The book of Daniel opens with the ambitious King Nebuchadnezzar invading Babylon, a city-state of ancient Mesopotamia, the remains of which can be found in present-day Iraq, 55 miles south of Baghdad.
In the story, Daniel is saved because he interprets the nightmarish dream of the king, but his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, defy the king’s order to bow down and worship a golden image of Nebuchadnezzar. In a rage, the king orders the young men thrown into a furnace.
King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up. So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it.
Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.
Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations and men of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! You have issued a decree, O king, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, O king. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “…we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego… He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, O king.”
He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”
Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!”
So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.
Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.
Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
Sermon: “Unfinished Work”
Fortunately we don’t have a king who sits on a throne making his own rules and throwing people who don’t obey his orders into a blazing furnace. So, the day after tomorrow a new president will be inaugurated and a new chapter will begin, ushering in what Lincoln referred to as ‘a new birth of freedom.’
Lincoln also referred to ‘the great task remaining before us’ to which we all must be dedicated.
The word ‘inauguration’ means ‘a formal beginning,’ and it is rooted in the word for sooth sayer: ‘auger.’ Daniel was portrayed as one who could look at the present and see into the future. He looked at the king’s dream and made predictions; he read the handwriting on the wall in the King’s banquet hall (which is where the saying ‘reading the handwriting on the wall’ comes from.) Daniel was ‘one who obtains divine favor.’
The story from the prophet Daniel suggests that the hand of God was laid upon him and his three companions.
I’d like to suggest an up-to-date interpretation of those three who were thrown into the burning, fiery furnace, leading to the upcoming inauguration. If you were to name just two people in the history of this nation who paved the way for our new president, who would you name?
My Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Barack Obama, each of whom was thrown into the burning, fiery crucible – each of them endured a severe test – the Civil War, the civil rights battle, and the recent presidential campaign and election.
A prophet is one who can tell, offering warnings that if certain things aren’t done, changes made, then catastrophe is certain.
A prophet may be a teller of the future or a forth-teller; one who ‘tells it like it is,’ one who speaks up and says that ‘the emperor has no clothes.’ Anthony Lewis points out that at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 blacks were seated in a segregated section. The black speaker Robert Russa Moton, President of Tuskegee Institute, spoke from a text that had been censored. Lewis points to a particular passage that was deleted from Moton’s prepared speech: (The Lincoln memorial) “…is but a hollow mockery, a symbol of hypocrisy, unless we can make real in our national life, in every state and every section the things for which he died.”
Lincoln and King were assassinated, and we feel a collective sense of anxiety that the same could happen to our new President. We began to feel that anxiety the moment we felt the elation of his election on the evening of November 4.
It’s similar to the anxiety we parents felt the moment our son or daughter was born, and the fear that something could happen to them never leaves…it’s part of the price we pay for such love.
The inauguration of Barak Obama as 44th President of these United States is a historic, inspiring event. It’s more than another mere formality of swearing in a new person to occupy the White House – it ushers in the culminating chapter of the Civil War; it ushers in a giant step in the long freedom march toward racial equality and social justice.
Listen again to Lincoln’s Address at Gettysburg:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Actually, the Constitution did not say that ‘all men are created equal.’ It countenanced slavery, and in his address at Gettysburg Lincoln altered that sad fact.
Garry Wills wrote a wonderful book he called ‘Lincoln at Gettysburg: the Words that Remade America.’
Wills says, ‘(Lincoln) altered the (Constitution) from within, by appeal from its letter to the spirit, subtly changing (it)…by implicitly doing this, he performed one of the most daring acts of open-air slight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting. Everyone in that vast throng of thousands was having his or her intellectual pocket picked. The crowd departed with a new… constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought with them. They walked off…into a different America. Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.”
Responding to Lincoln’s 272 words at Gettysburg the Chicago Times quoted the ‘letter of the Constitution’ to Lincoln, specifically noting its lack of reference to equality, that is, its tolerance of slavery. They said that Lincoln was betraying the instrument he had taken an oath to protect and defend.
The article said: “How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government. They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equal, or were entitled to equal privileges.”
Those statesmen knew that a Constitution that forbade slavery would not be ratified by the states and there would have been no union to begin with. So they compromised.
Lincoln, with some reservations, took the next step in the evolution of these United States, saying:
“It is for us the living…to be dedicated…to the unfinished work…to be…dedicated to the great task…before us — that this nation…shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
We are emerging from the furnace of change and progress the way Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, in the old legend, emerged from that burning, fiery furnace, the kiln in which this vessel was fired and is still being shaped and formed today.
Out of that red-hot fiery furnace Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged. Taking a cue from Lincoln in his 1963 I Have a Dream speech in front of Lincoln’s statue, he said:
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.
“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Chicago Times referred to Lincoln’s audacity in altering the Constitution as he did at Gettysburg. King carried it to the next step, in the same spirit of freedom, and the unfinished work Lincoln talked about, King pass the torch to Barack Obama who had ‘the audacity of hope.’
The writers of the book of Daniel were promoting the idea of a god who arrives in time, like an angel, or a god, and walks into the fiery furnace with those who are marching toward freedom. I want to suggest that the fourth person’ walking with our Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is you. And me.
The unfinished work includes the task of translating the letter of the law into a living spirit – not just ‘the spirit of the law,’ but a way of living it out in one’s own life.
Part of our task is to translate the letter of the Bible, and all the other religious literature we’ve inherited, into a new spirit – a spirit of freedom, a spirit of equality, giving birth to a new notion of God, moving beyond the tribalism where the old gods were on one side against the other.
The old gods countenanced slavery, and here we’re referring to the letter-of-the-law god of the Bible, where slavery was an everyday fact of life.
The old gods countenanced killing ‘in the name of God,’ and on behalf of a particular religious group.
The old gods are still being used to countenance discrimination against gay and lesbian couples who want equal rights – the right to marry.
Letter-of-the-law preachers are still using the Bible to appeal to primitive prejudices.
“King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.”
What are today’s versions of the golden idol?
Garry Wills says, “During that time Lincoln found the language, the imagery, the myths that are given their best and briefest embodiment at Gettysburg. In order to penetrate the mystery of his ‘re-founding’ act, we must study all the elements of that stunning verbal coup. Without Lincoln’s knowing it himself, all his prior literary, intellectual, and political labors had prepared him for the intellectual revolution contained in those fateful 272 words.”
We, too, have unfinished work, some of which must be carried out in the political world and the world of business and economics. Our premise, here, is that we can be inspired in that work by the work we do in this spiritual home of ours.
Twenty five hundred years ago the Biblical writers carved out the stories in the book of Daniel, using the imagery of three men who refused to ‘go along with the crowd,’ and for their disobedience they were thrown into the burning, fiery furnace, yet they emerged safe and sound and were promoted or elevated by the king. (Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience, later used by Gandhi in his non-violent resistance follows this story perfectly.)
The legend in the book of Daniel is filled with marvelous symbolism for what goes on in the long, human evolutionary march toward freedom, justice and equality. The three who were thrown into the fire took one more step in that great march, reminding us that we must continue the work of building a better world – a world characterized by human dignity, with freedom and justice for all.
We have unfinished work — sacrifices will and must be made. As discussions and debate about the need for minimum wage laws continue we will insert a new discussion – a national conversation about maximum wages, which is long overdue.
Barack Obama is not a wizard. We’ve learned to beware of the so-called wizards. When Dorothy’s dog Todo pulled the curtain aside exposing the man manipulating the mechanisms that made the magic she said, “Oh, you’re a bad man,” and he responded, “No, I’m a good man. I’m just a bad wizard!”
Barack Obama is a good man; Martin Luther King, Jr. was a good man; Lincoln was a good man; none were wizards. Each disappointed some people; each made mistakes. But they came out of the fiery furnace as complete persons, keeping the dream of our nation alive.
King said, “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.”
We had ‘an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality’ with the very decisive election of Barack Obama in November. Now we can say that 2009 is not an end, but a new beginning.
The year 1863 was a turning point with the emancipation proclamation; the year 1963 was pivotal, with King’s I Have a Dream speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009 is another major turning point for this nation-in-the-making; we continue to test whether this nation, ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal’ can long endure.
The struggle for equality and justice for all continues. Our new president must continue to have the audacity of hope to move us forward as a nation, as a people. Now Obama enters the burning, fiery furnace and we are called to be his companion in the unfinished work.
May the all-embracing Spirit of a Love be with him, the God who embraces all, no matter what religion, or simply the religion of moral-ethical living. May that God, who is the Spirit of Love that embraces those of all races, all sexual orientations, walk through the burning fiery furnace from which a new nation will emerge, more whole, more just, more inclusive with a new sense of dignity.
May it be so.