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Pastor Glenn Zimbelman
|Evangelical Lutheran Church in America|
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Into the Fire
In Madison, Wisconsin there is this atheist organization called Freedom from Religion. They are staunch atheists. They are known for suing any city or civic organization that has anything to do with religion. Since we are entering our first week of advent I thought some Christmas stories are appropriate.
The first one is when the Freedom from Religion sued the city of Waunakee over having a Nativity scene on city property. Lots of cities would just cave in rather than pay for lawyers. The city of Waunakee got creative. They donated a 10 by 10 feet square piece of land to one of those service clubs like Lions, and they then could have their Nativity scene.
Now the closer you are to Madison, the fear of being attacked by the Freedom from Religion rises. They are everywhere. So when I was in Mount Horeb, 20 Miles west of Madison we had a new school superintendent. That very first Christmas, this Superintendent sent out a memo district wide that no longer would there be Christmas trees but Holiday trees. Secondly, all music performed by both High School band and High school choir shall not have any reference to God.
The superintendent wanted to make sure that Freedom from Religion didn’t sue the Mount Horeb School district. That could have been the excuse, on the other hand, perhaps the superintendent was secretly a Scrooge.
Anyway, I get a telephone call. You see the Choir teacher was a member of my church. The band teacher was a devoted Roman Catholic. They both met with me and said, please understand, that much of the best music available to us is sacred music. So I did something for the very first time. I wrote a letter to the editor. The people of the city agreed with me. The community agreed with us The band and the choir teacher met with the Superintendent and said that if this was the policy, they were both going to resign. Well they reached a temporary agreement and what was even better, the Superintendent left after one year.
So how do we stand firm when our faith is challenged? How do we have the conviction to be true to what we believe even it if is going to cost us something? For those two teachers it could have cost them their job. What happens if you are a refugee in a foreign land and you are faced with death?
Today we look at the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Now for most of us those are the names we remember from our Sunday school classes. Did you know that is not their real names? Judah is now in exhile. King Nebbuchadnezzar is in power. I always thought that was a good name for a cat. Hey, Nebbuchadnezzar, here is a treat. Well neve rmind. The king is in power and the subjects are now the Jews. So we read that 4 of them are trained and added to the Kings court. We read about these four in Daniel 1:6,
“Among they were Daniel, Hanniah, Mishael, Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. They palace master gave them other names: Daneil he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meschach and Azariah he called Abednego”
Names are important. In the case of these three men, their names point to their faith. So all three the original names of these Jewish men contain references to God such as “God is gracious” in the case of Hananiah, “Who is like God?” in the case of Mishael, and “God keeps him” in the case of Azariah. Scholars suggest that the new names reflect the gods of the Babylonians. Abednego means servant of the God Nego.
Picture of BBQ
There was one Lutheran in a whole town of Roman Catholics. Every Friday night he would cook up a steak on the grill. It drove all those Friday fish eating Catholics up a wall. They were delighted to hear that the man agreed to become Roman Catholic. So the priest gives the man a blessing. You were born a Lutheran. You were raised a Lutheran. You are now Roman Catholic. The town was happy. That very next Friday, to their amazement they smelled the aroma of cooked steak. They gathered over at the man’s house and they heard him declare, you were born beef, you were raised beef, you are now a fish.
Changing names does not always mean changing nature. In Star Trek the Next Generation they had a group of aliens called the Borg. They had a tagline, Resistance is Futile. This was followed by a phrase, you will be assimilated. This is what the Babylonians wanted to do with Judah. They wanted to assimilate them. They wanted them to give up their religion, their culture, their ways of looking at the world. One way of doing that was to require that everyone bow down to a golden statue set up by King Nebuchadnezzar. These three than essentially say, you can change our names, but you cannot change our character. You can call us what you want, but we are going to follow our Lord. So they are now faced with being thrown into a fiery furnace. We read in Daniel 3:16-18
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’
What I like about these verses is that it didn’t matter to them what God did. If God wants to deliver them, God can. If not, that is okay too. In either case they will not serve the Babylonian gods. They take a stand. They are true to who they are.
Now what happens next are two miracles.
Miracle One: The fire doesn’t harm them.
A fourth person shows which the NRSV declares, has an appearance of God. So they are saved.
Miracle Two: Nebuchadnezzar has a change of heart.
Because of Miracle One, Nebuchadnezzar allows Judah to worship God as they please.
So how are these stories helpful for today. Well most scholars believe these stories were used to give people hope and comfort in the face of persecution and doubt. They could look back and say, remember what happened in the fire. They could look back and say, remember when that Babylonian king had a change of heart. This would give the people the comfort and the courage to endure. We may not have the Freedom from Religion group breathing down our necks, but we all go through times of doubt and wonder about God.
What is helpful is for us to look back so that we can live in the present and look forward.
So when I wonder what God is going, I reflect back on all the times God has nurtured, rescued, and helped me through difficult times. This gives me the courage and the faith to go forward. Because you see, if God can rescue me once, God can rescue me again. As we head into Advent in preparation for the Savior, this is a great time to reflect on the amazing love God has shown to all of us in the world. For like the man who appeared like God in the fire, we have a Savior who also walks with us each and every day. Amen.
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