Reformation Sunday, October 30th, 2016
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was a kid and I first heard that the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” is based on Psalm 46, I was pretty skeptical. Because there are, on the surface, a lot of differences and not a lot of similarities between the two lyrics. A Mighty Fortress is all about, well, God as a fortress. By contrast, there is not one mention of fortresses in Psalm 46. The closest it gets is describing God as a “refuge.” And I don’t know about you, but when I think “refuge” I don’t think “fortress.” I think of wildlife refuges, where strict management of the local ecology gives a safe space for animals, plants, birds, and fishes, where they can grow and thrive in harmony. And “refuge” also makes me think of “refugee,” of victims of violence and oppression forced to flee their homes in search of somewhere safe to live. A Mighty Fortress also spends quite a lot of time talking about the devil, who is nowhere to be found in Psalm 46. The greatest similarity between the two lyrics is the part about the dangers of the world, the nations raging and kingdoms shaking, and God responding by destroying the weapons of warfare.
But A Mighty Fortress was never meant to be a direct paraphrase of Psalm 46. A Mighty Fortress was Luther’s attempt at taking the feeling of the psalm—the sort of thoughts and emotions it evokes in its listeners—and expressing those through the vernacular of his day. Psalm 46 is all about reassuring frightened people. It faces head-on that there is evil and violence in the world, that there is destruction, that there are very scary things going on all around us: war! Natural disaster! Nations crumbling! There is no attempt to whitewash things or put on a Pollyanna-ish positive spin. There’s some terrible thins happening. But even in the middle of that, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. No matter how bad things get, no matter how dark the day, no matter how many disasters shake the foundations of our world, we don’t have to be afraid because God is always with us. The God who has been with our ancestors back to the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was with us through times of slavery and freedom, exile and homecoming, crop failure and bountiful harvests, and everything that life can throw at us, that God is our God who is with us and will always be with us. Even though there is some terrifying stuff in the world, when we take the time to stop and breathe and clear our heads, we know that God is God, and he is going to be with us no matter what.
That is a very powerful message. No matter what happens, we do not need to fear, because God is with us and will never abandon us. It was a message that people desperately needed to hear in Luther’s day. After all, there was a lot to be afraid of in the 1500s. The economy was shifting, enriching some and impoverishing others. This brought about civil unrest, rebellions and uprisings as poor people tried to strike back at those who were oppressing them. And I’m not talking about protests and the occasional riot, here, I’m talking about full-scale pitched battles between armies numbering in the thousands. As if that weren’t enough, the Ottoman Empire repeatedly sent armies up through the Baltic and into Austria. While there was little chance they could ever set foot on Luther’s own native country, they were still a threat to his neighbors, and there was a widespread fear of them throughout Europe. And as if that weren’t enough, social change was spreading quickly. The very ideas of what a family was and how it functioned were changing. The place of women in society, how people thought about sex, the role of family in the community, everything was changing. Sound familiar?
All of this was spread and encouraged by new technologies like the printing press that made it easier for people to communicate and spread ideas quickly across great distances. People were becoming more literate, and as they spent more time thinking and studying, old certainties on which their whole world was based seemed to crumble. Morality was changing. Some things that they had thought wrong and evil were being declared good, and vice versa. People were changing what they thought about sex and intimate relationships. Nothing could be taken for granted any more, not religion, not the family, not morality, not the economy, not the way society worked. Everything that people had thought was a firm foundation was crumbling. Sound familiar?
People were afraid. People grasped at straws, they hopped on fads and bandwagons that promised to give them certainty in a world that seemed to be disintegrating. They covered up their fear with anger and hate, blaming their enemies for everything they thought was wrong with the world. In this world, where the nations were raging and the kingdoms were shaking and cities and countries were tearing themselves apart, Luther read Psalm 46. And he asked himself, what image—what metaphor—could he use to help people see the strength and hope in God even in the midst of their world shaking and changing beyond all recognition?
For 16th Century Germany, that image was the fortress. Every city had a wall to protect itself from bandits, civil wars, and foreign invaders, so that even when armies did come marching up to their gates, their people would be protected and kept safe. All the local people from all the towns and villages around could go to the city, where the walls and the local fortress would serve as a refuge from violence and destruction. Everyone knew how that worked; they’d lived with those protecting walls all their lives. God, Luther said, was like the greatest and best fortress ever, which can never be destroyed or damaged by any enemy, no matter how cunning or brutal. So it doesn’t matter how much your world is shaken, it doesn’t matter who’s prowling outside your door—God is the fortress that keeps you safe, God is your refuge and strength, God is with us. Always.
It seems to me that we’re in a time of change at least as great as in the Reformation. Our economic system is in a time of chaos, as the old industrial system is breaking down and we’re not sure what will replace it. We don’t need to fear an army invading, but there is plenty of violence in the world you can see any time you turn on your tv. There is civil unrest, protests, and deep disagreements on how the country should be run and how justice should be administered. There is deep social change. Families are structured differently than they were a generation ago, and that change doesn’t seem to be stopping. The way we think about morality is changing. Some things we declared evil even ten years ago are being re-thought by huge numbers of people. The role of women in society is changing. Everything about the way we think about the world and ourselves seems to be up for grabs, and this is spread more quickly and easily by new technologies such as smartphones and the internet.
And people are afraid. People are grasping at straws, grasping at anything that will give them back that feeling of certainty. Sometimes they cling to old ways of thinking and acting; sometimes they cling to new fads and social bandwagons. We feel threatened by a world that seems to have no sure foundations, and so we lash out at one another. We don’t want to feel scared, so we get angry instead. We feel threatened, so instead of talking and working out our differences or even just agreeing to disagree, we attack. We don’t want to take the time to let our fears and anxieties out from the corners of our minds we’ve shoved them to, and so we don’t take the time to be still and listen to God, either.
In Luther’s day, the symbol of safety was the fortress. What is our symbol of safety? What do we count on to protect us and help make us secure? Bike and motorcycle helmets, seat-belts, Kevlar flak jackets, blank vaults? What else can you think of? If you were going to put the message of Psalm 46 into a modern metaphor, what would you use? What imagery best symbolizes God’s protection and security to you?
There have been times of great upheaval before. Morals, economies, political systems, countries, technology, family structures—all of these have changed radically more than once in the 2,000 years since Christ, and probably will again. If we put our trust in them, if we make them our foundation, we are left with nothing but broken pieces when times of transition hit. There is only one foundation we can count on that will be stable and strong no matter what happens in this world. There is only one refuge that will keep us safe from the storms of life, from the chaos and destruction that accompanies upheaval and change. And that foundation—that refuge—is Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born to break the cycle of violence and death, to set us free from all the things that bind us—even the chains that we don’t realize are there. That foundation is Christ, who suffered and died so that we might be forgiven and healed and restored. That foundation is Christ, who is with us even as the earth shakes under our feet and the nations rage. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. God is our mighty fortress, our foundation, our stable rock in an unstable world. May we learn to truly put our trust in him.