But If Not...
Scriptures: Daniel 3:1-12, 13-21
Once when I was listening to A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison
Keillor told the story of a teenage boy scraping together several months allowance and going with friends to buy advance tickets to a rock concert in Minneapolis. They stood in line all night on a frozen sidewalk in sub-zero temperatures to buy the tickets. But the next morning when he got home his mother had second thoughts about allowing him to go. She had read an article in a parenting magazine about how rock concerts subvert the moral fiber of American youth. She heard parents talk about the disturbing lyrics sung by such groups, lyrics which were indecipherable by the parents but known by heart among all the youth. The next day while her son was at school she saw the concert ticket concert lying on his dresser. She was seized by a sudden desire to tear it up and throw it away. She had not wanted him to go in the first place. But she had given him permission, and after allowing him to stand in line all night in freezing temperatures spending his own money to buy that ticket, it would be wrong to destroy it. Wouldn't it? On the other hand, if destroying the ticket saved her son from life of moral decay, wouldn't he eventually thank her for it? She stood in her son's bedroom looking at the ticket wondering what she should do. Then Garrison Keillor said, "And that's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." There was an audible gasp on the radio from the audience. Instead of the usual applause there were groans and murmuring. That week Minnesota Public Radio received a storm of angry letters demanding that he tell the rest of the story, as if he were involved in a diabolical cover up.
I wonder if you felt that way about our scripture reading
for today. I intentionally closed the book at verse 21, as our heroes were flung into the furnace of blazing fire. As you probably know that is not the end of the story. The three men: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednegoor as one youngster called them: Shadrach, Meshach, and To-bed-we-gosurvive in the fiery furnace. If I had kept reading, I would have gotten to verse 25 where King Nebuchadnezzar opens the door of the furnace and says, But I see four men walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god. I will come back to that in a minute.
The story has a happy ending. King Nebuchadnezzar sees them alive in
the furnace and says, Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way. He almost becomes a convert. Then he promotes Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to a high office in his administration.
The story has a happy ending. But we dont know that in
verse 21. Not even the three men know that. In verse 17 the three men say to King Nebuchadnezzer: If our God is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. They have no assurance that God will save them from incineration. There is plenty doubt in their minds. But then they say to the king, But if not and here is one of the most profound statements of faith in the Bible: 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.
Faith is not the same as positive thinking. Faith is not a
naïve assurance that everything will turn out all right. At verse 21 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had no such assurance. During the Nazi holocaust many Jews were thrown into the fiery furnace and never came out. Faith in God does not mean knowing your job search will produce results, or that your next lab test will turn out benign. Faith in God does not mean that your marriage will always be happy or that your children will always be safe or that your future will always be secure. In the middle of the story, there are no guarantees, except one: that God will be there with you in the furnace.
Thats the meaning of the 4th man. The Seahawks have their
12th man; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have their 4th man. The 4th man in the furnace is described as having the appearance of a god. We dont know whether this is an angel or a preview of Jesus. The striking thing is that the 4th man does not arrive like a superhero, tearing off the door of the furnace and pulling Shadrach and his friends out of the flames. The 4th man is in the furnace with them. The 4th man endures the flames beside them. Sometimes God does not spare us the fiery furnace; God goes with us into it.
Just outside of Potlatch, Idaho, a small logging town where I served
my first church out of seminary, there was a hardware store and lumberyard called Plummer and Wagner. When you walked in the door you found all the usual hardware and lumber supplies: tools, nails, paint, fixtures, two-by-fours, and one thing that you don't usually expect to find in a hardware store: Bibles. One day the owner, Paul Plummer, an elder at the Presbyterian Church I served, discovered that there was no place in Potlatch to buy a Bible. There were actually a lot of things you couldn't buy in Potlatch, but it horrified him that you couldn't buy a Bible. So he arranged with the American Bible Society to have a rack of Bibles for sale in his hardware store.
This was not a new idea for Paul: mixing lumber and scriptures. In
his younger days he had worked at the Ganado Presbyterian Mission among the Navajos, teaching industrial arts and helping build a mission hospital on the reservation. When he came to Potlatch, he and his wife joined the Presbyterian Church, and he helped engineer a number of buildings projects for the church and community.
All of which were done while Paul was on crutches. He lived much of
his life with serious health problems, including partial paralysis and diabetes, that eventually led to kidney failure. He also suffered numerous financial setbacks to his business, aggravated by his sometimes brusque personality that alienated customers and even other people at the church. On occasion this led him to some serious bouts of depression.
Paul Plummer was not a candidate for one of those books on victorious
Christian living. And yet he remained a faithful elder, using his knowledge of construction to help churches expand their mission and even hiring some of the disabled men in the community to work in his store and mentoring them.
I saw Paul at the hospital on the night he died. His face was swollen
by fluid retention from failing kidneys and heart. During the day he drifted in and out of consciousness, and had difficulty talking even when he was awake. But when I visited him that night, he seemed to wake up, and when I finished praying for him, he tried to tell me something. I couldn't make out what he was saying, so I asked him to repeat it. Finally, on his third attempt, I realized that he was quoting a verse from the Bible. He was quoting a single sentence from the King James Version of Job 13. It said, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him."
The Bible says that one day death and suffering will be no more, and
God will wipe every tear from our eyes. I believe that promise. But I also know that we are not there yet. We still live in the middle of the story where the fiery furnaces are still burning, where death and suffering, tears and terrorism, are still very much with us. In the middle of the story faith is not an arrogant assurance that everything will go well for us. It is a determined allegiance to serve the one Lord in this universe worth serving, even if it costs us our lives.