Sermon, December 3rd, 2017 “What’s in a name?” Daniel 3 vs. 1 and vs. 8-30
There was a time, one hundred years or more ago, when if you immigrated to the United States or Canada you would face, upon arrival, an immigration officer who spoke only English and the immigration officers would likely have been recent immigrants themselves from Britain. They were familiar with names such as Humphrey Brookbanks and Montgomery Underhill. If you were arriving from continental Europe then there was a very good chance that a combination of your “foreign” accent and equally “foreign” name would leave the immigration officer somewhat stymied as to how to record your name in the immigration books that they were required to complete. The easiest thing for them to do, of course, was to simply ignore your name and enter one that was both easier to spell and more simple to pronounce. I understand that it just what happened and many people who have lived in this country for the last 100-200 years may be living under names that were brand new to them as they stepped off the ships and onto the docks.
There is always great pressure on new arrivals to assimilate and I suspect some of the newly-named immigrants did not complain all that much at the time but imagine how you would feel today if a government official said to you: “Your name is just too difficult to pronounce. I’m going to give you a new one.”? Our family name always says something about where we have come from and sometimes even why we left one place and journeyed to another. Our first names always say something about our family and our place in it and perhaps even give expression to the hopes and dreams our parents have for us as a particular person within that family. To lose your family name and the first name given you by your family is to lose not only your identity but that which roots you in your history and gives you vision and hope for your future.
That is just what happened to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Their birth names were Hannaniah, Mishael and Azariah. They were born into the context of their Jewish faith where they could only worship one god, YHWH. In our story today they find them as exiles in a foreign land where the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar has ordered that everyone must worship a large statue made of gold which he had built for the purpose of worshipping his God. What are the three Jews to do? They could live with a name change and they could live as exiles. Even the message from Jeremiah sent to the Jews in exile, as we heard last week, had advised them to settle in, work hard, and make something of their lives. These Jews could do that, certainly, but could they give up YHWH and worship other gods as well, especially this new golden statue reminiscent of the golden calf in Moses’ day? They could of course worship this new god, and apparently many did, but at least these three refused to renounce their single devotion to and worship of YHWH, who was in their mind and belief the one, true God. Naturally the King was furious at their impudence! Nebuchadnezzar knew that torture usually brought such offenders around to see the light, and thought perhaps a night in the burning heat would change their young minds…but these three simply would not give up their faith in YHWH, their only God. After they survived the night in his furnace King Nebuchadnezzar was so impressed that not only did he give them their freedom but also decided that they, and their people, could continue to worship YHWH. They did and they prospered as strangers in a foreign land.
This story, which we all know so well from our childhood, is placed at the time of the exile of the Jews in Babylon. It was actually written and recorded at a much later date at a time when the Jews found themselves in exile yet again only this time under the powers of the Persian Empire. It is a story of resistance. The value of this story, and others like it, is that they allow the people in their current day to remember another time when their ancestors were tested, stood firm in their faith, and emerged once again as God’s people. Over the centuries in Babylon there were of course, just as there are now, decades of extreme faithfulness as well as decades where people have forgotten their duties to YHWH. Society suffers as a consequence of that forgetfulness. So during the times when life simply cannot get much worse it is important to tell the stories of another time when it felt that someone went into a burning furnace, remained faithful to God, and emerged able to live a good and even prosperous life. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted this passage in his letter from the Birmingham jail as a testament to the continuing power of God to support God’s people as they seek justice and resist evil.
Every immigrant, every refugee, every person in exile, faces the burning challenges that confronted the newly named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, ;and did so by who they were in the depth of their being, faithful Jews named Hannaniah, Mishael and Azariah. How much is one able to assimilate into a new culture and still know who you are? If there is a disjunction between who you are now and who you once were there will always be an internal tension but even a tension within our society as a whole. Young people who feel that society has nothing for them lash out. Fathers who no longer enjoy the unquestioned authority they once had as head of the family turn to alcohol, or anger, and lash out. Women who see a society that offers so much freedom which is denied to them lash out. If who we understand ourselves to be is simply not in sync with who we are as we experience our life then there is an inevitable dysfunction that affects us as individuals, as families and even as society. Hannaniah, Mishael and Azariah could only exist as exiles if they held true to their faith and I think that is true in our day as well whether we sense we live as exiles or just as people who are sometimes confused about life and what our place in life now is. These three eventually lived exemplary lives in their new home but they were only able to do that because they would not give up the one thing that sustained those lives, their faith in the one God, YHWH.
Prof. Juliana Claassens from Stellenbosch University in South Africa asks which is the true miracle—that the three emerged from the burning furnace unscathed, or that this mighty emperor had a change of heart at the end of the story? “This narrative encouraged its original audience, believers who found themselves under the Persian empire, to persevere. The story of the magical deliverance from the furnace promises that God is with them even in the midst of difficult times—including being thrown into a furnace!”
“In today’s context…”, suggests Claassens, “…this story of refugees and the challenges they experience may have a different function. The threat to identity that immigrants experience on many different levels—including language, culture and religious practices—is a very real concern in a world in which there are more than 65.3 million displaced individuals.” Think of that for a moment. 65.3 million people, nearly twice the population of Canada, are displaced throughout the world. That is a staggering number that shows us just how large the global challenge to welcome the stranger really is. Imagine what it must feel like for these people to have left home and familiar settings behind. Imagine the burning furnaces they must have faced, and continue to face, simply to survive. This is a number that we should carry with us during Advent as we pray for God’s Way to be our way and as we pray for God to be reborn in us this Christmas Eve. It is hard to be a Christian when we are surrounded by the bright lights and dazzling sights that confront us as we go to the mall or even pass through our neighbourhoods. It is as if the commercialization of Christmas is our burning fire and the challenge is to remain true to who we are, to remain true to our name–people of God–as we step into our streets and go to buy a loaf of bread and jug of milk. We are preparing to celebrate the birth of a baby that we will acclaim as saviour of the world, a world that today includes 65.3 million displaced people. It is hard work to remember and carry with us during Advent this sense of longing and anticipation for God with us.
From our own experience of immigration in Canada, and from our Biblical story from Daniel, we are challenged, suggests Claassens, as communities “…to respect others in our midst, which implies also respecting their freedom and agency to worship as they wish, as well as live out their cultural practices in their own way. This interpretation is especially important during this time of Advent when we remember that Jesus and his family were refugees.”
So what is in a name? Quite a bit it seems especially if the one carrying that name is able to honour the traditions and teaching behind that name and ultimately remain true to the faith that underpins that name and all the family names that one carries with one through the journeys of life. Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Hannaniah, Mishael, Azariah, and the names of all of us who at some point came to the shores of this nation are names of identity and expectation. Then too we have the name of Jesus who we would come to know as Messiah, God with us, our Christ. As we journey through life that is the name which marks us as His and loves as without condition: the name above all names, Jesus our Christ.