“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
July 12, 2020
Text: God’s Defense of His City and People: Psalm 46
To the leader of the Korahites. According to Alamoth. A Song.
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Sela
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
In 1521, four years after the publication of his Ninety-Five Thesis, Martin Luther was “invited” to appear before the Diet (imperial assembly) in the city of Worms, where he was expected to defend the writings that were fueling the Protestant Reformation against charges of heresy. After the assembly Luther began his journey home believing he had been granted safe passage. However, Luther’s benefactor, Prince Frederick, suspected the promise of safe passage would be broken so he had his agents kidnap Luther and offer safe passage to Wartburg Castle where he would spend the next year translating the Bible into the German language and writing more treatises in defense of the Reformation. What at first seemed to be a life-threatening act was, actually, a life-saving one. Luther may have wondered where was God in the kidnaping just as we might wonder where is God in the midst of the pandemic. In time he would recognize God’s providence.
When life is confusing, our instincts cry out for security and certainty. David was no stranger to these instincts. That is one reason why he wrote this Psalm and why it begins with a bold and confident statement: The Lord is our refuge and strength. By nature, we turn to what we see for refuge and strength; but David is eschewing these. For David, and us, the Lord is our eternal refuge and strength. He contrasts God to the mountains and the earth that are ever changing; and the seas can be tumultuous. The mountains can crumble and the earth quake; but God is faithful and never changing. He is so powerful that the raging seas can become rivers, bodies of water that we enjoy and not fear as we would the raging seas. The rivers were sources of water for human thirst and the irrigation of crops. Conquering armies often diverted rivers as means of breeching the walls to conquer the cities.
God’s strength is further described; when the nations rage, God speaks and the earth melts. These words reference the end of human history. Just as God spoke the world into existence so, the Psalmist tells us, He will speak again when it ends. When He does, wars will cease and armaments will be destroyed.
Through the years I have sung the familiar hymn We’re Marching to Zion. In the chorus of the hymn, Zion is called “the beautiful city of God.” What is Zion? Why is it called the City of God? What does this have to do with Jerusalem or our Psalm and why does God dwell in its midst? Zion was a part of the city of Jerusalem. When David brought the Ark of the Covenant to dwell in the city, his action changed the import of the city. We might illustrate it this way. Why is Richmond unique? It’s uniqueness lies not in size or geography but in being the seat of government for the state. Zion gained its status as the City of God by being the place of God’s dwelling. The hymn is not about our pilgrimage to the Holy Land but to Heaven; for now God dwells not in a city built by human hands but in one He designed and built. The heavenly Zion is a city that no human army can destroy. This reinforces the picture of God as our refuge.
What should be our response to the pictures of God’s strength and power? We are told to “be still.” We are in the presence of a holy and mighty God. We bow in reverence and respect. By being still, we are closing the door on the distractions of the world and focusing on God. The campus of the University of Illinois hosts a cemetery. The cemetery was not a prank; it actually predates the university. In 1976 I attended InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s student missions convention that was held on the campus. One of the speakers, an alumnus of the school’s InterVarsity chapter, addressed the difficulty of having a time of personal prayer. In the dorm the distractions were too great so he retreated to the cemetery. One morning during his private prayer he encountered an unexpected distraction – a member of the track team practicing hurdles by jumping over headstones. You will never be able to exclude every distraction, but you might be able to eliminate many.
Why is it important to be still? God doesn’t engage in shouting matches. In I Kings 19 we read the story of Elijah as an escapee from Jezebel. In his exhaustion, he cried out to God for help in understanding the circumstances. First God sent an earthquake, but did not speak. Then He sent fire, but again did not speak. Instead He spoke in a “still small voice.” Teachers know that to get the attention of rowdy students, you don’t match their decibels, you speak softly so they have to stop talking and start listening. So it is with God. He does not compete with distractions. He waits until we can hear His still small voice and then He speaks.
Sometimes we may feel like Martin Luther – bewildered, as we have been kidnaped and face a future unknown. In the past six months the news reports and events in our daily lives have become common distractions as we wait and try to understand where God is in the pandemic. We sometimes have trouble distinguishing between real news and fake news. We are overwhelmed and we need a fortress. In Luther’s day, towns built castles as fortresses against invading armies. These castles were substantial in size and provided safety and security for the citizens; however, now the castles are obsolete. They are tourist attractions that have outlived their usefulness as fortresses. As you can imagine, a modern army would quickly overwhelm a castle such as Wartburg’s. Today we might not invest in a castle; but we might entrust our safety to our jobs or our investments. Recent news reports have been about job losses and an economy affected by the sequestration. These fortresses have been breeched. My point is, not that we ignore these fortresses, but that we remember that we have a Fortress that is a “very present help in trouble,” a Fortress that does not speak through earthquakes and fires, but in a “still small voice,” a voice that requires we be still to hear.
Just as Luther came to trust Prince Frederick in his kidnaping, so we can trust God in ours.
It has been said: “To immortalize truth, put it into song.” Though the schools remain closed, I want you to go home and “shut the door” on your distractions. I want you to read Psalm 46 and the hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” several times to see how the Psalm inspired Luther and how the hymn is an excellent commentary on the Psalm. If you do this, I will personally award you a scholarship to Sunday School.
(Click on the play button, to hear Danny’s music as you read the words to the hymn below.)
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
A mighty Fortress is our God,
A Bulwark never failing;
Our Helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth His Name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers,
No thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through Him who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His Kingdom is forever.