A Mighty Fortress is Our God

Psalm 46:1-3 11 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. … 11 The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Growing up on our farm, as the oldest child, I would often have to go out late at night to feed the animals. With only a single light pole by the barn, it was pretty dark and kind of spooky. Plus, I always had to keep my head on a swivel. We had a mean, white rooster with long spurs on his legs. He liked to hide in the rafters of the barn and dive-bomb at my head.

If that wasn’t bad enough, we also had an angry mother sheep who didn’t like people. Whenever your back was turned, she would run up behind you to headbutt you in the behind.

Even without the kamikaze chicken and the ramming ewe, the farm at night was always eerie. You could never tell what was hiding in the shadows. Were there demons and ghosts (which are demons) lurking in those shadows? As a kid, I imagined “though devils all the farm should fill, all eager to devour me.”

To keep that rooster and sheep at bay while walking in the barn, I carried a pitchfork in my hands to shoo them away, like any good farmer’s kid. While doing my chores, I often also belted out the hymn any good Lutheran kid knew by heart, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” I wasn’t any better of a singer back then, so I figured two things were going to happen. The demons would cover their ears from my singing and they would run shrieking for cover because Jesus Christ, the Valiant One, was with me in that darkness.

Martin Luther’s hymn, “Ein Feste Burg,” or “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” became the battle hymn of the Reformation. The imagery of this famous hymn comes from these verses in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. … The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

Luther’s hymn tells a story encapsulating the imagery of Psalm 46. The hymn traces the story of salvation from beginning to end. The ancient threat of the devil fills stanza 1. Stanza 2 notes the desperate plight of sinful humanity. Then, we need the victorious Christ in stanza 3. We rely on Christ’s cross as we make our way to our heavenly home in stanza 4. All along the way, we are strengthened by God’s grace as we remain within His mighty fortress.

This hymn has served as the battle hymn of the Reformation since 1527 – a decade after the posting of the 95 Theses.

However, the battle hymn of our lives has much different wording and a discordant melody. Its title is, “An Unmighty Fort is Our Life.”

Because of our inherent sinful nature, we are born into a separate fortress. This one is not built by God, but owned by the devil. It is a ramshackle pile of bricks encircled by a dried-up moat. We build the walls of this dilapidated fort with our good works and splendid deeds – which really aren’t good or splendid, at all.

We see God’s mighty fortress nearby. Our fort looks nothing like God’s fortress. So, like busy worker bees, we strive and toil and climb, to build a tower like Babel – a monument to our own glory. While we are busy doing our own things inside the fort, we are too busy to notice that there is a gate on the side of God’s fortress that is open. It is inviting us to come in. Above the gate is a sign that reads, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Inside our unmighty fort we are like Adam and Eve – clothed only in the fig leaves of our own self-righteousness. We are often hiding within our fort – not from a cranky chicken or a spiteful sheep, but from the almighty and all-righteous God of heaven and earth. We hunker down behind a forest of flimsy excuses to hide in vain from the godly judgment we deserve.

The old evil foe, who now means deadly woe, bids us to build our fort on the shifting sands of club sports, weekends away from church, and busyness away from God’s Word and Sacraments. The ground beneath us constantly quakes because we have built our foundation on knowing that we aren’t perfect, but thinking we’re good enough to get into heaven. That’s why we feel we don’t regularly need what’s being given over there in that mighty fortress.

While this is going on in our decrepit fort, we can look over to see God’s mighty fortress is built on the solid foundation of His holy Word.

Though devils all the world fill, all eager to devour us, we beat them to the punch by devouring our lives in pursuits of egotism and pleasures of selfishness that only fatten us for the slaughter to come.

We go around belting out this dystopian tune of “An Unmighty Fort is our Lives” – if not with our words, then definitely with our actions.

No truer words do we sing than these: “With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected.”

From our ramshackle fort, we can look across the horizon. The almighty fortress gate opens and a gloriously brilliant light pours forth. Out steps the Valiant One, whom the Fortress Master Himself elected. His path is certain. His glory is unmatched. He charges across the plain on His white horse. His victorious banner waves in the wind. He rushes into our fort to do battle with the master of our domain – that fallen angel who is our old evil foe.

It is a battle that lasts 40 days and 40 nights. In this celestial battle, the Valiant One is wounded – His hands are pierced; His feet are gashed; His side is sliced open. But, He strikes the final killing blow – crushing the evil foe’s skull. The Valiant One stands triumphant over His vanquished foe. Now he can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done. For the champion calls the evil foe by his real name – Satan, meaning Liar. That little word of “Liar” has felled him.

You come out of hiding – naked, scared, and filthy. You are asking, “Who is this?” From across the way, from the other fortress, you can hear the voice of other rescued beggars. They have been gathered from all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages. They have been made citizens of this almighty fortress. They answer your question by shouting in unison, “Jesus Christ it is. The almighty Lord. And there’s no other God. He holds the field forever.”

Jesus Christ, the Valiant One, tears down our derelict walls and brings us into the safety and security of His mighty fortress. However, we like the life of beggars. Daily, we continue to return to rebuild this decrepit shack. We put on the leaves of our self-righteous acts. We find time to do everything else but worship the Valiant One who saved us. We are so in-tune with the whispers of the world and the lies of Satan, that we forego the precious, life-giving and soul-saving words of the prophets and apostles.

We are addicted to the sugary poisons of the old evil foe and rarely hunger for the solid meat of God’s Word, and the divine body and blood of the Lord’s Sacrament. We would rather roll around in the filth of our sin than daily receive the cleansing bath of Baptism.

Thankfully, the Reformation is about rediscovering that Jesus Christ was elected to come to earth to tear down the walls of our flimsy fort and carry us into the warmth and shelter of His mighty fortress.

By God’s grace, Jesus Christ does this daily with us through repentance and absolution.

Daily, Jesus removes our leafy clothing and dresses us in the regal robes of the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world. He takes us in His nail-pierced hands and ushers us through the door He has opened with His holy life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection. He washes away the filth of our sins in His blessed baptismal waters. He spoon-feeds us the manna of His body and holds to our lips the chalice filled with His blood that flowed from His pierced side. He has painted the doorways of His fortress with Lamb’s blood – His divinely human blood. To prepare us for battle against the devils that fill the world and this world’s scowling prince, He gives us His good gifts and Spirit.

He holds the field forever. Therefore, we will not fear. Though an unmighty fort is our life, a mighty fortress is our God. Though the earth should change; though mountains slip into the sea; though its waters roar and foam; though the mountains quake and break; we will not fear. Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife; take they our reputation, dreams, friends, and health; do what they will – hate, steal, hurt, or kill; though all these be gone, our victory has been won.

A scared child might take a pitchfork and a hymn into the darkness of the barn. All you need for your life is that hymn. It is in your heart. It is in your heritage. It is on your lips. For it reminds us of what God allowed His reformer, Martin Luther, to rediscover 500 years ago.

The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

The Lord Almighty is with us: in the manger, on the cross, at God’s right hand.

The Lord Almighty is with us: in His Word, His Baptism, His Supper.

The Lord Almighty is with us: in good times and bad; in suffering and persecution; in the crib and on the deathbed.

The Lord Almighty is with us, for it is His Church. At the same time both Militant and Triumphant, under siege by the devil and victorious through the Valiant One.

The Lord Almighty is with us, dead upon the cross and alive out of the tomb. All for none other than you. His death. His resurrection. His glory. His Law. His Gospel. His sacrifice. His victory. So do not fear. The Lord Almighty is with us. Though all may be gone, our victory is won; the kingdom’s ours forever! Amen.