Epiphany 4a

Preached: January 30, 2011

Serve Only the God Who Can Save
Daniel 3:13-27

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit leads us to serve Jesus is Daniel 3.

Then in angry rage Nebuchadnezzar ordered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be brought to him. Then these men brought them before the king. He said to them, “How is it, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you are not worshiping my gods and not bowing down to the golden image I've set up? Now, if at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, zither, harp, pipes, and all kinds of music -- if you are ready to fall down and bow before the image I've made, fine. If you do not bow down at that instant, you shall be thrown into the midst of the blazing, fiery furnace. What god is there who can save you from my hands.”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied to the king “ O Nebuchadnezzar, it's not necessary for us to answer to you in this matter. If it so happens, our God, whom we serve, is able to save us from the blazing, fiery furnace and can save us from your hand, O king. If he doesn't, let it be known to you, O king, that we will not worship your gods, and we will not bow down to the golden image you've set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with anger, and the appearance of his face changed toward Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In response he ordered for the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than it was usually heated. He ordered some of the strongest men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to cast them into the burning, fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their robes, pants, turbans, and other clothing and were thrown into the midst of the blazing, fiery furnace. Now because the king's order was so urgent and the furnace so hot, the flames of the fire killed these men who had taken up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. So these three, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the midst of the blazing, fiery furnace.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar sprung up amazed. He asked his counselors, “Did we not throw three men into the fire bound?”

They answered the king, “Truly, O king.”

He answered, “What's this am seeing! Four men walking around loose in the midst of the fire. They're unharmed. And the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar came close to the entrance of the blazing, fiery furnace and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out and come forth. Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire.”

The satraps, prefects, governors, and counselors of the king gathered around and looked at these men whose bodies weren't injured by the fire. Their hair wasn't singed, and their robes weren't scorched. The smell of fire wasn't on them. (Daniel 3:13-27)

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

A young lady from China comes to the United States to get her degree. At the university she's curious about these Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter. She looks into campus ministry groups, and a WELS pastor tells her about Jesus, God's Son, our Savior, who came to this earth born as a baby and who died for our sins and rose from the dead for our salvation.

As that Good News of forgiveness in Jesus is shared with her during her stay, the Holy Spirit brings her to believe and trust in Jesus, her God and Savior. But what will she do when she returns home? Revert back to her family religion? Join the official Christian church which can only teach what the government says it can and so has lost much of the truth? Or will she hold to her faith quietly joining with like-minded Christians, sharing the Gospel as the opportunity allows? That could put into jeopardy her career she's trained so hard for. It could alienate her from family and friends. Yes, it even could put her at risk for arrest and imprisonment. What would you do? “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:10 NIV-1984).

Another student goes to that university from a small town in America's heartland. He's celebrated Christmas and Easter all his life. He's learned about Jesus from Dad and Mom and in Sunday school week after week. After confirmation he was active in the youth group. Everyone was so encouraging.

But at the university his faith struggled. The sexual morals of the coed dorms was worse than he had ever seen on TV, and yet so tempting as also was the easy access to beer and liquor. One of the most popular professors regularly ridiculed followers of the Christian myths. We don't believe in Zeus or Hercules any more; why believe in Jesus? The arguments against Christianity seemed so reasonable. Many of his fellow students drunk them in. Was Sunday school just a bunch of baby stories? Was church just a way for his parents to maintain control? Wasn't it time for him to leave behind his childish beliefs and come to grip with the reality of science, technology, evolution, and humanism? Didn't those hold out such great promises?

What will that young Christian do? Turn his back on Jesus? Try to hide his faith? Lead a double life, a Christian one at home but a different one at school? Or will he seek out his fellow Christians who share his faith so they can support each other with God's Word? Will he run to Jesus and his Word for strength and endurance? Will he let his light shine despite the rejection, ridicule, insults, and even bad grades he might receive for openly following Jesus? What would you do? “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:11, 12 NIV-1984), Jesus said.

We recognize the beauty of the Beatitudes Jesus spoke as he began the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. But do we practice them and live them? How well do we face the insults, persecution, and crosses, which come because we follow Jesus?

Now even though you understand those stories of persecution I've told, maybe you figure we're not in that kind of situation. And we certainly don't face what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did, do we? We live in a Christian community. We have freedom of religion.

Now I don't want to done play those blessings God has given us in our country. But do we really live in that good of a society or have we grown so use to conforming to this world that we don't even realize how often we compromise our faith to avoid bad feelings or insults or ridicule? Is fitting in or is confessing Jesus more important in the way you speak and act as you make life's choices?

I struggle as I examine my heart and life. Where have I compromised my faith to make life easier? Examine your heart and life. This is hard work. For the more clearly the word exposes our compromising, the more defensive and even angry we become. We don't want our life interrupted. We don't want to be told that our way falls short. We don't want to make the changes that let our faith shine out more clearly, especially if others are going to start thinking we're becoming too religious.

But dear friends in Christ, consider Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. See how they served only the God who can save. They served him no matter how fearful the threats. They served him trusting his merciful power.

And dear Christian, I know that you too want to do that too. Serve only the God who can save. Let's learn from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

A. Serve him no matter how fearful the threats

1. Why didn't Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego fit in?

Who were these three men? There original Hebrew names were Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Along with Daniel they were taken as young men away from their homeland of Judah and brought to Babylon to be trained as future counselors and officials for Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom. That's why their names were changed.

During their training they excelled, but they did not compromise their faith in the Lord, the God of Israel. For example, they did not eat or drink the wine and meat given for them, since it was dedicated to a pagan god and not prepared according to the Old Testament dietary laws that God had given at Mt. Sinai, which they were still under. They boldly lived their faith. Later they were promoted at Daniel's request after the Lord gave him the interpretation to King Nebuchadnezzar's dream that no one else could interpret.

But now as appointed official, they were to participate in this massive public ceremony. The king had erected a huge gold statue. At the sound of the music all were to bow down and worship it. How Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood out as all the people around them fell to the ground and they remained standing. They did not fit in. For they served the Lord alone, the only God who can save.

Were they afraid? Ancient kings did not make idle threats. These three were accused and brought before Nebuchanezzar. And what's surprising to me here is that, instead of throwing them into the fiery furnace right away as the decree had said, he actually gave them a second chance.

How deceptive the devil's temptations! Think of the pressure to conform now. If they had been hoping to avoid notice, that clearly wasn't happening. They had time to reconsider and rationalize bowing down. They wouldn't really be worshiping the image in their heart. It was only an act of patriotism, doing their duty, showing their loyalty. They could do much more good for God's people if they stayed alive. Wouldn't it be better to just fit in?

If those temptations did go through their minds, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not give in. No matter how fearful the threats of the king, they feared God above all, even above King Nebuchadnezzar and his fiery furnace. They served the Lord God alone. They did not care whether they fit in or not.

2. How have you compromised your faith in order to fit in?

That, dear friends, helps us examine our own hearts and lives. How many of your choices are made because you're afraid of not fitting in? Is that truly fearing God above all? Are we afraid of not fitting in, so we don't pray if others might see us at school or in public. Are we afraid of not fitting in, so we steer away from mentioning Jesus when among friends who believe differently. Are we afraid of not fitting in, so we join the gossip or drink one more even though we've had enough. Are we afraid of not fitting in, so we don't come to Bible class since our parents didn't go and so few people do and we'd feel uncomfortable if we did. Are we afraid of not fitting in, so although we say that worship is important we don't want it to take away from work or family time because only religious fanatics do that. Are we afraid of not fitting in, so spending to keep our status in the community is a higher priority than supporting the Lord's work. Are we afraid of not fitting in, so we settle for being lukewarm Christians? If we're lukewarm Christians we don't need to be afraid of standing alone as everyone else bows down to the gods of this age. For lukewarm Christian bow with them, rationalizing that in their hearts they still believe. Whatever happened to fearing, loving, and trusting God above all?

Maybe that's one reason we like to imagine our community, culture, and country as more Christian that they actually are. Then we can fit in with everyone else if we just assume that we're all Christian and that what they're doing is serving God so we can do it too.

But Jesus warns us against that thinking. Rather than fitting in, we are to expect the opposite. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20 NIV-1984), he said before they crucified him. We are to be in this world but not of it. Through the Apostle Paul he said, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2 NIV-1984). We're not going to be able to fit the round peg of our Christian faith into the square hole of society. Unless you carve away at your faith, you're not going to fit in.

So dear friends, fellow Christians in this dark world, how can we stand tall like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and not bow down. How can we be transformed instead of conforming? How can we overcome this fear of not fitting in or whatever other threats of ridicule, insult, or persecution there may be? How? By remembering who the God is whom we serve. He alone is the God who saves. Therefore, trust his merciful power.

B. We serve him trusting his merciful power

1. Why did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego trust God's power?

And that, dear friends, brings us to what I would count as the greatest miracle in the text. It's not what happened after they were thrown into the fiery furnace, but before.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are standing before the most powerful man in the world. He has just given them a second chance to save their lives by bowing down. What a miracle that they do not cave in! What a miracle that they boldly confess the Savior-God! Listen again to what they said, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18 NIV-1984).

Since you know how it turns out, these words may not sound that remarkable. But they didn't know. Rather they trusted God's merciful power. He who had rescued his people from Egypt through the Red Sea, he who had sent the hoards of Midian running at the hand of Gideon, he who slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers overnight to rescue Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah -- he was certainly powerful enough to keep three men alive if he so chose. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego trusted God's power to be greater than any king's. Even though the king's power was so plain to see and his threat so real, they trusted God's unseen power. What faith! His mercy had used such power in the past to rescue his people, and he certainly could do so now.

But they had no promise that God would use his power to keep them safe from the flames. He might let the flames bring painful death and use his power instead to bring these three young men safely home to heaven. That's why they add at the end that even if God doesn't choose to save them from the flames, they still trusted his merciful power and will serve no false god. What faith in action!

2. What will his merciful power do for you?

And his merciful power is at work for you, dear Christian. You not only have the evidence of his powerful rescues worked again and again throughout the Old Testament. But see his merciful power in the miracles of Jesus: healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, making the lame walk, and the deaf hear. And look into the empty Easter tomb. He's risen. Not even death has greater power than his. Isn't the power of your Jesus, who died for your sins and rose for your victory, greater than any threat you might face?

For even if in this life you suffer, even if each day feels like a fiery furnace on earth, look at what his merciful power has prepared for you. His death purchased an inheritance in heaven for you who believe where rust does not destroys or time wear out. His blood has washed away your guilt to make you ready to stand in the blessed majesty of your holy God seated on the rainbow encircled throne before the glassy sea. That future glory, sealed to you by his resurrection, far outweighs any present suffering. For just as he has risen from death so also he will raise us to live and reign with him eternally. Trust his merciful power. Serve only the God who can save.

Even if you're afraid of not fitting in, or afraid of what others might say or think about you, or afraid of insults, ridicule, hurt, trust his merciful power. At times his power can seem so weak. As the strongest soldiers in Nebuchadnezzar's army pulled the bonds tight around Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and manhandled them into the furnace, wouldn't God's power seem far and distant? But his mighty angel was with them the entire time. Even Nebuchadnezzar could see it in the end. And even though we cannot see his angels, they are watching over you and guarding you.

So bear the crosses, the insults, the persecution that comes as you stand up for Jesus. Serve only the God who can save,even as the world bows down to its gods. Whether returning to China, or going off to school, or living in Hancock trust God's merciful power, the only power that saves. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313