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On Fire

Posted on 23 Jun 2024

June 23, 2024

Daniel 3:1-6, 8-9, 12-30

Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman


So I don’t know this story about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as well as I know the story about Daniel in the lions’ den.  If you have been a member of FCC going back thirty or forty years, you might know this story really well after seeing the youth choir perform, “It’s Cool in the Furnace”, on more than one occasion.

The book of Daniel begins with six stories.  Most of the stories are about Daniel; however the first and third ones are about Daniel’s friends and fellow exiles: Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.

According to the book of Daniel, once upon a time, God let the king of Judah, the southern half of what used to be the home of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Once upon a time, God let the king of Judah be conquered by the king of Babylon.  In addition to taking home some souvenirs from the house of God, the king of Babylon also took home some Israelites “of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace” (Daniel 1:3-4)

Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were four of those perfect, handsome, intelligent young men.  They were brought from Judah to Babylon to be educated in the ways of the Babylonians so they could serve in the king’s court and make Babylon even greater than it was.

The Babylonians wanted their intelligence; they wanted their youth; they wanted their abilities.  The Babylonians did not want them though.  The Babylonians did not want their hopes, their dreams, their convictions, their beliefs.

Basically, the Babylonians did not want anything that made Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah human beings.  The Babylonians only wanted robots, robots who would eat what they were told to eat, study what they were told to study, and do the tasks that made the Babylonian Empire bigger, stronger, richer.

The Babylonians didn’t even want these young men to keep their original names and so they gave them other names, Babylonian names, I imagine.  Daniel was called Belteshazzar, Hananiah was called Shadrach, Mishael Meshach, and Azariah Abednego.

And as is the story of anyone who has been forced to leave their home or who has willingly left their home for a better life, the Babylonians didn’t just want these young men to give up their homes and their names, they wanted them to give up everything else.  Their culture, their way of doing things, and their faith – their faith in God.

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is one of assimilation.  Scholars generally agree that these young men were representations of lots of other young men, of other people, forced by the Babylonians, the Assyrians, whoever the latest conquering empire was, to assimilate and fit into their culture and society.

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is likely one that the Jewish Diaspora, Israelites living outside of Israel, told each other over and over as a reminder to stay strong, to stay true, to stay faithful to God despite the pressures placed upon them by their conquerors.  To stay true and faithful despite the pressures to just give in and become like one of the status quo.  They were to stay resolute – even in the face of the king’s demands, the king’s anger, the king’s fiery furnace – heated up to seven times more than was customary.

While we might never be faced with the choice between giving in to the status quo or facing the fiery furnace, every day, we are faced with small fires that have the potential to burn away at our integrity.  Making holes in us, in our hearts, and in our souls.  Every day, with their disdain, with their shame, with their anger and fear, with their own brokenness, people try to set little fires to our integrity, to that which makes us whole.

Every day, when someone says something that disparages others: something that is anti-Semitic, a blonde joke that is misogynistic, a racial slur – and we laugh uncomfortably or stay silent because we want to be nice.  Because we don’t want them to be uncomfortable.  And while it is not our intention, we end up assimilating to the hate of the world and a part of our soul, a part of our integrity, gets burned away.

Or we might hide a part of ourselves – our love of a certain band, our enjoyment of a certain food, our desire to dress a certain way – we hide a part of ourselves because we want to be liked; we want to fit in; we think things will be better for us if we just follow the status quo.  And every time we choose what other people want instead of what we want, what God wants for us, every time we choose what pleases others, another part of our soul, another part of our integrity, gets burned away.

Every day, we are faced with decisions that while they might not thrust us into the fire, still make small burn marks all over our minds, hearts, and souls.  Every day, we are faced with decisions that nibble, oh so quietly and discreetly, away at our integrity, at our wholeness, at this person God created, at this person God names beloved, at this person God calls as a partner in building God’s community of peace, justice, love, and wholeness.

On the one hand, this inspirational story is about integrity, about Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah standing true to God in the face of certain death.  This is a story about keeping true to God and to who you are – even in the face of great pressure, even in the face of anger and shame, disdain and threats.

And on the other hand, this story is about being willing to set yourself on fire for God.  I don’t mean as a martyr.  I don’t even mean sacrificially – but kind of – because proclaiming our faith in God, proclaiming our trust in God requires a bit of change from us.  Our passion for God sometimes invites us to risk other’s ridicule, to literally be a fool for Christ as we talk about our faith, as we talk to people about what our faith means to us.

The other day, I was in Joann’s Fabric with Jack, buying pipe cleaners for Cub Scout Twilight Camp.  I confess I was in a little bit of a hurry and because I thought it would just be easier, when the clerk asked if he could put my phone number into the computer, instead of saying “no thank you” as I usually do, I said yes.

Our church phone number though – which prompted the computer to prompt him to ask, “Do you want to use your tax exempt?”  In this case, no; however because the clerk was really friendly, he went on to ask me if I was a teacher.  No.  Hopefully you guessed that I said.  “I am the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Bristol” which elicited the clerk to share that since the pandemic he has really ‘leaned into his Christianity’, his words and I love them.

This became a much longer conversation than a simple transaction as we talked about not being a Christian alone and having a community to support us on our journeys and how hard it is to always stay “new” in Christ.  His passion for Christ, how on fire he was for God, added to my fire for God, added to my joy in following Christ, added to my excitement to share with others my faith in God and to be fully myself, whole, and true.

Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah went faithfully, went willingly into that fire because they knew God was with them; they knew that when you live your life for God and with God, that nothing can scorch you; they knew that when you set your life, your heart, your soul on fire for God, you will always be made whole.

As the Word becomes flesh in you, may the Word set you on fire, on fire for God and make you whole.