St John’s, Kirkland
Daniel 3: 3-30
We have come to the middle of things; halfway through the long forty days of Lent.
And we have come halfway through our salvation story readings. If there is one human sin that has brought about more suffering from any other it is this: the human attempt to usurp the place of God. It might be the sin at the root of all others.
The story of Nebuchadnezzar and the three young men is part of a far grander narrative about the faithfulness of God. It is meant to lift the hearts of the Jewish people and help them stay true to their identity. But in the context of our journey through the salvation history it means something more.
The word salvation means quite literally to be safe from harm, ruin, or loss. At its heart Nebuchadnezzar’s story is the human story. The story of how human beings have looked for salvation to come from their kings, or laws, or strict moral codes, or the way we dress, or uniformity in the way we speak or act.
We have looked for salvation in banding together into ethnic groups, or dividing ourselves by race, or class. We have sought salvation in the form of wealth, or power, the border patrol, the NSA, or a strong military. Surely, surely these things will be our salvation.
The church in her ancient wisdom looks us in the eye as we grab for each of these things and intones “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” All of these places that we look for salvation come from human beings and hold no real poser.
We have all agreed that a lump of soft yellow metal is really valuable (even though it is essentially useless for actual survival). Or we decide that our Nebuchadnezzar will have all the power and make all the decisions. Or we make judgments about people based on things we can see, or hear; on our senses. Or we build bigger, and better ways of killing other people before they presumably kill us (though they likely want to kill us for the same reason we want to kill them, because they think we’re going to kill them). All of it is a great golden statue with no power to help us; it is all madness.
There is a powerful pull to go along with the powers of the world, there is a deep and appealing human logic to the things we look at to save us as a culture. Even when we can see the holes in them, when we can see how crazy they are, we can’t seem to stop ourselves.
After all, wouldn’t having more money make you feel way more secure? Wouldn’t we all be a lot safer if we were really, really picky about who we let into our country? Wouldn’t it make sense if we stuck together with other people who were just like us and kept away from those who are different? Differences mean conflict, and conflict is uncomfortable! And it’s just being proactive to bomb someone to keep them from bombing us first.
And most importantly, bow down to these statues with everyone else and no one will see you, or notice you, and you’ll have salvation.
And among all those bowing forms stand Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They stand as witnesses against the idea that we human beings can save ourselves. Even when given a second chance to go along with the mass delusion of humanity, to bow and “save themselves” they refuse.
Now, if salvation means to be safe from harm, then being bound hand and foot and tossed bodily into a blast furnace would be the opposite of salvation. But so is being nailed to a cross. And there’s the rub.
Human beings tend to get our priorities wrong. First: we cannot actually keep ourselves safe, the world is too big and wild for that. But second: we concentrate on grasping and protecting the wrong things. We seek sameness, and comfort, and personal security as our highest values. We define those things as salvation; in doing so we sin: we harm others and we doom ourselves. There is no power within ourselves to help ourselves.
God offers us something different. When we talk about the salvation of God it is not that God will keep us from being uncomfortable, or will give use earthly security, or will guard us from those who are different from us, or will help us win out over others.
True salvation, the salvation that comes from God is about protection from sin and it’s inevitable results. God’s salvation reveals a world in which competition gives way to cooperation. Where the desire for security gives way to hospitality. Where fear of difference becomes the celebration of diversity. Where the fear of death has become the hope of resurrection.
In Lent we are faced with the ways in which we have failed, fallen short, sinned. We are faced with the ways we have bowed down to golden statues out of fear, or a desire to fit in, or because it was the logical choice. In Lent we are faced with the ways the world we have built is broken.
In a few short weeks we will shout “crucify him” with the rest of humanity. We will fall prey to violence in the face of fear. We will be caught up in a system defending itself from one who would utterly destroy it. We will do our worst, we will kill that which loves us best. And God will go willingly to prove to us that salvation looks utterly different than our expectations.
We have no power within ourselves to help ourselves. And yet, when we refuse to bow to the golden idols of our world God stands with us within the fiery furnace.
The same God who will willingly suffer and die to create something new; to create a path to forgiveness, healing, welcome, and community. Salvation, true salvation, comes only from God, to God let us turn our eyes.