A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
December 3, 2017
King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits. If my biblical math is correct, that’s about 90 feet tall, and about 9 feet wide, which is maybe not a hallmark of strong engineering. It doesn’t have a base wide enough to support the weight of it.
Herodotus and other contemporary writers spoke of kings building giant statues like this, so even if this story is more of a fable than a historical account, we can imagine someone like Nebuchadnezzar building a big monument to their own ego.
And King Nebuchadnezzar intended for everyone to bow down and worship this statue. It was a BIG DEAL. He sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. All of them. And then he assembled the best praise band any church had seen, with the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble.
Who wouldn’t want to worship at that church? I mean, idol.
And so Shadrach, Meshach, and Abdnego were faced with a dilemma. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were Daniel’s companions, exiled from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon–they were Jerusalem youths of privilege, educated to serve a foreign king. It’s interesting that we refer to Daniel by his Hebrew name, and not Belteshazzar as the Palace Master tried to re-name him, but we forget Hananiah (Shadrach), Mishael (Meshach), and Azariah’s (Abednego) original names.
And even literary Jewish characters in a book know that the first commandment was “you shall have no other gods before me”. You can’t be an observant Jew, even one living in exile, and bow down before some 90 foot tall gold statue that Nebuchadnezzar builds in the town square.
Many of the people go along with the plan. They show up, they bow down. Some Chaldeans notice the three Jewish guys aren’t there. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren’t causing a fuss. They aren’t trying to topple a statue that clearly will fall over of it’s own merits. They just won’t worship it. And perhaps they don’t want to be in its shadow when it falls.
Idols, when they fall, can cause a lot of damage.
I don’t know how you’re feeling about the many recent news accounts of powerful men losing their jobs as stories of their sexual abuse and harassment come to light. We seem to have reached some sort of tipping point after the Weinstein story broke. The men accused work in news, TV, comedy, politics, Hollywood, sports, the church. Some men have lost their jobs. Others remain in power while they call their victims liars.
While the political parties may respond to the news differently, men on both sides of the aisle stand accused, facing credible allegations. The thing all of these situations have in common is power. People in power—in these situations, all men—abusing their power over people dependent on them for employment, for career advancement.
What will people do for, do with, power, once it’s in their grasp?
Nebuchadnezzar built himself a really big statue.
What he needed, instead of Chaldeans pointing out who wasn’t in the crowd worshiping with the big praise band, was advisors to help him dial back his power.
“Sir, may you live forever, this statue will be prohibitively expensive. You will have to tax the people. Perhaps if you used that money to feed people, they would worship you spontaneously?”
“Most royal highness, I’ve been looking at the blueprints for this statue, and I have some concerns. If you want it to stand forever, might I suggest a few changes that might help it not topple over into a crowd of people who are worshiping you?”
“O King, your greatness won’t be known from these acts of worship but from your care for your subjects. Let’s build a stronger society instead of building statues”.
Where were those voices for Nebuchadnezzar?
These men in our newsfeed, now fallen from power—where were the voices in their lives reminding them of their higher goals and values? Where were their friends, the ones more interested in their wholeness than in how the fame could trickle down?
Jan Edmiston, currently serving as co-moderator of the General Assembly, shared this on Facebook recently:
“I remember sitting in the pouring rain on the lawn at Wolf Trap many years ago with Cynthia Bolbach and others watching Garrison Keillor host A Prairie Home Companion. And we wondered what it does to a person when hundreds of fans will sit in a downpour in the mud just to hear you speak.”
Should we be surprised when they lose their way, when the idols fall?
We think we know who they are, because we see a version of them on screen, in the news, over our radio waves. And so when the news breaks, we feel betrayed, perhaps. Disappointed, for sure. We thought we knew them.
We didn’t know them.
We built them up to be 90 feet tall, covered in gold, but only 6 cubits wide. These idols were not meant to stay standing.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego never bothered to get attached to the idol. They didn’t bother to admire the gold, the workmanship of the idol. They weren’t seduced by the fact that all the important people were there to worship it. I mean, the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces—they were all there.
Maybe one of the satraps (I don’t really know what a ‘satrap’ is, but I like to say the name) would be standing in the crowd where they could get up close and take a selfie with him. If you’re standing next to the right people when the photographer takes their picture for the newspaper—maybe it could be your moment for fame!
Fame! I’m gonna live forever…..
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t get caught up in that idol worship. They managed to not succumb to the lure of power that goes with fame and idols. They see the golden statue for what it is—a vain plea for validation from a narcissist. They hear the big praise band for what it is—a noise to cover the silence where we hear our insecurities. What is that compared to worshiping the God who created the universe, put the stars in their courses, and made humanity in the divine image?
Nebuchadnezzar can’t abide by their indifference to his schemes. His very success is built on everyone gathering for the spectacle, reading his tweets, filling the world with noise, worshiping an item of his creation.
What would happen if others started behaving as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—unimpressed with shallow displays of ego and power? What if the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces all went back to work and about their business, without bowing down at Nebuchadnezzar’s feet? What if the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble all stopped playing and people were left with the vacuous silence of Nebuchadnezzar’s empty promises?
There’s a whole system at risk here.
And so our 3 friends are thrown into the furnace.
One of my friends commented on this text, wondering if she would have the courage to die for her faith. And that was certainly a risk for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as they were thrown into the flames.
Dying is always an option, though. We are fragile, human beings who die in car crashes, from cancer, from gun violence, or old age. Dying is always on the table for us, sadly.
I wonder if Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego actually call us to wonder if we have the courage to live for our faith.
When they are called before Nebuchadnezzar, here is their reply:
‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense 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.’
They don’t have guarantees of deliverance—dying is always on the table for human beings—but they have hope. They lay out the conditions by which they want to live. They will not worship the idol of Nebuchadnezzar’s ego. They will continue to serve their God, the God of the exiles in a foreign land.
They choose to live by placing their HOPE in God, not in human idols or power.
When I first saw this was the text chosen for the first Sunday of Advent, I confess I wasn’t all that sure it would work out. But maybe it’s the hope, which is the theme of the first Sunday of Advent. As we prepare for the birth of a child 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, where is it we place our hope? For what, or whom, do we have the courage to live?
There are many idols today from which we could choose to worship. To some degree, at some point or other, I’m sure we all fall prey to their shiny promises, at least for a time.
As we put our sight toward Bethlehem, where God becomes Emmanuel—God with us— we remember that even God, in Jesus, chose to have courage to live for his faith, by living a human life, where death was always an option.
The idols around us will always fall. They aren’t engineered to stand forever. The God we serve, the one for whom we sing, “be born in us this day”, is not a human built statue of gold.
God, in Jesus, is a divinely born human, who chose to walk next to us in humility.
Jesus did not grab hold of power when it was offered him. He was not swayed or impressed by the men who held the power of earthly rule. And by not being afraid of death, he showed us how to live.
He is our hope. It is with hope we prepare for his coming, by having courage to live for our faith.
With the news lately, it’s easy to question if “hope” is the right feeling to have. But our grief for the brokenness of the world doesn’t erase our hope. As Rebecca Solnit wrote this week about the news we read:
“It’s too soon for despair, though not for grief. Grief and hope can coexist: grief for who and what has already been harmed, hope for preventing more harm.”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego also knew of despair and grief. Exiled to a foreign land, their home in ruins, called by names other than their own—they still had hope—
as Emily Dickenson described it:
“the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all -“
Their hope gave them courage to live for their faith.
May it be so for us. Amen