Many, if not all of you, have probably heard of Martin Luther. It is because of him that we are sitting in a Lutheran church. We are known as Lutherans. We will, this October, celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation. It is important for us to remember though that Luther didn’t set out to start a reformation. His intention was to convict the church, specifically the Catholic church in its teachings. He was tired of seeing indulgences sold as well as watching Rome build massive cathedrals while people were dying on the streets. It was in that light and in an attempt to be true to the Bible and what he believed the Bible was saying that he wrote his 95 Thesis and posted them to the church doors. He didn’t wake up one morning and think to himself “I think I’ll start a reformation!” Our hymn today, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was written during that time, but not because of that time. In fact, the reformation didn’t start being celebrated until after Luther had died.
It’s actually hard to pinpoint the exact date that Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress,” but most experts agree that it was somewhere between 1527 – 1529. Over the years it has been translated into 170 different languages. What makes this hymn unique (at least in the context of our sermon series) is that not only did Luther write the lyrics, but he also wrote the music that accompanies it. Because of the time it was written, we know that this was around 10 years or so after Luther posted his 95 thesis on the door of the church in Wittenburg. Here is what you may not know about Martin Luther: he suffered greatly with depression. That actually is a comfort to me. He suffered from deep, dark, depression. It was during one of these times that he actually wrote our hymn for today.
It was a difficult time in Germany and for Luther personally. A man who followed Luther’s teachings was martyred, a plague fell over Wittenburg, and Luther’s daughter died 6 months after being born. He wrote to a friend saying “we are all in good health except for Luther himself,” (yes, he talked about himself in third person), “who is physically well, but outwardly the whole world and inwardly the devil and all his angels are making him suffer.” In addition to what was going on locally, Luther was still battling (arguing) with other reformers over the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. When Luther went to write “A Mighty Fortress” it was as a hymn of comfort rather than a hymn that was a battle cry. He based it on Psalm 46.
Although I’m not always a huge fan of the King James version of the Bible (I think it is easy to get confused with all of those “thou’s” and “arts” I will be referring to that in scripture today because that is most likely what Luther knew (although his would have been in German). Luther’s original words (or, our best guess, at least) were “a mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” And there’s a word that we hardly hear any more: bulwark. It means a wall or rampart. It can also mean a person that acts as a defense. Our God is a fortress, our God acts as our defense. Wow! That is a powerful image when you think about it. Our God is a force that cannot and will not be moved.
Psalm 46 says “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.” I love the idea and image of God as a refuge, as a home or safe place. It’s as if God serves as our lighthouse, directing us towards easier times, safer waters, or even God when the waters get rough. I also like the idea of refuge because when I think of a refuge, I think of something covering me. I don’t know about you, but I get a lot of comfort thinking about God covering me, almost hugging me or protecting me.
Luther continues in the first verse “for still our ancient foe, forsworn to work us woe, while guile and dreadful might is armed to wage the fight: on earth there is no equal.” Our ancient foe of course is sin. The trouble is, it is our ancient and current foe, right? Sin indeed will work us woe. I have struggled to discern what Luther is saying at the end of verse 1. Is he saying that on earth there is no foe quite as strong as sin or is he saying that there is no one on earth like God who will fight for us? Either way, he is correct. Psalm 46 actually reminds us 3 times in 11 verses that God is with us and that God is our refuge. But, despite having a safe refuge, despite having a God who loves us and desires to protect us, we still venture out into the world, sometimes even on purpose, to chase sin.
For whatever reason, we leave the comfort of God’s refuge and go after sin. It’s as if sin is that sparkly, glittery object we just can’t resist chasing. Sometimes we do it knowingly, sometimes we don’t realize we’ve chased sin until we’re in the midst of it. The second verse of the hymn sums up this battle, and I love Luther’s original words. “If we in our own strength confide, our striving turns to losing…” So, if we trust in our own strength, in our own ways, our own plans, it will turn out to be a losing thought. We are promised, instead, an advocate. Luther continues “the righteous one fights by our side, the one of God’s own choosing. You ask who this may be: Christ Jesus, it is he…” And we are once again reminded “the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalm 46:7).
When you think about this hymn in the context which Luther wrote it, it takes on an entirely different feeling. If you think about it as it was written: by someone who was battling the demons of depression, watching his friends fight a plague, someone who buried a child, and someone who was in the middle of a religious crisis of sorts, the words are almost comforting. “Though all the world with devils fill and threaten to devour us, we tremble not, we trust God’s will: they cannot overpow’r us.” Sin, in all of its forms, is all around us. If we let it, it really could devour us. I have been in that dark valley before. I have been in the dark valley of the self denial of forgiveness. I have known in my heart that God forgives me, but my head tells me a different story. It can really feel like you are being devoured.
But God is our refuge, our fortress, our safe place. And no matter how many times we may stray from God, God stays firm, unshaken, and a solid foundation for all our needs. It is on us when we choose to stray. God never pushes us out of the comfort and refuge of the fortress. We go searching for bigger and better things, ultimately get lost, and when we look for comfort and direction, there is Jesus. Sent by God, once again, to be our guide. Even if everything we know on this earth to be ours is taken away from us, the kingdom of God is ours forever.
This hymn is more than a battle cry for the reformation. This is a hymn of comfort in times of real trial. Despite its age, this hymn is just as relevant today as it was 500 years ago. When we need to be reminded to what we must cling, perhaps we can think of this hymn. This is a hymn of proclamation that our safety, security, and love is in God and God alone. A mighty fortress of love in a world full of sin, hate, and destruction.