SERMON: Tho’ the Wrong Seems Oft So Strong
Christ the King Sunday
Prayer of the Day
O God, our true life, to serve you is freedom, and to know you is unending joy. We worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory. Abide with us, reign in us, and make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
• • •
All year long during this upcoming Church Year we will be commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and I am going to try to take every advantage to talk about Reformation themes during my sermons.
So, for this Christ the King Sunday I will be preaching on today’s psalm — Psalm 46. This psalm was the inspiration for Martin Luther’s great hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.
Mark Galli is the editor of Christianity Today magazine and a friend of mine. Several years ago he wrote a wonderful piece describing the background of the hymn, and I’d like to share it with you today.
It was the worst of times—1527—one of the most trying years of Luther’s life. It’s hard to imagine he had the energy or spirit to compose one of Christendom’s most memorable hymns.
On April 22, a dizzy spell forced Luther to stop preaching in the middle of his sermon. For ten years, since publishing his 95 Theses against the abuse of indulgences, Luther had been buffeted by political and theological storms; at times his life had been in danger. Now he was battling other reformers over the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. To Luther, their errors were as great as those of Rome—the very gospel was at stake—and Luther was deeply disturbed and angry. He suffered severe depression.
Then, on July 6, as friends arrived for dinner, Luther felt an intense buzzing in his left ear. He went to lie down, when suddenly he called, “Water … or I’ll die!” He became cold, and he was convinced he had seen his last night. In a loud prayer, he surrendered himself to God’s will.
With a doctor’s help, Luther partially regained his strength. But this depression and illness overcame him again in August, September and late December. Looking back on one of his bouts, he wrote his friend Melanchthon, “I spent more than a week in death and hell. My entire body was in pain, and I still tremble. Completely abandoned by Christ, I labored under the vacillations and storms of desperation and blasphemy against God. But through the prayers of the saints [his friends], God began to have mercy on me and pulled my soul from the inferno below.”
Meanwhile, in August, the plague had erupted in Wittenberg. As fear spread, so did many of the townspeople. But Luther considered it his duty to remain and care for the sick. Even though his wife was pregnant, Luther’s house was transformed into a hospital, and he watched many friends die. Then his son became ill. Not until late November did the epidemic abate and the ill begin to recover.
During that horrific year, Luther took time to remember the tenth anniversary of his publication against indulgences, noting the deeper meaning of his trials: “The only comfort against raging Satan is that we have God’s Word to save the souls of believers.” Sometime that year, Luther expanded that thought into the hymn he is most famous for: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
I hope you will remember that background when you sing A Mighty Fortress. It reminds us that this hymn is more than great poetry and stirring music. It came from the battles of Martin Luther’s life, from a year in which he experienced fear, distress, and dismay. It must have seemed at times in 1527 that the world was spinning out of control. But in that very context, the words of Psalm 46 were there to strengthen the reformer and give birth to the hymn we still treasure today. This psalm and Luther’s hymn remind us that, in the words of another hymn writer: “Tho’ the wrong seems oft’ so strong, God is the Ruler yet.”
Psalm 46 is a psalm of trust. In striking metaphorical language it calls us to believe that God is our refuge and that no ultimate harm will befall us, even if the whole world should fall apart.
You read this psalm, as we did this morning, and you see spectacular events portrayed — mountains come crashing down, the seas turns into a roiling tsunami, nations rise up and go to war, kingdoms topple, stretches of earth burn and become desolate. It’s like a special effects blockbuster movie!
And it’s right there, in the middle of all the chaos, the dazzling explosions, the deafening roar, when God stands up and thunders, “BE QUIET! BE STILL!”
And then there’s complete silence….
God speaks again, “I WILL BE EXALTED!” — in other words, “I’m the one in charge here!”
And at that word, the wars cease, the commotion dies down, and there is peace.
It reminds me of the disciples and their experience with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, which I’m sure you remember. In the midst of a storm, out on the sea in that flimsy fishing boat where they feared for their lives, Jesus stood up and said, “Peace! Be still!” and the wind and the waves immediately became calm.
It’s like when someone is panicking and out of control and freaking out. A friend grabs him by the shoulders, looks him straight in the eye, and says, “Look at me! Stop! I’m here! You’re okay!” He hugs his friend close and tight until the fear subsides. By his firm grip and direct words, he takes charge of the situation and helps his friend calm down.
In the same way, Psalm 46 says, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” He is present, a “very present” help when we need help. He’s there to take hold us, to embrace us, to hold us close and tight, to allay our fears. How many times did Jesus need to do this for his disciples? How many times did he have to say, “Fear not!”
Have any of you been to New York City? In lower Manhattan, there is a tiny historic church called St. Paul’s Chapel. It is right near Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers fell. On Sept. 11, 2001, when those magnificent buildings crashed to the ground in a spectacle the likes of which few of us had ever seen before, somehow the little chapel was protected from damage.
It’s a beautiful church and a major tourist attraction. George Washington once prayed there. But it’s just a tiny chapel. On 9/11 it served as a place of rest for rescue workers — in fact, I understand that the marks from firefighters’ boots and equipment are still visible on the pews. But it could only do so because on that day it survived in what seemed to many like a miraculous intervention by God.
The chapel is located just steps from Ground Zero. And yet when the buildings fell right next to it, it kept standing without a scratch. No broken windows. Even the steeple remained intact. Only one tree -– a nearly 100-year-old sycamore in the church yard -– fell. And it was that tree that saved the chapel. It prevented a huge steel beam from smashing the 235-year-old church to splinters.
What is even more amazing is that this was not the first time St. Paul’s Chapel experienced such a remarkable deliverance. The chapel also stood unscathed during the Great Fire of 1776, even when Trinity Church -– located just a few blocks down on Broadway -– was ruined.
Twice, when the world crumbled all around, St. Paul’s Chapel found that God was with her, a very present help in time of trouble. Her refuge and strength.
Almost every time I pray with one of my hospice patients and families, I pray that they will know God in this way — as their refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. And then in my prayer I add words that come from the NT equivalent of this psalm, from Romans 8: “And Lord, help them to know that you will never leave them or forsake them, that there is nothing in all creation that can ever separate us from your love.”
Psalms like this are meant to inspire us, to hearten us, to ground us in a Deeper Reality when it feels like life is taking us on a bumpy and scary roller coaster ride. It might not always feel like God is with us, and we might wonder sometimes if it’s all falling apart and the whole world is going to go careening off to crash into the ground.
But here are a few handles you can grab onto as you hang on for dear life:
God is our refuge and strength
A very present help in time of trouble.
The Lord of hosts is with us
The God of Jacob is our refuge.
Nothing, nothing, NOTHING can ever separate us from his love.