by Ray Gentry
Daniel 3:1, [2-7] 8-30
"You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.”
As I read through this week’s text I wished that it was during Pentecost and not Advent. Our loose focus during Pentecost was empire and, dang, this would have been a perfect fit. I’m certainly not going to avoid that part of the text; we’ll just have to Advent the text a little as well.
The first thing that springs to mind is the contrast between how Nebuchadnezzar comes across in the text compared to the our common understanding of Babylon as a placeholder for godlessness and immorality. Daniel certainly sets this same arrogance up early in the text, but how can we really blame Nebuchadnezzar for his pride? He did, after all, conquer the Israelites; why should he give their God that much credit? His empire’s ability to conquer these tribes and nations is an indication he is greater than any of their gods; certainly he should be worshiped above them.
Even Daniel’s success, which Daniel attributes to the God of Judah, serves Nebuchadnezzar (in Daniel 2). The God of a people he’s conquered a captive to bring knowledge to his nation. Why shouldn’t this king believe that he is truly the one to be worshiped?
But it’s in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that Nebuchadnezzar shows us he’s a man who can be changed by an encounter with the divine. He’s been encountering God since Daniel began to interpret his dreams but it isn’t until three young men survive his furnace that he truly understands there might be something to it.
It’s this very journey that plays itself out over and over again through scripture (and in our own lives) that makes Nebuchadnezzar a relatively relatable character. He encounters someone of God, sees there’s something to that person’s call, still trusts in himself, is confronted with an experience of God he cannot deny, and comes to understand something about God - maybe even believes. So many folks scripture have similar paths.
To me, this is an Advent story. Words from and about God prepare the subject - the person, the people, the church - for an experience that brings life to the Words that had been working the heart. For Nebuchadnezzer it was the unharmed bodies of three men of Judah that were the real presence of God in his world. God stood in front of him unscathed, untouched, and whole.
And. He. Woke. Up.
So who are the bodies, the children of God, being thrown into our furnaces? How is our Empire silencing the voices speaking to justice, mercy, love and compassion? Are those voices not speaking of the advent of God? Or to the advent of God’s world?
Is Colin Kaepernick not in the furnace? He keeled to speak out against violence towards people of color at the hands of authorities rather than buckle under demands to be “more patriotic?”
Are the women who have and are speaking out against sexual assault and violence not thrown into the furnace? They speak out about the wrongs committed by “men we like,” “men who are trying to make the world better for women,” and men who want to keep them silent.
Have we thrown the Palestinians in the furnace? They are not Israel, and Israel are God’s chosen people so don’t have a responsibility to treat them as people? I think the prophets (think back to the Amos text from November 12th) might have something to say about that.
If Advent is our observance of expectantly and patiently waiting for God to truly walk and tent among us, we ought to hear it in the cries of those longing to be treated with the full dignity of humanity. I’ll admit that I often don’t recognize the struggle of others as quickly as I should. I’m a straight white guy from the Midwest. I confess that sometimes, just like Nebuchadnezzar, I encounter God and her children without truly seeing them, then - BOOM - a moment hits and I recognize what I was missing before.
Incarnation is God’s presence in a human body, but that isn’t just limited to the body of Jesus. Every Advent I hope and pray that I can better see God incarnate in the bodies of those who aren’t like me. Bodies of color, trans bodies, and female bodies all carry the presence of God to me just as the bodies of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego carried God’s presence to Nebuchadnezzar. How can we wake up to that realization?