4th Sunday after Epiphany
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, friends in Christ, there’s definitely a reason why God designed it that women are the ones who give birth to children. Women typically carry a child around inside of them for about 9 months, they seem to have a higher tolerance for physical pain, and on average women tend to live longer than men. Kudos to all of you women! As a man I’m not sure I could deal with the pain of giving birth to a child. I remember when my oldest child, Megan, was born. As young parents we had no idea what it was going to be like. I remember being at Katie’s side as she is in intense pain and she looks at me and says, “I don’t think I can do it!” That was scary! I didn’t know what to say! So, what did I say? “Oh yes you can dear, you can do it!” But I had no idea! And everything did in fact work out. Last November my son was born and as I was at my dear wife’s side as she was in pain at one point she looked at me again and said, “I don’t think I can do it!” But this time I wasn’t really scared at all and just smiled and say, “Honey, I know you can do it, you’ve already done it 3 times.” And she made it through. It’s nice to know how something is going to turn out beforehand, isn’t it?
I mean, think about it, what would it be like to go into a job interview knowing already beforehand that you already had the job? Or, what would it be like to sit down to take a major test already knowing that you were going to ace it? Or, how would you feel about going through some sort of medical exam knowing beforehand that they’re going to discover that there’s nothing wrong and you’re quite healthy? Or, you’re sitting down to watch your favorite team battle it out in the Super Bowl, but you already know beforehand that in the end they’re going to win? You see, knowing the outcome of something beforehand has a way of removing the drama, the fear, the wonder, the uncertainty, the consternation out of whatever it is that you’re facing.
Now, wouldn’t it be nice to already know the outcome of the most important thing in all of life? Sure! And we see that in our text for this morning.
It’s around the late 500s BC. The northern kingdom of Israel has already been incredibly unfaithful to God and so conquered and hauled off to captivity and pretty much disintegrated as a nation. The southern kingdom of Judah, although they should have learned the lesson and remained faithful to God and His Word, they didn’t. So now God allowed Nebuchadnezzar the powerful and ruthless king of Babylon to conquer Judah.
Now certainly Nebuchadnezzar did his fair share of killing, but he had a bit of a different approach when he took other nations over. Once he defeated a nation he would search through the people and find the best and the brightest of them and make them part of his ruling regime. One of whom was Daniel and in chapter 2 we’re told that at Daniel’s request Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were promoted to high positions. So, here you have the Babylonian nation with all kinds of people from different nations, backgrounds, cultures, religions in your regime. And so, in an effort to make sure everyone knows that his gods, the gods of Babylon, must be superior to everyone else’s god and in order to bring some sort of religious unity among all his people, Nebuchadnezzar has this huge statue of a god built.
So picture it: Rows and rows of officials, hundreds, possibly thousands, anyone who was anybody in the most powerful nation of the world at the time stood at attention before this image that Nebuchadnezzar had built waiting tensely for the orchestra to begin and bow down and pay homage to this…statue. And anyone who failed to fall down, to prostrate themselves, and worship this image would be guilty of a double crime: disobeying the king and disloyalty to Babylon and her “great” gods. The penalty was death by fire in a furnace already prepared for any rebels. This was no idle threat!
But then there’s Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego probably around 20 years old. They refused. And in a huge crowd where everyone else is falling down and you’re the only ones standing up…you’re not going to be hard to notice. So, furious, Nebuchadnezzar has them brought to him. Probably appalled that these people whom HE had promoted could be so defiant he gives them another chance. Then with a bit of arrogance and to “prove” how powerful he and his gods are said, “If you don’t worship it, you’ll be immediately thrown into this blazing fire, then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”
So here’s their choice: a. Don’t bow down and be thrown into a blazing furnace or b. bow down and live. Now, let’s think about it. What would you have done at this point? What would I have done? Those 3 men could have rationalized all sorts of different reasons to bow down, right? “We’ll do it, just this once, hardly anyone will notice. The king told me to do it, so I’d better. Everyone else is doing it, so I probably can too. We’ll just do it, but we won’t really mean it. What about our lives? Isn’t staying alive the most important thing in life? Certainly God will understand! Our lives, aren’t they worth far more alive than dead? Think about what we can do for our fellow Jews who are in captivity just because we have positions of power!”
We all would like to say that we would have remained firm, but then again, do we not often find many ways of rationalizing our own sinful behavior to make it sound “not that bad.” We can come up with our own rating scale of sins maybe telling a little lie or sharing a little gossip, isn’t all that bad. It’s all right to do this sin because no one else will be affected or no one else will find out. If I don’t go along with the crowd, I’ll be ridiculed or people might not like me, certainly God wants people to like me, right?
But these three men didn’t. They stood firm. In fact they told the king, “We don’t even need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.” Nebuchadnezzar had no right to interfere with their relationship with God. And they knew God would save them, perhaps intervening, perhaps not, but either way they would not serve Neb’s gods or bow down to his image of gold. Talk about kicking Neb in the teeth! He was furious ordered the furnace 7x hotter, so hot it killed his best soldiers who threw the three men in!
What were they thinking?? How’d they do it? How’d they stand up to such a powerful and ruthless guy? It’s so different than what we’d expect. It’s so easy for us to think we need to cling to this life with all that we have. It’s so easy to think that staying alive is what is most important in life. And it’s so easy to prioritize our earthly life like this is the be all and end all of our existence. We’re ready to let anything get in the way of our relationship with God or ready to forsake God if our hopes and dreams in life are threatened. And if we we’re faced with death, how would we react? With joy? “All right! I’m going to heaven sooner than I thought!” Or with sadness and sorrow? These men were ready to die than to compromise their faith in God!
Why? Well, they knew God’s power, but they also knew God’s faithfulness. They knew that God always keeps His Word and that one day God would send the Savior who would save them from their sins. And since God is faithful, they knew eternal life was theirs. Think about how God describes heaven to us: a place without mourning, crying or pain, a place where we’ll have a glorified and glorious body, a place where the streets are paved with gold (if gold is used for the most mundane thing as paving roads- how glorious!), an incredible mansion, a place of total and complete peace and joy! That’s amazing! To cling to this life or get all caught up in this life and jeapordize that life? That’d be crazy!!
These men were focused on God and on eternal life and so it didn’t matter if they were going to die. And then God did something amazing. He saved them, the fire did no harm to them, God sent an angel to protect them. Neb couldn’t believe what he saw and humbly had to say, “Hey guys, can you come out here?” Not a hair singed, they didn’t even smell like smoke! In other words, you have a God who’s powerful enough to do anything!
And so I have a challenge for you and me. This week, live your life with an eternal focus! Live your life realizing that this life isn’t the goal, that the things of this life aren’t the things which really matter. Live your life focusing on God, His love for you, the eternal home which He’s won for you in Jesus. In other words, live your life like you’re one of these three men. And you know what? Focusing on eternal life, knowing the final outcome of your life, knowing how everything will turn out in the end, frees you from the fears, worries, uncertainties of life because you have a home in heaven and that’s what really matters!