When the world felt dark and scary, Martin Luther turned to ancient lyrics and used them to write his most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress.
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46: 1-2)
One of those times of darkness happened in the year 1527. A case of Bubonic plague, which was more dangerous than today’s Covid-19, was found in Luther’s town of Wittenberg, Germany. Wittenberg University was closed. Officials urged Luther to flee the city for his own safety. Luther refused. As part of his refusing, he wrote a letter now known as “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.”
We can learn a lot from Luther’s insights during our own time of trouble. For one thing, Luther urged us to be cautious. There were some in his day who ignored the real dangers and insisted that God would protect them no matter what they did, where they went, who they hugged, or what they touched. Luther denounced that way of acting and encouraged people to quarantine as a way to limit the spread, which was an unusual practice in those days.
Luther wrote, “Therefore, I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”
At the same time, it wasn’t as if Luther told people to hunker down, close the curtains, and weather the storm all on their own. It was just the opposite as he pointed out that even in a crisis Christians are called to love their neighbor. If Jesus were sick, suffering, or in need, wouldn’t we do everything we could to help him? Since Jesus IS in our neighbors, that’s all the motivation we need to care for them by picking up the phone, sending note cards, giving to food banks, giving to the church’s ministry, and however else opportunities come up.
Through it all, Luther encouraged us as Christians to turn to God in worship. By hearing God’s Word and turning to the Lord in prayer we learn how to live and how to die, how to cling to God in faith and respond to our neighbors with genuine love. To all of you at Christ Lutheran…Thank you for refusing to “flee” from others in this time of uncertainty and … for BEING the church even when the church building is closed! We as pastors only see a fraction of what you are doing, but we know that you are being the hands of Jesus in ways too numerous to count.
Even when the earth is shaken, and it has been right now, we remember that we have a God who is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Amen!
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 119–38.