October 25, 2015 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3 Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled,
Though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.
It is the first third half of the Psalm that inspires Luther’s most famous hymn. He begins where the Psalm begins: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” That theme is repeated in the 7th verse: “The Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge.” And that sentence serves as a kind a kind of refrain. It is repeated verbatim at the end: “The Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge.” Luther picks up the language of hosts as well. He sings of Our Lord in the Flesh as “Jesus Christ of Sabbaoth Lord.” The word Sabbaoth is an old-fashioned word. You may recognize it from the Te Deum. It almost looks like the word Sabbath, but it is different. Sabbaoth means hosts of armies. When we say that Jesus is the Lord of hosts or the Lord of Sabbaoth we are saying that He is the King and commander of the holy angels.
Luther calls us to consider God as a “mighty fortress, a trusty shield and weapon, who helps us free from every need that has us now overtaken.” And we need help. We couldn’t stand against the old evil foe on our own. He has not only deep guile, that is he is not only evil and hateful, but he is also powerful. He has great might. He is far stronger than we are and indeed no one earth could face him. Our might, our wisdom, and our best efforts would fail not only because he is stronger than us, but also because our souls are corrupt. We do not have the will to do good or restrain ourselves from sin.
But besides that, besides the theoretical knowledge that our might is nothing compared to Satan’s and that we are infected with concupiscence, we also have experience. As weak as our might and will is, we haven’t even lived up to it. We have not resisted sin as we might have. We have been willing allies with Satan our foe against God our friend. Who will save us from this body of death?
Jesus Christ, that is who. For us fights the valiant One, whom God Himself elected. Why He fights for us is counted among the deepest mysteries of the faith. We were not good prospects. We have a bad track record and we didn’t even ask Him to help us anyway. But God isn’t simply a refuge that we might wait out the storm, according to His pity, He is more. He has sent His Son to earth to fight for us and win the freedom and sonship for us that we sought to steal. He is not only our defender and safety, He is also our advocate and champion.
The devil might yet be scowling and growling and carrying on, but he is already defeated. He is engaging in rearguard tactics. The battle is done. Jesus Christ, our Lord, the One who gives rest to the weary, judges the devil and defeats him by allowing the devil to kill Him in our place. This is foolishness to men and devils alike but it is the wisdom of God’s grace. The devil gets what he thought he wanted – not unlike Eve in the garden. He gets to kill God , but in sacrifice the devil loses his ability to accuse us accurately or to claim us as his own. We are not his. Between us and him is Enmity with a bruised heel and marks on His hands and side. The devil is deceived by his own greed and we are bought and paid for with Divine Blood and there is no one left to accuse you.
Our people have spent a lot of time imagining what word Luther meant when he said “one little word” could fell the devil. Is it the word “Jesus” or “grace” or something else? The Word made Flesh seems a pretty good possibility. I think in context of the hymn Luther actually means that any little word from God will do. In any case, in at least one place, Luther invoked this formula and said it was the word “liar.” The accuser gets accused in the death of Christ of lying about us. It is not that he wrongly put an innocent Man to death, but that he sought and still seeks to keep us even though God has taken the accusations and punishment in our place. The devil can’t have you. He never could. From the very beginning, before Adam and Eve were cursed, God established the means of your salvation: the Woman’s seed would give His life as a ransom. He would take the penalty into Himself in order to elevate and clothe you. The devil got his due. The requirements of justice have been met. There is no one left to accuse you. So the devil is a liar and he is exposed on the cross as what he is even as his armor and weapons are stripped away. He still tries to accuse, but he is a liar. He lies about God. God loves you. He lies about you. You are worthy of the Lamb.
So let the earth give way and the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, let the waters roar and foam, and the devil scowl fierce as he will, they can harm us none. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Jesus Christ, of Sabbaoth Lord, is by our side, upon the plain with His good gifts and Spirit. And even if we must lose the most precious things in this life, even our liberty and family, it won’t matter because the victory has been won. The devil is a liar. Jesus lives and the kingdom ours remaineth according to irrevocable Divine decree.
So far Luther’s hymn. But the Psalm goes on in response to all this. It sings:
4 There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God,
The holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved:
God shall help her, and that right early.
6 The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved:
He uttered his voice, the earth melted.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge.
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord,
What desolations he hath made in the earth.
9 He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth;
He breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder;
He burneth the chariot in the fire.
10 Be still, and know that I am God:
I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge.
The last two thirds of the Psalm undoes the first. Whereas we are threatened by the killing waters that roar and foam in the beginning, now there is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High. God is in the midst of her and she shall she not be moved. God shall help her and that right early and by means of water.
That river is not a killing river, but the river of life. It flows from the side of Christ and the streams thereof are the Baptismal fonts of Christendom. This makes the city of God glad. And in that water God is present for her, attending to her, keeping her for Himself, even as He cleanses and refreshes her.
This annoys our enemies, the allies of the devil: the heathen. They raged, whole kingdoms were moved, but God uttered His voice, the earth melted. The Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge.
So come behold the works of the Lord, what desolations He has made in the earth. The roaring sea that threatened us, the quaking earth, even heathens raging and the devil’s lying – these were the Lord’s doing in service to His Church. Behold: all things work together for good to those who are washed in the rosy water that flows from His side and who partake of the manna and Blood that He gives out of death under bread and wine. The death of Jesus Christ was no tragedy. It was God’s own loving will and the destruction of our ancient foe. And every time you partake of the Sacrament you proclaim His death, flipping the devil the bird and yelling “liar” while angels laugh and sing and hearts are made glad in Christ again.
In that gift God maketh wars to cease. He breaketh the bow, and cutteh the spear, and burneth the chariot. He endeth the need for a fortress, a shield, and a sword. The battle is over. The victory won. The feast we eat is His very present Help in trouble. Here He is present for us, a safe place in trouble, a feeding of children who proclaim His death in the joy of the Spirit who has revealed what that death means.
He is still a refuge, a safe place, and He provides the food and shelter that you need as well as the strength to carry on. That is why in the midst of this He breaks into the Psalm and turns to you and says: “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the heathen. I will be exalted in the earth.”
“Be still and do not be afraid, though I am terrible in my power I have put it at your service, for your benefit. Though the devil seems powerful and the world’s evil is becoming more transparent, the end is not in doubt. I have already won. You cannot lose. I do not come for vengeance, even though vengeance is mine: I come in peace, to restore the kingdom and dominion to men, to make you mine, to be your God once again.”
And look here: We were heathens, but by God’s grace we fulfill His Word and we exalt Him even as He said we would.
The Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge. By his mercy, He gave us Luther and through Luther not just a hymn or two, though even that would have been marvelous, but through Luther, like unto Ezra, He restored the very Gospel itself to us. By that same grace may we ever stay in this faith and not take it for granted or forget it.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.