As we read and reflect on the stories of the Bible and the promises of the Word of God, we’re often surprised at how God works in our lives and in this world. Much about God still is mystery. God is, after all, God. But as we walk by faith and He reveals Himself in beautiful and unexpected ways, life is truly a rich adventure. Of all the surprises, the best surprise is the promise of His powerful, loving presence, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
Today as we study the story from Daniel, chapter 3, we remember three men whom we probably first met in Sunday school – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were part of the exiles taken to Babylon after Jerusalem was defeated in 587 BC. They, along with Daniel, were the cream of the crop, top shelf, young men dripping with potential. The King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, saw their great ability and used them to rule in his kingdom.
God called them to remain faithful to Him in this foreign land despite living in a culture that did not acknowledge Yahweh as God. King Nebuchadnezzar set up a ninety-foot idol and held an important dedication of it. Everyone who was anyone was present, and when the music played, everyone was to bow down. And everyone did – except Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. How is the element of surprise part of this story?
First, this story is surprising in that God’s people were even in exile. Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, had been defeated soundly by Babylon. This created a theological crisis of faith for those who were in exile. I wonder if you have ever experienced some tragedy or suffering and wondered why God allowed it or if God had abandoned you? Does God still care about me?
How do we understand the expectations created by faith? We put our trust in an all-powerful God of love. So when we experience the reality of suffering in this imperfect world, where is God? The Old Testament people hauled into slavery in Babylon were people of promise. They had the Law – the Torah – God’s commands as their guide for living in harmony with God in this world. They were people of the covenant of circumcision, descendants of Abraham. They were the chosen people of all-powerful Yahweh. God was with them, so how could they ever be defeated?
Yet, Jerusalem was destroyed. More than that, the Temple, the dwelling place of Almighty God was destroyed. And the Temple, remember, was the place for sacrifice for the atonement for sins, for the harmony of being reconciled to God. The majority of the people were killed. It was a terrible defeat. All who survived were hauled off into exile in Babylon. No wonder the psalmist wrote, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered.” They were surprised that God allowed them to be defeated by the enemy.
Eventually, though, as they processed this in faith, they had to conclude that it was not God who had failed or abandoned them. Rather, they had failed God. For decades they had disobeyed God’s word. They had broken God’s covenant and were deaf to the voice of the prophets. Still God told them as exiles, I still have plans for you. I want you to settle in, keep trusting me, stay faithful, and seek to bless the nation where you live (Jer. 29). The phrase, “Bloom where you are planted” is good advice for the exiles. It is for me, perhaps for you, even today, our faith raises expectations. We pray to an infinitely powerful God who loves us, and we expect and hope to be spared any struggle or pain in this world. We are surprised when we experience defeat. Terrorism stirs uneasiness and fear all around the globe. We hear reports of ISIS (radical Islamic extremists armed to the hilt) who are committed to killing those who don’t share their beliefs. We see photos of Christians who were put to death for their unwavering confession of faith in Jesus, and we are surprised and wonder why God didn’t protect them.
Yet we believe God is still all-powerful, He loves us, and is the source of our hope. Romans chapter 8 tells us that God sent His Son into the world to die on a cross and He raised Him from the dead to defeat death and the enemy. We live by faith wrestling with mysteries. God sees our times of struggle as well as triumphs. He knows us, and He weeps with us in our pain. He loves us.
We also might be surprised on an individual level when we experience personal suffering, sickness, and loss – even if we are faithful to God. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were faithful to God in that foreign land filled with idol worship. It is easy to be faithful and loyal when we’re sitting in church in the third row from the front to the right of center surrounded by other believers. However, when we are surrounded by people who don’t share our faith in the Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world, it isn’t as easy to remain faithful. So when we are faithful, we expect God to protect us from any consequence of being loyal to Him, especially if the persecution comes from unbelievers.
The truth, however, is that scriptural witness doesn’t teach us this. Throughout history, Christian believers have suffered greatly and lost their lives by trusting Christ at the hands of unbelievers. So in this story, when King Nebuchadnezzar sets up this ninety-foot statue and summons all in the crowd to bow down on the threat that if they don’t they will be thrown in the fiery furnace, three individuals stand defiant. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – faithful to God though the masses do otherwise. King Nebuchadnezzar is furious. Maybe you didn’t understand, boys. I’ll give you another chance to get it right or else!
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego say to the King, Well, if you throw us in the fiery furnace, GOD IS ABLE TO SAVE US, AND HE WILL DELIVER US. But, even if He does not (meaning, even if we have to die for our faith and loyalty to God), we won’t serve your gods or worship your image. Their hearts were already promised to Another. Before the time of testing came, they already knew their hearts were devoted to being the Lord’s people.
So with us! Even before we’re tempted to give in to the passion of the moment, we can say, My heart belongs to Jesus. Even if we are seduced to embezzle money and become rich, our hearts belong to Jesus. Even if we’re invited to cave in and go with the crowd, to do what the rest of culture does and think like the rest of the world in terms of purpose, goals, or philosophy, remember: our hearts belong to Jesus. We are already promised to Another.
SURPRISE! Just when Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego needed God most, He revealed His presence and His power in the heat of the fiery furnace. These men were beautiful in their courageous faithfulness. King Nebuchadnezzar had stoked the fire so hot that the soldiers died bringing them to it.
Now we need to know that God does not guarantee that if we are faithful, we will be exempt from danger or death. Even in the current news, we read stories of people who courageously confess their faith yet suffer. But what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego told the King is true! God is able to supernaturally, miraculously deliver us. He also promises us the courage and strength to be faithful to Him in the heat of the moment and in the face of the challenge.
Just when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego thought they would die, God rescued them. Nebuchadnezzar, the king said “Weren’t there three men tied up and thrown into the fire? Look! I see four men walking in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods!” (I believe the fourth man was the presence of Jesus Himself in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.)
I love this description. They were unharmed. Not a hair on their heads was singed; their robes were not scorched; they didn’t even smell of fire! And the king promoted them.
It’s a beautiful and powerful story. It ends well – God gives them victory. However, God does not always intervene to miraculously deliver. Sometimes faithful people, loyal hearts, suffer greatly.
The most profound truth, the best surprise of all, is that Jesus’ name is Immanuel, God with us. We are not exempt from the difficulties of an imperfect world or the evil hearts of unbelievers who would wish to destroy Jesus and his followers and the message of the gospel. Yet Romans eight tells us, “What can we say about all these things? If God is for us, who could stand against us. We are more than conquerors through Jesus who loves us, and nothing, nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Years ago, the late Rev. Mark Jerstad, campus pastor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota told the story of his experience as a young pastor in International Falls, Minnesota. In his parish was a single mom who was very poor and struggled in life. She had two small children, five-year-old Jill and baby Johnny. They lived in a trailer. One night a tragic fire broke out and baby Johnny died in the fire.
After the funeral, Pastor Mark offered to take Jill to his house to play with his daughter Rachel while the mom took care of some business. Jill had not spoken a word since the tragic fire. Pastor Mark asked Jill, “Would you like to play a game?” She shook her head no.
“Want to play with Rachel’s dolls?” She shook her head.
“I know,” he said, “Let’s go to the piano. I’ll play the notes, and you sing the words.” Jill nodded.
Pastor Mark began to play and the little girl sang this haunting song,
“Johnny’s in the trailer, and I can’t get him out.
He’s trapped in the fire, and I can’t get him out.
Johnny’s in the trailer, and I can’t get him out.”
Then, like a switch in her heart, Jill turned to Pastor Mark and said, “Pastor Mark, could we sing the song we do in Sunday school: ÔJesus loves me’?”
Pastor Mark, with a broad smile, began to play, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
Two songs. The first song expresses our human powerlessness in a broken world where we suffer, where we feel guilt and grieve our loss. But the second song is a song of hope. Only in the unconditional love of Jesus can we survive. Only in Jesus’ promise that says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” can we have the courage to live by faith.
That is the best surprise – the very presence of Jesus whose name is Immanuel, God with us.