Read Daniel 3:12-18 to start.
I imagine the account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is a familiar one for most of us. King Nebuchadnezzar commissioned a great golden image and had all his officials bow down and worship it in a show of obedience and loyalty. The three aforementioned Hebrews, unwilling to bow down to an idol in direct defiance of God’s laws, declined to do so, and there were repercussions. They were hauled in front of the king and asked to explain themselves, and were given a second chance to comply. They still declined.
I didn’t read the rest of the story, but we know how it goes. To satisfy the king’s rage, the furnace was heated up beyond its limits, the Hebrews were bound hand and foot, and then tossed into it, where they promptly survived. This, as you can imagine, was not the king’s plan. He expected a quick and painful death for those who defied his authority. He did not expect them to walk away unharmed. What’s more, they were joined in the fire by a fourth person, either an angel or perhaps a pre-incarnate visitation of the Lord Jesus Christ. No matter the identity of this divine presence, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were delivered from certain death, their obedience to God immediately recognized and rewarded.
This account is much loved and is often taught in Sunday School as a lesson about doing the right thing even when the world is against you, even when there will be consequences. Not that we expect to be burned to death for defying the world, we might simply be made to feel uncomfortable, or be left out of certain things because we obey God rather than man. That might be all we are faced with, rather than fear for our lives. Certainly this is a key takeaway from this passage, that we should do what is right, what God would have us do, rather than what is easy.
There is a small phrase in the passage, though, that I would like to draw on for a lesson this morning. I actually referenced it last year in a sermon on the topic of fear, back in the early days of covid when fear felt like a very real, very present and immediate concern. The three young Hebrews, they no doubt felt considerable fear when it came to refusing the king’s order. The promised penalty was excessive, and Nebuchadnezzar was not a man to be dismissed or negotiated with. They were justified if they were afraid at what might happen to them for obeying God. They did it anyway, trusting that God was able to save them.
The fact that God was able to save them, though, that was not a guarantee that He would save them. But if not, those three words at the start of verse 18, they underpin the entire lesson of the chapter, because while they may have known and understood that the God they served was more than capable of saving them from certain death, they did not know for certain that He would.
It’s one thing to do a thing when you are quite sure of the outcome. It’s quite another when you know that your preferred outcome is possible, but not certain. When I turn on the tap at home, I expect and I get hot or cold water, depending on which tap I turn. I don’t get Pepsi from the faucet, although there are other people in my house who would probably be happy with that. The other day I had corn flakes for breakfast, and it wasn’t a surprise at all. But of course, if you have a big box with a picture of a rooster on it and it’s labelled corn flakes, you expect 100% of the time that if you pour the contents into your cereal bowl, you will get corn flakes. That will work time after time, at least until the box is empty. If I had a box that was labelled corn flakes, but I knew that there was a decent chance that it was full of macaroni, or kidney beans, or maybe it’s full of drywall screws, well, I wouldn’t be so quick to go ahead and pour a heaping bowlful from that box and add milk. Realistically, if there was even a 1% chance that my box of corn flakes was going to actually be full of drywall screws, I would be exceedingly cautious of it. Thankfully, that’s not going to happen, unless my kids get the idea to prank me by switching out the cereal some day. And kids, don’t try it, I know where you live.
Aside from the hi-jinks of mischievous children, though, we live in an orderly world created by an orderly God. Corn flakes do not randomly transform into drywall screws, stuff like that does not happen spontaneously, and that’s a good thing. With many things we know what to expect, and we reliably get those results.
But prayer is not like that, making a request of God is not like that at all. When we pray we do not have a guaranteed result. Sometimes people seem to think that it should be, and that is wrong.
In the gospels, the Lord spoke several times about praying, and of the importance of having faith when asking God for things. There is a parallel passage in Mark’s gospel, but let’s look at this specific account, the fig tree, in Matthew chapter 21, reading from verse 18 Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. 19 And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. 20 And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away! 21 Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. 22 And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
Is that how we think of prayer? If only we have sufficient faith, if we do not have doubts, if we do not waver, then God will grant us whatever we desire? That’s how the passage reads at first glance, ask for whatever, and do so in faith, and you will receive it. That’s a big deal, it’s pretty wide ranging. If you take that as carte blanche, as being wide open, then so long as you have faith, ask away, and God will grant all you ask. Is that how we should think of prayer? Or is that problematic?
When we think of prayer as a free-for-all, ask and you will receive, so long as your faith is sufficient, sort of arrangement, when we think of prayer that way, it can lead us down the path of treating God as a vending machine, which is a concept that I’ve mentioned from this very platform at least four times in the past, I checked my old notes and counted. This is false and wrong and harmful, both to our own faith, and to the witness we provide to others, not to mention the damage it does to our understanding of the very nature of God. We should not think that by asking properly and with enough faith that God will grant us anything we want. I don’t believe that’s what the Lord was teaching the disciples here at all.
The lesson is not that God is there to grant us our every whim, but rather the point is that we should bring our petitions before God, first and foremost, and in faith. It should encourage us to ask God for things that are large, for things are not possible in our own strength. We should certainly have faith that God can deliver, all things are within His power. When Christ spoke this to the disciples, when He described taking a mountain and casting it into the sea, it likely was the Mount of Olives that He pointed to as a specific example of a mountain to move. The road from Bethany, where they were staying, to Jerusalem, runs right over it.
The Mount of Olives is not a large mountain, it’s no Everest or Kilimanjaro, it’s really more of a hill, but it’s still 2700 feet above sea level. And the nearest large body of water is the Dead Sea, at 13 miles away. In modern terms, taking that and casting it into the sea would be quite an undertaking. I did a little bit of comparison with more familiar geography, and found that Cape Porcupine in Nova Scotia, which is located in Auld’s Cove adjacent to the Canso Causeway to get to Cape Breton, is reasonably comparable in size to the Mount of Olives. It sits about a hundred meters above the surrounding land, much as the Mount of Olives does above Jerusalem. And most importantly, it’s a mountain that was taken and cast into the sea. Or at least part of it was, they started blasting there in the 1950s to get the rock to build the causeway. If you’ve ever driven to Cape Breton you’ve seen the rock face that they have been blasting away at ever since, there’s a gravel quarry on that site to this day. They took 9 million tonnes of granite out of it to build that causeway, and who knows how much more over the sixty years following, but much of the mountain is still there. Humans with dynamite and dump trucks have not finished the job of moving that mountain and casting it into the sea. To the disciples, the notion of moving a mountain was patently ridiculous, but Christ encouraged them to ask His Father for things that were big, outlandish, even impossible, because it was easily within His power.
Asking God for large things requires faith, because we cannot possibly do them on our own. Asking God for impossible things, well, that’s not any easier. And if we truly believe that He can answer our prayers, then Christ taught that we should not be afraid to ask. But I don’t think that is a guarantee that all we ask will be granted.
A few chapters later, if we turned to Matthew 26, we would read where the Lord prayed a different prayer in a location not far away, for the garden of Gethsemane is at the foot of the Mount of Olives. He prayed that the Father might take this cup from Him, the cup of suffering that He would drink, the burden He would bear, filled with the sins of the entire human race. He prayed earnestly that this might be taken from Him, because the burden was great and the task dreadful beyond anything you and I could ever imagine. He prayed for deliverance from this, but he also prayed that the Father’s will be done, and we know the answer. Christ drank deeply from that cup, and we are so thankful that He did, for in doing so He paid the price for your sins and mine.
He prayed, and He prayed in faith that far exceeds anything that you or I could ever hope to muster, but His petition was not granted. How does this change our idea of prayer?
I’ve heard it said that when God does not answer our prayers, or rather, does not answer them in the way that we want, that it is because we lack faith, that we have doubts, and so God does not grant us our petitions because we are lacking. I’ve heard this said, or at least implied, on many occasions, and the more I consider it, the more this idea troubles me. Saying that the quantity of our faith somehow unlocks God’s storehouses is a discredit to His very character, and gives far too much opportunity for those whose prayers are answered to boast in their extra measure of faith.
We read from Matthew chapter 21 few minutes ago on the subject of faith to move mountains, back in chapter 17 the Lord said something similar in the context of casting out demons. Reading at verse 19 Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? 20 And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
To be clear, the disciples had tried to cast out a particularly stubborn demon, and had failed. They were certainly plagued with unbelief, and at the first sign of difficulty their faith dissolved and their doubts grew. This was hardly the first or the last time the disciples collapsed under pressure, one only need remember the night of Christ’s arrest and trial to see some glaring examples. But here, their faith was so small that if you could measure it out, even a single mustard seed would be larger. For anyone who doesn’t know how big a mustard seed is, if you only know mustard as the stuff in the yellow bottle beside the ketchup, well, a single seed is about 2mm across. That’s about halfway between a sesame seed and a poppy seed, if we’re comparing small seeds. It’s tiny. One single mustard seed is almost nothing, it takes hundreds of them to make even enough to season a single hotdog. If you want to measure faith like that, we’re talking a very small amount. No one would ever describe one mustard seed as being a significant amount of mustard. It’s barely even noticeable by itself.
We speak of people as having great faith, and certainly there are people who do. But it’s not about having the most faith, it’s about where that faith is placed. Faith in the God of heaven, the true God who sent His Son to die for us, not some twisted image of God, or faith in Vishnu, or Buddha, or science, or the flying spaghetti monster or something else entirely, that is where you need to put your faith in order for it to be worthwhile. And faith, at its core, is not a matter of quantity, it’s about trusting in God to do what is best.
We don’t see very many mountains moved out of their place. We might see roads carved into the sides of mountains or tunnels cut through them, but the actual mountain remains where it is. If there was a way, if there was an amount of faith where God would uproot and relocate mountains on the whim of a believing person, if that was the only qualification, then surely it would happen on a regular basis. But I’ve yet to see it, I’ve yet to see anyone so much as pray and then have a load of gravel spread out on their driveway by divine intervention. Of course, there is no compelling reason for a mountain to be moved. As much as someone might want it moved so they can save twenty minutes on their morning commute, that’s hardly a good reason to uproot a mountain that’s been there for millennia, is it?
Sometimes we might want something and think it’s a great idea, but God knows better. He knows far, far better than we do. We may bring before Him all manner of requests, convinced that we are asking for good and needful things, things which we firmly believe are in our best interest, or the best interest of other people, or of God’s kingdom in general, and we may get answers that surprise and disappoint. But if we trust God we need to be prepared to live with “but if not.”
Often that’s what it is, living with the answer that we were not hoping for. Sometimes, though, it’s a much bigger deal. For Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, they would not be living with but if not. They would have died for their faith. The consequences of their situation were far greater than we typically find ourselves in.
In Hebrews chapter 11, the faith chapter, there is a long list of those who followed God faithfully and saw vast blessings, people like Enoch and Abraham. Throughout the OT there are many accounts of those who served God, and how He took care of them in unexpected and wondrous ways. Certainly we have ample evidence that God is able to preserve those who trust Him. But that is not the experience of all faithful people. Halfway through verse 35 of that chapter, there is a dramatic shift: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: 36 And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: 37 They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;
No one prays that they might be tortured. No one prays that they might be scourged, stoned, or imprisoned. No one prays for a gruesome and violent death. But there have been many who were faithful to God that received such treatment. Why is that? God was able to deliver them, and all of those people would no doubt have preferred deliverance over suffering. But He did not deliver. But if not means that you remain faithful even when you don’t have the outcome you hope for. It means trusting in God even when it hurts.
I should include a disclaimer that intentionally seeking out harm, undertaking unnecessary risks, or making foolish choices under the guise of trusting God is not what we’re talking about here. God asks us to obey and to trust, He doesn’t ask us to be fools. I trust God, but I look before I cross the street, and I lock my doors at night. I trust God, but I still wear my seatbelt. When I was in a car accident in 2008, I walked away from it. If I had neglected my seatbelt that day, would God have kept me safe? Certainly He could have, but I don’t know what would have happened, and I don’t need to find out.
If you read your Canadian history books, you will learn that Louis Riel carried a cross and no weapons during the North West rebellion of 1885, trusting that God would keep him safe. And even with bullets flying past his head, he was not shot. Not that I would consider Riel a good example of a faithful person, mind you. Maybe God kept him safe from the bullets, I don’t know, but I do know that Riel was not delivered from the hangman’s noose after being found guilty of treason.
Trusting God is not a licence for bad choices or needless risks, something we would all do well to remember. We should not test Him needlessly, because while He may save us from our poor decisions, we need not invite them. That’s a “but if not” no one needs to experience.
Setting aside unwise decisions, selfish choices, and general foolishness, what if we do make good requests of God, and are faced with but if not? What if God does not answer what we ask of Him? What if we pray for things that are good, things that are holy, things that would bring great benefit and blessing, and are refused? What then? What if our petitions are denied? What if we are faced with but if not?
My father passed away in March of this year. I prayed for him, for his salvation specifically, until the day of his death. I prayed for dad for decades, and I know that I was not alone in my prayers. My wife prayed for him. My children prayed for him. No doubt many people here had prayed for him on occasion, and my sister and my mom likely prayed for him as much as I did. I don’t know who else prayed for my father, who else prayed that he might consider the condition of his soul before it was too late, who else prayed that he would understand and believe the truth before he passed into eternity. How many times he was prayed for, only God knows that number, but I think that ten thousand is a safe guesstimate. That might sound like a ridiculous number, but it’s probably too low. One prayer per day over 30 years is more than that, and I had prayed for him since the 1980s. Ten thousand prayers in his lifetime is absolutely possible. His name was brought before God many times, by many people, but so far as I know, he went into eternity unprepared to meet his creator. The only glimmer of hope I have for him is that he did attend an Alpha course two years ago, and the facilitators of the course came to visit him in the hospital two days before he died. He was happy to see them and have them pray over him once more. That’s a small hope, but it’s something. Other than that, I have no reason to believe that God granted my petition, and not mine alone, but that of many others, to see my father saved.
When you pray for something, for someone, not for selfish gain but for the salvation of a loved one, when you pray this for decades, and still you don’t see the answer you seek, that is a but if not if ever there was one. I’m hardly unique in this. My father, obstinate as he was, he was far from the only person who resisted the gospel until the end. How many people here this morning have someone they have prayed for as often and as faithfully as I did for him? How many people here have their own but if not to consider today?
This is not an easy thing to answer, because we trust in God to take care of us, and to take care of those we care about, and sometimes that does not look like we expect it to. Sometimes it’s challenging to keep trusting when things go a different way. Sometimes it’s hard to see our petitions denied. Sometimes it’s downright devastating.
When we have to come to terms with a hard no from God, it may not be easy to accept. From the passage we read in Daniel, it sounds that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were prepared for either outcome, but it’s not always so straightforward. And sometimes the situation is far more long term.
The apostle Paul, he was faced with some persistent unknown affliction; he described it as a thorn in the flesh and the messenger of Satan in 2 Corinthians chapter 12. Obviously these are not words you would use to describe some minor annoyance, the messenger of Satan is not a hangnail or a stubbed toe. We don’t know what this was, whether the problem was physical, mental, spiritual, or interpersonal in nature, but it plagued Paul and he prayed for its removal. His request was not granted. Reading at verse 7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Paul, a man who exhausted himself for the spread of the gospel, who continued in the work despite all manner of opposition and suffering, he was someone who clearly obeyed and trusted God. I can only imagine that he had faith greater than a mustard seed, but the Lord did not give him what he asked, not in this instance.
It says that he besought the Lord thrice; three times he prayed earnestly, he implored and begged that his thorn in the flesh might depart. I can’t imagine someone more faithful and more worthy who ever sought some manner of deliverance from the Almighty. But God said no.
Sometimes God says no. In Paul’s case, this was to keep him humble, as the passage tells us. It was also to remind him that God’s grace was sufficient, that grace was more important, more needful than comfort or relief from whatever it was that troubled him. In the case of my prayers for my father, I don’t know the reason why. And I have to be okay with that. Sometimes we don’t know why God answers in the way He does; why He does not give us what we think is best. Maybe some day we will understand, maybe we won’t, not until the hereafter.
This I do know, that God is able to answer as He will, that He is not limited by my narrow vision or low horizon. And I know that He has a far greater understanding than I do, and that His plans are far better than mine. And I know that no matter what this world throws at me, no matter what Satan puts in my way, or no matter what mistakes and poor choices I make of my own accord, God’s salvation is perfect, and His grace is sufficient.
I can pray, you can pray, trusting in this, trusting in a God who loves you and wants the best for you, knowing that He will answer, maybe in the way you hope, but if not, then remember that He cares for you enough to send His Son to die for you. He knows what is best, even when it does not make sense to us. And remember, come what may, He is still in control.