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Posts Tagged ‘idolatry’

We are in Daniel chapter 3 today. This is the familiar story of the fiery furnace (quite a contrast to our temperatures today). I want us to hear this story again today, perhaps with new ears, to glean some lessons for when we go through difficult times of trial in our lives.

Let’s begin with some –

Background

– to our story that helps us understand what’s going on. Nebuchadnezzar has conquered the people of God and taken many of them back to Babylon. Daniel was one of these, but our story today focuses on his three friends – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

So they are living in exile in a foreign land, but they were determined to be true to God, even though they worked for the government. And this wasn’t easy, especially with the beliefs and practices of the people of Babylon.

v. 1 sets up our story – “King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits. He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.” So this was a really big idol – 90 feet high and 9 feet wide.

And he had big plans for it.  V. 6 conveys his order to everyone, “whoever does not fall down and worship (the image) shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.” Now for most people this was no big deal. They worshiped many gods, and the idols that represented them, and so this was just one more.

But for Jews this was strictly forbidden. The second of the ten commandments in Exodus 20:4-5 says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image  . . .You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” So they had a choice. And this brings us to –

Lesson #1 – They were true to God

When the King had gathered together all his officials to dedicate this golden image and fall down before it, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did not bow down. They made the right choice, even knowing the danger it posed to their lives.

And sure enough the report came to the king. In v. 12 they speak, “There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” There must have been a lot of competition between these officials to get ahead and some saw this as “a golden opportunity” to get rid of some of the competition.

The story goes on in Daniel 3:13-15. “Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”

Even with all these threats and the rage of their king, they remained faithful to God.

This brings us to –

Lesson #2 – They entrusted themselves into God’s hands

vs. 16-18 – “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.’”

They already knew they would be thrown in the fire. But they have strong faith in God. In response the king’s taunt, “and who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” (v. 15) they confess that the true God is more than able to deliver them if he wants to. But even if God doesn’t choose to do this, they will still be faithful to him.

Lesson #3 – God was with them in their trials

Things got even worse for them. In Daniel 3:19-23 we learn that:

  •  the king was furious and his countenance changed
  •  the furnace was heated seven times hotter
  •  it was so hot it killed the men who threw them into it

Things are really bad. But God didn’t leave them alone. Vs. 24-25 – “Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?’ They answered and said to the king, ‘True, O king.’ He answered and said, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.’”

So the king is working on his basic math skills and finds a problem – there was an extra person in the furnace. Who was the fourth man? An angel, who are called sons of god? Or was this the Son of God? All we know is that God sent one of his own to be with them in the midst of their trial. God didn’t let them go through it alone, but was there with them right in the fiery furnace, walking with them.

Lesson #4 – God came through for them

We have already seen that the fire didn’t kill them, but they were walking around in the furnace. V. 26 goes on to say, “Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!’ Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire.”

v. 27 tells us that the fire had no power over them

  • Their hair was not singed
  • Their clothes were not burned and
  • They didn’t even smell like smoke

But God not only delivered them, he glorified his Name. In v. 28, the king acknowledges the greatness of the true God. “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.”

And in the end he promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (v. 30).

These are lessons for us

For we are in a similar situation. Just like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego we too live in exile in a foreign land. Peter calls all Christians “sojourners and exiles” in this world – 1 Peter 2:10. And the author of Hebrews talks about the saints as those who have “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” 11:13.

And in our time of exile we too will go through trials of various kinds. The world tries to get us to live by its will instead of God’s will for us. And this often puts us in a bind where we have to choose. And the evil one, the god of this world is always seeking to test and try us. And as 1 Peter 1:7 says, we are “tested by fire.”

So when we go through fiery trials remember this story. 1. Remember to be true to God. Just as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego  made the right choice and stuck with it despite the rage of many and the threat to their lives, so we need to make right choices. We can’t let difficult circumstances lead us to be unfaithful to God.

Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.” In a time of testing it is easy to grow weary in doing what is right, but we must remain steadfast. James 1:2 says, “Blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial.” We too must make right choices and stick with them, even when it is terribly difficult.

2. Remember to entrust yourself into God’s hands. Just as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, in full faith, gave their lives into God’s hands in their trial, so should we because God is more than able to take care of us too.

Hebrews 13:6 is a strong confession of faith, “the Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Whether God delivers us from our trial or not, we know that God will take care of us and bless us.

3. Remember God will be with you. Just as he was with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, so he will walk with you through your fiery trials.

Hebrews 13:5 says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” And as Isaiah 43:2 says, “I will be with you . . .when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you.” God doesn’t leave us alone.

4. Finally, remember that God will come through for you. Just as he came through for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, so he will come through for you. Like them, we don’t know how he will do this – through a miracle or strengthening us to endure and overcome in the midst, or in the world to come. But God is faithful and he will come through.

1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your ability, but with the testing he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

When you go through difficulties, remember you are not the first to do so. There are many examples in the Scriptures that can help us. This morning, let’s learn from the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and be strengthened to endure and overcome just as they did.

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Series on Witness

We are in a series of messages on witness that is meant to challenge us to become more outwardly focused as a congregation. Whether this is helping the church’s mission here in SW Chambersburg or whether it is in your own areas of outreach where you live or work or hang out. As a congregation we need to be less concerned with being comfortable and with what we get out of church, and more concerned with taking risks to reach out and with what we should be giving to others as we reach out.

Last week we began with the letter ‘W’ of the word “Witness” – Why we reach out. And we learned from the Scriptures that our motivation is Christ’s love for people. When we have Jesus’ heart of love we will have a different perspective on people, whatever they might be or seem to be according to the flesh. From the perspective of Jesus’ love they are helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd and need his salvation and grace.

Well today we focus in on a wrong reason to reach out, and this is the ‘I’ in witness – Idolatry and reaching out. And the idol is the desire to get big; to have a large church, thinking that this is what success means. This is where we idolize growth and getting big as the goal in itself.

Now yes, let me be clear, we very much do want to grow and have people come to know the Lord and become workers for his kingdom. But this can easily and subtly be distorted into an idol. And I think this takes place under the influence of American culture where big is the sign of success. And it comes from using a business model where the bottom line is profit and this is compared to getting more people in the congregation. And it can also just be from envy of other churches that are big and seem to be doing well.

So let me share with you three problems with this thinking:

1. The idolatry of big has a wrong understanding of success

According to this thinking a successful church equals growing and being big. And so if you are not growing you are a failure. But according to the kingdom of God a successful church equals being faithful to reach out, which can lead to growth and being big, but it might not. Do you see the difference in terms of what counts for success? Bigness in itself vs. faithfulness to do what God says whatever the results might be?

That this is true just think for a moment about the parable of the soils. What if a church is in a context where there is rocky soil – trials and persecution, or thorn filled soil – where everyone is focused on the good things of this life? If you are consistently reaching out, but with little or no results are you unsuccessful?

Here’s a more concrete example. What if a church is in a Muslim context and you are consistently reaching out but with little or no results. Does this mean you are unsuccessful?

Here’s an example from our congregation connected to the block party last week. I know a person who invited someone and he came. I know another person who invited 35 people and none of them came. But who would say that the second person was less faithful than the first?

And finally, think of Jesus. Was he a failure because at the end of his ministry he only had a handful of followers? Certainly not!

The point is if you are reaching out, you are successful, whether you are growing or not. Because it is the reaching out itself that is the mark of faithfulness, not the results of reaching out. So you can be amazingly, abundantly, fantastically faithful but have little outward fruit to show for it.

After all, Jesus said “you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8) not you must have many converts. And so the bottom line is that we are witnessing, not that we are growing; it is that we are loving and obeying God, not that we are big.

2. The idolatry of big will distort our outreach

Anything that we make into an idol will take us down the wrong road. The most prominent example here is that we water down the gospel to get people to come. Right? If the goal is to get people, you need to do what it takes to get people. So you lower the bar to suit your audience so that they will respond. You take away the things that are hard or that challenge people’s sin.

Well, Jesus flatly rejected this approach. We see this first in Luke 14:25-26. It says, “Now great crowds accompanied Jesus.” And we think, way to go Jesus you’re a success! You’re a winner! You have a crowd. But what does he do? “he turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’” What? Jesus you have to keep the crowd. You can’t go telling them to give everything up for you. They won’t follow you anymore!

But this shows us that Jesus doesn’t think like us. Jesus wasn’t influenced by the idolatry of big. He was consumed with faithfulness to God. So when there was a temptation to choose between having more people and watering down the gospel, he chose speaking the truth.

Another example of this comes from John 6:26. Before and after Jesus fed the 5,000 a crowd was following him. And in this case he said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me . . . because you ate your fill of the loaves.” What Jesus? Why would you challenge them like this. They wanted to make you a king!

But again, Jesus doesn’t think like us. Jesus wasn’t influenced by the idolatry of big. He was consumed with faithfulness to God.

He went on to talk about faith in him in such a way that most deserted him and he had to even ask the 12, ‘Will you leave me also?’ Jesus wasn’t interested in just getting a crowd. His goal was sharing God’s truth with everyone, even if the crowds went away.

3. The idolatry of big leaves God out of the equation

Yes, you can grow a church without God being involved. Indeed there are non-Christian religious groups that grow very rapidly and are large. But God is not in it. And there are churches that have grown because of a dynamic leader who was later found to be full of sin all along. And there are churches that grow because they tickle itching ears and tell people what they want to hear. But God is not in this.

So yes, you can grow a church without God, but this isn’t true growth. It is based on the flesh; on us and our skills or personality or techniques.And so this puts the spotlight on us. Look what we did. And this is in part why so many have become famous, celebrity pastors. They made their church grow! So they write their books and they go on tour and so forth.

But true growth only comes when God moves and people’s lives are changed. And he does this is thousands of different ways, not through some specific technique or strategy or leadership style.

In fact God loves to use the weak and the lowly; those who no one expects to do anything great. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” This brings the glory to God.

As Paul said, we may work, but “only God (is anything), who gives the growth.” – 1 Corinthians 3:7. It’s all about God, not us.

Now, none of this is meant to excuse not reaching out, and we have work to do here, as do most churches. And it is good to look at how we are doing in our outreach – if it is ineffective – to see if we are doing it poorly and to make corrections.

And you can also turn all this around and make an idol out of being small or not growing. You know, we are small because we are so much more faithful than other groups! When really it is because we don’t reach out or we have created cultural barriers that keep people away.

My point in all this is to have –

The right focus

So let’s focus on being faithful to God to reach out, taking risks and giving of ourselves to others. This is the measure of our success in the kingdom of God. And even if we are not bursting at the seams we can still be encouraged and joyful in our walk with God knowing that God is pleased with us.

Let’s focus on presenting the full gospel to others, even if it means that fewer people will come. Let’s not change his word and gospel message just to get our congregation bigger. If people don’t come or leave because of this we can still be encouraged and joyful in our walk with God knowing that God is pleased with us.

And let us focus on praying for God to move as we minister in his name, to change people’s lives. If there is not much fruit, this isn’t a matter of discouragement, so much as it is a call to greater prayer and reliance on God to bring about the growth, which only he can do. And we will give him the praise when he does his work.

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