It's one of those stories many us have read a thousand times. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego: those exotically named Jewish heroes, getting cast into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. The thrilling conclusion sees all three men walk away impossibly unscathed and the King converted from paganism to the worship of their "Most High God".
Yet because we're so familiar with the narrative and its victorious ending, I wonder if we sometimes miss something crucial about these three men, something that is crucially relevant to the way we all approach everyday life.
The story – found in Daniel 3 – is pretty striking. If it wasn't so full of death and attempted murder it would probably be more popular in Sunday school. The King demands that everyone bows down to worship his proud new golden idol or risk death by furnace. The integrity of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego forces them to choose the fire. Nebuchadnezzar is incensed by their barefaced rejection, and orders the furnace to be made seven times hotter than usual; so hot that the poor guards who escort the three to certain death are also killed.
When he doesn't hear any blood-curdling screams, the King checks on the three and finds them implausibly still alive and intact, and what's more, they're joined by a fourth, angelic presence.
We rightly praise the three for their courage and faith as they're released and even promoted by the astounded king. They believed they would be delivered by the Lord's hand, and that was exactly what happened. But while they did claim that "the God we serve is able to deliver us" (verse 17), we miss so much if we don't read on another verse.
When defying the King they continue, in that sort of weird collective voice only found in the Bible: "But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."
Or in other words: our faith in God and his goodness is not dependent on him doing this one thing for us now.
We can miss this verse because it turns out to be an apparently unneccesary footnote, a contingency that was thankfully never required. But I'm not sure that's really what it is. In fact, I think the faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is most impressive because it accepts God is in control whatever happens, not because their faith is ultimately proved well-placed.
I'm not sure I could always say the same thing and really mean it. In total honesty I want God to do the things that I want him to do: to heal me when I'm sick, to keep my bank balance in the black and to open doors when I fancy a new opportunity. Yet even if he does not, that doesn't make him any less powerful, or any less God.
What I want to develop is a faith that's tough enough to acknowledge that, even in the bumpiest moments. Even when the metaphorical flames are licking at my ankles, I want to be able to look to heaven and continue to worship my God who could extinguish them in a second.
A few simple thoughts about how this kind of faith is developed.
First, part of the answer lies in learning to pray, "God, your will be done." It's a pat phrase, but it's also a sentence which sets our priorities the right way round. Of course we want him to do our will, but even more than that, we want him to do his own.
Second, we should learn to practise Christ-like submission. Jesus famously calls the first to be last, but while we might see that as a restrictive, even punitive spiritual pursuit, it's actually a liberating one. Submission means not always having to be right, or more pertinently, not always having to have things our own way. Putting the needs and agendas of others before our own isn't just a good thing to do, it's actually the Kingdom path to our own contentment.
Third, we need to develop an eternal focus. By nature, a society focused on the pleasure of the individual consumer is particularly preoccupied with the here and now. We're probably the most now-focused culture that's ever lived and perhaps the one that's most afraid of its own mortality. By contrast, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego lived their present in the context of eternity. Part of the reason they had no fear in trusting God was because they had an expectation of joining him forever.
I was astonished this week to hear the uncle of murdered African American Philando Castile – speaking just hours after the death of his nephew – praying "we got to hang on by the strong grip of the lion's paw". That is the kind of faith which believes in God even in the darkest hour, even when the worst nightmare has come true. It's a faith which trusts God even amid the unthinkable and which is somehow able to see the even bigger picture, even in a moment when all seems lost. It is a faith to which I can only aspire – but I do aspire to it.