A Sermon preached at the Mint Methodist Church,
Exeter, by the Minister, Rev Andrew Sails
Left: Martyrs of Uganda Right: Fiery Furnace (from Catacombs, 3rd C)
“Then the herald loudly proclaimed,
"This is what you are commanded to do,
O peoples, nations and men of every language:
As soon as you hear the sound of the
horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe and every kind of music,
you must fall down and worship the image of gold
that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.
Whoever does not fall down and worship
will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace."
This passage conjures up a picture of
“the national orchestra of Babylon at the ready”
But for the Hebrew officials at the court of King
this is no chamber concert -
they music indicates that they music worship the King as a god.
When they refuse, they are thrown into the fiery furnace.
Of course we all know the story – and the happy
Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego walk through the flames unscathed
and duly re-emerge to find favour with the King.
An uplifting story – but also one which begs not a few questions.
Let me offer you another story,
which has some similarities to the reading from Daniel.
In 1885 Mwanga
became Bukaka or King of Buganda -
a part of modern Uganda.
Mwanga’s predecessor had welcomed Christian missionaries,
but Mwanga mistrusted a faith which encouraged
its followers to put loyalty to Christ
before loyalty to the King.
Mwanga insisted that all the Christian members of his court
should renounce their faith.
32 young men, mostly pages at the court,
and some only in the early teens,
refused to give up their faith.
that they be burnt at the stake
So, on 3rd June
the young men went to the stake,
singing hymns and praying for their enemies as they went.
The flames were lit.
All died that day.
The question is obvious –
why does the God of Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego
not save the young Christians of Uganda?
And of course the same question could be asked a 1000 times over -
Was our God not able to save Archbishop Luwum
(a 20th Century martyr in Ida Amin’s Uganda)?
And what of Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero?
There is such a list….
The question of course is What is real power? and what is real victory?
King Nebuchadnezzar saw in the fiery furnace a
walking with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego -
and he realized that God himself was with them in the flames.
When we are faced with the power of the tyrant,
we may or may not escape with our lives.
That may seem a very big distinction as we
enter the fire -
but it is actually quite a small distinction.
What really matters is the fourth man -
When we suffer for our faith,
is God with us in the suffering, or does he desert us?
And of course the cross gives the answer –
he is there alongside us.
As Peter’s hymn reminds us –
(HAP 71 written by Peter Jarvis, a member of the Mint congregation)
what matters in the fiery moments of life
is not that we can bottom out a divine theology of redemptive suffering,
but that we know God’s hand in ours in moments of trial.
Down through the centuries the Church
has responded in many different ways
to the Nebuchadnezzars of the world.
For 300 years after Christ,
Christians were periodically persecuted for their faith.
Christians by and large did not serve in the
not only because for 300 years
the early Church was a pacifist organization,
but also because all soldiers
had to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods.
With the conversion of Emperor Constantine,
things changed dramatically -
the empire and the Church found themselves on the same side,
and gradually it became accepted that Christians could join the army,
that they could kill, and that they could (and increasingly should)
support the state against its enemies…
So often in history
(and we are back here to last week’s themes of Remembrance)
the Church has ended up espousing the cause of Nebuchadnezzar.
Ironically, it has often been precisely at
those points in history
where the Church has sought most assiduously
to entwine its interests with those of the state,
when it has looked particularly
for protection from the secular powers that be,
that the Church has been least effective.
And conversely, when the Church has retained
its prophetic distance from the powers that be,
that it has – for all its suffering – been most powerful.
So it proved to be in Uganda.
martyrdoms produced a result
entirely opposite to Mwanga's intentions.
The example of these martyrs,
who walked to their deaths
singing hymns and praying for their enemies,
so inspired many of the bystanders
that they began to seek instruction from the remaining Christians.
Within a few years the original handful of converts
had multiplied many times and spread far beyond the court. ….
Christianity spread steadily.
Uganda now has the largest percentage of professed Christians
of any nation in Africa.
Well it has been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
For of course whoever walks into the fire,
walks the way of the cross,
and the way of the cross is the way of victory not defeat.
And here is our reassurance (God will never desert us)
And also our challenge (God calls us to follow him into the flames).
A final thought.
Don’t forget our NT lesson.
Today’s set Gospel talks of
earthquake and famine and war and tribulation -
the apocalypse now which looks to the world like
the final defeat of love and peace and justice.
But the Gospel writer knows better -
this is but the final death throws,
the final futile rallying,
of earthly power and domination.
And when the fire is finally consumed and the flames
are no more -
then shall all who perished in the flames
(aye - and all who put them there)
see the Son of God step forth amidst the glowing embers
and know that even the fires of hell itself cannot defeat
the man upon the cross,
who bears the torment with us and brings us safe home.
ORDER OF SERVICE
Hymn SOF 40 “Be still”
Prayers (MWB p.185)
Readings: Daniel 3:13-30 (p. 886)
Mark 13:1-8 (p.1019)
Hymn HAP 71 “Lord you have searched”
Sermon “The Fourth Man”
Hymn HAP 811 “Earth rejoice”
Prayers and Lord’s Prayer (MWB p.188)
Hymn HAP 625 “Spread the table”
Holy Communion (MWB p. 191)
Hymn HAP 642 “Glory to thee”