Today’s text is from Daniel 3:8-30
Cows. For every three Americans there is one cow in the U.S. – or should I say, bovine – the all-encompassing term for this species. Because you’ve got bulls, mavericks, calves, heifers, steers, oxen, beef cattle, dairy cattle, and of course, cows.
Nearly one-hundred million cattle roaming the countryside. Now, here in the U.S. we don’t consider cattle anything too sacred – of course farmers are going to consider them part of their livelihoods – but here in the city we don’t see cows too often.
Which makes the term “sacred cow” even stranger for our American ears. This idiom in English comes from the fact that for many religions and peoples across the globe cows are considered sacred. They’re simply crucial to sustaining life – they provide work in the fields as oxen, they provide meat as beef cattle, they provide milk as dairy cattle – they’re truly the lifeblood for many people across the millennia.
And so we get the term “sacred cow”; and according to the folks over at Merriam-Webster it’s something that is “unreasonably immune from criticism or opposition”. Unreasonably immune from criticism or opposition.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have run into a sacred cow in today’s reading. As we heard last week the people of Israel are in exile in the city of Babylon. And the king of Babylon couldn’t care less about the religious beliefs of this exiled people.
These three won’t worship this sacred cow – this idol before them – this thing that wasn’t the Lord God.
And so there are consequences. We’re told they don’t care. They tell the king, “We do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us. But even if he does not, we want you to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
But even if God does not. They’re defiant. They spit in the face of the king. They claim, on their lives, that nothing is more important than the Lord their God. That no matter what happens they will have faith; that nothing the king can or will do will remove their faith in God.
What a faith to have. It’s not a faith and trust that requires God to save them in that moment. It’s not a faith or trust that must be propped up by miracles. It’s a faith that is grounded in the deep foundations of God’s promise of salvation. It’s a faith that doesn’t waver in the face of adversity or fear. It’s a faith that doesn’t budge even in the face of death.
And so these three are free. They’re free to go about their lives living out the principles and foundations of their faith. They’re free to go toe-to-toe with the empire and their sacred cows because God has already taken care of them. So, they have nothing to fear.
But to have this type of trust in God’s promises is incredibly difficult. To live out God’s justice and righteousness in the world without fearing the consequences or retribution from those who demand allegiance to their idols and sacred cows is frightening.
Take the continued reckoning on the numerous men who have been accused of sexual harassment recently. Males in positions of power have always been unreasonably immune from criticism or opposition. Women across this country, and the world, have faced this idol and found themselves powerless. Even when they have come forward – when they’ve felt empowered and free to speak out they’ve seen the fires as a consequence – they’ve been called liars, threatened with lawsuits, told they should’ve spoke up sooner – all hell breaks loose when these men have found their idol status beginning to crumble.
And so, like the king, they turn up the flames, they dial up the heat on the furnace of deniability. And so many women are faced with a choice: Be called a liar, be told they’re political pawns, be told that sacred cows will burn up anyone in their path who dares oppose them; or, or, be thrown into the fire even if no one comes to save them – all in the name of justice.
Or take the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In the spring of 1963, King was in jail. His disapproval rating hovered around 37% – but it would get worse – three years later, just two years before his assassination, it landed on 63%. 63% of Americans disapproved with Martin Luther King, Jr; a number today that stands at only 4%.
But back in that Birmingham jail, King wrote this: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
“Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.”
One week before this letter was written marches and sit-ins had been occurring in Birmingham. A week after these began a judge decided People of Color needed to remember their place – needed to remember they must bow to the idol of racism.
And so, an injunction against parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing was implemented. Two days later, King was arrested; arrested for not bowing to the idols and sacred cows those in power demanded he follow.
The flames were fanned, the furnace set to high; because when sacred cows are challenged all hell breaks loose. A landscape that made 63% of Americans disapprove of Martin Luther King, Jr.
And so, as we enter this season of Advent with our focus of “Holy Darkness” we’re reminded that engrained in our minds as a society and culture are the ideas that light is good and dark is bad; that white is pure and black is bad.
We’re reminded of all the ways People of Color are still demanded to bow to idols of racism and white supremacy – sometimes even derogatorily told to stand – all to the gods we’ve created.
Holy Darkness reminds us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Holy Darkness asks us to uncover the sacred cows and idols that exist everywhere in our culture. Holy Darkness invites us to walk with the oppressed into the flames of fury because there is only one god that we worship: The God of new and abundant life.
We’re reminded that civil disobedience is usually not accepted by the majority of society – by those in charge of the idols and sacred cows. We’re reminded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood in defiance to those in power and refused to bow to their sacred cows. We’re reminded that women across the world are unveiling the abuses and harassment they face on a daily basis. We’re reminded that acts of civil disobedience by Martin Luther King, Jr. were once as unpopular as Colin Kaepernick.
And so this day we pray for courage. We pray for justice and not silence. We pray for faith that can move mountains and faith that is rooted and grounded in the foundation of salvation found in Jesus Christ. A faith that cannot be moved come hell or high water or the fires of the hottest furnace when idols and sacred cows are thrust before us.
For our God has saved us. There is no doubt, no question, no reason to not believe you are redeemed through the death and resurrection of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
And so we pray this day that like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego we have the courage to challenge the unchallengeable. To question the unquestionable. To face the fires of oppression and continue our march for justice anyway, for the God we serve will deliver us.
But even if, even if God does not, our ultimate deliverance has already been secured in the hands of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For nothing – not even the burning fires of death – can separate us from the love and salvation of Jesus Christ.