Immanuel Lutheran Reformation Konzertreihe
- Date: Saturday, September 16, 2017
- Speaker: Peter Eckardt
Sermon for Reformation Konzertreihe Washington Bach Consort performance of BWV 80,
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, Saturday, September 16, 2017
Rev. Peter J. Eckardt
What do you picture when you hear the word fortress? What comes to mind?
I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you, when you hear the word fortress, think of one of the
many nearby military forts (Fort Belvoir, Fort Myer, Fort Washington…). Maybe a fictional
fortress comes to mind like Tolkein’s Helm’s Deep. Or maybe when you hear fortress you think
of your own home, or a room within your home – your bedroom, or a man-cave. Or maybe
thinking of forts and fortresses bring you back to when you used to build blanket forts in the
living room with your siblings.
If you’re like me, however, the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word fortress
is a medieval castle somewhere in Germany. And not a little castle or manor, Schloss in
German, but I’m picturing a Burg, a fortress, a massive, stone structure built on the top of a
mountain, with thick walls all around, and those narrow openings at the top for the archers,
a heavy drawbridge at the entrance. In fact, probably because I was just there this summer, I
have a very specific fortress in mind, the Wart-burg, the impenetrable Wartburg Castle built
on the hills outside of Eisenach, Germany.
In any case, a fortress must be someplace safe and secure, strong, able to keep enemies at
bay, a place of refuge from the battles that rage without. That’s what a fortress is. And we all
need them, and we have various versions of them—people or places we turn to when scared
or in trouble, when overwhelmed with the assaults and attacks of this fallen world, of our
own sinful nature, and of the devil himself.
And I’m guessing that when Martin Luther penned the words of his famous Reformation
hymn, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, “A mighty fortress is our God,” that he had a picture of the
Wartburg in mind as well. He had spent almost a year there in hiding, in 1521 and 1522,
having been declared a heretic by the pope and an outlaw by the emperor. And why?
Because of his theological teachings, foremost among them that salvation is by faith alone, in
Jesus Christ alone, and not by works, and that the Holy Scriptures alone are sufficient in to
reveal Christ to those who hear and read them, without the interpretation of the pope or
councils. The Wartburg Castle kept Luther safe from bodily harm while he devoted all his
time and energy to studying the Scriptures and to prayer. It’s during that time that he
translated the entire New Testament from Greek into German.
So the Wartburg was a meaningful fortress for Luther, yet he wrote, “A mighty fortress is our
God.” For even as Luther was holed up in the Wartburg, he was under constant assault. The
devil tormented him daily, reminding him of all his sins and inadequacies, causing him to
doubt his salvation and his standing before a righteous and holy God. It was not the mighty
Wartburg that became His refuge but God Himself, revealed to Him in the clear words of
Luther’s hymn is based on Psalm 46, a beautiful psalm of comfort in the midst of adversity
and trouble. I’ll read for you a few of its verses which inspired Luther’s hymn:
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
Though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
And twice the psalm declares:
The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge.
Luther expounds on that final phrase in his hymn and on who exactly this God is that saves
and defends us. “Ask ye, who is this? Jesus Christ it is, of Sabaoth Lord, and there’s none
other God.” A great many things, people, or places can serve as your fortresses in this
fleeting earthly life, but there is only the one true God who can be your refuge and strength
in all eternity. And that God is the Lord Jesus Christ, who came to earth to battle Satan, to
take our sins upon himself and to suffer and die to make atonement for them. Rising from
the dead on the third day, he conquered death and hell and won eternal life for all who
This message is the clear testimony of all the Scriptures, and this was Luther’s firm
conviction as he sought to lead the church out of error and into the light of the Gospel 500
years ago. And two hundred years after Luther, this was the firm conviction of Johann
Sebastian Bach, born in 1685 in that city of Eisenach, just down the hill from the mighty
Wartburg. He too likely had a picture of that fortress in his mind as composed his great
cantata on Luther’s hymn, cantata no. 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.
The cantata we are about to hear Bach composed for the celebration of the Reformation
during his famous tenure in Leipzig as the Kantor of the Thomaskirche. He had composed a
shorter version of this cantata several years earlier, perhaps in Weimar, to be sung on the
Third Sunday in Lent, since Luther’s hymn was the appointed hymn of the day for that
Sunday, the Gospel text being the passage in Luke 11 where Jesus casts out a demon, is then
accused of having a demon, and responds: If I cast out demons by Beelzebub, then Satan’s
house is divided and a house divided against itself cannot stand, “but if I cast out demons by
the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
But at St. Thomas in Leipzig it was the strict practice that there be no choral or instrumental
music during Lent. But the festival of the Reformation was a hugely celebrated event every
year in Leipzig, so that occasion presented itself to Bach as the perfect occasion to use and
expand his cantata on Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. The cantata is considered by many to be his
very greatest. One commentator put it, “It is in a sense the ultimate Lutheran piece, the
grand climax of Lutheran music.”
Bach got Lutheranism. He got the Gospel. The evangelical proclamation that man is justified
before God not by his own will or works but by faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, permeates
his sacred choral works. They’re masterfully imbued with figures and motifs of sin and
salvation, penitence and grace, the cross and the sacraments. Like Luther, Bach’s first priority
was to the Word of God and to Jesus Christ revealed therein.
Bach is known universally as one of the greatest composers of all time, but it’s often
overlooked that his greatness as a composer was inextricably linked to his being a devout
churchman and Lutheran, a man who believed with all his heart the words he so powerfully
set to music.
Bach lived in a fallen, sinful world same as you and I, same as Luther, same as the author of
Psalm 46. Bach was beset by earthly and spiritual enemies, as are we all, suffering through a
great number of personal tragedies that no doubt tested his faith. Like all of us, Bach too
was in need of a refuge, a strong fortress to defend and save him, to defeat the evil prince of
this world and all his horde. The cantata we are about to hear leaves no doubt that Bach’s
strong fortress was the same as Luther’s and every Christian’s: Jesus Christ, Lord of Hosts.
Before we hear Bach’s inspired treatment of Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott in cantata no. 80,
please join in singing the bold Reformation hymn by Martin Luther. Hymn 656 in the