by Daniel Harrell
It’s a quick changeover from Thanksgiving to Advent this year. Here’s hoping your holiday whiplash hasn’t been too severe. The merchants have been helpful as usual, not only opening stores for Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving, but advertising for it since just before Halloween.
This morning’s text befits Halloween: a demonic tyrant demanding total ideological conformity condemns a trio of brash political dissidents to burn in a blazing furnace. Why pick this passage for Advent? As Advent passages can tend toward the predictable year after year, I thought I’d jingle it up this season with some help from the professors over at Luther Seminary. They’ve put together a “Narrative Lectionary” that spreads the big stories of the Bible over four years of church worship so congregations can hear how everything fits together in the grand narrative of God’s work in the world. The famous story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego falls on this Sunday.
Popular in children’s Sunday School, it is fairly good Advent fare too, given all the violence. Advent was designed for the gloomy days of encroaching winter, not as a run-up to Christmas but as prep work for Jesus’ Second Coming, an apocalypse fraught with darkness and disaster. “Keep watch,” Jesus warned, “for you do not know on what day your Lord will come. There will be famines and earthquakes… and great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall and the heavenly bodies will shake.” Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, the Second Coming has been a long time coming, so not even faithful Christians tend to think about it so much. Bringing it up in a sermon feels a little embarrassing, to be honest. Second Coming passages not only involve fire and brimstone, but scary-looking lions and leopards and bears, dragons doing battle with superheroes soaring down from the sky wielding swords and blowing trumpets. OK, on second thought, that’s some pretty exciting Bible reading, especially if you’re into comic books or science fiction. Coincidentally, most of the comic book imagery derives from Daniel, another reason for reading it during Advent.
In chapter 7, Daniel has this nightmare about four grisly beasts that ferociously rise from the abyss to wreak havoc on earth. Confronting the beasts is our hero, riding on clouds, saddling a fiery hot rod of a throne with wheels that blaze too. It was a terribly disturbing dream to Daniel that terrified him and turned his face pale. I’ll let you read it for yourself later so as not to scare the children here. The temptation when you read it will be to write it off as “only a dream” and skip over it like we do most of the Old Testament, except that Jesus used Daniel’s nightmare to reference himself. In three of the four gospels, Jesus launches into this violent discourse about wars and rumors of war, an “abomination of desolation” that endangers pregnant women, persecution and betrayal and worldwide tribulation, children rising against their parents and putting them to death, the sun burning out before finally a trumpet blares and the entire planet looks up to see not a bird or a plane, but the “Son of Man coming in clouds with power and great glory,” a description almost verbatim from Daniel 7. Jesus was taking this seriously?
I remember a conversation with a man who sensed his faith resurfacing after many dormant years, but admitted that he still couldn’t get his brain around this second coming silliness. He asked me, “Am I really supposed to believe that one day Jesus will show up from heaven flying down from the sky with trumpets blaring?” I replied how stranger things have been believed. “No they have not,” he said. “That’s as weird as it gets.”
A good friend who teaches religion at Tufts was researching Christian Science over at the Mother Church in Boston and was struck by the oddness of so many of their tenets. Deemed a deviation from orthodox Christianity, Christian Science holds the material world to be an illusion. Sickness and accidents are the outcomes of incorrect thinking and spiritual error. This is why Christian Scientists decline medical treatment; they don’t believe that sickness is real. To take medicine is an acknowledgment of faulty faith. Some go as far as to refuse to wear seat belts since to do so would be to admit that accidents are possible.
My friend wondered how people could hold to such outlandish ideas; but then she thought about some of the so-called orthodox notions she held: a Savior born via a virgin in a first century backwater village, grows up to walk on water and stop storms, gets crucified, dead and buried only to rise from the dead and promise to be back later flying on clouds. That is very strange stuff. It explains why we try to keep Advent focused on lowing cattle and cuddly babies instead. Leave the flying to Santa.
In this morning’s passage, Daniel has yet to have his nightmare. In fact, Daniel’s no where to be found here. Instead the story is about his three friends with funny names, all living as Jewish exiles in Babylon, what we know as Iraq, having been deported from Israel following the Babylonian conquest around 600 BC. We sing of their plight every Advent and their longing for dramatic salvation: “O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here.” Despite being Jewish exiles, Daniel and friends find favor in the pagan government, admired for their precocious talents and wisdom. They prove useful as counselors to crazy King Nebuchadnezzar.
Chapter 3 opens with Nebuchadnezzar, like any egomaniacal crackpot despot, manipulate his subjects into submissive conformity. He employs powerful psychology to pull it off: a gigantic statue fashioned of glittering gold, a massive parade with every imaginable instrument blasting loud and hypnotic music, well-known celebrities, politicians and pitchmen, whipped up into a masterful and mesmerizing frenzy, compelling a collective brainless obedience. It’s what merchants and retailers tried to pull off on Black Friday as advertisers bombarded our senses with enticing bargains, loud music and flashing images, luring us away from Thanksgiving tables under the penalty of failing to get all you ever wanted for Christmas for hundreds of dollars less than retail. Wal-Mart, the most massive and religiously-minded merchant of all was the most egregious, forcing Black Friday’s dark shadow back onto Thursday before the turkey gravy had time to coagulate, causing violent scuffles over parking spots and fights over big screen TVs and even a stabbing of one shopper at a Virginia store in what one journalist described as a scene from the apocalypse. A snarky shopper tweeted that her local Wal-Mart was advertising $9.99 iPads to anyone who throws their baby into a snake pit.
Granted, King Nebuchadnezzar’s coercion carried overtly evil intentions, more likely resembling those distressing black and white films of Third Reich rallies the Nazis devised to coerce an entire nation to goosestep in time with their sadistic schemes. German masses raised their arms and voices in blind, bewitched compliance. Enforced by brute military power, refusal to comply meant certain death, with ovens eventually stoked for faithful Jews who refused to worship the state. Here the faithful Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego face a fierce oven, stoked by an enraged sadistic dictator affronted by their resistance. Nebuchadnezzar cranked up the heat seven times hotter, and taunted them, seething, “Who is the god that will deliver you out of that?”—a perfect set-up if ever there was one. The three resisters insist that their God is more than able to save them from fire, no matter how hot.
Though actually, they’re not that insistent. If we read it right, they’re not really so sure. They say to the king, “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…” They choose to believe despite the uncertainty, at least despite the rational uncertainty, even at the risk of their lives. God could save them, they hoped, even though, let’s be honest, he probably won’t. From the prophets and martyrs of Scripture, to the early Christians, from religious dissidents such as the Pilgrims to valiant resisters like Dietrich Bonheoffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless others including Jesus himself—the outcome of radical faith is rarely earthly survival.
All the more amazing, then, that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego do survive, no matter that the King turned up the heat so hot he fried his own soldiers as they tossed in the three dissidents to die. Looking down from his luxury box, Nebuchadnezzar was astonished to see that the threesome had become an inflammable foursome, joined by one “who had the appearance of a son of god.” This was no coincidence. Christian readers of this passage, given the stock Jesus placed on Daniel as prophet, readily recognized the fourth figure as a preview of Christ himself who rescues his people not out of fire as much as through fire. He is the son of God who appears, the Emmanuel who comes, “God with us” who suffers alongside our suffering by way of a cross, an instrument of government extermination and coercion converted into the means of divine power and grace.
Fire that destroys also refines, forging purer and truer realities. For the Pilgrims we recalled on Thanksgiving, their radical faith was what compelled them to risk their lives despite the rational uncertainty. They had to know they were doomed. Crossing an ocean certain to swallow them, it mattered that they had long been taught how God was both good and loving and that not even a sparrow fell to the ground apart from the Father’s will. Leaving their dearest friends on earth, it mattered that they believed the world was not their home, that their real destination was a heavenly country, a place God had prepared for them. When exposure and starvation stalked them and so many of them died, it mattered to believe as the Psalmist sang, “I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me,” that God brought hardship into their lives as a mercy, as one preacher put it, “to wean us from the love of the world” and “to make the glory which shall be showed, and whereof our afflictions are not worthy, the more glorious.” This was difficult teaching, no doubt, and very hard to believe. Yet it was proven by suffering, refined by fire, and no sense can be made of the Pilgrims’ resilience apart from it.
Theirs was a radical faith tethered to a Savior born via a virgin in a first century backwater village, who grew to walk on water and stop storms, was crucified, dead and buried only to rise from the dead and promise to be back later riding on clouds. For people persecuted by harsh governments, or merely enduring the daily troubles of earthly life—countless Pilgrims of every stripe who have turned to Jesus over the centuries—his death and resurrection and glorious return have meant personal comfort and courage, our refuge and great reward, but also societal reform and global change. This radical faith formed the framework for Western civilization, its social ethics and jurisprudence, for classical physics and science and philosophy, all the while motivating compassion for human suffering and environmental stewardship.
A popular Huffington post making the Internet rounds this week described how annoying it is to be invited to church when you have zero interest in attending. The blogger described herself as holding some version of “Anyone who would believe in some all-powerful man, who watches every little thing that every single person does, telling us to love each other, while he lets whole nations suffer from starvation and genocide, is out of their mind.” But then, somehow, she found Jesus, or got found by Jesus or something. “It was what I thought never happened to anyone, it was what I had been so sure did not exist the way any of those nut jobs described it, but I’ll be damned (pun intended) if it didn’t happen to me. I got saved. In any movie centered around a coming of age love triangle, the title character is asked ‘How did you know you loved so-and-so?’ and the answer is always the same, ‘I just knew.’ It was like that for me and Jesus. I just knew.” Our story recounts the evil Nebuchadnezzar having his own come to Jesus moment too.
Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas argued that traces of God’s grace reside in all people, despite our sin. It is this residual grace that makes possible what Christians will call “a leap of faith,” an ability to “just know” before all the evidence is available. Due to the limits of reason, sometimes you just have to jump. But who in their rational mind would ever jump off the edge of a cliff, metaphorical or otherwise, due to the limits of their knowledge? Any rational person would wait for more information; more confirmation. Jumping is not the reasonable, natural thing to do; in fact, it’s completely unnatural—or as Aquinas would have insisted, supernatural.
If you have ever stood on a high cliff overlooking the sea or a gorge, perhaps you’ve felt that compulsion, that strange and palpitating pull toward the brink. Your feet shuffle and your heart thumps as you lean out over the edge to revel in the exhilaration. That pull, that longing, that yearning to be freed from your limits, Aquinas asserted that to be analogous to the pull of God on your soul, the radical lure of the Spirit enticing you to trust. It’s what gives you the courage despite reason’s limits to go for it anyway—to stand against convention, to resist the masses, to confront injustice, to love the unlovable, to care for needy people, to suffer hardship, to take the heat, to believe and to hope.