by Rev. Matthew C. Harrison
Not long after Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes were burned at the stake in Brussels on July 1, 1523, the news came to Luther. It disturbed him greatly that these two young men, monks of his Augustinian order, who had confessed the Gospel of free forgiveness, were the first to die. Luther, after all, was responsible for the uproar. Why had the Lord not taken him?
Deeply moved, the incident loosed his pen, and he wrote his first hymn: “A New Song Shall Here Be Begun.” It’s never made it into our hymnals because it is a type of ballad that the town minstrels would use, long before there were such things as newspapers, to take the latest news from town to town in sung form.
The 20th century was the bloodiest in Christian history with the death of tens of millions at the hands of Communist regimes. Now we are continuously shocked by Islamic radicals persecuting and killing Christians daily in the Middle East and Africa. Meanwhile, our consciences vacillate as we sense the cultural shift in the U.S. that has produced an increasing avalanche of harassment and is likely to get much worse.
I was in Ethiopia a few months back. In 1979, the leader of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (now approaching seven million Lutherans) was murdered by the Communist government. I chatted at lunch with the current president and general secretary of the church. The topic of persecution came up. Mind you, each of these men had themselves been repeatedly jailed in the Communist period for their confession of Christ. I cannot begin to imagine the horror of an Ethiopian prison. President Wakseyoum Idosa leaned toward me across the table, raised his index finger and said with all gravity, “Persecution is always good for the Church. Always.”
Since Luther’s hymn of martyrs is so unknown, I offer it to you as a hymnic/devotional prelude as you consume this issue of the Witness. I bid you pray for the modern martyrs soon to face death in Nigeria and elsewhere today. I bid you consider that your own “light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). From Calvary itself, we know that God works the very greatest things through suffering and martyrdom–a “new song,” indeed.
A New Song Shall Here Be Begun
1 A new song now shall be begun,
Lord, help us raise the banner
Of praise for all that God has done,
For which we give Him honor.
At Brussels in the Netherlands
God proved Himself most truthful
And poured His gifts from open hands
On two lads, martyrs youthful
Through whom He showed His power.
5 Their cloister-garments off they tore,
Took off their consecrations;
All this the youths were ready for,
They said Amen with patience.
They gave to God the Father thanks
That He would them deliver
From Satan’s scoffing and the pranks
That make men quake and shiver
When he comes masked and raging.
7 A paper given them to sign—
And carefully they read it—
Spelled out their faith in ev’ry line
As they confessed and said it.
Their greatest fault was to be wise
And say, “We trust God solely,
For human wisdom is all lies,
We should distrust it wholly.”
This brought them to the burning.
12 Let men heap falsehoods all around,
Their sure defeat is spawning.
We thank our God the Word is found,
We stand in its bright dawning.
Our summer now is at the door,
The winter’s frost has ended,
Soft bud the flowers more and more,
By our dear Gard’ner tended
Until He reaps His harvest.
Pastor Matthew Harrison
“Let’s go!” Mark 1:38
Web page: www.lcms.org/president
Tr. F. Samuel Janzow, 1913–2001, setting by Carl Schalk, published by Concordia Publishing House, 1982. Order “Martin Luther: Hymns, Ballads, Chants, Truth” from Concordia Publishing House to read all 12 stanzas.