When Babylon conquered the kingdom of Judah, the best and brightest were carried off to Babylon. Things looked pretty bleak. It seemed as if perhaps God had utterly abandoned his people. The northern kingdom had already been destroyed. Now, the Southern Kingdom was in ruins. Either God had let his people be conquered, or he wasn’t strong enough to stop it. The pressure to compromise was immense. Even something as simple as eating a meal became a matter of confession for the captured Israelites. Daniel and his three friends were faithful. They would not eat the food. There was no practical reason for them not to eat it – a foreign land, a God who did not save them from exile – except of course that God decreed a thousand years before they not eat that food. So, they didn’t eat it. They had no proof that God would bless them. They remained faithful because they trusted in in the Word and promise of God.
Later, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were trusted advisors to the king. When a golden statue was made, they were the only three who would not bow down to it. There was no proof that God would deliver them. There were no accounts before this of God stepping saving men from fire. But the three refused to bow down. There answer was unequivocal: God could save them. “But if not…” they would still not bow down to it.
The early church took a similar attitude. They would not offer the sacrifice to Caesar. They would pray for him, not to him. This path cost the church dearly. Much blood was spilled over the years. Many were maimed or even killed. But the faithful did not offer the sacrifice.
Talk of Babylon may seem out of place today. Today we celebrate the birth of our nation.
And yet, we should never celebrate without a full realization of exactly what we celebrate. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be out watching the fireworks, listening to patriotic music. My sons and I will be eating that western American staple, Chili, made with authentic American Antelope meat, cooked outdoors over a fire. It will be a day to give thanks for what our nation has been, and even what it is. We still have more freedom here than in most other nations on earth. No one is coming and dragging us away for the crime of owning a bible, or of attending church.
But, except in the extremely oppressive regimes of the 20th and 21st centuries, such has never really been the case.
In Rome, you could believe what you wanted. That was your private business. There was no objection to reading or hearing about Jesus. They objected to the anti-patriotism of the church that would not offer the pinch of incense. In ancient Babylon, you could worship whomever you wanted most of the time. But, on special occasions, the King expected prayers to him. Free, full ride college scholarships and the kings own food – who would be ungrateful enough to refuse it?
Persecution doesn’t usually come from jackbooted soldiers knocking down doors and dragging people away. It comes when you are asked to compromise – just a little bit, for the greater good of society. A trifle really.
I’ve seen reports in my feed recently that a popular Christian dating site agreed to a court settlement – they will now offer their services to same sex couples. A judge approved the agreement. But it was an agreement that the dating site entered into willingly. They were pressured to change. They did. There was no “But if not…” from the dating site. They will continue to exist, continue to please their stockholders. They settled because it seemed easier than continuing to fight what they saw as a losing battle.
In Washington State, Christian Pharmacists can no longer refuse to stock abortofacients. Will they stand up and say, “But if not…”? Wedding photographers and Bakers already have. Some have faced financial ruin. When they come for you, it likely won’t be with guns blazing. It will be with court orders and consent decrees.
How are we, as the church, to consider our nation which looks more and more like ancient Babylon, and less and less like the last fifteen hundred years of Western Civilization?
Those three men offer us an example. So does the early church. Scripture reminds us that we may be citizens of an earthly nation, but our true citizenship is in heaven. We live blameless lives, working hard to do our jobs with integrity. We pray for kings and all in authority – even the very leaders that would ruin us with their radically secular paganism. That’s what Daniel and his friends did. God delivered them. That’s what the early church did. God did not always deliver them from the punishments of the world. The church continued to confess and to pray faithfully – even for those who were persecuting the church. Rome fell. The church endured, and picked up the pieces.
So today, we live as faithful citizens, praying for our leaders, participating in the civic life of our nation as much as we can. And, if we are brought before tribunals, or commissions, or even the Supreme Court, we continue to be faithful to God and his word. We continue to pray and give thanks in all things. And, we stand boldly with the saints who have gone before. We stand firm, and, like the saints of old, proclaim “But if not…”