How do we live when we are surrounded by the fires of life?
I don’t mean “How do we survive?” Each of us will die. How and when is in God’s loving hands.
What I mean is, “How do we live?” How do we face the fires and storms of this life? And how do we find peace within these maelstroms? Because, the maelstrom will come.
This is something we must embrace in our walk through Lent. Far too many Christians fall over the stumbling block of believing Christ has abandoned them if they find themselves in hard times. And, far too many Christian pastors and writers link worldly success with Christ’s love for us. But, Christ never promised His love would spare us from trouble. No. Quite the opposite.
On this question of troubles, Christ makes us two promises: We will face trouble; and He will be with us through any and every trouble.
On the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus tells the disciples they will be persecuted. They will be hated and hunted. They will be driven from their synagogues and be reviled. In John 16:32-33, Jesus promises the path of following Him will bear trouble:
The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!
We will face trouble. And the closer we try to follow Christ, the more trouble we will face. We need to resolve ourselves to that right now. But Christ, in the Incarnation, in choosing to become fully flesh and to suffer with us, has overcome the world. He promises that no matter how hot the flames rage around us, He will be right there with us.
The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, in today’s reading from Daniel, clearly shows us God’s willingness to step into the flames with us.
The three young men refuse to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol, knowing their refusal carries the penalty of death. They take their faith with them to the furnace, stoked so hot it consumes the men chosen to throw them in. Rather than abandon God, the three young men choose the flames.
But, they are not alone in the flames. Walking in the furnace, the three suddenly appear as four.
Nebuchadnezzar cries out:
“Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.”
Nebuchadnezzar attributes the fourth person in the flames as an angel of God. Some consider it the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the widest-held view — the one I share — is the fourth person in the fire is none other than Christ.
Christ coming down to walk with the faithful in the flames is the perfect foreshadowing of the Incarnation. Though, in the Incarnation Christ became flesh for us all, and most of us, including me, have shown a sorry lack of the faith shown by the three young men.
But, Lent is our time to focus on where we have fallen short, and to strengthen ourselves to point our feet back onto the path of Christ. We must look, with honesty, at the ways we have failed to hold fast to Christ with the courage and faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and strive to live up to their standard. We must strive to hold onto the presence of Christ in the midst of the world’s flames.
When we need to refocus our attention on the redeeming, loving presence of Christ, amidst all the darkness this world can throw at us, there are a few words we can hold onto. Their author is anonymous. They are believed to have been written by a Jew hiding from the Nazis during World War II, and often are attributed as being found by a soldier in a basement in Cologne. Many sources have called into question the authenticity of the source, but regardless, there is truth in these words we should hold onto:
I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. / I believe in love, even though I don’t feel it. / I believe in God, even when he is silent.
In the midst of our troubles, it is natural we may feel cut off from all that is good. We may feel the sun itself has ceased to shine. But, no matter dark our world, the sun still shines. The world may throw hate at us, and if we let it, the world will convince us love has abandoned us. But, whether we feel it or not, Love, the Love of Christ, never leaves us. We will face silence. We will walk into dark valleys, where we cannot hear God. But, God is there, walking with us. Loving us. Pressing into the flames and storms with us.
No matter what we face — and we will face hard times — Christ is there. He chooses to be there, because His love is more powerful than any darkness we may face, or any mistakes we may make.
Christ promises us this in Isaiah 43:2:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
We need to hold onto that promise. We must steel ourselves for the tough path ahead. And we must hold onto the loving arms of our Savior, who walks with us through any troubles we face.
Let us pray, in the words of the 23rd Psalm (KJV):
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Amen.