Pastoral Series

Worship Matters: One Little Word

   A marvelous travel memory: my daughter Sarah and I were poking around in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany, where Martin Luther figured out who he was and what God was asking of him. We stumbled upon a tour group listening to their guide – explaining that at that moment we were in the very room where Luther and the monks worshipped every day. Stone, medieval, live acoustics, a lovely place. Without any warning, or anyone saying anything at all, when there was a moment of silence, the tour group began spontaneously to sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” – with much emotion, even tears. When they were done, I found out they were recently retired Lutheran pastors.

Luther sparked the Reformation, wrote voluminously, translated the Bible into German – and wrote hymns. He understood music’s power to heal, forge bonds, and encourage. About hymn-singing, he wrote that it is “a fair and lovely gift of God… I have no use for cranks who despise music. Music drives away the devil and makes people gay. They forget wrath, arrogance and the like.”

During a season of profound depression and daunting discouragement, Luther wrote his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” which picks up on themes in Psalm 46. It’s not that God makes everything smooth and easy; but God is “a bulwark… our helper amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

Luther understood that life isn’t just us doing good (or not). There is a cosmic battle going on all the time, invisible but real forces of evil arrayed against the good. “Our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe, his craft and power are great.” Indeed, evil is “armed with cruel hate.” Sound pertinent to our world?

We don’t defeat evil by trying hard, or thinking right thoughts. “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.” And why can we be bold and confident? We have “the right man on our side… Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he. He must win the battle.” Ours is to follow, to join, to mop up, to be caught up in the wake of what he is doing.

And so “We will not fear.” “The Prince of darkness grim”? “His doom is sure. One little word shall fell him” – which may be my favorite moment in the hymn. What is that one little word? Jesus? Grace? Some believe Luther was thinking of the angel in Revelation 14 encountering the devil’s spewing of hate-filled words, blasphemies and falsehoods. The angel simply responded by saying “Liar.” There are so many lies out there – like You aren’t enough, like You don’t belong, like Money is everything, like Politics is everything, like It’s all up to you, lies that elicit fear and anxiety. The Christian relies on just a word, maybe Jesus, maybe grace, maybe “Liar!”

Of course, the last stanza is brilliant in its evoking of hope. No wonder we sing this at so many funerals.

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