Philip Casmer

There But For the Grace of God…

by Philip Casmer on October 31st, 2021
Daniel 3:16–28

We pray it pretty much every week here. In our Lord’s Prayer, right there in the middle, we ask the only negative thing in the prayer and say, “Lead us not into temptation”. Which is right to do – temptation can be translated as trials of all kinds – tests, difficulties, temptations. And what we mean, as believers is, “Lord, don’t let me get into a place and to a point where I fall into sin…where I give into temptation. Lead me away from there…” And yet…I wonder if we sometimes mean something different…

I’m thinking of that saying we have when we notice something terrible. Perhaps it’s the homeless man, sign in hand on the median, the one we drive by on the way to the office. And our carpool passenger says, “Man, that’s just terrible…” And, as a stab at humility and sympathy, we say, “There but for the grace of God, go I…” The origin of that phrase is debated – assigned to about 15 different Christian preachers and various tragic situations – but the essence is, “If it weren’t for God’s grace, I might be there too…” or “God’s undeserved love has kept me from that trial; because I’m not any better…” And yet… This morning I wonder if we sometimes mean something else when we say that and other things – something more like, “God forbid…” I’m wondering because sometimes we actually do find ourselves in temptations, in trials, in troubles – sometimes very terrible ones – and then it’s tempting to question our relationship with God’s grace…

For instance, say you had experienced Nebuchadnezzar’s “subjugation through assimilation”. That sounds diabolical and it was, but it was also pretty savvy. See, Babylon’s empire was on the advance. And countries that resisted, Babylon would soundly defeat. Then they’d take their sons and daughters, their professionals, their learned, their wealthy, and transplant them all over the empire and train them in Babylonian culture and learning and put them in good positions of power and authority… And, over a generation or two, these would assimilate and become that Babylonian culture and stop resisting its claims – at least that was the design. 

The Book of Daniel is about Daniel and his three friends in exactly that situation – taken from their homes, dropped in a pagan culture and foreign land – which must have been terrible. Yet by God’s grace, Daniel had risen to be governor over Babylon – a trusted adviser to the king. And his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, were administrators under Daniel over Babylon. To find four transplanted Jewish boys in foreign government positions with probably good pensions, that’s not too bad… But, as good as it seemed to have turned out, at the beginning of our reading, they’re in sort of a pickle. We cut in right in the middle of a spat with the king: a trial, a bit of trouble, and certainly a temptation.

Because the situation was this – the normal sort of stuff that we all experience… Just bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s 90ft. tall golden statue whenever the music plays…or, we’ll roast you in a fiery furnace. Now that might not sound to you like the hill to die on, but the boys knew better. Because they knew Nebuchadnezzar meant, “Look, you can worship whatever God you want to, but you must also worship my gods in Babylon – that’s our culture. You cannot be exclusive in your faith and only worship Yahweh or something else. No, you must accept this culture and our ways – even approve of them…” Which you know because Nebuchadnezzar had said this in v.14 when the three wouldn’t worship, “Is it true…that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up?”

Maybe that seems distant and dystopian stuff like Netflix – a crazy Squid Game version of reality that happens in some alternate dimension. But it’s actually pretty common. If you’re a Christian in the business world – cutthroat, do whatever it takes to win, business world – sometimes with questionable tactics and moderately immoral operations, where it’s “do this like us or don’t be here”… Then you might know trial… If you can operate on social media but only as long as you don’t ever question what’s healthy or right or moral or good, or you’ve met the demand to treat certain groups the right way and to accept that other groups are disfavored… Then you might know the temptation to bow down… If you’ve been there when friends say, “Look, if you’re going to believe that kind of exclusive and hateful stuff, then we can’t hang…” or “Look, everybody does this – get a life and get on board or get out…” Then you know fiery trouble. 

And, to be honest, throughout history it’s been just like this – bow down and obey – concede that God’s will is not the right one or the only one or die in the flames. And those things haven’t gone away. Fiery trials around doing God’s will are all over and in your lives. They demand that something be said one way or the other…

And sometimes we say, “Lead us not into temptation…” and we mean, “Lord – don’t let any difficulties at all in here in my life.” Sometimes we say something like, “There but for the grace of God go I…” and what we really mean is, “As long as God’s grace is with me – his love – then I won’t see difficulty…” So that when these difficulties come along, then we assume that God’s love isn’t with us – maybe believing we’ve done something wrong or maybe believing God has – because things aren’t the way we think they should be… And then, that temptation to bow down, to speak wrongly about things God has commanded just like everyone else does, to put away God’s grace altogether – that’s easy to give in to… And we have, each of us, in different ways.

But if Jesus is God’s love to us – to the whole world indiscriminately – and he characterizes following him as being “on your guard;” and if he promises, “You will be handed over to [government officials] and flogged [or tortured or excluded or persecuted]…” and if he demands, “[when you stand before them, you will be] witnesses to them… the gospel [of God’s grace to all through Jesus alone] must…be preached…” (Mark 15:9-10) If Jesus says these, then we must repent if speaking up like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego seems foreign to us. If we’ve never felt the fire because we’ve bowed down when the music started, then we must repent…and instead steadfastly stand in God’s Word.

Because it is a word full of promise – didn’t you hear it in this story? The king didn’t like the Jewish boys’ answer and he tossed them in the fire, as you heard. So hot it was that it killed the guards who threw them in. Yet, not hot enough to overpower God’s salvation. Nebuchadnezzar’s words remind us of how it is. He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” And later, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God..no other god can save in this way.” (3:28-29)

God blessed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego not to die after they witnessed the truth that he alone deserves worship. God’s angel walked with them – kept them safe, unsinged, unharmed. And Nebuchadnezzar was right, “no other god can save [in the way this one does].” It’s true. Look at every other religion in this world and every way of human life. Everyone has a way of salvation that is, basically, “live a good life, do this, etc, then you’re saved” – whether it’s the favor of the world or some god. But what does it do to you when suffering comes? Well, you either hate God because you lived well! Or you hate yourself because apparently, you didn’t live so well… 

But the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego sent his messenger instead to walk with us in the fire. In fact, Jesus Christ walked through the fire of God’s wrath against sins, experienced the torment and suffering of our guilts. He burned under God’s wrath in our place. Jesus suffered and provided rescue from hellfire by his grace – undeserved love. No other god saves this way! Every other god/system saves through you. With God, his grace = your salvation.

So that about each of the trial moments and fiery troubles you see, you might say: “There, for the grace of God I go…” It was in our second lesson – that passing mention in John’s Revelation – “another angel” goes flying over with the eternal gospel to proclaim – so that people might know it. Do you know who that is? It’s you! It’s me! It’s believers of every age who conclude, “If my Jesus went through hell’s fire for me, to make me his and keep me so, then I may have to walk through the flames just the same in order to hold onto the truth this world hates.” And it might be just like those three men who trusted their God and gave their bodies into a fiery furnace. They were able to hold out the gospel of God’s grace like this:

  1. “The God we serve is able to deliver us from [your furnace]” – Our God is capable of doing anything he wants. And if he delivered us by the sacrifice of His own Son, certainly he can save us from ridicule or pain or certain death. And it is good and right to call on him and ask him to do so. But more…
  2. “and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.” Indeed, with believers of every age and St. Paul of old, we are convinced “that neither death nor life…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) Because of his great grace, our God may deliver us into his heavenly kingdom by his return at the end or by our death before then, but either way, the end will be “the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12) Which lights a burning, fiery confidence in us – to do God’s goodwill, not for our own designs or benefit but because his undeserved love so fills us that we love what he does. As they said…
  3. “But even if [God] does not [save us], we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” With the three we too say, “I go in God’s grace into all sorts of trials and I will hold onto the grace of God that has saved me and made me his own. I love his Word and his will and I can do nothing else.”

On Reformation, we remember that God’s been doing that work in messengers throughout the ages. Whether it was Martin Luther before the raging anger of churchmen and false doctrine… Or three Jewish men before the fiery ire of a pagan king and his cultural demands… Or you before your friends or your family or your boss… We have been given the eternal gospel to proclaim. The grace of God in Jesus Christ is ours and it’s for everyone else. And it’s seen in what we say and do. This Reformation then, we pray:

“Lead us not into temptation…”

“Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word…”

“Lord, let your might Spirit speak through me…”

and, if it is to be in the midst of fiery trouble, then,

“Lord, there with the grace of God I go…”

Amen. 

 

That we might so believe, and stand, and do, and speak, we say, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

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