Daniel chapter 3 tells a familiar story. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, erected a golden statue on the plain of Dura and commanded all people to bow before it. Those who refused would be cast into a fiery furnace.
In verse 8, the start of our reading, his advisors told Nebuchadnezzar three men he had appointed to high office refused: Three young Hebrew captives named Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah—renamed by their captors as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Verse 13 says Nebuchadnezzar was furious, and ordered that they be brought before him. “Is it true you refuse to bow down?”
Yes, it was.
Verse 15, “If you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. 20 And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. 21 Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. 22 Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23 And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace.
You know the rest of the story.
Nebuchadnezzar cried out in perplexity, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire? … But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” And he called to them to come out, and all saw they were not burned, their hair was not singed, there was not even a smell of smoke upon them.
We call them the “three Hebrew worthies”, and this is a story of their faithfulness under pressure—and of God’s faithfulness to them. Three Hebrews stood firm in the face of trial. In a foreign land, stripped of their names, their future, and their dignity, they would not compromise their faith.
Have you ever thought about what you would do in those circumstances? If you knew death was the penalty for refusing to obey? If everyone else was complying? Would you go ahead and go along with the crowd, if it was easy to just blend in? Would you maybe try to take the easy way out, and just stay home that day? Would you beg for an excuse, “I would love to bow down, and show my allegiance, but I just can’t—It’s my arthritis. I just can’t kneel.”
Would you be confident that God would protect you? Or would you remain defiant, even knowing you would be killed?
Stories like this were in my mind as we were touring some historic sites in Europe earlier this month. We visited four countries in the Alps—Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, and Austria. For the second year in a row I got to go to the annual retreat that my office, Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, sponsors for Adventists in the US military who are stationed in Europe.
We hiked up into the beautiful Alpine meadows that were the setting for the story of Heidi, and another that was a filming location for the movie, ”The Sound of Music.” Joy got to twirl and sing like Julie Andrews.
But there were grim memories in some of the places we went.
In Salzburg, the city of Mozart, we rode what is called a funicular up to a castle high on a rock overlooking the city, the Hohensalzburg. Here we climbed up towers and wandered through rooms of a fortress a thousand years old. From the heights, you can look over the mountains that surround the city, and down over beautiful gardens and parks and dozens of churches, convents, and monasteries. In one room of the tower they told us of prisoners who were held there, and in the dungeon below, chained to the walls. The victims included, in the 16th century, dozens of Anabaptists—Christians who sought to follow the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
The Anabaptists refused to bow to the will of the church and the state, united in Salzburg in the person of a single man, the Prince-Archbishop, who was the absolute ruler of all things secular and sacred. Confessing only one Lord of heaven and earth, they rejected this man’s authority, and were led off to their deaths.
The laws against the Anabaptist faith were extreme. It didn’t matter if you confessed and recanted—you were still killed. But the law showed mercy if you rejected your faith—you were beheaded before being burning.
One young girl was taken from her mother and drowned in a horse trough before the mother was burned.
A man, Leonhard Bernkopf, went to his death with all his wits about him. He called out to his tormenters from the stake, “This side is roasted enough; turn me over to roast the other side now.”
None were miraculously saved. All died gruesome deaths, at the hands of people who believed in Jesus. That’s right– the tormentors were not pagans or atheists or Muslims. They were Christians, claiming they had Christ’s authority to torture and kill.
The authorities thought that these horrific public spectacles would cause people to turn aside from heresy, but they did not. The believers saw instead that it was possible to endure the pain and die a faithful martyr, whether you were young or old, and the saints found comfort in their example.
You don’t have to go back five hundred years to find stories of faithfulness like these. We learned of stories in the mid-20th century, of men and women who refused to bow to the Nazis when they annexed Austria in 1938.
One such man was a former captain of the Austrian Navy, Georg von Trapp. He was born in what is now Croatia, and was a pioneer in submarines. He married Agatha Whitehead, granddaughter of the man who invented the torpedo, and she inherited her grandfather’s fortune. In World War 1, von Trapp was the most successful submarine commander of the Austro-Hungarian empire, receiving the Knight’s Cross of the Military Order of Maria Theresa, the equivalent of the Medal of Honor.
Austria lost the war, and most of her territory. It was now a small landlocked country, and von Trapp was without a Navy and without a ship. In 1922 his wife died from scarlet fever, leaving him seven children. He sold some of his land and bought a house outside Salzburg which he renovated for his family. It was a grand house on a large property, so if he wanted his kids to come, he blew on a Navy bosun’s whistle.
When his youngest daughter was weakened after scarlet fever, he asked the convent in town if they could recommend a teacher. They sent a young woman who taught in their school and was thinking about becoming a nun, Maria Kutschera.
You might recognize the story. They married in 1927; in 1935 a bank failure led to the loss of their wealth. They looked for ways to make money—von Trapp wrote a book about his Navy experiences. They moved the family up to the third floor servants’ quarters and rented rooms to priests and seminarians. And they had a love for music—even before Maria came their father laughed and sang with them, and taught them to play the instruments he knew. Encouraged by one of their boarders, Fr. Franz Wasner, they started a family choir, the Trapp Family Singers, and as their fame spread, they began to tour Europe, and received invitations to also come to the United States.
Then, in 1938, came the Anschluss. German forces rolled into Austria without firing a shot, as crowds filled the Residenzplatz in Salzburg cheering the unity of the German-speaking peoples. Von Trapp was offered a commission in the German Navy, and he almost accepted. He would be back at sea, doing what he loved. But then he thought about what the Nazis stood for, and shuddered at the thought of serving under Hitler, this crude little man he and Maria had observed when they sat at a table next to his at a Berlin restaurant. He could not, would not, serve the Third Reich.
They knew their days were numbered. They refused to fly the Nazi flag. He had twice ignored their request to join the Navy. And they had refused an invitation to sing at Hitler’s 50th birthday party. They prayed and talked to their pastor and their bishop. They opened their Bible and it came to the passage of the call of Abraham in Genesis 12: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.“ They didn’t hide in a cemetery. They didn’t climb a mountain singing—that would have led them straight to Hitler’s fortress of the Eagle’s Nest above Berchtesgaden. Instead, they walked through their backyard, crossed the railroad tracks to the Aigen train station, and went to keep their next concert appearance in Italy — and from there, came to the United States.
We were in their house this month. We slept three nights in the room that was Georg and Maria’s bedroom their last several years. At night, during a thunderstorm, Joy sang “My favorite things.” From the window each morning we looked out on the backyard, and to the mountain overshadowing the city, the Untersberg.
Here was a family of faith that refused to bow, that stood firm, and God delivered them, though they had to give up everything.
Not everyone stood firm. I told you in my last sermon of some who gave in, including leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist church. We find it hard to believe now, but there were many Christians (most, in fact) who embraced Hitler. He brought the country out of chaos. He gave the nation back its pride and dignity. His hostility to Jews was shared by many Christians, who blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus. Every ten years Bavarian Germans would flock to Oberammergau to watch a medieval passion play in which the high priests, wearing horns, called for the death of Jesus and declared, ’His blood be upon us, and on our children.’ So Catholic, Lutheran, Adventist and other churches turned over members who had been born as Jews. Adventists celebrated Hitler’s vegetarianism and work ethic.
Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller said nothing when Hitler passed laws against the Jews. He believed they were to blame for their own sufferings through history. He didn’t say anything when the Nazis cracked down on labor unions, and Socialists, and Communists. He celebrated Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. He only started preaching against the Nazis when the Nazis started interfering in the church’s internal business. The church leaders ordered him to obey the state. He kept up his complaints, joining with Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in what they called the Confessing Church. In 1937 he was arrested. He was taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, then transferred to Dachau, outside Munich. He begged to go free. Like von Trapp, he, too, had been a submarine commander in WW1, but in the German Navy. From his cell in the concentration camp he wrote and offered to serve the Nazis. He begged to get his commission back. But it was too late.
We went to Dachau. We drove straight there after landing in Munich. We walked from the railroad siding through the iron gates with the cynical motto, Arbeit Macht Frei—Work Makes You Free. We walked through barracks filled with bunkbeds stacked four high, and through the long narrow bunker that held individual cells.
We stood outside cell number 30 and looked in through the bars in the heavy wooden door. Here in this small space is where Niemöller spent the years of WW2, with other pastors and priests in the cells around him. One cell in their wing was converted to a dining room for them. Another was turned into a chapel. They were treated better than many.
And when he was released, a cloud hung over him. He was not given the status of a “victim of the Nazis.” He was seen as one who collaborated, even if he did eventually go to prison. He lived a long time, until 1984, and each of his talks in the decades after the war included a confession of his failure:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
What will you do, when asked to choose? When fellow believers urge you to give in? Because that’s what we believe will happen. Our understanding of prophecy is that the final crisis will involve a union of church and state, a right wing attempt to enforce popular Christianity. And we believe many Adventists will be taken in. Read The Great Controversy–the lessons from the past inform us of the hazards of tomorrow.
Will you stand firm for Christ, and for those dear to him, or will you take the safe route, and hide in the crowd?
Will you stand for the principles of the kingdom of God, or will you be seduced by the pleas in defense of nationalism and forced morality from fellow Christians, or by the whispers of fear in your own heart?
Will you face the fiery furnace, the prison cell, the scorn of the world, with courage, clinging to Jesus Christ alone?
Or will you turn aside, like the rich young ruler, saddened by the cost of following Christ? We have so many stories of those who were faithful, whose example encourages us to stand firm. To hold on. To hold fast. The three Hebrews in the fiery furnace. The saints whose stories are told in Hebrews chapter 11. Stories through all of church history of men, women, and children (of whom the world was not worthy), who embraced the cross with joy.
The author of the book of Hebrews says, do not fear. Do not be discouraged. Use these stories to bolster your faith. Hebrews chapter 12, verse 1:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.
The days are growing short. The clouds are gathering, the shadows lengthen. Each of us shall be tested. Each of us will have opportunities to demonstrate our faithfulness to Jesus, and our love of the least of these, for whom he shed his blood.
My prayer for you is that God may strengthen your faith, and open your eyes to the risks around us, and keep you faithful.