Vol. 58 — No. 41 October 8, 2017
24, 258, 262 (sung throughout the sermon), 47
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Editor’s Note: The following sermon was prepared by the late-Pastor R.E. Schaller. We offer it with the prayer that his exposition on the Word of the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” [TLH #262] would be a source of comfort and strength to God’s people. -NP
We just sang a hymn. There was a time when that would have been unusual. Before the 1500s, songs in the church were largely absent. Much of the service was in Latin (which most couldn’t understand) and there was little or no congregational participation. Martin Luther, recognizing the value of music and hymns in the faith-lives of the people, worked to bring it back to the church. In 1524 he published a hymnal consisting of eight hymns. Not long after that came an expanded version with 37 hymns.
These early hymnals proved to be sources of comfort to the people. Just as certain songs became popular in our country during time of crisis, so during the dark, dismal, and worrisome days that followed Luther and his friends they were able to turn to songs for spiritual encouragement. The most famous hymn was a paraphrase of Psalm 46; a hymn that came to be known simply as “A Mighty Fortress.” More than once, when Luther was troubled by terrors of conscience or terrors of pope and emperor, he would gather his family around and say, “Come, let’s sing the 46th psalm.”
“A Mighty Fortress is our God, A trusty Shield and Weapon; He helps us free from ev’ry need That hath us now o’ertaken.” We would certainly not disagree with that statement or doubt it! God is a strong defense for us. He is a trustworthy Shield against our enemies. He is able to help us when the storms of trouble swirl around us.
But you also notice that the verse does not end there. It goes on “The old evil Foe now means deadly woe; Deep guile and great might are his dread arms in fight; on earth is not his equal.” Luther wants us to realize that although confidence in our Creator and Redeemer is well and good, we ought never to become complacent or blind to the fact that Satan is still a great power and that he is still able to stir up terrible trouble.
In the days of the Reformation in Germany, the devil was hard at work opposing the truth. He wanted the church leaders to give up God’s word and exchange its truth for positions of power and influence. Even those who wanted to follow the Lord felt the pressures of the devil’s temptation.
Satan is dangerous, and it is necessary always to be on guard. It is easy to become relaxed and think that nothing can ever happen to us; to say, “Oh, I know God’s word already; I’ve studied and been confirmed; my faith is fine right where it is, it doesn’t matter if I go to church or not, I’m going to be fine…” That’s the voice of complacency—of laziness—of spiritual relaxation—and the devil can bring all his powers against such self-satisfied souls. “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall,” the Bible says.
Be careful because Satan is no less powerful today than when he first tempted Adam and Eve in the garden. He leads people to twist and turn the gospel message, to emphasize the Christian’s life until people trust in how they act rather than in how Jesus acted for them. He gets men and women to place their hope in what they do instead of what Christ has done. Satan is powerful and clever. We are no match for him on our own, even if we think we are. Surely on earth is not his equal. With this clear, we are ready to sing and remember our danger with hymn number 262:1.
At the end of stanza one, the picture looks gloomy indeed, doesn’t it? We’ve noted that Satan is dangerous, prowling around for human souls. He does this in very clever and deceptive ways, trying to win us with compelling arguments to stray into sin: “Everybody’s doing it…Just do it this once.” He tries every trick in the book. But then, in the second verse, all of the sudden things get even worse!
Luther wrote, “With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected.” Not only is the devil a powerful creature, but there’s nothing we can do to defeat him? We can’t handle him the way we handle flesh and blood enemies. Satan is no ordinary foe.
Luther himself experienced this often in his life. He knew what he was up against and he knew that he did not have the strength to stand on his own. He was threatened for his teachings. He was declared an outlaw so that anyone could kill him on sight—and they would not be prosecuted for it—and even the church would not consider it a sin. Nor was he protected by the state; the emperor placed a bounty on his head as though he were a lion or a wolf.
What tremendous wicked power was demonstrated by Satan! He had Luther’s church and country in his grasp and there was nothing that he could do about it.
But there was a power greater than the devil to be found. That power was the Son of God, Jesus Christ. In Jesus, victory is ours—in every battle—even against the likes of Satan. You see, it is Jesus’ victory that truly makes God “A Mighty Fortress.”
The hymn would have us see all of Jesus’ life as the Triune God’s battle plan to free us from Satan’s power! “For us fights the Valiant One whom God Himself elected.”
The hymn writer Paul Gerhardt also describes it well as he begins with Christmas saying, “All my heart this night rejoices as I hear far and near sweetest angel voices…” Then he quickly adds, “Forth today the conqueror goeth, Who the foe, sin and woe, death and hell o’erthroweth.” God sends out the conqueror to march before us against the enemy—to take on the battle we could not fight.
Every step of Jesus’ life was a battle against Satan. He met sin face to face all the way: As a youth in the temple when His parents questioned His loyalty to God he said, “I must be about my Father’s business.” In the wilderness Christ met Satan’s temptations with the words, “Thus says the Lord…It is written.” He met the effects of sin by reaching out His hand to touch and heal the sick.
This is your champion. See His power and ability! Even death must bow before His command as we hear Him say those words, “Lazarus, come forth.”
We watch Him go up to the cross, to the altar and the sacrifice because He alone can fight the battle—fight sin, Satan, death, and hell to a standstill. He alone can win the victory. He clears the path to everlasting safety for us.
How can we be sure? He not only rose from the dead to present it to us but the Father proclaimed it throughout the world that our victory was won. Sins forgiven. The devil and death defeated. What can we say but sing our agreement to these words in verse 2 of our hymn: “He holds the field forever.”
The third verse of “A Mighty Fortress” begins with the words, “Tho’ devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us…” When Martin Luther first penned this line, Satan—even though ultimately conquered by Christ—was indeed still busy placing dangers and death-traps all around as he sought to suppress the truth of the Scriptures that the reformers were trying to make clear.
Luther felt the devil’s pressure. It was present from the threats of his enemies, to the over-reaction of his friends, to the temptations to pride and selfishness that came with the zeal for religious reformation that was sweeping the country.
He also saw that others would be confronted with Satan’s evil workings too—his threats and temptations. If he trembled at the thought of Satan causing trouble throughout the earth, others would too.
Luther had no doubt of the truth of the stand he had taken. He had spoken out saying that people were justified in God’s sight not by their own works but only by Jesus Christ—and that went against the traditional teaching of the church at the time.
How could he best help others who wanted to take the same stand? He could give them the one weapon the Spirit gave him—the only weapon Christ’s people need: The sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.
You can almost see Luther being whisked off to the Wartburg for his safety—that was the castle where his friends hid him when his life was in danger. But he knew where his real safety lay. It was not in the shielding walls, but in the weapon, the holy Scriptures. Up into the castle tower each day he went with his Greek New Testament, translating it into the language of the people…so that the sword of the Spirit could be in their hands as well. He would disguise himself, go outside into the market places and listen to how the people talked so he would know how to put the text of the Bible into dialect of language that could be easily understood. Up to this point, German was primarily a spoken language—but no more. Now it was also a written language—for here was a Bible that people could use. The Spirit’s weapon was in hand to conquer.
The effect was that each Christian became “more than a conqueror” who dared to stand before emperor and nobleman and king and say, “This we believe, teach, and confess.” And for each sin, each temptation, each vice or crime, each tribulation, each heartache, yes, even the victories that Satan tried to use for pride, they had just the right word. Like a sword can cut, one little word can turn away the devil.
A nobleman was once told by an astrologer that he would die on a certain day—the ruler answered with the weapon of the word saying, “Scripture says, ‘My times are in your hands.’” You have the same sword. The same word. With the word of God you can turn away all the attacks of Satan—all his fiery darts—one little word can fell him—even if devils should fill the whole world! (Sing verse 3 of hymn 262.)
"My life is Christ.” That was now the theme of Martin Luther. And it meant life. No longer was he afraid to take on the joys of life. He could be married and raise a family. He could be glad because the Word—Jesus Christ. Him the devils themselves have to leave alone.
Jesus is “by our side, upon the plain, with His good gifts and Spirit.” Are we at times afraid of the dangers of this world? Of course, but we also can see the world in a whole new light knowing that we have complete victory in Jesus, knowing that because of Him—His death and resurrection from the dead—we stand pure and holy in the eyes of God and He will take us to be with Him forever.
We look at the world and see the wonders God has given us. We see new inventions and blessings, and the changes are not scary. A close friend or relative—or we ourselves, might die or be killed. Should we be afraid? The Savior is our life.
When the worst enemy comes and raises the sword of death against a believer Jesus Himself steps in and says, “This is one of my redeemed. You have no claim here. I will take him from life to life.” The sword of death may come down, but it strikes only emptiness.
Jesus is our life. He endures. And we with Him. So “Take they our life, Goods, fame, child, and wife…They yet have nothing won. The Kingdom ours remaineth.” Amen (Sing 262:4).
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.