“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us: / WE WILL NOT FEAR, for God has willed His Truth to triumph through us!”
The classic hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” has been in my head quite a bit lately. It figures prominently in the play I’m directing about Lutheran pastor and resistance leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Certainly that man in Nazi Germany must have faced a world filled with devils.
Perhaps partly because of that, I programmed the hymn to follow today’s sermon at my church. And as I look around our congregation I see those for whom the words of this hymn ring so profoundly true:
- Brooklyn, who has survived years of abuse, drug addiction, suicide attempts and prison, but who is now drug free and was baptized last Sunday.
- Another friend, Greg, who was near death in the hospital because he had neglected his own health so badly, but who was miraculously given a second chance. He gave his testimony on Easter Sunday and wants to move forward in obedience to His Lord.
- And Ken, both gang member and victim of gang violence, shot and left for dead, but who survived to spend 14 years in prison…the first 12 paralyzed in a wheelchair. He’s attended our church for two years now, and recently was threatened by local gangs because he speaks out against them and their ways. In spite of murder threats (against him and his son) he identified two murderers recently, both gang members. “It is well!” Ken exclaimed to me. “The Lord has brought us through!”
Bonhoeffer notes that a deus ex machina approach to God, calling on Him to descend and solve one’s problems in times of trouble, but ignoring Him the rest of the time, is not the same as having a true relationship with one’s Creator.
I recall an illustration from a book by Ken Gire, The Weathering Grace of God, in which he mentions Herod the Great’s palace at Cesaerea. Built on a 100-meter long promontory in a large, protected harbor which Herod ordered to be created, the palace was both impressive and seemingly impregnable. But it took many years of peace-time building to complete. If Herod was to be safe in time of trouble, he had to plan ahead.
In the same way, Gire observed, our relationship with God is built, brick by brick, in the ordinary days of life, as we read His Word, talk with Him, listen to Him, and worship Him alone and with other believers. When the troubles of life come, we have a fortress to run to because of those steady days, weeks, months of preparation. We’ve built a strong relationship over time, and that knowledge of God–His character, His trust-worthiness–is itself the stronghold which protects us when doubt would shake our faith to rubble.
I’m reminded, too, of the epiphany I had once while reading the parable of the wise and foolish builders. You remember the song about the wise man who
built his house upon the rock? But “the foolish man built his house upon the sand”...and when “the rains came down and the floods came up…the house on the sand fell flat.”
True confession: I’d always thought that building your house on the rock was just BELIEVING in Jesus… But in fact Jesus prefaces the parable with these specific words:
“Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things I say? I will show you what someone is like who comes to Me, hears My words, and acts on them: He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. When the flood came, the river crashed against that house and couldn’t shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The river crashed against it, and immediately it collapsed. And the destruction of that house was great!”
–Luke 6:46-49 (HCSB)
Coming to Jesus, hearing His words and acting on them…that is the foundation for a solid, unshakable fortress. I don’t seek someone out, listen to their advice and then put it into practice unless I know and trust that person, at least by reputation. And typically, hearing and acting on something takes place over time, not in one instant.
I know there will be more challenging days ahead for Brooklyn, Greg and Ken…and for every one of us. How we face those days depends on where our fortress is.
But what the old hymn knows, and we sometimes forget, is that our unshakable fortress is not primarily to protect our lives here on earth. As he was taken to be executed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared: “This for me is the end…but really the beginning of life!”
“Let goods and kindred go. This mortal life also. The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever!”
Now for your Sunday enjoyment, here’s one of my very favorite renditions of the hymn. From the group Glad, off their album The Acapella Project (1990):