Reformation Sunday, Year A

Reformation Sunday, Year A

Psalm 46

Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“God Our Mighty Fortress”


“God is our refuge (our fortress) and strength, a very present help (a well proved help) in trouble. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge (our fortress),” says the psalmist, along with ancient Israel with bedrock confidence. Today I invite you to explore a little with me as we look at what some scholars believe is the original context out of which Psalm 46 was born; then, we’ll fast forward several centuries to see how this psalm inspired reformer Martin Luther; and from there, we’ll fast forward to our present day as this inspired word of God speaks to us.


First, then, ancient Israel, or more properly, ancient Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah. Some scholars believe that the historical background out of which Psalm 46 arose is found in 2 Chronicles 20, during the days of King Jehoshaphat. King Jehoshaphat of Judah was afraid that he and his kingdom would fall to the surrounding peoples of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir. So in fear and panic, he calls together the inhabitants of Judah in an assembly at Jerusalem, and the LORD reveals an oracle to Jahaziel, a descendent of the Levites; who reassures Jehoshaphat and the assembly that even though Judah is outnumbered and an inferior military power; nonetheless, they would win the battle, “for the battle is not yours but God’s.”


So, the next day the choir of Judah and Jerusalem took their position on the front-line and began singing: “Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures forever.” And this confused the armies of the Ammonites, Moabites and Mount Seir; putting them in disarray; so that they turned against each other and killed one another; until there were no survivors; thus the LORD gave Jehoshaphat and Judah the victory.


I believe that it is most instructive for us to note how first it was the power of the word spoken to Jehoshaphat and the assembly; how that oracle from the LORD gave courage and confidence to God’s people in a time of fear and threatening destruction. Second, it was the power of the sung word of God by the choir on the battle front that totally caught Judah’s enemies off-guard, caused them to turn against themselves, and hence, bringing on their defeat and self-destruction. The psalmist also underscores the power of God’s word, particularly in verse 6, where, amidst all kinds of catastrophic events: “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;” the LORD then “utters his voice, the earth melts.” The power of God’s word working in many and varied ways then is what saved the ancient Israelites, and, as we shall see, it saved Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, and it continues to save us today.  


Today our opening hymn, which we Lutherans like to sing with vigour and enthusiasm, was, among Martin Luther’s 37 hymns, the most favourite of them all, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” I don’t know how many of you realise this, but the hymn is based on, and inspired by the first verse of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Little did Luther know that as time moved on from century to century up till today, his hymn would be translated into some 200 languages and sung by virtually every mainline Christian denomination, including Roman Catholics!


The hymn of course spread like wildfire in Germany and other Lutheran lands. Luther himself, along with his other reformer friends and colleagues, it is said, sang it daily--especially in times of trouble, temptation, and depression; to be lifted in spirit and be restored with new courage, faith and strength. The tune--EIN FESTE BURG--also composed by Luther, has inspired J.S. Bach’s famous tune of Cantata 80 “JESU JOY OF MAN’S DESIRING,” and Felix Mendelssohn’s  “Fifth Symphony.” It also influenced Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Les Huguenots and Alexander Glazunoff’s Finnish Fantasy.


For Luther himself, likely one of the--if not the--most important message(s) of the hymn is that for him, on numerous occasions, God was like A MIGHTY FORTRESS. Perhaps it was during his year that he spent in hiding at Wartburg Castle while he translated the New Testament into German that he found God on a much larger scale to be like that mighty fortress at Wartburg. Those thick protective walls of Wartburg Castle may have helped him feel safe and secure away from his military, political and ecclesiastical adversaries. Oftentimes Luther felt that everyone was against him--hence, it was solely by the protective and gracious God that he remained unharmed and safe, and was able to continue with his reforming work.


A second very important theme in Luther’s hymn as well as in his life was the power of Satan at work in all of creation, in the world and in the church. For Luther, this meant that life was defined in terms of military battle language. Luther was forever at battle with the devil, he saw him at work everywhere. On one occasion, he supposedly even threw an ink blotter at the devil. However, as Luther firmly believed and confidently states in his hymn: “One little word subdues him.” The word, of course is Jesus, for Luther and all Christians, “He holds the field victorious,” and “The kingdom’s ours forever!” Luther’s phrase, “One little word subdues him,” once again picks up on the theme of the power of God’s word to accomplish whatever God wants in our lives, in the church and in the world. For Luther, Jesus Christ himself being The Word of God Incarnate could accomplish ALL THINGS. Luther took great comfort in this and it was The Source of his strength and inspiration throughout his life.


Fast forwarding now to the present day, we too are able to be inspired, strengthened, and encouraged by God Our Almighty Fortress. I’m certain that if we all stopped to think about it; every one of us here today could recall at least one time—if not more—in our life when God has protected us from troubles, dangers and harm. God has been like a Strong Fortress for us too; whether we face physical, mental, spiritual or other dangers. 


Maybe, like ancient Judah and like Martin Luther, we’ve had to face some overwhelming opponents and obstacles. We, like they, might feel we have precious little chance of overcoming or winning over such opponents and obstacles. Our own strength, skills, gifts and resources may seem next-to-nothing compared to those of others. Yet, we’re still here! God is good! God has given us exactly what we’ve needed at the right time. God has well proven to be OUR MIGHTY FORTRESS. We have been protected, strengthened, encouraged, inspired—we’ve overcome and prevailed because “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The power of God’s word has worked in us and in our lives too, that’s why we’re here today to worship and celebrate the triumphs of the LORD.


Today we like ancient Judah and like Luther also have our battles to fight. As people of faith, we too are constantly fighting the cosmic battle between good and evil, God and the devil. Sad to say, the powers of evil still exert their influence upon us personally, as well as in the world and in the church. The following story illustrates this quite well.


Years ago a man bought a church building. When the time came to give it up, the congregation failed to do so. Not wanting to take a church to court, the purchaser gave the church another thirty days, and then another thirty days. When his patience was exhausted, he rigged up a plan to get them out. While an evening service was in progress, he had a friend pull the main light switch and throw the congregation into total darkness. Then he pulled his car in front of the church for the headlights to shine through the window. He dressed up in a red devil suit and came through the window in front of the congregation. The people jammed the exits in trying to flee the devil. One woman could not get out because she was in a wheelchair. She kept pushing backwards but the devil was gaining on her. When he got close to her, she said, “Now listen here, Satan, I want you to know that I have been a member of this church for forty years, a teacher of the Bible class for twenty-five years, and the president of the Women’s group for the last ten years. And I want you to know that I was on your side all the time.” 1


The story, although somewhat humorous, is also sobering and instructive in that it points out how the powers of evil can still be at work even in the church and certainly in the world—as we just need to read the front page of our newspapers or watch or listen to the news to learn how the devil continues to work. And so we always need to be on our guard to resist the powers of evil.


We, like ancient Judah, like Luther and the other reformers, however can continue to live confidently and secure—trusting and knowing that “One little word subdues” all evil powers. The power of God’s word is very much alive and active; bringing healing to the sick, hope to the hopeless, faith to the doubter, love to us all. Jesus Christ is the ultimate victor.  Praise God our Mighty Fortress for that!                


1 Adapted from: John R. Brokhoff, Luther Lives! (Lima, OH: The C.S.S. Publishing Co., Inc., 1983), p. 69.


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