Sermon for Reformation Sunday -- Oct 30, 2022 -- Romans 3:19-28
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you, Amen.
Do you remember Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? They are well known for what happened to them during the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon. They squared off with King Nebuchadnezzar in an unforgettable event. These three men, faithful to God, had risen in the ranks of the wise leaders of the king of Babylon. Things were going well for them until this one day. King Nebuchadnezzar had constructed a 90-foot golden image on the plains of Babylon. This golden image was to be worshipped by everyone. When the special instruments would play, all were to bow down to it. And pretty much all did, that is, except for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The three refused. The king was furious. He gives them an ultimatum. When you hear the special music, bow down, or else you will be thrown into the fiery furnace. The king boldly asks them “who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
The ultimatum, not so nice. The question? More of an invitation if you ask me. “Who is the god who will deliver you?” I would like to think if any one of us were asked such a question we’d be ready to answer. This question feels like someone putting the ball up on the tee for us inviting us to knock it out of the park. Sure, let me tell you about the God I know who will deliver me. And that’s what the three men did.
They tell the king, “If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” A response of faithfulness. Our God is able to deliver. And even if in His will He chooses not to deliver us from the furnace in this case, we still can’t bow down and worship. On the part of these three men, it was pure faithfulness above and beyond their own physical well-being.
Such faithfulness is terribly difficult for us. How easily these men could have just convinced themselves it would be okay, you know just this once, to do a little bowing. Would anybody know? Would anybody care? Sometimes we tell ourselves its just easier to conform. Its just easier to comply. But such actions are also harmful to faith. They chip at the foundations of our relationship with God. These moments of unfaithfulness, these moments of sin, all serve to convince us and tempt us into believing that perhaps we really don’t need God, that we don’t need a Savior. That we don’t need what He offers us in Word & Sacrament.
So we look at Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and we see faithfulness. They chose God over all else. Nothing was more important. They faced the heat and they came out unscathed. And that was the miracle of it all. Nebuchadnezzar did throw those three men into the furnace. And God was with them. In fact, Daniel tells us there was a 4th person in the furnace that day with the men, God was even in the furnace with them. Not a hair on their heads was singed. Not even when Nebuchadnezzar in his fury had the furnace overheated and many of the king’s own servants were burnt and killed by the heat; these three men were delivered.
On this celebration of the Reformation, it is tempting to look at the deeds in history of Martin Luther as being very similar to those of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. There was a certain faithfulness to many of the things Luther did. When he posted the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg it was faithfulness that drove him. The abuses of the church with indulgences were clearly against the Word of God and Luther wanted to discuss this with other church leaders. It was faithfulness to the Word that drove this desire. When Luther was called before the Diet of Worms before the Emperor himself, and he was told to recant all his writings, Martin Luther appealed again to faithfulness to God’s Word as he took his stand. Though Luther was never actually thrown into a fiery furnace like the three men in Babylon, he faced similar threats to his very life, and he chose faithfulness.
Now, this might feel like the moment in this morning’s message where you’re waiting for me to tell you: “you need to be faithful too!” You need to be like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. You need to be like brother Martin in the Reformation era. But I’m going to level with you, that’s not where this message is going. That’s not the message of Holy Scripture in fact, at least not the whole message. To get the whole message, to get the words we really need to hear this morning we need the words St. Paul shares in Romans 3. These are the words that Luther himself faced up to when he realized just how unfaithful he was. Yes, its true. Martin Luther knew how unfaithful he was before God. Sure, he had some very public moments where the Spirit used him to do some remarkable things. But he also spent more than his fair share of time confessing his own sins before his priest. He knew he was an unfaithful sinner.
This is where the Word, where the Law of God, where Romans 3 takes us all. I cannot stand before you today and tell you how much more faithful you need to be because I would be asking you to do something that I myself, and all of us, are simply incapable of doing. God’s Law does demand faithfulness. But this is a demand of perfect faithfulness. If we misstep in a single place, and we have, then we are guilty, we have nowhere to go. The Word is clear: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Even more, the Word emphasizes: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.” There is no room for us to play the “but I’m a good person card.” There’s no place for us to say “but I’ve tried so hard to do so much good.” The Law is crystal clear in where we stand: we are sinners. We have been unfaithful. We fall short. Every last one of us, even Martin Luther, even Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
So I can’t plead with you to be more faithful. But I can share with you the good news the Word does share with us all. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Our hope is not in our faithfulness but solely in Jesus’ faithfulness. Christ alone we need to say.
Knowing this good news, we can consider a story like the fiery furnace and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in a different way. We can still look at and admire the faithfulness of these saints of old in that moment. But they are not examples of faithfulness for us to follow. They are examples of faithfulness that are perfected in our Savior Jesus, and He followed the example. And He followed it perfectly. Jesus was perfectly faithful, and He alone. When we look at the Old Testament, we should always see Jesus. When we see the examples they set, we should see how they point forward to our Savior who would fulfill all these good examples and more.
The Word is revealing to us that the story and the hope of our lives is simply not about us. We should never have to leave the Lord’s house and leave worship, or never read our Bibles and come to the conclusion that I need to do more. We shouldn’t encounter Christ in the Word and somehow be thinking of what we need to do. We should encounter Christ and see Christ and we should be thinking about what He has done for us. That is the very essence of the Gospel. That is the good news for us. And the hope we have in Jesus, that we are justified and saved by grace through faith is and was the heart of the reformation that changed the church forever.
So our mantra of salvation might just sound like this: we sinners are justified by God’s grace alone, received through faith alone, on account of Jesus Christ alone, on the authority of Holy Scripture alone. This truth sets us free. Sets us free in Christ. To see how Jesus was faithful for us. And is faithful for us, always. To Him be the glory, Amen.