2022-10-30 Reformation Sunday
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
Our beloved festival of the Reformation is here once again! It’s always been a source of Lutheran pride - but not too proud - to know that we still preach and teach the same Gospel that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther himself did. Most of us are fairly familiar with Luther. We know the gist of his story, even if the finer details may be a little fuzzy. He was a man vexed in conscience. The Roman Catholic church of his day had impressed upon Luther the idea that he had to earn his eternal salvation through works or by buying the merit of the saints with money. His understanding of God was a cosmic ogre, a big mean bully who demanded perfection from His people and then damned them all to hell when they didn’t measure up. God was not a God of love to Luther. He was a God of wrath and vengeance. Holy and unapproachable. Luther desperately was searching for a God who would love him no matter what - but that’s not the message that he found in the church. Instead there was a god who could be appeased with money and church-sanctioned indulgences. A god who could be bought and paid off to look the other way. God was a corrupt prison guard to Luther, someone who could be bribed to win favour and brownie points.
This was an incredibly troubled time for the Western Church! It had descended into all out theological anarchy as Satan had sunk his nasty claws into the church leadership and corrupted it through and through. The message of the Gospel that God is truly a God of love, grace and mercy was gone. The message of Christ crucified and resurrected for the free forgiveness of sin was missing. Instead, there was nothing but burdens for the soul. Nothing but demands and guilt. Nothing but people moping around in depression, thinking that God Almighty was out to get them. He was there to punish them for their sins and iniquities! For years and years, this was how things were for the average lay person, if you could understand any of the Latin language at all. There was no good promise from God, no hope, no love. It was a very dark time indeed. But then, God called a chubby German monk to read the Scriptures that had long since fallen into wrong interpretation. Luther began to read the New Testament in the original Greek language instead of the official Latin Vulgate translation that Rome was so proud of. It was there in the pages of the New Testament that Luther had the blessed discovery that he was dead wrong. Now, most Germans I know would never own up to being wrong. Ever. But Luther broke the mould and realized that his Roman understanding of God, of sin and grace, of forgiveness and mercy was completely bonkers! God wasn’t that mean ogre He envisioned, He was love and mercy! He wasn’t out to punish us and destroy humanity. Rather He laid His life down on the cross for us and for our salvation by faith!
After this “evangelical breakthrough,” Luther got fired up. The Gospel was once again being preached in the churches and spreading like wild fire. And not only that, it was also being sung. Luther understood that music was only one smidgen less important than the Holy Scriptures themselves. To this very day in scholarly academic regalia, theology is red in color whilst music is pink - just one shade off of the sacred. Luther wanted to sing songs in the Sunday Liturgy that reflected this new found Gospel. So he set his pen to writing music and wrote some of the very best hymns we still sing today. Specifically, ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’, that triumphant and best know of the Reformation Hymns. It is based on Psalm 46, the first and last verses of which show the very heart of the hymn: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” And, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
These images are powerful, are they not? They envision God as a medieval castle with strong high walls made of fortified stone. A fortress. And a mighty one at that! Luther describes God as a sword and shield victorious. He breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod And wins salvation glorious! It’s this idea of God being a mighty warrior, valiant and strong. He smashes His enemies into oblivion, breaking their source of power. Many of the Reformation hymns use this kind of language, emphasizing the real struggle of the Christian life. It truly is a war and a battlefield. Of course not with earthly powers but rather in the spiritual arena. First hand, Luther knew the assaults of the devil. I first hand saw Luther’s room at the Wartburg Castle where he threw his inkpot at the devil who was harassing him! It’s a reminder that anytime God’s will is being carried out, there too is the devil in opposition. This is another reason Luther wrote hymns. He said “If any man despises music, as all fanatics do, for him I have no liking; for music is a gift and grace of God, not an invention of men. Thus it drives out the devil and makes people cheerful. Then one forgets all wrath, impurity and other devices.”
And Luther isn’t just making this up. He found evidence for this in the Scriptures, specifically in the Old Testament in 1 Samuel 16:23 that says “And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him.” Luther would frequently sing hymns when he was scared or depressed, believing in his heart that the presence of music that sung praise to God and lauded His power and might would send the devil far away, just as David did for Saul. It’s cool to think of music as a weapon! And it helps when you have a battlefield type hymn like A Mighty Fortress! It’s such a contrast to modern day, mainstream Christian music. Today’s Christian hits are all so fluffy and luvey-dovey. Whatever happened to the mighty fortresses and crushing the skulls of evil and the strong champion Jesus Christ who holds the field victorious?! Now it’s all Jesus is your buddy and your pal, helping you look at your stamp collection. I don’t want that! I don’t want a limp-wristed, buddy Christ! I want the real Jesus, crucified and resurrected to kick the devil’s head in and destroy his lies and corruption!
Nobody wants a Caramel Macchiato sissy God! We want the Mighty Fortress! We want the God Who is strong to save! Luther drives this point home in many of his hymns. We certainly do not have a wimpy God. We have a strong and mighty Savior who fights by our side. No matter what happens in life, God truly is with us. Just as Luther says in the hymn “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever!” It means that when the devil, the world or our own sinful flesh rebel and fight against us, we will not fail because we rely on God’s strength and power, not our own. We have been baptized into Christ and have put Him on like strong armour. We gather around His table to taste and see that the Lord is good and that His forgiveness, life and salvation fill us up from the inside out. No matter what difficult circumstance we may face from a money crunch to health battles, we can always depend on God our Heavenly Father. He will help us and defend us.
Psalm 46 says “Be still and know that I am God.” And it is easy to be still when we know that God is our Mighty Fortress, that we are safe within the walls of His protection. We, like Luther, can call on His holy name and sing His praises and know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God is love and mercy, not some demanding ogre. He will help us in our day of trouble. He is with us from the cradle to the grave and beyond. He alone has conquered our enemies and given us the victory over sin, death and the devil. Trust in the Lord for He is your mighty fortress, now and forever more. Amen!