God help me! But if not… | Sermon from August 11, 2019

A man walked down a trail along a steep cliff side.

He’d come to enjoy nature, to enjoy the outdoors, to recenter himself. Life had been stressful as of late. His job worked him hard, he constantly struggled against the unethical behavior of others, trying to do the right thing and set the example.

Which is exactly what he did at home. There, he was known, too, as a righteous man, always doing and saying the right thing. He loved his wife, he loved his children, he cared for them and they knew it.

In his community, he was known as an upstanding citizen, someone everyone respected. Many committees and boards sought after his presence. Sometimes, those more unethical of those boards would get frustrated with his Boy Scout ways, because this man always maintained his integrity.

So it was here, on a trail on that cliff side, that he was walking, hiking, taking a breather to get himself recentered. It was his spiritual practice, for faith mattered a great deal to him. Indeed, he was an upstanding member of his church. Faith defined his identity, for he saw himself first and foremost as a brother of Christ, a son of God, a disciple. This was the basis of his integrity.

As he walked along, he came to a bridge that spanned a chasm between cliffs. It was a beautiful sight. Looking either direction, he could see for miles. The sun shone brightly but the air had a crisp feeling to it: the perfect day for a hike. He moved onto the bridge and paused to take in the scenery.

While he was there, another man happened to pass by. At first, their passing was a just a wave and a friendly “hello” until the passerby asked the man to hold onto his rope. It was a simple request and so the man obliged.

He took the end of the rope and heard the passerby say “thanks!” Then, suddenly, there was a huge tug on the rope and the man was almost pulled off his feet. He dug in his heels, grabbed the rope with both hands, and, with great difficulty, got steady.

He held one end of a now very heavy rope. And as he followed the rope forward, he noticed it went over the side of the bridge. Carefully, steadily, with his heels dug in, he walked toward the edge of the bridge. Looking over, he saw the passerby hanging from the other end.

He yelled, “what happened?!” The passerby simply replied, “just hold on!” That was bewildering. Just hold on? This man had jumped over a bridge, with a huge drop below. If he let go of the rope, this man would certainly die.

“Climb up!” “I can’t; I’m too weak! Just hold on!”

“I’ll pull you up. Hold on.” The man grunted and pulled with all his might, but he couldn’t pull the rope up high enough. It was simply too long and he wasn’t strong enough.

So the man thought to himself that he could tie the rope to the edge of the bridge and then go and get help. Now that was an idea!

As he went to tie a good knot, his hands slipped and he barely maintained control of the rope. Tying the knot required that he let go a little bit with one hand so he could manipulate the rope into the knot. But the man was simply too heavy, the pull on the rope too hard, for him to do that.

And so he was stuck. Stuck holding a rope with a man on the end. If he let go of the rope, the man would surely die. He yelled for help but all he heard was the echo of his own voice. He was just stuck.

Have you ever found yourself like this man: stuck in an impossible situation because you did the right thing?

Have you ever been holding onto a huge weight, unable to let go of it, unable to get rid of it, unable to pull it up; just stuck?

Have you ever done the right thing and suffered the consequences of it? As the old adage goes: no good deed goes unpunished. Here, in this metaphor, is an example of that.

And here, in our scripture this morning, is another example. It’s found in Daniel, chapter 3. Let’s hear the story, picking up right after Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have refused to worship an idol.

Scripture

In Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar demands that everyone in the kingdom worship a new statue to a god he has set up. This new statue will be the focal point of all the kingdom’s worship because the king has decreed it so.

But he has a secret motivation. He’s captured the best and brightest of the society of Judah, which he has conquered. From Jerusalem, he took the intelligentsia, and here in Babylon, he wants them to contribute to Babylonian society. His secret motivation is assimilation.

It’s a smart move. Take the priests and the doctors and the lawyers and the scribes and the philosophers and the prophets and the university professors and make them a part of your society. They have something to teach you that you do not know; they have ways they can make your kingdom better.

The trick to this plan is assimilation. After immigration, these new people must be assimilated into Babylonian culture. Chief among the ways of assimilation is the worship of Babylonian gods, giving up worship of the gods of your homeland. But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, high officials in the Babylonian government but Judahites by birth, refuse to give up their worship of their God, Yahweh. Not only that but because Yahweh has demanded that they only worship him, they refuse to worship any other god along with Yahweh.

This infuriates Nebuchadnezzar. He has promoted these three men above other, Babylonian-born, officials. He has given them every advantage, hoping that if he won them over, he would win over all the Judahites in exile in Babylon. Their refusal to assimilate to his religion, to enter the melting pot of Babylonian society, stokes the fire of his anger.

Literally.

After all he’s done for them, how dare they refuse him! He threatens to put them into a furnace, one that will certainly kill them.

And so here, at the start of our scripture this morning, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego find themselves on a bridge, holding a rope with a man dangling at the other end. They are in an impossible situation. Violate their fidelity to God and worship this idol Nebuchadnezzar has erected, thereby saving their lives, or willingly go to their death as martyrs for God.

They’re holding the rope with a heavy weight at the other end. What do they do?

We know what they do. This is a very famous story indeed. They set up a showdown of the gods: the erected golden idol and the god-king Nebuchadnezzar versus Yahweh. Nebuchadnezzar believes he has the power over his kingdom, including over religion. Yahweh proves him wrong by saving the men in the furnace, including sending an angel to be with them. They’re so untouched by the fire that the scripture says not even their clothes nor hair smelled of smoke! This from the same fire that killed the guards who threw the three Judahites in there. It’s incredible.

But that’s not the most incredible thing to me in the story. The incredible thing is what they do with the weight on the end of the rope; how they handle their impossible situation.

On the bridge, the man knows that he is stuck. And all because he did the right thing. He’s left with prayer. And what should he pray? “God, get me out of this”? “God, send someone to deliver me”?

Before the king, as he threatens to send Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to their fiery deaths, what should these three pray? “God, get us out of this”? “God, send someone to deliver us”?

What do we pray, how do we seek after God in impossible situations?

For I am sure we can relate to the man on the bridge. We, too, have found ourselves caught up in an impossible situation because we did the right thing. We have known the old adage that “no good deed goes unpunished.”

We have provided over and over again for our families only to be rejected by our children or parents.

We have pointed out corruption or unethical behavior at work only to find ourselves the one who is being punished.

We have raised and loved our children to the best of our ability only to be rejected by them when they reach adulthood.

We have invested our money wisely, prudently, only to watch it evaporate.

We have done all the right things with budgeting our money, we have given faithfully to the church, and yet we still just barely get by.

Or we want to give to the church but we find that our bills and the demands on our finances just won’t let up. And so we live in perpetual guilt about how we handle our money.

Or we have done the right thing in business only to find others taking advantage of our work with their unethical business practices. We can’t compete unless we become unethical as well, sacrificing our values.

We find ourselves in impossible situations all the time. We are holding the rope, with a huge weight dangling on the other end, unable to do anything except hold on.

Why would God allow for that to happen to us? We’ve been righteous after all, just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! We’ve done the right thing, gone in the right directions, been righteous, maintained our integrity; we are the picture of an upstanding citizen and member of our church, just like the man on a hike who ends up holding this rope. And yet, we’re just like him; on a bridge, holding a rope with a heavy weight on the other end; in an impossible situation.

It’s very unfair.

Like Job before us, we might cry out to God to speak to how unfair this is. We might tell God that God hasn’t come through for us like we’ve come through for God, and thus God owes us something. The balance sheet between us and God is out of balance, with debits exceeding credits. It’s time for God to step up!

We might do that. And that’s therapeutic. In pastoral care, in counseling, I often recommend speaking to God exactly how you feel. God wants to hear those kind of prayers. God wants us to be completely authentic; open and honest emotionally, in our prayer life. I highly recommend praying in just that way; praying just like Job.

And after we have emptied ourselves, after we have given over our emotional state and feelings to God, we still find ourselves on the bridge, holding the rope, before the king, facing the fiery furnace. We’re still in the impossible situation.

That’s the hard part. We can find relief from our anger and resentment and bitterness through a robust, honest, prayer life, but it doesn’t change the impossible situation in which we find ourselves.

So, most of the time, we pray asking God to provide for us. We have a specific outcome in mind: deliverance, relief, release, resolution of conflict, restoration of relationship, more money, more time, more love, less pain. We pray for that specific outcome.

In the midst of an impossible situation, that makes sense. And we believe that God will provide that outcome we envision. We believe it with all our hearts. We hold onto it for dear life.

C.S. Lewis speaks to just that when referencing this scripture in a letter to Mrs. D. Jessup on March 26, 1954. Lewis says, “Two men had to cross a dangerous bridge. The first convinced himself that it would bear them, and called this conviction Faith. The second said, “Whether it breaks or holds, whether I die here or somewhere else, I am equally in God’s good hands.” And the bridge did break and they were both killed: and the second man’s Faith was not disappointed and the first man’s was.”

This is exactly the kind of faith that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego show. Look carefully at verses 17 and 18. These three say, in response to the king, “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.” (Daniel 3:17-18)

But if not. They are not convinced that God will save them. They are not convinced that God will come through for them in that way. All they know is that their duty is to be faithful to God, to demonstrate fidelity. If God doesn’t save them, they still believe that they have done the right thing. Their faith isn’t based on God coming through for their desired outcome. They are like the second man on C.S. Lewis’s bridge: saying that if they live or die, they are equally in God’s good hands.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego demonstrate true faith: one born of believing in the mission rather than in believing that God will always provide for you as you want.

That’s a hard thing to swallow. It’s hard for me to preach. But this thing we call our faith, this relationship we have with Christ, this discipleship path we’re on, this church that we come to, isn’t solely about having a better life. It’s definitely not about having a social club, even though fellowship has a role to play. It’s not about learning how to get what we want, even if what we want is very good and even righteous.

Faith is, at its core, about ceding to God’s mission in the world: what we call the Kingdom of God. God is moving and working to bring about that kingdom. We are called to participate in that work. That’s why we do the righteous thing, that’s why we maintain our integrity, that’s why we make sure that we do the right thing, because we are participating in God’s mission for the world.

That’s why we do what we do as a church. Last week, we collected a ton of school supplies as we asked God to give us a blessing upon our school year. We are blessed and we were a blessing. It’s like to old adage that comes from the life of Abraham in Genesis: we are blessed to be a blessing. That’s another way of saying we are disciples of Christ to spread the good news of the love of God to all we know. We are part of that larger mission.

We are part of making the kingdom of God a reality on this earth or, as Belinda Carlisle famously said, making “heaven a place on earth; a place where love comes first.”

That’s what we are to be about.

And faith means living out that mission into the world.

Sometimes, we will find ourselves in impossible situations. I cannot explain to you why that happens except to say that sometimes we are caught up between good and evil. For all our best efforts, for all our good discipleship, it still happens.

Sometimes, we will be on the bridge, holding a rope with a weight at the end, and have no recourse, nothing we can do about it.

Sometimes, we’re in impossible situations. And in those situations, faith is this: trusting that you are in God’s good hands no matter what the outcome is. Faith, true faith, doesn’t rely on God to give us the outcome we decide we want. That’s false faith; one born of self-centeredness.

True faith simply maintains fidelity to God, maintains allegiance, remains faithful, to God no matter how impossible the situation, without fear of the outcome.

This morning, does your rely on specific outcomes?

Or does your faith say that, whatever happens, you’re in God’s good hands?

Are you fully bought into the mission? Or are you fully bought into needing God to do for you whatever you think is best?

Here’s another way to ask that question.

Does your faith cause you to pray that God gives you what you want?

Or does your faith cause you to pray, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?

Paul tells us that we were bought at a price. We are not our own. When we come to faith, when we become a Christian, we join a larger mission, a larger purpose, and we cede ourselves to that purpose. We are God’s to be utilized as God sees fit.

What weights are you holding today?

What bridges are you on?

Are you facing an adversary like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?

Pray, tell God exactly how you feel, be emotionally honest with God, don’t be afraid to ask for specific outcomes.

But then pray, but if not… Demonstrate the faith of these three, believing that you are part of a larger work, you are part of the mission, the Kingdom of God, and God is using you, even in the midst of an impossible situation, to make that Kingdom a reality.

If you believe that, then you can say, whatever happens, “whether I die here or somewhere else, I am equally in God’s good hands.” Then, your faith will indeed never be disappointed.

But if not…thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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