By Paul Koch –
What an incredible week it was here at Grace Lutheran Church! A week of great stories, and games, and food, and songs, and fun. It was, of course, Vacation Bible School this past week and the theme was outstanding. This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the great Reformation of the church. Martin Luther is the center figure in that work, as we think of him standing before the Holy Roman Emperor confessing that he would not be moved from the Word of God. Luther’s most famous hymn was “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” in which we sing, “Let this world’s tyrant rage; in battle we’ll engage. His might is doomed to fail; God’s judgement must prevail! One little word subdues him.” It was just that, that trust in God’s work that defined our VBS theme: A Mighty Fortress.
So, the stories from Scripture were those of God providing victory for His people, time and time again. We heard about the crumbling wall of Jericho, as the Israelites marched around the city and blew their horns and God gave them victory. We read about the ancient King Hezekiah who didn’t compromise his faith and trust in the Word of God that proclaimed victory over his enemies. Then, we got to know another king of Judah, King Josiah, who discovered the Word of God as they were cleaning up the Temple. That Word brought new hope and new life to a kingdom that had fallen into sin and shame. The Word of God caused him to tear his garments in repentance, and cling to the mercy of God alone for any hope. Mercy, is exactly what our God gave to him.
From the Old Testament, we moved to the New. We celebrated with our Lord as He entered victoriously into the city of Jerusalem, humble and riding on a donkey. As the Son of God rode into His own city, the great cry went up, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” In Christ, we saw the eternal King, who will not forsake or abandon His children. But of course, we couldn’t end there. No, the theme was a Mighty Fortress. The focus was on our victory in Christ alone. That victory doesn’t come just in the ancient stories of the conquest and defense of the land, or even in the triumphant entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. True victory is obtained by suffering, blood, and resurrection. Eternal victory is found at the cross and through the empty tomb.
All of this serves as a powerful reminder to us of just who we are in the gifts of Christ. This delivers an incredible amount of confidence in the living of our lives. You see, the message that is declared to you is that you are free in Christ; you are victorious. Not just that you will be victorious sometime in the future, or that you hope to have victory. But rather, despite what you may see or how you may feel, you are actually given victory even now – right now – in Christ alone.
At times, the struggles that you face and the trials that you endure make this gift, this freedom, this victory a difficult thing to see. To start, it is difficult to hear about victory when your life is still mired in the battle. Maybe you had doubt and worries about your future, about your financial stability, about your relationships, about those whom you have hurt and those who have hurt you. That pain is real and profound. Sure, you pray to our Lord. You cry out to Him for some aid and comfort. But the words of your freedom don’t seem to make much sense. For this life often seems like anything but a victory. I often worry about those who struggle with depression. Depression, particularly, seems to control what a person hears. And so, when things seem dark and hopeless, they can’t make out the words of hope and life and love and promise.
When your life doesn’t match the victory of which Christ speaks, when it is much easier to find the failure and the struggle in each passing day, you may begin to wonder about those promises of God. You may begin to ask “Where are you, O Lord? Where are you for me? For my pain, my suffering, my fears?” This is when the real danger begins. Not that you ask the questions. No, they are good and faithful questions. It’s when you begin to provide your own answers that things take a turn for the worse.
When you can’t see the victory, when you begin to doubt that it is really yours or that you possess it even now, why then, you begin to try and conjure it up on your own. You turn to your own actions, your own knowledge, your own desires to try and find a way to the victory. Perhaps you examine your own life and search out the problem. Perhaps there are things that are gumming up the works, your pride or selfishness. It could be those wicked thoughts that no one else knows, the lust, or the pride, or the grudges you hold. And so, you think that if you just worked through these things and if you straightened them out, then you would actually enjoy the victory that our Lord promised. On the other hand, some of you may not want to focus on cleaning up the sin in your life. Instead you’ll try and overcome it by engaging in the right activities. You’ll pray a little more, and read your Bible more, and come to church more frequently. You’ll try and do the things a Christian ought to be doing in hopes that you will find the victorious life of which Christ speaks.
And the danger is that we begin to focus on ourselves as the means by which we will arrive at the victory. Your actions, your desires, or your righteousness becomes the key to obtaining victory. But within man, there is no strength, there is no eternal victory. For sin runs throughout: the good that you desire will never be perfectly done and the evil from which you flee you will always long to take up again. This is not freedom, and it certainly isn’t victory!
Instead, let us embrace the words of St. Paul. He says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:56-57) Thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Victory is located in the same place that it has always been. Not in your effort, not in your righteous deeds, not in your good intentions but in Christ alone.
This is how complete our Mighty Fortress is. For the God who calls you by name, who knows your deeds, knows your failures, knows your sins and your fears, He has declared that in Christ you are free. For Christ has lived the perfect life. Christ has not wavered in His faithfulness and Christ embraced your sin as His own. He died for those sins. He paid the price. Your sins, you see, are already atoned for. You, then, are not some weak link in the fortress. You are safely inside of it, secured by the blood of Christ alone.
So, what do we do when life seems to demonstrate that we are anything but free, anything but victorious? Well, for starters we don’t turn inward to our own efforts to make it so. Rather we need the exact opposite. We need the proclamation of the promises of Christ. We need the Word and the Sacraments, the tools of our salvation. We need them echoing in our ears so that the promise might make its way into our hearts again. Now, this isn’t some act of magic or wishful thinking. No, this is what happens when you gather alongside brothers and sisters in Christ. You become the bearers of this hope. What I have been called to speak to you today, you then are called to speak to each other. So that no matter how bleak it gets, no matter how painful the suffering or deep the depression, the unchanging proclamation of victory still shines through.
The promise of Christ is so sure, so strong, so complete that it frees you to speak this victory to others. You can love and forgive because you have been loved and forgiven. So, go ahead and do it. Proclaim this victory to your families, to your children, and to your grandchildren. Speak it again and again as you continue to say with St. Paul, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”