The Smell of Fire
I Peter 1:3-7
October 27, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
King Nebuchadnezzar ordered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be thrown into the flaming fiery furnace for their refusal to bow down to his statue. The Bible doesn’t say what kind of furnace this was, but we can assume it was some sort of pottery kiln or massive oven with a viewing port to check on the progress of whatever it was that was cooking in there, and in the story it was Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were supposed to be cooking. It says something about the nature of Nebuchnezaar — something not very pleasant — that he not only wanted the three men executed but wanted to enjoy the sight of these three stubborn men turning to ash before his eyes. To the king’s astonishment, however, when he peered into the window of the furnace, he saw that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had not instantly burst into flames but instead were strolling around in the hot furnace accompanied by a fourth man in the fire with them, a man Nebuchadnezzar declared must be an angel of God. The sight of the fourth man made the King reconsider his actions — even a brutal hothead like Nebuchadnezzar could see the danger of messing with an angel — so he called in to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, “Hey guys, I was just joking. Come on out of there, friends of the most high God, and by the way, my good friends, too, you know, my buddies, my pals.”
The three men stepped out of the furnace and the King and all of his officials gathered around, examining them closely, looking in vain for a blister on their skin, a singed hem, a spot of soot on their clothing, but they could find nothing. To drive home just how little the fire had touched them, the Bible concludes, “Not even the smell of fire came from them.”
Not even the smell of fire came from them. Now that indeed is a miracle. Anyone who has ever cooked marshmallows over a campfire knows how quickly the smell of that fire gets into your clothing. You don’t have to walk around in the middle of the flames like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for the smell of fire to cling to you; just getting close to the fire will be enough to coat you with its aroma for a long time. Some of you long time church members may remember when the Church Center caught on fire in 1990. It was started, if I remember correctly, from a spark in some faulty wiring in the basement and from there the fire grew until it burned through many of the floor joists of the Bergen room and scorched the walls of the offices before it fortunately was slowed down by water bursting out of a melted pipe. The fire company was able to put the rest of of the fire out before it damaged anything more, and within a month or two contractors had replaced the structural damage it had caused. It took forever, however, to get the smell of that fire out of the carpet, and the curtains, and the books, and office files and even today, you can still open old storage boxes from that time and smell the slight order of smoke in their contents. The smell of a fire can linger for a long time after the fire is but a memory. In the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the miracle is not simply that the men survived the burning flames, but that they came through the fire totally unscathed, absolutely untouched, able to go on with their lives as if they had never been in that furnace or even close to it. There was no smell of fire upon them.
In those few words, “there was no smell of fire upon them,” I hear the longing of so many suffering men and women who have gone through the fires of life — sorrows, tragedies, hurts, and loss — and continue today to struggle with the smell of the fire that lingers. Think of the many people who go through a tumultuous divorce and carry into their next marriage the lingering fears and doubts created by the heartache of that first failed relationship. Minor problems or causal comments by the new spouse may set off alarms because though that divorce is in the past, the smell of that “fire” remains: the fear and uncertainty triggered by its memory lingers. Children who grow up with alcoholic parents may overcome that rocky start to establish successful lives that on the surface appear whole and healthy but underneath they still struggle to overcome behavioral patterns that they developed as children to cope with that chaotic home. Or how many victims of a car accident find themselves breaking into a sweat as they approach the intersection where that accident took place? The smell of the fire lingers still. Parents who lose a child in a tragedy will often for the rest of their lives carry not only the grief of that loss but the torment of guilt wondering if they might have prevented the tragedy somehow or they may develop an unhealthy overprotectiveness toward their other children fearing that such a loss might occur again. These are the people — maybe you are among them — who survived the flames of the fire but the smell of that fire lingers still permeating everything you do. How you long for the peace of being able to emerge from the flames with “no smell of fire upon you.”
A young woman in England named Sitara describes the struggle of living with the smell of fire still. One July 7, 2005, she boarded a train in London to head into the city. She was 16, a normal happy teenager looking forward to the Olympics taking place that summer in London, but her life was about to change forever. For people in Britain, July 7, 2005 is known simply as 7.7, like our 9-11, because on that day, four bombs exploded on trains and buses throughout London in a coordinated terrorist attack killing 52 people and wounding 700 more. Sitara was on one of those trains. She survived uninjured but was close enough to the blast to see the blood and destruction left in its wake and she says, “I went home covered in soot and tried to forget about it [but] I started to suffer from nightmares and panic attacks. I used to hate being around smoke and people who were covered in fake blood. Even now, I refuse to use a certain exit at King’s Cross station because it reminds me of that day. It broke me down very quickly. I found surviving was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Every day was a struggle, and sometimes still is. Forcing myself to get out of bed when I have spent all night with nightmares is agonizing. I remember thinking, and I used to be ashamed of this, that living was the hardest thing. Sometimes, I thought that it would have been easier if I was killed that day.” (1)
Psychologists now label these fears PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD was first used to describe a condition among military veterans previously known as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” and the trauma experienced by those who have gone through battle has been known from ancient times. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, written around 2100 BCE, Gilgamesh witnesses the death of his closest friend, Enkidu and is tormented with nightmares afterward, a classic symptom of PTSD. It wasn’t until 1980, however, that psychologists realized that the same symptoms experienced by military victims are also experienced by women who have been raped, by Holocaust survivors, by the victims of shootings, by those who have been abused, and by those undergoing any severe traumatic event. Post traumatic stress disorder causes nightmares, panic attacks, obsessive worrying, depression, substance abuse, or emotional withdrawal long after the initial event is over because like the smell of fire that clings to us long after the flames have died — the memories of tragedies, of grief and loss, and of pain and suffering — may continue to cause physical distress and mental anguish as severe as what we felt when the tragedy first happened. What peace it would be to be able to step out of the flames of the tragedy and like Shadrach, Meshach, and Anednego have no smell of fire upon us.
I have to confess to you that as much as I love the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Anednego, I find its ending disquieting. I love this story because of the men’s insistence of remaining faithful even to the end. I love this story because like the three men, we too can be assured that when we are thrown into the pain and chaos of tragedy, God will be at our side experiencing our sorrow with us; God will be that fourth person in the flames with us. I love this because the three men’s confidence in God’s steadfast presence is borne out by the teachings of our own Christian faith which proclaims that Christ knows our suffering and is intimately acquainted with our grief. Christ wept when Lazarus died; Christ’s heart was broken when his disciples abandoned him in the Garden of Gethsemane; Christ cried out on the cross and knew pain and despair just as we do. I love the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Anednego because it reinforces my Christian conviction that there is no tragedy that we can endure that is too great for the heart of Christ; he has walked that road before us and knows all too well the pain we are experiencing, and he will not leave us to face our grief alone. Unfortunately, when I come to the end of the story of this story and read that there was no smell of fire upon the three men, I have to shake my head and say, “Here is where this story makes a false promise because we are reminded that even Christ didn’t come through the fire unscathed.” Yes, God raised Christ to new life on the third day, but he bore the wounds of his suffering forever.
Jesus came to Thomas after his resurrection and said to the doubting disciple, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side,” and Thomas saw the marks of the nails in Jesus’s hands and he felt the wound in Jesus’ side left by the spears of the soldiers, and he knew that this man was his savior, not just because he had been resurrected but because he bore in his flesh the scars of the cross.
“It is by his wounds,” the Bible declares, “that we are healed.”
Our faith teaches us that no matter what tragedies we may encounter in our lives, God will be in the fire with us, but the greater promise is that God will also be with us, helping us to remake our lives even when the smell of that fire clings to us still. Our faith cannot shield us from the fears, the doubts, the sadness, and painful memories of those tragedies, but when Jesus stretched out his wounded hands to Thomas and said, “I am the resurrected Christ,” he declared that we too can find new life even as we bear the pain and sorrow of the past. We don’t have to be perfectly whole to be able to live in a meaningful way again. We don’t have to scrub away the smell of fire to be able to reconstruct a life of beauty and love. One psychologist working with people who suffer from PTSD says, “Avoiding emotional pain requires a huge amount of energy for people with PTSD. It can consume your life [and] as a result, you may not be placing much time or energy into living a meaningful and rewarding life. Therefore, the goal of [therapy] is [to increase] the time you spend doing things that are consistent with those values, no matter what emotions or thoughts may arise.” What psychology has just lately discovered is a testimony that Christ proclaimed to his disciples over two thousand years ago: the wounds of the cross do not have to prevent you from living a life of resurrection. In faith, we can find the strength to bear the griefs and pain of the past while still constructing lives of goodness and love beyond the tomb.
Today is the one year anniversary of the day when an anti-semitic man walked into Temple of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and shot 11 worshipers. The trauma of that shooting not only affected the the members of that congregation but Jews around America for whom going to Sabbath worship suddenly felt like an act of courage. How do you carry on in your faith while worrying that you might be gunned down in the middle of reciting the psalms? Rabbi Jonathon Perlman said that the process of healing began almost immediately, and it started with turning toward the history of their faith: “Judaism,” he said, “is being able to understand history through the lens of our ancestors,” and in that history is a lot of suffering. From the slavery in Egypt, to the exile in Babylon, to the concentration camps of the Holocaust, Jews carry the memory of pain and suffering, but they also carry the memory of renewal. No matter what the Jews suffered, God led them to find a new life as a people still faithful to the covenant. And so in the past year since the shooting, some of the men and women of the Tree of Life synagogue have immersed themselves in biblical study, enacted the ancient rituals of worship, and deeply engaged with the community through prayer. Others have turned toward action, working intentionally and deliberately for social justice for others, living out the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam,” repairing the world. One man whose wedding took place on the same day of the shooting, and who watched the events unfold on a television set right before he walked down the aisle, said that as he looks back on that day, the stark contrast between the trauma of the shooting and the happiness of his wedding is a metaphor for the road to healing.
“One year ago,” he remembers, “I was transfixed by the news of what had happened [at the synagogue.] But I could not and did not grant the Pittsburgh shooter the victory of ruining a Jewish celebration. My most enduring Jewish memories from my wedding day will not be watching TV coverage of Pittsburgh. It will be standing under the chuppah with my wife: signing our ketubah, hearing our friends recite the seven blessings, and being lifted in chairs on the dance floor. That day, we chose to be defined by Jewish life rather than Jewish death — and, too, does American Jewry as a whole.” (2)
We, the followers of Christ who also was a Jew, are the recipients of that same promise. We may carry the wounds of our suffering with us, and the smell of the fire may linger, but God promises that our pain does not have to imprison us. Even as we continue to bear the scars of the past in our hearts and minds, God will be by our side helping us to build lives of goodness and love out of the ashes, giving us the strength to choose to be defined always by life and not by death.