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"Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

“Hi, we’re with ACT UP. We’re doing an act of civil disobedience. Please remain calm.”

This is a quote from the documentary “How to Survive a Plague” which chronicles the grassroots organization ACT UP - AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power - as they worked to address the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s. That quote is specifically from an interaction at Diaichi Pharmaceutical Company’s American headquarters which ACT UP blockaded. They believed Diachi was dragging its feet on releasing a drug that would not only help people with AIDS but also those fighting breast cancer.

This was one of many times during the AIDS epidemic that ACT UP engaged in civil disobedience and nonviolent protest. Other similar actions highlighted in the documentary include a protest during a Catholic worship service to oppose the church’s ban on condoms and a march in Washington D.C. that ended with the ashes of people who’d died of AIDS being thrown onto the White House lawn. The hope was to get then-President George H.W. Bush’s attention so that he’d do more to fight the epidemic.

If you think these measures sound extreme let me remind you that by 1990 over 100,000 people had died of AIDS.[1] Let me remind you that the bodies of people who died of AIDS were often put into black plastic trash bags by hospitals, food trays were left outside patients’ doors so medical staff wouldn’t have to enter their rooms, and for several years in New York City the medical personnel who were willing to care for AIDS patients did so on a voluntary basis.

Let me remind you that in 1982 President Reagan’s Press Secretary Larry Speakes laughed when a reporter asked if the president was tracking the spread of AIDS, then called “the gay plague.” He then became verbally combative with the reporter who asked the question, snapping back while the rest of the press room laughed, “I don’t have it, do you?...."Do you? You didn't answer my question. How do you know?"[2] President Reagan didn’t publicly utter the term “AIDS” until 1985 and by then 12,000 Americans had died of the disease.[3]

If you think the ACT UP went too far, let me remind you that Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of Thomas Road Baptist Church and the Moral Majority said on multiple occasions that AIDS was the price people paid for “violating the laws of God.” More specifically, in 1983 Falwell said that “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals."[4]

Suffragettes fighting for women’s right to vote in Great Britain and the U.S. in the 1920s, Rosa Parks’ bus boycott in 1955, Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930, The March for Jobs and Freedom (a.k.a the March on Washington) in 1963, Tiananmen Square Protest in 1989, The Little Rock Nine, Freedom Riders, the Vietnamese Buddist monk Thich Quang Duc who self-immolated in the middle of Saigon intersection in June 1963 to protest the persecution of his fellow Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the Women’s March in 2017, Times Up and Black Lives Matter protests of the past few years - these are a handful of examples of civil disobedience that people have found necessary in the last 100 years.

And though some might argue that a few of these examples shouldn’t be compared because they’ve been politicized or boiled down to little more than violent riots, I would remind us all that oppression doesn’t end because the oppressed ask nicely to have the foot removed from their necks. Equality is not accomplished when those in power feel magnanimous enough to share a bit of influence. And standing up for what’s right, being firm in your beliefs rarely comes without a cost.

Shadrach Meshach and Abednego learn this final lesson first-hand in today’s passage from Daniel. This week and next we’ll be exploring texts that aren’t usually preached on. Thank you to Craig Henry for the idea. And while I understand why next week’s text is rarely covered I’m not clear on why this text isn’t more popular because it’s a good story!

Here’s the necessary context for this passage. The Book of Daniel is one of the Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible (minor because of length not importance) and contains “two distinct parts: stories of Jews living in exile in Babylon and apocalyptic visions shown to the title character.”[5] Despite not appearing in our verses, the prophet Daniel is “depicted as a young, wise and pious Jew whose prophetic abilities are recognized by even the pagan Babylonians.”[6]

Though Daniel is set during the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE), “it was written down during a period of Greek colonization” around 400 years later. It’s possible that the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego circulated as an independent oral legend and was incorporated into the Daniel narrative later “because of thematic similarities,”[7] we simply don’t know. But we do know that this book is not so much “interested in presenting a historical account of the exile…[in fact] it contains several historical inaccuracies, not the least of which is the fact that the Babylonians did not force their religion on others.”[8]

And yet forcing his religion on others is exactly what King Nebuchadnezzar is after with the building of this gargantuan statue in chapter 3. Based on the measurements in cubits within the text, scholars have estimated this monstrosity at about ninety by nine feet. It was likely shaped like an obelisk - think the Washington Monument - and made entirely of gold. As one commentator described it, this statue “would have provided spectators with an impression that it is piercing into the sky…it would dazzle from near and far…[and it] flaunts the splendor of the empire”[9]

Said another way, this statue is King Nebuchadnezzar’s power made tangible and put on full display. It is his ego and ability to get and do whatever he wants in the shape of an obelisk. But this is not enough for the King so “to drive home his glorious reign, [he] dispatches an empire-wide call. Come and be awed by the statue! The royal edict goes out to summon everybody that is somebody in the realm…” and this long list of dignitaries is compelled “to participate in paying homage to the king’s image.”[10] This command is for everyone, arguably the King is doing this to unify the empire, but non-compliance will be fatal. So as theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, “Obedience is prompted by the feat of power on the one hand and by reverence to majesty on the other.”[11]

And “as Nebuchadnezzar wants it so shall he have it, except for that pesky Jewish resistance.”[12] For in the midst of this empire-wide command, in the midst of this pomp and circumstance, in the midst of this circus for the King Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stand out because they miss the ceremony. This is a slap to the King’s face because these three men were given government positions just a chapter before this story. So not only are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego accused of sedition, the King is in absolute rage.

As you can imagine, angering the person with all the power and control is dangerous to your health, but “the King’s rage isn’t just at being defied but also because his judgment is brought into question.”[13] This is likely why Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have two charges levied at them by the King: one religious - “you do not serve my gods” (verse 14) and one political - refusing the King’s command which amounts to treason.

Given a final chance to do as commanded, the three men still refuse. They know there’s no way out, Nebuchadnezzar has made that clear. And yet they will not worship his idol. His rage increased by their continued refusal the King commands the furnace be heated seven times hotter than is normal and that the three men be bound. The furnace is so hot it kills the King’s executioners right before Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego fall into the fiery furnace.

Surely the three men will be incinerated, but as you heard the King is amazed to look into the flames and not only see three men but four walking around unbound and unscathed. Nebuchadnezzar is amazed and calls the men out of the fire - notice only the original 3 come back out - and when he sees that they’re not burned and their clothes don’t even smell of fire the King praises God and promotes Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Most people end the story there, amazed at the three men’s faithfulness and their impact on this pagan king but y’all probably know me well enough by now to understand that I need to pick at this story a bit more. There are more threads here so let's start unknotting them.

First, if you were taught that the fourth person in the fire was Jesus, stop that right now. Do not read Jesus into stories where he doesn’t belong. We simply don’t know who the fourth figure is. Good arguments exist for it being God or an angel, particularly since angels were becoming a more common belief in Jewish circles at this time. But it definitely wasn’t Jesus!

Second, if you’re tempted to see Nebuchadnezzar with sympathy at the end of the story, stop that too. His actions don’t indicate a change of heart or growth as a person. He isn’t any less a tyrant than he was before the men survived the furnace. As commentator Daniel L. Smith-Christopher writes, this entire chapter “is about a particular kind of pride that comes from a system that derives its prestige and power for the suffering of others; in short, it is the unique pride of the wealthy and powerful. Who else can erect golden monuments?”[14]

Finally, and perhaps the most important thread to unknot is seeing this story as an example to follow when it comes to our own level of faithfulness. Hear me clearly, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s “faithfulness to God is exemplary but that is not the final point of the chapter.”[15]

That’s because “the deepest source of amazement is God’s faithfulness to [the men.]” Even the King confesses in verse 29, “no other god is able to deliver in this way…Nebuchadnezzar is amazed by God…looking into the fire [he] is undone. He had sought total control. He unleashed all his destructive powers but at that very point, he lost control…God succeeds; Nebuchadnezzar fails.”[16]

So this is not a story about being faithful so God will protect you. It’s not about a transactional relationship between God and people. “God is not a vending machine into which we insert our faithfulness and out comes the reward we are seeking. In the midst of persecution, the persecuted don’t have a formula”…and while we should always trust in God we should never presume upon God.[17]

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren’t saved from the fire solely because of their remarkable faith - although it is admirable. They are saved because of God’s remarkable faithfulness to them. In the midst of this civil disobedience, this nonviolent protest, this refusal to compromise their beliefs God not only saves three lives, “God disrupts Nebuchadnezzar’s center.”[18]

My friends, the Good News this morning is that God is faithful, particularly in moments of civil disobedience. Particularly in situations of oppression. Particularly for those society tries to make illegal, shove back in the closet, keep out of pulpits, or make second-class citizens. This is because God stands with the oppressed. God is on the side of those who suffer. God sees those the rest of us overlook.

And, as with King Nebuchadnezzar, God challenges and disrupts those who would hold absolute power over others. The most telling part of this story is that all it takes to unravel Nebuchadnezzar’s claim of complete power “is the resolute refusal of these three people from the margins…to accept his claim as reality. Instead, they replace his claims, not with their own assertion of power, but rather with the statement that Yahweh is God.”[19]

So rather than using this weird little story as a measuring stick for our faith that we’ll never meet, let’s see it as a story of God’s abundant faithfulness to humanity. Let’s see the model it provides for those who are oppressed - which is the stubborn refusal to be afraid. And let’s allow this story to inspire us to the reconciliation of both the oppressed and the oppressor for it is through such work that the world is reoriented toward God.[20]

[1] Current Trends Mortality Attributable to HIV Infection/AIDS -- United States, 1981-1990 ( [2] Tim Fitzsimons, “LGBTQ History Month: The early days of America's AIDS crisis,” October 15, 2018 via NBC News online. [3] Ibid. [4] Today in Gay History - June 19, 1983: Found of the Moral Majority Jerry Falwell: ‘AIDS Is God’s Punishment For Homosexuals,” published June 19, 2023 via [5] Corrine Carvalho, “Fire Furnace: Commentary on Daniel 3: 8-30,” from [6] Ibid. [7] Jewish Study Bible, pg. 167. [8] Ibid. [9] Jin H. Han, “Easter Vigil: Commentary on Daniel 3:1-29,” from [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid. [12] Interpreters, pg. 63. [13] Ibid. [14] Ibid, pg. 66. [15] Richard W. Nysse, “Daniel: Commentary on Daniel 3:1-30,” from [16] Ibid. [17] Ibid. [18] Ibid. [19] Carvalho, Ibid. [20] Ibid.

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