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Sunday, January 28, 2018
Between Two Worlds Sermon Series, week 4
Scripture: Ephesians 6:10-20 & Daniel 3:8-18
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I am learning once again about prayer. Now, don’t get me wrong. As a pastor, I pray a fair amount, but it’s easy to get into the habit of praying only at the expected times. The pastor is here – he can pray before we eat. It’s time to start a meeting – the pastor will pray! Or it could be at the end of a hospital visit, so it’s a good way to “amen” the time. All of these prayers are fine and good, but I’m just as susceptible as the next person to praying because I should and just going through the motions.
But I’m learning once again that there is power in prayer and that a church on the move is a church that believes in and practices prayer. I recently read a remarkable book called Unbinding the Gospel, which takes a good look at churches like ours and examines the differences between vibrant churches and those that are dying on the vine. Do you know what one of the bedrock differences was? The vibrant churches valued and practiced prayer. Here’s the author’s summary, “After years of talking with pastors and laypeople in churches that are thriving, and in churches that are failing, I am clear that the only way to do ministry successfully, to lead a church or to live a life in today’s United States is to pray deeply. We must hand ourselves over to God in clear-headed, accountable, non-naïve prayer. We need to rely as much on God for pragmatic guidance as we can stand! Without God vividly in the mix, we drift, life declines.”
I’ll get us back to prayer a bit later, but for now, let’s take a look at Daniel.
Let me set the scene for you. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were among the Jewish elites brought to Babylon and trained to be a part of King Nebuchadnezzar’s court. They have excelled in their learning and service, and recently, they had received a promotion. Daniel is able to put his friends in charge of the province of Babylon, while Daniel remains a trusted part of Nebuchadnezzar’s court.
As Pastor Jill pointed out last week, Nebuchadnezzar was a big deal. He built the Babylonian Empire. He made Babylon itself a wonder to behold with its walls that were 1/3 the height of the Empire State Building and wide enough to race four chariots at once on top. He had his hanging gardens. He was on top of the world and immensely powerful, so why not add to his greatness and make a 90-foot tall gold statue of himself? Other than Daniel, it seems like Nebuchadnezzar’s counselors would say yes to his every whim. His latest whim was his desire that his people worship at the feet of this statue, and he could get it on demand.
So, when music played, everyone was supposed to stop what they were doing, bow down and worship the golden statue. Now, this worked for most people, but for Jews like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, this was impossible. For them, the Lord God was the only one worthy of worship; to worship anyone else alongside of the Lord was a breaking of the commandments and a denial of their very identity, which is wrapped up in who God is.
So these men practiced civil disobedience. They didn’t call a press conference to announce their decision. They didn’t run around Babylon mocking the people who did bow down. No, they just faithfully lived their lives with integrity before God. They lived what they believed, and it got them in a heap of trouble.
People who were envious of their position overseeing the province of Babylon ran to Nebuchadnezzar and said, “How can you let people who will not obey you be in such a position of power?” Of course, Nebuchadnezzar was furious. He was so enraged with their disobedience that “his face was distorted,” according to verse 19. But they stood firm in their belief in what was right. Even under the threat of sure death, they would not obey this law. They were willing to face the consequences, which in this case was sure death. But they faced those with courage and faith – come what may.
What unfolds next is sheer miracle. The enraged king ordered the death penalty for them. His instrument of choice? A massive furnace heated up seven times hotter than normal, matching the heat of the furnace to the intensity of the king’s anger. The strongest guards in his army bind them. It’s so hot that these strong men die from putting Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the furnace.
Surely, that’s all she wrote, right? Wrong! The Lord intervenes, sending an angel to be with them in their trial. The king sees them walking around in the raging furnace, unhurt, and praising God. He calls them out, and at least for a short season, seems to recognize that God is greater than he himself is.
But we did things a bit out of order because last week Pastor Jill preached on Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, humiliation, and ultimate return to his throne. This event occurs before that, so we see in the king a deep-rooted sense of self-importance and no acknowledgment that God is king. Through the civil disobedience of these three men and their steadfast faith in God, the king’s eyes are opened to the power of God Almighty.
After they emerge from the flames completely unhurt and not even a shred of clothing singed, Nebuchadnezzar declares, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way” (3:28-29).
Baby steps in discipleship, I guess, for Nebuchadnezzar, because this God is not one who desires people to be destroyed. But he at least comes to a point of admitting that there is a greater power in the universe than himself. It’s a start for someone who truly had a lot of power. Through their faithful witness, these three showed that there are things worth living and dying for in this world. Standing up for God’s truth and trusting in God’s justice is worth it, even if you face troubling consequences for the moment.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are an example for all who are willing to live with integrity in the world, who are willing to stand up for God’s justice and righteousness in a world that is so willing to distort the goodness of creation.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “It is good to learn early enough that suffering and God are not a contradiction but rather a unity, for the idea that God himself is suffering is one that has always been one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity. I think God is nearer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this way gives peace and rest and a strong and courageous heart.”
Peter stands in line with these faithful witnesses when he proclaims to the council in Jerusalem, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). Stephen stands in line with them when he stands up for Christ and is stoned to death. So many through the centuries – ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances – have stood firm in faith that God’s way of justice would eventually win out, even if it cost them dearly. These three live on in Rosa Parks. They are the lunch-counter protestors and the Pettis Bridge walkers in Selma. They are the Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie Ten Boom opposing the Nazis. They are Nelson Mandela. Even today they are those who stand up for justice and truth in a world confused about the image of God that resides in each and every person, regardless of where they were born, to whom they were born, or what language they speak.
Back in 2002, Jess and I had the opportunity to serve alongside one of those ordinary people who found himself in extraordinary circumstances. His name is the Rev. Dr. John Perkins. We’re going to pause now to watch a short video that gives a glimpse into his life.
Dr. Perkins is now 87 years old, and he is still going. He speaks all over the world about racial reconciliation. He founded the Christian Community Development Association, which plays a pivotal role in connecting faith with affordable housing, poverty issues, and the like. He has faced tremendous adversity. A third grade education. Growing up with segregation. The loss of his parents. Jail. Beatings. Yet, here he stands firm for his belief that God’s justice will prevail and that we all have a role to play in making that a reality. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news, indeed!
So, my guess is that you’re sitting here thinking about how admirable these people are but that God really hasn’t asked anything heroic of you. We don’t have kings threatening our lives or neighbors upset with us because we’re Presbyterian. But this is where prayer comes back in.
Prayer is what sustains us in life. It is a lifeline to the One who gives us life. It is a reminder that we don’t save the world. God does. Through the Spirit, prayer gives life and ability and strength we don’t have on our own. It gives us strong and courageous hearts. As I learn more about prayer, as I push past the perfunctory praying that I’m so inclined to do, as I love and shepherd this church, I hope you’ll join me in deep, earnest, engaged prayer for the whole world, for our ministry, and for all God gives you to pray for. “Prayer is the way to stay in love with God. Prayer is the way individuals, small groups, and congregations grow and become vivid. It is a habit, a discipline, but not discipline with a clenched jaw. Prayer is more about receiving from God than it is about asking God for things or working hard at intercession.”
Prayer sustains and enlivens each of us as we go about living between two worlds. I want to close with a poem that Mother Teresa had hanging on her wall as she went about her extraordinary ministry. It reminds me a lot of the character and faithfulness of all of these ordinary saints. Prayerfully, I hope it resonates with your own life too. It’s called “Anyway.”
People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight.
People really need help but may attack you if you help them.
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
Friends, God has never promised us that everything would go well for us at all times. But like the angel walking with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, God is with us. Life is hard, filled with disappointments, and unjust. Let’s pray, love, and give the world the best we’ve got anyway.
 Reese, Martha Grace. Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008. p. 42.