By the Rev. Eric Long
This morning I officiated at our 7 a.m. Wednesday Eucharist. While getting up earlier than normal isn’t something I generally relish, it was rousing to discover the Old Testament reading for today was a story I learned in childhood: Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the fiery furnace. While some of you may only know those names from a Beastie Boys’ song, or others, not at all, theirs is a great story, and a very timely one at that.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three Jewish men who did something heroic during the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people: they said “no.”
To understand their story, you need to know something of the history of ancient Israel. After the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, Israel was divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was called Israel and the southern called Judah. In 722 BC, the Assyrian empire destroyed the northern kingdom and forever scattered her people. The southern kingdom endured and felt mighty self-satisfied about that, believing the north was destroyed because they were not as righteous. A popular folk-theology was born out of nationalistic and religious hubris. God would forever protect them, they believed. They were better–even more precious–than others. Thus, despite the cry of the prophets, most Judeans did not take the Babylonian empire’s ascendency seriously, even when its armies marched to Judah’s borders. They should have. In 587 BC, the Babylonian empire sacked Jerusalem and forced the people of Judah into exile in Babylon.
It is impossible to overstate the theological catastrophe the exile was for the Jews of this time. While Babylon was known to be the great empire of the day, and thus, like all empires, claimed itself to be eternal and ultimate, Scripture said that God would preserve the Davidic line of Judah forever. Moreover, many false prophets ensured the people that they were more divinely valued than others, and, therefore, by simple birthright, their inheritance was God’s eternal protection. Yet Babylon sacked David’s city and God’s temple was no more. The God of Abraham seemed defeated by the gods of Babylon — a reading of the historic moment trumpeted by the empire and believed by far too many Judeans.
Many gave up and bought into Babylon’s claims. Others clung to scant cultural and cultic artifacts to retain the last vestiges of a fading religious identity. Yet largely they acquiesced to the empire as well. Others resisted. They knew that Babylon was not eternal; her claims, a lie. They trusted the God of Abraham had not been defeated. Therefore, they mustered enough hope-fueled courage to battle the temptation to hand their futures over to the idolatrous claims of a false empire.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three such men. Although they had risen to some prominence in the courts of Babylon, they knew the difference between fabricated claims of supremacy and the real thing. Thus, when Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon’s king, demanded they bow to his image or be thrown into a furnace of fire, they said “no.” Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t understand their decision. The people of Judah could practice their faith as long as it was subordinated to the primacy of the empire. Plus, these three men were valued by him. Thus, he encouraged them to simply go through the motions, even if they didn’t really believe it, in order to set a good example for other Jews. Yet knowing what really matters in life, what is eternal and what is not, who God truly is as opposed to all pretenders, they would not. Having no choice in his mind, the king threw them into a furnace of fire, for his dominance could not be questioned. God, however, preserved them, and the story tells us that not a single hair on their heads was singed.
What could such an ancient story possibly teach us today? Much, I believe. There are many false claims of ultimacy being pushed on us, enticing us to appropriate them into our lives as supreme. Too many have bought into Judah’s belief that we are somehow more precious or cherished than others, and thus untouchable. Yet the story of the God of Israel and Jesus proclaims the blessings of God are for all people, as we are each preciously made in God’s image. Some have tried to marry things “Christian” with values born of fear that most definitely are not. Yet Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego resisted fear and stood up for what’s truly righteous. Some have bowed down to the idolatry of the ideologies of empire (read political parties and factions) that demand undue allegiance and desire inordinate sway over our actions. Yet our faith declares Jesus alone is king.
These temptations are real for all of us, certainly as real for me as anyone else. In this time when Christian faith is being sidelined like parsley on a dinner plate, all of us must struggle to maintain the proper place of God in our lives. Despite my overly rigid preconceptions, vested interests, ideological leanings, and fears, it is my heart’s truest desire to serve no god but God alone. I pray you feel the same.
Exile is not our home. Our home is in God. Let’s join strength in each other and bow to God alone.
Standing with you,
The Reverend Eric Long