Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, Sept. 3

Below is the sermon, from the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3.

This story is one of my favorites from when I was a kid. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is one of those great Sunday School stories that reminds you of God’s faithfulness. I think the feeling I most remember, though, was feeling like, “I wish that stuff like this happened to me.” Even as a little boy, I wanted to follow God, not that I always acted like it. And I used to think, you know, I wish something like this happened today, to people like me, so that I could be tested, because I just know I’d come through if I was tested. But nothing like this ever seemed to happen in my little town, in my little church, in my little life. My little town of about six hundred people had three churches–a black Baptist church, a white Baptist church, and a Methodist church. No idols; nobody forced to worship where they didn’t want to go. Even the names were exotic–names like Nebuchadnezzar, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Nobody worshipped idols, and nobody was forced to worship a certain way, at least that I knew of. I mean, the story about Nebuchadnezzar building this golden statue and making everybody bow down to it and worship it–I mean, that just never happened in little Pedricktown, NJ. Odds are, it doesn’t happen here in Chester County, either.

Or does it? Maybe idolatry does exist still after all. After all, idolatry is far more than just worshiping a statue–it’s about worshiping anything other than the living God. And we might be smart enough now to not worship wood or a painting, or a statue–but we’re still not smart enough to not worship ourselves, our preferences, our traditions, our comfort. Those are no less idols than the statue Nebuchadnezzar built, because they distract us from worshiping the true God and set up false gods in His place. Maybe idolatry is more rampant than we know; maybe each of us worships idols in our own way and in our own time.

What idols does your neighborhood worship? What about your friends and family? What about you? Was it Bob Dylan that said “Everybody’s got to serve somebody?” The same idea applies to worship. We are actively worshiping something in our lives all the time. And if it is not the living God, the Trinity of love and power, please know that we will worship something else. It’s almost like each of us has our own idol, a “shadow God” if you will, that we fall back on if we are not worshiping God. For some of us, it is our bodies; we worship our bodies if we are not worshiping God, and we give our bodies everything they want, always giving into our appetites for food, pleasure, and sex, even if those things get in the way of God. For some of us, it is our money; we give priority to accumulating wealth above serving God with our wealth. For some of us, it is consumption, it is our things; we give priority to accumulating things and services that show status in the community, and we pursue those, even if it costs us in our relationship with God. All of these things, and so many more can be idols. Idolatry is alive and well today–in my hometown, in Chester County, and all over the world.

But certainly nothing happens like Nebuchadnezzar making people worship an idol. When I was a kid, it was strange to think about worshiping idols; but it was even stranger to imagine someone making someone else worship an idol, and throwing them into a furnace if they wouldn’t do it. Why, I live in America, the land of the free, the home of the brave! My little town was an all-American town, where people put American flags out on their lawn on Memorial Day and July 4 and Veterans’ Day. Surely in America, so big on freedom of worship, we wouldn’t force people to worship an idol?!?

Well, thank heaven that we do have laws in place that limit the government so they can’t do things like make you worship one way or another. So no, I don’t think the day will soon come when people are thrown into a furnace just for not worshiping the way the president wants you to. But, at the same time, make no mistake about it–there are idols that our culture wants you to worship. And if you don’t worship those idols, there will be consequences. Now maybe you won’t get thrown in a fiery furnace–but there are lines this world wants you to toe, and if you don’t toe those lines, prepare to pay the consequences. For example, Don’t expect the good folks at the Exton Square Mall to be happy if you decide to change your spending habits because you believe they’re out of whack and not pleasing to God. People look at you funny if you do nutty things like actually believe that a man died and then lived again. People look at you funny if you reorient your life around that fact. People look at you funny if you plan your dateplanner and checkbook around God. People look at you funny if you choose to live in a “bad neighborhood” because you want to show the love of Christ there. People look at you funny if you fast to show solidarity with the poorest of the poor. People look at you funny if you choose to live within your means and don’t worship the god of consumption. They probably won’t throw you in a furnace if you don’t worship their idols, but don’t be expected to be invited to many dinner parties either.

Maybe, just maybe, this world is not all that different from the world Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego lived in. Maybe we still live in a world rife with idols, many more idols than existed in those days; and maybe there is still that ancient pressure on Christians to renounce the true God to follow one or more of those idols. Thank heaven there’s no furnace to burn the Christian alive; thank heaven we are not thrown to the lions like the Christians under Roman persecution; thank heaven the rules have changed a little bit. Yes, the rules have changed–but the game’s still the same.

When I was a little kid reading this story, part of what I always envied was this certainty of knowing that God would work. When Nebuchadnezzar calls Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in to chat with him, he says, basically, “Look, if you don’t worship this golden statue, you shall be immediately thrown into a blazing hot furnace, and no god will be able to save you from that.” And they look at him and say, “We don’t have any need to present a defense to you in this matter.” In other words, we don’t need to justify to you why we’re not going to do this. If our God can save us from a fiery furnace, let him deliver us. And if he doesn’t deliver us, we’re still not going to worship your statue.”

And the king gets so angry that he orders the furnace heated to seven times its normal heat, and he gets the strongest guards to grab Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and throws them into the fire fully clothed. In fact, the text tells us that the furnace was so hot that the fire killed the strong men who threw the three into the fire just because they got too close to the heat. And so the king looks on, satisfied that he has just torched these infidels.

But as the king looks into the furnace, suddenly he sees another man walking around in the fire, and the four men are in there, walking around unharmed! Now Nebuchadnezzar is convinced and so he calls for the three men to come out. And they do, and everyone gathers around and they see that it is as if the fire had not even touched them; their hair was not singed; their clothes were not burned; we read that not even the smell of fire was on them. And Nebuchadnezzar was convinced, and began to worship the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and even showered them with favors in the province of Babylon.

I said before that the rules change, but the game remains the same. Our culture still pressures us to give in and to worship idols, to fit in, to be like everyone else. But the good news in this is that the same God who protected Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, also protects us. The same God who protected those three from the heat also continues to protect us today. Our God protects us like a father and nourishes us like a mother during the furnace-times in our lives, the times when we feel the heat for choosing a different way than the way of the world.

He protects us when he gives us a church. When he plants us among a group of people instead of by ourselves, there’s a kind of safety in numbers. We can know when we gather here that we are with other people who don’t worship the idols of the world–we are with others who worship the true God, the living God, the one more powerful than any idol.

He protects us when he gives us the Scripture. Scripture, that ancient testimony to what God does in people’s lives, that ancient witness to Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh; Scripture anchors us. It reminds us that we are not alone, and that for thousands of years now, people have followed the living God, the same God we strive to follow. We remember then that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have lived and died for their faith and even now await our presence as we celebrate at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

He protects us too when he gives us this meal. Here, we are nourished with the bread of Christ’s body and the cup of His blood. We are reminded that we are participants in an ancient mystery, that in a mysterious way, we also feed on the body of Christ, we also participate in his sacrifice. Here, we are reminded that we are merely the latest actors in a long drama, as all of creation groans as a woman in labor and awaits the new birth which is to come when Christ returns and sets things right. And not just all of creation, but we too groan with it, inwardly, waiting for the redemption of our bodies, as all of God’s people have always done as they have gathered around this table and anticipated what is to come. Come, all you Christians, all you beloved of God; gather here and be nourished by Christ’s sacrifice and Christ’s love. Here, in this safe sanctuary, God nourishes us and protects us, sustaining us as he did Peter, as he did Mary, as he did John, as he did David and Deborah and Gideon, as he did Moses and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as he did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.