October 12, 2008

Alex Awad: Stand Your Guard
Daniel 3:16-18

The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego has long been one of my favorites. I first remember hearing it at one of the many youth retreats that I attended when I was in high school. Wayne Augustine, a basketball coach from near Erie, PA, spoke to several hundred of us one night, and he told of the enormous pressure that “My Shack, Your Shack and A Bungalow” were under to bow down to some humongous statute that an egotistical king named Nebuchadnezzar had set up. The story has been with me ever since.

There are similar statutes all around us, Wayne continued, and he was right. There are endless statutes, glittering in gold and rising to the sky, that call us to bow down. Statutes of materialism, pleasure, sex, popularity—you fill in the blank. They are everywhere, enticing us to compromise our convictions as followers of Jesus and join in the fun. “Stand your guard,” Wayne encouraged us in his typically inspiring and persuasive way. Stand up for Jesus, no matter what.

But Wayne, as far as I can recall, never spoke about another issue that is of central importance in this familiar story. In fact, virtually everyone I’ve ever heard talk about the story says pretty much the same thing—the peer pressure we experience in life may be great, but don’t give in and bow down to the idols of this world. In all honesty, I was going to talk about this same basic theme this morning myself. “Stand your guard against the lures of money, sex, and whatever else calls to you.” But I can’t anymore, not in the face of what I hear going on around us during this seemingly endless presidential campaign.

The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is actually one in a series of stories in the book of Daniel that seek to help God’s people live faithful lives under the sometimes threatening demands of earthly governments. If you read the stories carefully, you’ll notice that such demands come in two primary forms. In Daniel 6, for example, Daniel himself faces a royal decree prohibiting the free practice of his religion. According to the king’s decree, anyone who prays to a god other than the official gods of the kingdom will be thrown into the lions’ den. And that is exactly what happened to Daniel. In violation of the decree, Daniel prayed to God and became, as a result, lion food.

Governments, as we well know, make such decrees all of the time, down to this very day. They take away various religious freedoms and persecute those who ignore their laws. We often read of places where Christians are not allowed to worship openly, share their faith with unbelievers, or carry their Bibles in public. We also read about the sometimes extreme persecution that many of our brothers and sisters around the world experience as a result of their refusal to comply. That’s the primary reason these stories were favorites among so many of our Anabaptists ancestors. Rulers of the world often seek to limit religious freedom, like King Darius did in Daniel 6, and they throw offenders into the lions den every day.

But this is not the situation depicted here in Daniel 3. In this case, King Nebuchadnezzar makes no attempt whatever to limit Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s religious freedom. He does not take anything away. He never prohibits them from praying, reading their Scriptures, or eating kosher foods in accordance with their traditions. Instead, King Nebuchadnezzar does the opposite—he adds something. “Serve your god,” he tells the three Jewish boys. “Follow your religious convictions,” he continues, “but do this one thing for me.” “Bow down to the golden statute that I have set up.”

What, then, lies at the heart of Nebuchadnezzar’s command? What are Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego instructed to do? Is the issue here simply idolatry, or is there more to it than that? I suspect that there is a great deal more to it than that. When they refuse to bow down to the statute, after all, Nebuchadnezzar goes bezerk (v. 19). Clearly, the King is not upset solely because Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to bow down to the statute—that is just the surface issue. What makes the king so angry is the fact that these Jewish boys will not give him the same level of authority that they give to their God. “Serve your god,” he announces, “but serve me, too.” In short, King Nebuchadnezzar wants Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to attach equal importance to both their religious convictions as well as their national allegiances. “God and country”—that is what the furious king is hoping for. What he gets is a gentle but firm, “No.” “We will not serve your gods and we will not worship the statue that you have set up.” Period.

None of us here this morning live in Babylon, but we do live under one earthly government or another. Most of us are residents of the United States, and most of us are probably glad that we are. Unlike Daniel in Daniel 6, we enjoy the freedom to live out our Christian faith without governmental interference. We can worship freely, as we are today, and we can share our faith with people around us. We are allowed to read our Bibles in local parks, pray before meal time in neighborhood restaurants, give our money to the church and other church-related ministries, and even deduct such donations on our income tax returns! I’ve traveled to and lived in any number of countries around the world, and I for one will always be grateful for the freedom that I enjoy here to live out my faith as I understand it. Aren’t you thankful for that as well?

But what about the demand from King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3 that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego serve both God and country equally? What about this apparent “addition” to the faith? That is another matter, isn’t it? Many of us feel—I know that I do sometimes—this pressure to bow down to the American dream and the American way. It doesn’t show up so much in formal policies and actual decrees, but it is real, nonetheless. It is all around us, and it shows up in at least two primary forms.

There is pressure, first of all, to bow down to the idea that the United States is, like Israel in the Old Testament, God’s chosen people in the world today. God has blessed us in particularly dramatic ways, so the thinking goes, and he has called us to
do his work among the many pagan nations of the world. We Americans have been entrusted with God’s message, we’ve been called to carry out his mission, and we must be certain to live out our righteous and holy calling as the people of God.

There is pressure, secondly, to bow down to the idea that love of country and love of God are in someway inseparable. According to this point-of-view, to criticize our country in any way is not only considered to be unpatriotic, but unchristian. Deeply spiritual people who are fully committed to Christ and his mission are at the same time equally supportive of the United States and the role that it plays in the modern world. To be follower of Christ and to read the Bible seriously involves loving and serving one’s country as well.

Now, let me say right up front, as I have before, that I am extremely thankful for the benefits that I have experienced as a result of my citizenship in this wonderful country of ours. I am very appreciative of all that you and I have, and there is no doubt that the United States has been blessed with extensive resources and a privileged position in the world. But do we really want to bow down to the idol of American exceptionalism? Do we really want to equate Christian spirituality with certain political allegiances? Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego didn’t, and Babylon was no insignificant nation in their day, either.

What, importantly, is wrong with this way of thinking? Such thinking, first of all, overlooks the tragedy of exceptionalism in the Bible itself. In text after text in Lamentations, Jeremiah and elsewhere, the people of Judah themselves are criticized for believing that Jerusalem was “exceptional” and therefore impregnable. If Jerusalem fell, at least in part, because of such theology, why would other nations fare any better? Clearly, God reserves for himself the privileged position, and he frowns upon those nations that think too highly of themselves. God, in other words, rejects all notions of nationalistic exceptionalism.

Secondly, such thinking ignores the calling of the church in the world. While it is true that in the Old Testament God worked through a nation with borders and officials, he now builds his kingdom through a family that we call the church. This church has no physical boundaries, but instead spreads throughout the world like salt in potatoes. The Church, not any nation, is the descendant of Israel.

And finally, such thinking often erects boundaries between us and prevents us from discussing the more important matters facing us as followers of Jesus. It seems as though we can talk about most other things, but our conversations concerning politics frequently deteriorate into anger, name-calling and division. What the church needs to be doing is lifting Jesus higher among the nations of the world, not investing all of their energy into elections and political agendas. While we are called to be responsible citizens to the extent that our situation allows, we must never lose sight of our primary calling in the world to be about kingdom work.

One man who I met in Jerusalem sticks out in mind as a person who continues to stand his guard against governmental pressures and expectations. Alex Awad is a Palestinian Christian who pastors the East Jerusalem Baptist Church and teaches at the Bethlehem Bible College. Alex’ father, though a civilian, was shot and killed during Israel’s war for independence, and his brother has since been deported because of his participation in non-violation protests. Alex himself has on endless occasions been pressured and cajoled, yet he remains a peaceful pillar of Christlikeness in that war-torn land. While speaking prophetically in the midst of the ongoing conflict, Alex, above all else, sees himself as a citizen of a spiritual kingdom and a servant of a heavenly king. I hope and pray that all of us might see ourselves in the same way.