Do you remember the old knock, knock joke about a banana?
And that setup repeats at least 5-6 times before you get to the punch line.
Orange you glad I didn’t say banana again?
Even as a kid, I knew the punch line wasn’t funny. The funny part of that joke is the obnoxiously long set up that seems to go on and on and on until you are almost ready to fill your ears full of cheese whiz just to make the noise stop.
But since I trust by now you all don’t show up to church to hear me preach without something to stuff in your ears and tune me out already, then allow me to tell you another joke with the same obnoxiously long setup. And this, friends, is the abridged version of the setup.
King Nebuchadnezzar ordered the chief administrators, ministers, governors, counselors, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the provincial officials to assemble. So the chief administrators, ministers, governors, counselors, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the provincial officials assembled. The herald proclaimed loudly: “When you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument, you must bow down and worship the gold statue. Anyone who will not bow down and worship will be immediately thrown into a furnace of flaming fire.” So because of this order as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument, all the peoples, nations, and languages bowed down and worshipped the gold statue.
At that moment some Chaldeans came forward and said to the king.
“Long live the king! Your Majesty, you gave a command that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument should bow down and worship the gold statue or be thrown into the fire. But there are three Jews who don’t.
They were brought before the king.
Nebuchadnezzar said to them: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: Is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I’ve set up? If you are now ready to do so, bow down and worship the gold statue I’ve made when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument. But if you won’t worship it, you will be thrown straight into the furnace of flaming fire. Then what god will rescue you from my power?”
The rest of the story is the punch line to a long setup whose soul purpose is to poke fun at King Nebuchadnezzar and his silly gold statue. I’ll grant you that being cast alive into a furnace doesn’t come across as the best punch line, but like the knock, knock banana joke, the setup is where the humor lies. Nebuchadnezzar is the king of Babylon, the nation that defeated the Jews and took them into exile over a fifty year period beginning around 587 BCE. He is all powerful—someone to be feared. So much so that when he speaks, the chief administrators, ministers, governors, counselors, treasurers, judges, magistrates and provincial officials all pay attention. And what he says, what he commands, is that they bow down and worship a statue when they hear the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument.
Nebuchadnezzar is the joke. He is the banana in the knock-knock joke that keeps repeating over and over again. And every time we read the lengthy list of all the important people who listen to the king, or the long string of instruments that have to play to honor the king’s statue, it’s hard not to sigh just like when we hear ‘banana’ for the tenth time.
But here’s the thing that strikes me about this big joke about Nebuchadnezzar and his gold statue. Here is a guy who gives everyone in his kingdom a choice. They can either worship exactly like the king commands, to listen for these instruments and to bow down and worship in this particular way. Or they can burn.
But now how many times in your life have you heard God described just like that? How many times have you thought about your own faith in those terms. As though God confronts us all with only two choices. Do things my way or burn. And I wonder, is that really what God is like? Is God really no better than King Nebuchadnezzar? Does God really confront humankind in the same way that we so abhor King Nebuchadnezzar for doing? Or are we the ones arrogant enough to think that our understanding of God, and the way God is at work in the world, is indeed the divinely ordained way and that anyone who disagree is probably going to burn?
Or do we prefer the role of the Chaldeans who go up to the king to rat out these non-believers? Do you know what the Chaldeans are doing? They are gossiping. They see someone who doesn’t think or believe or act like they do and they go run and tell someone else, trying to create trouble. Oh sure, they convince themselves that they are doing the right thing, the helpful thing, telling the king, but what they are really doing is trying to point the finger at three men who do not worship like they do.
Even at the end of the story, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego emerge out of the fiery furnace unscathed. Then the first thing King Nebuchadnezzar does is to find his religion. He suddenly believes in this new God, the God of the three Jews. But his very next decree is to order anyone who doesn’t believe in this new God to be torn limb from limb and their house made into a trash heap.
Look, there’s nothing about how Nebuchadnezzar advocates for his religion that I think most of us would consider admirable. He is so certain that his way is right that he’s willing and indeed anxious to have anyone else burn. And yet how often is that the picture of God we present to others? A God who is more than happy to send those who don’t believe and practice their faith in one particular way straight into the fire?
I have known people in my life who have rejected God. Who have found themselves for whatever reason unable to believe in God. Sometimes it’s because of some personal tragedy. Or maybe the untimely death of a loved one. Maybe it’s simply because the God they have been taught about or learned about is simply too small for their experience. Dr. Shirley Guthrie, one of my seminary professors and theological mentor, used to respond to people who told him that they didn’t believe in God by saying:
“Tell me about the god you don’t believe in. I may not believe in that god either.”
His point was that he often encountered people who couldn’t bring themselves to believe in a Nebuchadnezzar God, a God who insisted on one way of worship, one way of believing, and everyone else be damned, condemned to the fires of hell.
But in this story, friends, Nebuchadnezzar is the butt of the joke. And the true God, the God that we worship, the God who is so much larger than Nebuchadnezzar’s petty ideas, that God is the one who delivers the punch-line in the end. That God, the God five centuries after Nebuchadnezzar sent Jesus Christ again to enlarge the world’s view of how God was at work, that God is the one who gets to finally say “orange you glad I didn’t say banana again” when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walk out of that fire unscathed.
And friends, that is the God that we gather to worship. Not Nebuchadnezzar. God doesn’t work like that. And when we make God out to work like that, we are short-changing the grace of God. We are making God as petty and small as Nebuchadnezzar. Friends, let’s give God more credit than that. Both in our own lives of faith, and in the way we present God to others. For as Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians reminds us, we are ambassadors for Christ, and for the God incarnate in Christ. So may our words and our actions serve as faithful ambassadors for the God of grace in our lives and in our world.
Thanks be to God. In the name of our dear and fluffy Lord. Amen.