This is another rough draft of a sermon that I’ll transfer to note cards and then refine in my mind as I practice it and then finally when I preach it tonight in Preaching class. Its supposed to be under eight minutes, so I’ll have to time it too and maybe cut some things. I hope it goes well.
I realized today that I would probably cede all of my preaching time to someone else who was better at it. For some ministers, preaching is like a half-time job, which I think is crazy, but that’s because I don’t think I’ll reach people primarily through sermons. I think I’m better at other things. At least I hope I am.
Willing to Burn: Daniel 3:13-18
Introduction to Preaching
I loved the story of Shadrach, Meeshach and Abednago when I first heard it. I like it because it is so odd. Just saying their names makes you think about a wacky Babylonian buddy flick about three zany friends and their amazing roadtrip. It also kind of sounds like the set up for a joke: “Shadrach, Meeshach and Abednago walk into a bar.” You can imagine them always having to explain how to spell their names, or answering the phone and a telemarketer says “Yes, is mister Abendingo at home?” These names seem to fit together, but they don’t fit anywhere else.
I like that Nebuchadnezzar, whose name is no picnic when you have even a slight stuttering problem, is so obtuse. I mean, in the previous story Nebbie ends up worshipping Daniel, completely missing the point. Then he builds a sixty-cubit tall golden statue and insists that everyone worship it or be thrown into a furnace. But it can’t just be spontaneous worship, oh no! You have to wait for the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and the entire musical ensemble, and then you bow down and worship the huge, absurd statue.
I like the story for its humor and its absurdity, but I love the story for the gem of real, concrete, grim truth contained in it. I love it for what it says about courage. For what it says about standing up for what you feel is right.
Most of the treatments of this story talk about it in this way: if you are faithful and obedient to God, God will protect you, God will watch over you, God will bring you through the fire, and by saving you, God will be glorified. Your obedience makes you an instrument of God, and you can be part of a miracle.
Now, that’s how the story turns out. Shad, Meesh and Ned survive their trip into the fiery furnace, and are met in the fire by a fourth person that looks kind of like a god, or maybe an angel, and when they come out Nebbie has another conversion experience that he, once again, gets totally wrong. But that’s not the point tonight.
The point tonight is that it isn’t true that if you are obedient, God will protect you. We don’t like to say it, but we have to. If God protected every person because of their faith and obedience, there would be no martyrs. Emperor Nero lit his garden at night with Christians, burned at the stake because they were obedient to God. People of faith were burned by our own fires during the height of the Inquisition for holding to their faith in God in spite of torture. The furnaces of the Holocaust were full of the faithful, the righteous, the obedient.
I think because we are comfortable, because we are safe, because we are, by accident of birth, so incredibly lucky to be where we are, it is easy for us to say that God protects the faithful. That means that we are safe because we are faithful, and not because we are at the top of a vast structure of injustice. The people at the bottom, who starve and suffer and become child soldiers or child prostitutes or die of curable disease – it must be their lack of faith.
It is not nearly enough to say that God will save you if you are obedient. And that is not, in my understanding, what this story says to us.
Shadrach, Meeshach and Abednago first affirm their faith in God, maybe their hope in God, that God will come to their rescue in the furnace and by a miracle save them. But next they say that even if God does not save them, even if there is no hope, they still will not worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. Even if they are essentially alone in this, if God is present but will not intervene, they will not worship the idol.
This, to me, feels true. This feels like real life. This feels like human experience.
It is true of small things. When I preach, there is no guarantee that God will speak through me. I obviously hope so, but there is no guarantee. I cannot summon God, I cannot have God stand at attention or arrive on time. A god I can summon with my fumbling words isn’t God at all.
And I think it is true of big things. Jesus sweated and prayed in Gethsemane, and begged God to take the cup from him, to spare him, to accomplish what was going to happen some other way. But then he affirmed that even if God did not save him from torture and death, he would not turn aside.
In living out our lives as Christians, we take real risks. The stakes are genuine, and there is no guarantee of comfort or safety. The world is not comfortable and safe. Our calling is not comfortable and safe. We must be willing to burn. That is the kind of courage that is asked of us. We have to be willing to fail, to fall, to look like idiots, to face defeat, to suffer.
And why do we do this? Most of the time, we don’t. But when we do, I think we find something out. The ultimate reward is not safety. It is not comfort. It is not being saved from danger of spared suffering.
The ultimate reward is that, when we are willing to burn, that is where we can see God. In the fiery furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar, God was there. On the cross on Golgotha, God was there. And in the suffering of the world today, in the suffering, God is there. In the suffering in the world, in our own suffering, that is where Christ chooses to be. Knowing the consequences. Knowing that pain and loss and failure and abandonment are real, that is where Christ chooses to be. And if we are to follow Christ, that is where we need to be willing to go. In our own suffering, in the suffering of the world around us, we need to be willing burn.