Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Bulwark Never Failing

Happy Reformation Sunday! In honor of Martin Luther, here are some thoughts on his most famous hymn, as translated by Frederick Hedge:

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood 
of mortal ills prevaling. 
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.

We need God. We need God's love, we need God's grace, and we need God's protection. On our own we are not enough. We cannot walk on this path around which "the world, the flesh, and Satan dwell" ("Be Thou My Guardian and My Guide," Isaac Williams) without God's guidance and help. God is our high ground that does not wash away. God is our fortress that will never fail, for the darkness has never overcome the light.
(Reasons I love this translation, apart from familiarity: the word bulwark. It's so great!)

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? 
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name, 
from age to age the same, 
and he must win the battle.

This is the verse I think of the most. The first two lines highlight our weakness. Our strength is not sufficient. We would strive, and we would lose. But it's in the conditional tense. We don't have to strive and lose because of the next two lines. God chose the right man - a man who is God - to be on our side. When our strength comes from Christ, we can do anything. Our striving is not losing. We do not work in vain.

And through all time, that will hold true. Christ does not change. Christ was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, so if we stay in Christ, our work will never be in vain. "Lord Sabaoth" is God who leads the armies, and our Lord will always win the battle. Christ is victorious. We have been delivered from slavery to sin; we are atoned.

And though this world, with devils filled, 
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed 
his truth to triumph through us. 
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

Look at the change from the first verse! The ancient foe may have great "craft and power" and may be the equal of none on earth, but the one who fights for us is God. We need not fear because the "Prince of Darkness" is far weaker than God, who is on our side. "One little word shall fell him." That's it. What is there to fear, then?

There's one other part of this that I love: "God hath willed his truth to triumph through us." God's truth not only triumphs, but it triumphs through us -- through the Church, through the Body, through us living in love and faith even in a "world with devils filled." God is Love, and when we live in love, we live as God's children, made in the image of God. In this love there is no fear.

That word above all earthly powers, 
no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours, 
thru him who with us sideth.  
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill;
God's truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.

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