A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Sermon at FUSION service, Camp Buehring, Kuwait, 27 OCT 2013.

The song we sang at the beginning was “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” by Martin Luther. He wrote it about the year 1527, and it became the anthem of the Protestant Reformation.

I have a long history with that song. I fell in love with it as a teenager, when I was first learning about the history of the Protestant Reformation. Like any teenager, I had my doubts, and fears. And this hymn spoke to me of confidence and trust in God–it not only spoke of confidence, it seemed to fill me with confidence as I sang its lyrics.

Luther got his inspiration from Psalm 46, which begins, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.” And he took imagery of medieval warfare to speak of this God who is our shelter in every battle. A literal translation of the opening phrase would be: “Our God is a castle strong, a good mailcoat and weapon.” And Jesus Christ is the champion who fights for us, as we sing in the second verse:

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Do you ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
The Lord of Hosts is His name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

I stayed out of school for a year between high school and college; I worked various jobs, studied a lot, and also babysat my youngest brother, who was four. He loved music, and he had this Fisher-Price xylophone with the rainbow colored keys. It had a little songbook, with well-known children’s songs color coded so you could play them. I was bored playing that for him, so I pulled out a church hymnal, and started tapping out hymns to see if they fit the Fisher-Price scale. Then I color coded the hymnal. I taught myself how to play “A Mighty Fortress” on that toy xylophone, and then my brother picked it up. At five, he played it as a solo at church.

Fast forward from 1980 to 1989. I graduated from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg that year, and on June 11, 1989, I was ordained at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Abbottstown, Pennsylvania. My little brother, Jason, was now 15. He had progressed from the Fisher-Price xylophone to the trumpet, and he played along with a booming pipe organ as the congregation sang the opening hymn: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Four years after that he finished high school, and applied to the school of music at Ithaca College, and in his essay he wrote how I had helped to instill in him a love of music by teaching him this old 16th century song.

And I hope he learned something else–I hope he learned about trust in God. About faith in him when all seems dark. About confidence in him when our flesh fails us, and we cry out to God in pain. I hope he learned it–well, in fact, I know he did. He’s now the worship pastor at a church in Connecticut.

I tell that story to give you just an inkling of the power of this one song, one song of many that grew out of that movement of Reform 500 years ago, and helped to inspire and encourage those Christians who were excited by the message of the Gospel, which was bursting anew in the Christian world after centuries of obscurity and confusion.

The New Testament had warned that false teachings were present in the church already in the time of the apostles. And slowly, as the years went by, error gained a firm foothold. Traditions replaced Scripture, manmade rituals overshadowed the clear and simple teachings of Christ, the Church went from being scattered persecuted handfuls of believers hiding in the dark to a vast institution, supported by the state, wealthy beyond imagination, directing armies and claiming the power to open and close the gates of heaven. It went from turning the cheek, and embracing the cross, to condoning the torture, and the execution, of those who dared to question its teaching.

This was the context in which a young German named Martin Luther wrestled with the demands of the church and of God, as he understood him. He saw God solely in terms of vengeance and wrath. He was on his way to law school when a lightning bolt striking near him prompted him to cry out, “St. Anne, help me! And I will become a monk.” And he kept his promise. He became a monk of the Augustinian order. He scrubbed the floors and the latrines, and woke in the middle of the night to recite his prayers, and to whip his back; he probed the mysteries of the mystics, trying to cut his ties to the flesh and ascend in the spirit to that righteous God–he did all that he thought he had to do to obey what he thought to be divine demands, but he doubted. And in his doubts, his confessor urged him to study the Bible. He did. He earned his doctorate. He became a celebrated professor of Bible at the University of Wittenburg.

And as he studied, his eyes were opened to the truth and beauty of the Gospel. He turned to Romans, and Galatians, and to the Psalms, and he saw a different vision of God than he had learned as a child, as a monk, as a seminarian, or even as a theologian.

Turn with me to Romans chapter 3.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. 28 For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.

This was a message of hope. It was a message of joy. Luther saw the truth as stated so simply in John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

It wasn’t a matter of working hard. It wasn’t a matter of doing pilgrimages, and saying masses, and buying indulgences, as if we could turn God’s wrath away by offering him trinkets and trifles. NO! God gave his son, who bore the wrath of God upon the cross, who died in our place, making perfect satisfaction for all of our sins, and who now extends his open arms to us, and offers us mercy, and forgiveness, and new life. Freely. Because he has paid the price.

We are sinners—even our good deeds fall short. No one has anything to boast about. All have sinned, and all continue to fall short, Romans says. All of our righteous deeds—our RIGHTEOUS deeds—are but filthy rags, Isaiah says. We can offer nothing to God—the only thing that any of us can do is to lay hold of Jesus Christ. All we can do is believe his promise, “You are forgiven.” All we can do is cling to him in the darkness, when we can’t see, when we would doubt, when we are afraid, and know that we are safe, we are forgiven, and we are justified.

And on October 31, 1517, so the story goes, Luther, inspired by these words from Paul’s letter to the Romans, posted a document on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. 95 Theses–95 propositions for debate, challenging the practices and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. That was the spark that led to the Reformation–a revolution within the church.

No more would traditions bind men’s conscience: the only authority, said the Reformers, is the inspired word of God.

No more would men fear whether God would accept them, or wonder if they had done enough: they knew they were justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone.

No more would the authority of churchly institutions hold men captive: men would be bound to Christ alone, free to challenge the words of any church leader by appealing to the Bible, and demanding of any priest or bishop or pope, a clear, “Thus saith the Lord.”

And in this confidence Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at the Reichstag of Worms in 1521. The prosecutor would not allow him to debate, or to present evidence of his teachings from the Bible. He demanded a simple yes or no: Will you or will you not retract your teachings?

And Luther responded with these words:

Since your most serene majesty and your high mightinesses require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by the clearest reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me. Amen

Now, did Luther and Zwingli and Calvin and Sattler and all the others who tried to Reform the church in that day see all things clearly? No. They still wore blinders. They still had much to learn, and unlearn. Luther continued to speak ill of the Jews, as the church had for centuries. Luther, as well as Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva, continued to believe it proper to use the power of the state to enforce Bible teaching. The Reformation was not a single movement or moment, but was a series of movements that marked a new beginning of men turning to the Word for themselves.

They turned, slowly, to learn, gradually, from the one who said, in Matthew 11, starting with verse 28: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

That’s what the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” meant to me as a young teenager. That’s what it meant to me when fellow pastors laid their hands upon my head and put a stole around my neck. That’s what it means to me now: You can trust God. You can put your faith in him. He’s going to see you through. He’s not going to burden you, or lay a guilt trip on you. He wants to you be free, free of the burden of the past, free of the guilt of sin, free of the entanglements of sin, free from man-made rules, free to hope, free to live, free to love, and free to sing.

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