This day, on which we celebrate the reformation of the church, is not quite arbitrary. It marks the date in the year 1517 on which Martin Luther, a monk and professor of theology, opened an invitation to debate over the question of paying for forgiveness. In short, the day on which he nailed to the church door his Ninety-five Theses, insisting that grace is a gift from God, one that cannot be earned, and one that comes from God alone.
It is also the day on which, in most Lutheran churches, we sing the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Or else! To be honest, I don’t know what would happen if we did not include “A Mighty Fortress,” because I’ve never tried it.
Part of the appeal of this beloved hymn is that the lyrics continue to give us hope. Even as our lives and the world in which we live can bring uncertainty and upheaval, our God is, indeed, a mighty fortress. Because it’s such a staple of our hymn-singing repertoire, it’s easy to forget, or to overlook, that Dr. Luther based the words in Scripture – specifically in Psalm 46, the powerful and memorable prayer that we read today.
The psalm begins with a juxtaposition that you and I can easily overlook: the presence of God within our troubles. “God is our refuge and strength: A very present help in trouble.” It takes us all the way back to the very first moments of creation, when God’s presence imposes order upon chaos. We are reminded that the presence of God does not equal the absence of chaos in our own lives; that, in truth, the disruption of change and growth are life itself, so that our goal is not to minimize change but to seek, and to cling to, God, our very present help in trouble.
How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? None; Lutherans don’t like change.
And yet on this festival day, we celebrate a church father who, in looking for a God of creative, redemptive love, changed everything. For Martin Luther, whose lifelong journey alongside the God of grace, not only reformed Christianity, he also insisted that the church he loved must be semper reformanda, ever reforming. That is, in the world that God created, chaos is life; change is life; growth is life; disruption is life; tumult is life; and God is in the midst of that life; indeed, God is the agent of life itself.
The old words of the hymn echo the old words of the psalm. “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” Not a suggestion that “mortal ills” are something exceptional and occasional; on the contrary, even more so in the sixteenth century, life was endlessly challenging. And so it remains. And yet! Amid the flood of mortal ills, it is God who prevails.
On September 11, 2001, the mountains trembled with tumult. The very words of the ancient psalm seemed to come true. The nations raged, and the kingdoms shook. And the hymn gave back the refrain: “Hordes of devils fill the land, all threatening to devour us.”
At a time when virtually all Americans were frightened and shaken, we turned as one to our houses of faith. Churches and synagogues, mosques and temples were filled with people desperate for light in the darkness. And I’m certain that many of us heard Psalm Forty-six. And so we heard also, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved.”
Therefore we will not fear!
Psalm Forty-six, a prayer of promise and reassurance, reminds me, and you, and all of us, of the truth expressed in Psalm Twenty-Three, which we just heard last week: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. That is the heart of the Twenty-third psalm, its center, its core, its soul. Simply to say, “I will fear no evil” is an empty promise unless we declare it while walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
And the heart of its twin, Psalm Forty-six, is likewise.
The triumphal declaration of Psalm Forty-six is found hard on the heels of the chaos and the tumult, and it is this: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.”
And it’s worth noting that while change is constant, every change is transitory. Only God is eternal.
“The earth be moved,” the psalmist tells us, “the mountains shake.” Those are calamities that are happening in the moment. Along our life’s journeys, change is constant. Sometimes these changes float by unnoticed; sometimes they are monumental disruptions. But like the church, which continues because it is always reforming, always unfolding, always changing, we continue amid our disruptions because the one constant, the bulwark, the fortress, the unmoving center of all is God himself.
Yes, the waters rage and foam – in the hurricane. Yes, the mountains shake – amid the wildfires and earthquakes. Yes, the nations rage – during turbulent times. But hear the abiding presence of the Creator: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.”
The river is always there, throughout the change and loss and pain and growth and burdens, the river runs, sending bright clean life-giving water through the city of God, whether that city is Jerusalem or the hearts and souls of you and me and all who have been washed clean in the waters of baptism.
The river of life, the waters that saw the birth of creation, that is eternal and everlasting. “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” we are told, and that is where God abides: “the holy habitation of the Most High.”
And as the psalm concludes, as the hymn concludes, amid the constancy of change in our lives, you and I receive the simplest and most powerful directive. “Be still, then, and know that I am God.”
Be still and abide in the waters of creation. Be still and listen for the Son of God who calms the storms. Be still and know.
“That Word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth,” the hymn reminds us. In spite of all the upheaval and uncertainty of life, in spite of all earthly powers, the Word abides.
“Let goods and kindred go,” Martin Luther advises; “this mortal life also. The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.”
And the refrain we have seen earlier in this psalm reminds me, and reminds you, and reminds anyone who needs to hear it, that our God is a mighty fortress: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”
His kingdom is forever and ever. Amen.