Sunday, April 14, 2013

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace to be heated up seven times more than was customary, 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. 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. 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. But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counsellors, ‘Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?’ They answered the king, ‘True, O king.’ 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.’ 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. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counsellors 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. 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. 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.’ Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon. -- Daniel 3:19-30

I can never hear this story without thinking of Louis Armstrong and his version of the story. I don't remember when I first heard him do it, but once I did, it stuck. It's been years, but I can still remember that constant phrase, "Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego."  It was a sure way never to forget those three names, any more than I can forget Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar from Job's story although why I don't know. I've certainly never heard a catchy song with those names!

The story is about faithfulness to God in spite of all obstacles. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had that kind of faith and God took care of them. Even though the fire was seven times hotter than was normal, when the three of them were shoved in, not a hair  was harmed; however, the same couldn't be said for those who actually chucked them in. And Nebuchadnezzar? Either his soldiers had miscounted, his eyes were playing tricks on him or there was a fourth figure in the middle of the fire, another who appeared to be totally unharmed and unbesmirched by the cinders, smoke, flame and flying sparks. It was enough to make Nebuchadnezzar change his mind, in more ways than one, and out of the furnace came the three who had originally gone in.

One of the lessons we're supposed to get from the reading is that if one is faithful to God, God will pull them through even the most terrible fate. It's a very comforting theology but good, decent people who are faithful to God suffer and endure all kinds of horrible things and, despite their faith in God and assurance that God will save them, they still suffer and sometimes they die as a result. It is times like these when people question where God is, why are they being punished in this way, and why do such horrible things happen to good people. Wiser folks than I  have tried from time immemorial to answer those questions which, I think, almost everybody has asked at one time or another. For people of faith, there's seldom a question that God is present, maybe not taking a visible hand in fixing what is wrong, but still present with the sufferer.

What Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego accomplished was far more important than just coming out of a fire hotter than probably the proverbial hinges of hell, as important as that might have been to them. Because Nebuchadnezzar actually saw three men go into an inferno, witnessed a fourth joining them and then having three men emerge from the furnace unscathed, Neb was impressed. Maybe not exactly impressed enough to convert to Judaism but he did make it a crime in the land to blaspheme the God that had brought the three through the trial and promised very severe punishment on those who did so. That was progress, real progress.

Fire is often portrayed as a cleansing thing like the images of coals of fire upon the head or a burning coal on the tongue. The symbol of the city near which I live is the Phoenix, a mythical bird who, like Fawkes in Harry Potter, burst into flame and died only to be reborn from the ashes. Some species of evergreen need fire to crack the cones and seeds and allow new saplings to grow from them. Fire in the story today not only rescued three men who refused to worship an idol of the king but gave the king himself a view of the power of a God greater than himself or any others in his land. It was a pretty potent awakening. Maybe it wasn't a cleansing for Nebuchadnezzar, but it was certainly an eye-opener, and sometimes that's all it takes to change a mind -- and a heart.

I don't expect to be incinerated any time soon and when I am, I won't need an angelic visitation to bear me up during the process. I will, however, undoubtedly face figurative fiery furnaces in my life as I have in the past. My lesson is to remain faithful to God, no matter what, and to trust that God will be with me if not actively fixing things. I haven't always emerged totally unscathed from my emotional and spiritual incinerators, but I hope I have learned from the experiences, learning lessons to help me in the future.

My job now is to see the furnace before I get thrown in (or throw myself in) and to do what is necessary to try to avoid the situation. Whether I can or whether I can't, though, I have to remember that there is another sharing the heat with me, another whom I may not be able to see or feel but who will be with me in all things.

And the voice of Louis Armstrong is still singing in my ear, "Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego."

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 13, 2013.

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