Daniel 3 tells us about the God who will help us stand in an intolerant society.
1. The statue of intolerance
Nebuchadnezzar erected a statue of intolerance. Why did he build this massive idol? He was attempting to unify his empire. You see, he ruled over a vast number of conquered peoples, who were culturally, religiously and politically diverse. So he rallies them around a symbol. He wanted to enforce a certain degree of conformity. He wanted the people to believe that the strength of the empire resided in this ninety foot high and seventy foot wide monstrosity.
Now there is a parallel with our society. Nebuchadnezzar did allow you worship your own god/gods as long as you worshipped his statue as well. But what if your god did not allow you worship idols? Then you were in trouble. When a Christian refuses to bow to the idol of religious pluralism and claims their faith contains the truth they may not be put to death but they are sidelined as being non-thinking religious fundamentalists. When a Christian refuses to bow to the idol of sexual permissiveness and says that they believe that sex is for marriage and marriage is between a man and a woman they won't be put to death but they may be written off as narrow-minded and homophobic.
2. The stand of conviction
It takes courage to stand for your conviction in such societies. Notice the repeated references the satraps, prefects, governors, advisors, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials (e.g. 2). Shadrach, Mechach and Abednego are swimming against the tide. For us, there are issues on which public opinion and media stand against us. Shadrach, Mechach and Abednego believe that there is only one God and he alone is worthy of worship. Nebuchadnezzar was furious. Conscientious objectors are rarely tolerated in any society. Before they face the flames they utter one of the greatest statements of faith in the entire Bible.
"King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up" (16-18).
They will maintain their faith however God chooses to act. They would say, 'Lord, I believe that you are able to protect me and my family from all danger and illness, but even if not, I will not bow down and serve the god of bitterness. I believe you are able to preserve my job and reputation if I take a stand for what I believe to be right and just, but even if not, I will not bow down and serve the god of cowardice and go the way of the world. I believe you are able to open the door into that job or ministry that seems right for me to pursue, but even if not I will not bow down and serve the gods of anxiety and despair. I believe you are able to help me find a life partner and enjoy all the normal gifts of marriage and family, but even if not I will not bow and serve the gods of self pity, I will serve you' (adapted from Tinker).
Commenting on this passage the popular Christian writer Francis Schaefer says, ‘Strong warriors for Jesus Christ, men and women of faith, are not created instantaneously ... they grow.' We grow as we learn to look to God for the courage to put up our hand in school or work and say 'I belong to Jesus.' We grow as we learn to look to God for the courage and tact to talk to our family and friends about their desperate need of God's forgiveness. We grow as we learn how to remain faithful and share our beliefs on topics like abortion and euthanasia. And we need to learn quickly because we do not want to be too scared to share our opinions before the referendum, planned for 2015, on gay marriage.
3. The support of God.
I am going to ask my friends to watch the debate that surrounds gay marriage. I will ask them not just to hear the arguments but to watch the tone of engagement. Sadly I think that some Christians will speak uncaringly and unwisely, but I also think that those who oppose gay marriage will be spoken to harshly and intolerantly, as if the only reason someone wants to defend the traditional view of marriage is because they are homophobic. We live in an intolerant culture.
When Nebuchadnezzar looked into the furnace he saw a fourth person. Shadrach, Mechach and Abednego were not alone. There was one with them who had the appearance like a son of the gods. Some think that this is an appearance of Christ others say it was an angel. Either way we see that God has not deserted his people in their distress. Jesus knew what it was like to pass through the furnace of intolerance. He experienced the crowd turn on him. He also stands with us in the furnace of intolerance. He promised to be with us to the end of the age and give us the words we need to speak.
Nebuchadnezzar begins by asking, 'what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?' (15). Shadrach, Mechach and Abednego respond, 'the God we serve is able to to save us from it (17). When he witnesses God's deliverance he praises the God of Nebuchadnezzar praises their God. Not that we can read too much into his repentance at this stage in the story. Yet his words demonstrate the theme of the whole book of Daniel. The living God is the ultimate ruler. One every knee bows the knee and acknowledges that Jesus is Lord to the glory of the Father (Philippians 2).
In the meantime Jesus is with us in this intolerant society. He has experienced worse than we will ever be called to endure. In some countries Christians are imprisoned, tortured and even killed for their beliefs. But we look forward to life after death. To being brought home to a place where there will be no more barbed comments. In that sense we emerge from the furnace unharmed.