The end of the church year is a funny thing. It’s the time of year when you’re not quite sure whether you’re at the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end, especially in a year like this one. I think we can all agree that the phrase “hindsight is 20/20” will have a whole new meaning from now on.
This is also the time of year (even in good times) when melancholy, depression, and despair can set in. As we see the years go by and the season’s pass, it can become easy for us to see our lives as just an exercise in futility. Just the same ol’ same ol’. Nothing lasts, nothing matters, nothing seems worthwhile. Like the poet who wrote that “nothing gold can stay.” Or the philosopher who said that life is just a bad joke. Or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who said that life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, that signifies nothing.
So what’s the answer? Where do we go to find meaning and purpose and significance for our lives? The Bible. The Scriptures. God’s Holy Word to us and for us: this is where we flee for comfort and hope in times such as these, as we are reminded that there is a plan and a purpose because there is a God. We may be lost and lonely at times - but God’s Word reminds us that we are never alone.
Just look at the lives of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Those were their Hebrew names anyway. Most people know them by their Babylonian names from the story of the fiery furnace in Daniel 3: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
These three young men were captives in Babylon along with Daniel in the 6th century BC, and the authorities told them that they had better get with the program. The King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, had built a huge statue (probably of himself) that was over 100 feet tall and commanded everyone in the kingdom to bow down and worship it. That included all of the Jewish exiles from the land of Israel who were there living in captivity at the time. They were all supposed to bow down and worship this thing. And if you didn’t? Well, let’s just say it wouldn’t end well.
Typically at this point in the story, we are told of the courage and faithfulness that the three young Israelites displayed in the face of imminent danger and threat of death. But if we go back one chapter to Daniel 2, we find the real source of their strength.
“Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. During the night, the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision. Then Daniel praised the God of heaven and said: ‘Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him. I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors: You have given me wisdom and power, and have made known what we asked of you” (Dan. 2:17-23).
The young men were praying to Yahweh, the God of Israel, for divine deliverance, not merely because they believed him to be the one true God, but because he had proven himself faithful to his people in the past. He was the One who had made a promise to Abraham and his descendants, the One who had brought the children of Israel out of Egypt through his servant Moses, and the One who led his people into the promised land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey. Even when foreign enemies came in to ravage the land and take the people away as captives, God was still with his people and faithful to his promise.
Although theirs is an impressive show of faith, the display of God’s faithfulness to them is far greater. After all, faith is only as strong as the object in which it is placed.
That’s why, when Nebuchadnezzar threatened to fry them alive in the fiery furnace, they were able to give such a bold and brave answer. “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve can deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from your hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan. 3:16-18).
Although theirs is an impressive show of faith, the display of God’s faithfulness to them is far greater. After all, faith is only as strong as the object in which it is placed. Fortunately for them, the object in this case is very great indeed, so great that not even the heavens above can hold him, let alone a temple or an idol made by human hands. And yet, in mercy, he deigns to dwell with his people, to deliver and to save.
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isa. 43.)
King Nebuchadnezzar’s anger finally boiled over, so he turned up the ovens and had the three men thrown into the flaming furnace. As the king looked on, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Did we not cast three men into the fire? Look, I see four men in the furnace, unbound, unharmed, and the fourth one looks like a son of god!”
How good to know that wherever two or three are gathered in God’s name, there is always a fourth! And who is he? Nebuchadnezzar calls him a son of god. Daniel and Ezekiel call him the son of man. But it’s the same person. This son of God and son of man is none other than the second person of the Trinity, the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ himself.
This is a preview and foreshadowing of the greatest act of faithfulness and deliverance in history, when 500 some years later, this God/Man went through the fires of hell for us and for all on an old rugged cross atop a rocky hill outside of Jerusalem. In the midst of his torment he cried out, “Eli Eli lama sabachthani! My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And when it was all over, he uttered one word, “Tetelestai.” It is finished, the debt is paid, and it’s paid in full.
Because Jesus was forsaken by his Father on the cross in our place, we can rest assured that he will never leave us nor forsake us. Because Jesus was abandoned and alone - we never will be.
“I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28).