—Preached by Oswald Bayer on the third to last Sunday of the Church Year (November 9, 2014) at the beginning of the ecumenical “Friedensdekade.”
Translated by Rev. Aaron Hambleton.
In a power struggle there is a struggle over power. Who wins? Chaos or the cosmos? Do conditions and equilibrium remain stable? Do the waters of chaos remain tamed? Or do they break forth so that in the end it is said, “And the earth was without form and void?” There is sufficient reason to fear. Who can truly say, “I am not afraid, ‘though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though the sea rages and foams and the mountains quake from its surging?’” Who can truly say, “I am not afraid, though the earth shakes, though a tsunami bury me in its surging and raging, though lightning strike me, though water drown me, though a boulder kill me in the mountains, though deep depression attack me, though cancer devour me?
Of course it’s not only the voracious maw of nature that threatens. It’s also the powers of history. The social and political power struggles, the surges and waves of the peoples’ bloody turmoils of war, are like the surging and raging of nature. So says Isaiah about the chaos of history, “They thunder like the thundering of the sea! Ah, the roar of nations; they roar like the roaring of mighty waters! The nations roar like the roaring of many waters” (Is 17:12). That is historical reality. And the reality of world history is that it is a struggle of every man against every man, in life and death, to the point of mutual recognition. The affairs of people with each other does not always happen in peaceful exchanges–in conversation and compromise–rather it often painfully ends in the breaking off of communication; in murder, terror, and war; or at worst in genocide. What the Hutu and Tutsi peoples have done is not the only of its kind, rather it reveals the havoc, that threatens each and every one of us from within.
No one can say that our Psalm is deluded concerning the world in which we live. It sees the world with radical sobriety, as it truly is: extremely endangered, threatened by the powers of chaos–the hostile powers of perdition. The world of nature and history does not consist by itself. It has in and of itself no stability. It is therefore untrustworthy.
Last–but not least–my own self, formed by nature and history, lacks stability. The text does not explicitly speak of this. Yet we know this unreliable fellow from our own experience, as they also have their say in many Psalms–which know of people’s self-endangerment; of their fickle hearts, their foolhardy defiance, and abysmal despondency; and of situations, in which we are completely at loss and in which we find ourselves up to the neck. Psalm 69 laments, “The waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me” (Ps 69:1).
Is there a power that resists such a deadly threat, such a destruction of life, such deserts and voids, such an aggressive Nothing? Is there a power that destroys this destruction? Definitively: is there a strongman, “who on the earth brings about such [holy, redemptive] destruction, who makes wars cease to the end of the earth,” who, “shatters bow and smashes spears and burns [war]chariots with fire?” Is there such a strongman, such a power? Certainly there are but only in hints–such as in the UN. We must not make light of the power and effort of our reason. Yet the anxious question still remains for the one who does not take this lightly: Will there ever be a final ending of war, an everlasting peace? Is it not a delusion, that we entertain the idea of an everlasting peace in the orientation of our acting as the necessary postulate of reason, which allows and causes the progress toward the goal of an everlasting peace? This is particularly important to ask today at the beginning of the ecumenical Friedensdekade.
Our Psalm can therefore speak only so radically and unadorned of the threat of our life in this world, because the Psalm does not allow it the last just as the first word. Its absolute first word is “God”: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear…” So, from the start, this becomes the unwavering grounds of trust; the grounds of defiance against all threat; namely, the grounds, which above all want to be loved. And yet they also want to be sought after and requested, as Luther does in the face of impending war in 1529 with his prayer for peace, “Graciously grant us peace, Lord God, in our time. There is indeed none other who could fight for us than you, our God, alone,” (EG 421).
There is only one, who fights in the struggle over power in favor of life, and who effectively and finally takes a stand against chaos and war. He did not do this in a distant, intangible past and does not do this (perhaps) in distant, intangible future. He does this here and now: “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation,” (2 Cor. 6:2 ESV). He does this here and now, in the present and at a particular place: in Jerusalem.
According to our Psalm, in counteraction and contradiction to the unstable Flood, which broke all orderliness, God established an eternal city. The epitome of stability, the cosmic, as well as social, order: Jerusalem, the city of peace, as its name already says. The second verse of the Psalm offers a contrasting picture to that of the first verse, it could not be any sharper or clearer: there the flaring, life destroying wave; here the controlled, soft flowing and life sparing water—in Luther’s translation: the fountain [Brünnlein] (cf. Ps 65:10)—there the chaos, here the cosmos created by God; there insecurity, here safety; there corruption, here salvation: “Creation” as foundation and preservation of community.
Jerusalem is “the city of God,” “there is the saints habitation in the highest,” “there God is with her.” He has taken up residence in this city and her temple, only in Jerusalem, nowhere else. He has laid himself there in freedom, to let his name dwell only in her before all, yet only to allow himself to be found in His name. His name is the pledge and gift to be, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Ex 34:6, ESV). Overall there, where He and His name are heard aloud, is Jerusalem. This Jerusalem is certainly not the earthly Jerusalem, that in our days is without peace, divided, and contested, rather the heavenly, to us coming, and future Jerusalem, for which God is designer and builder (Heb 11:10). It is not the dwelling place of God that we build for him; it is rather the place of grace, the mercy seat, which he built for us, in which he became Man and dwelt among us (John 1:14). This “new” (Rev 3:12; 21:2) Jerusalem is not built by our hands from here to heaven like the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). It is rather God’s work alone, which comes here from above (Rev 3:12; 21:2; Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22), given to us from heaven and is presented: the Kingdom of God, God in his power, as mere gift!
We have heard of the coming of the Kingdom of God: “Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, [Jesus] answeredthem, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, “Look, there!” or, “Look, here!” for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you,” (Lk 17:20). The kingdom of God is not seen, rather it is heard.
I am in the midst of you; the heavenly Jerusalem has already come to earth in me. “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you,” (Lk 11:20). I fight for you against evil, chaos, nothing. “Be still and know that I am God,” the Lord of Sabaoth, the Lord of angelic hosts, the Almighty, I—Jesus Christ.
Is this claim then not absurd? Crazy? The Almighty, “who makes wars cease in all the earth, who breaks the bow and shatters the spear; who burns war chariots with fire,” should this powerful prince of peace be identical with the powerless child in the manger and the powerless man on the cross? Should the fullness of God live dwell bodily (Col 2:9) in this, a finite and mortal man? The creator of heaven and earth, whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain in all its might, should he be identical with a creature, with this Jesus of Nazareth? The creator of heaven and earth, whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain in all its might, should he come to us here and now in a measly bite of bread and a tiny sip of wine and make his home with us (John 14:23)? Should here and now a single “little word” of a human preaching him decide the struggle for power and make ultimate peace?
Yes, a single, inconspicuous, poor word derails, the whole chaotic demon, the “old evil” foe of life with his great might and many tricks (with which no man can compete): “one little word can fell him.”
Obviously, the struggle for power will be fought and decided with completely unequal means: the raging sea will not be subdued through an even more terrible power, rather through gently flowing water; the terrible war will not be abolished through an even more terrible war, rather through God’s defenseless name of his mercy, through the inconspicuous, poor “little word” of an incarnated and crucified man, in whom God unattractively, indecently–scandalously–took up residence thus he became the eternal Jerusalem.
This Jesus Christ is himself the motherly city, which rescues and protects me–as the hen her brood (Mt 23:37). “Though Satan would devour me,” says his powerful word and lets “angel guards sing o’er me: ‘This child of God shall meet no harm,’ ” (LSB 880:4).
In this strong city Jerusalem you are motherly safe and sound in time and eternity. I, the Merciful One, am your trust and strength, help in greatest need, which have assailed you. Therefore be not afraid, though fear boils and bubbles like the primordial flood and robs you of consciousness. Therefore be not afraid, though you no longer understand and the great hope, which you had, sinks in the sea, though the most beloved person be taken from you and you are in danger of falling into nothingness. I, the Merciful One, am your trust and strength, help in the greatest need, which have assailed you.
Be still and know that I am God, your trust and strength, the Lord Sabaoth, “and there’s none other God,” (LSB 656:2). Trust in me! Me—and no other gods.
What does this say–today, at the beginning of the Friedensdekade? We have even heard the great “Be not afraid!” of the eternal Jerusalem and less it—Lord willing—lives and reigns in our hearts. Be still, let the hands sink in, we can and should, because God alone fights for us (Ex 14:14). “With might of ours can naught be done, Soon were our loss effected” (LSB 656:2). Yet this state of peace is full of power: “The hands that in prayer are resting, those he makes strong in acting” (EG 457:11).
The action of delivering earthly freedom, which is grounded in the state of peace and prayer, first lies in the dedication for a sober view of the world, in which we live. Its unfathomable endangerment and the struggle of the gods can’t be ignored. Despite the help of God “early in the morning,” on easter morning, and his triumph over death and powers hostile to life, these are–alas–not simply wiped away. As if no gods and lords with their threats and promises press us (1 Cor 8:5)! And so struggle and strife remain—up to the consummation of the world, in which we are no longer attacked living in faith and in hope, but the peace, which is believed in and hoped for, without attack and complaint and becoming aware in a wonderful way, that since Easter morning death is overcome, the bow is broken, the spears shattered, the [war]chariots burned with fire, in short: war is abolished; “now is great peace unceasing, all strife at last is ended,” (EG 179:1).
In the Jerusalem-faith of this peace, that has already been established, we may and should also now dare to seek intensively after the possibilities of political dealings, which are in the movement and direction of that already established peace, after the possibilities of the kingdom of God, which lie in the one who has already come, Jesus Christ. Indeed such possibilities are in the inner mundane fight that still remains to be realized under the conditions of the torn, earthly Jerusalem, the fight of every man against every man in life and death. Thereby we painfully experience that the temporal regiment of God is still in no ways identical with his spiritual and that a puristic pacifism in the face of the still lurking wolves cannot be in the will of God. Because it is God’s will that we protect the life of those who have been given into our care—and in the most extreme case with legitimate force. Yet precisely for this reason we always take part in the old world of the earthly Jerusalem and her conflict.
Can this participation persevere without resignation or cynicism? Yes, in the trust that the “old, evil” foe—the foe who rages throughout history even to this day–does not win; the trust that “the kingdom ours remaineth,” (LSB 656:4); the kingdom must remain his: his, the child in the manger, his, the man on the cross. This trust in the new Jerusalem—the trust in the eternal city of God—is understood by no ways by itself. For that reason we can now ask and sing: “Give us peace by your grace…” For that reason we can ask and sing every evening with our children and grandchildren: “Lord Jesus, since You love me, now spread Your wings above me and shield me from alarm. Though Satan would devour me, let angel guards sing o’er me: ‘This child of God shall meet no harm,’” (LSB 880:4). Amen
As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy