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A View from the Altar / But if not…
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But if not…

If you’re treading water in the shark tank, you’ll need to figure out early who the sharks are and where the limits are on relating to them.  They do bite, so battles will come.  Pick your battles wisely, and then understand what victory really looks like.

The Hebrews couldn’t avoid realizing they were in dangerous water.  The Babylonians made discernment simple.  They incinerated  Jerusalem, murdered multitudes, enslaved the survivors, sent the bright ones to the 600 B.C. version of re-education camps, castrated the males, and took every possible step to build a Jeffersonian wall of separation between the Jews, their God, and their history.  Picking sides was easy.

We have a different situation.  This present world system prefers to conquer by seduction rather than force.  Even though we sill live in this world,  our King and His kingdom are not of this world (John 18:36) , so we must discern what is Christ’s and what is His enemy’s. (Col 2:8)  This is a basic step, yet many Christians miss it out of simple carelessness.  There’s been no war, so what’s all this “enmity with God” stuff about?  (James 4:4)

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego knew the good guys from the bad and had settled their loyalties before Nebuchadnezzar set up his golden image and hired a praise team to sing to it.  So when the commandment came from Dura that everybody was required to bow to his statue (Dan 3:5-6), there was no decision to make.  Idolatry was over the line, period.  Daniel recounts how his comrades refused to participate in this little civic gesture, whereupon  Nebuchadnezzar was beside himself that Jews should have any God before him.  So he haled them before his judgment and threatened them good and proper with the sentence of being burned alive.

They entered a plea of, “We are not careful to answer thee in this matter.” (Dan 3:16)  This is just old Elizabethan English for, “We made up our minds about this a long time ago.”  In the nuclear power industry, we have what are called “abort criteria.”  These are the limits in a process for when a test is called off.  You never fudge the abort criteria.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego could live in this society that held them captive, but once it demanded their worship, the line had been crossed.  The abort criteria had been reached.  For them, that meant it was time to stop living in this society even if that meant they had to stop living.

A side note to the story deserves mention, and that’s Nebuchadnezzar’s attempt to manipulate Daniel’s friends through emotion.  Daniel reports the king was “full of rage and fury” (Dan 3:13) and his “visage” was changed (Dan 3:19).  Not to say the king’s rage was an act.  No doubt he was truly mad.  But this was all about control, and Nechadnezzar would use any leverage he could find to get them to comply.  If he couldn’t manage them through fear, then maybe anger would work.  Whatever the tool, if their knees ever bent, he won.  That was the end game, and both sides knew it.

The Jews’ reply is breathtaking: Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.  But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.  (Dan 3:17-18)

This is what faith looks like: God is able to save us.

And this is what faithfulness looks like:  But even if He chooses not to, we will not worship your image.

So the king lit the furnace and tossed them in it, and you know the rest of the story how that the Lord came to walk with them through the fire, and the only things that burned in the flames were the ropes that bound them.

Obviously the story shows us what heroes of the faith look like.  These are people in whom the stiffness has moved from their necks to their knees, and they have standards that don’t go down.  As John said, they “love not their lives unto death” (Rev 12:11), and this stout-hearted courage is just the expression of their love of God.

Don’t miss the more subtle theme, however, that before they could take a stand, they had to know where to stand.  And the decision to stand took place before the crisis ever came.

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