Sermon Series: Songs of Faith ~ A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

A leader of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, wrote this hymn. It was immensely popular throughout Reformed Europe. I was sung in the streets, by poor Protestants on their way into exile, and by martyrs at their death. It became the true national hymn of Protestant Germany. What inspired Luther to write it?

Sermon Series: Songs of Faith ~ A Mighty Fortress Is Our God~ November 04, 2018 ~ Psalm 46:1-7

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 ones on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabbaoth 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.

We all know the story. We are familiar with it, we’ve heard it hundreds of times, probably since we were the size of our next generation folks all the way up. God’s chosen people, the Israelites, suffered under the bondage of slavery in Egypt for 400 years. Finally, he hears their cries and he sends who? (One person knew the answer to that?!) He sends who? Moses, yes, he sends Moses! (Boy, I’ve got to do better!) He sends Moses to set his people free. Moses has a very special relationship with God. He meets with God on Mount Sinai and God gives him the law. His law. The Ten Commandments. Moses continues to lead the people, God’s people, for the next forty years, until we read in Deuteronomy, chapter 34:

Then Moses went up to Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab and climbed Pisgah Peak, which is across from Jericho.

And the Lord showed him the whole land, from Gilead as far as Dan; all the land of Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh; all the land of Judah, extending to the Mediterranean Sea; the Negev; the Jordan Valley with Jericho – the city of palms – as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to Moses, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have now allowed you to see it with your own eyes, but you will not enter the land.”

Because Moses at one point had been disobedient.

So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, just as the Lord had said.

But this was amazing:

The Lord buried him in a valley near Bethpeor in Moab, but to this day no one knows the exact place. (Deuteronomy 34:1-6)

God himself took the body of Moses and put it in the ground. That’s the only time he’s ever done that. Never before or since has God done a funeral service. So Moses had a special relationship with the Lord. No one to this day knows where it is. Only God.

Moses was 120 years old when he died, yet his eyesight was clear, and he was as strong as ever. (Deuteronomy 34:7)

Apparently, when our mission is completed, it is time to return home. None of us know what our mission is.

The people of Israel mourned for Moses on the plains of Moab for thirty days, until the customary period of mourning was over. Now Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him, doing just as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Deuteronomy 34:8-9)

So, the people had a significant leader in Moses, someone with a special relationship with God. Moses passes on, Joshua is put in charge.

Joshua now leads the people. Under his leadership, they conquer all the tribes in the land of Canaan, the land promised to them by the Lord – the Promised Land. Joshua remains in charge for the next 28 years. Then in his advanced years, Joshua summons all the Israelites and tells them to continue to be faithful to God. It’s a message that finds itself on the pages of God’s word from page one to the end. Be faithful to God. And then, finally, Joshua calls all of the Israelites to Schechem, and he delivers his farewell address. He knows that the time is near. He sums up the Lord’s dealing with them from the time of Abraham right through to the present, and challenges and encourages them once again to serve the Lord. Joshua says, in Joshua 24:

“So fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols that your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord alone. But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live?”

Their gods couldn’t have been too powerful if you now live in their land.

“But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.” The people replied, “We would never abandon the Lord and serve other gods. For the Lord our God is the one who rescued us and our ancestors from slavery in the land of Egypt. He performed mighty miracles before our very eyes. As we traveled through the wilderness among our enemies, he preserved us.” (Joshua 24:14-17)

Now, I’m trying to give us some context and some backstory to my Scripture today. So, we began with Moses, we passed the leadership down to Joshua. Joshua died at the age 110, and although he appealed to the people to remain faithful to God, before long, they fell away. They no longer had a Moses to look to. They no longer had a Joshua to look to. They look to themselves, and whenever we look to ourselves we mess up.

When it got too far afield, God would raise up a leader. We call them judges. (Not judges in the sense that we have, you know, Judge Judy, but a judge was like a Prime Minister, or a president, or a general). Whoever was needed at the time for a certain specific situation, God would raise them up, they would turn the people back to God, and then they would go away.

Judges ruled in Israel for the next 300 years, but still, even after being reminded consistently to be faithful to God, they fell away. And in Judges 21, we read:

In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. (Judges 21:25)

That sounds familiar. They thought the solution was a human king. They needed someone to follow. They wanted a king like all the other nations had. So they said to the prophet Samuel, “We want a king!” Samuel took that request to the Lord, the Lord said, “No! They don’t want a king! They have a king! Me!” But they wanted a human king. “We want a king! We want a king!” “No, you do not.” “Yes we do, yes we do!” “No, you do not.” And they argued back and forth with Samuel, and when you argue with a prophet of God, you are arguing with God.

But they wanted a king anyway. We always know better than God, don’t we?

God gives them a king, perhaps just to teach them a lesson! We no longer have Moses. We no longer have Joshua. We no longer have the Judges. Now we have a king, King Saul. And then we have King David. And then we have King Solomon. And every single one of them did exactly what God said they were going to do. Surprise! God was right!

Solomon’s disobedience was the final straw. God takes away the United Kingdom of Israel that was at its peak in power and influence and glory, and he divides it into two: a Northern Kingdom of Israel, a Southern Kingdom of Judah. These smaller kingdoms are far more vulnerable to their enemies, like the Assyrians.

The Assyrians invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. The Assyrians were famous for their cruelty. They bragged about live demonstrations of dismemberment, cutting people’s pieces off, little bits at a time. Often they would leave just a hand attached so they could shake their hand before they die. They bragged about cutting off the heads and making a parade of heads, requiring loved ones to carry the heads elevated on poles. They pulled out tongues, and testicles, while their prisoners were still alive. They took young children and threw them into the fire.

Now, I don’t tell you these things for the shock value. That’s not my point. I mention it because it is these same Assyraians that invaded and conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, who have now invaded the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and they are threatening the capital city of Jerusalem. In the midst of such circumstances, the sons of Korah – great leaders in choral and orchestral music in the tabernacle – the sons of Korah, in the midst of that situation, surrounded by the Assyrians, they respond with this psalm, Psalm 46. Please join me in the unison prayer as we prepare to study the word of God.

Lord, upon the pages of this book is your story. It is also our story. Open our eyes that we may see, our ears that we may hear, our minds that we may understand, and our hearts that they may be transformed. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

The sons of Korah write:

God is our refuge and our strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Let the oceans roar and foam. Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge! A river brings joy to the city of our God, the sacred home of the Most High. God dwells in that city; it cannot be destroyed. From the very break of day, God will protect it. The nations are in chaos, and their kingdoms crumble! God’s voice thunders, and the earth melts! The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Israel is our fortress. (Psalm 46:1-7)

So here they are, the Assyrian army, well-known for its savagery, was but a few miles away. Surely those inside the city could hear the sound of horses snorting, the creaking of chariot wheels, the yelling of officers drilling thousands of heavily armed soldiers preparing for battle, and the sons of Korah respond with this? We will not fear. In fact, in the face of such danger, the city, apparently, is full of joy! Joy? Joy! Because the city is secure. It is secure in spite of the threats – not because of its many towers and fortified walls – the city is secure, why? Because God is present there. God dwells in that city, and it cannot be destroyed. God is the ultimate fortress. The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is present as the divine warrior.

He will be there. At the break of day, it says – the break of day is the earliest time for battle – to protect the city from attack. He need only to raise his thunderous voice, and would-be attackers would melt away.

As you will soon learn, it is no wonder that this is the psalm for which Martin Luther found inspiration for “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Let’s talk about Martin Luther for a moment. Martin Luther was a key leader in the Protestant Reformation. He wrote this hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Martin Luther grew up in a home filled with music. His mom was always singing. He joined a boys’ choir that sang at weddings and funerals. Martin was in a band! Martin became a proficient musician himself, learning to play several instruments and writing music.

Martin Luther – film, directed by Eric Till (c) 2003

You see, one of the things in the Protestant Reformation when it began that Luther was determined to do, was to restore worship to the German church, something that he felt had become distant from the average person, because everything was sung in Latin. Germans couldn’t read Latin. They couldn’t write Latin. They couldn’t speak Latin. He wanted it in the vernacular, in the everyday language, so Luther worked with skilled musicians to create songs for Christians – new songs to be sung in German. He helped revive congregational singing, and he wrote a number of hymns himself. Often, he borrowed popular secular melodies and just wrote new words to them. On occasion, this brought some serious criticism, and he was known to have said, “I was compelled to let Satan have this one back,” because it was so associated with bars and taverns.

Martin Luther loved music, and he believed it was an important part of ones walk with God. In fact, I want to share with you a quote. In the forward of one of his books, Luther wrote this:

“Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits. A person who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God does not deserve to be called a human being. He should be permitted to listen to nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”

Martin was pretty serious about his music. He had strong opinions. And Luther’s most famous hymn is this one, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” He based it on Psalm 46, because it reflects not only Luther’s awareness of our intense struggle with Satan, but he was also dealing with some people at the time who were trying to do him significant harm – physical, personal harm. You see, Luther was originally a Catholic priest; however, after reading the New Testament, he came to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic church was teaching a lot of things that you couldn’t find anywhere in the Bible.

His initial thought was just to make them aware of that issue, so that they could correct themselves – reform their thinking (Reformation) – he wanted the church to reform, not to leave and start something else. He just wanted the church to get back to the Bible. So, he writes down 95 specific things that he wanted them to look at. Well, the church wasn’t interested in his list at all, and instead, they charged him with heresy. They put him on trial. He shows up at the Diet of Worms, and they ask him to recant that which he has written. He refuses. He is excommunicated, and a bounty is put on his head. He is now a wanted man. He was given a promise of safe conduct to the trial and from the trial, but after that, he was on his own. His friends knew that once he got home, his life was in danger.

So, as he’s leaving the trial, his friends stage a kidnapping, and they spirit him away and they hide him for a year in Wartburg Castle, where he disguises himself as a knight. During this time, Luther decides to take his case directly to the people. They needed to see what was and what was not in the Scriptures for themselves. So, he translates the Bible into German. That does not make the church happy. They want the Bible to remain in Latin, only to use Saint Jerome’s edition. They didn’t want the average person to have access.

So, surely, Martin Luther could identify with the sons of Korah, right? The sons of Korah had people who were holed up in Jerusalem, facing people who were planning to kill them – the Assyrians. Luther is holed up in Wartburg Castle, facing the reality that people had plans to do the same to him! At a time like this, with enemies at the gate, Luther reflects on Psalm 46, and he comes to the same conclusion: I will not fear. I am secure in spite of the threats against me. I am secure in knowing that God is a mighty fortress who will protect me in my hour of need, and he writes the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

This hymn was immensely popular throughout Reformed Europe. It was sung in the streets by poor Protestants on their way into exile, those who were getting kicked out of their country because they would not worship the way the church wanted them to.

Today is actually the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. There are still people in this world whose lives are at risk because they proclaim this [the Bible] to be the truth. We want to keep them in our prayers as well.

It was sung by people being sent into exile. It was sung by people on the way to their deaths. As they were tied to the posts and the wood around them was lighted on fire, because they were convicted of the crime of practicing the Protestant faith, they sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” It became the national hymn of Protestant Germany. Now, I’m guessing that we have probably sung this song more than once, but I wanted us to understand why Martin Luther wrote it, and to ask ourselves, how might we respond if our whole world caved in? I mean, I don’t know. Perhaps you are going through something right now. Perhaps there is an illness or a disease that you are fighting, or maybe someone you love is fighting. Maybe you’re struggling in a relationship. Maybe your marriage is hanging on by a thread. Maybe you’re experiencing some financial challenges, and you don’t know what you’re going to do. Maybe you’re fighting an addiction of some sort. Maybe someone you love has died. I don’t know.

But in the worst of times, will we remember the sons of Korah, what they said? “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear.” Will we remember what Martin Luther wrote in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God?” “We do not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.” In times of struggle, will we trust that God will be our refuge and strength, our fortress against the darkness we sometimes encounter on this earth, or will we cynically stand by, ready to condemn the Lord when he doesn’t answer our prayers exactly as we want, as fast as we want? That’s a question we all need to ask ourselves.

I want to tell you, the sons of Korah, their faith was rewarded. They were right, God was their help and refuge and strength in times of trouble. The Assyrians never took Jerusalem. In fact, the Assyrians paid dearly as they were conquered by the Babylonians, and answered for the way they treated God’s people.

I want to tell you that Martin Luther’s faith was not misplaced either. He was right. He went on to live another twenty-five years. He died of old age – natural causes, we’ll say. He married Katarina von Borra, one of twelve nuns that he had helped rescue from Cistercian convent. They had six children.

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” That’s why it is so important, friends, to share this Good News with people. People need to know hope. They need to know that when things look bleak, there is a God that loves them, that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies can be present in their lives as a divine warrior, that he will protect them, just as he does you and me. He need only to raise his thunderous voice, and whatever is attacking us will melt away. The creator of the universe is on your side! He has your back! Don’t give up on him. He never gives up on you.

500 years ago, when Martin Luther found himself under attack – physically, emotionally, spiritually – he would often resort to singing, and to saying to his associate, “Come, Phillip! Let us sing the 46 Psalm.” And they would sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” When we are under attack – when you feel surrounded and it looks like there’s no way out – let’s do the same.

Let us add our voices to the sons of Korah. Let us add our voices to the Protestant martyrs. Let us add our voices to Martin Luther himself, and sing the 46 Psalm, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” It is a song of hope. It is a song of promise. It is a song of victory. It is a reminder that God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. Let us sing the 46 Psalm.

And all God’s people said, AMEN!