This Sunday, as we continue to make our way closer to the birth of Christ, the Church commemorates the Three Holy Youths, Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego (Ananias, Azarias, & Misail)…and also the Prophet Daniel (Baltazar), who went from testing to testimony.
The Three Holy Youths and Daniel lived about 600 years before Christ. They lived during a time when Israel had become particularly disobedient to God…and so, God allowed Jerusalem to be overtaken in battle by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Many of the Jews were captured—prisoners of war—and put into slavery at the hands of the Babylonians. The prisoners who were of noble pedigree, who had education, character and sophistication, were always taken to the royal court to be trained in service to the king. By God’s grace, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego soon found themselves amidst this setting…pressed into servitude near the king’s side…where they would be tested many times and given the opportunity to stand as living testimony to God’s faithfulness and power.
One such testing was when King Nebuchadnezzar built a ninety foot tall golden statue of himself, depicting himself as a god. As they held a great ceremony of dedication to the image, Nebuchadnezzar demanded that all of his subjects must bow down in worship to it. He decreed that if anyone refused to bow to his image, they would be thrown into a fiery furnace. The bible tells us that while everyone bowed down low out of fear for their lives, only Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego stood tall, saying that they had confidence that their God could deliver them from the fire if He so wished. This impertinence sent such a rage through Nebuchadnezzar, that he commanded that the fire of the furnace be heated seven times hotter that it was usually heated. The king then ordered that Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego should be bound by his royal henchmen and cast into the furnace. When the king’s thugs pushed the Three Holy Youths into the flames, the intensity of the furnace was so hot that it immediately killed the king’s mighty men standing outside the flames. But, as the three bound men, Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego, stumbled forth into the furnace, they remained miraculously unharmed. As the king rubbed his eyes in astonishment, he saw a fourth Man among them (whose appearance was like the Son of God) and these four remained together in the furnace, unbound, walking around in it as if it were merely a cool, dewy breeze. So King Nebuchadnezzar called for them to come out of the fire to be examined by the people of the royal court. As all of these aristocrats gathered around the Three Holy Youths, they noticed that not only were their bodies unharmed, but their hair was unsinged, their clothing was kept safe and there wasn’t even the smell of smoke upon them. So the King declared that theirs was truly the God of gods, because no other god could do such a thing. Then Nebuchadnezzar promoted the three into higher positions of trust in his kingdom, among his Magi—his wise advisors. The Church’s hymnology hints suggests that in that fire, they foreshadowed the Virgin Theotokos’ giving of birth to Christ…where she received the Fire of God’s Son within her womb, and yet she was not burned. These Three Holy Youths also prefigure each of us as well…every time we come to the chalice to partake of the holy fire of Christ’s Body and Blood and every time we bear Him forth into the world with our actions of mercy and words of His Good News.
Daniel the Prophet also stands forth as living testimony to God’s faithfulness and power…and connects to our Christmas story as well. Most have heard of the story of “Daniel in the Lion’s Den.” That’s the very same Daniel we’re talking about here. After correctly interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, the king then regarded Daniel as wiser than any of his wise men. So he promoted Daniel to be the head of his royal Magi (Wise Men).
The Magi were a line of strategists who studied wisdom and prophecies and were also preoccupied with studying the stars in the sky. They were both feared and respected for their insights…and so these Magi were very high-ranking royal advisors. Through history, they came to be regarded most famously in politics as kingmakers.
So, as you might well imagine, after Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel head of his Magi, Daniel and his Jewish friends, Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego, lost no time at all in asserting some considerable influence on the rest of the Magi. Consequently, Daniel gathered together a collection of all of his beloved Hebrew Scriptures into the Royal Library. Then, as head of the Magi, he would have made sure that the rest of the Babylonian Magi were educated in the Jewish prophesies regarding the most important King who would ever live—the coming Messiah. The Old Testament scriptures are full of prophecies about the birth and life and death of Christ which would follow some 600 years later. Thus, the Magi were made intimately aware of God’s prophetic plan for the coming King of kings.
So, when the time was right, all those hundreds of years later, they followed a certain prophesied star…a star that they knew would lead them to the greatest King of all time. When these Magi…these Wise Men got to that place in Bethlehem, the Bible says they worshipped our Lord. They knew from those prophesies that this was more than just an earthly king. They saw the Messiah, read and taught about from the days of Daniel. These Magi were God-seeking gentiles who discovered the great Truth that Daniel had trained his people to recognize 600 years earlier.
Isn’t it wonderful that, in this way, God arranged for Gentiles to be among the first people in the world to recognize the arrival of the King of kings? Isn’t God’s farsightedness something to marvel? Isn’t it truly awesome how God manages history, and even at times manages our disobedience to fulfill His will? History is God’s story…a story of how He continually works to bring His people to salvation in Him. Two thousand, six hundred years ago our Lord picked out a man named Daniel, and by allowing the holy city of Jerusalem to become defeated in war, and by allowing Daniel to become captured as a prisoner of war…God put Daniel in a place to influence some men who would, six hundred years later arrive in perfect timing. And just to make sure nobody missed the point…that Christ is King, God had the most famous kingmakers in the world come and bow down at His feet. These Magi (now saints, mentioned by name in our Church’s Tradition—Melchior, Gaspar, & Balthasar) were there to worship Christ as the King of kings. And if Israel isn’t going to acknowledge Christ as King, then God is going to drag a bunch of Gentile kingmakers all the way from Persia to acknowledge that He is truly THE King. God has Master planned history for these Gentiles to travel a thousand miles to worship The King…because the people who should have known who our Lord was, refused to acknowledge Him.
Today, God is still here doing something thoughtful and profound and life-giving in our world…and He urgently wants to do it in our lives as well. The question to us, as we approach Christmas, remembering God’s providence through those prisoners-of-war so many years ago is: Will you go from testing to testimony? Will you also be among the company of those Magi—those Wise Men—who will go anywhere to worship Jesus Christ as King of your life? As with Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego, when your life demonstrates such faith, “Faith's accomplishments are magnificent, because you will stand within life’s fountains of fire with great joy, as if beside the still waters of rest.”