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Sunday, February 21, 2010

First Sunday in Lent, Madagascar, and A Mighty Fortress

Matthew 4:1 - 11, Temptation of Jesus

"This is a comprehensive Gospel, particularly when applied to all Christendom, which also experiences trials, like Christ, by hunger and persecution, by heresy and finally by the kingdoms of this world, as the histories to the subject also well document. But on this occasion we shall not deal in a far-ranging way with temptation but as it is commonly understood. So, first, we want to note and learn from the example of our dear Lord Christ that every Christian as soon as he's baptized, is marshaled into an army in confrontation with the devil, and from his baptism onward is saddled with the devil who harasses him as long as he lives. If this bitter enemy cannot by his onslaughts get the better of Christians and bring about their downfall, he seeks to hang them on the cross and kill them as he did Christ. ... We can learn from Christ's encounter with Satan how to deal with and overcome this adversary, so that he's forced to let us go. ... It is the bounden duty, therefore, of every Christian to earnestly hear God's Word and its preaching, diligently learn and become well-versed therein. We also should persevere in earnest prayer that God would let his kingdom come among us, not lead us into temptation, but graciously deliver us from all evil."

Luther on Invocavit Sunday (Lent 1), 1534.
The House Postils, trans. Klug, 313.

Lutheran Congregation in Antsirabe, Lent 2007

Three years ago, I remember being in Madagascar for Invocavit Sunday (Lent 1). It was an incredible trip on many levels. One of the most significant memories I have is of the first Sunday in Lent and worshiping at the Lutheran Congregations in Madagascar. Call be ignorant, but at the time, I was unaware that there are about four million Lutherans in Madagascar. The Lutheran Church in Madagascar is larger than the Missouri Synod! Like all churches, the church in Madagascar has challenges and pressures -- even factions, some being closer to the Missouri Synod and others being closer to the ELCA. None of this diminishes the joy of being with the Malagasy Lutherans during Lent.

Front of the Mother Church In Madagascar

Pastor David Rakotonirina, President of a seminary in Madagascar, took us to three congregations on the first Sunday int Lent. The first congregation that we attended was in the city. We went to the 6 AM service. People in Madagascar sometimes work six or seven days in the week. So the church has a 6 AM service so people can attend before they go to work. Approximately 2,000 people attended that 6 AM service. We stopped by a second service around 9 or 10 AM to see another 2,000 people in attendance. Finally, we went to the "mother church" -- the church that began Lutheranism in Madagascar around 1860 or 1870; you see the Lutheran church in Madagascar is about the same age as the Missouri Synod -- about 10 or 15 years younger. As a result, the liturgy including some of the melodies and tones, and the church architecture are remarkably similar to Missouri Synod congregations from the same period. There were also about 2,000 people at that final service at noon held in the "mother church." In three congregations, there were nearly 6,000 people in attendance on a Sunday. Incredible. Many LCMS Congregations would be hard pressed to have 2,000 people at 6 AM. While the number of attendees was hard not to notice, the overall experience was rather encouraging for me. The Lord has a people for himself all over the world. 

Albert Collver and John Pless in the Cemetery of the Mother Church in Madagascar

 The worship in Madagascar was unmistakably liturgical. In fact, some of the canticles had the same melodies as the Missouri Synod's hymnal. This had to do with the fact that the Common Service had in some form reached the Malagasy. The Lutheran church in Madagascar was started by Norwegian Missionaries. After the king in Madagascar converted to Christianity, he sent his son to Norway to study to be a pastor. After his training, he returned to Madagascar as the first Malagasy Lutheran pastor. The Gospel lesson was Matthew 4:1-11, the temptation of Jesus, and the traditional Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent. We sang, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," which is the hymn of the day for Lent 1. I mentioned this experience in my story on "A Mighty Fortress" for the Lutheran Witness (reproduced below).

So three years later, I fondly recall our trip to Madagascar, being united with fellow Christians through the liturgy, a common lectionary, and the hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Although I have not had the opportunity to return to Madagascar, I remember the people I met and pray for the church in Madagascar. This trip was not the end of the Missouri Synod's contact with the Malagasy Lutheran Church. John Pless for the past three years has taken groups of seminarians to Madagascar for a Mercy Expedition, sponsored in part by LCMS World Relief and Human Care. We have sent several Mercy Medical Teams (MMT) to Madagascar. We have helped build a pediatric wing for a Lutheran hospital. Who knows what the future will bring? Lutheran churches all over the world, even some non-Lutheran churches, are seeking contact with the Missouri Synod -- largely due to our church's doctrinal position in light of a relativism that has swept Christianity in the world. It's Time for us to engage the world with Confessional Lutheranism.


"A Mighty Fortress," from Luther Witness, October 2009

As a boy I remember celebrating our bicentennial in 1976. Everyone was proud to be an American, or so it seemed to a child. All across the nation were decorations of red, white, and blue. Fireworks lit up the night sky and parades rolled down the streets of cities and towns during the day. People had renewed interest in the founding fathers, and there was talk of freedom and liberty. Churches offered prayers for the nation, and pastors spoke with thankfulness on how the Lord had blessed America. When the “Star Spangled Banner” played, people were proud, and some were brought to tears. This was America’s song of independence, full of pride and hope.
I also remember being in church in October 1976 as the organ played “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The procession marched down the aisle with the cross in front. The pastors wore robes with scarlet stoles. The entire congregation roared with lusty singing. What a moment! How proud I was to be a Lutheran on Reformation Day. When I sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” I felt as if I were thumbing my nose at the devil, the world, and all enemies of the Church. This hymn was the song of the Reformation, full of hope and pride.
Yet, is there more to this great hymn than I imagined at the time?

Seeking comfort in distress

Photo of Wartburg Castle by
Many people today think of “A Mighty Fortress” as the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” It is one of the most translated hymns in the history of the Church, having been translated into more than 200 languages. What many of us might not realize is that the Festival of the Reformation was not celebrated during Luther’s lifetime. Therefore, the hymn was not written to celebrate the Reformation, which is the commemoration of the publication of the Ninety-five Theses on Oct. 31, 1517. Only later, after the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), when the Reformation was celebrated as a regular part of the church year in Saxony, Luther’s home region, did the hymn become associated with the festival.
Considering that “A Mighty Fortress” is Luther’s most famous hymn, we know remarkably little about it. Nor are we even sure when Luther wrote it. The earliest existing hymnal in which it appears is from 1533. (From the records of 19th-century hymnologists we know that there were a few hymnals that contained “A Mighty Fortress” before 1533, but these hymnals were destroyed in the bombing of Dresden during World War II.) Most scholars think Luther wrote the hymn between 1521 and 1529, with the majority of scholars settling on 1527–28.
These years were some of the darkest in Luther’s life. A heading from a broadsheet (something akin to modern “sheet music”) of “A Mighty Fortress” published in Augsburg in 1529 reads “A Hymn of Comfort.” Rather than a battle hymn, Luther intended this hymn, based on Psalm 46, to be one of comfort. While we are not certain what prompted Luther to write the hymn, scholars have suggested a number of events during these dark years.
In August 1527, a man who followed Luther’s teaching was martyred. In the fall of 1527, a plague broke out in Wittenberg. In December 1527, Luther wrote to a colleague: “We are all in good health except for Luther himself, who is physically well, but outwardly the whole world and inwardly the devil and all his angels are making him suffer.” A few days later, in January 1528, Luther wrote that he was undergoing a period of temptation that was the worst he had experienced in his life.
When Luther speaks of “temptation,” he uses the German word. While Anfechtung is translated “temptation” or “trial,” it refers to anything that causes anxiety, doubt, fear, suffering, or terror in a person’s life. For instance, in December 1527, Luther’s daughter, Elizabeth, was born sickly. In May 1528, she died. The six months of wrestling with the Lord in prayer to save his sick daughter was a period of temptation (Anfechtung) for Luther. He was mentally and spiritually fatigued. He was under the cross of suffering. Yet, he took comfort in the Psalms and trusted in the promises of Jesus.

Struggles in the Church
Besides the challenges brought on by the plague and tragedy in his personal life, struggles abounded in the Church. From 1517 to 1525, most of Luther’s focus was on abuses within the Roman church. From 1525 onward, the struggles came from multiple fronts. Luther felt that his family, reputation, and work for the Reformation—that his entire existence—was at stake.
Because of its association with Reformation Day, many people not only think of “A Mighty Fortress” as the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation,” but also as a battle cry against the pope and Rome. Yet, when Luther likely wrote the hymn, his greatest challenge arose from other groups that had broken away from Rome. There were people who claimed to follow the Bible (and Luther) who wanted to revolt against the government, something Luther did not approve of. Others questioned whether pastors were necessary; they believed anyone could proclaim the Word of God. Some doubted whether infants should be baptized. The greatest and most divisive controversy among the reformers also took place during these years—the Sacramentarian Controversy, that is, the fight over the Lord’s Supper.
For 1,500 years, the Church had understood and confessed that Jesus gave His true body and true blood to eat and to drink in Holy Communion. No one within the Church questioned this. After the Reformation began, various interpretations about the Lord’s Supper appeared. People argued that Jesus could not really mean what He said, and that the words, “This is My body . . . This is My blood” needed to be understood in a different way. For instance, the Swiss reformer Zwingli argued that “is” did not mean “is” but rather “symbolized.” Others argued that it is impossible for Jesus to put His body and blood on many altars at the same time. Still others said that because Jesus’ body was in heaven, it could not be on earth, too. In total, several hundred different interpretations appeared, all denying that Jesus actually gave His body and blood to eat and to drink in the Lord’s Supper.
Luther saw this controversy as directly related to the proclamation of the Gospel. He believed that the literal words of Jesus needed to be confessed and defended.
In this controversy, Luther argued that there was nothing more true, certain, or powerful than the Word of God. Indeed, the Lord’s Word is a “mighty fortress.” In the battle between Luther and the Sacramentarians, the Lord’s Word was the “trusty shield” to defend against their error and the “weapon” used to fight against them. The evil foe was using deceit and “deep guile” to obscure the words of Jesus.
In stanza 3, the hymn says, “Though devils all the world should fill.” Luther truly believed he was living in the Last Days because the preaching of the Gospel—that we are justified by grace through faith—and the Scriptures were clearly taught, and controversy after controversy arose. The world seemed full of “devils” perverting the Lord’s teaching. The stanza concludes, “One little word can fell him.” In the case of the controversy over the Lord’s Supper, the little word that “can fell” the devil is “is” from the Lord’s words, “This is My body . . . This is My blood.”
The hymn concludes by confessing that the Word of the Lord will remain in the world even if people are not thankful for it. In Luther’s day, there was the very real danger that he could lose his life, all his possessions, his reputation, and his family. Nevertheless, he sings confidently that “our victory has been won; the Kingdom ours remaineth.” Luther’s hymn is one of comfort and hope in the midst of trial and temptation, and strife within the Church.

A Hymn That Unites

A rare copy of an early printing of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." This copy is in the Lutherhaus Museum in Wittenberg.
A few years ago, I visited Madagascar. A vibrant Lutheran church exists there numbering in the millions. We arrived in time for worship on the first Sunday in Lent. While we could not understand the words spoken, many parts of the service were familiar because the liturgy of our churches is similar. The Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent is the temptation of Jesus. After 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus was tempted in every way that you and I will ever be tempted. He was tempted to question and doubt the very promises of God. In the midst of His temptation, Jesus “felled” the devil with one little Word. He called on the promises of God recorded in the Scriptures. Because Jesus defeated the devil’s temptations, we know that in Him we, too, will overcome the devil’s temptations and trials. After this comforting Gospel lesson was read, we heard the melody of “A Mighty Fortress.” Here in Madagascar, thousands of miles from our churches in America, the Malagasy were singing this great hymn of comfort. Through a common liturgy, lectionary, and this famous hymn by Luther, Lutherans around the world were united in confessing how the Lord is our Mighty Fortress.
Although my understanding of this great hymn has changed since I was a boy, I still love to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” on Reformation Sunday. Now rather than being merely the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation,” the hymn is so much more for me. It is the great hymn of comfort in the midst of trial, suffering, and temptation. This hymn reminds us how Martin Luther, and others, preached the truth in love in the face of many obstacles and hardship. Rather than finding a single event behind this hymn, we can see how the plague, the death of his child, the controversies in the church, and other struggles in his life caused Luther to cling to his Lord, who is the Mighty Fortress of all those who trust in Him. Because of this, we can sing this great hymn of comfort, not only on Reformation, but also during Lent and whenever we are in need of comfort.
Albert B. Collver

1 comment:

  1. It's good to know that as we sang "A Mighty Fortress" in our church on this First Sunday in Lent, fellow Christians in parts of the world far removed were singing it as well, united in song. I find it odd that at the same time there are congregations in our own synod that instead will be singing praise songs devoid of doctrinal content, having abandoned the liturgy. Instead of the Church militant, they have become the Church tolerant. And yet, "God's Word forever shall abide."