During the midweek Lenten services at my church, we have listened to the Old Testament lessons from the Easter Vigil service. These are the lessons that are read in darkness during the first part of that service, with only the Christ candle for light.
Easter Vigil is an ancient liturgy, and the Old Testament stories we hear that night are even older. In many and various ways, they tell the same story: how God, time and again, rescues his people.
Ancient philosophers believed that everything in the world was formed of only four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. You find all four of these elements in the Easter Vigil lessons, and in the liturgy of Easter Vigil as well. Think of God gathering the waters together in one place and creating dry land. Think of the wind—air--that God made blow over the earth to dry up the waters of the flood. Think of the waters of the Red Sea that parted for the children of Israel, and the earth in the field of dry bones. In the liturgy itself, there is the water of baptism. And on that Saturday night, the air in the sanctuary hangs heavy with the scent of Easter, the hyacinths and lilies that wait in pots of damp earth behind the communion rails in the chancel.
Earth, air, water—and fire. Somewhere back in grade school you probably learned that fire is both friend and foe. And so it is at Easter Vigil. We keep watch on that night by the light of the Christ Candle, lit from a modest bonfire in the Grace courtyard. The fire shows us the light of Christ, his presence among us. But the fire of the fiery furnace, in the passage from the book of Daniel that was read a few moments ago—that fire is dangerous.
Veteran Easter Vigil lectors might tell you that the story of The Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace is the best of the Easter Vigil lessons. It is certainly the one that is the most fun to read aloud. After the majesty of the Creation story, the rainbow ending to the Flood, the drama of the Exodus, and the poetic promises of Ezekiel, we get, what Stephen Sondheim would call, “Comedy tonight!
"So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up."
Could there be a more effective way to ridicule Babylon’s courtiers and the meaningless rigamarole of bowing down to a statue this is nothing more than the king’s alter ego?
Of course, in the feature-film version of this story, any actor worth his salt is going to want to play Nebuchadnezzar—not Shadrach, Meshach or Abednego. Nebuchadnezzar is a man full of contradictions. He mistakes elaborate ceremonies and golden statues for true religion, but he is also open-minded enough to give important jobs to young Jewish captives, guys like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (and Daniel, too). But then he gets tripped up by his own laws, when conniving, jealous court officials report that the young Jews are disobeying their king. He confronts them, gets really angry and orders the fire made even hotter. And then his own men are killed when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown, bound, into the fire.
Nebuchadnezzar's foil is the Most High God. When he looks into the furnace he sees four men, unbound, walking around, unhurt. He recognizes power greater than his own. He tells the men to come out, and it is he who proclaims the Easter message in this text:
"Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him."
Ah, but. It is not Easter yet, at least not in this church year. It is Lent, and metaphorically speaking, we’re still in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
Now we may be accustomed to thinking of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as Bible heroes, as examples of unshakeable faith. But the speech in which they defy the king’s orders, comes up a little short, if you’re looking for firm conviction. Here’s what they say:
"If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up."
If God saves us, fine. If not, well, so it goes.
So it goes. Martyrdom by fire is rare these days, but baptism by fire—ordeals of suffering, of being challenged by pain or grief, depression, addiction, alienation--these things do happen to us as human beings. And when we’re in those fiery furnaces, we don’t know if we’re going to come out with the hair on our head un-singed, our clothes not even smelling of smoke. We may get hurt. Burns can leave terrible scars.
There was a fourth person in the furnace, someone with the appearance of a god. God himself? God’s angel? Either way, it is God becoming part of human pain, human anger, human suffering. The God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is not just a God who rescues his people. This is a God who suffers with his people.
Some words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
It is good to learn early on that suffering and God
are no contradiction,
but much more a necessary unity:
for me the idea that God himself suffered
was always one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity.
I think that God is closer to suffering than to happiness,
and to find God in this manner gives peace and rest,
and a strong and courageous heart.
I said earlier that some people—well, that would be me—regard this lesson from Daniel as the best one to get to read at Easter Vigil. Frankly, I think part of the attraction is that it’s the last lesson. Anticipation is in the air. Soon we will stand up and walk. Soon we will assemble around the font and be reminded that baptism joins us to the death and resurrection of Christ. Soon we will follow the fire of the Christ candle into church. Soon the lights will come on, the flowers will come out. Soon it will be Easter.
But tonight, our anticipation is focused on Holy Week, and the events that lead up to the death of God—the death that makes our ultimate victory possible. This God who died for us stands beside us in the furnace of our mortal lives and with his presence fuses his suffering and ours with the resurrection.
In the fire of the furnace, there is the light of Christ.