Powers and Principalities

COVID-19 - Church Building and Ministry Update

As we continue our journey to Easter, we are following scripture texts from the ancient Christian service called the Easter Vigil. We began with stories of Genesis and Exodus, we stopped on our way in the wisdom literature and then in the prophets. Today, we find ourselves in the book of Daniel. The people of Israel are in exile in Babylon under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. Several of the young men of Israel, including Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have caught the King’s eye and been given authority in the kingdom. And yet, as you can imagine when some who are “not from around here,” start making a name for themselves trouble quickly follows.

In the third chapter of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar has built a Golden Statue that is about 90 feet tall. He orders everyone to come to the dedication and when they hear the music, they are all to fall down and worship the statue. If they do not, into a fiery furnace they will go. Well, the music plays and everyone falls down - except for some certain Jews in a position of authority. Some Chaldeans, obviously trying to stir up trouble, report to the king that “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

We join the story here in Daniel, chapter 3, beginning with verse 13. Let us hear this Word of God.

13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. 14 Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?”

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 17 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. 18 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.”

19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace heated up seven times more than was customary, 20 and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. 21 So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. 22 Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23 But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire.

24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” 25 He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them. 28 Nebuchadnezzar said, “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. 29 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Whenever you are in a strange or foreign place, you encounter some unexpected things. For example, I remember it took me quite a while to navigate driving on the left side of the road and having to shift gears with my left hand in the tiny car Sarah and I rented for the weekend during a summer of study in England not long after we were married. If that was not enough, even the roundabouts went the wrong way!

Or there was the time on our trip to the Middle East in seminary walking the streets of Jerusalem and seeing teenage soldiers from the Israeli army just strolling through the market with their machine guns bouncing on their back. I do not think I will ever forget that feeling of unease.

I also remember being in Scotland in January taking classes for my doctor of ministry degree. Class began at 8:30 AM; we ate lunch in the building; and then finished class about 4 PM. Because of the time of year, in the morning it was dark when we walked to class and it was dark when we got out of class. It was as if we did not see the sun for two whole weeks!

And do not even let me get started on how many different types and kinds of meat they will bring you in different places across this country if you ask for “barbeque.” It makes you think you are in a foreign land.

Now, I must admit it feels a bit like we are in a foreign land together on this fourth Sunday of Lent. We are worshiping online - something we barely considered even possible just three weeks ago. We have learned new words and phrases like “coronavirus,” “with abundance of caution,” “community spread,” and “social distancing.” I hope that you are spending the majority of your time at home or if you are working you are taking extra precautions. Before this week I never needed the guidance to always wear pants while on a ZOOM meeting, but that is an important tip to remember. After only two days of parents homeschooling their children, it seems like the Georgia state legislature has started approving “home delivery” of alcohol. Yes, this is a foreign land. We have stopped shaking hands and even fist bumps in greeting, we are washing our hands every time we come home, the grocery stores are empty of meat and toilet paper, and we are doing our very best to not touch our faces. And I know it is really hard to stop touching our face!

Some of the things that you encounter in a foreign land are simply wonderful - maybe a historic site you will never forget; or new foods that become your favorite - you know some of that barbeque is really good; or new practices - like washing your hands regularly is really a good idea in general, not just when you are in the middle of a pandemic.

But there are other things that are downright dangerous, like teenagers carrying machine guns in the marketplace of Jerusalem. It is not often that the danger comes in the form of a huge golden statue and a narcissistic king. But that’s what confronts Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When the music plays everyone is supposed to fall down and worship the statue, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse. There is only one God who deserves their worship and service. So they are brought before the king and given one more chance. If they fail to fall down and worship, into the fiery furnace they will go. And who is the god who will deliver them?

My friends, we find ourselves in the midst of dangerous times. Yes, the danger comes from a rapidly spreading virus and the fear that grips us. But the danger also comes from the fact that the idols we have relied upon for so long are teetering - idols like the stock market and the ability to buy whatever we want whenever we want; idols like schools that are free for our children to attend five days a week; idols like governments that can fix any problem that comes along; idols like a reliance on a medical system that can cure every disease; idols like the freedom to do whatever we want no matter the public cost. When the idols are unmasked we are forced to ask for ourselves, “Who is the god who will deliver us?”

King Nebuchadnezzar believed there was no god more powerful than him. No god more powerful than his fiery furnace. No god who could deliver Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Nebuchadnezzar believed that if these men were going to live, they would have to worship him and his idol.

However, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew there was no need to argue with the king. Instead they declared, “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.” You see, their faith did not depend on a miracle. Their faith was not up for negotiation. Their faith was in the God of heaven and earth, the God of Israel and this foreign land, the God of safety and the God of the furnace. Their faith was in the God who freely chooses to be with God’s people, but who cannot be commanded to act on their behalf. Whether God chose to deliver them or not, they will not worship the golden statue.

Well, God does choose to deliver the men, but notice how God does it. As pastor Marchaé Grair wrote about this passage: “The divine presence with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, could have easily put the fire out, but instead, walked in the fire with them. And the divine presence alone was enough to save them from harm.”[1] Yes, God could have said, “Poof” and extinguished the flames. Instead, God came and walked with them in the fire. And that was enough. Yes, God shows up and that is miracle enough.

My friends, when the danger threatens, when everything else is being stripped away, when the idols are unmasked, we can trust in the God who shows up. We can rely on the God who is with us. We can believe in Jesus Christ.

God does not promise to put out the fire or to eliminate the danger. What God has promised is to deliver us from our sin and idolatry. God has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age. God has promised to join us in the midst of the fire and to walk with us until every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

So, on this day, in this strange time, trust in the Lord. Keep washing your hands and trust in the God who shows up. For there is no other God who can deliver us on this way.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: