Looking Past the Fortress – Nick Utphall reflects on the river that makes God glad and flows with grace.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Reformation Sunday (October 30), Year C (2022, 2025)
Reformation Sunday. Usually this is the time to focus on the central Reformation doctrine of justification by faith, arising from Paul’s statement, “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28).
It’s also likely a time to beatify Martin Luther and recount some of our history, the insistence on God’s liberating Word over against indulgences and other human practices that keep us confined, the evangelical—good news—gospel promise of God’s work on our behalf.
Your congregation will probably sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God (Evangelical Lutheran Worship Hymns 503-505),” coming from Luther’s paraphrase of the day’s Psalm. Luther’s hymn is set in the midst of battle, with swords and shields, with hordes of devils against a champion who comes to fight. Notably for how we perceive the paraphrase and the original, the Psalm itself speaks of God breaking weapons and shields (Psalm 46:5), which is perhaps an image of ending human warring and the rage of nations, rather than entrenching human conflicts or elevating them to apocalyptic spiritual warfare.
But the mighty fortress isn’t the only feature of the Psalm that we might note. Although Luther didn’t include it in his hymn setting, there is also “a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4a), which may call to mind a more peaceful and serene image than the fortress and the hordes of devils, and also has the feelings of gladness rather than trembling with fear.
Now, I’ve traveled several times to Jerusalem, and have yet to come across a river. There are famous ancient aqueducts to supply the lofty city’s residents, but it isn’t a streamside location up around Mount Zion and along the high ridge of the country. The Jordan River is far below to the east, down in the valley. But up in Jerusalem: no rivers.
So for the allusion of the Psalm, rather than thinking in terms of direct geography, maybe we reflect on the imagery of this river in the holy city. And that may move us away from being in the crossfire of Luther’s battle, with an opportunity to float leisurely through the stream of Scripture, and finally disembark at the end, again with a vantage of hope rather than desperation.
The river, then, may call to mind other Psalms. It could be those nurturing resilient trees “planted by streams of water” in Psalm 1, or perhaps the “still waters” that the Shepherd leads you beside in Psalm 23. Maybe you go back to envision the River Jordan, entering into the Promised Land (Joshua 3). Or the current Jordan that irrigates agriculture to feed residents throughout the land. Or, perhaps most likely, the Jordan River takes you to John the Baptist proclaiming the kingdom of God and the Holy Spirit alighting on you with the declaration that you, too, are a beloved child of God (Luke 3:1-22).
For re-centering our lives of faith and our Christian identity, it is worth idling a while longer by those waters, with baptism as a bath that “brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation.” As we pause repeatedly by those waters, it becomes a splash-y reminder as “daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever,” as Luther puts it in those two references from his Small Catechism.
With images of water that is constant (daily) and also endless (forever), we could turn to the image from the prophet Ezekiel. Like the Psalm where we began, the prophet also has a vision of the river flowing through the holy city (Ezekiel 47:1-12). There the spreading river is an indicator of the temple’s restoration and God’s abundance, no longer abandoning its home or driven into exile, but with goodness that continues to gush far and wide. It is that version that is likely picked up in the final chapter of the Bible.
Revelation 22 foresees the end of the story as God dwelling in the city, with a river running through it. The river actually flows from God “through the middle of the street of the city” (Revelation 22:2), and the waters are crystal clear. You can imagine the end of pollution, can visualize clean drinking water free from lead contamination. It seems exactly the opposite of the infamous pre-Earth Day occasions of the Cuyahoga River catching fire, it was so chemically altered. It is the freedom for children to grow without the danger of poisons in Flint, Michigan. Or, in this that has been yet another year of droughts and legal skirmishes over water rights on the depleted Colorado River, we may be in awe of the freely available abundance of an ever-flowing stream.
Beside Revelation’s river grows the tree of life. It’s the first we’ve been back to that tree since we were expelled from original Paradise in Genesis 3. There’s the unattributable Luther quotation, that he was asked what he would do if the world were ending tomorrow, allegedly responding that he’d plant a tree today. Well, Revelation gives us that tree enduring beyond the end of the world. It bears fruit 12 months of the year. So it’s a vision of satisfying hunger, that there is never a season of want. As we in the northern hemisphere come to the end of harvest season, it is remarkable to envision God’s promised bounty, endless like fresh produce from your garden year-round, a farmers’ market where you can always find something local and delicious.
And the leaves of Revelation’s tree of life are for the healing of the nations, those nations that were raging in Psalm 46. As we approach yet another divisive election in the United States, we may also long for that healing and reconciliation. What’s more, this goodness and relief is permanently accessible, since the gates of the city are never shut.
That has taken us on a fairly free-flowing journey beyond the simple reference in the lectionary’s Psalm of “a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” but perhaps it is nevertheless a worthwhile exploration to re-ground us in the hope of God’s amazing grace.
That voyage along some of the waters of the Bible nevertheless has brought us to the Reformation’s home port of grace, where all of this is offered as a gift from God for us “without any merit or worthiness of mine at all,” as Luther put it along with the first article of the Creed in his Small Catechism (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 1162). More than force of the law, we expect that it is that grace that transforms us. More than our ability to perfect ourselves, we splash with the baptismal promise that we are forgiven and renewed by God. More than our fears of hordes of devils filling the land, it is this with God seeing all as very good and for healing that we join the motivation to protect the planet. Perhaps it is that which not only enables us to care for creation, but also rightly to celebrate Reformation Sunday, returned again to the God of grace.
Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2022.