Rita. Katrina. Mitch. Andrew. These are all seemingly ordinary, harmless names. But when mixed with sustained winds of a category one, two, or three hurricanes, pounding rain bands, and a towering storm surge to top it all off, those ordinary names become infamous, violent storms. Storms like these change the world, change the landscape. Rivers plume and floods leaving their banks. Levees break, spilling into flood plains. Landslides move mountains and hillsides with the speed of a toddler spreading out his toys.
In a matter of minutes, storms change people as well and often for generations to come. Just ask anyone that lives in Tornado Alley or hurricane country. Towns and bridges wash away in the torrent leaving people stranded, homeless, or worse. Thriving communities are wiped off the map. Lives and livelihoods are ruined in a catastrophic blink of an eye.
Not all violent storms create a path of destruction, however. At least one storm in history left not destruction but a reformation in its wake. On July 2, 1505, Martin Luther was nearing the end of his journey after visiting his parents. He was walking from Mansfeld back to Erfurt, where he had begun his studies to become a lawyer a little over a month prior. Near the town of Stotternheim, the clouds darkened. The winds picked up. Thunder clapped. Lightning flashed. Luther found himself in the middle of an early summer thunderstorm, not uncommon in east-central Germany.
“Like the North American prairies, east-central Germany can pour down some vicious weather, with enough thunder and lightning to make it seem like the whole world is inescapably ablaze. Luther was on foot one day, near the town of Stotternheim, when he got caught in a torrent. The storm outside matched the conflict raging within himself. Overwhelmed, caught up in his terrors once more, he cried out for protection to the patron saint of miners, ‘St. Anne, help me, I will become a monk.’” (James A. Nestingen. Martin Luther: A Life. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. P. 13, 2003)
In time, this storm would give way to political, ecclesiastical, and theological changes in the landscape of Germany, the western church of the 16th century, and far beyond. Generations and generations have been affected by this storm and its after effect: the great rediscovery of the gospel by Luther in the Reformation.
But all of that was far from Luther’s mind in 1505, nearly twelve years before he wrote the ninety-five theses and several more before he would mature into the pastor, theologian, and reformer we celebrate today. Historians differ on what was going through Luther’s mind as he took this leave of absence from law school. This was no stroll around the neighborhood, but a preplanned, purposeful journey, a quest you might say. Of what? That is the million-gilder question. What thoughts clouded Luther’s mind as he walked from Mansfeld to Erfurt?
Perhaps he had already been wrestling with his decision to go to law school. This pleased his father Hans. But did it please Luther? Perhaps thoughts of his recent completion of a master’s degree filled his mind. Perhaps Luther was battling his own anfechtung, the German word he used to describe his suffering, despair, and anguish. Perhaps, like many in Luther’s day, spiritual and personal matters weighed heavily on his mind as well. More than likely, though, it was a tempest of all of these thoughts and more. Luther’s heart and mind were a convergence zone.
St. Anne, however, could not help Luther. Only Christ could do what Luther asked: “Help me.”
But the eye of the storm for Luther dwelt the fears that are common to us all. One’s own mortality. One’s sinfulness. God’s holiness. Punishment. Fear. God the almighty judge. These were common thoughts for Luther and many in the medieval period. Luther’s fears gave way to dread. Dread gave way to anxiety. Anxiety gave way to despair. As Jonathan Edwards would later write, Luther considered himself a sinner in the hands of an angry God. That’s at least part of the reason he cried out to St. Anne in the storm. If Christ was an almighty, holy judge, surely the patron saint of miners would come to his aid.
St. Anne, however, could not help Luther. Only Christ could do what Luther asked: “Help me.” And he did, even though Luther’s misguided, misunderstood vow to become a monk, which he eventually made when he joined the black cloister of the Augustinians on July 17, 1505.
Like storms past and present, this storm changed Luther and, in time, changed the world for generations to come. Like Elijah in the cave, however, it was not the raging winds over Stotternheim that ultimately changed Luther, though God used that storm to set him on a new course. Rather, it was the still small, Spirit-filled voice of Jesus in the Scriptures that soothed, consoled, and brought joy to Luther’s troubled conscience. Through the Psalms, prophets, and letters of Paul, through his lectures, teaching, and preaching, Luther came to see that he was not alone in the storm, but rather that God was in the storm with him.
Through Martin Luther, God would unleash a far greater storm than the one which overwhelmed Luther on July 2, 1505. God caused a good storm to fall upon the heart and mind of Luther and those who heard, and still hear, his teaching and preaching that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ crucified for sinners. In time, Luther discovered that the gospel was an EF 5 tornado swirling with comfort and consolation of the free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. And this gracious storm fell upon the consciences of people long stricken by the thundering judgment of the law. In the years following this July storm, God hurled a category five hurricane of good news, comfort, and grace in Christ crucified right down on Luther and the church. Many faithful, baptized believers, whose consciences had been buffeted by long years of the church’s penitential system and its storm surge of legalism and works righteousness finally felt the relief in hearing the good news that Christ is their redeemer, and their shelter in the storm.
At Stotternheim, Luther saw God in the storm. What he later came to realize, though, was that the God he feared as inexorable and untouchable is the very same God who was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary to reveal his inexhaustible love for sinners. The same God who Luther feared in the storm was the same God who brought down the most violent storm of judgment upon his own Son on the cross for Luther, for you, and for all. The same God to whom Luther made vows to as he entered the monastery was the very same God who vowed from all eternity to save Luther and to save you. There on a mountain, the sky darkened. The clouds enveloped Jesus on the cross. A tempest swirled about him, the maelstrom of sin and death. And then, three days later, the eternal calm after the storm. The tomb was empty. Christ is risen. Death is ruined. Our sin is wiped out and washed downstream. All of Luther’s fear, despair, sin, dread of death, and judgment - along with ours - was swallowed up by the storm of the centuries, Jesus’ death and resurrection for you.