April 10, 2016

Daniel 3:1-7;12-18

In the early 1970’s, Woodlawn High School, a school of 2,500 white students in Birmingham, Alabama, was forced to accept 500 black students as a part of court-ordered integration.  These students were bussed in from poorer parts of the city and the results were predictable.woodlawn-high-schooljpg-20510cd888e81eee

Fights between black and white students were so common that the school was almost shut down.  Finally, a breakthrough came when the football team was integrated with five black players under coach Tandy Geralds.  Among them was a ninth-grader named Tony Nathan.

By his junior year Tony was emerging as a star running back and by his senior year he was leading the team to a run at the state playoffs.

Prior to the beginning of his senior year Coach Geralds invited a local evangelist to speak to the team along with other motivational speakers during a five-day camp.

Tony-Nathan-_tx728_fsharpenAt the end of the presentation, the players were asked to seek salvation in Jesus and to be change agents in their school and a large number of the team climbed down from the bleachers to the gym floor to kneel with the speaker.  Tony was among them.

This became a transition point for the team and a pivotal point of racial healing in the school.  Tony began to feel a calling and a higher purpose for his game.

Ten games later, Woodlawn was undefeated, but so was crosstown rival Banks High School, which was ranked No. 1 in the state, led by a quarterback named Jeff Rutledge.

Word had spread that many players on the Banks team had also made commitments to Christ.  Before the game members of the rival teams, led by Nathan and Rutledge, met at a local swimming pool at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes gathering to share their religious experiences.  At the same time thousands of fans were meeting at Legion Field for a Jesus rally.

Rutledge said. “This revival of Christianity and tolerance got the whole city excited.”http://www.miamiherald.com/sports/nfl/miami-dolphins/article39634395.html#storylink=cpyUnknown

The reason the Jesus rally was at Legion Field is that the next day the game was being held there.  There were so many people wanting to see the game it had to be moved there.  On Nov. 8, 1974, a record crowd of 42,000 attended the Iron Bowl to watch a high school football game.   20,000 others were turned away.

Banks beat Woodlawn 18-7.  Nathan ran for 112 yards and a touchdown. Rutledge threw for 185 yards and a touchdown.

For Woodlawn, losing the game was a great disappointment because only one team could advance to the state playoffs, but the loss was “mitigated by the feeling that a more profound kind of history had been made that season.”

A month later, after coach Bear Bryant had visited Nathan’s home for a second time and promised him he would recruit other black athletes, Nathan signed with Alabama, the first black player to do so.   Coach Bryant also recruited and signed Jeff Rutledge. http://www.miamiherald.com/sports/nfl/miami-dolphins/article39634395.html

Unknown-1In addition to the teams being undefeated, Nathan and Rutledge had been honored at a sports banquet in the city.  The Governor of Alabama was present, George C. Wallace.  When it came time for Jeff Rutledge and Tony Nathan to receive their awards, they were asked to come forward and have their picture made with the Governor of Alabama.

However, for Tony, this was as much a violation of his integrity as if he’d been asked to steal from a teammate.  There sat the same man who had stood on the steps of the University of Alabama library a decade earlier and said that he was drawing a “line in the dust and toss(ing) the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny…I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”  These are the infamous words Wallace left to history, which he regretted before he died.Unknown-2

What was a young, seventeen-year-old teenager to do?  Go stand by this man and smile, hold his trophy, and get his picture made for the paper and give up every bit of integrity within him?  Nathan stayed in his seat and when called on again, he spoke up and told the group why he couldn’t have his picture made with the governor.  http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/movie_script.php?movie=woodlawn

What do you do when faced with a decision that violates what you know in your heart to be wrong, but you also know that if you stand up for what you believe it will lead you into the fire?

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were taken away from their home in Jerusalem, away from all they knew–family, tradition, homes, temple, customary diet, jobs, language–and enslaved in Babylon.

One day King Nebuchadnezzar gave an order that when musical instruments were sounded all the people had to fall down and worship the image of gold that he had set up.  Anyone caught not doing this was to be arrested and thrown into a blazing furnace.

Now think about how simple it would have been for these men to comply with this order and avoid death.

Couldn’t they have bowed down and not really meant it?

Hasn’t someone said, “How are you today?” and you said, “I’m doing just fine,” when actually you were about to blow a gasket? Yet you said what you said just to get through the day.  Your action was a mere cover for your real emotions.

How many people have not said anything about unethical practices in the workplace because they just wanted to get through the day or perhaps not jeopardize their job?

Couldn’t these men have just gone through the motions of bowing down without meaning it?  Wouldn’t God have understood?

With his courageous stand at that banquet, young Tony Nathan reminded everyone present and us today that when we give up our integrity, we give up our voice.  We give up our hope for change.  We give up our opportunity to initiate change, and we forfeit the God-given freedom to choose right instead of wrong.  We sell ourselves to the highest bidder.  We become owned by someone else.

A part of us has died and it is consumed in the fires of life that will threaten to consume others who do not know there is a better way, or those who do know but also believe that the pay for it is too high, that the cost for standing up for justice is too high.

thBefore we find the courage to go into the fire, we must believe that a time comes when lies will be found out; that double standards cannot stand the test of time; that the cooking of the books will be exposed; that manipulating of the sheet does not make a person the hardest worker; that fudging on the expense account will not make one eternally rich; that changing of the grades will not make a person smarter; that padding of the resume does not make a person best suited for the job; that fudging of our taxes places one at great risk for arrest and shame; that manipulating a will does not make us the winner; and the forming of collusions makes a person into a bully.  Even if a person is so blind he or she cannot see any of this, here is a gentle reminder: judgment by the Almighty God awaits us all.

Proverbs 11:3 says “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.”  In other words, “Your lack of integrity will destroy you.”images

It is difficult for some people to see that their lack of integrity will lead to destruction because it appears to be just the opposite.  The world often teaches that the way to get ahead is through unscrupulous means.  We see it all the time.

When those of us lean toward doing what is right, we are reminded of the great price many pay for doing so.

We see this when whistle blowers are punished instead of rewarded by companies.  We see it when people are passed over for promotions because they will not keep their mouth shut about the unethical practices going on in the school, military, business, or government.  We see it when people’s reputations are put on the line through gossip and false accusations because they have become privy to information of wrongdoing that others want to keep quiet.

We hear evil standing at the mouth of the fiery furnace and saying to us, “You don’t want to go in there.  You don’t have to.  All you have to do is to abandon your integrity.  All you have to do is bow down to this idol.  All you have to do is come up here and get your picture made with me. It’s easy.  Avoid the fire.”

Ministers in Germany did this during the Holocaust.  They saw what was happening to the Jews in their own country but they did not have the integrity to step into the fire and speak the truth.  They knew if they went into the fire and challenged Hitler’s belief in a superior race and that the Jews were the reasons for the world’s problems, they might not come out of the fire themselves.

Only a few gave themselves to this task like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   Like Bonhoeffer, they didn’t physically come out of the fire, but their words and their integrity remain with us forever.  Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.  God will not hold us guiltless.  Not to speak is to speak.  Not to act is to act.” th-1

What if the entire Christian core of Germany had stood against the Third Reich?  They had the ears of the people before Hitler.  They represented the authority of God.  What might have been the outcome?  We will never know.  We do know they refused to go into the fire and we know the outcome of that.

Our other choice is to have the integrity of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  From their story we can see that even when we make choices of integrity, God does not always spare us from the fire.  Sometimes it is our calling to go into the fire.  Don’t you know that is what Martin Luther King, Jr. believed about his life?

Does anyone want to go into the fire?  No more than Jesus wanted to go to a cross.  It’s not about desire.  It is about conviction.  It’s about our love, worship, and devotion to God, a God who loves justice.

We may not have any desire to go there, but we know that in going there God is with us.   God is already in the fire.  We know that in going there, we can be forged into the persons God wants us to be.  We can embrace it as a calling.  But we wonder, “Is it worth the price?”

God is the forger.  He is the Great Blacksmith, bending, hammering, molding, and shaping us into the people He wants us to become.

That’s the reason King Nebuchadnezzar saw four men walking around in the fire instead of three, “unbound and unharmed,” and the fourth looked like a son of the gods.

When I was a college student at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, I kept a factory clean in the shadows of the Vulcan.  The Vulcan is the world’s largest cast iron statue.  Every day as I drove to work I was greeted by this Roman god of fire, a 100,000 pound bearded man, which overlooks the city from the top of Red Mountain.

th-2The Vulcan is there because fire shaped that city, both literally and symbolically.  People struggled to make a living by the sweat of their brows as they looked into fiery furnaces in Birmingham, the same city where they struggled to break free of the heat of prejudice and racial hatred.

While the Roman god of fire is mythical, he at least does one thing on top of Red Mountain that reminds me of God.  With his spear, he points heavenward to a God who forges us into the likeness of his Son, who asks us to take up a cross and follow him.

This is no myth: if we choose to pass through the fire, we give others hope.

The day before that famous football game between Woodlawn and Banks High School, Tony Nathan and Jeff Rutledge ran into each other while practicing at Legion Field.

Jeff says, “It’s crazy, all these people coming to see us. What’s so special about that?” http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/movie_script.php?movie=woodlawn

Tony replies, “We’re a symbol. We give them hope.”   If you want to give people hope, maintain your integrity. (Ibid)

The people of Birmingham erected a mythical god of fire on top of Red Mountain partly as a way of saying that fire became the hope that sustained their city and gave livelihood to the people.

This is no myth: when you choose to pass through the fire because of your integrity before God, you are saying more about God than you are saying about yourself.

You are saying that God can use the fire to forge us into something amazing and something beautiful.  God can take a difficult and impossible situation and make something positive come out of it, even something beautiful.

Before going into the fiery furnace, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, said:

“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 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.” (3:16-18)

Now before the week is out, you may be confronted with a choice: to walk into the fire, or to remain silent, to go a different way.

Before the month is over, evil may be standing at the furnace door giving you a hundred reasons why you don’t want to go in there.  Most of them will be very convincing.

You might be facing a choice right now as to whether you will speak up or stay silent, whether you will act or do nothing.  Walking into the fire is not an easy choice.

We know that the King looked into the fire and said with amazement, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”th-3 (v.25)

I cannot promise that walking into the fire will be painless.  I can promise that God is already there.  I can promise that God honors those who honor Him.

Let your light shine bright and honor God with your integrity.