Is there anything in this world worth living for?
That's a question our society has no satisfying answer to. Sex? Money? Gadgets? Convenience? Entertainment? They all go stale, they can't ultimately satisfy.
Is there anything worth living for? Our society can't answer… And that's because we've rejected the idea that there might be anything worth dying for:
Someone willing to die for a truth, for an idea or an ideal or a god or religious belief – well that person's dangerous, we've seen where that goes – on 9/11 and 7/7 and on the streets of London last year. And so we decree there is nothing worth dying for… but what is worth living for if it's not worth dying for?
And so we find a different message in the Bible. Our passage this evening confronts us with the awesome and terrible reality that there is one thing worth dying for, God alone is worth dying for.
What is the big idea of this passage? God calls us to obedience, whatever the cost; there is one way to live – obey God. Our lives are a series of choices to trust God or to worship idols, and God calls us to worship him and him alone. The battle lines in this passage are very clear – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are given a very obvious and very stark choice –worship God; or worship the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. King Nebuchadnezzar says there is one way to live – worship my idol; but Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego know the opposite is really true: there is only one way to live – to worship the one true God.
One Way to Live – Worship my Idol
King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up. So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it. Then the herald loudly proclaimed, "This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace."
There's one way to live – worship Nebuchadnezzar's idol or die.
If we know our bibles, and Daniel assumes we do, this scene sounds a lot like Genesis 11 the famous tower of Babel. Then, the people of the earth united on the plains outsideBabylonto build a great tower as a monument to themselves. Now Nebuchadnezzar repeats it all again: gathering together vs 4 and 7 'peoples, nations and men of every language' - remember languages were confused and people scattered at Babel. Here the scattered people are brought together and again they unite around a towering structure – this time a monument not to men, but to one man, to Nebuchadnezzar himself.
Then building the tower at Babel was a challenge to God's authority. And so it is here: Nebuchadnezzar claims the prerogative of God to demand worship; and he claims power to defy God – it comes out clearly in vs 15, have a look there. He issues his ultimatum, worship my image or I'll throw you into the furnace and then he says – here are the fateful words: 'Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?' What God can save you from me?
In his mind there are no gods over Nebuchadnezzar: his hand is powerful to kill and to build up; he brings the nations together, and behold: they worship him.
Nebuchadnezzar presumes himself worthy of honour and glory and power that belongs to God alone. He elevates himself above all rule and authority, and every judge and power.
What a numpty. What breathtaking hubris.
And let's press pause for a moment … Nebuchadnezzar was a numpty – but at least he had reason to be impressed with himself – he had conquered all those peoples and nations; they gathered together because they served him; But you and me? How much worse are we? – we do the very same thing – we pretend to ourselves that we're the centre of the universe and we've done nothing, we've got no reason to put confidence in ourselves no reason to believe we're the centre of the universe…
Back to Nebuchadnezzar… for all that he's less ridiculous than you or I, for all that he is impressive and powerful, there is no comparison with the power and glory of God… Yet here he is: setting himself up as the object of worship: 'What god will be able to rescue you from my hand?' What god indeed? God's might be good for getting the crops in, or for making it rain … for things where chance and luck play a part; but they're not for concrete things; they're like crossing your fingers and knocking on wood. They can't save your life from fire; they can't protect you from a man with a sword.
Nebuchadnezzar's power is solid, concrete and lethal; gods are hopes and dreams.
So this is the choice facing every person on that plain – they can choose to keep worship and honour exclusively for the God who made them, the God who deserves it – and they'll be thrown into a fiery furnace; or they can give God's praise to Nebuchadnezzar, and live. One way to live, Nebuchadnezzar says.
And it's a no brainer. Everyone agrees. Every Satrap, prefect, governor, advisor, treasurer, judge, magistrate and provincial official agrees. Every member of the orchestra, playing the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and every other instrument; they all agree. In that whole vast crowd all the peoples, nations and men of every language they all agree.
The music sounds and as one they all fall down. One way to live; they might not like it, they might be seething inside, it might go against everything they've ever thought or heard; or it could be just another god added to the list of god's they cling to. It doesn't matter what they think, there's no way they're going to step out of line. Verse 7:
Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations and men of every language fell down and worshipped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
Think of St James Park celebrating a goal… You don't want to be the only one person getting out of line do you? Better yet, think of Hitler's massed troops all saluting as one. Don't step out of that line…
Imagine finding yourself in that crowd. And they're all bowing down. And you don't want to. What do you do?
Well you find yourself bowing down don't you? You might tell yourself that this is a battle that you can't win, it's best to keep your head down, so you'll be there for the next battle… or you tell yourself that everyone else might bow down to worship, but you'll only bow down outwardly – in your heart you won't worship; or you tell yourself that you'll bow down now, but you'll say sorry to God afterwards and surely he'll understand won't he?
But stop and look again at what is happening here. Nebuchadnezzar sets himself up in the place of God. And in that crowd stand Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They know full well that God has told them they must not put any God's before him, commandment number one. And God has told them they must not make an idol and bow down and worship it, commandment number two. There's no grey here. The choice is simple – obey God or obey the King.
There are no other options.
Whatever they may think in their minds, whatever plea bargains they might come up with, whatever complex hermeneutic or bible distortion that might give them an 'out' clause… they know that Nebuchadnezzar commands them to do exactly what God commands them not to do. It's a straight choice – obey God or obey Nebuchadnezzar.
And pause again: you and I know it's never this simple and straight forward don't we? This is black and white, but we live in a world of grey.
Or do we? We may not see it, but in essence every temptation boils down to this in the end – either chose to trust God and obey him, whatever the cost, or reject God and disobey. Let's face the truth squarely, that's what we're doing. We daily make choices just as blatant as this, but with none of the excuses. You're with your mates and they start paying out on someone – and everyone has something bad to say about them, some joke to make at their expense – and you know it's wrong, but you find yourself joining in … You're in a team on overtime and as you finish the team leader says 'right, time sheets – put down we started at 9, and finished at 6.30' and you know full well it's 5.30, but if you make a fuss everyone loses an hour of overtime… You're on a work social and someone suggests you go to the strip club… You finally nail your dream job and on the first week you find you're going to have to stretch your ethical standards a bit – offer a little bribe (sorry, incentive), omit some details in your sale's pitch, offer something you know you can't deliver, catch them out with the small print… Someone comes to you on Monday saying 'did you read what that Christian guy said about X hot topic – you're a Christian, you don't believe that do you?
The truth is I'm yet to face an ultimatum to bow down and worship or die – I've never seen the inside of a fiery furnace with my name on it… but I haven't needed too, I've bowed down and worshiped with nothing on the line at all, again and again I've fallen down and given God's glory to another. And I know I'm not the only one. So have you. Our lives are saturated with these little compromises, dripping with them … we feel the pressure of the crowd and like lambs to the slaughter along we go.
Sometimes we might come up with clever justifications; other times we don't even bother fooling ourselves – we know it's wrong, but we hope no one's watching at this moment. And what we're doing is we're bowing down to the god of public approval, or the god of self preservation or whatever other god we're afraid of at that moment; and we're choosing to put that false god in the place of the true and living God.
It's in those moments where our faith is tested. And in those moments where our faith is tested that we prove our faithfulness. And in those moments when our faith is tested that we discover that God is faithful. And so our faith grows, or we discover that we had no genuine faith at all.
When you're feeling the pressure to conform, the pressure to bow down at the feet of false idols, when you're tempted to turn your back on God: remember that there is only one God and he demands all our worship, he's never looking the other way, and he sees through all our excuses…. But not only that, he is faithful and he is able to reward us, no matter how much it costs us to be faithful to him.
And that brings us to the second half of this chapter…to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and to point two:
One Way to Live: Worship God Alone
So what about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? Well they've been bit players in the chapter so far. The focus has been the pomp: the vast crowd, the obedient worshippers, the massed instruments. And at the centre of it all the vast ego of the megalomaniac King - strutting around soaking it up. And it's all going to plan, it's all going beautifully. Until verse 8. Enter the astrologers...
O great King they say… didn't you issue the decree O King, wasn't this all about bowing down O great one… what about those Jews: they didn't bow down Great King, what will you do about them O Great one?
And so our heroes are dragged into the spot light. Nebuchadnezzar is incandescent with rage. And Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are called before him. And the great and powerful King rants at them: 'Is it true?! Would you do this to me? Would you defy me?' You can imagine the veins in his temple bulging, the spit flying from his mouth. He repeats the orders with all the details of listed instruments – and he repeats his ultimatum. verse 14
and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, "Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, (remember they've been named after Nebuchadnezzar's gods!) is it true that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?"
Who could defy the King? What god could help them? Their answer is astonishing, verse 16:
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."
They know God; they serve God: they know he's real, not like the gods Nebuchadnezzar worships. Nebuchadnezzar sneers: 'What god will be able to save you from my hand?' And they know the answer – there is a God who can save, even from fire or sword or hurricane or famine, even from you Nebuchadnezzar – he's the God who made everything, the God who gives you breath, King, and he's the God we serve.
Notice that they trust God, whatever happens – God can save them from the furnace, they expect him too; but he might not, and they're willing to leave that up to him. He's God and they trust him no matter what. They obey God and leave the consequences up to him.
And notice that because of these things they have no case to answer. Nebuchadnezzar's livid, they broke his law, there's a penalty, they'll pay. But they say 'we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter'. Yes they broke the law, but the law is invalid. They know that all authority is contingent – the King doesn't have the last word, he doesn't have unlimited power; his power comes from God, and his authority is limited by God. This is a law he should never have made, he has no mandate for this; he is usurping God's authority – he's overstepped and this law has no authority.
There are profound implications for us here – because we live in a society that recognises no bounds to it's authority. Ethics is simply politics with another name – if enough of us agree it's right and pass it into law, then it is right. But that is a dangerous mistake. No unjust law is binding. The state does not have the right to redefine marriage, the state can not legislate for taking the lives of the helpless – whether they be as yet unborn: abortion, or reaching the end of their lives: euthanasia –no parliament has authority to authorise that killing. The state can not outlaw Christian witnessing and acting in accordance with our Christina conscience. And like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego we have a responsibility to challenge these false claims to authority. We need to stand as they did and look our rulers in the eye and say we do not need to apologise to you for breaking these laws, you need to repent of making them!
But we will never be able to do that if we do not first know God, as they did, so that they could trust him absolutely. And we will not know God if we do not serve him, as they did, so that they could experience his faithfulness and grow in love for him…
Now what happens next is the stuff of legends. The King rants and raves, the furnace is stoked till its dangerous for the people standing near by (commentaries report temperatures in the many hundreds of degrees). And our three heroes are cast in. Again the text makes a point of emphasising the details – verse21 lists their various items of clothing, not one of those items will be damaged by the flames. And again the focus of the action switches from the three heroes to the foolish King. And as he tries to satisfy his rage he gets the shock of his life. They go into the furnace, but they don't burn. Look at verse 24:
Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, "Weren't there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?" They replied, "Certainly, O king." He said, "Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods." Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, "Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!" So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.
God was able to rescue them, they thought he would, and he did.
Like I said, this is the stuff of legends. The sort of thing that is clearly designed to fortify God's people for times of challenge. And that raises issues for some people. I was challenged by a friend recently who said something like this: I don't understand. You've been to Uni, you're not an idot. And you've read the stories in the OT, right? How can you possibly believe any of that happened?'
Does a part of you wonder? I certainly hope you haven't just switched that part of your brain off. Because it's no encouragement at all if it didn't happen, but how could it happen? I don't have time to explore it fully, but let me say two things:
First, if the God we meet in the bible is true, it's no biggy at all for him to do this – if he is the creator of all things and all things continue to exist through his will, then science makes sense because he is faithful and reliable; but it isn't ultimate; and miracles are simply God showing his hand, letting us see that he really is in control. We may not have the ability to go back in time and assess this scientifically; but we do have excellent historical record to support Jesus' miracles, and through him confidence that God really is in control, and therefore we have good reason to believe that he can do this.
Secondly, we've already seen in this book that the miracles are matched by predictions of the future. We'll see in the second half detailed, specific predictions of future events that were fulfilled to the letter. Not Nostradamus stuff, you know make enough predictions that over thousands of years some of it must surely come true. No a succinct summary of the major political events for the next four hundred years. This is no less miraculous than the miracles. Like the fiery furnace rescue this advance knowledge of history can only come from God. So if you doubt that all this could possibly have happened let me give you a challenge – stick around through this series and listen, and if there is no God, then at the end when we've heard them all, come and explain the prophecies to me.
So back to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego: they trust God and God delivers. What does that mean for us? Is this a promise that whenever we defy false gods we will always be delivered and showered in glory? No, many have proved that's not the case – many have been willing to die rather than disobey God, and have indeed been put to death. God doesn't promise to save us all all the time. Instead this gives rise to a pastoral cliché – God doesn't promise to keep us from the flames, but God teaches us that he will be right there with us in the flames. That is what happened to our three heroes, Nebuchadnezzar saw four men in the fire, and one of them appeared to him as a god or an angel. Jesus was there with them. And Jesus is always with us, whatever trial or struggle we go through. In John 14 Jesus, looking forward to his death on the cross the next day, warns his disciples that they will be persecuted, and that he will be taken away from them; but he says to them:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
Jesus' followers will suffer for following him. But we can trust him, he is with us; and he will not leave us to fend for ourselves, but as he goes on to say, he will come and make his home in us by his Spirit. And after carrying us through everything we face he will in the end vindicate us – taking us through fiery trial into heaven itself.
And it's more than that. We who know our NT see a whole 'nother parallel to this story on the great plain. We know of another great gathering to honour a great King. We read about it earlier. In heaven, Rev 7 tells us men (and women) of every nation, tribe, people and language – a great multitude that no one could count – will stand before the throne and acclaim the great King who has brought them all together by his power and might and the great victories he has won. And together they will unite in worship, bowing down before him and praising him and him alone. And that great King who is actually worthy of all honour and glory and praise will declare his judgment on all those who have not worshipped him as they should. They will be thrown into the lake of fire. But all who trust in Jesus will be spared, because he has taken that punishment for us.
Jesus stood there with those men in the fire to point forward to the day that was coming when he would take on himself the fires of God's wrath against sin. And so prepare a place for us in heaven. So that all who trust in him can know that we will be saved, no matter what happens to us, in the end we will be vindicated, we will be saved, and we will live to bow down before the true and living God; and with that great multitude we will praise him as we should. And that sure and certain hope is worth any cost we will pay now – and on that day he himself will wipe away the tears from our eyes.
Because that is true we can stand for him whatever opposition we face.
So what about you? Is it hard to be a Christian in your work place? Is it hard to be faithful to God at your school? Are you tempted to deny Jesus and join in with the crowd as it bows down at the foot of false gods? Jesus is with you, and Jesus is watching, and Jesus is worth any cost.
And in your struggles, remember your brothers and sisters around the world. Today Christians face death, and hang on to faith in Jesus. In Egypt, in Syria, in Iran, Iraq and throughout the Arab world, in Malaysia and Indonesia and in Burma and in North Korea and so many places Christians are martyred for owning a bible, or for declaring that Jesus is lord and Allah is not, or for calling on people to repent, or for rejecting the insistence that they worship the men who rule over them.
Like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego their faithfulness under trial says to us: stand firm; God is with us; the God we serve is able to save us from all Kings, from all trials and from the hand of all our enemies. And he will do it, if not in this life, certainly in the next. So stand firm and let nothing move you, hold on to the hope of eternal life and fix your eyes on Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning it's shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.' (Hebrews 12.2-3)