19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace heated up seven times more than was customary, 20 and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. 21 So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. 22 Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23 But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire.
24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” 25 He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics[f] were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them.
At the risk of offending our science teachers in the congregation, I was never a good chemistry student. I struggled with the class. For some reason the formulas with the chemical reactions never made sense to me. And the experiments we did in the lab I just never got exactly right. They would work for my lab partner, but they never ended up working for me.
But I remember one thing I learned in the labs. There were these little tiny white porcelain cups that we used to heat things up in experiments. You would put the elements into them, and hold them over the bunsen burner with tongs. And it never seemed like they should be able to withstand the heat, but they always did. Even when whatever was inside of them changed or evaporated, they remained unbroken.
They were called “crucibles”. And they seemed to be able to withstand the hottest of flames.
I think about those crucibles when I read the book of Daniel, and particularly today’s passage. Daniel and his friends had been plucked out of an occupied Jerusalem and taken to Babylon, the home of their occupiers. And in Babylon they are being taught about a culture that is not their own. More than that, they are being taught to reject where they came from. But Daniel and his friends resist; in fact they refuse to even eat the food of the oppressor.
So, as you can imagine, Daniel and his friends sort of developed a reputation as troublemakers. And they go back and forth with the King, Nebuchadnezzar, who can’t decide if he believes in their God or not. And this all comes to a head when Daniel’s three friends refuse to bow down and worship a statue of the king, because to do so would be blasphemous for them. And so the king becomes so angry that he throws those three friends friends, Shadrack, Meschach, and Abednego into a fiery furnace.
So, that should be the end of them, right? You get thrown into a fire that hot, and you are not going to make it out.
Daniel’s friends, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin
But when the king looks into the furnace the men are fine. They are walking around in the midst of the flames, and they are untouched by it. And a fourth person is walking with them, and Scripture tells us that he looked “like the Son of God”. And so, the king has the men pulled out of the fire. Alive. And even the king changes his mind, and stops forcing them to worship other gods.
So, it’s a great story. But what does it mean for us? I mean, if one of us ever got thrown into a furnace, I think we’d pretty much be toast. But, maybe the truth of this story doesn’t come from the literal, fiery details, but from an even more powerful truth.
Because the reality is that I think each of us has had to walk through a fire at one time or another. And many of us have nearly been destroyed by the flames.
That’s true for me. Some of you know that a little over a week ago I sat on one of the We the People panel discussions on the addiction crisis in our area. And you know that I told my own story, one of a recovering alcoholic.
When I was in my late teens and into my 20’s I drank a little. And then I drank a little more. And then I drank a lot. But I was lucky. I had friends and mentors who loved me enough to tell me I needed to stop, and who helped me to get into recovery, and to get sober.
Because of that, the days I didn’t have a drink turned into months. And the months turned into years. And today, the idea of a drink holds no appeal for me.
But those first days and weeks? That was hard. And those times of having to look inward and face the things that drinking made easier? That was even harder. It was as though I spent each day walking through the flames. But I kept walking, surrounded by others, and the flames never consumed me.
When I became a pastor, people told me not to tell anyone this story. “You’ll never be called anywhere,” they said. “People will think less of you.” “It will make people feel uncomfortable.”
But for me, I knew I couldn’t help but tell this story. I don’t tell it to draw attention to myself or my past, but instead to say, “look, I know what it is like to walk through the flames…and I know what it’s like to survive.”
I’ve always been open about my sobriety because recovery is the best evidence I have in my life that God’s grace is real. Why would I ever try to hide that?
And yet, too often we who are Christians hide our struggles. And the trouble with that is we also hide our victories. And sometimes there are people all around us who need to see those victories, and who need someone who has been through the same thing to walk with them through the flames.
One of my favorite TV shows of all times is West Wing. And one of my favorite characters is the president’s chief of staff, a recovering alcoholic and addict named Leo. In one episode when another staffer deals with post traumatic stress disorder he hides it from the others because he is worried it will threaten his career. But Leo sees what is happening, and gets him help. And he tells him this story:
“This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
And then Leo says:
“Long as I got a job, you got a job, you understand?”
Sometimes in the church we worry that if we are honest about our lives, and if we are honest with our struggles, we will not be accepted any longer. For some reason we’ve come to believe that church people are perfect, and holy, and sinless. But that’s just not true, and it never has been. Because church is not about dressing up, and looking holy one hour a week. Church is for people who need God’s grace the most. People like me. And people like you.
Or, to put it another way, “long as I got a church, you got a church.”
At the beginning I was talking about chemistry class, and that tool we called the crucible. It was the container that could literally survive the fires that would destroy anything else.
When the king looked into the furnace he saw a third figure walking with the three friends. There was someone there with them in the midst of their fear, and certain destruction. There was someone there who could help them to survive the crucible that they had been cast into. And I truly believe that was some manifestation of God, walking alongside them in their greatest trials. Standing in the midst of the crucible with them.
We understand crucibles not just as physical objects, but also as experiences which push us to our brink, and transform us. And, while we would never willingly choose them, and while we do not deserve them, they can transform us in powerful ways. But it depends who is with us in those flames.
The comedian Stephen Colbert gave an interview recently where he talked about his faith. And he talked about how his father and brothers were killed in a plane crash when he was young. And he recalled the way his mother’s faith, a faith that never once denied the pain and tragedy, had sustained him in the years to come. He said, “by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. But bitter, no.”
Hemingway said the world breaks us all, but some become “strong at the broken places”. He was right. But the best strength, the best repair I know, comes from our faith. And that is especially true when we have others beside us who walk through the same flames, who fall in the same holes, and who rise again like Phoenixes from the more hopeless of places and who show us how to do the same.
That’s what church is all about. It’s about the worst the world can do to us. And it’s about our resurrections. It’s about emerging from the crucible, and thriving. I think there’s a lot of poetic resonance in the fact that the very word “crucible” comes from the Latin word “crux”. Or, translated, “cross”. And who better to guide us through the flames than the one who overcame the cross, and the community he has called to be his body?
We will all walk through the flames. We will all face crucibles that will threaten to destroy us. We will all have pain. But because we are the church, we will always have a place to go, filled with people who have been here before.
So, tell your stories. Tell about the times God has lifted you up. Tell of the saints who have walked with you on the way. And walk through the flames, knowing that they will not consume you, and that, indeed, you can thrive. Amen.