Our Refuge and Strength

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.



Our Cause is With the Lord

Second Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), January 19, 2014

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:111, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

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.

Those of you who came to Bible study last winter may remember that parts of Isaiah were written while the Jews were in exile in Babylon.  Their tiny country had been gobbled up by the Babylonian empire.  Many had been killed, and a large portion of the survivors had been taken to Babylon in chains.  You can read about what that was like in the book of Daniel.  The nations of Judah and Israel had been flattened.  The Temple, the heart of Jewish worship, was destroyed.  The land God had given to their ancestors was taken away from them, and they had to live in a foreign land, surrounded by pagans who mocked their faith, eating food unlike anything they knew.  And they were slaves, owned by Babylonian lords and subject to whatever their masters wanted to do to them.  The people of faith—God’s people—had been utterly flattened.  Nothing was left to them.  Imagine what that would be like.  Imagine how afraid they must have been, how lost, how homesick, how hopeless.

Imagine how incredulous they must have been when they heard the words of the prophet that we just heard.  “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”  First of all, they were the servants of Babylon, now.  They were slaves!  They weren’t free to serve God.  And even if they had been free, they were pretty pathetic.  Even before the Babylonians came, Judah had been a pretty small country.  Now they had nothing.  Not even themselves!  They were worthless slaves.  How could God possibly be glorified in them?

So they said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”  Have you ever felt like that?  Have you ever felt that all your hard work was for nothing?  Have you ever felt useless, like everything you could possibly try would go wrong?  Think about what that felt like, and then imagine what you would think if God told you that you were still his, and he was going to do something great through you that would glorify his name.  Pretty unbelievable, huh?  How much faith, how much courage, would it take to say yes, to open yourself up to God?  How hard would it be to say, as they did, “Surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”?

The people of Judah had every reason to believe that God had abandoned them.  They had every reason to believe that it was the end of the road for them.  But God said otherwise.  They weren’t abandoned; even in slavery and exile, God was with them.  God knew them, and claimed them.  The same God who called them and named them before they were even born was with them in Babylon; he was giving them strength when they thought all hope was lost.  And more than that, he had a mission for them, a call.  The promises God had made to their ancestors would be fulfilled.  They would have a land of their own, and that God would always be their God.  Their nation and their home would be restored.

But that wasn’t all.  God wasn’t just going to restore what had been before, God was going to do something even greater through them.  The Jews, the people of Israel and Judah, that despised and broken people, would become a light to the whole world.  They would spread God’s salvation throughout the nations, to all the ends of the earth.  They were slaves, they had nothing and nobody cared about them; as far as the world could see, they were on the trash heap of history.  But God saw differently; God still cared for them and claimed them as his own; God had a mission for them.  The LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, had chosen them.

That was the comfort and promise that God spoke through the words of the prophet Isaiah.  And it came true: after about sixty years in exile, the captives were allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild their nation.  And around five centuries later, a young Jewish woman named Mary, a descendant of the ones who had been in exile, gave birth to a son, named him Jesus, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.  That Jesus was God’s son, the Lamb of God, who came to earth that the whole world might be saved.

But here’s the thing.  God’s promise didn’t mean that everything would magically change overnight.  It didn’t mean that the problems would vanish.  The people who heard God’s word spoken through the prophet still had to wait in slavery for their exile to be over.  Some of them died while they were waiting, and never saw the end of the exile.  And when they were allowed to go home, they found their cities in ruins and foreign people living there.  It took time and effort to rebuild their nation, faith lived out through hard times and hard work.  And the nation they rebuilt wasn’t the same as the one that had been destroyed; they couldn’t turn back the clock.  The world had changed, and they had to change to deal with it.  It wasn’t smooth, and it wasn’t easy; there were lots of arguments and disagreements and setbacks.  Yet even in the midst of all that turmoil, God was working in them and through them.

None of the ones who heard the prophet speak would live to see the final fulfillment of his words.  But through all the struggle, the waiting and the work, they kept the faith.  They did the work God called them to, they adapted to their new situation, and they passed on their faith to those who came after.  They remembered that their cause was with the LORD, and their reward was for God.  Their success or failure wasn’t measured in the way the world measures things.  Their success or failure wasn’t determined by the lavishness of the Temple they built, or the power of their new nation.  Their success was in God; their reward was with God.  God’s judgment was the only one they had to worry about, and in God’s eyes they were holy and beloved.

As I first read this text, it seemed to speak to Birka’s situation.  Particularly verse 4: ‘But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”’  There’s hopelessness in those words, a sense of the inevitability of failure.  Birka’s members are getting older and fewer, and that is glaringly obvious at every worship service, every church event, every time someone tells a story of what things used to be like in the good old days.  If nothing changes, Birka will eventually have to close.

And yet, if God was with the people of Israel in exile when all hope seemed lost, surely God is with Birka now.  If God can work through exiled slaves, surely God can work through us, too.  And we, too, were called and named while we were still in our mother’s womb; we, too, are precious and beloved.  Our cause is with the LORD, and our reward with God.

I am not a prophet.  I know that God could turn this congregation around and give us new life, as he did to the Jews in exile, but I don’t know if that’s what God has planned for us.  I have a feeling that if God were to do so, it would mean hard work and change on our part as it did to the people who returned home from exile.  But even if God doesn’t have Birka’s re-growth in his plans, that doesn’t mean that Birka is a failure.  Our success or failure is not determined by the size of our budget or the number of people sitting in our pews.  Our success is in God, and in the ministry we carry out in God’s name.

Ministry like our caroling trip to Bismarck in December.  Those of you who were able to come along saw the joy of those we visited, the tears of thankfulness.  We do ministry together when we worship, and when we invite friends and loved ones to worship with us.  We do ministry together when we come together to Bible study, and we do ministry when we pray.  And our generosity to organizations like the Food Pantry and Camp of the Cross and Lutheran World Relief enables those ministries to do great work in the community and throughout the world.

Birka has been here for over a century, and done a lot of ministry in that time.  None of it was in vain.  If we were to close our doors tomorrow, the things that we have done would still cast ripples of God’s light throughout the community, and the resources of our congregation would go to the larger church to support a new generation of ministry in God’s name.  But I don’t believe Birka will be closing tomorrow, or the day after, or any time soon.  I believe God still has ministry for Birka to do.

After worship today we’ll gather for an annual meeting.  We’ll discuss the budget, the roof, and other issues.  Some of it may be hard to think about, and some important decisions will need to be made about what kind of ministry God is calling us to.  But never doubt that our cause is with the LORD, and our reward with our God.


Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2013

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.

Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, lived in turbulent times.  The Middle Ages were turning into the Early Modern Era, so systems of government and economics were changing.  The Scientific Revolution was just getting started.  The longstanding war between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire was heating up.  The Ottoman Empire, centered in what is now Turkey, was moving northward, conquering the Baltic and threatening the Holy Roman Empire, centered in Germany, from the East.  During Luther’s lifetime they got deep enough into Europe to besiege the city of Vienna.  And the church was corrupt, too; high church offices were bought and sold, bribery was common, the priesthood was torn by sex scandals, church attendance was down, and the average Christian knew shockingly little about the faith they supposedly believed in.  The world, in short, seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket.  There were many good things happening, too—great works of art and literature from the past being rediscovered, for example, and great moral thinkers and philosophers, but they brought with them the uncertainty of change.  In Luther’s day, you could no longer take comfortable old certainties for granted.

It’s no wonder that Luther’s favorite psalm was the psalm we read today, Psalm 46.  “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 .0+in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”  No matter what happens, God is with us, a refuge and strength.  In the words of the hymn Luther wrote as a reflection on this psalm, God is a might fortress, victorious over all the forces of evil.  What a comfort!  No matter what troubles, no matter what trials and tribulations, God is with us.  No matter how the nations rage and the kingdoms shake, no matter how the earth moves under our feet, no matter the natural disasters that surround us, God is with us.  We may be tossed and turned, but God is always with us.

But that doesn’t mean that we will always stay the same.  It doesn’t mean that our understanding of who God is and what it means to be God’s people will always stay the same.  God is always the same, but we are not.  Martin Luther found that out.  You see, Martin spent a lot of time reading his Bible, and as he did so, he noticed things.  God’s Holy Spirit was with him, and it opened his eyes to things he hadn’t seen before.  One of those passages he saw with new eyes was today’s reading from Romans, where Paul says that “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Martin had been taught, as all Christians believed at the time, that you got into heaven when you did more good works than sins.  They believed—as some still believe today—that you had to earn your way into heaven.  They believed you had to make yourself worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.  But that’s not what this passage from Romans says: it says that we are all sinners, every one of us—and we are forgiven solely because of the gift of God’s love through Christ Jesus our Lord.  We don’t earn our way into heaven, which is good, because no human ever born could do it.  But God loves us so much that he gave his only son, Jesus Christ, for the salvation of the world.

This was a big deal!  This set the whole belief system of his day on its ear!  And the more Luther read his Bible, the more he found this whole idea of God’s grace in all sorts of places.  It’s in the Gospels; it’s in Paul’s letters; and while we think of the Old Testament as harsh and unforgiving, you can find God’s love and grace there too, in passages like today’s first reading where the LORD says that he will forgive all of Israel’s sins and make a new covenant with them, pouring out his love and spirit to them, giving them the gift of his love, no matter how often they have fallen astray.  We believe, as Christians, that that new covenant comes in the form of Christ Jesus, who died so that our sinful nature might be forgiven, redeemed, and made whole.

Luther started spreading his ideas, pointing out places where the church’s traditional explanations were wrong, and people listened!  They heard the Holy Spirit speaking through Luther, calling people back to the faith and opening their eyes to see God’s Word.  Luther used the newfangled technology of the printing press to reach a bigger audience, and other people began reading their Bibles more and talking about what God’s Word meant for their own lives.  They didn’t let traditional understandings of what Scripture should mean get in the way of how God was speaking to them through the Bible and through their conversations with one another.  And they started talking about how God’s grace and forgiveness should be lived out.  They weren’t trying to start a new church; they were trying to reform the church they already had, going back to the roots of what it means to be a Christian, roots found in Scripture, in God’s love poured out through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It had an impact on their lives.  Their new understanding of Scripture changed the way they lived.  It affected how churches were organized and how pastors were trained.  It affected how people were taught about the Bible and about God—after all, the catechism that we teach to our Confirmation students started out as a handbook to help parents instruct their own children in the Christian faith.  But it affected a lot of things outside the church walls, too.  It affected how people treated the poor on an individual level and on a community level, as well as on a governmental level.  It changed how families lived together.  It changed the position of women in the community.  It gave people new ways of dealing with the other changes in society.  Even though they lived in a time of turmoil, a time of change and warfare, a time when nations raged and kingdoms were shaken, God was still their refuge and strength, even more than he had been before.  Their understanding of God’s Word changed, but God was with them, their refuge and their help in trouble.

That was almost 500 years ago, but we, too, live in a time of turmoil and change, and don’t let anybody tell you it’s never happened before.  We, too, live in a time of danger and war and conflict; there is a revolution of science and technology happening in our time, too; there is conflict and corruption within and around the church now just like there was in Luther’s day, and then as now there are far too many people who give lip service to Christianity but don’t live it out.  And there are people with new understandings of God’s Word, new interpretations of what it means to be a Christian.  This should not be a surprise, because it’s happened before.  In fact, it may surprise you, but Luther and his fellow Reformers didn’t think theirs was the only Reformation.  They thought of reformation as something that should be constantly ongoing.  We are all beloved children of God, freed in Christ from our sin, but until Christ comes again, we remain sinners.  We are, in Luther’s words, both saint and sinner at the same time, until the glory of God is revealed.  As we are saints, we hear God’s Word and God’s Spirit is in and around us. But as we are sinners, we fall astray, and sometimes let our own prejudices and assumptions get in the way of God’s Spirit.  We go astray, but God leads us back, forgives us, and reformation begins again.

It’s hard.  It’s hard, because the world is changing.  It would be so much easier if things remained the same; it would be so much easier if we never had to study God’s Word and ask ourselves if our traditions and traditional understandings were leading is towards God or away from God.  Life would be easier if the nation did not rage and tremble.  Life would be easier if there was never a need for reformation.  Life would be easier if we were not sinners who depended on God’s grace and forgiveness.  Life would be easier if there wasn’t any need for reformation.

But through it all, no matter what, God is in our midst, and God is not shaken even when we are.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Thanks be to God.