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Amidst the Flames

For the last four years or so, our church has taken the stretch of time roughly between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent to focus our sermons on questions of faith from members of our congregation. These questions range from the existential (Does God exist?) to the hermeneutical (What is the meaning of passage x) to the socio-cultural (What does a Christian response to this or that thing going on in the broader culture look like?). Needless to say, it’s a sermon series that forces me out of my proverbial comfort zone. I am sometimes thrust into issues and texts that I might prefer to avoid. I am also at least partially liberated from the confines of my own subjectivity and forced to read Scripture, experience, and the broader culture through the lens of other people’s questions. Which is good. 

At least one question each year seems to come out of left field. I can often predict at least a few of the questions I will get based on what’s going on in the world and conversations I’ve had with people in the church. But every year there’s at least one that I did not see coming. This year, it was a question about the Apocrypha, the collection of Jewish intertestamental writings that are accepted as scripture by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, but not by Protestants. What are they? Why don’t our bibles have them? And who decided what should be in or out of the Bible anyway?

As it happens, I know very little about the Apocrypha itself. I had to buy a NRSV bible that contained these writings way back in graduate school, but I don’t recall ever doing much more than a glancing over them. I was always drawn more to abstract theology and philosophy than exegeting old weird Jewish texts. Consequently, this was one sermon that I was quite happy to pass off to someone more knowledgeable than I (we just happen to have a professor of Christianity in our congregation)! I’m looking forward to what she has to say on Sunday.

Despite my historical neglect and lack of interest in the Apocrypha, I have been reading bits of it this week. In particular, I’ve been dwelling in The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews, a portion of which will be read during worship on Sunday. This is one of a few additions to the book of Daniel that are found in later Greek and Latin versions. It is inserted in between Daniel 3:23 when Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (their Babylonian names are likely more familiar to us: Shadrah, Meschach, and Abednego) are thrown into the fire by Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to bow down to his golden statue, and 3:24, when the king sees an angelic figure in the flames protecting the three Jews from harm. Where Protestant bibles go straight from the three Jews being throw into the furnace to Nebuchadnezzar’s astonished reaction, other versions include a prayer and a song.

And what of this prayer and this song? What of this poetry offered up amidst the flames? Well, the prayer is largely a confession offered by Azariah. We have sinned, we have done wrong, your judgment upon us is true, don’t give up on us, we’ll do better, don’t put us to shame, be patient, deliver us, let all who would harm us know that you are the one true God. It’s longer and more poetic than this, but that’s the general idea.

Being surrounded by flames might seem an odd time for confession, but this is what Azariah does. It’s even odder given that these three particular Jews have been thrown in the furnace for doing what good Jews were supposed to do. They had not bowed down to foreign gods. They had resisted the temptation of idolatry. Indeed, they had been fairly exemplary citizens in Babylon, even earning a promotion or two for interpreting the maniacal king’s dreams. What do they have to confess, exactly? They’re the good guys here.

They are confessing on behalf of their people, of course. Our people are here in Babylon because we have not been what you called us to be. This exile is our collective punishment. We are a part of something larger than ourselves to which we have obligations and whose actions impinge upon us. It sounds bizarre to our individualistic ears. We can scarcely imagine talking or praying like this. We can barely imagine asking for forgiveness on behalf of “our people” or accepting punishment for sins we did not personally commit. We squirm at the idea of interpreting suffering—our own or our people’s—as a consequence of sin. The “what about’s” come tumbling off our lips. The world of the three Jews in the furnace seems a long way from ours.

And what of the song of these three Jews? Well, it’s a long and very repetitive song of blessing in response to the deliverance of the Lord through the flames. For God did, indeed, spare them from a toasty extinction. And the praise quite naturally pours forth. Bless the Lord, everything and everyone in all of creation, sing praise to him and highly exalt him! There is a metronomic quality to the song: Bless the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him! Over and over and over until the exhortation drills down into the reader’s bones. Bless, sing praise, highly exalt. This is the human task in light of the mercy and deliverance of God.

My daughter was in a car accident this week. The driver hit a turn too fast, they went through a ditch and rolled three times. The car was totalled. All three occupants of the vehicle walked away without a scratch. Delivered through the metaphorical flames. I struggle to look at the pictures of the wreckage, so easy is it to imagine what could have been. Do I think car accidents are punishment for sin? No, I do not. Do I think that being spared from a fiery ordeal can be an occasion for honesty, confession, re-evaluation, blessing, praise, and joyful song? Yes, I absolutely do.

The last year or so has been difficult for many. Do I think that a global pandemic is a collective punishment for sin? No, I don’t (at least not without being allowed to heavily qualify my terms!). Do I think that what we have endured and are still enduring, how we have reacted and how we continue to react can be an occasion for honesty, confession, re-evaluation, blessing, praise, and joyful song? Yes, I absolutely do.

There is much to be learned through suffering of various kinds and whatever their provenance. There are things to be said amidst the flames.

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