Not What My Hands Have Done | A Mighty Fortress

Not What My Hands Have Done | A Mighty Fortress

Liturgy Lessons: October 29, 2017 (Reformation Sunday)
Scripture Alone: 2 Peter 1:16-21
Prayer of Invocation
Christ Alone: John 14:6 & Acts 4:11-12
Hymn of Faith: In Christ Alone (Getty)
By Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone: Romans 3:21-24 & Galations 2:16
Hymn of Response: Not What My Hands Have Done (#461)
Glory To God Alone: Ephesians 3:20-21
Gloria Patri (#735)
Heidelberg Catechism/Congregational Prayers
Doxology: #731
Supper: How Deep the Father’s Love for Us; My Hope is Built on Nothing Less (#521)
Hymn: A Mighty Fortress (#92)

Reformation Sunday is always the last Sunday in October, marking the occasion in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This year is the 500th anniversary of that watershed moment in history. And so, this week we commemorate reformation Sunday by “reforming” our liturgy. The form and content of our regular weekly worship service is basically a combination of the ancient temple (service of the word) and the upper room (the Lord’s supper). In this week’s service of the word, we have a few extra readings reflecting on the five “solas” that theologically ground the reformed branch of Christianity. It is right and good that our service be saturated with scripture. God reveals himself to us, and we respond. Worship is not a meeting about God, but a meeting with God. This ongoing dialogue in our liturgy enacts a renewal of our covenant relationship to God made possible in the person of Jesus Christ through the power of His spirit at work in our hearts. One aspect of our liturgy that will be changed to reflect this truth is our tithes and offerings. Starting this week, we will be taking the offering immediately following the sermon. This is the place that the offering was given in John Calvin’s liturgy, as well as in the worship order of many other modern PCA churches. It seems fitting that after hearing God’s word preached we would respond by offering ourselves and our gifts back up to him in sacrificial praise. All these elements remind us that God is both the subject and object of our praise, the audience and agent of our worship. May His Spirit be actively animating our prayers and songs. During the service of the word, may He shape our hearts. During the Lord’s supper, may he transform our hungers. I pray that through this unique liturgy, the Lord would “satisfy us in the morning with His unfailing love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14).

Not What My Hands Have Done
Text: Horatius Bonar, 1861
Tune: George William Martin, 1862

Scripture References:
vs. 1 = Tit. 3:5
vs. 2 = Eph. 1:7, Eph. 2:8-9, Heb. 9:11-12
vs. 3 = John 14:19, 1 John 4:10

Horatius Bonar was educated at the University of Edinburgh. At the age of 30, he became a preacher in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Bonar was a prolific, popular author of tracts, sermons, and hymns (even though his congregation sang exclusively psalms during much of his life). He was also well acquainted with tragedy and redemption. One of eleven children, Horatius came from a long line of ministers who served consecutively for over 350 years in the church of Scotland. This old-growth family tree was a sturdy trunk, the strength of which would bolster Horatius during intense times of spiritual storm and deep sorrow. The famous Scottish preacher and hymn author married Jane Lundie in 1843, and together they buried five of their young children in succession, all who died at a young age. After living for decades with the echoes of this life-altering grief in their hearts, the Lord brought a sweet redemption, albeit through another sort of tragedy. Later in their lives, one of their surviving daughters was left a widow, and so she returned with her five young children to live with her parents. Horatius and Jane now found themselves in a bittersweet deja vu of their younger years, with five boisterous voices filling the hallways and ten little feet jumping on the upstairs floorboards. I imagine that noise did not annoy them as it did a few decades earlier, and that out of their deep gratitude, they were able to pour their love into these young hearts in ways that were not possible before, for grief has a way of expanding the heart’s capacity to love.

Horatius Bonar is called the “Prince of Scottish hymnody,” and he was a prodigious writer that wrote with a profound emotional depth and intensity. Some of his most well-known hymns are “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” “Blessing and Honor and Glory and Power,” and “Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face.” Bonar, a staunch Calvinist, wrote the hymn “Not What My Hands Have Done” and subtitled the text “Salvation through Christ alone.” Humbled by great loss, he knew that life was a gift. He knew that our life of salvation is entirely due to the free gift of the grace of God, our own works have no merit at all, and nothing but the blood of Christ will do (st. 1-2); our natural response, then, is praise, for “my Lord has saved our life” (st. 3)!

The tune for this hymn was composed by George Martin in 1862. It is an even-tempered and rather pedestrian melody that illustrates the meaning of the title. As a professional musician, I know all too well the lure of “earning” favor through performance. The very structure of this tune seems to counter that notion. Unlike some of the other Celtic tunes, this one is neither overly florid, nor crafted with complexity. It holds a simple lilt, and does not display too much effort in performance. Its melodic line with repeated quarter notes conveys a sense of peaceful resignation. Its form seems to remind us that nothing we construct out of our lives can build a tower that rises above our own need for grace. Sometimes something that is simple can run like a clear, shallow mountain stream. So it is with this hymn tune. As you sing it, may you stoop low and be refreshed by the streams of mercy. They are never ceasing.

A Mighty Fortress is Our God
Words and Music: Martin Luther (c. 1529)

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (German: “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”) has been called “the battle hymn of the reformation.” It is not only Luther’s best-known hymn, but one of the most popular hymns in all branches of western Christianity. The words, which are a paraphrase of Psalm 46, are now more famous than Luther’s 95 theses, so much so that the German hymn text to “Mighty Fortress” is inscribed at the base of Luther’s monument in Wittenberg. The fame is justified. The hymn text is fierce and forceful, compelling and cogent in its unfolding of truth from verse to verse. The opening line uses an arcane reference by saying that God is “a bulwark never failing.” A bulwark is basically a rampart, or defensive wall. Imagine a high and impenetrable seawall to keep out a tsunami. This would be an apt image because the next line of text declares that God is “our helper” who “amidst the flood of mortal ills” is always “prevailing.” When I read this hymn text, I notice that the four verses are like the four seasons. Each has a poetic beauty and profound sentiment on its own, and yet by itself is unfinished. The verses flow one into the other like extended prose. The first verse, which ends in a declaration of the power of Satan, needs to be resolved by the second verse, which declares that it is Christ Jesus who is on our side, and “He must win the battle.” The beginning of the fourth verse (“that Word above all earthly powers”) is the answer to the end of the third verse (“one little word shall fell him”). Overall, it is a brilliant hymn that reflects its author: turbulent, theological, and timeless.

Recent research suggests that Luther himself wrote the tune, which is contrary to the myth that it originated as a popular song overheard in the bars and pubs. In fact, the mistaken and popular notion that Luther converted this bar tune for use in the church is entirely false and based on a silly misunderstanding. The word “bar” refers to the musical bar-form (AAB), and not an actual place of public drinking. This would be like saying that the “bar” exam for lawyers took place at the local tavern. The hymn tune has inspired many composers, who have quoted and used the material throughout its history. Bach based an entire cantata (BWV 80) on the hymn, and quoted it in his Christmas Oratorio. Other composers who have based material on this hymn include Handel, Pachelbel, Wagner, Debussy, Vaughan Williams, and Mendelssohn. In fact, Mendelssohn’s 5th symphony is often called the “Reformation” symphony because of its grand final movement, based on “Ein Feste Burg.”

“An imperishable hymn! Not polished and artistically wrought, but rugged and strong like Luther himself, whose very words seem like deeds.”
– Heinrich Heine (famous German poet)