There’s a town in New Mexico called Truth or Consequences.
I first discovered this town name as a kid pouring over maps, fascinated by geography. For so long I thought that this town’s name had a connection with the so-called “Wild West.” I imagined some gruff cowboy with hat slightly tilted on his head, standing tall in a dusty saloon, slinging a six-shooter and drawing it at a rival, saying, “What’ll it be – truth or consequences?”
Alas, the town’s history is much less sensational, but even more American. In 1950 the host of the popular radio show “Truth or Consequences” promised to host an episode of his show from the first town in America that would change its name to “Truth or Consequences” (marketing gimmicks have been part of American culture for generations!). Hot Springs, New Mexico changed its name to Truth or Consequences, winning the chance to host an episode of Truth or Consequences. Ralph Edwards, host of the radio show, returned to Truth or Consequences every year for what became an annual festival, and the name – and lore – of the town has stuck.
The Sermons in Progress Podcast is an audio version of this blogpost. It covers some of the same ideas, but also highlights other aspects of the reading. It also includes a full reading of the text, a few announcements, and prayer. Download the New Joy mobile app, or the Sound Cloud app, to listen from your device.
Truth has Consequences
Yet my initial imagination about Truth or Consequences sticks with me, and comes to mind as I read Daniel 3, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. I feel that we could name this story “Truth or Consequences” – or, perhaps better put, “Truth has Consequences.” But first, some background:
We’re in the time of exile. The united Kingdom of Israel has been divided for generations. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been defeated by the Assyrians. The Southern Kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital, has also now been defeated by the Babylonians (click for an outline of the broad Bible story.) From Daniel 1:1-2 we read:
“In the third year of the rule of Judah’s King Jehoiakim, Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem and attacked it. The Lord handed Judah’s King Jehoiakim over to Nebuchadnezzar, along with some of the equipment from God’s house. Nebuchadnezzar took these to Shinar, to his own god’s temple, putting them in his god’s treasury.”
A significant portion of the population was also taken into exile, as we read in 2 Chronicles 36:20:
“Finally, [the Babylonian king] exiled to Babylon anyone who survived the killing so that they could be his slaves and the slaves of his children until Persia came to power.”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, along with Daniel – all Jewish exiles – had found favor with King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon as reliable interpreters of dreams, and were set in positions of leadership in his kingdom (an echo of an earlier time when Joseph, a prisoner in Egypt, came to serve the Pharaoh – Genesis 41).
But King Nebuchadnezzar was an intemperate and unjust ruler, prone to violent rages and impossible demands. He once asked his sages to interpret a dream, but wouldn’t actually tell them about the dream he wanted them to interpret. When they responded that needed to hear about the dream in order to interpret the dream, Nebuchadnezzar promised to kill them and destroy their homes (see Daniel 2:1-12). Nice guy.
In Sunday’s reading from Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar erects a massive gold statue that was to be worshiped at command. This, of course, presents a conflict of faith for the Jews who were in exile in Babylon. How could they worship this statue when their faith teaches them to have no other gods (see the First Commandment, Exodus 20:1-6)? The punishment for not worshiping the statue was immediate death by being thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:6).
After refusing to worship, the three young men were brought before the King and given the chance to worship. They did not. “What god will rescue you from my power?” King Nebuchadnezzar asked.
The Jews responded (Daniel 3:17-18):
“If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t, know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.”
Our God is able to rescue us. But even if he doesn’t, we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.
I love this. I love their faithfulness. “If our God is able to rescue us, then let him do so.” I love their acceptance of the consequences. “If not, so be it.” I love their defiance. “Either way, we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue.” Truth – faithfulness, fidelity to God – has consequences. For these men, the consequence of their truth was a date with a fiery furnace.
Living God’s Truth has Consequences
The life of faith is not meant to be popular, or easy, or socially acceptable. The prophets were harassed by the kings. John the Baptist was beheaded and Saint Stephen was stoned. Jesus was rejected and killed on the cross. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. And so forth. And so on. Living the life of God’s truth has consequences. Jesus does not promise bodily comfort and ease with the life of faith. No. Take up your cross, he beacons. Follow me to Golgotha.
This is not to say that we are each called to place ourselves in the line of fire and become martyrs. No. But it does reveal that our faith has an undeniably vulnerable character to it. In a country and a culture that values power, security, and self-sufficiency, the call of the Gospel to lay down our lives, to open our hearts and homes and treasure to God and to God’s beloved children – our neighbors, sisters and brothers, and even rivals and enemies – is a challenge, to say the least. Such a call is uncomfortable. It makes us vulnerable. We want to close ourselves to others, build up barriers, and be safe. We can even say that such a value on safety, strength, and self-sufficiency is an idol, a false god, at whose feet we worship.
Yet there is the fiery furnace, and the cross, and the stones, and ….
Jesus is Lord
The fundamental statement of faith – Jesus is Lord – is a statement that nothing else is Lord.
If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.
This was a powerful, controversial, and defiant statement in the days of the Roman Empire, that believed Caesar to be a god. Likewise for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – the gold statue was not Lord, and not to be worshiped.
If Jesus is Lord, the caesars of today – the rulers and politicians, the executives and corporate leaders, the pop culture superstars and fashion trend setters – are not Lord.
This continues to be a powerful, and difficult, statement today. Defying the cultural, economic, and political trends of the day can be politically, socially, and culturally isolating.
If Jesus is Lord, the myth that your value is defined by your paycheck, good looks, or fitness, is not.
Oh, how our culture and our broken nature wants to make our value depend on what we do, rather than on what God does for us!
If Jesus is Lord, promises of safety, security, comfort, are not.
Caught in a faithful tension between caring for ourselves and giving of ourselves, we can too easily fall into a trap of making a false god out of our personal safety, security, and comfort.
If Jesus is Lord, nothing else is.
Follow me, he says, not the false claims and golden calves of a broken world.
Follow me, the Lord says … even to the cross, even into a fiery furnace.
In Sunday’s story Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego come out of the furnace, unscathed. Looking into the fire, King Nubchadnezzar sees not just the three Jews, but also a fourth figure who “looks like one of the gods.” God was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in their fiery furnace, just as God was also with John the Baptist, Saint Stephen, Jesus on the cross, Reverend King, and others. Our Lord is with us in our vulnerable places. Our God does not abandon us.
May we know God’s presence in our lives, even and especially in those places of our greatest vulnerability. Like the three Jewish men, may we be comforted by the presence of a faithful community, seeing in each other the promises and presence of God. And may we dare to accept the call of faith which leads us, at times, to difficult consequences.