A Mormon Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Delivered in church on October 31, 2010*

By 1528 at the latest Martin Luther had written the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, number 68 in our hymn book, as a homily on Psalm 46. The words to this hymn always turn my thoughts to Luther’s experience in taking refuge in the mighty Wartburg fortress at Eisenach in the German principality of Thuringia in 1521. We can imagine Luther reflecting on his isolation while sequestered in that fortress, in disguise as a knight for his own protection, as he later penned the words.

Martin Luther took refuge in the Wartburg near Eisenach in Thuringia in 1521

I am grateful that we sang this hymn today as our intermediate hymn — it was no coincidence. Nearly five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, the eve of All Saints’ Day, Martin Luther conspicuously nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg. These 95 points identified significant ways in which Luther believed that the Christianity of his day (represented by the Roman Catholic Church) had deviated from the early Christian church originally established by Jesus Christ and developed by the New Testament apostles, particularly Paul. The recent invention of the printing press a few decades earlier facilitated the unprecedentedly rapid dissemination of Luther’s theses not only throughout Germany but the rest of Europe as well, unintentionally provoking accusations of heresy and eventually Luther’s excommunication in January 1521.

Luther’s reformist religious ideas quickly became a political matter as powerful members of the German nobility embraced his teachings and took him under their protection following the excommunication. The Protestant Reformation began to form out of Luther’s ideas, especially his tracts and essays written in response to criticisms of his reformist ideas.

The stakes were high for Luther and others in speaking their conscience on these religious matters. Luther’s refuge in the Wartburg fortress very likely saved his life following the Edict of Worms issued by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, in May 1521. The fortress dominates the top of a 1,230 foot cliff and is all but impregnable from three sides because of its perch upon this massive rock. This strategic position provided relative safety from those who intended Luther harm. It was during this time in the Wartburg that Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, which in a certain sense laid some of the groundwork for the Restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith hundreds of years later because it had the effect of making the common people more intimately engaged with the scriptures in their own personal lives. But we also know from his letters that Luther endured some of his darkest times while in hiding in the Wartburg fortress. He described the experience as being his own personal desert.

Based on this description, it seems that the isolation and threat of danger under which Luther resided for nearly a year in the Wartburg became what we could perhaps describe as a “dark night of the soul” for Luther. The “dark night of the soul” has long been a recognized part of our spiritual journey in the Christian tradition. The concept appears to have been given this name by St. John of the Cross in the Sixteenth Century. But we are familiar with the Savior’s own dark night of the soul in Gethsemane and on the Cross. Gethsemane was a prelude when he pleaded with the Father that the cup might be taken from him and received the support of angels. Later, on the Cross, he was left without such support and revealed his sense of abandonment as he cried “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in the culminating event of the Atonement.

Christ atoned for us so that we will not have to suffer for our own sins if we accept his sacrifice through faith and repentance and signal this faith and repentance through receiving the ordinance of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. His divine nature made the crisis he experienced during the atoning sacrifice unique to him alone. But it seems that in our own spiritual journey through life each of us inevitably will face a dark night of the soul that is perhaps also unique to each of us, based on our own unique perceptions of the world around us and our experiences.

If a dark night of the soul (or multiple dark nights of the soul) is indeed a necessary part of our individualized spiritual journey toward a closer, more permanent union with God and eventual exaltation as joint-heirs with Christ, perhaps the reason is that if we have not become acquainted with or come to grips with our own fallen, unfixable and corrupted nature, we cannot claim to have truly felt Christ’s grace, either.

We find evidence of this in the writings of Nephi, one of the greatest of the Book of Mormon prophets. In the “Psalm of Nephi”, Nephi describes this experience as follows:

17 Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
18 I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
19 And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.
20 My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep.
21 He hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh.

[...]

25 And upon the wings of his Spirit hath my body been carried away upon exceedingly high mountains. And mine eyes have beheld great things, yea, even too great for man; therefore I was bidden that I should not write them.

[...]

34 O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.
35 Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God. Amen. (2 Nephi 4:17-21; 25; 34-35)

Nephi describes how the Spirit has carried him to the heights of mountains from the depths of this realization and he mentions trusting in God as his rock. Martin Luther found similar strength in a dark time by trusting in Christ’s Atonement as he focused on translating the New Testament while safely ensconced on the rock of the Wartburg.

Another of the greatest figures in the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin, touched on this realization of his own nothingness in his notable speech to his people:

25 And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you.
26 And I, even I, whom ye call your king, am no better than ye yourselves are; for I am also of the dust. And ye behold that I am old, and am about to yield up this mortal frame to its mother earth. (Mosiah 2:25-26)

Like Nephi, King Benjamin also identifies the solution to the implications of this realization in the same sermon:

17 And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent. (Mosiah 3:17, emphasis added)

We should perhaps emulate the response of King Benjamin’s people who, when they heard this speech, responded as follows:

2 And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men. (Mosiah 4:2)

I believe this reaction shows us the way forward when we encounter our own dark night of the soul. Do we cry, “O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that I may receive forgiveness of my sins, and my heart may be purified; for I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things”? Too often we do not take that next step when we are brought as low as the dust of the earth.

Thousands of years earlier, Moses had learned the same lesson in his Epiphany (which followed his own dark night of the soul) as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price:

9 And the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth.
10 And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed. (Moses 1:9-10)

Following this realization, Moses turned to the Lord and received power to overcome this dark night of the soul as well as revelations of great knowledge.

Finally, to bookend this set of examples, we look from the early example of Moses to the late example of Joseph Smith, who experienced spiritual darkness as he pondered which church to join. His experience is recorded in his History in the Pearl of Great Price.

15 After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.
16 But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
17 It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! (Joseph Smith–History 1:15-17)

Interestingly, the work of Martin Luther and other Reformers led inexorably to this moment when Joseph Smith faced his own religious crisis and, in simple childlike faith, followed the injunction of James in seeking guidance directly from God. As a result of his First Vision and the prophetic work that Joseph Smith would be called to do, he would face many more such crises in his life, turning each time to the “rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God” to build his foundation (Helaman 5:12). Like Martin Luther before him, Joseph Smith continually found security and protection in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, a mighty Rock upon which to build an impregnable fortress of faith.

Luther felt as though he was in his own personal desert while in refuge in the Wartburg fortress. The imposing and massive rock upon which the fortress stands offered protection against those who meant him harm. While sheltered there, he pondered the Atonement as he translated the New Testament. In another desert, the children of Israel wandered in despair, seeking the water necessary to sustain their life. Moses saved them by striking a mighty rock, from which water miraculously flowed, saving their lives. This straightforward teaching about the living waters offered by the Gospel of Jesus Christ remains an inspiration for us today. We must look to the Atonement of Jesus Christ when we are in our own personal deserts in our lives or when we face the inevitable long, dark night of the soul in our personal spiritual journeys. In both cases it is a time when we come to a realization of our own nothingness before God. When we wander in our own personal deserts, like Martin Luther in the Wartburg fortress or the Children of Israel during their 40 year sojourn, we must seek the living waters spoken of by Christ in his discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:13-14, as Brother S. discussed in his talk. When we find ourselves in our long, dark night of the soul — a time when we lack wisdom like Joseph Smith and are looking for God’s guiding light — we should ask of God, believing, trusting, or, failing that, merely hoping, that he does indeed give to all his children liberally without reprove, as promised by James, as we heard from Sister M. in her talk. When we do so, we have the promise of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, as recorded by Matthew and read by M. [a primary child], that when we ask, it shall be given us, when we seek, we shall find, and when we knock, it shall be opened unto us (Matthew 7:7-12).

My testimony is that God will not give us a rock when we ask for bread. But I have experienced the living waters that he can and does cause to flow from the rock. May we never hew out for ourselves broken cisterns that hold no water, forsaking the fountain of living waters offered by the Atonement of Jesus Christ, as admonished by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 2:13). Rather, may we look to Jesus Christ himself, the well of living waters, and be healed and sanctified by his grace.

————-

* Thanks to Rebecca J., Mark Brown and Brad Kramer for some of their thoughts over the last couple of weeks that contributed to and inspired the approach I have taken in this talk.

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3 Responses to A Mormon Sermon for Reformation Sunday

  1. Martie says:

    Is this a talk you gave, John? or Jordan? or someone else?

  2. john f. says:

    This was a talk I gave back in October.

  3. leah says:

    very beautiful and so true; thanks!

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