Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.” (Psalm 118:15-17)
The air was hot and dry in Babylon. They didn’t mind the heat. After all, the climate wasn’t entirely unlike their homeland of Israel. But all that was a distant memory – their homeland, their temple, their king, all those visible reminders of the Lord’s presence among them – gone. Now their reality and their destiny stared them in the face as the sweat started dripping and stinging their eyes. The amber glow of the fire was so strong, it must’ve been blinding. A tyrant king ordered the flames increased seven times over to make sure the fiery furnace would take its prey. The heat coming off that ancient oven was overwhelming and it overwhelmed some of the king’s best and strongest. This was it. The three men could’ve avoided all of this if only they’d bowed down and worshipped the 90 foot tall image of gold constructed by the king of their captors. But they wouldn’t do it. There was so much more at stake than simply saving their skin. So, they were willing to let it burn. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us…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. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the whims of a sociopathic king and so turn their backs on the God of their salvation. We will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up. In other words, “Here we stand.”
The autumn winds of Wittenberg, Germany rustled the leaves in the street gutter and swirled around the ankles of the young university professor on his way to church. But he wasn’t going for mass; he was on a mission. In his hand he carried the paper that would change everything. That paper with its 95 statements called sin sin, abuse abuse, and anything other than the free grace of God in Christ it called a lie. The professor’s paper was powerless, that is, until it became a poster. Up it went on the town bulletin board – meant to spark a discussion among the academics, but effectively ignited a Reformation around the world. But that was all a distant memory, back in the safety of Wittenberg. Now, 3.5 years later, excommunicated from the church, he was summoned to answer for his inflammatory writings in which he dared to say that the grace and forgiveness of God come as a free gift through faith; that the righteousness of Christ Jesus is bestowed upon repentant sinners, not upon self-righteous saints. Summoned and stood up before the emperor, princes, the most powerful political leaders in the world, with his life in the balance, what would he say? There was so much more at stake than saving his physical life. So, he was willing to lose his life if it meant finding his life in Christ. Martin Luther refused to let God’s gift of the unconditional gospel be ripped from his hands. Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason, I am bound by the Scriptures, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God, I am neither able nor willing to recant. God help me. In other words, “Here I stand.”
The weather’s been seasonably warm here lately, and every year as the leaves turn from green to gold our thoughts turn to Reformation; to the truth of the gospel; to boldness in the face of danger. “Here we stand!” or at least, “Here we stood.” Here I stand. You don’t hear that very often anymore. It’s not popular to be dogmatic – the word itself has quite a negative connotation nowadays. It’s more socially acceptable to call something your opinion than to call it your confession of faith. And be careful lest your ever-so-carefully asserted opinion doesn’t infringe or offend anybody else’s well-formed personal credo. “Here I stand,” sadly, isn’t usually the phrase that comes to mind. “How can I have it both ways?” tends to suit me better. In the prayer of the day this morning, we thanked God for the work of the reformers, for the bold stand they took for the truth of the gospel so that its message would be passed down to us. We also prayed for strength to defend the truth of the gospel against any error or attack, no matter what the cost, but that was then, right? We’d never get away with that kind of thing today – claiming to speak the TRUTH to a world that says it knows nothing of the sort. Who are you to say what’s right and what’s wrong? That’s just your interpretation! It’s much easier to say nothing rather than speak the truth of God. So I keep quiet about issues that the Word of God calls sin, instead of holding up the mirror of God’s holy law and proclaiming with the Savior that there is only one way, one truth, one life, and his name is Jesus. Instead of holding for dear life to the truth that sets me free, I lament the divisions in the visible church and want to hold hands with anybody, never mind what the word of God says. I appreciate the stand the reformers of old took for the gospel, but that was then. It’s so hard today! It’s unrealistic to expect unity of teaching in our modern and mobile world, isn’t it?
Take a step back and see what’s really going on here. Does that line of thinking sound familiar? You don’t have to believe ALL of what God says. There is a better way, an easier way, and you know it. Isn’t this the same lie the devil told in the Garden of Eden? Our failure to take a stand for the truth always boils down to this simple lie of the devil – You can be happy, fulfilled, and at peace; just dismiss what God has said. Do you think the devil was whispering in the ears of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Just bow down! How foolish and naïve to stand so boldly before such a powerful king! Do you really think God is going to save you now? He’s allowed your enemies to rip you from the Promised Land, and now he’s abandoned you. Just bow down! Instead of falling down, they took their stand. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us…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.
What did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have that could possibly make them say something so bold in the face of such danger? They had the promise of God. We know our God is able to save us, but even if he chooses not to, we’re never going to betray the God of our salvation. Crank up the furnace as hot as you want, we won’t bow down. And in they went. And you know the rest of the story. Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire? I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed. The three men with funny sounding names took their stand on the truth of God. God delivered his people, and they didn’t even smell like smoke.
The account of the three men in the fiery furnace is a well-known narrative. But did you ever think about this? God could’ve put out the fire, but he didn’t. God certainly had the power to snuff out the flames and strike down Nebuchadnezzar, but he didn’t. He saved those men in the fire, not from the fire. What a twist – the fire that was intended to bring death turned out to be a source of life for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Jesus is with you in the fire, too. How do I know? We have a promise. Jesus doesn’t necessarily rescue us from experiencing death. Instead, he gives us the victory over death in spite of death. What did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have when they faced death for the truth, and took their stand? Flame retardant trousers? Did they have a mystical experience that assured them that once they fell into the furnace, they’d be magically whisked away from an execution in exile and plopped back into the Promised Land of Israel? Even after the fiery furnace ordeal, they’d still be living in Babylon – away from familiarity and freedom. But they still had everything they needed to say, “Here we stand.” They had the word and promise of God – the God who loved them, provided for them, and would send his own Son into the world to save them from the fires of hell. What did Luther have when he took his stand against the emperor, the pope, and the most powerful people in the world? Nothing…but the word of God! There was no guarantee of job security or physical safety, but he had the word and promise of a God who justifies the wicked, forgives transgressions, and remembers sins no more. Luther had everything he needed to say, “Here I stand.”
In 2018, what do you have on which to take your stand when the fires burn hot and truth and life are on the line? What do you have? What does any child of God have in the face of the devil’s accusations and threats? Where will you take your stand when it comes time for you to come face to face with the ugly wages of your sin? What do you have to say when the devil rubs your nose in the shame of your past and whispers in your ears, “You’ll end up with me forever – there’s no way God could ever love you after that.” What do you have? You have what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had. You have what Luther had. You have the word and promise of God. Even when your eyes see your failure, your ears hear, “Take heart, your sins are forgiven.” When your heart condemns you, and you know the devil is spot on when he says you deserve to burn in hell forever, your ears hear the beautiful promise of the gospel, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Even if it comes all the way to brink of death, and your eyes are staring down the yawning pit of your own grave, your ears hear trumpet blast of Easter morning, “Because I live, you will live.” What do you have? You have the gospel – the good news that Christ Jesus has taken your punishment, paid for your sin, and defeated your death. What do you have on which to take your stand? Not your good works; not your moral achievements compared to your neighbor. You have Christ – the one who perfectly took his stand , taking your place under the law, bearing your sins, and enduring the flaming wrath of God on the cross – all so that you would never have to. You have God’s gift of faith – faith in Christ’s promise of forgiveness given to you in Word and Sacrament. The gospel is and remains your only deliverance from death to life, and it’s all yours in Christ.
At the end of our service today, we’ll close by singing Martin Luther’s “Battle Hymn of the Reformation,” A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Some of you might be humming the tune in your head right now…I’d like you to speed up your mental metronome and zip ahead to the final lines of the third stanza: “This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will. He can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done! One little word can fell him.” What is that one little word that will take down the prince of hell? Throughout the years, there have been a lot of guesses – the name of Christ, his proclamation of “Finished!” on the cross – and they’re all true enough. But on at least one occasion, Luther himself identified what his “one little word” was. Liar! Do you see how this works in the context of one single day of your Christian life? Look at your life. If God really loved you, you’d be doing a whole lot better than you are – kind of like the family down the street. God has forgotten about you! What will you say to that? One little word. Devil, you liar! My Savior has promised me that he’ll never leave me nor forsake me. You’re too far gone; your sin unforgivable; your mess unredeemable! What will you say to that? One little word. Devil, you liar! In Christ my, God has removed my sins from me as far as the east is from the west. Because of Jesus, the sins I can’t forget God promises never to remember. Take your stand on the truth of the gospel - who God says you are in Christ – and watch the devil turn tail and run every time. When it comes time to take your stand, stand on the promise of the God who says, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine…When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned…No one can deliver out of my hand.” God keeps his own steadfast to the end. The strength to take a stand isn’t in you any more than it was in Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Luther, or disciples of any age…it’s in Christ, the one who promises that nothing and no one will snatch you out of his hands.
So, when the fires burn hot and truth and life are on the line, remember this: you can more easily separate heat from fire than you can separate Christ from one of his own. Loved like that, freely forgiven, washed in his blood, guaranteed an eternity in heaven – not by my own good works, but only by his perfection - I can’t think of anything else to say than, “Here I stand.”
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 24-25)