Rejoicing with Christ in the Furnace
Fr. Josiah Trenham · December 18, 2013
Sunday of the Three Holy Youths. Learn more about Patristic Nectar Publications.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. [Amen.]
Yesterday, brothers and sisters, we were involved in catechism, as usual on Saturday afternoons. The subject yesterday was the Holy Spirit, and amongst other things I was speaking to the catechumens about acquiring the mind of the Church, the mind of the Spirit, as St. Paul calls it, and especially to think the right thoughts about God and about ourselves and about the calling of our life. One of the catechumens asked a very beautiful question. She asked, “How do I develop the Church’s mindset about God and escape the thoughts I’ve always had in my life, the wrong thoughts?” It was a beautiful question. It’s the very heart of spiritual growth.
With that question in mind, I also remembered this week that I read a very fascinating article. It was an article entitled, “Netflix’s War on Mass Culture.” It was subtitled, “Binge viewing was just a beginning. Netflix has a plan to rewire our entire culture,” and it was about the marketing plan that Netflix has and trying to create an approach to the use of media that is more internet-based and not traditionally programming television-based. Those days are over where you used to get home at a certain time to see a certain show on a certain night. So the founders of Netflix are trying to target and make all sorts of whatever-you-want available at your fingertips. This is the idea.
But the article began by referencing a recent poll done by Nielsen that documented the amount of TV watching by Americans, and I thought to myself, “Well, I remember reading a poll like that 20 years ago, and I thought certainly it’s gone down a lot, because people are more on computers now.” I was wrong. 34 hours a week is the average time before a television set that is spent in American homes. 34 hours a week. That is essentially, brothers and sisters, the work-week of a French person. [Audience laughter] That is essentially a full-time job in France. At that rate, the average American will certainly become what he or she watches. If we’re that fixated on looking at the one-eyed god, the true cyclops of our age, if that is what our fixation is, we will become what we watch. There is no doubt.
Most Americans, and this includes, sadly, most—or maybe not most, but many certainly—many of ourselves, we have developed not the mind of the Church by gazing upon the sacred texts of the Church, by listening constantly to the sacred music of the Church; that is how we would form the mind of the Church and overcome those bad thoughts like the catechumen asked. Instead, we’ve gained the mind of Hollywood, and for every Hobbit production, there are one thousand truth-hating, sin-promoting films. Maybe I’m being a little too cautious in those estimates. It’s probably worse.
The mind of Hollywood. And, you know, I must say, brothers and sisters, that you’ve heard me talk about the need and certainly you’ve heard religious leaders in our country and in the West talk about the need for a re-evangelization. Sometimes we call it the new evangelization of the West, because Christendom in the West has lost its faith. I’m deeply impacted by this reality every year when I return to England, every year. The place where two percent of my ethnicity—two percent go to church—where the vast majority of kids are born out of wedlock, who’ve never known a father in the home. They’ve never heard a Christmas carol; they can’t sing Christmas carols. They’ve never heard the gospel accounts. You should see me sitting outside on the street having a cup of coffee talking to young people. Really, I’m talking to barbarians. Full-blown, hot-blooded barbarians. They’re not Christians. They know that they once were, but they don’t even know the basics, not even the contour. They don’t even know what they don’t have.
While that’s been going on, the mind of Hollywood, the Netflix vision, has been at full speed, and we have to confess, I think, if we’re going to embrace this concept of re-evangelization in the West—and by the way, this is becoming America—think of how many kids in our public schools have not, if they’re under 20, they have never sung, usually, they have never sung Christmas carols in school.
We have been outgunned. We have been—I would not say out-evangelized, because there there is no evangel in secularization; there is no good news in that, but we have been outworked, outhustled, outspent. The promoters of secularism, the enthronement of pleasure-loving, of materialism, have put more money into the propagation of their agenda and spent more hours and have crossed… taken more plane trips to promote their message than we.
I think a good comparison would be with the gay lobby. Compare the gay lobby to the Christian Church. Who is investing more? Who is more enthusiastic? Who is bringing their message to the courts, to the schools, to the media more aggressively? Where are we, brothers and sisters? Cold. Indifferent. And the result has been the loss of a culture, by a loss of Christian enthusiasm and devotion. I know that’s a hard message to say, but how do you fix something if you don’t tell the truth? How do you fix it?
What you join your nous to is what you will become. 34 hours a week in front of the boob tube is certain secularism. Certain secularism. At best, with the most enthusiastic parishioners, which is something like 25% of our adult parishioners on a good Wednesday, I have here for the St. John Chrysostom catechetical school. We have on a good day or night about 100 adults and a lot of kids, [whom] I’m hoping in. In the best-case scenario, you come on Wednesday night and you give your mind to receiving instruction for one hour, and I know by the end of that hour you’re tired. I see it in your eyes, and so I stop talking after one hour. Usually, boom, right at eight o’clock. In the best-case scenarios, with the most enthusiasm, I get you maybe two hours a week. Two hours a week! Am I going to offset 34 hours of television? Is the mind of Christ that I’m attempting, and every priest is attempting to articulate to his people, are we going to win in fashioning that in you if I’m outgunned 17 times over? Two versus 34 hours in a single week?
We have to, if we’re going to have success, in doing what that catechumen asked, replace those degrading thoughts that lead to a sad life with the beautiful thoughts of the true God and of the Church. We need to make a serious alteration. We need to have courage to go against the stream and to make sure that we are watching, listening to, reading, nourishing soul-nourishing things. And that we have a really strong cap on the media, because that television, that blue light, is really mesmerizing. It’s such [an] altering [influence]. It’s so easy to watch compared to holding a book and focusing on those small letters. It’s so easy to watch that we’ll start out watching something good but, because we actually get mesmerized, it’s really hard to turn it off and it’s really hard to walk away from it when something less than really good comes on.
We need courage and humility. Today is the Sunday of the Holy Ancestors of the Lord, one of the two pre-Nativity Sundays that commemorate the righteous who lived before the coming of our Savior and prepared his way. This is a Sunday of courage, because on this Sunday we commemorate the holy Prophet Daniel and his noble companions, those holy young men, those youths who defied the fiery furnace in their fidelity to God. These youths made no excuses to avoid hoping in and believing in God, no matter what the cost. These three holy young men were noble, and their names are Hananias, Azarias, and Mishael. You might know them by their pagan names: Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego.
These three young men were taken away into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon when he conquered Jerusalem around 587 B.C. Their story and the story of their courage is recorded in the third chapter of Daniel’s prophecy. What took place essentially was this: Nebuchadnezzar had conquered much of the inhabited earth. He had grown delusional with pride and vainglory and decided that he would have a golden image 90 feet high set up in public, and upon its erection he sent out and ordered throughout his kingdom that every one of his subjects was required to fall down and to worship the golden image. Now this led the Lord’s people to fall into great disfavor with Nebuchadnezzar, because the faithful would never do such a blasphemous and idolatrous thing, and as a result the Jews were accused before Nebuchadnezzar and especially targeted in the accusation where these three pious young men—Ananias, Azarias, and Misael—they were singled out because they were objects of envy from the start, because they held influential administrative posts in Nebuchadnezzar’s government.
The three holy youths were brought before an enraged king when it was clear that they had no intention whatsoever of conforming their religious conviction to political correctness. Note that they actually did not hide themselves when they were ordered on the day to join everyone else before this idol and fall down: they went. Why would they have done that? They knew what was coming, but they didn’t hide at home to keep the peace, a false peace. They went, actually, in order to bear public witness against the idolatry. They knew that when everyone else was falling down they were going to be standing up. They knew that they would be questioned. They knew the threat of the king to dismember and kill anyone who did not comply, but they had courage.
Standing face to face, Nebuchadnezzar asked if it was true that they had refused his edict, if it was true that they did not worship his gods, if it was true that they did not bow down before his image, and he threatened them with being cast into the blazing furnace of fire. He ended his tirade against these three young men by saying these words:
And what God is there who can deliver you out of my hands?
He really had no idea what he was saying. He also had forgotten the very words that he had issued earlier after Daniel had interpreted a dream for the king. He had made a proclamation about Daniel’s God being great and majestic; he seems to have forgotten that. Courageously, the three holy youths asserted to the king that there was no necessity for them to answer him, and that their God was able to rescue them if he so pleased, but that, under any circumstance and whether the Lord wished to rescue them or not, they would never worship his gods which are no gods, they would never bow down before his image which was a vain idol.
And, furious, Nebuchadnezzar had all three cast into the burning furnace, and it was so hot, since he heated it seven times hotter than usual, that the strongmen who were asked to bind the three young men and carry them and throw them into the furnace, the men who were carrying them were slain by the flames. The Scripture says that the top of the furnace had flames shooting above it 49 cubits into the air. That’s how hot the flames were.
And what happened next left the king dumbfounded, totally astonished. Expecting that they would immediately be consumed by the fire, he was mystified to see the three youths walking around calmly in the midst of the flame, and there was a Fourth with them, who to Nebuchadnezzar appeared to have the appearance of a God. It was radiant in brilliance. And, drawing near the opening of the furnace, Nebuchadnezzar called to the three youths, “Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, you servants of the Most High God.” He had it right now. [Audience laughter]
“You servants of the Most High God, come out.” It’s amazing the positive effect that believers walking the walk actually has on unbelievers. Nebuchadnezzar went from completely impassioned, bowing down before his idol, to all of a sudden knowing that there was a Most High God. Walking out of the flame, the three holy youths neither were harmed nor did their clothes even smell of smoke nor had they any of their hairs singed. As a result of this great deliverance, Nebuchadnezzar promoted the three youths to higher positions in their own administration, and he issued a public decree honoring the one, true God and forbidding any in his kingdom from speaking anything negative against the Lord on pain of execution by dismemberment. Nebuchadnezzar did seem to do things in pendulum swings. [Audience laughter]
Brothers and sisters, this is the kind of courage, this is the kind of conviction that we need in this hour, in our falling culture. We should love God’s will more than any earthly circumstance, just like these three holy children did. We should put it above everything, and we should say to ourselves: It doesn’t matter whether the Lord will rescue me or not in my job; I will be faithful to him. We ought to trust also that the greatest trials in our life, that this is the time when the Lord is the nearest to us, just like in the case of these three holy youths. When the fire really got hot, there was Jesus our Savior, the man-lover, right there at their side to take them through. We need to believe this, too.
We should also recognize that nothing, absolutely nothing, should stop our prayer and worship. You know, not only did these three youths resist false worship and idols, but we know what they were doing in the furnace. The reason we know what they were doing is it’s recorded in the prophecy of Daniel. However, if you read only a Protestant Old Testament, the longer version of Daniel’s prophecy is excised. The whole material that we call the Song of the Three Holy Youths, which is their hymn of praise to God, what they sang and danced while in the fire, is excised in that Bible. This is why it’s better to read the original.
There you would see that, in the midst of their trial in the furnace, they were hymning and praising the Lord. They also were confessing their sins, these pious young men. They didn’t separate themselves from their people. They knew that the whole reason for the exile, the whole reason that Jerusalem was in shambles, was because of the sins of the people. Brothers and sisters, can we say that? We should say that. Do we know why our nation is falling? Why the West…? Why my own motherland is completely gutted of Christianity? This is not God’s will.
God’s will is for the Gospel to triumph in every place. God’s will is for every man to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, for the knowledge of God to cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. This is the will of God. When his people resist him, when Christians do not take the good news as good news, when our hearts cool, sin progresses, the devil is empowered, Christ is dethroned in a nation.
We ought keep our worship fervent, even in the midst of trials, and know that the Lord, when two are three are praying—in this case it was three—when three are praying, there Jesus is in their midst to deliver them. If we follow the three holy youths like this, if we can even stand with Christ in the midst of flames and pressure, the Lord will reward us. We’ll be able to face ourselves and the judgment peacefully. We’ll be able to offer a true and authentic witness about the greatness of our faith. It’s worth it, brothers and sisters.
Our faith is not something to be a little bit enthused about. Do not be a little enthused about the Christian faith. If you’re a little bit enthused about the Christian faith, you only know a little bit about it. Much better to be hot and on flame. Amen.