Scripture: Daniel 3:1-30
A couple of weeks ago, I gave the ceremonial prayers at Alfred University’s convocation. As the platform party waited to process, I watched the flock of incoming students shuffle by us to take their seats and noted, as I do every year, how awkward and self-conscious they all seemed. There wasn’t much chatter in their straggled lines and many faces were strained with anxiety, their postures tight and insecure. Most of them had only bid their parents goodbye hours before, didn’t know the other students around them, and were feeling uncertain about their new place on campus.
It was funny to think that only two months before, these same students had marched across the stage at their high school graduations, some pumping their fists victoriously, others beaming smiles at their friends and family, all feeling very grown-up and confident in what they had accomplished. The valedictorians spoke enthusiastically about the future and urged his or her classmates to hold fast to their dreams.
“Don’t let anything stand in the way of your dreams,” they said and the newly minted graduates nodded in determination. Nothing would keep them from their dreams. But here they were a mere two months later, shuffling into the gym at the University Convocation less certain that they could fulfill their dreams; less certain even of what their dreams are.
In a country that was built on a “can-do” attitude, it is common to hear motivational speakers encouraging you in your pursuit of dreams but for most of us, our dreams are nebulous things, shifting throughout our lifetimes. Those students at Convocation may change their majors several times during college and even after they graduate, they may find themselves in careers that have nothing to do with the discipline listed on their diploma. We try dreams on and cast them off when we discover that their reality doesn’t suit us as well as we thought it would. We drift into new ventures because they were convenient or settle into a career because it provides us with enough income to pay the mortgage, not because it had anything to do with our dreams. Often our problem is not holding fast to our dreams; our problem is being committed to a dream in the first place. Knowing not only who you are but also who you want to be are much more difficult than motivational speakers might have us suppose.
The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is a story of three Israelite men living in the worst of circumstances for dream-holding. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego grew up in the land of Judah (the Southern Kingdom of Israel) but were hauled off to Babylon after the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar conquered their homeland and destroyed Jerusalem. King Nebuchadnezzar orders that the young captives be given special training in the royal school, taught to speak Chaldean, and undoubtedly instructed in the Babylonian world view. Whatever dreams Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have had when they were younger are now gone but the young men adjust their sails. They work diligently on learning the fundamentals of their new country and do so well that the king takes notice of them and he gives them jobs in the upper most tiers of his bureaucracy, perhaps something akin to the Secretary of the Interior or the head of the Department of Health and Welfare. Like Joseph in Egypt, the three young Israelites change their captivity into opportunity; they let go of whatever ideas they once had about their future and find ways of thriving in this foreign land. On the surface of it, the lesson of this story appears to be contrary to dream-holding. On the surface, we might think the moral is, “Whatever dreams you have, let it them go and just go with the flow.”
Until we get to the part about the flaming fiery furnace at which point Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego become stubbornly committed to holding fast to their dream, even in the face of death.
You see, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is not about dreams in general, but about one dream in particular. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is not a motivational story about your career path, or your passions, or your hobbies, or your goals, or your bucket list, or any of the sorts of things that we put on our list of dreams for our lives. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is not about what you want to do with your life at all; it is about the kind of world you choose to live in. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have had to give up their personal dreams for the kind of lives they hoped to live as they grew old back in Judah, but they refused to give up on their dream of the kind of world they would choose to live in no matter what address was on their mailbox. They may have been residents of Babylon but they insisted that they would not live in Nebuchadnezzar’s world but God’s world, and that was the dream they refused to relinquish.
It may seem odd to call this belief a ‘dream’ but dreams are things that you believe in even when you can’t see them, and nothing about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s life in Babylon looked like they were living in God’s world. Every day as they walked the streets of the great city of Babylon, they passed the King’s remarkable hanging gardens bursting with lush plant growth in the middle of this desert landscape. Every day they passed the thousand year old ziggurat, a fortress dominating the skyline and breaching the heavens. Every day they worked in the magnificent palace of a mighty king who ruled an expanse that stretched from the Nile Delta to the Persian Gulf. When Nebuchadnezzar claimed to be the incarnation of the divine god worthy of worship, it was hard to argue against his claim, but the storyteller tells us, these three men did not except the evidence of their eyes that power and wealth are the measure of godliness, but continued to believe in a dream of a world ruled by a God who bestows grace on all people no matter how insignificant, where servanthood means more than might; where a God of justice and righteousness and steadfast love is worth more than all of the military prowess in the universe. They were willing to let go of their own personal career goals and shift their assumptions about the kind of life they would have, but they refused to give up their dream about the kind of world they lived in and their certainty that God made the rules, not the King.
When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego express their refusal to elevate the Babylonian King above their God, King Nebuchadnezzar is contorted with rage. He tells the men that unless they recant, he will burn them to cinder in the flaming furnace. And their response is one of the most moving statements in the entire Bible:
“We will not worship you, Nebuchadnezzar,” they say. “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O King, let God deliver us. But if not, let it be known to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”
Even if God does not save them, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego prefer to stick with God then with Nebuchadnezzar.
As Christians, we believe that we live in a world of God’s making where God’s rules are very different from the assumptions of most of humankind. We believe that love is stronger than evil, that forgiveness is more healing than vengeance, that every person should be treated with compassion even if they are our enemy, and that service to others brings more joy than selfish pursuit. Often what we believe is contrary to the evidence of our eyes; it is less a certainty than a dream that we hold on to because of our faith. But what if we are wrong? What if we spend our lives living for God, working to bring peace to all people, comforting the brokenhearted, and speaking out for the forgotten because we believe that this is how our God wants the world to be, and then it turns out that everything we staked our life on is nothing more than wishful thinking? What if love and peace and justice and righteousness are impossible goals after all and we are all involved in one long wild goose chase? What if, in the greatest joke of all time, there is not even a God?
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced that question with their lives: “What if God does not save us?” they wondered. “What if it turns out that the only true power in the world is after all, the power of might and wealth, and we were fools for believing in anything else?”
And the three men looked at one another, took a deep breath, and said to Nebuchadnezzar, “Even if it comes to nothing, God’s world is the world we want to live in, not yours. Even if God does not save us, let it be known to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”
When it comes down to it, none of us can prove whether God exists or not, whether Jesus’s view of the world is right or not, whether justice and righteousness and peace and love are really worth committing your life to or not. We can’t prove it and we can’t disprove it because that’s what dreams are — unseen things that you have decided you are willing to stake your lives on. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we can only say, “Whatever comes of it, this is the world I choose to live in. This is the dream that I choose to shape my life around and hold fast to even when everything is clamoring at me to give it up.”
Because honestly, even if there is no God, I would rather live my life as if there is.
Even if love comes to nothing, I would rather live my life as if it is the totality of existence.
Even if speaking up for the forgotten, comforting the brokenhearted, pursuing peace in all my dealings, and compassion for every person will never heal all of society or bring the kingdom of God to reality, it is the kind of space I want to create around my little piece of the world.
And when I come to the end of my life, if I discover that everything simply dissolves into nothingness, I would rather know that I spent my days believing in possibilities rather than choosing despair.
I would rather be called a fool for living a life that made me whole than drown in the absurdity of it all.
Everything that we hear in this church Sunday after Sunday may, when it comes down to it my friends, be utterly and completely wrong, but it may just as possibly be utterly and completely right. We can’t know what is ultimately unknowable and we can’t see the unseeable, but we what is absolutely certain is that the world we choose to believe in is the world that we will live in, and so I choose to live in a world where God’s grace is sovereign because when I live in that world, I have hope, I have joy, and I am made whole. I hold fast to that dream because I know that one way or another it is the only thing that will save me.