Luther taught his students to preach on texts from Scripture. As he was growing up and going to university, and certainly in the cloister, he heard many sermons on biblical texts. He had also heard many sermons based on stories from the Legenda Aurea, the thirteenth century collection of “golden must-reads” (that is what “legenda” means) from the accounts of the lives and deaths of the heroic figures of Christian piety. In part, in reaction to that focus on the super-human power of the saints and their moral examples, Luther insisted on biblical teaching from the pulpit.
This did not mean, however, that his students did not understand that the biblical message has been conveyed from the Bible’s text into other literary forms. Three of these disciples, Cyriacus Spangenberg (1528-1604), who had studied with Luther and was devoted to him, Simon Pauli (1534-1591), who studied in Wittenberg after Luther’s death, and Michael Julius (1558-1605), who represents the next generation of followers of the reformer, published collections of their sermons based on hymn texts, chiefly on Luther’s hymns.
Obviously, those hymn texts have biblical roots. Still today, we urge members to use their hymnbooks as resources for daily devotions. Pastor Timothy Shoup’s recent book, Praise & Honor, Hymn-Inspired Devotions (Concordia Publishing House, 2019) models how hymn verses can draw us into meditation on God’s Word. From the pulpit we can do the same.
Still today, we urge members to use their hymnbooks as resources for daily devotions.
In this time in which many of our hearers are still in crisis mode, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), among the greatest of the masters of the art of hymn-writing, provides a rich lode for mining what Scripture says about the presence of our providing and protecting God in the midst of worlds that are shaking and even falling apart. Gerhardt knew this environment very well. Orphaned at age 14, at 30 he received news that his birthplace, Gräfenhainichen, had been sacked and leveled by Swedish troops, engaged in the Thirty Years War that touched the lives of all in the German-speaking lands. Gerhardt’s wife and four of their five children died during the course of his ministry. It was marked by sharp conflict with the “Great Elector” of Brandenburg, Friedrich Wilhelm. Although popular protests restored him to his pastorate in Berlin after his prince had removed him for his defense of the Lutheran understanding of the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, the restrictions Friedrich Wilhelm imposed upon him forced him from office. During all this, he wrote hymns such as, “If God Himself Be for Me” (Lutheran Service Book 724).
Gerhardt was facing all sorts of temporal loss and earthly opposition, but he grounded his confidence and cheer in the face of them on the saving work of Christ. It is the sacrifice and the victory of his Lord and Savior that insured his identity as God’s child. That identity remained despite the battering of self and self-confidence that comes from danger, thirst, hunger, pain, poverty, a tyrant’s wrath, fire, sword, and thunder; one lightning bolt could burn down a village once the fire started to spread from thatched roof to thatched roof. None of these could separate Paul Gerhard from his Lord (stanza 8). No angel, no happiness, no political power exercised from a throne nor its pomp, no love or hate, no sadness, pain, or depth of woe could destroy Gerhardt’s foundational joy even though he experienced at least the latter emotions of this list. He knew altogether too well the scheming, contrivances, and subtleties of Friedrich Wilhelm and the ecclesiastical as well as political authorities in Brandenburg. But that was not about to separate him from God’s love in Christ Jesus (stanza 9). He took Paul’s exultant and triumphal cry in Romans 8:35-39 and expanded it from his own encounters with life at his point in history.
Therefore, Gerhardt’s heart was leaping in celebration even as enemy’s human, viral, meteorological, and emotional attacked. Christ was lighting up his life, and, as Debby Boone once sang, that gave him, “hope to carry on,” because Christ can fill our days and nights with melodies of jubilation and cheer. Jesus provided the foundation for Gerhardt’s life and for ours. He serves as sun and light alone, our salvation and eternal good and our absolutely rust-resistant, inedible (by moths) treasure (Matthew 6:19-20). His light banishes the darkness that besets us when the clouds of harassment and defiance or the darkness of pandemic and death itself overshadow earthly sources of joy. More fundamental than his defense of us against our earthly enemies, Jesus defends us as our Mediator before the very throne of God and the wrath that hates our violation and pollution of His gift of our humanity. This not only quiets and heals guilty consciences but also sets aside fears of death and judgment. The blood of God Incarnate has cleansed us and makes completely clean! That bestows courage for the day despite and in the face of adversaries of all kinds (stanzas 2-4).
Gerhardt’s heart was leaping in celebration even as enemy’s human, viral, meteorological, and emotional attacked.
Paul called our faith a shield against the fiery darts of Satan, in Ephesians 6:16, and that faith is obviously faith in the One whom Gerhardt calls our shield in stanza five of his hymn. From one side our recognition of the justice of God’s condemnation hurls one of the devil’s arrows at us. It bounces off Christ’s resurrection that has brought us new life. His death in our place fends off the arrow of Satan’s claim on us since the judgment of the Law on our sin has already been executed on Jesus as He hung on Golgotha’s tree of death, the sacrificial lamb whose life was given to shove our sins into His tomb. He has stolen from us the sentence of the Law and He has stolen us from the lordship of the Devil, as Luther emphasized in the Large Catechism’s treatment of the second article of the Creed. Guilt has given way to peace through Christ Himself, the author and restorer of Eden’s shalom.
Stanza six reflects Gerhard’s experience with the harassment, intimidation, and removal from office by the Great Elector. Persecution is simply what believers in Christ expect. After all, Satan is fighting a rear-guard battle against the advance of the Kingdom of Christ. It makes him mad as he can be! Mockery, shame, and loss, plagues, and crosses, become the regular fare of those who pray that God’s Kingdom may come to us and through us. For God’s rule takes place when, “…our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that through His grace we believe His Holy Word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity,” as Luther was wont to pray—and his children, too.
Gerhardt’s experiences may in many ways indeed seem rather foreign to our daily life in North America in this third decade of the twenty-first century. But he captured in this hymn the actual experiences of many as well as the temper our time and the reactions we have to it. Through his eyes we may see our own world from another—and perhaps not so different—vantage point that illuminates the impact of the work of Christ and the general providing and protecting activity of our Creator in our lives.
If the preacher is not as comfortable as were Spangenberg, Pauli, and Julius to mount the pulpit with only a poet’s words as text, he can always find a pre-text in the Bible passages, for instance, cited in Gerhardt’s “If God Himself Be for Me.” The point is to reap the fruitful harvests available in our hymnic tradition for words that speak to us from other eras—or from the rich hymnody provided by contemporaries like Jaroslav Vajda and Stephen Starke—with the deft ear and lively imagination of the bard. These poets are also gifts of God, and it is only good homiletical stewardship to use them for all they are worth.