12/03/17 – J.Vespers – Speaking Faith to Power


December 3, 2017 – 1st Week of Advent
Jazz Vespers Homily: Daniel 3: 1, 8-30
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

The stories of Daniel, both his three friends escaping death by fire and Daniel saved from being devoured by a lion make great Sunday school stories. But, the book of Daniel is really a retelling of folk tales of the Diaspora, the period of Jewish exile, to make subversive statements about the socio-political evils a dominant culture place on a minority one. Much like the book of Revelation in the New Testament, Daniel is apocalyptic in style, carefully, but undeniably accusing the reigning government of injustice.

We first read that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon commanded that an extremely high structure be constructed. Today we could look to real estate magnates trying to outdo each other with the height of their skyscrapers. It is significant that this statue was gold as gold, by the time of this writing, was the center of the economy. In other words, the empire had established gold as the god of their market economy. Modern museums attest that rulers in Mesopotamia in this era constructed gaudy monstrosities to flaunt their wealth and power. So today, we might look at a super-tall building, garishly embellished, as a similar symbol to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue.

Like all the Confederate officers’ statues erected during the Jim Crow era to proclaim White supremacy, Nebuchadnezzar’s statue was to be a daily reminder of the Jews’ second-class status. When I was doing a cross-cultural study of Native American tribes targeted by Presbyterian missionaries in the late nineteenth and early 20th century, I saw a prime example of this. On the wall of one of the missionary schools in Sitka, Alaska there hung a picture of a group of dark-skinned Tlingit tribe members dressed in full Scottish regalia – kilts and all!

The very names of the three Jewish men reveal the extent of their subjugation by the dominant culture. In the first chapter of Daniel, one learns that the names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not their original Hebrew names. Their names were changed to ones which referred to Babylonian gods. Their original names were Hananiah meaning “God is gracious,” Meshach meaning “Who is like God,” and Azariah, which means “God keeps him.” Names being changed to force adaptation to the dominant ethnic group has always been, throughout history, a means of dismissing conquered peoples’ or immigrants’ cultural identity. This was a widespread practice in the countries colonized by European nations as well as the United States.

The conflict in this story is classic. A dominant culture forces a minority culture to accept its social values. A secular culture pushes a minority religious culture to accept worldly values over their faith’s values. In the gospels, Jesus warns his disciples that people of faith will inevitably find themselves “in opposition to the state, political loyalties and idolatrous patriotism.”

It is in verses 17 and 18 that we find one of the most powerful statements in the whole book of Daniel, if not the whole Bible: “17If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. 18But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” This is the moral of the story. This is foundational to our Christian faith.

At the end, when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s God prevails and saves them from the fiery furnace, King Nebuchadnezzar does something truly miraculous for a powerful leader —  he admits he was wrong! Civil disobedience, by just three men who dared to stand up to the king, tore down an unjust decree – a law that was evil and oppressive. There are many other stories with this theme in the bible. It is found in Esther, the Joseph stories in Genesis, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry.

This is a cautionary tale for a world that has more than 65 million displaced people. Those who are fortunate enough to become immigrants instead of isolated and confined refugees experience challenges to their language, culture, and religious practices. This story challenges us to walk in the shoes of the immigrants in our society, as well as any minority group.

The story of the Babylonian king and the three faithful Jews is inspiring, but it is also challenging. To whom do we demonstrate our allegiance in both word and deed? Can we be social and political atheists and faithful Christians? The Bible tells me “NO.”

In this time of Advent when we remember that Jesus and his family were refugees (Matthew 2:13-23), let this story from Daniel speak to you. As we come to the table, may we be reminded that Christ had a place for everyone at his table.

All power, honor, and glory to God!



© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois