Hope made flesh

Daniel 3:8-30
Dec 3, 2017
Isaac Villegas

This is the third week where the prophets have taken us to Israel in exile, the Jews in Babylon, God’s people surviving in the midst of their oppressors—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and now Daniel. In these Scriptures, the prophets offer words of survival, guidance on how to go on, now that they are forced to live as dispossessed peoples, as foreigners, as strangers in a strange land.

That’s who we hear about today in the book of Daniel—three people: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The king of Babylon, king Nebuchadnezzar, erects a massive statue, a shrine to bring together his people, a space for worship, to instill piety, unity in the land, harmony among all the various peoples now living in the empire of Babylonia, people of different nationalities and language groups and religious belonging, all now forced to live under Nebuchadnezzar’s dominion, his rule. “O peoples, nations, and languages,” he announced, “you are commanded to fall down and worship the golden statue.”

And, it says, “all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the statue that king Nebuchadnezzar had set up.” With their bodies bowed before the golden figure, they pledge their allegiance to Babylon.

I think that’s the closest analogy we have, today—the public ritual in this country, where people are asked to honor an object, to submit bodies to rituals of allegiance: to stand, to put hand on chest, to fix eyes on a flagpole, a flag, metal and cloth imbued with a religious aura, “under God,” an act of submission, a piety of patriotism in a ritual, a religious act, having to do with a confession of faith, of belief, of trust, made with words and bodies.

Imagine Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as high schoolers, in an auditorium with all the other students, and instead of standing with all the others, for the pledge, they remain seated. Imagine them at a baseball game, peoples from a diversity of nations and languages, the whole stadium on their feet for the national anthem, but there, in the crowd, three people remain in their seats.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego look like Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who has led a movement of athletes who refuse to stand for the national anthem, as a protest. In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached this passage from Daniel as a call to civil disobedience, to refuse allegiance to empires, to live by another political vision, to be the people of God. As it says in verse 28, “They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.”

The obvious difference is that Colin Kaepernick isn’t threatened with a fiery furnace. That’s what happens to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—the king’s rage bursts into flames, a furnace of blazing fire. “So the men were bound,” it says, “still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire.” As we know, they survive by a miracle of God’s deliverance. King Nebuchadnezzar releases them and enacts legislation to protect Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—and their people—throughout the empire.

This is a story about hope, hope for people in exile, people awaiting liberation, waiting for the end of fiery furnaces, the end of all the trial and tribulations at the hands of the powerful. Like the passage we read from Jeremiah last week, there is no hope for return to their homeland, no promise of the restoration of their old kingdom. Instead, God follows the people into Babylon, into exile, even into the furnace. God is with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—that’s the hope offered in this passage: that God will be with them, sustaining their lives, God at their side.

And that’s the promise of Advent, this first Sunday of Advent—our hope in Emmanuel, God with us, the God who draws near to us, even in the fire. Every year, as we approach Christmas, our celebration of Christ’s birth, we take time to remember how to hope—not hope as optimism, not hope as escapism, not hope as a return to the good old days when we thought we had what we wanted. But hope as a kind of realism, hope as staring into the world around us, without flinching, the devastation, the fiery furnaces everywhere, and imagining redemption, the healing of this world.

Advent is a time to remember how to hope. When I think about hope, I like to know what I’m waiting for, what’s the change on the horizon, what’s it looks like, so I can know when it arrives, so I can see it. In this sense, hope is about knowledge, about gathering information, about piecing together the fragments of the mystery, to know what to expect, even dreaming as a kind of knowing, visions as the mind reaching into the edges of thought, imagining a future—a new Jerusalem, let’s say, the heavenly city as a new world.

But what strikes me, this time around in this from Daniel, is the companionship—friendship as the context for hope. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three of them, side by side, bound together—they make hope possible. They are the conditions of the possibility for hope—each of them offering their presence to the other.

And as they draw close, as they stand together, in resistance against Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, against his demand for public piety, for political allegiance, for religious commitments to his empire—in their disobedience to the empire, as they stand together, they find out that God is there, that God has drawn near, that God will go with them into the fire, because God is Emmanuel, the one who is always with them, who will never leave nor forsake them.

That’s what we offer one another—what Shadrach offered to Meshach, what Meshach offered to Abednego, what Abednego offered to Shadrach, a circle of companionship, each of us by each other’s side, an alternative pledge of allegiance, to commitment to stand together, to belong to each other, to imagine a new world together, to labor for that world.

That’s what our life of faith is all about—to work together, to give each other reasons for hope, and not just for ourselves but for the world, for people enduring the furnaces of this world. The work of hope involves committing to stand side by side, suffering this world together, and imagining our redemption, the redemption of all things. And, when we think that all we have is each other, which might be enough anyhow, we find God, here the whole time perhaps, but revealed in a glimpse.

The story ends with the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—not their escape from Babylon, but their freedom from the fire; they are restored not to their homeland, but to life in exile. God shows up, but not as a conqueror, not in as a cosmic liberator, but as a silent presence, gentle yet with power to sustain life, a presence enabling survival.

At the end, we discover something about empires, and something about God. We learn that empires and rulers get caught up in the evil that they unleash. They destroy themselves. They are their own undoing. Remember that Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers die as they throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the furnace, because the fire is too hot: “The furnace was so overheated,” it says in verse 22, “the raging flames killed the men who lifted [them into the fire].” And, later, in Daniel 4, the next chapter, king Nebuchadnezzar is driven into madness, becoming like a wild animal—this is chapter 4, verse 33: “He was driven away from human society, ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws.”

But we also learn something about God—that God doesn’t punish Nebuchadnezzar for his treatment of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Nor does God strike down the golden statue. The king and the statue remain. There is not cosmic attack, no army of heavenly angels seeking vengeance. Instead, God redeems without revenge. There is no desire for retaliation in God, no desire for destruction.

And that’s perhaps the challenge for all our visions of hope—that God protects without destroying enemies; that God shows up in the fire, not in the heavens, not on the clouds; and that God departs as quickly as God arrives, in a flicker, offering only a glimpse, fleeting reassurances, leaving us with each other, perhaps all we need: hope made flesh in us.

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