Life's Fiery Furnaces
Life’s Fiery Furnaces
This past December fires raced through hills in and around northern Los Angeles county. The fires were so close that our son’s work closed one day and he had to leave his apartment on another day and night as precautionary measures. Last October raging wildfires tore through northern California destroying thousands of homes and taking scores of human lives. One person, whom we know personally, was like many others, she had barely enough time to escape with only her purse and her car. Her home and everything in it was burned to the ground.
In this morning’s liturgy of Holy Saturday, one of the three readings of the Old Testament, was third chapter from the Prophet Daniel. We heard about another fire. You see, King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon erecting a golden image over 90 feet high and ten feet wide (v.1). By the way, the ruins of Babylon still exist today about sixty miles southwest of Baghdad in Iraq. The king decreed that at certain times marked by the playing of musical instruments, everyone should fall down and worship the gold image (v.5). The penalty for not doing so was death by a fiery furnace (v.6). Three young Israelite men (Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego) refused to worship the golden image (v.12). When he heard this, the king was in a rage and fury. He summoned the three young men and reiterated the penalty. How did the three youths respond? This is one of my favorite passages in the whole of the Scriptures and I quote it here:
16Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. 18But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.”
I love that they casually dismiss the threat of the king and refuse to worship his golden image regardless of whether their God, the God of Israel, will save them from the fiery furnace or not. What great faith and courage they display. My brothers and sisters, could we or would we do the same? We might imagine that when faced with certain death, we would certainly do the same for our Lord Jesus Christ or would we? Many of us have failed when the stakes were much smaller. We must ask ourselves, did we remain faithful to our Orthodox Faith in Christ, when it may have cost a promotion, our job, social standing, a friendship, even good graces with our own family? Did we remain faithful when adversity, suffering and tragedy struck, or did we turn our backs to prayer, worship, liturgy and the sacraments of the Church? The fiery furnace of Bablyon is an image of adversity and suffering. Will we trade our relationship with Christ in order to escape the flames of that earthly life inevitable brings?
As the story continues, King Nebuchadnezzer , even more enraged by the refusal of the three youths, orders that the furnace be heated seven times more (v.19), and that mighty men of valor from his army to seize the three youths and throw them into the furnace (v.20). Even though the soldiers perished from the flames, the three young men survived. We hear from the king:
24Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” 25“Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”
With the king saying, “Son of God,” we can easily understand why the Fathers of the Church interpreted this fourth person to be a pre-incarnational theophany of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. But this applies to us as well. We must remember that when we experience life’s fiery furnaces, when the heat gets turned up around us, if we trust God, He walks with us in the flames. He does not abandon us. Actually, He never abandons us. It is we that abandon Him. Abandoning God is like playing with matches around spilled gasoline. The next thing we know, the house of our life is caught up in flames, way too big for us to put out by ourselves. Nevertheless, we can still call upon God, we can turn to Him in the midst of the flame and be saved.
This is likely one of the main reasons this reading is selected for Great and Holy Saturday, when Jesus, after being crucified and dying on the Cross, descends into Hades, the Hebrew word for Hell. There in Hades Jesus preaches the Good News to all the dead before Him. Those who receive Christ’s word and believe in Him are saved from the fires of hell. St. Jerome (420AD) says, “the presence of the angel in the flames foreshadows the descent of Christ to rescue souls from the fires of hell.”
What is another consequence of the three youths unyielding faith in their God. It is often overlooked in the story but King Nebuchadnezzar, when he sees their faith and trust in the God of Israel, we hear:
28Nebuchadnezzar spoke, saying, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, who sent His Angel and delivered His servants who trusted in Him, and they have frustrated the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they should not serve nor worship any god except their own God! 29Therefore I make a decree that any people, nation, or language which speaks anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made an ash heap; because there is no other God who can deliver like this.” 30Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego in the province of Babylon.
The king himself comes to believe in the God of Israel. He is converted to true faith in the one true God. How many times has this story repeated itself throughout the centuries, when martyrdom of Christians brings non-believers to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, God and Savior? Did we ever consider that our faithful endurance of life’s fiery furnaces is an opportunity for witnessing that Jesus is the Lord of our life and Christ is the God of the universe?
The final lesson that we can learn from this dramatic and beautiful story is about the internal fire that sometimes rages within us. That fire is of the passions. God has given us good, natural desires to live our life. However, when these desires get misdirected or out of control, they become passions. Some of the most well-known passions are pride, envy, gluttony, anger, jealousy, lust, and greed. The spark that starts the fire are the thoughts or logoismoi; the fuel is further contemplation of the tempting thought and oxygen is our consent or agreement to act on the thought. In order to battle temptation and any resulting internal fires, we need to invite Christ inside of us to become our fire chief to protect us. Through the breath of the Holy Spirit, the flames can be blown back and extinguished. Then a new flame of God’s uncreated light can be kindled instead.
My brothers and sisters, notice that the God of Israel did not save the three youths from the king’s fiery furnace. Rather, God saved them through the furnace. In like manner, God will not necessarily protect us from life’s fiery furnaces but He will walk with us and strengthen us so that our soul, which is more precious than an earthly fortune, will be unharmed.
In a few moments, we will proclaim the resurrection hymn “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling upon death and to those in the tombs granting life” many times, interspersing them with these four Psalm verses:
Let God arise and His enemies be scattered; and let those who hate Him flee from His face. (Ps. 68:1)
As smoke vanishes, let them vanish, as wax melts before the fire. (Ps. 68:2a)
Let the sinners perish from before the face of God but let the righteous rejoice. (Ps. 68:2b, 3a)
This is the Day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Ps. 118:24)
The fire of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace can also be an image of God’s love. If we obediently welcome it, we will walk in its midst. If we stubbornly refuse God’s love or we do not return or pass along God’s love, then it will burn us and destroy us. A few days ago during the Holy Week services, we heard Jesus say, “15“If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). God’s commands are preserved and passed on in and through the life of the Church. We need to be here in order to learn them and be empowered to do them because love for God is not a feeling, it is a way of life, a life that begins in baptism, is nurtured by the sacramental mysteries and by keeping His commandments. This is the life that Christ grants to us, through His glorious passion and resurrection. May we embrace and live that life. Kalo Pascha kai Kali Anastasi! Amen!