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“Fable and Faith”

Easter 6 Common Lectionary Year C

Daniel 3: 1-30

©2013 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

And people say the Bible is boring! 
It’s stories like this that make good fodder for children’s Bibles,
and for show-tune type anthems  like the one we’ve just heard.

But because it’s in the Bible, we have certain expectations of it.
We expect it to be more than just a comic-book style hero story.
We expect more, well holiness; we expect it to be about some great revelation of God.
We expect it to be somehow true.

However, even though it sits inside this book we call “holy,”it’s not very holy at all.
It  is in fact a comic book hero story!
Complete with lots of mayhem, fire and brimstone, and unbelievably ridiculous evil guys,
and impossibly perfect good guys;and like most  hero tales, it’s not even true, at least not in the factual sense.

So what shall we do with it?
Well, perhaps first thing we need to do is
recall why such fables exist in all cultures.

Fables with heroes and heroines defeating
insurmountable odds
have arisen in every culture during times of severe crisis.
While they entertain and captivate,
they introduce some profound wisdom to the listeners
as the plot unfolds and resolves.
Most fable heroes are well-endowed
with a charism – some trait,
like fortitude, courage, perseverance,
fidelity, honesty, integrity,
upon which we, the enthralled listener,
now vow to imitate, as we face our own crises, trials and torments.
Fables are ultimately about us.

And so it is with this biblical fable.
It may as well begin with “Long ago and far away” because it is set in the fabled time of
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in the 7th century before Christ.

This was one of the many and repeated times when Israel
– the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob –
have been conquered, dispossessed, and almost wiped out by a vast, dominant empire.
In fact, since its beginning, Israel’s story is one of how to maintain identity,
culture, language and faith while surrounded, threatened or captured by the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia,  Macedonian  and Seleucid Greece,  Rome, then various manifestations of Christian and Ottoman and Muslim Empire, and eventually, horrifically, that of the Third Reich.

While the story is set in Babylon,
it was written four hundred years later,in the time of one Antiochus IV, king of the Seleucid empire.This Antiochus was intent on doing what all empires have learned to do;
you subjugate the conquered peoples and keep them docile by a show of unmatchable force, imposition of crippling taxation, and you globalize, economize,
and homogenize culturally, religiously, politically, linguistically,
all the peoples who live in the territory you have conquered.

This Antiochus 167 BCE invaded Judea,smashed Jerusalem to smithereens,
and he set up a huge statue,an idol – of himself as god,  in the Jewish Temple.

Faced, yet again, with the threat of annihilation of identity and faith,
this fable was written as a piece of faithful resistance,
a thinly disguised historical satire that parodied the latestimperial threat.
It also provided a model, in its three heroes,
of how to survive as a  faithful Jew in a hostile world;
how to keep their unique identity as people of God in a world that demanded of them a soul-selling to the Empire.

The writer fashions a heroic tale of human shrewdness, wisdom and survival,
grounded in a basic fundament of the Jewish faith;the fidelity of Yahweh,
the persistence of the character of God
who brings forth life and identity out of chaos and destruction,
and who models for God’s people a way of being,
of being just, noble, wise, pious in the best sense of the word,
peaceful,  according value to all,
as humans, as all creatures made in God’s image,
how to live as children of God
in the midst of a commodified world of
arms, graft, acquisitiveness, zealotry and cruelty.

If that’s not a fable for the ages, including our own,
then I don’t know what is!
How to be citizens of the kingdom of God,
and for us as Christians, how to be followers of the
Way of Jesus Christ,
seeking justice and resisting evil,
living with respect in creation,
when our own empires ask us to bow down to
the 90 foot high golden idol of consumerism.
We may not live as indentured slaves
and refugees outside our homeland as did these three,
but we are caught up unwittingly in systems of empire
which rape the land to meet global demands for fossil fuel,
which spends more on militarism than on clean water or education;
we discover 6 generations too late that we complied with an imperial program
of cultural genocide upon the first nations of this land.
We are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego;
we are dual citizens, bicultural, bilingual inhabitants
both of God’s world, and the empires of human construction.

We have the same questions they faced:

Will we find a way to keep faith with the best of what it means to be people of God?

Will we have the shrewd worldly wisdom we need to inhabit the world of faith while surviving in a faithless world?

And …. where will God be while we strive to breathe in the middle of the furnace?

Like the threesome, we will spend a lifetime
working out faithful answers to the first two questions.
But the last question : where will God be,even faithless, feckless old King Neb worked out the answer to that one!

He looked into the fiery furnace, and gasped:
 “ I sent three men to the flames, but behold I see four men, walking unharmed in the midst of the flame! And the fourth looks like one of the sons of the gods!”

God is in the furnace. In the midst of the mess.

God is with us. We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.

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