Reformation Day (Observed), October 30th, Year of Our + Lord 2011Psalm 46:7
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. It’s quite fitting, we Lutherans choosing Psalm 46 as a main theme for the Reformation, the inspiration for Luther’s magnificent hymn, ‘A Mighty Fortress,’ the cause of all those castles on our Reformation banners and bulletins. Fitting, because if ever somebody was in need of Reformation, it was Jacob.
Jacob was always trying to get ahead, from the beginning, grasping at his twin brother’s heel as he followed in birth. Jacob’s very name is a play on words, meaning both to grab the heel, and also to supplant, or usurp, that is, to take another’s rightful position, often by trickery. A ‘jacob’ is one who is always trying to get something that isn’t his, always worried that the things he has been given aren’t enough, always scheming. A ‘jacob’ cannot be still and know that the Lord is God, who comes to bless His people. That is how Jacob’s life went, for a long time. Grabbing at Esau’s heel from birth, Jacob the momma’s boy couldn’t rest in the promise God made to his mother, that the older twin would serve the younger. Jacob and his mother couldn’t wait on God’s promise in faith, they had to try to steal the birthright from Esau by trickery. And, with a bowl of lentil stew and some goat skins to disguise Jacob’s smooth skin from his blind father, Jacob did just that.
Which, not too surprisingly, didn’t go so well. Esau was understandably angry, enough to kill him, and soon Jacob fled. Jacob’s life was bumpy from then on, the grasping and trickery of others appropriately enough giving Jacob headaches. Like his uncle Laban who tricked Jacob into marrying the wrong girl. Later Jacob faced the scheming of two wives, Leah and Rachel, who then added two more wives, all in a grasping competition to be the best wife to Jacob, the schemer. And not too surprisingly, that whole four wives thing didn’t go so well. With four scheming mothers and Jacob playing favorites, their twelve sons became a squabbling, hateful bunch who caused their father much grief. Jacob, and his family, needed a lot of reformation.
Which God gave. The Lord came to Jacob, again and again, correcting and guiding him. The Lord taught Jacob through fear, allowing the anger of Esau to drive Jacob out, alone, across the wilderness in flight. Later the Lord sent a man who attacked Jacob, wrestling with him all night long. The Lord also allowed great sorrow in Jacob’s life, years of believing his favorite son Joseph had been devoured by wild animals, then the household arrest of another son, Simeon, detained in Egypt when the brothers went there to seek food during a famine.
Jacob kept striving after his own ideas of what makes for a good life, forgetting and doubting the promises God had made to him, and so the Lord kept correcting him. But along with correction, and even more, the Lord reformed Jacob by repeating the promises, and continuing to fulfill them. As Jacob fled from Esau, the Lord appeared to Jacob in a dream, revealing the stairway from heaven, with unnumbered angels of God ascending and descending, and the Lord standing next to Jacob, declaring the eternal Gospel, that the Lord Himself would continue to come to Jacob and fulfill His great promises, most especially the promise of a Descendent who would be the Savior of every nation. Later, at the end of that night long wrestling match with the man, Jacob discovered that this Man was God Himself, come to strive with Jacob, the Lord who gave Jacob a new name, Israel, and repeated the promises He had made earlier.
Finally, the God of Jacob revealed His steadfast love and protection to Jacob when the man who ruled Egypt, who had arrested Simeon, who demanded to see Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, when this man turned out to be Joseph, Jacob’s lost son, who was alive, having passed through slavery and imprisonment in order to be raised up, all so that through Joseph the Lord could keep His promises to Jacob and his family, again. Through these promises, repeated and fulfilled, through actually coming to Jacob, speaking and wrestling with him, through promises and visitation, even more than through correction, the Lord reformed Jacob, shaping and strengthening his faith with the Word of Promise.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. It’s quite fitting, we Lutherans choosing Psalm 46 as a major theme of the Reformation, choosing this Psalm of Jacob, who needed so much Reformation, fitting, because Martin Luther was also a man in great need of reform. Martin Luther was a striver too, different from Jacob, but striving to make his own way, nonetheless. Eldest son of Hans Luther, young Martin had in his father an example of striving, for Hans was an up and comer, a man from the peasant class who through hard work and determination raised himself and his family up a level, up into what would become the middle class, just beginning to form in 15th century Europe, men made important by doing new work to support a changing world. Hans left the world of peasant agriculture and became a coal-miner, then an owner of coal mines, and eventually a fairly well-off man. And Hans had great plans for his eldest, plans to see Martin become a lawyer and move up yet another level in society.
Within a life that looks to God for the ultimate good, there is nothing wrong with Hans’ ideas, a self-made family man looking to develop a lasting legacy. Unfortunately for Luther, but in the end fortunately for the Church, Luther was plagued with another spur towards making your own way, the spur of the official teaching of the Church.
In its proper place, a solid work ethic and desire to advance oneself in honest ways is a good thing, leading to better lives for everyone in society. But when this idea of self-advancement is brought into the Church, everything falls apart. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. So to teach that men must save themselves by their works is to fight directly against God’s truth, a fight which leads to miserable slavery for all involved.
The same inability to trust in God’s promises of blessing that plagued Jacob had infected the entire Western Church. Getting into a good relationship with God had become falsely defined as a long climb up a ladder of good works, good works that in the end could only be properly done if one entered into Church work. This teaching, perhaps combined with the pressure to succeed from his father, made Martin miserable, afraid of his father, and afraid of God. His fear of God, and thunderstorms, eventually led Martin to abandon the law and enter a monastery, much to the displeasure of Hans. Worse for Luther, his fear was not godly, for Luther’s kind of fear led him to hate, not love God, because his understanding of salvation was wrong.
All of which makes for a pretty dismal story, especially if you drop in on Luther as he is torturing himself in the monastery, trying to beat the sin out of himself, trying desperately to climb the ladder to heaven that the Church told him he could, and must, climb. Luther the earnest monk, starving himself, pursuing pointless vows of self-denial, a slave of works righteousness, was a most pitiable soul, especially because Luther was so honest. He knew his own sin, that all his outward acts of righteousness only covered up a heart that wandered from God, indeed a heart that, often as not, hated God for all His unachievable standards. But God was not done reforming Luther, not yet.
Luther was assigned by his superiors to study Scripture, to become a doctor and professor of the Church. Luther was chosen because, despite all his self-loathing and doubts about salvation, he was also a brilliant man, one whom they hoped might be distracted from his spiritual trials through the study of God’s Holy Word. And man, was he ever. Despairing of ever meeting God’s standard, painfully aware of his own guilt and sin, Luther was ready for God’s reformation, which the Holy Spirit worked in Luther through the study and teaching of the Bible. Like a door opening into heaven, Luther, through years of study, meditation and teaching, was brought to understand and believe the eternal Gospel, the good news that, because we are sinners and cannot make ourselves righteous, God the Father sent God the Son into human flesh, to live, die and rise for sinners, in order that His righteousness, His goodness, His perfection, might be given to sinners as a free gift, received by faith, delivered by the Holy Spirit through the Word and Sacraments.
Like Jacob, finally at the end of his life able to be still and know that God is gracious and merciful, Luther stopped striving to win God’s love, because he now believed that God had already loved him, perfectly, in Christ Jesus.
Luther was free at last, reformed by God through His promises, promises fulfilled completely, and delivered to sinners, in Christ alone. No human works, no human will, no human merit, but God through Christ alone has fulfilled all that is necessary for sinful humans to be declared worthy of God’s kingdom. In Christ sinners are free to enter into the fortress of salvation, the refuge which is the God of Jacob Himself, into whom we have been grafted by Water and the Word. Abiding in His Word, dining at His table, we receive eternal sustenance in the Body and Blood, given under the bread and wine.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. It’s quite fitting, we Lutherans choosing Psalm 46 as a major theme of the Reformation, choosing this Psalm of Jacob, who needed so much Reformation, fitting, because we, like Jacob, and Luther, are also so much in need of Reformation. Perhaps like young Jacob you strive to make your best life now, focusing all your energy and effort on getting ahead in the world, even if that means ignoring Gods’ Law and Promises and hurting people you are supposed to love. Or perhaps you are more like the young monk Luther, very serious about meeting God’s standard, so much so that you are plagued by anger and even hatred toward this God who has given you laws that you simply cannot keep. Or maybe you’ve given up, given up on earthly life, and given up on life with God, resigned to the impossibility of making your own way. Perhaps you live without hope, muddling through life with no thought for a brighter future, resigned to life on the couch, pursuing a few idle pleasures as you wait for the end.
Whichever way your striving tends, and even if you’ve given up striving all together, I declare good news to you today: God is not done with His Reformation. The Lord of hosts is still with us. The stairway from heaven touches the earth wherever God’s Word and Signs are declared, even in this place, on this day. God is still speaking, to you. The Lord speaks words of caution, words of warning, convicting words for you when you live as though this life is all that matters, convicting words for you when you treat your neighbors as enemies, and convicting words for you when you act as though you can earn God’s love by your works. But even more than with His Word of warning, even more than with His Law, the Lord God of Jacob is still coming to you to speak His Word of promise: In Christ Jesus, in His body and blood, in His death and resurrection, God has made your way, forgiving your sin, fulfilling all His promises, giving you protection, in His eternal fortress. Be still, and know that Jesus Christ is your God. Abide in His Word, live in His freedom, Amen.