the three men weren’t actually campaigning against the king’s edict about worshipping the 90 foot high statue. They just quietly refused to do it, and were eventually called out for it by some astrologers.

They were put on the spot.

Given a stark choice.

Bow down or death!

No certainty of a happy ending

The three men didn’t have any certainty that their story would have a happy ending. They had great courage:

If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver usfrom Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’ (Daniel 3:17-28)

Their story ended in deliverance. But at the start, they knew, as we know that the danger is real in life, and there are no guarantees – ‘even if he does not deliver us.’ Later in Daniel, we read of the people of God suffering terribly in other situations.

The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is not a blanket reassurance that faith in God leads to a happy ending in life.  It’s more a matter of saying ‘I don’t know where this is going, but I know that I can’t relinquish this basic commitment to worship the one true God, to life according to his ways.’

fiery-furniceTrust God – whatever the consequences

The story of the three men is one in which members of a faith community try to live faithfully for God in an alien environment. For is, there will inevitable be points of conflict unless we have decided to sell out on our faith.

Their story challenges us to put our faith and trust in God, whatever outcomes may result.

But their story assures us that in the ‘fiery trials’ which may come our way, God is not absent. There is a mysterious fourth figure walking with the others through the flames.

This, ultimately, is the Advent story.  We are not left alone. God comes to us, where we are.

‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ (John 1:14)

The subversive power of humour

In conclusion, Duncan pointed out that Daniel 3 is a testimony to the power of humour and laughter in difficult times.  The story uses humour – the repeated lists of state officials and musical instruments – to present King Nebuchadnezzar as an all-powerful buffoon.

He has the power of life and death in his hands. He is very dangerous – and yet when dealing with the One True God he is utterly out of his depth.

And yet Daniel 3 responds to the King’s pomposity by poking fun at him, and highlighting his pretensions of power.

Duncan concluded:

This too is the story of Advent.

We wait for a King who comes in weakness and vulnerability. And we shall learn that ‘the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.’ (1 Corinthians 1:25)

God will prevail. As the people of God we should take courage even in the most difficult circumstances. For the child born into vulnerability and weakness will prevail against every human power.

 

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