Every once in a while, it can feel like you are in the middle of the furnace with fire all around you. It’s more than living in Texas in August. It’s a thing that consumes you and if you are going to come out of the fire, the goal is to not smell like smoke!
I’ve stood near a fiery furnace. A summer job in college. Toss in the scrap aluminum. Don’t lean in too far. Watch it melt. Pull off the dross. Repeat. Be sure to wear protective helmet, vest and gloves. That’s one image. There’s more. A lot more!
I’ve stood in the fiery furnace. Sometimes you don’t even go looking for it. The door is right there at the beginning of your day and someone tosses you in. It’s that moment when you realize, “I just got burned.” It’s not the temperature you worry over; it’s realizing your heart is scorched and your brain is simmering and you can’t think of anything else except asking, ‘How did this happen?’ ‘How long will this tempest last?’ ‘Could it get worse?’ You pray someone shows up with a hose or glass of Irish whiskey. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. Being alone in the fire is worse.
Then I’ve seen others jump into the fiery furnace. I knew they knew better, but as the saying goes… ‘she just couldn’t help herself!’ Despite all the will power anyone can muster and even after all the loving warnings from friends and family, there are still those occasions when the encroaching fire beckons. In that moment of intentional blind and personal abandonment of all that is holy, just and right you fall into it to welcome the pain and pay a price that can linger a long, long time and even create a path from which there is no return. That’s when you smell like smoke!
Stop for a moment and feel the heat. Do a quick scan or your torso top to bottom. Start low. Look up. See any scars? Some leftover burn marks from that time or those times you found yourself in the fire? Now close your eyes. Take a look inside. The scars are there, too. Most likely even deeper than the ones on the outside. Lost love. Lost job. A debilitating accident. Death of a parent. Death of a spouse. Death of a marriage. The child you thought you deserved. A doctor’s diagnosis. Fill in the blank. The older you get the chances are the more scars you’ve acquired. “Trials and tribulations, you shall have,” Jesus said. That was spoken as promise and not be to confused with fake news. So, don’t be too surprised if you find yourself in the fiery furnace from time to time. It’s called life.
So, here’s a story. One I remember as a child, but in all my 36 years of ministry never once preached on. Until August 2017. In Texas. With a temperature in the 90’s closing in on 100 degrees. The story of King Nebuchadnezzar and him having Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego tied and tossed into the fiery furnace of unfaithfulness. Or at least it seemed so at first. You can read about it yourself in the Old Testament book of Daniel… chapter 3… https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+3&version=MSG.
King Nebuchadnezzar didn’t kill the people he took captive. He didn’t burn down the town, either. He was a subtle mind-manipulator and culture shifter. He found the local leaders. He gave them good Babylonian food, good Babylonian names and good Babylonian jobs. The Israelites noticed their leaders thriving and soon made similar adjustments. When in Babylon, do as the Babylonians, right? Well, except if you are Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego… formerly known by their Hebrew names Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah… all pointing out the power and glory of God… the one true God to be worshiped rather than the 90 foot high and nine feet thick golden statue not so good King Neb erected for all of his kingdom to worship. Narcissism goes way back, huh? Well, at least moon god worship.
When was the last time you took a bold stand? When was the last time the music got cranked up and you chose not to dance with the rest of the crowd? You know… “do a little dance, make a little love… get down tonight…” or “you’ve got to fight for the right to par-tay” or ‘if you can’t be with the one you love… love the one you’re with” kind of resistance? Or did you join in? Many did. Some of us have the scars to prove it! What Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did was about the mission of God. An ‘amen’ moment to stand fast and hold their ground of faith. No matter what the King and culture dictated, their response was a bold, we can’t be pushed around devotion to God… a love for the one true God… Yahweh, Jehovah, Elohim of Israel… the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! And that’s when the big stout monks showed up, stoked up the King’s fiery furnace seven times higher, bound the three friends and tossed them into the fire!
And here’s where the alarm bells go off…
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did not go quietly into the fire. Despite King Nebuchadnezzar’s promise of a very painful death for not worshiping his idol, the three men responded in kind… “Can your God save you from me and this inferno?” was the question and the answer was short and sweet. “Yes, our God can save us from the fire!” (and here’s the real important part…) “but even if God, doesn’t… we will never bow down and worship you and your idol.” What? “But, even if God doesn’t… ” Whoah. When was the last time you heard a Christian in the USofA talk like that? “Even if God doesn’t” is the key to the mission of God for the three men in the fire and for us…
Can we do that? What happens when God doesn’t answer our prayers? Can we still live faithfully tending to the things of God? What if our neighbor doesn’t love us the way we think God wants them to? Will we still love them as God desires? For all the times we offer up our shopping list one-sided conversations with God when we deem the moment critical only to get silence from heaven, do we still dare to bear witness to the God who stands with us in the fiery moments of life? What King Nebuchadnezzar saw in the fiery furnace was not three men bound and in flames, but a fourth face… and all four men walking freely in the furnace. Unharmed. Unsinged. Unafraid. Unwilling to worship anything short of their faithful God. The king spouted these words… “It looks like a son of the gods…” as he noticed the protection Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had acquired. It seems that Jesus doesn’t just show up when life is good but is present even in the most treacherous moments as well. The cross and empty tomb testify to this as well!
We are living in a time when up to 2 and 1/2 generations of Americans know little of God and even less of ‘church.’ A time where the mission of God takes a back seat the to 90 foot high 9 feet thick idols we run after in a selfish culture to secure a sense of self-worth and purpose. And that’s not fake news either. It’s like what one of my colleagues reminded me this past week… “a mom and dad drive down the street passing the church. Their children pipe up from the back seat…’what’s that?” as they point to an empty parking lot with 3 crosses in the front yard. “That’s a church,” said dad. “What do they do?” the younger brother quipped. “I don’t know,” said the mother. “I’ve never been.” That’s why we can hear on the news of young girl who died following a dare to drink boiling water through a straw and where 5 boys in Florida record a video on their cell phone of a man drowning, taunting him throughout his struggle, not rendering any kind of aid to the man or think to call for help… but after watching him die were heard on the videotape (that went viral) “He dead. Let’s go upload this and get some lol’s and some ha-has…” A culture with few values will fall on its knees to just about anything that comes along.
But, I want to point out how the story of the three men in the fiery furnace ends.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego do not die. They live to give God glory. They live to serve God another day. Their witness causes King Nebuchadnezzar to shift his cultural perspectives once more and the 3rd chapter of Daniel ends with these words…
Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! He sent his angel and rescued his servants who trusted in him! They ignored the king’s orders and laid their bodies on the line rather than serve or worship any god but their own.
29 “Therefore I issue this decree: Anyone anywhere, of any race, color, or creed, who says anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego will be ripped to pieces, limb from limb, and their houses torn down. There has never been a god who can pull off a rescue like this.”
30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
Daniel also reports that when the three men came out of the fiery furnace they did not smell like smoke.
…and I heard them murmur… “How hot could it get?”
May you find comfort in knowing that life’s fiery furnaces are real. Sometimes they come on their own; sometimes we jump in head first. So, tend to the mission of God as we are never alone in the fires of life even if God doesn’t show up in the way you desire…And may you come to God’s house for worship this next Sunday with all your limbs intact and your house standing strong on its foundation.
… murmuring mostly for the good,