This message was for Anabaptist History Sunday, the last Sunday of October. My thanks to Tony and Nathan Schrock, who did such convincing acting as Anabaptist hunters, and who surprised the daylights out of the congregation by interrupting my sermon and carrying me away from the pulpit (although I wonder if such an example might encourage similar interruptions and endings to sermons in the future–better keep them short).
Daniel 3: 17 “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. 18 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.”
Based on Daniel 3
Background: When the alliance of European thrones and the Roman Church began to break up with the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th Century, there arose many small, independent communities of local churches called the “Anabaptists,” because of their practice of re-baptizing those who had been baptized into the state churches in their infancy. Even though most of these Anabaptists were pacifists and peaceful, law-abiding citizens, most of the kings, bishops and other authorities in the state and church system saw them as threats to the social order. So, in many parts of Europe, they hunted them down and tortured and killed them, mercilessly, sometimes by publicly burning them at the stake. In Roman Catholic areas, one favorite way of revealing and capturing Anabaptists was to parade the communion bread through the streets of the cities, so that the faithful Catholic believers might bow down to it, on the understanding that the priest, by saying the words, “This is my body….” had actually turned it into the real body and presence of the real Christ. Because Anabaptists see more of Christ in the sharing of the bread, than in the literal bread itself (and anything else we need for life), they usually refused to bow down to it, considering it an idol, and a means of social control.
The following message is an imaginative attempt to link this Anabaptist history with a story from The Book of Daniel, Chapter 3, about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Like the Anabaptist martyrs some 21 centuries later, their faith was tested and revealed in the fires of tyranny and idolatry. Its a sermon much like what I imagine a 16th Century Anabaptist preacher, somewhere in South Germany or Bavaria, giving.
Brothers and sisters, the Word of God tells us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to do his good pleasure.” I confess that I am here, preaching this morning with fear and trembling, both because of the high, holy, sacred calling of God to be his people and to enjoy his eternity, but also because of risk and the cost of gathering this morning, as David says, “in the presence of my enemies.” We can do our best to be prudent and not risk capture or death foolishly. But finally, our fate is in God’s hands, whether alone, or whenever we gather. And gather we must, both to obey and to enjoy.
Our fear and trembling are made all the worse for the loss we sustained this past week, in the death of our sister Angelique, who surrendered her life and who testified to her faith in the same way and in the same spirit as did Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, when they told the king who threw them to the flames, “the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. 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.” Those are the very words on which I wish to concentrate this morning, in order to bolster our faith, brothers and sisters, if ever we should have to face the same choice that our sister Angelique, and our forefathers, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, faced.
Oh, how much we labored in prayer, with tears and groaning and fasting, brothers and sisters, on behalf of sister Angelique, that God indeed might spare her the fiery trial of her testimony before the crowds who gathered to mock her and to celebrate her terrible death. But there was no avoiding the terrible choice: death now and life forever, or life now and death forever. In the end, she was certain that she had made the choice that was both hardest and most correct. With her we wait until the day her body is indeed restored to be like that of our three friends who also went through the flames. The next time we see her, Sister Angelique will likewise bear no hint or scent of the fiery trial through which she passed, but, as Jesus promised for the righteous, she will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of my Father.”
How much we have also labored in prayer, with tears, groaning and fasting on behalf of her three children who must now grow up without their mother, as well as without their father, after he died a believer in the plague that decimated our ranks last year. The magistrate who tried her case sought to dissuade her from her testimony, by telling her that her children needed their mother to live and to raise them, and that surely her God and her conscience would relent and permit her this one reason to escape judgment, for their sake, if not hers. But Sister Angelique replied with words that I now commend to all of us: that we never know when death may take us, for whatever reason, as it had her husband. What her children needed most, she said, was for her to be faithful to her God and her conscience even at the cost of life itself, and not for them to take the place of her God, however greatly she loved them. And how greatly she did love them, like Jesus, who loved his disciples dearly, to the end, not by avoiding death but by being faithful unto death.
I hope and pray that, in the future, those children will treasure the letter she wrote them, with her heart-felt, tear-stained exhortations to be faithful unto death, as were Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. In that letter she also entrusted them to the care of God and of his church. I can assure you that each of them have found new homes among us, in our family of faith.
As with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Angelique’s faith was revealed in contrast to the idolatry of her age. Just as those three Hebrew men would never bow down to the golden statue of King Nebuchadnezzar, neither would she bow down when the priest and the mayor paraded the bread of communion from the cathedral through the streets of the market, claiming that in that gold-covered box they carried the very body of Christ our Lord himself. If indeed it were Christ himself walking the streets of our city in flesh that we might see him, we would bow down instantly, with haste, reverence and joy! But they, in their devilish scheming, parade the communion host through the streets to see who bows down or not, and thereby reveal, and capture, any who are believers of the free and simple church of Christ, by their courageous refusal to bow down before a piece of bread.
As Angelique said in her letter to her children, if she had bowed down then and there in the street to save her life, she would have begun dying the living death of a thousand cuts and blows to her spirit and her conscience. Once begun, when would the cowardice and the compromises stop? How calmly and courageously she stood out from the crowd, on her feet, back straight, head high, while everyone else bowed, in abject fear of the authorities. She said nothing to reproach anyone. She was nothing if not peaceful and respectful. But the goose she was carrying to market to sell, I’m told, honked loudly enough, and harshly enough at the authorities to make them look ridiculous.
Oh, how cruelly she was mocked and cursed when she refused to join everyone else in the street in prostrating herself before a priest, a box of gold and a mere piece of bread. And how calmly and peacefully she bore up before such abuse. Like Christ her Lord before Pontius Pilate, she made the good confession. Like the Apostle Paul before Caesar, she fought the good fight of faith.
As our blessed Lord Jesus stood peacefully, respectfully but firmly before Pilate, so he stood there with our sister Angelique. Those who saw her, as she was led away in chains, could testify that her face was like that of an angel. And of course: she was released of the burden of any secrets left between herself and the world, with nothing left to lose in this life, and everything to gain in the next. Perhaps she saw what the blessed St. Steven saw when he was about to be killed for his testimony: the Lamb on his Throne, next to His Father, standing up to honor the one who stands up for Him.
Perhaps she even saw what King Nebuchadnezzar saw when he looked into the fire: a fourth figure walking amidst the flames with the three men who were tossed into it. “Did we not toss three men into the flames?” the king asked. “The fourth I see, walking with them is like unto a son of the gods,” he added.
Now I don’t know exactly what King Nebuchadnezzar had in mind when he said he saw “a son of the gods” in that fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Did he mean an angel or a cherub or some other heavenly being? Or did God use him to say to us, thousands of years later, that should ever we walk through the fire and the flames in faithful testimony to him, there walks with us The Son of God, true God of true God, of one Substance with the Father, who has gone that way before us, even to death and through death, and who will guide us and sustain us through it? Who is this Jesus our Lord if he is not Emmanuel, God with us, even in the hottest of fires and the deepest of waters?
And so I tell us what Angelique would tell us, from the words of Jesus himself: “Fear not those who can only kill the body but who have no power over the soul. Fear him who has power to cast both body and soul into hell” if we refuse his grace and flee instead into the arms of the world. “Love not the world and the things thereof,” writes John the Beloved. “Love one another,” he says, especially since we never know when the Anabaptist hunters might catch any one of us, and we might need to commend our wives, our husbands, our children or our aging parents into the care of other brothers and sisters. “But the things of this world, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life and the love of possessions,” John says, “are passing away” with that same world.
When I think of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue of gold, before which men and women of all the races and tribes and languages in his empire were to bow down and worship, I am reminded of something I once read about an ancient statue somewhere in the hot and desert regions of the world. It is also a tall, imposing and impressive statue of an ancient king, who, like Nebuchadnezzar, demanded not only the loyalty and the law-abiding respect of his subjects—we would have no quarrel with that—but who demanded the faith and the worship of his subjects. That we cannot give; it is blasphemous. On this statue are written the words, “I am King of Kings; Look upon my works ye mighty, and despair!” Despair, he says, because there were no palaces nor pyramids nor armies nor cities nor fortresses nor walls nor monuments in that ancient day to match his. Despair, he says, of ever matching him in glory, grandeur and might.
But that same statue, I also read, is now broken, with the head of the so-called King of Kings, lying at an angle next to his broken, eroded feet. All around his statue lie only rocks, rubble and sand, the rubbish of the passing ages. And thus has it lain since before the days of the apostles. Yes, look upon his works, ye mighty, and despair, for such fate awaits all empires, armies and monuments and everything else you wish for men to worship and to fear, after the flesh and the world. The same fate awaits all those who today construct castles and cathedrals over the bodies and with the blood of the poor and the martyrs. Around us are the ruins of ampitheaters, aquaducts and the pagan temples of civilizations long passed. When the same decay shall overtake the cathedrals and the castles of our day, in which are hatched the schemes of those who hunt down true saints like Sister Angelique, the kingdom for which she died, and for which we live, will stand as her vindication, and ours.
And if our daily prayers for the king and the mayor and the city elders are answered, our prayers for wisdom, justice and peace, so that we may one day serve God and humanity in peace, and without fear of fire or hunger, remember that our courage will be still needed in that day of tolerance and freedom. For the beloved Apostle Paul told us that “all who seek to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” If not with fire, rack and sword, then with enticement, ridicule and rejection.
So when it comes to bowing down before a mere box of gold with a mere sliver of bread inside, and bowing down only to the One who walks through the fire with us, let us remember which choice leads to eternal life, and which one leads to eternal death. If you have been baptized again, as an adult, and have professed your faith anew, voluntarily, and have repented of your sins, mended the wicked ways of your past, and now seek to live in harmless, defenseless love for God and all mortals, you have already invested too much in God’s eternal kingdom to lose heart, turn back and forfeit the glorious eternal reward that awaits you. Compared to eternity, it is only a little while that we must wait and wonder what shall befall us in this world, and if God counts us worthy, to suffer for his glory. Whether its the flames, the ax or the rack we must face, the One who walks the flames with us will deliver us through them, even if he does not deliver us from them. And if it helps, remember Sister Angelique…..
Actors break in through the back door and say: “All right, you, we’ve heard enough of your treason and heresy! We’re taking you in to see the Mayor and the Bishop. Let’s see if you still preach such a bold sermon then!”