November 18, 2018
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using Daniel 3:13-30, Matthew 13:24-30,36-43 at Mattins on Sunday 18th November 2018, the Second before Advent.
It was the African theologian of the fourth century, Augustine, who said that ‘to observe the character of a particular people we must examine the objects of its love’ (City of God XIX, 24). In our Old Testament reading from Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar calls all his people to worship a giant statue, 90 feet high, presumably of himself. Nebuchadnezzar is saying ‘love me’, you people, look at my wealth and power. The cult of personality is not just confined to the ancient world. We see similar statues of the Supreme Leader being dedicated and honoured by the people in North Korea today.
And, in our social media age, we see something similar happening. We post a picture hoping our friends will ‘like’ it and we measure our popularity by the number of friends or followers we have.
If he saw Instagram and Facebook today, I’m sure Augustine would be quick to condemn them as false gods, like all the Roman gods he describes and condemns in his book of two cities, the city of God and the ‘other’ city. False gods don’t deliver on their promises – they just deceive us and lie to us. The rise in mental illness in young people is evidence perhaps of our addictions to false idols that are killing us, rather than giving us life.
Back in the ancient world, in the story of Daniel, his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego quickly see the futility of worshipping Nebuchadnezzar’s statue.
They will not worship the idol, despite the high personal cost of the consequences. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego desire above all, to honour God. They love God and trust God, whether he delivers them or not. I love the way they express their disloyalty to the king:
‘If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand O King, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you O king, that we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up’ (Daniel 3:17, 18).
We know God has the power to save us, but even if he doesn’t we’re going to do what is right and honour the God we love, rather than something made by human hands.
Humans are made for love. We are made to love and to worship. If we don’t love and worship the one true God who created us, then we will love and worship something else in the vain hope that such false gods will deliver what only God can deliver. We are people of desire: we desire things, we desire relationships, we desire love, acceptance and security. We desire purpose, significance and comfort.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego desire God and are not afraid to say so. To everyone’s astonishment, perhaps even most of all theirs, they find that the fire has ‘no power over their bodies’ (Dan 3:27), and that’s despite it being fatal for the guards who threw them into the fiery furnace.
And who was the fourth person in the fiery furnace, the one who has the appearance of a god?
The sharp eyed among you will realise that Christians also engage in the cult of personality. Christians also have statues and images of their hero figures, and the one we see most is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the focus of our worship, and the epitome of our desire.
The statues we have, and you can see one in the screen of the presbytery above the high altar, are not of a strong dominant ruler, tall and proud, fist clenched, reigning over his empire. The object of our Christian worship is the Jesus who was humbled, broken and who died on a cross. Jesus doesn’t gather his people, unveil his statue and demand that he be worshipped. He doesn’t post selfies hoping to be liked.
Jesus offered himself to God, out of his own devotion and worship of the Father. Christ’s fiery furnace was the cross, out of which he rose to new life. That’s why we sometimes have statues of just the empty cross, to show that Jesus’ death was not the end. His resurrection means that Jesus didn’t stay dead on the cross. When we place our faith in Christ, we are acknowledging that no created thing can give us what we can only receive from God.
If we want to become followers of Jesus we have to nurture desire for him.
One of my favourite verses is Psalm 62:1
‘For God alone my soul in silence waits’.
It’s a great verse to simply repeat when you have time sitting in one of the chapels of the cathedral in silent prayer.
‘For God alone my soul in silence waits’.
Praying like this can nurture our desire for Christ.
I’ve just been to see my spiritual director – he’s new (to me) and we’re just getting to know one another. He has a joie de vivre that bubbles out of the core of his being that comes from worshipping and loving Jesus Christ. We were talking about how we desire God, and I suggested that as our desire for God grows it displaces the desires we have for the things in our lives that might be false gods.
And quick as a flash he said, ‘Or it transfigures them’. As we find Christ as the object of our hearts desire, the things that we look to for security or comfort or significance become renewed. They are no longer at the centre of our lives in danger of destroying them, but instead they find their own God-given purpose in Christ’s kingdom.
Oversized statues, plenteous followers and innumerable tweets will not satisfy our desire. Only Jesus Christ can. So may our hearts yearn for him, so we may enjoy in their right place all the good gifts he has given us.