Readings for the day (Lectionary 30, Sunday, October 28, 2018):
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
In July, I traveled to Germany to spend a week visiting and learning more about Martin Luther and the Reformation that began 500 years ago. We visited the monastery in Erfurt, where he was a monk at. I spent time in prayer in the same chapel that he celebrated his first mass at after he was ordained as a Catholic priest; which is in that monastery. We visited the Wartburg Castle where he hid for safety and while he was there, translated the entire New Testament into German in less than 11 weeks. We stopped in Wittenberg where he was a professor at the university. We saw the house where he and his wife, Katie, lived and raised their family. We took pictures by All Saint’s Church, also known as the Castle Church. This is where Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the church on October 31, 1517. And we also attended a worship service, which was in English. This service was at St. Mary’s Church, also known as the Town Church. This is the church where Luther primarily preached at while he was in Wittenberg.
For Lutheran’s one of the most foundational hymns that we have is Luther’s hymn titled A Mighty Fortress. We sing it every year on Reformation Sunday. I picked this hymn to be sung at my ordination service. And this hymn was the closing hymn to our worship service in Wittenberg. As I was singing this hymn in the church where Luther preached, in the town where the Reformation all began, I couldn’t help but think about the words to this hymn. And more specifically, what would have the people during Luther’s time thought about this hymn. I picture this former monk, now priest and professor at the university, who has gone a little rogue, writing this hymn and presenting it to his congregation. So on a Sunday morning he hands out a sheet of paper with words to a hymn and tells the people that he wrote a new hymn and he’d like to try it during worship. First of all, I know how much you all enjoy trying new hymns. So I can just about imagine what these people were thinking. They were probably thinking something along the lines of, “Oh look, this crazy Luther has done it again. He has gone and wrote another new hymn!”
Maybe they did think he was crazy. But then again, maybe they thought his hymns really spoke some truth to their lives. Luther based A Mighty Fortress off of Psalm 46 which doesn’t shy away from naming the harsh realities of this life. During Luther’s time, living conditions weren’t great, and life expectancies were low; really low. When you’re outlook on life is not that great, it becomes quite hard to have a positive attitude and to have any sort of hope in something better. This hymn though, names the harsh realities of life, and provides hope for overcoming these challenges.
In the first verse, Luther uses a fortress or castle to describe our God. In Germany there are many castles, some that are still in use today, most are museums or in ruins. A fortress or castle is secure. It’s solid. It’s stable. It provides a defense for those on the inside. And it is our God who goes on the offensive, not us. God is the one who is armed with the sword and the shield. God is the one who wins and is victorious. We actually don’t do anything. This first verse is all about what our God is doing for us.
At the end of the first verse, the devil is arming himself for a fight. And at the beginning of the second verse, Luther acknowledges that we have no strength comparable to the devil. We don’t stand a chance. We will lose. He says that we will be lost and rejected. Which is true. We cannot stand up to the temptations of this life. Sometimes we can resist that cookie or candy bar or pop. But some temptations are just too strong for us to tackle on our own. We need help. We need some assistance. We need a champion to come in and fight, as Luther says. One whom God chooses to fight by our side. One who fights with us and for us. And for us as Christians, that victor, that champion, is Jesus. Specifically, Jesus on the cross and then that same Jesus is standing outside of the empty tomb.
And you would think that would be the end. The verse even ends with, “Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son, adored. He holds the field victorious.” End of story. Jesus wins. What more is there to say? Except, for Luther, Jesus won final victory over the grave 1,500 years earlier. And he sees that people are still struggling. They are still dealing with addictions and hardships and famines and infidelity. So what has changed? Has Jesus winning final victory over the grave done anything good? Was it actually final? How can something that happened 1,500 years earlier be viewed as good news in the time of the Reformation? How can this good news about Jesus’ final victory over death be seen as good today?
As Luther goes into verse three, he begins to answer these questions. The verse begins, “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threat’ning to devour us.” Not just devils, but hordes of devils. Meaning – many or a large group of them. And they are all threatening to get us. To devour us. It appears that this would be the end for us, the devil winning. But the verse goes on to say that we don’t tremble. We stand unmoved. We will not be overpowered because God’s judgment will prevail. It must prevail. It does prevail. All because of God’s Word. Yes, his word of judgment which defeats the hordes of devils, but God’s Word that is found in Jesus Christ comes to our aid. He fights by our side. So that the addictions and hardships and famines and infidelity will not win. Jesus wins. He wins final victory. He did so nearly 2,000 years ago. And He is still winning final victory today.
Just like in Luther’s time, we will not see complete relief from the hardships of this life. But through our faith and trust in God, we are given the strength, the perseverance, the ability to get through those hardships. Psalm 46, which A Mighty Fortress is based on, ends by saying, “Be still and know that I am God.” Even though there are hardships. Even though it appears that society is going in a direction that you might not agree with. Even though it seems that we are doomed to fail, the Psalmist, aware of all of this, simply says, “Be still.” In this fast paced world, it is quite hard for us to “Be still.” And yet it is in the stillness where we can realize that God is in control and that in the end Jesus will have final victory over all. Amen.
© 2018 Anthony Christoffels. All Rights Reserved.