“That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth.
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth.”
My last blog was called “What was the Reformation?” At the end of October, I also preached a sermon at my church on the Reformation stressing truth and unity. Now, recent events have brought me to reflect once more on that era. So if you’ll indulge me yet again, let’s think one more time about ol’ Martin Luther and his band of Protestants.
A Mighty Fortress
The week I preached on the Reformation my congregants sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” We sing that song often; I hope you do as well at your church. It is certainly the most famous hymn coming down to us from that moment in history, written by none other than Luther himself. It is based on Psalm 46, which begins with “God is our refuge and strength” and ends with “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” It is a rallying cry that encourages the church not to fear any earthly powers, but also not to trust in them.
Some of the words are printed above. Notice it says the word of God is “above all earthly powers.” There is no government, no court, no party, no nation, and no leader that can demand any authority above the Word of God. The Word of God is the means by which the Lord of Heaven and Earth rules the nations and leads His church. I think of Isaiah 40:21–23 which says:
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? The Lord sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.”
God alone rules supreme and He exercises His dominion through His Word. In that same chapter we read, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (v. 8).
The Word of God
Now, how is that word established? How does it “stand forever”? By what methods and systems does that word progress throughout the world? Look again at the lines printed above. It is “no thanks to those earthly powers” that the word abides! That is, the Word of God commands absolute supremacy over all earthly powers. And those earthly powers do nothing to help the Word of God. In the same book of Isaiah, the Lord also says in 45:23, “By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return.” The Lord needs absolutely no help from governments and heads of state to accomplish His purposes through His Word. (See also Isaiah 55:10–11.)
And notice what else the people of God have for their comfort in this world. Again, it is not earthly powers; look at the lines above once more. It is the Holy Spirit and the spiritual gifts He creates among His people that give security! Because the Holy Spirit is among God’s people, and because God’s people act with the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–26)—not the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19–21)—therefore God’s people have a bold confidence. And it is the Almighty on our side who gives us these good things (“through him who with us sideth”).
Why are we looking at these two lines in Luther’s hymn? Well, as I mentioned above, Christians sing it often. I think the words we sing in songs are a matter of ethical importance. We either believe them, or we should not be singing them. And I think these two lines are as important today as ever. Before last month’s election I sensed a kind of simmering anxiety among some Christians, an unspoken but palpable disquiet, in anticipation of what could happen: a Hillary Clinton presidency. Then the unexpected happened; Hillary will not be president. And suddenly, there was…jubilation? Or, on the other side, an even greater horror at the previously unimaginable: a Donald Trump presidency.
That we care about our country is not the issue. We should care. We should get involved. We should vote. But my concern is that sometimes our confidence in God rises and falls with the political tides. When we perceive political events are not going our way, we certainly feel the need to trust in God. So we sing Luther’s hymn with all our strength: “A mighty fortress is our God.” But when it appears political events are swinging our way, trust in God suddenly feels less exigent. If in such situations Luther’s hymn is less urgent, then it’s a real barometer of what’s truly in our hearts: deep down we actually trust instead in our political hopefuls. And the church is in bad shape if we need national elections to buoy us up on a regular four-year cycle.
Did you really fear a Clinton presidency? I didn’t. Does anyone really think Trump’s presidency will do great things for the church? I don’t. Either way the stability of the kingdom of God depends on the Word of God and the gifts of the Spirit. Are you afraid of the Supreme Court? I’m not. Isaiah 40:22 (quoted above) calls the Justices grasshoppers! Oh, that we would think Isaiah’s and Luther’s thoughts as well.
Trust in God
Here at CBC I am the Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies. I would not be doing my job if I don’t provoke you to trust in God and God alone! And to do that—as Isaiah and Psalm 46 and Luther’s hymn insist—I use the Bible to that end: to lean upon you to drop the only anchor of your confidence into the hands of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Potentate of Potentates.
Four years from now we’ll have another election. How will your heart fare? How will it fare between now and then? I pray it will fare well. And it will, if we still feel the necessity to read Psalm 46 and to sing Luther’s hymn with as much verve as ever. Psalm 146:3 adjures us to “Put not your trust in princes; in mortal men who cannot save.” Whereas Jeremiah 17:7 says “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”
Dearly beloved, nothing has changed in the Kingdom of God since November 7th, 2016. “That word above all earthly powers, still no thanks to them abideth.”
Here are the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit” mentioned above:
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. –Galatians 5:19–26
Brothers and sisters, we must live by these words if the Spirit is truly among us.