November 3 & 4, 2018 – Reformation
Dear friends in Christ Jesus:
What are your favorite hymns? I think that for a majority of us we would pick out quite a few of the same hymns, hymns like A Mighty Fortress (and what Reformation service would be complete without that one), or Be Still My Soul, or In Christ Alone (which we will sing later). They’re all great hymns.
But, besides being great hymns, do you know what else they have in common? All three express the thoughts recorded in Psalm 46. And I can’t help but think that Psalm 46 was a favorite hymn of many an Old Testament believer for the same reasons that A Mighty Fortress, Be Still My Soul, and In Christ Alone are so popular today. They all express the quiet confidence that we have, in spite of our many struggles and trials, because of God’s certain promises. They all express the quiet confidence that drives out fear and makes us bold. Listen to the familiar words of Psalm 46—the Psalm on which Martin Luther based his hymn A Mighty Fortress…
God is our refuge and strength, a helper who can always be found in times of trouble. That is why we will not fear when the earth dissolves and when the mountains tumble into the heart of the sea. Its waters roar and foam. The mountains quake when it rises. There is a river—its streams bring joy to the city of God, to the holy dwelling of the Most High. God is in her. She will not fall. God will help her at daybreak. Nations are in turmoil. Kingdoms fall. God raises his voice. The earth melts. The Lord of Armies is with us. The God of Jacob is a fortress for us. Come, look at the works of the Lord. What a wasteland he has made of the earth! He makes wars cease to the end of the earth. He shatters the bow. He cuts up the spear. He burns the carts with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted on the earth.” The Lord of Armies is with us. The God of Jacob is a fortress for us.
The Psalmist gets right to the heart of the matter. He first gives the solution, then the problem. God is our refuge and strength, a helper who can always be found in times of trouble. That is why we will not fear. Fear can be crippling. Fear can be a master and make you its slave. And fear robs us of confidence, peace, and strength. But what causes fear in your life? Do you fear the results of the upcoming elections? Do you fear for the future of our nation? Do you fear that trip to the doctor because you’re afraid of what he might say? Are you afraid that your relationships will forever be strained? That you’ll never reconcile?
There are many things that cause fear. But in Matthew 6 Jesus pointed out the real cause: “If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will he not clothe you even more, you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30) Fear and worry really come from a lack of faith. Fear and worry say to God, “I don’t really think you are my refuge. I don’t really think you’re my strength. I don’t really think you’re present. You can’t really help me now.”
But instead of being worried about the elections, or our relationships, or anything in this life, we ought to be worried about our relationship with God. We ought to be worried about the way we’ve offended him with our lack of trust, with our many sins. As Jesus put it in Matthew 10: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) Because of those sins of ours we deserve hell. That is something that is truly worthy of our fear.
That thought of hell is something that, at one point, had Martin Luther terrified. He struggled against his sinful nature, he fought hard against his worry and doubt, he tried with all sincerity to do everything he could to please God. But he knew he was a sinner no matter what he did. He knew he could never do enough to make God happy since God demands perfection. And he was full of dread and terror.
So what removed the fear? The same thing that removes the fear for us. The truths sung about in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a helper who can always be found in times of trouble.” “God is in her,” that is, the city of God, a picture of the Church. And so, “she will not fall.” So what kind of protection does God promise? Does he promise that he will spare his people from every calamity that may hit? Does he promise to spare them from pain or frustration? No. Look at the context: “When the earth dissolves and when the mountains tumble into the heart of the sea … Nations are in turmoil. Kingdoms fall. God raises his voice. The earth melts.” This is a clear picture of Judgment Day when God will put an end to this earth once and for all, when he will destroy it, not with water, but with fire. When that happens, then we still have the confidence that, “The Lord of Armies is with us. The God of Jacob is a fortress for us.”
How do we know? How do we have this quiet confidence? Well, that title for God is a good hint: “The God of Jacob” was meant to call to mind that God was the God of a promise, of an unbreakable covenant. In Genesis 28 God repeated the promise he’d made to Abraham and to his son, Isaac, now to Isaac’s son, Jacob: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring”, referring to the one promised to Adam and Eve in the Garden, the promise of the Messiah, the Savior.
So when the Psalmist says, “Come, look at the works of the Lord”, we can’t help but think of the great works of the LORD that we’ve seen in Christ. In Christ alone our hope is found. Because of his work for us on the cross, by his grace alone, through faith alone, revealed in Scripture alone, we know without a doubt that we will go to “the city of God, to the holy dwelling of the Most High”, where the river of life will forever flow, namely, of course, to heaven. Though we may live to see the desolation of the LORD that he will bring about on Judgment Day, we know that we will survive it. Jesus took our sins away. And so we have no fear.
You know the best thing to do when you fall into some quicksand? Keep calm. Don’t panic. Don’t fight to work your way out. Just be still. Lay flat. And wait for rescue to come. In a similar way, when we worry about our sin, about our guilt and shame, about Judgment Day and hell, the best move is to be still and look for God’s rescue. The more I work to earn his favor, the more I really fail. But when I quit struggling and look to him, I see what he’s already done. I know there’s nothing left for me to do. I’m safe. No fear.
This is the confidence Martin Luther found in God’s gracious promises. This Gospel truth became to him a mighty fortress that shielded him from fear and worry and the attacks of Satan. And this Gospel truth is our castle too, our mighty fortress, that we too might have no fear.
But only if it were that easy, right? Our sins are forgiven. Heaven is certain. We need not fear Judgment Day, so all worry and fear will now cease. But we’re still so afraid. We ask, “What will I do next year if the election doesn’t go my way? What will I do next month if the spot doesn’t go away? What will I do next week if the boss decides to lay me off? I know I have heaven, but heaven is still such a long ways off and I’m afraid.”
But did you notice the problem with all of those questions? They all asked, “What will I do?” Too often we think, “I am within this (this relationship, this job, this body, this economy, this whatever), therefore, she will not fall!” But what foolishness to think we are in control. That’s why we still have so much fear. But what removes fear—not just the fear of hell, but the fear that our day to day problems still bring? The truths of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a helper who can always be found in times of trouble.”
“That is why we will not fear” because of his gracious promises to continue to be our strength and help, not just for eternity, but already now in time. “We will not fear” because “he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also graciously give us all things along with him?” (Romans 8:32) “We will not fear” because “we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:32) “We will not fear!”
Do you ever go to bed and worry that the sun will never rise; that never again will you see the light of day? Of course not! You know without a doubt that there will still be daylight, no matter what. Well, here’s God’s promise to you: “God is in [his Church], she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.” The night will pass. The nightmare will end. Day will come. Even if all of the world’s nations fail, God still stands. Even if you lose all else, God still stands. Even if your life ends, God still stands. And his help will come. And so we can, “Be still,” literally in the Hebrew, “Cause it to go slack.” Maybe in our modern English slang, we can just “relax,” because we know without a doubt that we are safe within the Mighty Fortress. Our salvation is secure through the horrors of Judgment Day, even as the world is destroyed, because of Christ alone. We can relax because we know that God is still with us, promising his ever-present help in trouble. He is our fortress.
And this truth, gives us a quiet courage, and at the same time makes us bold to take a stand… just like Luther, because we too have no fear. And this is our hymn of courage:
No guilt in life, no fear in death This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man Could ever pluck me from His hand
‘Til He returns or calls me home Here in the power of Christ I stand.
So, “Be still and know that… The LORD of Armies is with us. The God of Jacob is our fortress.” And have… no fear! Amen.