A Mighty Fortress

A Mighty Fortress

Liturgy Lesson: March 22, 2020
Call to Worship: Psalm 46
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Faith: A Mighty Fortress (#92)
Confession of Sin: from Book of Common Prayer
Assurance of Pardon: 1 Peter 1:2-9
Hymn of Assurance: There is a Hope
Catechism/Congregational Prayers (with the Lord’s Prayer)
Reading of the Word: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, 11
Sermon: “For such a time as this”, Rev. Shiv Muthukumar
Apostles Creed
The Lord’s Supper: Be Still My Soul; Christ the Solid Rock
Closing Hymn: On Jordan’s Stormy Banks

“I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
– Ps. 122:1

For those of us in church leadership, Sunday morning is a supreme joy. Worship is the culmination of our calling and the consummation of our work. Those of us involved in the crafting and delivering of the worship service are privileged above all. We get to spend our time and talents in service to the Lord and the celebration of His story through the liturgy. Gathered worship with the bride of Christ is a foretaste of the feast to come: the great marriage supper of the Lamb.

But come this Sunday, things will be different. We will not “go the house of the Lord,” but we will bow down before the glowing icons of Apple and Acer, Dell and Lenovo. I am convinced that these digital Gateways don’t offer the same gladness. We can’t see or hear our neighbor singing and we can’t touch and receive the bread and wine. We are not really there.

Of course we would prefer to be together, especially in the midst of such trying times. Believe me, I long to hear your voices in the surround sound of the Sanctuary. My heart delights with that encouragement, and it already faints knowing that this pandemic has pressed the mute button on our corporate singing. After a meeting at church last night I stayed behind to play a few hymns and sing alone in the empty sanctuary. I wondered how long it would be silent. My heart was heavy. I decided to sing the doxology. I placed my phone in the middle of the room and hit record. Listen here and you can tell that even in a grand acoustic, one lonely voice lacks the harmony, fullness, and sheer beauty of the body of Christ singing together.

Doxology Recording

After I finished singing, I sat down and read this:

“For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them…But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…”
– Heb. 12:18-24

My spirits were lifted as I was reminded that there is a not-yet-audible song continuing above and around us, an assembly of saints and seraphim in perpetual medley to Christ. No matter where we are, we join that song. Also, this passage tells us that Christ is the great mediator of the new covenant through which we are brought into mystical union with these singing angels, other saints and spirits, and the very Trinity themselves. What a source of comfort to know that, though we are apart, we can still meet around that mercy seat. Here is William Cowper, writing in 1769:

Jesus, where’er your people meet,

There they behold your mercy seat;

Where’er they seek you, you are found,

And ev’ry place is hallowed ground.

For you, within no walls confined,

Are dwelling in the humble mind;

Such ever bring you where they come,

And going, take you to their home.

And the Reverend Hugh Stowell, from his collection of hymns, published in 1831:

From every stormy wind that blows,
From every swelling tide of woes,
There is a calm, a sure retreat:
‘Tis found beneath the mercy seat.

There is a place where Jesus sheds
The oil of gladness on our heads;
A place than all beside more sweet:
It is the blood-bought mercy seat.

There is a spot where spirits blend,
Where friend holds fellowship with friend,
Though sundered far, by faith they meet
Around one common mercy seat.

The closing hymn in our service last week may have been the last hymn we all sing in person together for a while. It is fitting, therefore, that it included a verse which proved to be a prophetic and ironic statement considering our move to online streaming:

Open now the crystal fountain, whence the healing stream doth flow.

There is nothing particularly healing about streaming worship services (perhaps the opposite is the case), but they can provide some comfort to souls that would otherwise be isolated on Sunday mornings. And, despite the shortcomings and pitfalls of online platforms, we can be thankful for technology that allows us to connect during this time of social distancing. We also should not resent the restrictions and mandates that have been put in place for our health and safety. Complying with such directives may be one of the ways we can obey the second greatest commandment.

It would also be good for us to remember that in the very beginnings of Christianity the church was a collection of small gatherings in homes. Seems as if we have the unique of opportunity of revisiting history, at least in the interim. As we embark on this season of online worship, I wanted to provide some thoughts, instructions, and guidelines. These can be found here, and I encourage you to read them in advance of Sunday morning.

One of the unfortunate consequences of online streaming is that it turns our singing into bad Christian karaoke. We all have the awkward task of trying to follow along while avoiding all the rhythmic delays and sound distractions that are inevitable. It’s not exactly the red bouncing ball with Barney and friends, but it’s not far from that, and we have to make the best of it. Even the most state-of-the-art home sound system can’t compete with the organ, and so, chances are you will hear yourself more than you would like. So, my advice is to turn up the Bluetooth and sing your heart out. In our own staggered and stammering way, we will have the distinct privilege of singing together some powerfully relevant words:

There is a hope that lifts my weary head, a consolation strong against despair,
That when the world has plunged me in its deepest pit, I find the Savior there!
Through present sufferings, future’s fear, He whispers courage in my ear,
For I am safe in everlasting arms, and they will lead me home.

And this one, which is surgical, cutting right to the heart of our present pandemic:

No chilling winds or poisonous breath can reach that healthful shore,
Where sickness, sorrow, pain, and death are felt and feared no more.
We are bound, we are bound, we are bound for the promise land!

Brothers and Sisters of CPC, we have ample reason to keep singing! the Lord is sovereign and his steadfast love endures. He is unchanging. He is our sure and steadfast anchor. Grace and Peace to you all during this time. We will “see” you all on Sunday.

A Mighty Fortress is Our God
Words and Music by Martin Luther, 1529

I have written about this hymn many times before, but I’d like to provide some thoughts that are germane to our current moment. We may be comforted by the fact that the church has survived and flourished in far worse plagues than this one. During those times, they too wrestled with the best way to respond.

In the year 1527, a case of the bubonic plague (a disease far more deadly than coronavirus) was found in Wittenberg, Germany. This was Martin Luther’s hometown and the place where, just a decade earlier, a single stroke of his hammer on the door of the Castle church sent seismic shockwaves across Europe (and eventually the world).

The bubonic plague was a particularly virulent and resilient sickness that had been feared for generations. In its various outbreaks over the course of several hundred years, it had already claimed the lives of countless millions across Europe. It killed its victims quickly and painfully, causing high fevers and large, weeping boils. It was highly contagious and had an astronomic mortality rate. In the Black Death of 1347, for instance, the disease struck Europe killing an estimated 60 percent of its population.

In the midst of this current epidemic Luther received a letter from a pastor in Breslau, the Reverend Doctor Johann Hess, who had asked Luther for advice and counsel on how best to minister during the outbreak. The question posed was specifically, “is it proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague?” In his response, Luther straddles the fence, or rather, he lets the train run on both tracks. Toward the beginning of the letter he encourages leaders and ministers to “stay at their post” even at the risk of infection and death.

“Therefore, dear friends, let us not become so desperate as to desert our own whom we are duty-bound to help and flee in such a cowardly way from the terror of the devil, or allow him the joy of mocking us and vexing and distressing God and all his angels. For it is certainly true that he who despises such great promises and commands of God and leaves his own people destitute, violates all of God’s laws and is guilty of the murder of his neighbor he abandons. The command to love your neighbor is equal to the greatest commandment to love God, and that what you do or fail to do for your neighbor means doing the same to God. If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him, not outwardly but in his word.”

He continues in this typical bold and brash manner to say that this response is not only an act of devotion to Christ, but one of defiance toward the enemy:

“Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, take such courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back to him. And we should arm ourselves with this answer to the devil:

‘Get away, you devil, with your terrors! Just because you hate it, I’ll spite you by going the more quickly to help my sick neighbor. I’ll pay no attention to you. No, you’ll not have the last word! If Christ shed his blood for me and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for his sake and disregard this feeble plague? If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine. Should not my dear Christ, with his precepts, his kindness, and all his encouragement, be more important in my spirit than you, roguish devil, with your false terrors in my weak flesh? God forbid! Get away, devil. Here is Christ and here am I, his servant in this work. Let Christ prevail! Amen.'”

Huzzah and Hallelujah, Martin! I love the courage and force with which he sounds the trumpet call to action. But just a page later in the letter he seems to take an about-face and tempers his comments with caution by warning people to not sin by being too rash and reckless. This is the part that sounds like it could have been written yesterday, as if Luther were working for the CDC (Christian Disease Control). He condemns those who tempt God by disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague.

“They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines and our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health. Indeed, such people behave as though a house were burning in the city and nobody were trying to put the fire out. Instead they give leeway to the flames so that the whole city is consumed, saying that if god so willed, he could save the city without water to quench the fire.

No, my dear friends, that is no good. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”

Then Luther offers up a simple summary of his position in which he displays both Christian courage and discernment.

“If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above.” See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

These are good words, and I encourage you to read the whole document here (you probably have the time in the next few days). By August of 1527, everyone who could get out of the village of Wittenberg was leaving. The local ruler of Saxony ordered Martin Luther to leave. He refused. Along with his pregnant wife Katharina, Luther stayed put, opening his house as a ward for the sick.

If we consider the circumstances of life in 1527, and the fact that Luther had none of the knowledge or tools of modern medicine, his refusal to flee is a remarkable act of faith. It is this unshakeable confidence in the Lord that allowed him to pen the words to his most famous hymn just a few years after the outbreak. Written in 1529, “Ein Feste Burg” (“A Mighty Fortress”) was undoubtedly influenced by Luther’s experience in the time of an epidemic. Based on Psalm 46, this masterpiece is more than just a reformation rallying cry, it is A hymn built for to be a bulwark in times of distress, disease, and despair. It is a hymn for such as time as this. Sing it often, and sing it loud!

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 pow’r are great,
And, armed with cruel hate

On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He
The Lord of hosts His name,
From age to age the same

And He must win the battle.

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 pow’rs,
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.