October 27, 2013 at First St. John Lutheran Church – York, PA
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
As we commemorate Reformation Day this afternoon, our service has mixed two moods with our hymns. There has been a mood of dependence, of needing help. The first two hymns were direct prayers to God for aid: asking the Holy Spirit to be among us, then asking for divine help to remain steadfast in the faith. Then there has been confidence expressed in our singing. We were exhorted to rejoice and proclaim the victory that God has won for us. And the mood of confidence rose with those words: “A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon.”
That confidence found its greatest expression in the lyrics of the ancient song that we prayed: “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. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” Those words of Psalm 46 drip with assurance and faith. Only those who have full confidence in the Lord can speak such words. And as many of you may know, the psalm’s text was the foundation for Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”.
Think again on that first line and what it testifies about the Lord: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Calling something “a refuge” means that entity is where a person can flee to. Calling something “a strength” indicates that entity is a support. The psalm states that we are to consider the Lord an individual that we turn to in order to receive support from Him. But is God our refuge and strength, as the psalm declares? The heart of the Reformation movement is wrapped up in that question: “Is God our refuge and strength?”
Oswald Bayer, a German Lutheran theologian, notes that the Reformation was really about that important question. After noting how people panic with changes in economic statuses or changes in culture and society, Bayer observes: “Precisely this reminds us of the sort of question that the Reformation tried to answer: What can we stake our life on with utter certainty in life and in death?”[i] We could rephrase the question: What gives us the confidence that we could say that God is our mighty fortress and we should rejoice over His victorious actions for us?
The answer to that question is not found in ourselves. That much is obvious, since we are calling God our refuge and strength, not saying that we are self-sufficient. But the reason for that confidence in God is found in what He has expressed concerning Himself, what He has revealed to mankind through His words and deeds. Faith, hope, and trust are placed in them.
So what did the psalm say about the Lord’s words and deeds? You prayed the verses: “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!’” Those statements reveal an active God, one who has control over nations and armies. For the ancient Israelites, those words would resonate greatly when considering the Lord’s victories over the Egyptian army at the Red Sea or the Philistines at the Valley of Elah or the Assyrians encamped around Jerusalem. Each of these events demonstrated the exercise of the Lord’s power and strength for His people.
But for us, the Lord’s words and deeds have been revealed in a greater way. We still look for His victorious acts, but we do not look to the Lord to fight against nations. Our concern is over enemies much greater than Pharaoh, Goliath, or Sennacherib. What can bring us deliverance from our sinfulness? Will we have a victor over death? Who can fight against Satan? What works has the Lord done to deal with those opponents?
The heart of the Reformation message concerns the answer to those matters, the issue that Bayer summarized in one question: “What can we stake our life on with utter certainty in life and in death?” The answer to that is found in the Lord’s words and deeds. It is shown to us in what God has accomplished for us through Jesus Christ: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” Just as the words of Psalm 46 formed the basis for Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” those words of Romans 3 were the source of the words of another of his hymns that we sang portions of today:
God said to His belovèd Son: “It’s time to have compassion.
Then go, bright jewel of My crown, and bring to all salvation.
From sin and sorrow set them free; slay bitter death for them that they
May live with You forever.”
The Son obeyed His Father’s will, was born of virgin mother;
And God’s good pleasure to fulfill, He came to be my brother.
His royal pow’r disguised He bore; a servant’s form, like mine, He wore
To lead the devil captive.
Jesus identifies Himself as the One who deals with the enemies of sin, death, and Satan: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And we have heard how He bestows this freedom to us. It comes not through our works of obedience but through reception of Jesus’ works through His word: “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That word of Jesus comes to us through the Gospel proclaimed from the pulpit; it comes to us with water in the font; it comes to us with bread and wine on the altar; it comes to us in the minister’s words of absolution. Each time we hear it, that word of Jesus declares to us the truth about His work for us, His propitiating sacrifice that redeems and justifies. That truth sets us free—free from sin, free from death, free from Satan.
We needed safety from our enemies, so God became someone that we can flee to. We needed aid from above, so God became our help. He has revealed this through His words and deeds. It is the basis for the Reformation message. That is what gives us confidence to exalt the Lord among the nations and in the world:
With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected;
But for us fights the valiant One, whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, Who is this? Jesus Christ, it is,
Of Sabaoth Lord, and there’s none other God;
He holds the field forever.
Those words confess the truth about the Lord expressed in the psalm: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble…. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” And that is what we stake our life on with utter certainty in life and in death.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.