But If Not
Daniel 3:16-18, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, July 1, 2018
The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is a story of resistance to the oppressive power of government. It is about an act of civil disobedience against a great empire. It is about how God is always the ultimate ruler, and no human powers can claim that for themselves. It is an illustration of what it means to believe in the kingdom of God.
It’s important to understand that this is not a fairy tale about how three little boys got thrown into a wicked witch’s oven and popped out uncooked. The happy ending isn’t even the point of the story. This is a subversive tale told to inspire people to stand for God even when the government demands absolute allegiance. It may have had its origins in the days of Babylon, but it was retold by Jews when the Greeks desecrated their temple and when the Romans destroyed it. This story was drawn on the walls of the catacombs by early Christians to give them strength when they worshipped Jesus illegally and faced execution by the Roman Empire. This is a story told by early Baptists and Quakers when the Church of England demanded allegiance.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego lived at the center of a great empire. They had been brought to the capital city to be trained to serve in the government. The king had given them an education and he thought he had bought their loyalty. He may have bought their loyalty against other nations, but he was never able to buy their ultimate loyalty. They were Jews. They knew that they had only one real king—he was not the historical David or a David to come; he was not the puppet king on the throne in Jerusalem; and he was not Nebuchadnezzar. Their one King was Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who had called Israel into being and saved them from slavery. And that true King had one law above all others—to love him with all your heart and to have no other gods. So when Nebuchadnezzar built a 90 foot tall statue of gold—more like an obelisk in the shape of the Washington Monument—and ordered that absolutely everyone must bow down and worship it whenever the music sounded, they said no.
These three government employees were not rabble rousers. They just quietly refused to bow down because their consciences wouldn’t let them. Nothing would have happened to them if some jealous rivals for political power hadn’t gone and tattled on them to the king. Even when they were brought before the king, they could have saved their skins by agreeing to go through the motions of bowing down and pretending to worship the statue, while refusing to worship inwardly. But they could not do that. The king was claiming something for himself that belonged only to God—that was their worship and their absolute allegiance.
Followers of the real God cannot participate in government-sponsored religion. Government-sponsored religion is never about God. It is always about using religion to solidify support for the government. In the classic book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon wrote that “in Roman society all religions were to the people equally true, to the philosophers equally false, and to the government equally useful.” I doubt that changed much in Rome after the emperor became a Christian. When that happened, the Roman emperor could take a statue of Caesar and put the face of Jesus on it and demand that everyone bow down to Jesus. Functionally, nothing had changed. It wasn’t about Jesus, it was about government power. That is as true in America as it was in Rome.
Nebuchadnezzar, like most powerful rulers, seems to have a constant need to be praised. The most ridiculous example today is Kim Jong Un in North Korea, who seems to be the focus of his own religion. But he is far from the only leader who likes to be saluted, who puts up pictures of himself in his buildings, who calls staff meetings in order to hear expressions of loyalty. Depending on your viewpoint, loyalty means worship or kissing up to the big guy. If you have to demand loyalty, you are probably pretty insecure and fearful. That seems to have been the situation with Nebuchadnezzar. He wanted all the people to bow down to his statue as an expression of loyalty to him, the way some people demand you say the pledge of allegiance or stand during the anthem. Only this loyalty test was on pain of death.
The statue Nebuchadnezzar put up was probably not an image of himself. It may have been an image of the god Nebu, whom he was named after. But all the text says is that it was a statue of gold. I think that is exactly the point. What the people were to bow down and worship was gold itself—the power of money, the power of Babylon as the richest nation on earth. The fact that we can afford to build this statue makes us proud. The heart of their political religion was this creed: we are the richest and therefore we are the most powerful; we are the most powerful and therefore we are the richest. Amen. The worship of gold amounted to nothing more than the worship of wealth and power—and that would be true even if the golden statue had the face of Jesus on it. It would still not be about Jesus, but about wealth and power. The story in the end is not about the danger of pagan religion with statues; it is about the danger of giving your heart to wealth and power.
The three Jewish officials refused to give their hearts. They refused to bow down and worship the statue of gold. They declined to participate in the national religion. Do you know what charge was brought against the early Christians by the Roman Empire? They were charged with atheism. They weren’t charged with worshipping Jesus. They were charged with refusing to worship the state gods. They were political atheists who refused to say that the government was God.
Listen to what the early Christian Marcellus said at his trial. He had been a Roman centurion and became a follower of Jesus and refused after that to bear arms. He was charged with insubordination. Marcellus said: “I am a soldier of Jesus Christ, the eternal King. From now on I cease to serve your emperor and I despise the worship of your gods of wood and stone…it is not fitting that a Christian, who fights for Christ his Lord, should be a soldier according to the brutalities of the world.” Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Marcellus lived in an alternate reality. He served another sovereign. He lived in the kingdom of God and of his Christ who shall reign forever and ever. If the government orders you to act in a way that is contrary to the way of Jesus, you have to say no to the false God of government who would claim authority over your conscience. If the government calls it national security but you know it to be political posturing, you must say no. As Hebrew National hot dog commercials say, we answer to a higher authority.
Nebuchadnezzar is not used to hearing no. Neither is Caesar or Uncle Sam. In Daniel 3, the king flies into a rage and orders the three Jews to be thrown into a furnace, a threat that must in some perverse way must have inspired Hitler. Nebuchadnezzar says, “I’d like to see your God save you now”—the same thing the Nazis said at Auschwitz. The boys at Columbine said it when they held the gun to Cassie Bernall’s head: “I’d like to see your God save you now.” It’s what the mockers said to Jesus on the cross: “I’d like to see your God save you now.”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do not cave. They say two things that are the two sides of faith, and I want you to pay careful attention. First, they say “Our God is able to deliver us.” They have confidence in God. When the Roman Pilate asked Jesus, “Don’t you realize that I have the power of life and death over you?” Jesus answered, “You don’t have any power that doesn’t come from God. God is the real power.” The three Jews understand that. Nothing is impossible for God—and the end of the story bears that out. As the power of Rome couldn’t keep Jesus down, the power of Babylon couldn’t kill Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Our God is able.
But they say a second thing, and if they didn’t say this second thing the story would dishonor all the Jews and Christians who went to their deaths to be true to God. These are three of the most powerful words in the Bible: “But if not.” We know that our God is able to save us, but we do not know if he will save us from this particular trial. Even if God does not save us, we will be faithful to him. Do you get how important that is? We don’t worship God so that he will save us. We worship God because he is the one true God and King. Our theology tells us that God is able to save us, but we cannot have any certainty that it is his desire to keep us from this furnace. Perhaps he will be glorified by receiving our lives as a burnt offering. We do not know. But we are still able to make the choice to be true to God and to challenge the claims of the government.
The message of this story is not “If you are loyal to God he will rescue you from the government.” The Jews who told this story knew that was not the truth. They had seen Jews die. They had seen the temple destroyed. The Christians who told this story had seen Jesus himself die at the hands of government. The truth of this story is “God is able to rescue, but what God desires is that we choose to be loyal to him alone even if he does not rescue us”—which is exactly what Jesus did.
Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon on this text at Ebenezer Baptist Church a few months before his death. He drew a contrast between IF faith and THOUGH faith. IF faith says if all goes well, if life is prosperous, if I don’t have to go to jail, if I’m not called bad names, then I’ll have faith in God, then I’ll tithe, then I’ll keep going to church. IF faith thinks that faith is a bargain with God; I’ll do this if you do that.
THOUGH faith, on the other hand, says, and here I quote Dr. King, “though things go wrong, though evil is temporarily triumphant, though sickness comes and the cross looms, nevertheless I’m gonna believe anyway and have faith anyway.” Psalm 46:2-3 (NIV) says, "Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging."
John Newton, the former slave trade captain who wrote “Amazing Grace,” lost his wife who had led him to faith in Christ. When he got up in the pulpit the next Sunday he preached on Habakkuk 3:17-18 (NIV) "Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior."
Job’s wife told him to curse God, and an IF faith would have done that. She said to him, “God has treated you bad. Just curse God and die!” But Job said to her, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15 NIV). That’s THOUGH faith.
Jesus prayed the night before he went to the cross, “If it is possible, rescue me. But if not, your will be done.” He said, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, “My God is able to deliver me.But if not, yet will I hope in him, and I will not bow down to Caesar or to the religious leaders who curry his favor.
Some of us are nearer to death than others. Some of us face choices between Christian ethics and the expectations of our party or our family. Some of us are waking up to the fact that the economic system that has so blessed us has denied those blessings to others, and yet we are asked to bow down to the godlike hand of the free market. Some of us are asking ourselves whether borders and security and nationhood have become our gods. Faith says that no matter what the system takes away from me, I can trust God to be with me, and I would rather honor God with nothing left than live in abundance without God.
But If Not
(Tune: Bring Him Home from Les Mis, by Claude-Michel Schönberg)
Lord of all, God of power,
You I call / in this terrible hour:
You can save from the flame,
from the grave, from all shame.
But if not, but if not,
I’ll serve you.
I know my times are in your hand.
My life will end as you have planned.
You can deliver if you choose;
sometimes you save, sometimes bruise;
some you crown, and some you use.
Let this cup / pass, I pray.
Wake me up, take this nightmare away.
You can call an angel band,
Bring me out with a mighty hand.
But if not—I’ll serve you.
But if not—I’ll be true.
I’ll be true. ©2007 Stephen E Hollaway