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The Word That Renders Evil Powerless: The Mighty Fortress Who Is

November 16, 2015

FalconOverGrandCanyon

At our church we observed Reformation Sunday in late October. Along with probably most Protestant churches which follow the liturgical church year, we sang the majestic “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” written by reformer Martin Luther. It’s a favorite of mine anyway, partly because my born-and-bred Lutheran husband always enjoys and sings it with great gusto. He would be the first to tell you he is not the greatest singer in the world but, like my father always did, booms out with heartfelt enthusiasm on a familiar song.

I don’t think the words ever spoke to me as powerfully as that Sunday. So old fashioned with its eths and doths and images of trembling before a prince of darkness grim. Here are the words to all but the second verse:

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.

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.

Our interim pastor, Sally Robinson, used the story of Job in the Old Testament to address the oft debated topic of “where is God with so much suffering in the world” but with a twist. It is human nature to lament and rage against the heavens when bad, horrible things happen, as they did again this week, and indeed happen every week somewhere in the world. But that’s another topic and my heart goes out to all affected personally.

 

CourtOfThePatriarchs

The Court of the Patriarchs, Zion National Park, Utah.

The question Sally asked was “why don’t we also question God when good things happen?” Sally has many years of ministry and life experience, including the good, the bad, and the boring.Looking at Job (as I did in three posts on this blog, a condensed version which later appeared in The Mennonite) we wonder how one human could bear so much grief as he loses all his riches and his family. But when his blessings are restored many times over, we don’t wonder any more. We don’t question God when blessings flow.

Pastor Sally pointed out that part of living means accepting and acknowledging our blessings—in humility—and accepting the risks. For instance, when we fall in love (or grow into it) and marry, we accept the risk that one day we will lose our beloved—or they will lose us (and perhaps some pass on together—a blessing for them but a double grief for their families). To love and be loved in this life—we agree to pain and suffering. The alternative—to hibernate or withdraw from friends, loved ones and society is to lead an incredibly lonely life—a grief and loss of another kind.

In that context, “A Mighty Fortress” takes on an even richer significance. Essentially if we take it to heart, it frees us to look the risks—even the rage of the evil one— straight in the eye and say as Jesus said to the tempter in the wilderness, “You have no power over me.” (I can think of more profane ways to say that but I won’t here.) With Luther we can rest in the stronghold God provides and belt out, “God’s truth abideth still.”

SequoiaTree

Abide—even without the eth on the end—is a wonderful, out of date word, in common usage only as a negative thing, as in: “I cannot abide that!” In the Bible abide is far richer, evoking comforting, big arms enveloping us—but also a responsibility to stay put and not stray from God’s side.

Those words offer out-of-this-world comfort, and a place to draw the strength to carry on.

One final thought. Four lines in this great hymn left me greatly perplexed for awhile, where the thought carries over from one verse to the next (the parentheses inserted below are mine):

For lo! His doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers,
(No thanks to them), abideth.

Luther is almost satirically saying the earthly powers have nothing, NOTHING, when it comes to the might of the Fortress (God). One commentator says that word is love.

Even when the way seems dark and full of sorrow and fear, love trumps the evil powers of this world.

SanFranciscoBay

***

How does this hymn speak to you? Or not? How do you interpret those perplexing lines I called out above?

Here are some conservative Mennonites with an a cappella arrangement of A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

https://youtu.be/wIqwW8mSiyI

***

For some additional, but different thoughts on Reformation Sunday, here’s theologian Stanley Hauerwas.

***

P1040572

We need a Lutheran Hymnal in our collection, don’t you think??

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All photos mine.

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From → Faith

4 Comments
  1. According to scripture, in the end, God wins. “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, . . . and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Christians can be assured that “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away . . . . Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:4,5)

    Though these words can’t mitigate the immediate sorrow that comes with the recent horror, in the end there is hope: love does win.

    I clicked on the lovely rendering of plain folks singing “A Mighty Fortress.” They could make the rafters ring in any world-class cathedral. Very appropriate post today, Melodie.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Love and the expression of love to even our enemies–rather than the revenge and “bombs-away-go-get-’em-pulverize-’em” attitude I’m seeing expressed in social media, often find a way to melt even the misguided, the brainwashed, the evil.

    Jesus showed his love, along with so many others throughout history, in the face of great evil. I do take solace in the promise of the resurrection no matter what happens in our earthly existence.

  3. We don’t generally observe Reformation Sunday in my congregation, but I love your reflection on Luther’s great hymn. So many are searching for hope these days, and you ends with such a beautiful affirmation: “Even when the way seems dark and full of sorrow and fear, love trumps the evil powers of this world.” Thank you – I want to share this.

  4. April, thank you for this affirmation. I was having second thoughts after watching the news last night. Was I completely out of touch to suggest what I did? Your comment–which I read just an hour or two after you posted it (due to my early rising and you being on the west coast) gives me the encouragement I need, too. Another song from this Sunday sticks in my head as I prayerfully begin this day–“Bless the Lord, my soul.” … Thanks, sister.

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