Readings: Daniel 3:1, 4-6, 8-30, Secrets of Heaven #10227:12 and #1327
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I thought to use this story for worship today because certain aspects of these last few months have felt bit like being in the fiery furnace. I think we all might have felt something of that intensity in each of our own ways…some combination of anxiety, frustration, grief, sadness and anger. And has anyone been on Facebook lately? Tensions are running high, to say the least, as we all grapple with what this pandemic is going to mean for us going forward.
Most of us have not done this pandemic thing before. So, it can be useful for us to look to our traditions and our stories for ways to help us understand what we are going through, for insight into the human condition so that we might find a framework for how to act now, in this particular situation.
This is one of the reasons that I have always loved the Swedenborgian interpretative tradition, which holds that the Bible is “the story of us.” The whole thing is the story of us, you and me, right now. Yes, it is outwardly stories about people who lived a long time ago, but it also communicates something much larger; truths that we can use to further our own spiritual journeys in each of our own contexts.
And this means that, when we are faced with the prideful anger of the King Nebuchadnezzar, we cannot retreat into the comfort of literalism and say, well, I’m not a Babylonian King, or someone with anywhere near that kind of power, so this really doesn’t have anything to do with me. However, we *all* can experience pride and self-obsession, we can *all* experience avarice or find ourselves worshiping something not worth worshiping. I think this is a really valuable spiritual practice; when the whole bible is about us, we cannot wriggle out of its various critiques, regardless at whom they are leveled.
So King Nebuchednezzar tells us about the ugliness, the ridiculousness, the dangerousness, of being drunk with power and self-obsessed, of turning our allegiance to that which props up our own wealth, self-esteem, status, and demanding that others do the same. This can be borne out in so many small ways in each of our lives. For example, there are times I’ve lashed out at my children, not because I desire to correct them usefully but because I am furious they have disrespected my authority. This is my Nebuchednezzar self coming out. And more specifically, according to Swedenborg, Nebuchednezzar and the Babylonian regime represents the profanation of holy things (see reading). Which is a theologically fancy way of saying it is evil representing itself as good. So continuing my example above, it would be like if I were to not only lash out at my children for disrespecting my authority, but then also justify it as a good thing to myself (and them)…like, it is good for them to have boundaries, good for them to learn consequences for their actions, and maybe even, it is a good thing for children to be a little afraid of their parents. See how insidious it is?
Conversely though, if the bible is about us, then we also have within us the good characters as well as the bad. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego represent those parts of us that resist these darker impulses. The parts of us that have given their allegiance to God, to truth and love, to something outside of ourselves and our own benefit. Daniel represents our developing conscience, and Daniel’s friends represent the true ideas that our conscience depends upon (1). The existence of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, opens up to us the opportunity to practice steadfastness, diligence, courage, and faith. So to continue the parenting example, they represent my commitment to the ideas that my children should feel safe and loved, and learn to be confident and generous, with healthy and useful autonomy and boundaries. My commitment to those ideas as primary helps me to see my Nebuchadnezzar self for what it is, and to resist what it is calling me to give free rein to within myself.
And so, we can read these stories as something that can speak to us personally, in our own lives and in our own contexts. God speaks then and God speaks now through that which we can understand; stories about human nature and human possibility.
However, I do think there is one important caveat. As wonderful as I consider this personal metaphorical interpretive tradition to be, I believe it emphasizes some things and obscures others. One downside to spiritualizing biblical stories in such a personal way is that we might pay far more attention our personal spiritual journey and forget that we are social, communal, systems-building creatures. With this story, it might blind us to the fact that the type of pride exhibited by the king was not just a personal failing, it was a personal failing that was propped up and encouraged and, to a certain extent, created by a system of power. (2)
This is not only a story about the fact that King Nebuchadnezzar was a prideful person. It is also a story about the misuse of systemic power. The King directed the allegiance and the worship of his people towards a golden statue, something that supported and increased his own status and suggested it was what they should value. He used his power (which technically has the potential for good) to serve his own ends. His network of advisors, also beholden and invested in that system, helped to perpetuate that misuse of power by accusing Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego of wrongdoing.
So, I believe the framework of this particular story is prompting us to ask ourselves: how is my pride, my avarice, my selfishness, how is that supported, encouraged, and obscured by systems in which I find myself? How do those systems prompt me to reframe my selfishness as good, or prompt me to forget or overlook who those systems disadvantage? How do these systems profane what is holy, or try to pass off what is evil as what is good?
One easy example is suggested by the “golden statue:” Does an allegiance to un-regulated capitalism ask us to value money over people? Is it asking us to forget that a system cannot be humane unless it serves everyone well, not just the few? Or, Are our political ideologies based on accumulating power rather than serving people? Do they encourage us to dehumanize others in order to worship our own sense of “rightness?” Is a preoccupation with freedom and patriotism asking us to forget the basic kindness we owe to our neighbor, like wearing a mask, even if we would rather not? Are our systems of white supremacy and white privilege, asking white people like myself to dismiss the lived experience of people of color, while we quietly benefit from entrenched systemic advantages?
And I think right now is a perfect time for us to be considering these points, and others like them, as the pandemic has revealed to us many weaknesses in our systems and ideologies, many ways that they leave people behind, or serve to divide us, the human family, from each other. I think it is appropriate right now to be asking questions about the systems in which we participate and the ideologies to which we subscribe: what are they asking us to value, do they benefit us in ways that we might not realize, and who are they leaving behind?
Nebuchadnezzar is found within each human heart, yes. It is our responsibility notice where he is showing up in our lives, even in the small and mundane ways. But, it is also important to recognize that we don’t exist in a vacuum, that the Nebuchadnezzar spirit can join people together in ways that create and perpetuate larger systems of injustice, that seek to justify and continue their own existence by casting greed, incivility, selfishness and ignorance as good.
But of course, we still have Shadrach, Meshach and Abedego. Their story is not just about a one time courageous action. Their story tells us much more about how to exist in a world that seems to only see Nebuchadnezzar. You see, when Judah was first overthrown by Babylonia, promising Jewish youths like Daniel and his friends were plucked out of their own country and intentionally brought up within Babylonian structures, groomed to function in the Babylonian court, for Babylonian agenda. They had to learn how to exist in that context. But they didn’t forget where they came from. They stayed true to their heritage. They worked to the best of their ability within the social structures they found themselves in, but they did not allow those systems to corrupt the things that were most important to them.
This can be a valuable lesson to us. We cannot live outside of human systems and ideologies. We will always co-exist with them, we need them. They create meaning and structure and connection for us. But they are still and always will be human. And many times, that means they will bid us forget what we owe to each other, bid us forget our heritage.
Our most basic heritage is that, from God’s divine love, everyone is born for heaven, which is a realm of mutual love (3). I don’t say this so that we will dismiss this world we live in and only focus on getting to heaven, not at all. Rather, I say it for us to realize that our heritage is something larger than the systems and ideologies of this world, no matter how much they might benefit us in the here and now, no matter how good they might make us feel. Our destiny is to exist in heaven in mutual love, to serve one another in mutual care, and to as far as possible live and birth that heaven into this world in the here and now. When we remember that heritage, we can resist any system or ideology that asks us to love or worship anything else. With God’s help and guidance, we can learn to walk around in the fire, unbound and unharmed. Amen.
(2) The New Interpreter’s Bible, p751.
(3) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #997, #1775 and Divine Providence #323
Daniel 1, 4-6, 8-30
1 King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.
4 Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: 5 As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6 Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”
8 At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. 9 They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “May the king live forever! 10 Your Majesty has issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, 11 and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.” 13 Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” 16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” 19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace. 24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.” 25 He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, 27 and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them. 28 Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.” 30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
Secrets of Heaven #10227:12 and #1327
'Nebuchadnezzar' the king of Babel…mean[s] that which is profane and lays waste, which happens when the truths and forms of good which the Word contains serve, through wrong application, as means to lend support to the evils of self-love and love of the world. For in these circumstances the evils of those loves exist inwardly, in the heart, while the holy things of the Church are on the lips.
These verses use Babylon as an image for the way the deeper aspects of faith — inner worship, in other words — are wiped out. Anyone who embraces self-worship is devoid of religious truth…Such a person destroys and devastates everything that is true and leads it into captivity.