Video of Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 23:10 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We began Lent with dust and ashes, with the burned remains of palms and the signs of mourning on our heads. Now we come close to the end of Lent, and Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah—those are the Hebrew names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—are confronted with the threat of being turned into ashes and dust by a fiery furnace. And the choice is clear: worship a statue, an idol, a false god; or die by being burned up. There are no other options. Not only is the choice clear, it seems rather easy—at least for most people. All the people who have been conquered by the Babylonians, from all sorts of places, countries, religions—they all decide to bow down rather than die. For them the choice is easy: idolatry, rather than death.
As of this moment, none of us has been threatened by our governing authorities to bow down to a giant statue, or be put to death. No doubt there are some in our country who would like for it to be that way: to kill or otherwise neutralize anyone who does not bow down to the death-dealing cults of our world: the cult of sexual identity, which denies God’s creation of male and female and the Christ-and-Church mystery of marriage; or the cult that worships at the bloody altars of Planned Parenthood and their political priests; the “right” to kill our own children if they do not fit the ideas we have of how our lives should go. Perhaps it is coming. Perhaps we will, at some point, have to make a life-or-death choice about offering our pinch of incense to the gods of the peoples around us. And there is, of course, no choice for those who worship the God who is Father-Son-and-Holy-Spirit: “We have no need to respond on this issue. But our God is able to deliver us from whatever furnaces are constructed. He will deliver us from the hand of any tyrant over our souls. But if He does not deliver us physically, know that we will not serve your gods or worship the images you set up.”
But while that sort of coercion may be coming in the future, our temptations right now are more subtle. There are, of course, many lead astray by every changing cultural wind, who seek out whatever teaching scratches the itch they have in their ears. But for those who believe the Word of God, it is much more likely that we will be lulled into sleep and, like the seeds of Jesus’ parable, have our faith slowly extinguished by the times of testing, choked out by the cares, riches, pleasures of life (Luke 8:13-14). These idols do not tower over our plains of Dura, statues 90 feet tall, where everyone can see them, where loud music signals our moment to bow down. The idols that tempt us are more dangerous. If we had giant statues, and we had a single command to bow down or die, the choice is clear, and for many people easy. But our idols are mostly silent, constructed from good materials, and multiple, rather than singular. And the reality is, if we do not resist the more subtle idols, how would we resist the obvious and ones? If we can barely stand to lose a little comfort or time now, what makes us think that we would be able to resist unto the shedding of our blood?
We are far more likely to be tempted between the studying of the word of God and lunch; between Christ’s gifts in the Lord’s House and our jobs; between Christ’s gifts in the Lord’s House and our families. We are far more likely to put all those things on pedestals and bow down to them and serve them over the service and worship of Yahweh. When we are confronted each week with hours and hours of stories contrary to the Story of God in Jesus Christ, the bare minimum is to be, every week, in the Lord’s House to hear His Word and receive His gifts. If we are not shaped and formed by the Word of God, perhaps especially by the story we are going to hear next week, we will be shaped and formed by other stories. There is no neutrality between idols and Yahweh. Even if choosing the idol keeps you safe today, it will not keep you safe forever. We will each stand before the King above all earthly kings. Him you should fear, who not only is able to kill the body, but also the soul in hell.
How many times we’ve chosen all that will turn to dust, rather than that which is eternal. Our time is passing away; our jobs are passing away; even our families are passing away. The one who loves his life and tries to keep it in this world will lose it. So here we find ourselves in the furnace of our own sinful flesh, in the midst of the fire of this world. And who shows up, but the one whom even Nebuchadnezzar recognizes as someone like “a son of the gods”? The Son of God shows up in Babylon, in the furnace, in the fire. He bears all our idolatry, all our sin, all our false choices. And He does it to bring us out of the fire of sin and death. He does it when He begins to pour the baptismal water of His death on the fire of our sin, and He continues to do it every single day, until His resurrection life is all that’s left.
Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah said no to the idol, even if it cost them their lives. “They choose the furnace. They choose certain death rather than bowing to an idol. Like Noah, they trust the Lord will care for them, even when the water is rising. Like Abraham they believe in the resurrection, even when the knife is at their throat. Like Moses, they trust the Lord to see them through, even with the army behind them and the sea in front of them. Like Ezekiel they know that the Lord can raise the dead, even if they are reduced to nothing but a pile of dry bones” (Rev. Mark Birkholz).
They were thrown into the furnace, but the one who appears with them was not thrown in. No one threw God into the furnace. He willingly joins His people there, in the midst of the fire. And so does the Son of God join us in our flesh in the midst of the fire. We walk with Him in the narrow, difficult path of the cross and suffering. That may mean different things depending on our vocation or our location in the world or the time—God has put us here at this time. “Thus says Yahweh, who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel: fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:1-2). He formed you. He redeemed you. He is with you now, and no one can snatch you out of His hand, even in the fire. “Jesus is the ark that carries you safe in the midst of the storm. Jesus is the Lamb who dies for you and you are set free. Jesus is the pillar of cloud and fire that leads you through the sea and the wilderness. Jesus sends His Spirit to give life to your dry bones. And Jesus is with you in the midst of the furnace, giving you His strength and hope” (Birkholz).
Lent began with ashes, but it does not and will not end there. When the three young men came out of the fire, the fire had no power over their bodies. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. When I sit by a campfire for ten minutes, I smell like the fire! Not Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They might as well never have been in the furnace at all. So it will be when Jesus calls you from your grave. As He holds you in His hand in the fire of this world, it cannot consume you. And when He calls you out, there will be not even the least scent of death on your new-creation body. No more fire, no more death; only every knee bowing before the Son of God, King of kings and Lord of lords. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation (Daniel 4:3). He alone is God; your life is hidden from the fire in the resurrection life of Christ’s body. And He will have the last word. For this, all the works of God, including us, bless the Lord!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/29/23