Romans 3:19–28; Psalm 46
I was on my way to the dentist’s office a week ago, and was stopped at a red light. A car pulled up in the left hand turn lane next to me. And I don’t know how this happens, but have you ever had the experience that you feel like someone is staring at you? Well – that’s how I felt. I looked over at this dude in the car next to me. He had his window rolled down, and he signaled for me to roll my window down – so I did. All I could think was, “Gee – what’s this guy want? Is there something wrong with my car?”
Turns out what he wanted to know was this. “What does your license plate say?” Now, I know that some people have trouble interpreting my vanity plate. Let me spell it out for you. It’s MYT – the number 4 – TRES. I made it easy for you to see it in print in your bulletin by making that the title of my sermon. Most people look at it and say, “My four tires?” Well, no. Close. And my four tires does make sense when you think about it.
So I shouted back. “Mighty Fortress.” And he said, “Like, A might fortress is our God?”
And I said, “You got it.”
And he said, “Amen! Love it brother!” He gave me a “thumbs up,” at which time the light changed, and off he went.
That incident reminded me of something that happened a few years back. Some of you remember Dr. Donald Schwab. Dr. Schwab passed away just a few weeks ago. But he was a dentist here in town – and a member of the Methodist church down the street. So I find it ironic, that these two stories I am telling just happen to involve dentists. But a number of years ago, I was at the post office over here on Railroad Street. My car was parked outside – and Dr. Schwab comes in, and he sees me and says, “Oh! That must be your car out there. I kinda figured that whoever owned that car was a Christian – and probably a Lutheran.” Well Dr. Schwab was right.
Hey, if I were to ask you, “What is the Lutheran theme song,” how would you respond? You’d better know the answer after that long introduction. Yeah. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Amen! Love it brother Love it sister!
Yeah! We Lutherans love to sing that hymn, especially on this weekend. This weekend when we observe – and celebrate – what we call the Reformation of the church.
Now, many of you know the story. The actual date – the date that we mark the beginning of the Reformation – is October 31st – but today is close enough. Because it was on October 31st in 1517 – that Martin Luther nailed to the church door of the Wittenberg Castle Church what we call the 95 Theses. 95 articles for debate with the church of his day.
What Luther was doing was protesting certain practices that were in place in the church of Luther’s day. He was especially concerned about the sale of indulgences.
An indulgence is a piece of paper – just a piece of paper with words written on it that grant the bearer of that piece of paper a certain number of years removed from one’s own – or a loved one’s – time spent in Purgatory. I don’t want to get into a lengthy explanation of what Purgatory is – but let it be enough to say that the church of Luther’s day taught that when you died you went to a place called Purgatory to pay for your sins that you committed in this life – before entry into heaven was given to you.
Now – you don’t hear me – you don’t hear Pastor Becca – talking about Purgatory because Lutherans don’t believe in Purgatory. The place does not exist. And furthermore – a teaching that relies on Purgatory – and indulgences to reduce one’s time in Purgatory – denies the saving power of Christ. His life – his death – and resurrection are sufficient – they are enough – to pay the full price for all of our sins for all of us.
This is the wonderful truth that Luther discovered in the Scriptures. You see, Luther was an Augustinian Monk. But as dedicated to God and the church that he was, he was not happy monk. The God that he knew – the God that the church taught him about – was an angry God. A God who was out to punish sinners.
So this angry, vengeful image of God is how Luther saw God. Until one day – sometime in 1515 – Luther had an “Ah –hah!” moment. While preparing a lecture on the book of Romans – a book of the Bible that he was a scholar on – and that he had read many times – his heart and his eyes were open to the one verse, Romans 1:17. “The just shall live by faith.” Our reading today from Romans 3:28 repeats that truth. “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
I think we can even call it the granddaddy of all “Ah-hah!” moments. Luther finally discovered the God of love that he had been searching for and hoping to find.
What Luther discovered – and what we take as basic to our understanding of the Christian faith – is that our salvation – our life in the here and now as well as our entry into heaven someday – is a gift. Pure gift. Given to us by a loving, gracious God. You don’t have to work for it. You don’t have to earn it.
And that’s what it means to say that the just shall live by faith. The just – in other words – those who are made right with God – shall live by faith. That’s it! And the best way I know of for us to understand this is to say, “Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”
The good news for us – and why today is something of a celebration – is that we don’t have to work at earning God’s love and favor. No! We are justified – we are sanctified – okay a couple of big church words there – we are forgiven and made right with God because of what God has already done for us through the life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. So we are forgiven and we are made right with God as a gift. It’s all gift.
And this gift comes to us because of God’s grace. In other words – God’s undeserved love and favor. Which we receive by faith – which simply means taking God at His word that the gift of forgiveness – and the life and salvation that come with it – is pure gift! So just accept the fact that you are accepted. By God’s grace.
So God became for Luther not a God to be afraid of – not a God to run away from – but a God to run to. Especially in times of trouble. God was not an angry God, but a refuge – a strength. A very present help in trouble as we read earlier in Psalm 46. And by the way –I want you to know that this Psalm – Psalm 46 – this is the Psalm that Luther used to write his powerful hymn – A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
Here’s the deal. God is not an angry God. God is not mad at you. God is not an angry God as Luther once thought, but a fortress. A mighty fortress. A refuge. A strength. And therefore – finally understanding this about God – Luther was able to hang onto his faith – and was able to feel safe and secure in the love of God.
And isn’t that exactly what you want? Isn’t that exactly what you need? In this world – what we want – what we need is a place of security. What we need is a place to feel safe. Airports make us go through security checks. Doesn’t that make you feel safe? Financial systems have security systems for those of us who access our finances online. Doesn’t that make you feel safe? But you know – someone’s always going to find a way, aren’t they! Someone is always going to find a way to beat the system and hack into what we hope are secure systems.
That’s why the Good News for us today is that we do have a secure place. We do have a mighty fortress. The same mighty fortress that Martin Luther discovered – is the same mighty fortress we can know. And this mighty fortress is not so much a place as it is a person. And that person is none other than God Himself.
And I gotta tell ya. How grateful I am that Luther – way back in 1529 – wrote these wonderful words, “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott.” (I just wanted to show off my German.) A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
When we need a place of refuge, this hymn reminds us that God offers us his Mighty Fortress – his Feste Burg – His strong tower within a walled city – which is pretty much what the German Feste Burg means in English. A strong tower within a walled city.
When I was a boy, we used to sing this hymn that a line in it that went like this, “Our helper, he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” Even in English that’s hard to understand. But that phrase “mortal ills” simply means that in this life, we will have struggles. We will have challenges. We will have difficulties. We will struggle with relationships, we wills struggle with our finances, with difficult people, with failures, illnesses, and the stressors of everyday life. Even though we have in God a mighty fortress, we are going to have struggles – some of our own making – but more likely – struggles over which we have no control and which we did not ask for. But God remains for us a mighty fortress. The God in Jesus Christ who promises to be with us always is that mighty fortress that we need.
So throughout the hymn we sing of these struggles – and yes, they are battles really – between us and the forces of evil as represented by Satan and hordes of devils. The Good News is that they cannot win. At the same time, we are reminded that we can’t win the battle alone. The battle belongs to the Lord. So God sends a champion – Christ Jesus – the Lord of hosts is he. And he will win the battle. Amen?
How do I know this? Listen! In Romans chapter 8, God’s Word tells us that nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate us from the love of God. And furthermore – in Matthew 28 Jesus promises that he will be with us always. He is the mighty fortress who is with us always.
So no matter what’s going on in your life right now – no matter what you’re going through – I want you to know that God is YOUR mighty fortress. He is the One we can run to – not run away from. SO no matter where you’ve been – no matter what you’ve done – no matter how long you’ve been away – God is your refuge and strength – a very present help in trouble. Therefore – we will not fear. We do NOT have to live in fear.
So let me invite you today to put your trust in God. Not in password protected security systems but in the Lord God. He is a rock. He is a refuge. He is a strong and mighty fortress.