States have always substituted their own idols in place of God, whom they wish to sideline or eliminate, and this is what we see in our chapter today. Listen to this:
If you meet with difficulties at work, or suddenly doubt your abilities, think of him and you will find the confidence you need. If you feel tired in an hour when you should not, think of him and your work will go well. If you are seeking a correct decision, think of him and you will find that decision.
Who is the ‘him’ the writer is encouraging the reader to turn to? It was written in 1950 in the communist daily Pravda and the ‘him’ is Stalin. He was a despot in the line of Nebuchadnezzar – worse then Nebuchadnezzar.
• Kim Sung Ill the proponent of Juche philosophy which focussed on a strong and gifted leader, was the higher power of North Korea, whose image was in every home and before whose image couples got married.
• The state is the supreme power in China to which people are expected to give undivided allegiance and obedience.
• In the West it is the markets which are the supreme power to which people respond and to which people are sacrificed through the workings of capitalism.
When we read about Nebuchadnezzar’s statue we perhaps feel a little superior, because we have progressed beyond thinking things made with human hands have intrinsic power or people are gods on earth. However, a simple analysis of the things to which we devote our lives or by which we allow our lives to be governed shows that we have just substituted one god for another.
Our three points this week are:
1. Glorifying Babylon
2. Subversive faith
3. Covenant relationship
What is this image all about? We assume that it was an image of Nebuchadnezzar, but it was more likely an obelisk or stylised human form. However its purpose was to be worshipped and to unify Babylon under a state religion. It made a statement in terms of size and being (probably) gold plated. It shouted greatness, power and wealth and was supposed to instil awe and wonder as well as be the focus of obedience. Countries have often built or build monuments that make statements about themselves; or they parade weapons or build space stations with the purpose of dominating.
• Why are palaces so large? They make a statement about wealth and power and were designed to awe.
• Why were there statues of Lenin and Stalin right across the Soviet empire? To keep people’s focus and command allegiance.
• In the UK the ideology of tolerance is the thing that commands allegiance at the moment, and it is an ideology we should not offend, because then it will become intolerant.
The image Nebuchadnezzar set up made the statement that Babylon was the dominant culture and the one to which all should bend the knee. In doing so the ‘worshippers’ were identifying with the culture and saying, ‘We are Babylonian’. What Nebuchadnezzar was doing was harnessing religion in the worship of the state. It is a question of loyalty and identity. Not to worship at the state altar puts you in opposition and therefore makes you suspect. It raises the question of where truth lies: is it with the state or with God?
In the 1981 film, ‘Chariots of Fire’ (based on real life events) a confrontation takes place between the first class athlete Eric Liddle who was set for Olympic gold in the 100m at the Paris Olympics of 1924, and the old aristocracy who ran athletics. The heats were on a Sunday and as a Christian he believed he should be in church worshipping, so refused to run. One of the old aristocrats said, ‘In my day it was country first and religion second’. A compromise was found and he ran in the 400m winning gold.
Do we worship the state or the Lord God? Do we worship God or mammon, as Jesus asked? Or we could ask are we British first and Christians second, or Christians who are British, but our loyalty to Christ comes first. Here is the source of intolerance and perceived subversion. This is what Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego came up against. It was not a conflict they sought, nor did the decree target them. However, the nature of the decree meant that if they did not obey there would be a problem, especially if there were those ready to denounce them – as there were. Let’s clarify why there was a problem and they were considered to be subversive.
What does it mean to be subversive? A dictionary definition tells us that there is an intention by someone to undermine or destroy a political system. Those that are not secure in their authority, will not allow any form of dissent in case it leads to a change of the political regime and the rulers losing power. Under this sort of political regime, any minor deviations or challenges are stamped upon quickly in case they escalate. If the regime feels things are getting out of control they will come down hard – as we have seen in China, in Iran and more recently in Myanmar. Such regimes are inflexible.
This was the situation in Babylon: a decree of the emperor was irrevocable. Meschach, Shadrach and Abednego may not have made a big display of their non-compliance, but it is the sort of thing that could easily escalate and was an opportunity for those jealous of these foreigners in positions of authority and devoted to YHWH. What is more, because they had positions of responsibility and authority they were supposed to be showing solidarity. There was no space for conscience.
Of course this incident begs the question, ‘What was the big deal for these three? Couldn’t they just have complied and inwardly offer worship to YHWH?’ We have to go back to Exodus, the escape from Egypt, worship of the golden calf and the Ten Commandments to understand this.
When the people saw that Moses had not come down from the mountain
but was staying there a long time, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “We do not know what has happened to this man Moses, who led us out of Egypt; so make us a god[a] to lead us.”
Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold earrings which your wives, your sons, and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their gold earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took the earrings, melted them, poured the gold into a mold, and made a gold bull-calf.
The people said, “Israel, this is our god, who led us out of Egypt!”
It is staggering that after such a spectacular delivery from Egypt and the provision of God in the wilderness, the people so readily wanted created images from their melted gold and were prepared to attribute their escape and deliverance to this human made object.
The problem with bowing down to the statue Nebuchadnezzar put up is the same as that of the people of Israel bowing to a golden calf: the power and authority of God was being attributed to an object and they were now giving their allegiance to that object. The statue in Babylon symbolised the power behind the empire – Nebuchadnezzar and the state he had created. Being asked to bow to this statue was more than just a request for flexibility. It was saying that everything was attributable to Babylon. This was state worship. It brings us back to the question already asked: to whom or to what do you give your primary and overriding allegiance? It is a relevant question in the aftermath of Brexit, in which Britain is to be put first and there is a belief we can regain past glory.
We put Jesus first and although it has become a cliché, we ask what he would do in relation to the refugee, the weak and vulnerable, those overseas who are already feeling the impact of the cuts to British overseas aid. It is not a case of ‘charity begins at home’, but recognising the blessings we have received from God, the responsibility we have as a wealthy nation and being generous in our help for others.
What else is going on in this account? Well it provided the opportunity for prejudice to be vented and take effect. It is clear from verse 8 that there is jealousy among the professional classes over the promotion of these immigrants above them. It seems they were looking for an opportunity to bring them down and it came with the worship of the statue. Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego were denounced. Religious prejudice emerges: why should they be allowed to be standoffish about Babylonian religion and claim exclusivity for their God. And by the way, we did destroy their temple and holy city. There is also racial prejudice here mixed with their jealousy: ‘There are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon…’ Notice the subtle dig at Nebuchadnezzar; risky, but he had put the Jewish exiles in positions of authority. They point out that the three do not worship Babylonian gods or the image of gold. Predictably, Nebuchadnezzar is outraged. Why are these three in trouble? They are seen as subversive foreigners giving their allegiance to a foreign God and that cannot be allowed.
‘All religions are basically the same aren’t they? What difference does it make if you worship at a gurdwara, mosque, Hindu temple or church? It is all the same God -why do you Christians insist that Jesus is unique and the only Saviour?’ That is the confusion of society, the complete misunderstanding of religion and the person of Jesus. Why is Jesus unique? He is God incarnate who died and rose again for the sin of the whole world so that all who believe in him will know forgiveness, reconciliation with God and eternal life, passing from judgment to life. This gospel no other religion declares. In Jesus we see the new covenant made in his body and affirmed in his resurrection.
The concept of a covenant relationship with God is central to biblical faith. God established his covenant with his people from the beginning, starting with Abraham and the promise that he would be the father of a great nation. There are a number of occasions when the covenant is restated. In Exodus 19:3-6 God establishes the covenant with the people and they are given the choice as to whether or not they enter into it.
The Lord called to him from the mountain and told him to say to the
Israelites, Jacob’s descendants: 4 “You saw what I, the Lord, did to the Egyptians and how I carried you as an eagle carries her young on her wings, and brought you here to me.
5 Now, if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own people. The whole earth is mine, but you will be my chosen people, 6 a people dedicated to me alone, and you will serve me as priests.” 7 So Moses went down and called the leaders of the people together and told them everything that the Lord had commanded him.
8 Then all the people answered together, “We will do everything that the Lord has said,” and Moses reported this to the Lord.
There were consequences for breaking the covenant, but a covenant goes beyond the purely contractual. It is about seeing it through in spite of the challenges and difficulties. This we see as God pursued the people of Israel in their waywardness and pleading with them through the prophets. Ultimately God showed his commitment to the whole world through sending Jesus as the sin bearer and establishing the eternal covenant of forgiveness and new life.
Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego knew that covenant faith and lived it. Just as I said of Daniel, for these three it had become rooted in their lives and they drew on their knowledge of God to strengthen themselves. It was born out of discipline and literally tested in the fire. It was stated when they said, “The God we serve is able to save us from the fire, but even if he doesn’t, we will not serve your gods or your image of gold.” Their covenant faith was not dependent upon circumstances or God coming up trumps. It was firmly in the God who could save, but still deserved their worship and allegiance even if he chose not to save. They were committed to God come what may.
I visited Tom throughout his illness, praying with him, anointing him and joining with the church in praying for him. He was a strong man of God, but even in the face of impending death, would not prepare to face it in case God took it as a sign of lack of faith. I have no doubt about his salvation, but it was so sad that he could not surrender to God and rest in his covenant love; that he could not allow God to be God in his living and his dying. His wife took it one step further and turned her back on God. God could only be God if he healed her husband and gave him back to her.
Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego affirmed God’s power and God’s freedom. They would serve with a miracle, but equally they would serve without one. Hebrews chapter 11 talks about people who had covenant faith. The writer talks about the victories of faith and the pain of faith. There were successes, but there were also those who ‘Faced jeers and flogging, chains and prison. They were stoned, sawed in two, put to the sword…were destitute, persecuted and mistreated.’ Jesus in Gethsemane agonised in the garden as he asked for the cup of suffering to pass from him. Yet he was still willing to walk the path of suffering in obedience to the Father.
So as we draw to close, I am going to raise three questions for us to consider:
1. What or who do we bow down to, before we bow down to God?
2. Do we have subversive faith that means we are Christians first?
3. Do we have the covenant faith of Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego, affirming God’s power and allowing God’s freedom; being willing to serve with or without the miracle?
We believe in and follow a Saviour who did, could and does perform miracles. The biggest miracle is salvation. We follow a Saviour who walked the path of obedience through suffering to bring about salvation and who is with us through all we experience in this life.