Like much of the rest of the world, The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are living in the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation. Our texts on May 10 included James 1:1-5 and Daniel 3:13-30.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player just below. Note that a YouTube link for the entire service appears at the end of this post.
Well, here we are. It’s been 56 days since many of us worshiped together in this room. 55 days ago the President told us to stay indoors for 15 days. There have been 37 days since Governor Wolf issued his “stay at home” order for the entire state. How do you measure how long you’ve been adapting to our current reality?
Today is Mother’s Day. Many of you who are with us this morning woke up to snow yesterday. On May 9! Your pastor, who encouraged you to plant seeds at Easter, is grieving over his kiwi blossoms and sweet potato starts today.
What in the blue blazes is going on here?
In the midst of a long day, when there was seemingly one challenge after another, the saintly woman we know as Mother Theresa was frustrated and exasperated. At one point she let out a long sigh and said, “I know that God won’t give me anything more than I can handle…but there are some days when I wish God didn’t trust me so much.”
Do you know that? Have you felt that? Have you been down a road of pain and suffering and frustration and cried out to the Lord? If you have, then you have learned one of the greatest lessons of the Christian faith.
The last time I preached to you, we talked about the fact that the Book of Daniel teaches us something that goes against our American culture. Do you remember? We said that although the culture insists that I am a free agent, I am the master of my own destiny, the captain of my own ship… the scriptures teach that God is in control and in fact God tells me who I am.
Today’s readings are similarly challenging. Whereas much of our world believes that suffering is evil; or that it is punishment; and that it is to be avoided at all costs – the scripture teaches us that suffering is not meaningless. In fact, if the Bible teaches us anything, it is in fact that suffering, far from being evil, can be redemptive. That suffering can be a path to blessing. Did you hear James? “Consider it nothing but joy…”, he says! Seriously?
Do you remember last week when I suggested that the story of Daniel was meant to remind people of the story of Joseph? Do you remember what Joseph said to his brothers? “You meant to hurt me, but God turned your evil into good to save the lives of many people…” (Gen. 50:20 NCV)
And now today we walk into the furnace with these three kids who have been taken away from anything that they ever thought was “normal”. Talk about “out of the frying pan and into the fire!” And yet the witness of scripture seems to be clear: suffering is not meaningless.
When we started this series of messages, I described for you the context in which the Book of Daniel was first read. Do you remember? We talked about the terrible difficulties that the people of faith had already endured: they’d been exiled, quarantined, forced to adapt to different schedules, different diets, living in a climate of political turmoil and fear day after day. And to these people, beset by one trial after another, God reveals the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
As we consider this tale, I need to say that we’ve lost our ability to hear an important part of this story. Our culture is one that insists upon, and rushes towards, a happy ending. We know that their suffering will not last – and so we basically skip it altogether. When we tell our children this story, we don’t dwell in the horrors of the furnace, we skip to the happy ending that we know is coming. Yet it’s a story about profound suffering that carries with it profound truth.
What is the place of suffering in Daniel 3? The first thing that we see is that this trial provides an opportunity for these three boys to be faithful to the Lord. Think: what do the young men say to the King when he threatens them with the furnace? My hunch is that we remember them saying something like this: “Our God will save us from the fire, O king.” But that’s not it at all. From the text, it’s plain to see that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have no certainty about their future.
A faithful translation of verses 16-18 might go something like this: “…King Nebuchadnezzar, Your threat means nothing to us. If you throw us into the fire, the God we serve can rescue us from your roaring furnace and anything else you might cook up, O king. But even if he doesn’t, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, O king. We still wouldn’t serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” (The Message) Do you see? They acknowledge that they don’t know whether God will save them or not – and they don’t seem to think that’s the most important part of the story. What is the most important thing for these boys? Obeying God!
Do you remember the first commandment? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego surely did. What about the second? That’s what they were thinking. Nebuchadnezzar was sure that they’d try to save their lives, but all they were thinking was, “Have no gods before me” and “do not worship idols”. The trial in front of the fiery furnace was a chance for these three young men of faith to demonstrate with their lives that they were willing to obey the commands of God
So, in Daniel, suffering provides a chance to be faithful to God. But that’s not all. It also puts us in a place where we can shed the things that are unimportant or even harmful to us. Look again at the reading from Daniel. Old Nebuchadnezzar heats up the furnace all right, but what happens when the three boys are tossed in? Who dies? The Babylonian guards.
And what actually gets burnt up in the fire? When these kids are thrown into that fire, the cords that have constricted them are consumed by the blaze. As a result of being thrown into the furnace, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego become untied. When they emerge from the furnace, they are freer than they were when they went into it.
Now I want to be very, very careful as I say this, and I hope that you are listening carefully as well. I am NOT saying that God sends us terrible pain or experiences or death or disease because God wants us to somehow get loosened up because of those things. That is not what I’m saying at all. And yet I am saying that the kinds of disruption and disorientation that accompany suffering and trials can sometimes free us to experience things in a new way.
To be crystal clear: Pastor Dave is not preaching that the God sent us the coronavirus to teach us a lesson. That God unleashed this pandemic in order that we might be attentive and straighten up and fly right. Nope. Nope. Nope.
And yet, here we are – in the middle of this experience that has been deadly for hundreds of thousands, frightening for millions, and inconvenient for billions. While I’m saying that God didn’t do this to teach us a lesson, I would also say that we would be fools to ignore what may be learned while we’re here.
One of the most disturbing refrains in recent weeks is “Can’t we please just get back to normal?” As if the experience we shared in February is the nirvana toward which we are all striving, and the measure of perfection that defines the best humanity can do.
Do I need to remind you that in February, an unarmed African-American man was out jogging and apparently hunted down and slaughtered by two white men? Or that a civil war in Syria was raging, involving not only warring factions within that nation but Israel, Lebanon, Russia, Turkey, and the USA? That the pace of our lives and our thirst for energy was consuming us and destroying the planet?
Here’s my point: we are in a difficult, difficult place. Many people we love are far worse off than we. We want the lockdown to end, the virus to die, and to be restored to our jobs and our friends and families. But let’s not settle for going “back to normal”. “Normal” wasn’t the best for us any more than the situation just prior to the furnace was the best for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Let’s use this time of separation and isolation and disruption to imagine a new normal. To think about moving forward to the next best thing, rather than simply going back to how it used to be. To think of new ways to be present and attentive to ourselves and our neighbors; to pray for a new imagination; to seek new patterns of shopping, consumption, and growth; to search for new avenues in which to oppose racism and other evils.
What I’m saying is that maybe there is something about suffering and trial that can make us better able to hear the voice of the Lord – something about painful situations and loss that can help us to lose the bonds that have held us back and be free to move – even in the midst of the fire. How does this happen? When we realize that we are not in the midst of the fire alone – but that God himself is there with us.
Because that is what happens in our story! Nebuchadnezzar himself points out that there is a fourth person in the fire. Now, think about that for a moment. For some reason, God does not prevent the young men from facing the ordeal of the furnace – yet we must note that God does not allow them to go through it alone. God is present with them every step of the way. So much so that when they come out of the furnace, they don’t even smell like smoke!
Beloved, remember that you are not now, and you never will be truly alone. When you feel as though things are so awfully hard to bear, remember that you are not in a position where you are holding them all by yourself. I believe that one of the reasons we have been given this story is that we might be assured by the promise and the presence of the Holy One in the midst of the crucible of suffering.
Why do we remember Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego? Why do we tell these stories to our children? After all, there’s not a person in this room who has been threatened with death in a fiery furnace. We are not in the same situation as those boys, nor as the original hearers of the story.
I would suggest that one of the reasons we tell these stories to the people we love is because we want to remind them – and ourselves, that suffering and death are not the worst things that can happen to us.
When I was a boy, and my mother would go to work as a nurse, there would be times when I would hear her talk about her patients. One day, I remember her saying about a friend, “But what if she doesn’t die? That might be really terrible…” And I remember looking at her as if she were crazy – after all, what could possibly be worse than death? And she read my mind, because she looked at me and said, “You know, David, there are many things worse than dying.”
My mother was right. Giving up is worse than dying. Living a life without purpose or meaning is worse than dying. Refusing to let go of the cords that bind you up is worse than dying.
Are you in the midst of suffering and pain? Can you cry out to God? Can you hold onto God? Will you look for God’s presence in the midst of the furnace that you’re in? Will you remember that your story isn’t finished yet?
I’m told that a bar of steel weighing several pounds is worth, say, $10. If you take that same steel and shape it into several horseshoes, the value rises to $25. Make it into nails, and it’s worth a little more. Fashion it into sewing needles and the value rises to $350. Yet if you take that same amount of steel and fashion it into delicate springs for expensive watches, it’s worth more than $250,000. The same bar of steel is made more valuable by being cut to its proper size, passed through one furnace after another, again and again. It is hammered, beaten, ground, finished, polished, and manipulated until it’s ready for a delicate task.
What about you? Are you being heated, pounded, shaped? You don’t need to run from it, you know. Just look for the One who calls you. Look around the furnace for the one who is faithful. Cry out. Do your part, and trust the One who made you and who is with you still to do the rest. Let us look forward, in hope, to a new kind of normal in the months to come. Thanks be to God, Amen.