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January 10, 2021

Sermon Daniel 3:23 . . .“Silent witness:  a fiery furnace”

“Silent witness:  a fiery furnace”

Daniel 3:23

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Born in May of 1910, August Landmesser was his parents’ only child.  Twenty-one years later, thinking it would help him get a job, he joined the Nazi party.  Four years later, in 1935, he met, fell in love, and became engaged to a woman named Irma Eckler.

There was just one problem.  She was Jewish.  And just as soon as authorities found out, he was immediately expelled from the party for “dishonoring the race,” and was told they couldn’t get married.  Their first daughter, Ingrid, was born later that year in October of 1935.

Then came June of 1936.  And while he was employed by the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, as workers were just about to launch its newest vessel, a naval training ship called the Horst Wessel, who should suddenly appear, but Herr Führer, Adolf Hitler himself.

And what do you do when the Führer shows up?  You give him the Nazi salute, the “sieg heil,” the “hail victory.”  And why not?  It was the mandatory salute for every German citizen as a sign of loyalty to Hitler, to his party, and to his nation.  So that’s exactly what everyone did.

Except for one.  August Landmesser.

Why wouldn’t he salute him?  Because he simply could not honor the man who had publicly dehumanized his wife and daughter, and millions of others just like them, then return home to them a few hours later.  And though he might have been aware that propaganda photographers were lurking somewhere in the shipyard, all he could think of, at that moment, was his family.

Ever since then, he’s become known as, “The man with folded arms.”

So it was for three men from the book of Daniel chapter 3.  I’ll start at verse 1:  “King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits.  He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.  Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent to gather the satraps, the prefects, the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up...And the herald proclaimed aloud, ‘You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.  And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace’” (Daniel 3:1-2, 4-6).

Let’s step back for a moment to see what’s going on.  We’ll start with King Nebuchadnezzar.

So who was he?  He was a king who reigned some six hundred years before Christ, the greatest king Babylon ever knew.  When he first ascended his throne, he prayed to the gods and said, “O merciful Marduk, may the house that I have built endure forever, may I be satiated with its splendor...and receive therein tribute of the kings of all regions, from all mankind.”

And that’s exactly what happened, for just as soon as he defeated the Egyptians and the Assyrians, he took control of all the trade routes from the Persian Gulf to the east, to the Mediterranean Sea to the west.  And from the immense wealth he gained from taxes and tolls, he built the massive Ishtar gate, the hanging gardens of Babylon, (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), as well as city walls that stretched fifty-six miles long, so thick that chariots could race side-by-side.  Then painting its bricks a brilliant blue, he inscribed them with the words, “I am Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.”

But the one thing that pleased him the most was when he conquered the kingdom of Judah, completely destroying the temple and all of Jerusalem.

And as he captured the men, women and children of Judah, he kept some of the best and brightest for himself.  As the Bible records in Daniel chapter 1, “...youth without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding, learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:4).

And for the next three years, he immersed them in Babylonian knowledge, culture, language, and religion, the very best he and his kingdom had to offer.  With a fully paid scholarship to Babylon State University, (the Ivy League of the ancient world), his students learned science, math, history, commerce, and astrology.  Even better, he sent them food, all-you-can-eat, free of charge, fresh from the king’s table.

It was the deal of a lifetime!

And somewhere in that mix of young women and men, there were three who stood out beyond all the rest--one named Hananiah, another Mishael, and a third named Azariah.  But you don’t know them by their Hebrew names.  You know them by their Babylonian names--Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

But as it often goes, the day came when King Nebuchadnezzar got a little too proud of himself.  That’s when, as it says in chapter 3, he “made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits, (that’s ninety feet high), and its breadth six cubits (that’s ten feet wide).”  Then he set it up in the heart of his great kingdom of Babylon.

Then he took it one step further.  He sent his herald to say:  “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.  And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.”

And sure enough, just as soon as the king’s band began to play, everyone fell down and worshipped--every satrap, every prefect, every treasurer, and every governor.  Every single one bowed their knee and fell face-down on the ground, all except for three--Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

So why did they refuse to bow?

If you think about it, they had every reason to bow.  After all, what good would it do to resist?  King Nebuchadnezzar had already made that perfectly clear:  “Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.”

Even more, not only were their jobs on the line, their lives were too.  Everyone else was already face-down on the ground.  What would it have mattered if they too had, for just a moment, bowed their knee?  Besides, weren’t they a whole lot better off alive, rather than dead?

But they would not bow, they could not bow, for God in His Word had said, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  And He said, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.  You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.”

And so they said, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, we have no defense, no answer, no way out.  But even though you have changed our names, you cannot change our hearts.  For it is God alone that we serve.”

What happened next?  The Bible says old King Nebuchadnezzar was so mad, so filled with fury, that he ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than ever.  Then faster than you can say, “That is one hot fire!” his strongest soldiers tied them up and threw them inside.

But just a moment later, to everyone’s shock and surprise, what happened?  Verse 24:  “Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste.  He declared to his counselors, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?’  They answered and said to the king, ‘True, O king.’  He answered and said, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods’” (Daniel 3:24-25).

In his book, A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, author Gordon Mackenzie tells the story of a summer his father spent on his uncle’s farm.  And one Sunday morning, since neither he nor his cousin wanted to go to church, they faked stomach cramps so they could stay home and have some fun (don’t get any ideas!).  And as soon as the aunt and uncle rode off in the sunrise to church, the two boys hopped out of bed, in search of trouble.

One said, “Do you know how to hypnotize a chicken?”

“No,” said the other, “but I’m open to learning!”

Quickly his cousin snuck into the chicken coop, then selected one fine white hen, and carried her out to the front of the house.  Then pulling out a piece of chalk and drawing a short line on the ground, he stood the creature over the chalk line and held her beak down to the ground.  In a moment, she was hypnotized.  Then he said, “Let’s do another one!”

So they went back into the hen house and got another chicken.  And another.  And another.  Before long, the entire hen house was empty, and the front porch was filled with seventy or so silent, motionless chickens with their beaks glued to the ground.

Needless to say, when his aunt and uncle came back home, they were not at all very happy.

In just the same way, there are those in our world today who would have us do things their way, to make us conform, to hold our beaks to the ground.  But as the apostle Paul once wrote to the church in Rome:  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you will learn to know God’s will, what’s good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

So we pray for the strength and the courage to say, just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, it is God alone that we serve.

Back in the early 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, two students, John Stam and Betty Scott met at a missionary prayer meeting at their school, the Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago.  Quickly they became friends, fell in love, and talked of marriage.  But she was a year ahead of him, and serving as a missionary in China wasn’t safe, so they decided to wait a couple of years, till October of 1933.  A year later, in September of 1934, their daughter, Helen Priscilla was born.

Three months later, in early December, the sound of gunfire suddenly broke out.  Communist soldiers had overrun the city, and were searching from house to house.  Fearing for their safety, Betty wrapped little Helen in thick clothes, then tucked in a clean nightdress, formula, diapers, and two $5 bills, just in case.  John got down on his knees to lead his family in prayer.

Just then, Red Army soldiers stormed into their room, arrested them, kidnapped them, then demanded a ransom of $20,000 for their release.

When the money didn’t come, they were marched over the mountains to a nearby town.  That night, while Betty and Helen were allowed to sleep, John was forced to stand, tied to the foot of their bed.

The next morning, they were led through the village while soldiers ordered people to come to witness their execution.  And on a hill, just outside a town, near a stand of pine trees, as John tried to speak of Christ once more, soldiers first killed him, then Betty.  He was twenty-seven.  She was twenty-eight years old.

To this day, inscribed on their tombstone, are the words, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).

Before we leave this text, there is just one question--where was Jesus in Daniel chapter 3?  After all, they desperately needed Him to help them.

Believe it or not, He was there, for on that golden morning in 600 B.C., He left the glories of heaven, walked down that starry staircase, then stepped into that fiery furnace.  And when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out, their hair and clothes weren’t singed.  They didn’t even smell like smoke.

When trouble comes, and it will come, and when life tumbles in all around us, it’s then that we discover that Jesus has been with us at all times.  And there, even in the furnace, we experience His power and presence.

As even old King Nebuchadnezzar once said, “There is no God like Him.  His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion endures forever.”

 

By Your grace, dear Father, You saved Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the fire.  Help us to stand for You in our place and time, that others may know You as Savior and Lord.  Hear us for Jesus’ sake.  Amen

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