Vespers in the Fifth Week of Lent (21 March 2018)
JoAnn A. Post
King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, 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. So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. When they were standing before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
Accordingly, at this time certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue, and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O King. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “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.”
Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace 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 counselors, “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 counselors 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.”
Herald: His royal highness, Christopher Rupert, son of her majesty Queen Constantina Charlotte Hermantrude Guenivere Mazie . . .
Herald: Mazie . . Margaret Ann is giving a ball!
(“The Prince is Giving a Ball!”
Rogers and Hammerstein, “Cinderella,” 1965)
It was all larger than life when I was six years old. Some of you may remember Roger and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” which first aired in 1965. It was an impossible story of an impossibly wicked stepmother, an impossibly gorgeous Cinderella, an impossibly hunky Prince, an impossibly generous Fairy Godmother. More than once, I remember falling asleep still singing of impossible things and lovely nights.
Everyone knew the story was fanciful, but it spoke to the deep longings of both children and adults to live in a world in which the innocent would be protected, the wicked would be punished, and the slipper would always fit.
I hope not to offend anyone here, but the Story of the Fiery Furnace played just such a role for our ancient Jewish ancestors—ancestors who were persecuted, tortured and ridiculed. The Book of Daniel is a collection of folktales—this and “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” being the most famous—from a period more than 500 years before the birth of Christ. In Daniel’s book, there are no waifs sitting in ashes or pumpkin-shaped carriages. Instead, the innocents needing protection were the Jews. The role of the wicked stepmother was played by a succession of evil Babylonian rulers, hell-bent on destroying the Jews in their midst. And the good guys, the slipper-fitters?
This wild story of three men—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—was intended to inspire Jews under persecution. The story telling is masterful, rushing headlong through lists of dignitaries as long as Her Majesty Queen Constantina’s name (satraps, prefects, governors and counselors . . .) and musical instruments we’ve never heard of (horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp . . .) until the action screeched to a halt at the door of the fiery furnace—a furnace so hot it melted the men who stoked it.
In an epic contest of wills, the delusional, boastful King Nebuchadnezzar gave his young Jewish victims one more chance to worship the massive statue he had built. But their profession of faith scorched the wicked king as severely as the fire had annihilated the poor schmucks who built it: “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.”
Such courage is the stuff of fairy tales. Who else, faced with certain incineration, would so boldly, almost cavalierly taunt the only one who could save them?
Well, I can think of one. Daniel might call him the Fourth Man. That fourth figure in the fire that had the appearance of a god. But we know better. We would name that singular courageous figure “Jesus.”
Behind us, on these Lent Wednesdays, lie gallons and gallons of water: the dark deep of creation, Noah’s endless rain storm, the vast sea which Moses parted, the promise of free water to all who thirst. Tonight the threat to God’s people is from fire—a death to horrible to contemplate. And ahead us? Ahead of us is yet another danger, another threat to those who cling to the God of our ancestors.
Before us lies a cross. And there is only one who can climb it, only one whom it cannot destroy, only one whose faith is strong enough to face threats more thorough than either drowning water or consuming fire.
In a few short days, we will mark Jesus’ confident procession toward what looks, for all the world, like death. He will be undeterred by either praise or protest, but will trust in God to carry him through with both unmoistened foot and without a whiff of fire on his clothes.
To the unbelieving, the Gospel story we tell is as fanciful as “Cinderella” or the “Fourth Man in the Fire,” but to we who are perishing it is life abundant which neither water nor fire can destroy.
Song of the Day: “The Fourth Man,” by Arthur Smith (1955), recorded by The Statesmen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aR0Zy4bDcyI)