Psalm 46 (Reformation Day—Series C)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
October 31, 2010
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text for this Festival of the Reformation is Psalm 46:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
It happened 493 years ago on this date. Brother Martin Luther of the Augustinian Order of Hermits, a priest of the Roman Catholic Church, a Doctor of Theology and preacher in Wittenberg hammered his Ninety-five Theses to the castle church door when Johann Tetzel and Pope Leo X’s indulgences got too close to Wittenberg. October 31, 1517, was a Halloween never to be forgotten.
Jump forward a decade in history. It was around the year 1527 that Luther wrote what we call “the battle hymn of the Reformation,” A Mighty Fortress is Our God. This hymn more than any other epitomizes Luther’s thought and personal experience. In Luther’s introduction to Psalm 46, the Reformer wrote, “The 46th Psalm is a psalm of thanks, sung by the people of Israel because of the mighty deeds of God. He had protected and saved the city of Jerusalem, in which was His dwelling, against all the rage and the fury of all the kings and the nations and preserved their peace against all warfare and weapons. And, in the manner of the Scriptures, the psalm calls the character of the city a little stream that shall not run dry, as opposed to the great rivers, seas, and oceans of the heathen—their great kingdoms, principalities, and domains—that shall dry up and disappear.
We, on the other hand, sing this psalm to praise God for being with us. He miraculously preserves His Word and Christendom against the gates of hell, against the rage of the devil, the rebellious spirits, the world, the flesh, sin, death.” Luther did not write A Mighty Fortress to express his own feelings, but to interpret and apply the 46th Psalm to the church of his own time and its struggles. Today, we do the same.
Psalm 46 is a song of complete trust in God as a strong refuge, particularly in the face of crisis. God is refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Isn’t that when we need help, when there is trouble? The psalmist paints a picture of trouble—the earth gives way, the mountains moved into the heart of the seas, the waters roaring and foaming, the mountains trembling at the tidal wave that follows. That’s trouble, big trouble.
Any disorder that threatens body and soul might come to mind when we read these words. Certainly we think of natural disasters like a tsunami or an earthquake. But by way of analogy we might also think of cancer, the death of a loved one, bodily injury in an accident, loss of a job or income as “the earth giving way.” All of a sudden, so many of us find our foothold in life washed away by the changes and chances of life. Luther experienced that too. His Ninety-five Theses were meant to be a topic for academic debate. Luther may never have imagined the far-reaching impact that document would have on bringing about major change in the life of the Church. Suddenly Luther, a loyal son of the church, found himself under papal excommunication and eventually under a sentence of death. If that’s not a feeling of the earth giving way, I don’t know what is.
Not only do we face natural disasters, but as Luther’s situation demonstrates, we face man-made troubles also. People try to take advantage of us, despitefully using us. People seek to hurt us and do us harm, threatening our lives and our livelihood. We face emotional troubles and inner conflicts. There is strife in our families, in congregations, in communities.
Of course, both natural and man-made trouble stems from the root cause of human sin. Sin is the ultimate in trouble and turmoil, affecting not only the body but also the soul. Sin has left us without true fear and love for God. Sin buries us in guilt. Sin destroys us and our relationships with others. Sin has messed up all of God’s creation leading to both the man-made and the natural disasters. Seems like there is no place we can go to escape sin’s ravages. Seems like there is nowhere to hide from our troubles, no place of peace and rest.
In the ancient world, as well as in Luther’s Middle Ages, the local castle was the place of refuge. The peasants living outside the fortress would come into the protection of the castle walls during the time of attack and invasion. Cities would grow up around the castle and a second set of walls and fortifications would be built as castle and city became one large fortress. The castle and fortress walls provided a place of refuge. For the psalmist, this castle, this fortress, is the Lord God. He, and He alone, is our “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
The psalmist declares, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” The phrase, “the Lord of hosts,” designates God as “the Lord of armies.” He is the almighty commander of heaven’s armies and the defender against all our enemies—sin, death, and the devil. It is God who fights for us and defeats these enemies. He is truly Emmanuel—God-with-Us. Luther, paraphrasing the psalm, asks the question, “Ask ye, Who is this?” and then answering boldly, “Jesus Christ it is, Of Sabaoth Lord (the Lord of armies!), And there’s none other God.” Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, is God’s choice to save us, for Christ is our Emmanuel.
God’s choice, the “valiant One, Whom God Himself elected,” defeated the enemies of sin, death, and the devil. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, the Lord has brought desolations on the earth. He carried out His mighty work of judgment against sin in the sacrifice of His Son, our Savior. Jesus suffered, bled, and died under the world’s guilt and condemnation. He gave up His life into death and was raised again for our justification. Jesus defeated sin, death, and the devil and now holds the battle field as the Victor!
But what does this mean for us? It means that you and I do have a place to go in times of trouble. We do have a sure and certain place of refuge from sin and guilt, from disaster and pain, from trouble and fear. God in His mercy has located Himself in the very place we are under attack, where fear and trouble try to rule. He is with us, His Church, in the flesh-and-blood Jesus. In His Church, the New Testament city of God, the Lord dwells with us through His Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament as a refuge for sinners and those troubled by the affects of sin! In mercy, your God and Savior makes Himself accessible to you through His Word, through Holy Baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper.
God in Christ Jesus is your castle-fortress. He is the “place” you can go to when sin and sin’s trouble attack you. He is the “place” you can go when the devil is grabbing for you. He is the “place” you can go when there is no one else that you think you can trust. Through the Holy Spirit, the Lord of armies is with you. The very Savior who forever defeated sin, who won your forgiveness, who saved you from death, is with you. Not over there. Not around somewhere. With you—with you through His Holy Spirit in His Word and His Sacrament.
God’s Word is given to us in the Bible so that, as the old prayer reminds us, that you and I may “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” that Word of grace, forgiveness, and refuge in Jesus Christ. In Holy Baptism, we have been sealed with God’s name as His child, redeemed and reborn by grace alone through faith alone because of Jesus alone. And in the Lord’s Supper, it is the Victor, Jesus Christ Himself, who meets us at the altar with His very body crucified and His true blood which was shed on the tree of the cross for you. Underneath the forms of bread and wine we receive Christ the Victor personally—God is with us, a very present help in trouble—giving us freely forgiveness and life.
As heirs of the Reformation faith, today we rejoice in our Mighty Fortress, the Lord of hosts. We give thanks for the life of Martin Luther and the other fathers of the Reformation who preserved the Word of the Lord in its purity and truth. We take great comfort in knowing that we have a God who is always with us, always our place of refuge and strength in a messed-up world.
Please join me in prayer.
Thanks be to You, our Father, for all the mercy and truth that You have shown to us these many years. Grant Your Word to dwell with us continually, defend Your Church against all her enemies, keep us in Your grace, and preserve for us temporal and eternal peace through Your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.