Reformation – It Gets Better
October 30-31, 2010
Psalm 46 begins, “God is our refuge and strength.”
A paraphrase says, “God is a safe place,”
Martin Luther says, “God is a mighty fortress.”
The psalm reminds us that in all times and in all situations,
God is our refuge and strength;
God is our safe place;
God is our mighty fortress.
Sometimes we have experiences in life
where we find those words in the psalm too hard to believe.
And the sense of loneliness can lead to overwhelming despair.
Probably like most of you, I’ve been greatly disturbed lately
by the number of teenagers who have committed suicide across the country.
Most particularly, the ones in the news of late have been
those who have been bullied or ridiculed because of their sexuality
and have responded by taking their lives.
In a period of 3 weeks,
there have been at least five teenage deaths by suicide in this way.
What’s even more disturbing, of course
is the perception by some that the church – we the people of God –
are partly to blame.
In a survey released last week,
two out of three Americans believe that
people who are gay commit suicide at least partly because
of messages sent from churches and other places of worship.[i]
There is the view widely held by many, that
God may be a refuge and strength;
but the church really is not –
especially if you are gay.
So please hear me tell you from this pulpit.
Hear me proclaim to you from God’s own holy Word.
If you are gay or straight:
You belong. You are loved.
The kingdom belongs to you too.
God is your refuge and strength
when people fail to be.
The image of God as refuge and strength
was a great source of comfort for Martin Luther.
Some say that it was why Psalm 46 was his favorite psalm
and especially on this Reformation weekend, we remember
that Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was based on this psalm.
Psalm 46 is a psalm celebrating God’s victory –
yet Luther didn’t write the hymn under victorious circumstances.
(I can’t think of many times he might have celebrated victory during the Reformation.)
Rather, Luther used this psalm to write his hymn
during one of his greatest periods of darkness.
Luther was no stranger to overwhelming feelings of doubt, despair, and depression.
I was at a lecture this week at the seminary about Luther’s times of doubt.
The lecturer, Dr. Denis Janz, entitled his talk, “To Hell (and Back) with Luther.”
Luther felt he was in hell.
Not just once – but over and over again in all times of his life, and even into his old age,
this great Reformation hero…
this formidable biblical scholar and teacher…
this founder of our faith…
was plagued by spiritual anguish.
Some was triggered by particular events –
– his father’s anger at his decision to enter a monastery;
– the death of his daughter Magdalena;
– his own multiple medical issues.
But other times seemed not to be triggered by much of anything,
and yet they led him to “hate God.”
He described them as the “abyss of despair,” “the silence of God,”
and a fundamental lack of “belief in the graciousness of God.”
And Luther never had a conversion experience of sorts
which overcame the m once and for all.
So why might Luther have claimed Psalm 46 as his favorite?
The imagery in Psalm 46 is warlike:
nations are in uproar; kingdoms are tottering;
bows are being broken; spears are being shattered.
The psalm speaks to Luther in the hymn
of spiritual warfare more than physical warfare.
He understands his own experiences as his own personal battles with the devil.
In the 3rd stanza he speaks of “hordes of devils fill the land,
all threatening to devour us.”
Depression, despair, and doubt can feel like that.
They can feel intense, overpowering,
and under the control of some external – even devil-like -spirit.
But as painful as those experiences were to Luther,
apparently he would not have chosen to give them up!
He believed he needed to have them.
He wrote that in fact these experiences
were essential for anyone who wishes to talk about God.
He wrote that without them, one cannot understand the Bible!
In his words (from the German of course!), Luther says,
“If I live longer, I would like to write a book about Anfechtungen (his word for these experiences), for without them no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God. He does not know the meaning of hope who was never subject to (them).” [ii]
Hope is born out of despair –
not out of victory.
Even though he may not have wanted to give them up,
Luther recognized the need for help to get through them sometimes.
He had many suggestions to offer.
It depended on the situation, but at various times he suggested
prayer, confession, the company of friends and spouse,
sumptuous food and drink.
And many times, he himself turned to the psalms.
“God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.”
His hymn professes the faith that God will be victorious when forces of evil surround us.
Whatever battle we face – in the end somehow, and in some way – God wins.
Verse 10 near the end of the psalm is probably the best known verse of Psalm 46:
“Be still and know that I am God.”
It’s an imperative – a command.
We can hear God exclaim – perhaps in exasperation,
perhaps in anger, perhaps pleading – ‘Be still and know me!”
The forces of evil will not win the day.
Fear, loneliness, abandonment,
despair, and rejection, will be overcome.
God’s Word overcomes them all.
Hope is born out of despair.
As the YouTube video project
encourages all youth, “It gets better.”
It does get better. God wins.
God is our refuge and strength. Amen.
[ii] Roland Bainton, “Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther,” 1950, Hendrickson Publishers, p. 374.