Contemporary Testimony Our World Belongs to God, paragraph 4
Purpose: to encourage followers of Jesus to stand up in faith knowing he is with them, to resist putting trust in idols, and to know God’s hand will redeem the way we worship.
Sermon prepared by Rev. Trevor Vanderveen, Vancouver, BC
Dear people of God,
Is God still there when we can’t feel His presence? Are we confident that He will be there in our time of greatest need?
These are the questions the exiles must have been asking as they were seeking to remain as the people of God after their city and Temple were destroyed and they became prisoners of war.
After all the warnings by God’s prophets, Jerusalem and the rest of Judah were carried off into exile. But as they were settling into their new life under the rule of Babylon, the LORD spoke to the people through the prophet Jeremiah to improve the city they were living in because God had a plan (see the Letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29). God had a plan for his people even in Babylon, which from Genesis to Revelation represents everything that stands opposed to the Living God!
It’s in this context that we get the book of Daniel. Already in the first two chapters, we see God’s hand of providence at work in Daniel, as he chooses to keep the Old Testament dietary laws and as he is able to see and understand King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream when no one else can.
Through this, King Nebuchadnezzar encountered the power of God and the Gentile king even said to Daniel, "surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries."
But then we come to this passage and Nebuchadnezzar has changed his tune. He was impressed with Daniel’s God, yet the king of Babylon still set up a golden statue—an idol. We aren’t told whether he had the statue made in his own likeness, or in the likeness of Nebu, the god he was named after. But one thing is clear—everyone in a position of authority in Babylon, from every tribe and nation in the Babylonian empire, is called to bow down to this statue to show their loyalty to their new king.
And so, when the musical instruments start up, everyone does just what the Babylonian king commands, all except for three Hebrews: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They take a faithful stand for Yahweh but by doing so, they defied the king who conquered them.
Most of us knew of the story before we read it today. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s experience reveals the LORD as True King. And today, we’ll explore:
(i) God's faithfulness towards his people
(ii) God's people's faithfulness towards him
(iii) And a call for God's people called to be faithful witnesses around others.
God's Faithful Presence with his people
The people from Jerusalem were in exile, but God had shown his power through Daniel's telling and interpreting Nebuchadnezzar's dream. And as a result, through God's powerful hand, Daniel was given charge over the province of Babylon and Daniel's three friends, also Hebrew slaves, actually did the day to day governing over the province of Babylon.
But then God's people were faced with the decision to bow down to a golden statue. Although they were far from home in exile and God’s Temple had been destroyed, they knew in their heart of hearts that this demand would get to the heart of whether they were still servants of the Most High God. Obeying this command would keep them safe in Babylon, but they’d be breaking God’s first commandment of having no other gods before Yahweh.
The Hebrews were exiled, stripped of their homes, they had lost the Temple their place of worship, and now the Promised Land was occupied, but they were still Yahweh’s people. So, even if everyone else would drop down before Nebuchadnezzar’s impressive skyscraper statue, they would take their stand.
The reason they were willing to make this choice is that they knew that the Living God was still there and he was with them. So, in the face of death, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were confident that the Lord would be with them as he had always been with his people in the past.
They remembered the stories of how God was with Moses and the Israelites in Egypt. They had memorized words about walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and that their Hebrew king David was comforted by the Shepherd God’s rod and staff. The I Am had been with His people all through the past and He would remain with them.
So, these three Hebrew slaves turned political ministers knew that whatever awaited them, even a fiery furnace, they would make a stand because the Lord was still present.
In fact, these three were so confident that they said to Nebuchadnezzar:
We have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. 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. (Dan. 3:16-18--NRSV)
They willingly faced their punishment that Nebuchadnezzar had warned about and the furnace that was so hot that even the strongest guards were killed by the heat as they were throwing the Hebrews into the fire.
And then the miraculous happened: The only damage the fire did to them was burn off the ropes that had them bound! As King Nebuchadnezzar was watching, not only did he notice that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were standing unharmed, but he saw a fourth figure standing in the furnace with them.
Who was this fourth figure? Many theologians believe that this is one of those instances where Christ came before the incarnation of Jesus’ birth. We don't know how this worked exactly, but the text is clear about one thing—the figure was sent by the Living God and this fourth figure had kept the three men safe from an otherwise certain death.
Hear these words of promise from the Lord to His people:
“Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, surely I will help you,
Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.” Isaiah 43:2
And so, just as God had been with Moses and David, God was also present with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, most clearly as the 4th figure in the furnace.
The second thing we notice in the text is not only was God present to his people, but His people were present towards him in worship.
As God's people, the three Hebrews had remembered and kept the first of the Ten Commandments. And because they knew the story of God’s people, they also remembered what had happened with Israel at Mount Sinai when Aaron led the people to make their own golden statue of a bull. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew the consequences of bowing to an idol, and so as God’s people, they had decidedly stood firm in their worship of God.
According to Nebuchadnezzar, it wasn’t an issue for people to worship their own gods. The heart of the issue for the Babylonian king was whether they also would worship his god. If you didn’t worship the king’s god, you were essentially rejecting the king’s commands and therefore, not bowing to this statue was an act of treason against Babylon.
This was the same issue facing the early church in the Roman Empire. We read in Acts that the people living throughout the Empire didn’t have as much of a problem with Christians worshipping Jesus. The heart of the issue came down to worshipping their God alone. In fact, early Christians were charged with being called Atheists because they didn't believe in and wouldn’t worship the gods around them.
Time and time again in the early Church, this led to martyrdoms because Christians were not willing to drop to their knees to another god or to Caesar, even when their lives were on the line. One example of this was Bishop Polycarp whose martyrdom was recorded in AD 168:
He was arrested and brought into the stadium and the proconsul urged the old man, "swear and I will set you free--reject Christ. But Polycarp declared, "86 years I have served him and He has never done me any harm: how could I reject my King and my Saviour?
Again he was threatened by being burned alive and Polycarp said, "You threaten me with fire that will burn for an hour, and after a little while it will be quenched; but you are unaware of the fire of the judgement to come, and the fire of eternal punishment which is kept for the ungodly."
Polycarp took a stand and remained faithful to the Lord and was bound to the stake and a fire was lit under him, and unlike Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Polycarp was killed as a martyr in the fire. Yet even then, Polycarp remained confident that God was with him and God remained faithful. He knew that the Father would receive him even in death.
Now Shadrach, Meshach and Abednegoin fiery furnace or Polycarp's martyrdom are realities that few of us will ever experience in North America, but even if the physical consequences are less for us, the call to stand and to be faithful towards God as his people remains.
If God remains faithful to his people today--and He does!--then we are called to be just as faithful to the Living God as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the face of the gods of our day.
So where are the statues that we are called to bow down to today? Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, gives this definition of Idolatry: "Taking an incomplete joy of this world and building your entire life on it." (xi)
What are the incomplete joys that we are tempted to build our entire lives on? The Romans had the goddess of beauty, the god of war and success, the god of wealth, the goddess of health and fertility, little temples all over their cities dedicated to Beauty, Power, Success, Wealth, Health and Fertility. It turns out we aren't very different from Athens with images of divinities filling our world.
And just like these three Hebrew exiles, we are being called to stand our ground and to continue worshipping the Living God in the face of countless temptations to build our lives on some incomplete joys of this world like beauty, health and wealth.
Now, in and of themselves, these things like beauty and health and wealth are good and can even be seen as blessings from God, but as soon as we take something that is a blessing and we make it into our ultimate goal, then we are shifting our attention away from God and we are trying to worship something that was never made to stand in God’s place.
And so we’ve seen in this story how Yahweh was faithful towards His people, and how His people lived out faithful presence towards Him through worship, but we also see how God’s people were living as faithful witnesses to those around them.
It’s maybe obvious to point out, but the text tells us that this whole event happened in public. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednegoweren’t given this choice behind closed doors. As soon as they had decided to stand and not bow, everyone around them knew it.
If we take a step back, we see that the three Hebrews had something in common with everyone else in Daniel 3. They are all worshippers. In fact, this is something that we have in common with every other human. We all worship, it just depends what we give our worship to.
The Westminster Confession, a sister document to the Heidelberg Catechism, begins with the words, “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” In other words, the whole purpose for our existence as humanity is to worship God our Creator. Humans are inherently worshipping creatures and in Daniel 3 we see ways that worship is twisted away from God’s intent.
In Our World Belongs to God, we read that God has a plan with humanity who has twisted worship away from God’s intent…. It says, “Our Maker preserves this world, sending seasons, sun, and rain, upholding all creatures, renewing the earth, ...guiding all things to their purpose.” (paragraph 4) Yes, guiding all things to their purpose. If part of God’s plan to redeem all of creation means that He will straighten out humanity and guide us to our purpose, then even the twisted ways we humans worship will also be redeemed.
This is where the fourth figure in the fire comes in. It turns out in Daniel 3 that the worship by all the people around was misdirected, all except Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
I'd like to invite you to look at Revelation 7:9-17 a moment and we'll notice a few parallels with Daniel 3, with one significant difference:
Rev 7:9After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one
could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before
the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were
holding palm branches in their hands.10And they cried out in a loud voice:
"Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb."
11All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and
the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
13Then one of the elders asked me, "These in white robes—who are they,
and where did they come from?"
14I answered, "Sir, you know."
And he said, "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation;
they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.15Therefore,
"they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
16Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
17For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
In Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar had brought together people from every tongue and nation whom he had conquered and tried to get them to all bow down together, but they bowed down to a statue that he had set up.
But in Revelation 7, we see that the LORD has redeemed even the way we worship to the point where there are people from every tribe and tongue and nation all bowed down in worship, not there because they were prisoners, but as those who’ve been freed to worship the way they were created.
Instead of a human-built statue, they are worshipping the way they were created to worship. And we are called to worship that way too: bowing down before the One who was and is and is to come and singing over and over, Holy, Holy and Holy, is the Lord God Almighty.
Friends, this is the Good News for us today! In Daniel 3, we are given hope that when we stand up in worship for the Living God, He is faithful and He will remain with us no matter what will come our way. And in the context of the rest of Scripture, we are given the assurance that the Living God is at work redeeming the misdirected and twisted ways his creatures try to worship the things that do not satisfy.
And this is the Good News that we can carry with us as we interact with those around us. We are being watched by our friends, our co-workers and our neighbours, and the way we stand up in faith. And we pray that Lord willing, those watching us will not just watch us, but we pray that they too will encounter the power of the Living God is such clear ways that they will be changed and, ultimately, even the ways they worship will be transformed and redeemed.
Hear these words of King Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon—someone whose worship was twisted and misdirected (and with this we'll close):
"Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego,
who has sent his angel and rescued his servants!
They trusted in him and defied the king's command
and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve
or worship any god except their own God...
...no other god can save in this way."
Order of Worship
*Call to Worship & God’s Greeting: based on Revelation 7:9-10
Leader: I looked, and there was a great multitude
That no one could count, from every nation,
From all tribes and peoples and languages,
Standing before the throne and before the Lamb,
Robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
ALL: “Salvation belongs to our God
Who is seated on the throne,
And to the Lamb!”
Leader: Today our voices join this ongoing heavenly hymn of praise.
In Jesus’ name, let us worship God.
The LORD is here and he welcomes us:
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of the Father and the Presence of the Holy Spirit be with you.
ALL: And also with you.
*We Welcome each other with the Peace of Christ
*Opening Hymn of Praise: Holy, Holy, Holy PH 249
He is Exalted or Praise the Lord, Sing Hallelujah PH 188
Children’s Song: King of Kings and Lord of Lords or Jesus Shall Reign PH 412
Silent Prayer of Confession
Words of Pardon
Leader: Hear these words of assurance:
Our Loving Lord and King forgives and restores us.
Our Faithful Lord King is with us in distress.
Our Powerful Lord rescues us in trouble.
ALL: Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:21-22)
Song: Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven PH 475
Prayer for Illumination
Text: Daniel 3:1-30
Message: Stand Up in Faith
Prayer of Application:
Heavenly Father, as humans created in Your image to worship You, we confess that we have twisted our worship—putting our trust in that which cannot satisfy. As Your people, called by Your Name, we thank You for the ways You have made Yourself known to us. With your Holy Spirit, we ask that You continue to give us discerning eyes and hearts to make us stand in faithful worship to You alone. When our worship of You means that we face opposition, we ask for Your presence with us and for Your strength.
We stand with our brothers and sisters around the world for whom worshipping You will lead to persecution, imprisonment and even death. May they know Your presence and peace in the midst of the fire of persecution.
We celebrate Your providential hand as You, through Your Son Jesus Christ, are redeeming all of creation, even transforming the ways humans worship. We long for the day when we will stand with people of every tongue and tribe and nation and together we will bow before Your throne and worshipping you alone as our True King!
In the powerful name of Jesus our Lord, AMEN.
Song of Response: By the Sea of Crystal PH 620
*Song: Soon and Very Soon or Crown Him with Many Crowns PH 410
*Blessing: As we go into this week, let us go in the confidence that the LORD goes before us:
May the LORD bless us and keep us,
May He make His face to shine upon us,
And be gracious towards us.
May He turn His face towards us,
And give us peace.
*Doxology: Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow PH 638