Illustration: Last August, you might remember 118 crewmen dying when a series of explosions caused the Russian submarine Kursk to sink. Twenty-three of these men survived in an isolated chamber for several hours after the explosion. One of them was 27-year-old Lieutenant Captain Dmitry Kolesnikov, and he wrote a note to his wife while he waited to die. Two words from that note were displayed in a black frame next to his coffin at his funeral service. He wrote, " Mustn't despair." Mustn't despair.
When human beings experience the moment when they know they're going to die, it' s almost instinctive that they want to send a message; they want someone to know their story. Passengers spiraling downward to their deaths on a JAL airliner in 1985 used the last moments of their lives to write letters to those they loved. Prisoners of the Nazis in a Warsaw ghetto, after seeing people shot or starved to death, used their last breaths to write notes and store them in crevices in the wall. They hoped somebody besides the Nazis would read the notes and know their story.
In that final moment when the scaffolding of life gets stripped away, all the toys we've spent our lives chasing--success, reputation, security, wealth, comfort, ease--mean nothing. You are left with what you believe, what you've built your life on. If that moment were to come for you, and one day it will, what would you write? What's the message you want to leave behind? What's your story?
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego chose death over worshipping idols.
This moment came in the lives of three young men, possibly the age of Captain Kolesnikov. They were men of great promise. They had risen to positions of eminence in the world's most powerful nation; they could raise great families, living deeply fulfilling lives doing noble things for their people and their God. Their hearts were full of hopes and dreams.
Verses 14-18 say: " 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, 'O Necuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.' "
I'll tell you what's striking to me about their story. The moment inevitably comes when somebody realizes that death is inescapable and there is nothing they can do. Often the last message is an expression of regret at having to leave life. For Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, death is escapable--all they have to do is bend a knee to worship the golden images, and their nightmare will be over. They will live and be restored to positions of power, honor, and status. They are headed toward unimaginable pain and death, and one word would mean life for them. But they would not say that word, they would not bend that knee. " Life, or death?" They chose death.
That kind of devotion to God is possible for ordinary people. They say, " The God we serve is able to save us, but even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods and worship the image of gold you have set up." That looked like their final words: " Mustn't despair."
Verse 19: " Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed." Literally that could be translated, "and the expression of his face changed." When they were brought to him for not bowing down, he was mad, but he had been using the velvet glove approach. He tried to woo them to the other side: " Now, when you hear the music, when you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good; you can have everything back." But in the face of their unshakable devotion, the staggering commitment to face death rather than disobey God, Nebuchadnezzar lost control. His attitude towards them changed, and he ordered the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than usual. Seven was used in the ancient world meaning " a lot." Nebuchadnezzar is saying, " I want you to crank that furnace as hot as you can make it. Imagine these three young men, facing what looks to be their final moment. They have been faithful to the end. They've seen the end coming since they first heard about the command to bow down before a statue of gold. Every exit has been closed, and they have been faithful to the last. Real people, filled with courage, maybe some fear, defiance, and faith. They feel the heat, they see the men who carried them to the furnace collapse and die from the flame. Then they're in the fire, and they wait for the searing pain, for the numbness, for the smoke inhalation that will suffocate their lungs, but nothing happens. They don' t feel any different, and it begins to dawn on them they' re not even warm--no burns, no smoke, and their restraints have disappeared.
That's not the best part. The best part is what happens to turn this from a miracle to a divine encounter. Verse 24: " Then King Nebuchadnezzar leapt to his feet in amazement." One translation has the word trepidation, because this indicates an element of fear. " He 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 God.' "
There is a fourth member of the furnace club, and he is unharmed and apparently is the one who delivered the other three. He convened a little meeting right there in the furnace. Who was this fourth man, who appeared from nowhere and cheated death and, " looks in appearance like a son of the gods"? The text doesn't say, but I think it was Jesus.
Apparently they spent a little time together in the furnace. I wonder what they said to each other. I wonder if the fourth man in the furnace told them how proud the Father was of their loyalty, devotion, and love. I wonder if he told them that because of this one act of faithfulness their names would be remembered for thousands of years through the history of the earth. I wonder if he told them that for centuries all over the world men and women who face suffering, or persecution, or trial or even death, would be strengthened by hearing their story.
I wonder what they said to the fourth man. I bet they poured out adoration, gratitude, and worship. They came to this place, the plain of Dura, planning to withhold worship from the false god, and they end up worshiping as they never had in their lives. Worship is like that. The furnace, which looked like the end of their lives, turned out to be the greatest thing they had ever experienced. It was the can't-miss event of their whole lives. The furnace turns out to be the place where they met God. God meets us in the furnace, too.
God decided to deliver Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace, not from it.
Here's the point of the story. They hoped to be delivered from the furnace, but God decided to deliver them in the furnace. Sometimes God delivers people from the furnace, but sometimes God delivers people in the furnace. Jesus said to them what he says to people still, " I'll meet you in the furnace," because he's a furnace kind of guy. The place where full devotion can lead you, that looks scary and dangerous and painful and maybe even like the end, turns out to be where Jesus is, and, amazingly enough, is the safest place of all. It turns out to be the adventure of a lifetime. Jesus said what he says to people still, " I'll meet you in the furnace. Follow me. It's going to look dark, it's going to look dangerous, it's going to scare you, but you keep following me. I'll meet you in the furnace."
Verse 26: " Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, 'Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out.' " So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out of the fire. Wouldn't you love to see that? The satraps, prefects, governors, and royal advisors crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair on their heads singed. Their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.
Then Nebuchadnezzar said, verse 28," Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who sent his angel and rescued his servants. They trusted in him and defied the king's commands." They trusted in God and defied the king's command. Who's the king? Nebuchadnezzar. This man killed his soldiers, and his carelessness didn't even register with him, and now he congratulates Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for having the audacity to defy his authority. Something is going on this man's life. " Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who said anything about the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses turned into piles of rubble," (Nebuchadnezzar's not really big on the freedom of worship deal; he's not a Bill of Rights guy) "for no other God can save this way." Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon. He doesn't just restore them, he lifts them up to new positions, and gives them more opportunities to influence, to contribute.
Now, I wonder what the rest of their lives were like? We don't know. It is the last time they are ever mentioned in Scripture. I wonder if they ever thought how easily they might have missed this adventure. If they had given in to fear, one word, one bent knee, they would have missed their greatest encounter with the fourth man in the furnace.
I wonder if, when they were old men, many years later on the anniversary of this date, they would get together to remember. They would wear their old robes (which their wives had probably tried to throw away, because they had holes in them or were out of fashion). They would remember when they were young men, full of courage and faith, when they defied the king and walked around in the flames and spent a few moments in the presence of the living God. I bet they never forgot this moment. If you ever spent time in the furnace, if you ever trust God enough to go to the place that looks like the end, and you meet him there, it would mark you. You would carry that moment to your grave.
Going into the furnace, which looked like the last thing they wanted to do, turned out to be the greatest event of their lives. Ironically, the furnace that looked like death turned out to be the safest place of all. Why? Because God was there. Sometimes, friends, God delivers people from the furnace, but sometimes God delivers in the furnace, and those are the greatest times in your life. We study this because there's a great danger for the followers of Christ, living in this comfortable world. The danger is that the primary goal of my life becomes furnace-avoidance, that I pray, " God deliver me from pain, discomfort, suffering, inconvenience. Make my life smooth, make my life easy, and make life comfortable, make it pleasant. Remove obstacles from me." We avoid even low-level flames.
Illustration: It's been a long time now since I started to teach. I was in seminary in southern California, had started working in a church, I was preaching, and I loved it. More than that, I had a sense that this was part of what God had called me to do. I'll never forget one Sunday morning, I had been working at this church for a little while, and I was preaching. I was five or ten minutes into the message when all of a sudden I started to feel strange. I got dizzy and hot, and the room started to spin around. The next thing I knew I was lying flat on the platform. I had fainted in the middle of my message. (The worst part of this was it was a Baptist church, and not a charismatic church. If it had been a charismatic church, I would get credit for that kind of thing.) There was a lot going on that day. I was having finals in grad school, I was getting married soon, and we were going overseas.
I went overseas for the next year, came back, and the next time I got up to preach (at the same church), the same thing happened. That's not a good thing. You can't teach and faint on regular basis--people get nervous. It boosts attendance for a little while, but over the long haul, it's not a good thing.
People had a lot of advice for me: " Just have more faith," some folks would say. " Trust God more." I went to a doctor hoping there would be a simple physical explanation. I went to a Christian psychologist to talk about stress management. It was embarrassing, and it was scary, because I had found this thing that I thought I was supposed to do, and I didn't know if I was going to be able to do it. It was a humbling thing for me. I prayed that summer, " God, make this go away, make these feelings and that sensation go away," and he didn't. All that summer, I'd get up and I had to fight it.
The passage of Scripture that became mine that summer was 2 Corinthians 12. Paul says, " It was given to me, a thorn in the flesh. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me; three times God said no." God then says to Paul, " But my grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness." God says to Paul, " I'll meet you in the furnace." If you know anything about Paul, you know that he spent his life in the furnace, and that's where God was. In an infinitely smaller way in my life, Jesus was saying, " I'll meet you in the furnace. I won't deliver you from it, but I'll deliver you in it."
That was 17 years ago, and it has not happened since in 17 years. But to this day, there will be moments when I stand up in this room and feel those same sensations, and it's unpleasant. Not right now--so don't look so excited. There is enough weakness in me that I don't know that I'm going to make it through a message on my own standing up. I have to remember, " My strength is made perfect in weakness," and " Meet you in the furnace."
God calls us to a dangerous life, as he did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, because he has something better for us.
I had the oddest image as I was thinking about this message. I had a picture of God having a calendar. I know he doesn't have a calendar, because he's omniscient and omnipresent, so he never has to remember to go someplace, because he's already there. But on the date Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had their deal with Nebuchadnezzar, God's got written down on his calendar, " Meet Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace." I thought, What if they hadn't shown up? Their whole life is an adventure, dependent on that decision, their willingness to face the furnace. Where on his calendar does God have your name written down? " Meet you in the furnace." Will you make it? Or might you bend the knee to the wrong God? God calls us to a dangerous life.
I want to ask you to consider doing something quite dangerous. I want to ask you to consider this: stop asking for less heat, for an easier, or richer, more pleasant, or more secure life. There is something better.
How often the human heart, the spirits and emotions of the potentially glorious creatures that we are, made in the image of God, gets attached to, bound up, and enslaved by trivially stupid things. Somebody cut me off on the freeway, or my boss gave me an angry look and hurt my feelings. Did I not get the recognition I must have at work or at school or from the opposite sex? Did I get an unexpected expense, which means I can't buy something I've got to have? Did someone create an obstacle in my life? Is my career not climbing as high up the ladder as I want it to go?
We are being called to a deeper measure of devotion. So I want to ask you to pray a dangerous prayer: " God, give me an opportunity to show my devotion to you. I don't ask primarily for comfort or riches or ease or security." If you are not sure that your devotion level is where you want it to be, talk to him about that, be honest about it. Ask for the presence of the fourth man in the furnace.
Maybe it's at work. Somebody told me recently they were praying to find a job in an easier environment. They said, " I work with fallen, difficult, cranky, hostile people all the time." Well, so do I, and so do the people who work with me. It's a world of fallen, cranky, difficult, hostile people. Maybe you have people in your work who are far from God and have habits or behaviors that are quite painful for you. Nebuchadnezzar was not exactly up for the Employer of the Year award, and God used Shadrach's, Meshach's, and Abednego's willingness to go into the furnace to change his heart.
Often people want to get transferred to a nicer job with nicer people. Maybe that would be a good thing, but maybe God's plan is to have you right where you are so he can use you. Maybe he wants to grow you up in judgment and discernment, in your ability to know when to speak and when to be silent. To grow you in your ability to love somebody, when it would be easier to resent, or judge, or write them off. Maybe you need to stop praying for deliverance from the furnace and ask for the presence of the God who meets people there. Maybe there's a Nebuchadnezzar that God wants to reach through you. You ought to quit praying to try to get away from him, and ask God to meet you in the furnace.
Maybe God's been whispering for you to get involved in some form of service, with the city or with the poor, or going overseas. Maybe it involves using some spiritual gift, and you're afraid to do it. You have been avoiding what feels like the furnace. God is in the furnace. Tell him you'll meet him there. Maybe the furnace involves a relationship or financial hardship or giving or sacrifice. I don't know. I just know that the golden statue in our world tends to involve gods with names like comfort, ease, security, and success. Somewhere along the line, too many people in too many churches have gotten the idea that following God guarantees an easier life.
So I will put it to you in the form of a question: How many heroes in our faith had easy lives? How many of those people written down in that great eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews had easy lives? The writer says, I don't have time to tell them all and list the things they faced and did--including quenching the flames. Where did Jesus say to his followers, " God has a wonderful plan for your life, and that involves a great house, an attractive spouse, a terrific job, a wonderful car, and an endless succession of easy days"? Where does Jesus say that?
Jesus said, " Follow me, and you're going to have a great big God and outrageous joy, and you're going to be in trouble all the time." They followed him by the hundreds and by the thousands and by the tens of thousands. They followed the same path he walked on, they followed him through servanthood, they followed through sacrificial generosity, they followed him through community, they followed him to suffering, they followed him to persecution, they followed him to death.
Do you understand that we are here in this room because throughout history hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women, most of who are long since forgotten, said they were willing to go to the furnace? They loved God that much. They said, " I'll suffer and I'll give everything for you. I'll die." When their final moment came, which it will for you, then they knew, " Mustn't despair." God did not forget them or abandon them.
God said to them what he said to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, what he said to Stephen who was the first follower of Christ to be martyred, what he said to Paul and Peter, who were persecuted and beaten and jailed and probably martyred as well, what he said to Corrie Ten Boom and Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta, what he says to his followers still in China, in Albania, in Cabrini Green, and maybe, just maybe to somebody tonight in South Barrington: " I'll meet you in the furnace, if you dare."
This is your day, friends. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had their day. Daniel had his day. Stephen had his day. Peter and Paul had their days. Corrie Ten Boom had her day. This is your day. Your final moment is going to come. I don't know what furnace you're facing; I don't know what this means for you. I just know who will meet you there. He says, " Fear not, though you pass through the flames they will not burn you, they will not destroy you." He says, " I'll meet you in the furnace."
John Ortberg is teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California. Previously, he was teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. He is author of several books, including Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them (Zondervan, 2003).