Sermon: Faith in the Furnace

Daniel 3
Matthew 22:15-22

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be faithful and fruitful in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I have something to tell you that maybe you’re not going to like.

This morning, we’re going to talk about faith and politics.

I know that there are some of you who come to church on Sunday to escape from all the craziness that happens outside those doors. This is a safe place where you sing familiar hymns and see your friends and have coffee and talk about the children’s sermon and not about the news headlines, and I know how good it is to have a harbor in the storm that is the world beyond these walls.

But here’s the thing.

I sat down with the Daniel 3 text this week…

…and read about Nebuchadnezzer,
an emperor who is obsessed with size and gold and building things;
who demands that the officials of his kingdom pay homage to him and his achievements;
who bullies those who refuse to render unquestioning loyalty to him…

…and I thought to myself, there’s no way to read this story out loud without it sounding political to at least some of you.

And I really struggled with that. I did. Because it’s not my intention to take away a safe space from any of you who come here on Sundays for sanctuary.

But then I came up against the truth that lies at the heart of Daniel 3:

You can’t separate faith and politics.

The gospel can’t be segregated from the world outside those walls. The gospel is already on the loose out there—and if I, as your preacher, as your pastor, try to downplay that or cover up that truth—especially given a text like the one we have today—then I fail you.

This story preaches the reality that faith is not separable from politics. Three Jewish men are called to bow down to a worldly power and they refuse because doing so would violate the integrity of their faith and their identity.

It’s for that reason that Martin Luther King Jr. uses this story in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” calling it an act of civil disobedience. King aimed this strongly worded letter not just to the clergy who disagreed with him on racial issues, but especially to those who agreed with him, yet did nothing to push against the unjust, unfaithful laws. This was the story he used to tell them:

Separating faith from politics is a luxury afforded only to the privileged.

This is a truth that marks the story of Christ himself: Jesus was a Jew who was executed by the Roman Empire. And at his sentencing, Pilate asked the crowd: “Shall I crucify your king?” and the crowds replied, “We have no king but Caesar.”

“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego by Simeon Solomon, 1863. Wikimedia Commons.

“You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.”

The way in which the story of the king and the three Jews is told is a caricature, a tall tale, a hyperbolic, funny, harmless fable of a foolish king and three faithful men. And because it’s told in this way, it might take a little while to realize that the humor is a cover for a deep, dark truth: that there are places where Nebuchadnezzar is still king. That there are still calls to bow down and worship the golden statue. That not everyone survives the fire.

I wonder what Jesus thought when he heard the crowd exclaim “We have no king but Caesar.” I wonder if he thought back to this moment we heard in the gospel today, when they handed him a coin and he showed them the emperor’s face on it and told them to render to Caesar what was Caesar’s.

I wonder if he regretted not being a little more clear about precisely what that is. Because that crowd, those people, they’d lost track. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not—you can hear it in three little words they use: “But if not.” We believe our God will save us, they say. But if not, we will still not bow. We will not worship that which does not give us life.

“We have no king but Caesar,” shouted the crowd. They’d gotten confused over what was owed to Caesar, and what was owed to God, and in the resulting confusion, the Son of God got killed. And in the end, that couldn’t be blamed on the emperor; it was the crowd that called for the crucifixion. It was the voice that had forgotten what was owed to God and what was owed to Caesar, the voice that said, “Listen, Pilate, let’s just keep religion out of this, all right?”

The good news is that the Son of God was not defeated on the cross. He lay in death’s strong bands, but he could not be held by them. In rising from the grave, Christ broke the power of the empire and the power of our sin and the power of death itself into little tiny splintery pieces. He walked through the fire of death and walked right into resurrection, and the freedom he won for us means that no threat from the Empire or anything else is ever going to be more powerful than that grace. It means we do not have to bow down and worship anything, anything other than the Love that has saved us.

But to that Love—to that Love, we are bound forever, with cords that can’t be broken. God has broken the power of Nebuchadnezzar and every power of the empire that calls for us to bow down and worship anything other than the Love that has saved us, and we are called to live that truth, and live that freedom, even when that freedom costs us everything.

This is a truth powerfully revealed in the life of a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose words are woven throughout several of our prayers today. Bonhoeffer came of age as a tide of postwar nationalism was surging through Germany, carrying Hitler to power.

In 1930 Bonhoeffer came to America to study theology at Union Theological Seminary, and encountered Black theology for the first time there. He taught Sunday school at a church in Harlem and learned to love African-American spirituals and the gospel of social justice he heard preached there. It was there and then that theology—that faith—began to touch the ground for Bonhoeffer, as he saw the social injustices faced by the Black community and also saw the failure of the church to bring about integration.

He brought that experience back to Germany, where he watched with increasing concern as the national church bodies in Germany began to embrace doctrines and implement policies promoted by the Nazi party. He was instrumental in forming the Confessing Church, whose central claim was that Christ, not the Fuhrer, was the head of the Church. He began an underground seminary to continue to raise up pastors who would give the gospel a voice during a time when even the Church was bowing before the emperor.

In a 1932 sermon [“Thy Kingdom Come: The Prayer of the Church for the Kingdom of God on Earth], delivered just three months before Hitler was elected Chancellor, Bonhoeffer preached:

“The kingdom of God exists in our world exclusively in the duality of church and state. …Every prayer for the coming of the kingdom to us that does not have in mind both church and state is either otherworldliness or secularism. It is, in any case, disbelief in the kingdom of God.

“…The kingdom of God is not to be found in some other world beyond, but in the midst of this world. …

“’Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom!’ This the Lord says to no other than the one to whom he says, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink….Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'”

For this faith, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. In the last months of his life, he was sent to a concentration camp, and was executed there in 1945, just days before Allied forces reached it.

The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells us that in this broken world, not all of us come out of the fire unscathed. But it does tell us, together with the life of Christ, (whose own body was broken by imperial powers) that there is no flame that we walk through alone.

There’s a piece of apocrypha embedded in the third chapter of Daniel called “The Song of the Three.” The legend goes that as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walked through the fire, they sang a song of praise, a song of praise to God who made everything, and at some point in retelling this story, someone added the words of the song. We sang a version of it as our psalm today. We’ll sing a different version, “Earth and All Stars,” in just a moment.

There is gospel in this for me: that even in the midst of trial by fire, even when the world is erupting in flames, the three men in the fire sing a song of praise, accompanied by a mysterious fourth harmony that surrounds them, and even in the midst of the worst of what the emperor can do to them, keeps them tethered to a greater meaning, to a “but if not” faith, to everlasting arms that will not ever let them go.

Thanks be to God.




Postscript: Sometimes–though not often–I’ll wish I had 45 minutes to preach instead of 12-15, and this was one of those mornings. If I’d had the time, the thing I would have desired to drive home is the distinction between separating faith and politics vs. separating religion and politics.

There are approximately one ZILLION examples of times when it was a terrible idea to combine religion and politics (and Nazi Germany, one of the examples I used above, is one of them.). For reasons of history and common sense, I’m a staunch advocate for the separation of church and state.

But at the same time, I believe it’s an act of idolatry to say that we should keep faith out of our politics…as though there’s someplace in our lives where Jesus doesn’t and shouldn’t show up.

This distinction leads us to the worrying BUT REALLY GOOD question: how do we know when we’re letting our politics shape our faith and our understanding of who Jesus is and what Christ wants, rather than vice versa? 

I don’t know, but I suspect that an awfully good test to run is taking any given political issue and asking: what are the voices on the margins saying?

Who’s not allowed in the room, and what’s their take? Who’s most vulnerable to the results of a particular political conversation?  Who are the “least of these?”

These questions require us to practice discipline, goodwill, openmindedness, integrity….y’know, the hallmarks of that love for one’s neighbor that Jesus was always going on about.

As important as I believe this postscript is to the conversation, the reason it got cut for reasons of time is because as a preacher, my first and most important job is to proclaim the gospel. 

So in case we need a quick refresh after all that, here’s that gospel again: Jesus died to free us from the powers of sin and death, and that absolutely includes the empire’s demand–which is still alive and felt–that we bow and worship anything other than the God made known to us in the crucified and risen Christ.


4 Replies to “Sermon: Faith in the Furnace”

  1. Thank you. My wife and I, Lutherans by confirmation and baptism, are currently without a community of believers. I needed this.

  2. Thank you, Pastor Larson. I needed to read your words today in these unsettling times. Carol Dell, St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Highspire, PA

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: