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To Bow or Not to Bow? That's the Question - By Pastor Thomas Engel


For an elective in college, I took an acting class. I was hoping that it would help me overcome my shyness. To my surprise, I got an “A” in the course, but at the end of it, there was no Hollywood producer offering me a movie contract.

Although I do feel if I took another acting class, Tom Cruise better watch out as I could take over as the star of the next action blockbuster.

I want to start out with a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Even if you are not that much into Shakespeare, I’m sure you know it.

Here’s the line, “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

I’m not sure how well I did with the delivery of that line. That acting class was over thirty years ago. I guess I’m a little rusty.

This line rings out to us because it asks a basic question about life’s purpose. We want our purpose to have meaning, and the deeper the meaning-the better.

We don’t like spinning our wheels. As we go about our lives, we want a direction that is straight as an arrow with dynamic results.

At this point in the play, Hamlet is considering if he should go on with his life or end it. He is looking at what life has for him if he kept on living, or if he should just end it all.

But, if he ends it all, he is not sure what will happen, either.

So, we go back to why this line is known by most people. Most people want to live a life that’s worthwhile, and most people what to know what happens after death.

We are sure “in a pickle” if we don’t have solid answers to either one of those questions, which so happens that this phrase about pickles is used in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest-meaning we are more like a drunk staggering down the street when we go about figuring out the deep subjects of life and death.

Life sure can get hard and complex. It seems it hardly turns out how we want it to turn out.

A little background about Shakespeare’s time that is interesting to Lutherans. Martin Luther died in 1546, and Shakespeare was born in 1564.

We need to understand that Luther’s Reformation did not end when he died, but it kept going, and not to make short of history here with a one-line quick summary, but other Reformations emerged, and things got complicated. In other words, it took many decades-we can even say that the church in Europe took centuries to sort out the church’s teachings.

My theory is that Shakespeare, who was living in the context of the reforming of doctrines about salvation, was not sure about what happens after death.

So, in writing Hamlet, his main character had questions about what happens after a person dies.

When we are uncertain about what happens after death, we will also be uncertain about the purpose and meaning of our lives.

Our confidence in our salvation sets the tone for our present day lives.

Another thought about the play, Hamlet, is that it is about revenge. When Prince Hamlet was asking the question, “To be or not to be?” was he asking about taking or not taking revenge?

Again, it’s my theory that he was both asking about life and death and what a person does or does not do in this life.

If he lives, he has to face the hard decisions that life brings, but if he dies, then he doesn’t have to face those decisions that can have good or bad consequences. Although if he does die, the consequences of death may even be worse then living, even with the hard consequences that life can bring.

What kind of deep stuff are you thinking about today?

As we started out by saying that even if a person is not all that into Shakespeare, just about any person knows the line, “To be or not to be?”

Unlike Hamlet, I hope none of us here are in his life situation-I mean it must be no picnic to live in a royal family. But, like Hamlet, we do think quite heavily about our lives, for we want to make the most out of every day.

In all of our situations, we have to ask ourselves what we will do or not do.

What do I eat? Cherrios or Cornflakes? What do I wear? My blue or brown sweater?

We have small questions everyday, and from time to time big questions.

Do I go to college or find a job that can lead to a career? Do I rent or buy? City, suburbs, or life out in the country? Marry or not marry? One, two, or three kids? Retire or keep working another year or two? Surgery or try physical therapy first?

To sort all of this out, we can answer those questions by our faith.

Well, to be clear, faith does not give us specific answers to these questions. Although I would like divine intervention about whether or not to wear my blue or brown sweater, for I have no fashion sense whatsoever.

You can’t guess the number of tickets that I’ve gotten from the fashion police.

Faith does give us a direction. In all the steps of our lives, we get guidance. This guidance is not like having a GPS that tells you when to turn or go straight, but it tells us what to do or not do.

Again, we might need some clarity here- we won’t get answers to the decisions in our lives like what shade of blue to paint the living room. We need to use the brain that God gave us to make those type of decisions.

The decisions that I’m talking about are the ones about doing the things that a person of faith does or does not do.

For me, a person with no fashion sense, it’s not a sin if my shirt clashes with my sweater. It’s just about having poor a sense of coordinating colors.

But, to be sure, it is a sin acting against what faith says to do or not to do.

For His people whom God has given faith, He is quite clear about what we are to do or not to do.

At the school this past week, the students have been studying Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, so I’m “up” on that story.

These three men had to decide to whether to bow or not to bow before a false god.

Of course, you know the story about how they decided to not to bow before that false god, and how they were thrown into the fiery furnace.

These three men had such a strong faith that they could only follow God’s Law not to worship any other gods but the one true God, even if it meant death.

For those three men of deep faith, the decision was quite clear about what to do.

Our minds can spin with what to choose that is the best for us.

In the aisle of any superstore, we have so many choices about what to buy-like what toothpaste to choose. Do I want spearmint or peppermint flavored? The big kid inside of me chooses bubble gum toothpaste.

Not to minimize the decisions that we make in life. Choosing the best couch, car, or house is important. Those purchases take a lot of money, and they need to be done with well thought-out discretion.

Our decisions about what to eat, what to wear, and where to live are the same for non-believers and believers.

Although for the believer, how we conduct ourselves is totally different than those who do not believe.

God gave His Law to His people because they were to act much better than people living in pagan cultures.

For us here today, we are never to bow down to other gods.

When asked what the most important commandment is, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

If we do these two commandments, can we so bold to say that the rest of life will fall into place?

One more time to be sure that we are clear here because many people think that if they are good that life will come up all rosy and pink.

Throughout Scripture, for those who followed God faithfully, God told them to build an ark, face a stubborn Pharoh, fight a giant, or spread the Gospel in a world that was hostile to that message.

For three men of faith, they decided not to bow, and they got tossed into a fiery furnace.

Life might even get harder for people of faith as God calls us to do His work in His creation, but if we look into the fiery furnace, we see how God walked with those three men every step of the way.

I don’t see any golden calves around here on the northside of Chicago, and we don’t have any plans to turn the church into a marketplace, but whenever we take our eyes off of Jesus and his cross, we are bowing down to worldly cares.

Our stress level is an indicator if we are giving ourselves over to those decisions that we have in life.

If our stress level is rising, we are pushing down what Jesus has done for us on the cross.

By Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have victory over sin, Satan, and eternal death.

With every sin forgiven and the gift of eternal life, we can move out into life with such a bold confidence knowing that all the rest of life will work out.

As we are waiting for life to work out, we focus on worshipping God and loving all who are around us in the name of Christ Jesus.

When we are bowing down to our loving and caring God, this worship gives us confidence that all of life is in His loving and caring hands in Christ Jesus.

In worshiping God, we are always reminded in His Word how we became His beloved children in Baptism, and how Chirst comes into us when we eat the bread and drink the wine, which is his true body and blood.

We are filled with all the goodness that God has for us, and the best that we can do in life is to share that same goodness with others.

So, when we face the decisions of life that are many, we look at the first most important question-to bow or not to bow?

As people of faith, our answer to that questions is to bow, and when we do bow to God in the name of Christ Jesus, we see a loving and caring God, so we can trust everyday that all in life will fall into place.


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