Today’s story is one of the true greats in the Old Testament. In it we see a king spiraling out of control, three boys bound and determined to stand resolute, and you and me. Let’s dive in.
A King Out of Control
Let’s start with King Nebuchadnezzar. He was the mightiest man of his time. He ruled over most of the world that he knew, and had every reason to feel secure. He had vast armies, incredible wealth, and apparently the respect of his people. And yet, in spite of all of his strength and wealth and power, we are beginning to see a pattern of weakness in Nebuchadnezzar -- he seems to have constantly felt insecure and vulnerable. In today’s story of the great golden statue, he had a maniacal need to perform this over-the-top test of loyalty. It is interesting, isn’t it, that the more you have the less secure you feel? The more you have of anything, the more you worry about it, and when you have so much, you think you have so much to lose. We would do well to heed the scriptures that say, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have. Because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; Never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13.5 NIV)
Let’s take a look at the way Nebuchadnezzar continues to come off the rails in today’s story.
First, he builds the statue in defiance of his dream from Daniel chapter 2. You may recall from our story last week that Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a great statue, similar to the statue in today’s story. But in his dream, the statue was not all gold -- no, it had a silver chest, a bronze midsection, iron legs, and feet of iron mixed with clay. Daniel gave the king the interpretation -- that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire was the head of gold, and that the lower layers of the statue would be empires that came after him, until one day the statue would fall because of its feet of clay. When the king heard Daniel’s interpretation, he gave glory to God and promoted Daniel and his compadres Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But his recognition of the one true God was very short lived. Even though he himself acknowledged the dream came from God, Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t resist the temptation to try to alter God’s will. Instead of accepting what God had shown him, Nebuchadnezzar decided to rewrite the Lord’s plans. He built a real-life version of the statue from his dream -- only this time gold from head to toe. He was trying to edit God’s timeline in his favor. Don’t we do the same with God? The Lord will show us something new or give us insight into our lives that we know is true… and then we turn around and try to change the parts we don’t like? We are unwilling to take God’s plans as they are -- we try to rearrange them to our liking. We say, “Here God, let me help you. You don’t seem to know what you’re doing, so why don’t you let me help you out.” This defiance of God’s will is problem we share with King Nebuchadnezzar.
Second, Nebuchadnezzar had a bad habit of losing his temper as a way to handle problems. In the story last week, he wanted to have the Chaldeans destroyed when they didn’t do what he wanted. This week he begins by threatening to throw people into a ripping-hot furnace if they don’t acknowledge him as supreme, and finishes the story by threatening to cut into pieces anyone who won’t acknowledge the God of Shadrach Meshach and Abednego as supreme. The king spirals out of control as the story progresses. He makes these threats based on pure emotion and it never works out the way he wants. In fact, every threat he makes backfires and steadily erodes his authority. His boiling temper and his lack of self-control unravel his credibility with every foolish proclamation. You can see this same weakness with some parents today. They make wild and irresponsible threats toward their children -- “I’m going to ground you for a year!” “I’m going to take away electronics forever!” “I’m going to call the police on you!” -- threats that should never be made in the first place, that they could never possibly follow through on. They think that these extreme threats will give them leverage over their children, when just the opposite is true. When you make wild threats you can’t keep, your threats become totally meaningless -- and ultimately laughable. The scriptures teach us that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit -- an outward sign of God at work in us. Let’s learn from the foolishness of Nebuchadnezzar and keep our tempers in check so that the name of Christ will be glorified and not put to shame.
The bottom line for King Nebuchadnezzar is this: his pride was eventually going to burn him. I am not talking about the good kind of pride -- pride in your family or appreciation for the good things God has done in you. I’m talking about the bad kind -- the kind of pride that plays out in arrogance and the idea that we are bigger than God. Nebuchadnezzar had been put in power by God to judge the nation of Israel. But Nebuchadnezzar’s pride refused to acknowledge that his power came from the Lord. He took the wide road -- the pride road -- and stubbornly refused to recognize that every gift he had ever received -- his kingdom, his riches, and his status -- came from only one source -- God Almighty. We must avoid the trap of pride, or it will burn us. We will become as pitiful as Nebuchadnezzar. As James tells us, we must be careful to acknowledge that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1.17 NIV).
Three Boys - Bound and Determined
Now let’s consider the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. This is a story for the ages. Their courage speaks to anyone who has been bullied, anyone who has been tempted, anyone who has felt the pressure-cooker of persecution, anyone who has been threatened and oppressed because of their beliefs, anyone who feels utterly alone in a sea of thousands, anyone who wants to go against the flow and stand firm and simply do the right thing. The message these boys would give you and me today is simple: be resolute. Stand firm. Don’t bow down to anyone but the one true God. When they attack you... When they taunt you.. When they mock you... When they threaten you... even when they tie you up and throw your body into the fire -- don’t back down. I think these boys would absolutely love the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down.” “I know what’s right, I’ve got just one life. In world that just keeps pushing me around, I’ll stand my ground. And I won’t back down.”
First, they resist the temptation to conform. It is never easy to swim upstream. Ask a salmon. It is never easy to walk on a crowded sidewalk when everyone is going the other way. For those of you who like the beach, it is never easy to swim against the riptide. It would be far easier to spawn downstream, to turn back on a crowded sidewalk, and to let the rip current carry you out to sea. But you mustn’t do it. We cannot conform to the pattern of this world. Instead, we must be transformed by the renewing of our minds, as Paul says in Romans 12.1-2. When the world tries to squeeze us into the mold it thinks is best, we must not conform. We must pop out of the mold at every point where the world tries to squelch our trust in God.
Next, these young men were totally immune to the poisons of pleasure and fear. Nebuchadnezzar’s two tactics were the same ones the devil uses to try to manipulate us into turning our backs on God -- pleasure and fear. Pleasure can lead us to compromise our beliefs. In today’s story, pleasure came in the form of the music -- “What’s that you say, Mr. DJ? Slide to the left? All right! Now slide to the right? Ok! Bow to the statue? Why not! This is fun!” You get the idea. Pleasure can be intoxicating and lead us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. Now the other poison -- fear -- is more obvious. The threat of being burned alive in a fiery furnace is a pretty compelling motivator. And yet, in the face of these two toxins, pleasure and fear, our three champions are completely immune. Maybe it helped that they had each other to help stay strong. Maybe it also helped that they had been taking steps to build a resistance from the time they were young -- remember their decision to eat vegetables in Daniel chapter 1. Now I need to make a disclaimer: pleasure can be good, and so can fear. They aren’t necessarily toxic. But like any substance, in the wrong amount they can be deadly to faith.
Finally, we can’t emphasize this enough -- these three young men are to be remembered for standing firm in the face of certain death. They didn’t flinch. They didn’t waiver. They didn’t try to negotiate a truce. They simply stood their ground -- they did it respectfully, as a true disciple always should -- even though it would most likely cost them their lives. In this time and place, we are profoundly blessed to be free from the kind of persecution Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego faced. In many parts of the world, men, women and children risk their freedom and even their lives by refusing to conform to the demands of the world to turn their back on the God who loves them. But even here in the land of the free, we still face persecution. It comes in more subtle forms like being given the lousy assignments at work or being excluded from a circle of friends in the neighborhood, but it is real. When we are presented with an opportunity to capitulate and deny our God -- and deny who we are -- in order to relieve the pressures of exclusion and persecution, let us remember these brave boys, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and how they stood firm even in the face of a painful and sure death.
You and Me
Finally, we come to the point of God’s message to us today -- what it means for you and me.
First, I think it is safe to say that if you choose to follow Jesus, you can expect to be tried by fire. As I said a moment ago, it may not be a literal fiery furnace, but there will be extreme heat nonetheless. For those who choose the path of discipleship, fiery trials should not come as a shock or surprise, but should be welcomed as a blessing and an opportunity to bear witness to the love, power, and forgiveness of God. Remember what Jesus said when he described the life of someone who chooses to follow Him: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (Luke 9.23)
Second, you can expect to be unfairly accused. Look at the Chaldeans who accused the three friends. There will always be those who want to bring you down and accuse you of doing something wrong. In the case of the Chaldeans in today’s story, we can probably presume they are simply jealous of the newfound status Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had been given as rulers after chapter 2. But an accuser’s motives are not always so clear -- sometimes people are carrying very old wounds and simply transferring their anger onto you. Sometimes an accuser wants to see what you’re made of -- it’s plain curiosity. Most often, however, I believe people persecute a person of faith out of their own sense of deep hopelessness -- and envy of the hope we have. We should pray for those who persecute us, that they might be set free from the anger that consumes them, and that they might come to know the hope of God.
Finally, the absolute most important thing to remember today is that you will be accompanied every step of the way by the most high God. When you are being flung into the fire, when you are going against the flow, when you are being falsely accused, when you are standing firm on the promise of God when everyone wants to knock your knees out from under you -- He is there. He is with you. Where you are when you are standing in the fire is right where He promised to be.
One of my favorite musicians, Rich Mullins, wrote: “You’ll meet the Lord in the furnace long time ‘fore you meet him in the sky.”
Jesus gave us a similar promise: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5.11-12)
And His closing words from Matthew’s gospel, chapter 28 verse 20, should give us undying hope: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.”
Are you standing in the fire? Are you facing the furnace? Do you feel the heat rising?
Take courage -- you are not alone. He is right there with you. Always!