The Valiant One Fights for Us!
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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Lutherans have always held the singing of hymns and the proclamation of the Word in sermons in high regard. So it seems very fitting that we are combining the two in our joint Lenten services. The sermon tonight is based upon Psalm 46, the introit we just spoke responsively a few minutes ago, which is also the basis for our Hymn of the Day, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (LSB #647). This battle hymn of the Reformation will serve as an outline for our message.
What distinguishes Lutheran hymn writers is that their hymns are to be in theological agreement with the central message of all scriptures—“Salvation by the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone as revealed to us in Scripture alone.” In addition, Lutherans who write sermons and hymns are to be concerned with properly distinguishing Law and Gospel. Therefore, not every hymn or song would be appropriate to preach on. Some glorify the subjective feelings of the writer rather than the saving acts of God. Compare, for example, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” to the contemporary Christian favorite, ‘Here I Am to Worship.” Just the titles are enough to clue you in to the differences. One points to God’s continuing presence with us and for us… the other repeatedly trumpets the presence of me, the worshiper, as if worship were all about what I am doing for God, rather than what God does for me.
Psalm 46 tells us of God’s work on behalf of His people. It is not known for certain what historic event this was, but it fits well with the days when Jehoshaphat was on the throne of David and the nomadic tribes of the Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites were gathered together in siege against the children of Israel. Things looked very bleak for God’s chosen people. In fact, only a miracle of God could save them, and they knew it. So Jehoshaphat turned to the Lord.
God responded through His prophet Jahaziel, “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours, but God’s,” he said (2 Chronicles 20:15). The armies of Moab and Ammon and Seir were filled with confusion and began to fight with one another. The battle was fierce and the outcome was devastating. The pagan nations ended up literally destroying one another. And when the morning hours arrived and the children of Israel saw what had happened, they immediately knew that this victory was not theirs, but God’s.
Martin Luther recognized the close parallel between what he saw in the lives of the children of Israel and what he saw in his own life and the unfolding of the Reformation. He picked up the emphasis of this psalm in his life and for the life of every other Christian. Look at that first stanza.
A mighty Fortress is our God, A trusty Shield and Weapon;
He helps us free from every need, That hath us now o’ertaken.
The old evil Foe, Now means deadly woe; Deep guile and great might
Are his dread arms in fight; On earth is not his equal.
If we were to put that stanza into other words, it might be something like this: “Don’t you ever forget that your God is a mighty, saving God. Yes, the Lord is truly and always will be the believer’s Refuge and Strength. Whenever you think things are getting a little tough—or a whole lot tough—whenever questions begin to arise in your mind as to whether God really is aware of you and your problems—remember that our God is still a Mighty Fortress, a trusty Shield and Weapon against your enemies, including the most fierce: sin, death, and Satan.”
Yes, the Lord fights for us. He has freed us from every bondage that seeks to bind us for eternity. He protects us and keeps us. He was the Mighty Fortress in the times when Psalm 46 was written. He was the Mighty Fortress in the days of the Reformation when Luther wrote the hymn. He is still the Mighty Fortress today. And He will ever be such a Mighty Fortress to the ends of time and beyond.
What Good News! You see… If He is not our Shield and Weapon, then we must contend with Satan all by ourselves. We must do battle with that old evil Foe who uses his immense power and deep guile as the one-two punch of his dreadful arms. He means to cause us deadly woe. No human being on this earth—you, me, the wisest woman, the strongest man, the youngest baby, the oldest person—is equal to the task of fighting and prevailing against the old evil Foe. The second stanza begins with a reaffirmation of this truth:
With might of ours can naught be done. Soon were our loss effected;
But for us fights the Valiant One, Whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, Who is this? Jesus Christ it is, of Sabaoth Lord,
And there’s none other God; He holds the field forever.
Imagine being the children of Israel surrounded by three armies and impending doom and destruction are but hours away. Out of the depths of despair you pray: “Oh, dear God, we are lost. You are our only hope. Please deliver us!” Before Luther came to a proper understanding of the Gospel, he knew what it was like to be totally lost, too. Writing to a friend, he wrote: “I daily find myself approaching closer and still closer to hell.” And he signed this letter, “an exiled son of Adam.” But by God’s grace, Luther came to believe that he could not earn peace and forgiveness from God, but that peace and forgiveness have already been won for us through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, there were still moments in Luther’s life when he felt something very nearly like despair. Under the sentence of death by the authority of papal bull and the emperor’s decree, and under the constant spiritual assaults of the old evil foe, Luther had nowhere to turn but to the Lord. But that’s not a bad thing! With might of ours, absolutely nothing can be done to defeat our enemies. Soon would be our demise, our downfall, and our destruction. But thanks be to God, there is a Valiant One who has stepped out onto the battlefield for us!
Of course, we would never have chosen Him. A little Baby in a manger in Bethlehem? A Man from Galilee who comes armed with and as the Word of God? A bloody and beaten King who hangs naked on a cross? This is the One whom God has elected to fight the battle in our place and stand in our stead.
Do you ask, “Who is this?” Jesus Christ—the Messiah—it is. There is no other God than the Lord God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no other Savior than this Jesus, our Redeemer. He stands by us upon the plain and holds the field forever. The Valiant One fights for us, even today!
How does the Valiant One fight for us? What is His trusty shield and weapon? That’s where it gets even weirder. It’s prayer. Christ engages and defeats the enemy for us in a most unexpected way. He joins us in the battle and prays for us, just as He prayed for His apostles. So when He warns Peter that Satan will sift him like wheat, Jesus adds that He’s countered the impending attack by praying for him in advance. In John 17, we see how He prays for His disciples. The Valiant One prays for His heavenly Father to keep His disciples safe and protect them from the evil one after His death, just as He had, until then, kept them safe. Jesus defends His disciples and delivers them from the clutches of the evil one by praying to God for them.
The climax of Christ’s battle against the powers of darkness comes with His agony in Gethsemane. There He overcomes the ultimate temptation of Satan by His prayer for the ability to submit to the will of His heavenly Father—for all temptation exploits the desire to do our own will and get our own way with God. That victory in prayer is as much for us as for Him.
It is instructive that when the Gospels describe Christ’s great agony in the garden, they do not just tell how He engaged in prayer for Himself in the face of impending death; they also tell how He urges His disciples to overcome temptation by their own vigilance in prayer. Jesus gives the command, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation,” to His disciples both before and after His agony in prayer (22:40, 46). So your victory over temptation depends on His victory over temptation, the victory that He won by His prayer that the Father’s will be done through His self-sacrificial death. Through your prayer you share in His defeat of Satan because of your faith in Jesus.
The Church has always known about the importance of corporate prayer in spiritual warfare. No one has been more acutely aware of its value than Luther. He says: “Such prayer is a precious thing and a powerful defense against the devil and his assaults. For in it, all Christendom combines its forces with one accord; and the harder it prays, the more effective it is and the sooner it is heard. At the present time, for example, it is of real benefit as a defense and barrier against the many tricks which the devil might otherwise perpetrate through the members of His body. Thus it is certain that whatever still stands and endures, whether it is in the spiritual or in the secular realm, is being preserved through prayer.”
Unfortunately, much of the modern Church has forgotten this truth. The result has been a resurgence of the occult throughout the western world in many different guises. Intercessory prayer has been and still is the strongest weapon that we have here against the occult and the power of evil. It is our mightiest bulwark against Satan. When we pray for others, we join together in defending the Church and the world against the powers of darkness.
Our security in the battle and our certainty of victory comes from the intercession of Jesus for us. He, however, does not just pray for us; He gives us His own name and His own prayer that we can join with Him in praying for ourselves and for others. The Lord’s Prayer is Christ’s gift to us and all God’s children at Baptism as an essential part of our equipment for spiritual combat. It equips us for the daily combat together with Christ and His whole Church. Thus, the third stanza:
Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill, They shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still, Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none,
He’s judged, the deed is done; one little word can fell him.
The forces of evil still do a great deal of damage. The psalmist declares that the nations rage, the kingdoms totter. None will last forever. Even our own nation will one day fade into the pages of history. Perhaps much sooner than any of us could have ever imagined even only ten years ago. There are wars within and without—some physical and some spiritual—which are being carried out today. Islamic extremists seek to impose their satanic beliefs on us. Atheists seek to impose their idolatrous unbelief on us. Politicians seek to impose their immorality on us under the guise of “tolerance” and “choice.”
Even worse, the devil leads the Church to in-fighting, division, and heresy. Millions are lured into the wilderness of American spirituality, where popularity and excitement are mistaken for a move of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel is replaced with a counterfeit message of manageable Law that is supposedly more relevant to seekers than the scandalous Good News of Christ crucified for the sins of the world. The Sacraments are turned into symbols of our love and commitment to God and each other; rather than the means through which God delivers His grace. But we need not fear. None of these evil forces shall overpower us. Our God is still a Mighty Fortress! Christ, the Valiant One fights for us!
Early in the Reformation, Luther was summoned to the city of Worms to defend the faith and truth of God’s Word. He was advised by both friends and associates not to go. They were convinced that if he went, he would be arrested and put to death. They had good reason to be concerned—there was a price on his head! But Luther replied, “Even if there were more devils on the rooftops than clay shingles, I will still go to Worms and defend the truth of God’s Word.”
Such confidence does not come from individual strength within, but from the conviction that the Lord is leading one’s life even if it means death. It comes from knowing that the devil’s purposes are thwarted by one little word. What is that Word? It is no secret and it is not magic—though it is powerful, mysterious, and miraculous. One little word can refute the devil and all his works and all his ways. One little word takes you from the kingdom of darkness and transfers you to the Kingdom of God. That Word was heard from the cross. We have to translate it into three words, but in the Greek, it is one word—telestai. “It is finished!”
Spoken by Jesus as He died for us and defeated Satan for us, “It is finished” tells us the Good News of salvation being ours. In the darkness of the cross and in the silence of that awe-filled empty tomb, we see the works of the Lord. He says, “Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth! I have overcome death!” Which leads us to the fourth and final stanza:
The Word they still shall let remain, Nor any thanks have for it.
He’s by our side upon the plain, With His good gifts and Spirit.
And take they our life, Goods, fame, child, and wife, Let these all be gone,
They yet have nothing won; The Kingdom ours remaineth.
Lest you think this verse is merely pious speculation and false bravado, please imagine the following scene and pray that you never have to go through it. Imagine that you are a parent, sitting in the upper room of your home in Wittenberg. In your arms is your dying daughter, a young girl name Magdalena—your little girl you love so much. Papa Luther said with tears flowing from his eyes, “Oh, how it hurts to lose my little Maggie. But God wants her and she is His. Therefore I release her into the hands of a gracious and loving God.”
Perhaps you now get a better sense of the agony and the victory behind the words in this final stanza. I am sure that your life—like Luther’s—has not been free from the troubles and trials, which so frequently bring tears to our eyes and sorrow to our hearts. Maybe it comes in the form of illness, family troubles, or financial woes. Perhaps you too, have had to stand at the deathbed of a daughter or son, mother or father, husband or wife, feeling the burdens of life as only these can weigh down upon us. But in such times as then, and in the days that follow, those forces have not conquered you. The Kingdom remains yours! The Valiant One fights for you!
Turning to the end of Luther’s life, we find him going to Eiselben to mediate a dispute between two princes. The trip was difficult. Luther was not well, but he went anyway—working to the very end. We are told of the chest pains he had, and he knew the end was near. We are told of his standing at the window and praying, “The pain is so severe, God, but I am ready to come home to You, Father.”
And shortly before His death, when he was asked, “Brother Martin, are you willing to die in the faith that you have proclaimed?” Luther said with much gusto, “Yes, yes.” A little later he fell asleep in the Lord—into the hands of the God who is our Refuge and Strength, a very present help in trouble.
Though you may have tried to deny it, you know that the day will come when you also will cross the threshold of death, and face your God and Creator at the conclusion of your life. Maybe six months from now—maybe six years or sixty year or many more. But that day will surely come. Thanks be to God that you also have come to know and believe in a Savior who has said, “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine.”
Through His means of grace, the Holy Spirit continues to teach this truth that will set you free: The righteousness of God is yours through faith in Jesus. You have indeed have sinned and fall short of the glory of the Father, but you have been justified by His grace. You have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. The Valiant One fights for you. For His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.