As you walk in the door at AirPlay in downtown Sterling or at any Starbucks, your attention might be drawn to the bulletin board hanging near the entrance—a community bulletin board where people and organizations can post fliers or notices of just about any kind: a yoga class…a lost cat…a housecleaning service…a local concert…a support group meeting. I’m not in either place very often, but I’ve rarely paid much attention to what’s posted—and I don’t remember ever seeing anyone else standing at the board perusing the posts, either. Not much earth-shattering is going to be found there.
That wasn’t the case in 1517. The rough equivalent of the Starbucks community bulletin board was the university church door. And it was to that bulletin board that Martin Luther posted a series of religious questions to be considered, perhaps at a public discussion? He had no idea that the light tapping of a tack in that church door would propel tectonic plates to collide and unleash a violent earthquake that would reverberate across the European continent…across the English Channel…even into England. And like an earthquake under the ocean, a tsunami was unleashed taking aim directly at him and his ideas with a determined goal to destroy him and all he was teaching. It all culminated with a summons for Luther to appear before the Diet of Worms, to face charges of heresy, to renounce his teachings, and likely face a death penalty.
With all of the quaking and raging going on around him, aimed at him, he made the journey to Worms, and en route he meditated on Psalm 46. He did this often, actually. In the darkest of times, he used to say, “Come, let us sing the 46th psalm and let them do their worst!” Well, they had…summoning him to certain death. But as he mused, the words began to flow and take poetic form:
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 is equal.
Not on earth, perhaps, but Luther realized that the God of heaven is more than his equal. His reflection on Psalm 46 took him to verses 7 and 11 that describe the God of Jacob as “the Lord Sabaoth,” that is, “the Lord of armies” or heavenly warriors, who is “our refuge.” Last week, I shared that in Psalm 46:1, the word “refuge” (in the King James Version) means “shelter.” But in verses 7 and 11, the songwriter chose a different Hebrew word that refers to a stronghold or fortress perched high above the surrounding terrain. The imagery is one of strong security.
With this psalm on his mind, leading his thoughts to formulate one of the most well-known hymns in Protestant Christianity, Luther arrived in Worms, faced the tribunal, and heard the verdict. He was declared a heretic, his works were to be destroyed, and he deserved to be executed. But the human king, under the control of the heavenly King, demurred. He had promised Luther a safe return home and let him go…at first. After Luther’s departure, however, the order went out for his arrest and certain execution. But one of the ironies in Luther’s story is that, having left the Diet of Worms, he was “captured,” not by those who wanted him killed, but by soldiers sent from his own local ruler Frederich the Wise, who then took him to Wartburg where he was safely sheltered in Frederich’s castle. The imagery that came to mind from Psalm 46 of God the protecting fortress became a reality in a physical fortress!
And yet that’s often how our heavenly Fortress works—He provides His protection through the providential arrangements of the affairs of men, using very physical, tangible instruments to shelter His children.
Again, I trust you’re one of His, that you know by experience the sheltering protection of the Lord our God.