Sermon for Reformation Day, AD 2020

John 8:31-36; Psalm 46

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is probably Luther’s best-known hymn across all denominations and one of the most well-loved by Lutherans. We identify it with Reformation Day, calling it “The Battle-Hymn of the Reformation.” No one is completely sure when Luther wrote it. One of the most dramatic and appealing theories is that it was written for the Lutheran princes to sing as they came to present the Augsburg Confession – the core Lutheran beliefs – to the emperor.

We know for sure that it wasn’t written to celebrate “Reformation Day.” Reformation Day was not celebrated until a little after Luther’s lifetime. Rather, quite early on, this hymn was known as “A Hymn of Comfort.”  It’s rather interesting that our own hymnal puts this hymn in the “Church Militant” section rather than the “comfort” section. Yet comfort is what Luther cared about – not worldly ease, but the comfort of conscience that comes through the gospel. It is the comfort we derive from the cross, knowing that in Christ God is for us.

The Reformation didn’t just happen overnight. It was a tumultuous time. Luther began just wanting to fix corruptions in the Roman Catholic Church, he attacked the selling of indulgences, papers sold by the church which promised relief of punishments in purgatory for one’s deceased friends and relations. Yet as he studied more scripture and encountered more pushback, Luther realized that the problem in the Roman church was much deeper. The Roman church had lost the gospel, and lost the comfort of the cross. What Christ won on the cross was not sufficient to cover all sin, and all punishment for sin. In their system, people needed to add their own works to what Christ had done to cover their sin. God gave them grace to do it, but it was up to them to clean themselves up.

This loss of the gospel, which went hand and hand with lack of Biblical teaching, was the root of the wicked weed that had come to envelop the church. Luther realized from his study of scripture that it was Christ alone, and his merit alone, that we trust in for salvation. There is nothing we can add. As the words of Jesus from our gospel reading today say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices 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.” We are by nature enslaved to sin and cannot come to God on our own. We do not desire to do so on our own, we actually work against God, and the devil is our master. Yet Jesus Christ died and rose to defeat the power of sin and death. He has set us free. We who believe and are baptized have been given the Holy Spirit and are able to love and serve God in weakness, always covered by Christ’s righteousness. Only Christ can save us, only Christ can keep us in the faith. Thus we must always keep in His Word and sacraments, receiving the gospel continually. As Christ says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

This was unacceptable teaching to the Roman Church in Luther’s time, and he was kicked out of the church. He never wanted to leave. He hoped the church would reform. Imagine his position – the only church you know, the church you have devoted your life to, has kicked you out. On their side they have millions of people, wealth and power, impressive churches, leaders who are rulers of nations. And you only have the Word of God to stand on. This was Luther’s position. Rather than lead to doubt and despair, these trials led Luther to trust more in Christ, cling more to the gospel revealed in God’s Word. This why he wrote such hymns as “A Mighty Fortress” expressing the comfort from psalms like Psalm 46:

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.

Reformation Day 2020 is also in a time of great tumult and uncertainty. People are gripped in fear of a virus. No one is certain what new restrictions the government may impose from day to day. A national election looms ahead, few know what reaction that may bring. We have lost any certainty in our personal lives concerning plans for the future. It many ways it seems as if the earth is giving way and mountains are falling into the sea.

Thanks be to God we have a refuge in Jesus Christ. The “faith alone” we claim in the reformation is faith in Him. Tumultuous times should only lead us to a stronger faith in him. Our plans may fail, businesses may fail, governments may fall, but Christ is our only true help and refuge. These times should show us even more, as Luther learned, that there is nothing in the world deserving of our trust more than Christ, nothing better to stand on than the Word of God. The Psalm continues:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Rivers flowed through the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:1) and we are told in Revelation that a river will flow through the great city on the new earth when Jesus returns (Revelation 22:1-2). This river of paradise, God’s stream, even now flows through the church, the stream of forgiveness and grace, life and salvation. The source of this stream is the holy wound of Christ, the blood and water flowing from His side, and it comes to us when we gather around His Word and Sacraments. There God is with us, “Immanuel.”
The church is the place where God’s people gather around the Word and Sacraments. This is another truth Luther would cling to. No popes, bishops, pageantry or impressive churches make the true church. Even though the Roman Catholic church is different than it was in Luther’s time, it still fundamentally sees the church as those who follow the pope. We see from this Psalm that there is no kingdom, not even the pope’s kingdom, that stands before God’s might. The church that cannot be not moved is the one founded on the Word of God, where God dwells in the gifts that He has promised. And this mighty God works for us:

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!” 
 The Lord of hosts is with us; 
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
All the desolations of the nations, diseases, panic, war and conflict, are still under God’s control. To paraphrase the second verse of Luther’s hymn – even if the whole world was full of devils that wanted to devour us for breakfast, we do not need to fear because they cannot over power our God! Our God has been exalted above the earth, raised on the cross. In this seeming defeat, Jesus Christ won the victory over all the powers of hell. He has proved to us that He is here for our good. He shows on the cross that God wishes to have compassion on us. He wishes to forgive our sin and free us from that slavery.
We must realize that our church still needs reformation too. We cannot sit on our laurels. The Jews who believed Jesus were offended by His teaching, saying, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.” They were ok with what Jesus said about God, as long as it fit into their identity. “We are  offspring of Abraham!” they thought “We have promises, we can add Jesus, but we are already free. Sin is not a problem for us. We don’t need to abandon everything we’ve built and trust in Jesus only.” They thought wrong. This is exactly what we need to do. We should not trust in the fact we are Lutheran, or even LCMS, the good kind of Lutheran. We should not trust that we have been confirmed here or our parents were married here. We cannot trust that our heart is in the right place. We must confess our sin. Repent of putting Jesus in your self-made identity and turn to Christ.
Abandon trust in yourself, in your house of straw, and run to Christ’s mighty fortress. It is a refuge for sinners. It is the place where forgiveness flows like a stream, and all can drink and be filled. It doesn’t look like much. It looks a lot like a church filled with sinner-saints. Yet it is where we receive Christ crucified, our only comfort in life and death. Baptized into Christ and trusting in him, the victory of the resurrection is ours, and nothing in this world can overcome it.

And take they our life
Goods, fame, child, and wife
Though these all be gone
Our victory has been won;
The kingdom ours remaineth. (LSB 656)


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