As we follow the liturgical calendar Sunday to Sunday, every Sunday is a new celebration. Christmas and Easter may be our highest celebrations of the Christian year, but the truth is that every single Sunday views our Lord Jesus and his work from a different lens and glorifies him in a unique way. This past Sunday was the 5th Sunday of Easter. For many folks, the glow of Easter has faded a bit, but we need not let this happen. I know I awoke that Sunday morning with about the same enthusiasm as I did on Easter morning.
Why? A big reason was the Sunday Gospel, where we read in John 16 how Jesus promised his disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit, who would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. In a sense, it was a transitional Sunday, where our eyes were set to look forward to Pentecost. The other reason? It was an opportunity to sing Martin Luther’s outstanding hymn, “Dear Christians One and All Rejoice” (LSB 556). Every year, it is the appointed hymn of the day for the 5th Sunday of Easter. In large part, we sing that hymn because verse 9 paraphrases Jesus’ promise of sending the Holy Spirit from the appointed Gospel reading.
On Sunday afternoon I reflected much on our awesome and edifying morning of worship, made possible by our Lord Jesus’ promise and punctuated by Luther’s hymn. It made me think, there are certain hymns of Luther which are indispensable to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which every practicing Lutheran should know. I thought I should share them with you. I count five of them. Here they are, in no particular order:
- Dear Christians One and All Rejoice (LSB 556) – Luther wrote this hymn in 1523, and it was the first hymn he ever wrote for congregational singing. While “A Mighty Fortress” might be the most popular of Luther’s hymns in our day, “Dear Christians One and All Rejoice” might be Luther’s most important hymn in addition to being his first. It tells the powerful story of man’s wretched state, the Father’s plan to send his Son to die for the sins of the world, and Jesus’ faithful execution of his Father’s will. Salvation was not easy. Indeed, it was the most bitter of all struggles, but because of our Lord Jesus’ work, we are blest forever. The hymn concludes with Jesus promise to send the Holy Spirit and the blessed encouragement that we follow in our Lord’s teaching.
- Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word (LSB 655) – This hymn came along later in Luther’s life, in 1543. It was first entitled “a children’s hymn, to be sung against the two arch-enemies of Christ and His holy Church, the Pope, and the Turk.” In our day, English translations have made this hymn more generic as we sing “curb those who by deceit or sword,” when Luther’s original German hymn singled out the threats of the Pope and the Turk. Luther wrote this hymn as a sober reminder, even to children, that our Lord Jesus and his church have real enemies, enemies from whom we pray our Heavenly Father would protect us. It is thought that Luther wrote this hymn as a matter of urgency in the face of the Islamic threat, and we would do well to teach our children this hymn with the same urgency in our day. Some of Luther’s hymns may have more complicated melodies, but because this is a children’s hymn, it is simple and easy. It is also a simple three verses, one verse addressed to each member of the Holy Trinity.
- A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (LSB 656) – Undoubtedly “A Mighty Fortress” has been the most popular of Luther’s hymns for a long time, and Christians across all denominational lines have sung it. It is known as the Battle Hymn of the Reformation, although it was first published in 1529, about twelve years after Luther first posted the 95 Theses. Its theme comes from Psalm 46, which Christians have longed prayed in the face of disaster. Because of the widespread popularity of this hymn, there is simply no excuse for Lutherans to be ignorant of it. It is a confession of supreme confidence in our God who has won the victory.
- From Heaven Above To Earth I Come (LSB 358) – Luther wrote several fantastic Christmas hymns, but I include this one because it is probably the most familiar to our congregations already. A beautiful story goes along with this hymn. Luther wanted to give his children memorable Christmas celebrations, so he would arrange to have a man show up at his house dressed up as an angel, who sang the first seven verses of the hymn. Luther’s children in lively fashion would respond by singing the remaining verses. The story of this hymn gives us a peek into Luther’s fatherly heart. More importantly, it teaches us the Christmas story in ways which are doctrinal, devotional, and touching all at the same time. On this sacred and happy festival, Luther’s hymn deserves to be sung in Lutheran congregations and homes. We are shortchanging our children without it.
- Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands (LSB 458) – Of all the hymns listed here, experience teaches me that this is the most unfamiliar to Lutheran congregations. This is most unfortunate because it is Luther’s Easter hymn. On the greatest of all Christian celebrations, unsurprisingly Luther made one of his most outstanding contributions. It may be this hymn has fallen out of use because the melody may not strike us as joyful at first. However, once one has taken the time to learn it, one could describe it as majestic and conquering. Luther pulls no punches when describing the utter enemies of mankind which are sin and death, whose grip touches all. And yet, Jesus did the impossible in rising from the dead. He actually lay in the bands of death, but broke their power forever. His resurrection is so sure and so comforting, that these bitter enemies have lost their sting forever. Therefore we rejoice, basking in the “eternal sunshine” which lights our hearts. A Lutheran celebration of Easter calls for full-throated singing of Luther’s Easter hymn. There is no doubt about it.
Some may quibble with these five choices, and that is fine. It is worth noting how I did not include any of Luther’s Catechism hymns here, which I also make a point to teach all my confirmation class students. Based on what our congregations already know and what they can learn in short time, the above listed hymns first come to my mind. The truth is that all of Luther’s hymns are worth knowing, but I understand not everyone will come to an appreciation of them all. These five, however, every confirmed and practicing Lutheran should know by name and come to expect from their pastors.
As a man who grew up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and has served as a pastor for almost 10 years now, it saddens me how our congregations have been in general decline my entire life. I believe it is no surprise this correlates to the general decline in the use of Luther’s hymns at the congregational level. When our congregations bearing Luther’s name can barely identify his hymns, what else can we expect? Having learned these hymns better year after year and drawn immeasurable comfort from them, I know few better ways of injecting vitality into our congregations than singing the hymns which came from the pen of Luther himself. They are worthy of singing both in the sanctuary and in the home. They are treasures to hand off to the next generation, treasures which our youth will not find in the American Evangelical churches which would lure their hearts away from us.
To learn more about Luther’s hymns, I would highly recommend the 4 CD set from Concordia Publishing House entitled “Martin Luther: Hymns, Ballads, Chants, Truth.” I have enjoyed this set for over a decade, and you can order it here.