I have seen this first question of the Heidelberg Catechism together with its majestic answer framed on the wall of many homes. What a way to begin a catechism: not with a stuffy inquiry followed by an equally dry rejoinder, but rather with a stirring profession that plumbs our depths. There will be 128 more questions to follow, and when we are finished, we will know we have covered the waterfront, just as Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus intended years ago. Much has changed but not our only comfort in life and death. It is still clear that I am not my own. I belong to Another.
It must have been an exciting time in 1563–the Reformation was sweeping across Europe and debated hotly over many’a stein of beer. In France the Huguenots were being ruthlessly murdered, and in Holland the Dutch were fleeing the Spaniards. Life could change into death in an instant. When your life is on the line because of your deepest convictions, is there anything to give peace to your anxious heart? “Ja,” says the Heidelberger, “Es gibt Troost.” There is comfort on this journey, in life and on into death. So what is the core of that Troost, that comfort? Con plus fort or “to make strong” is the etymology, and for Christians it is knowing that we are always in God’s hands.
I love this first answer because it touches me at my heart’s core to “set me free from the tyranny of the devil.” There is a lion in our streets, prowling around, looking for someone to devour, according to Peter. This lion has been in my life, gnawing at my faith, snarling that I am a witless fool looking for pie in the sky by-and-by.
The phrase about the “tyranny of the devil” comes after the line that my faithful Savior Jesus Christ “has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood.” In other words, I’m not an innocent victim here, no paragon of purity. I cringe to dwell on it. I keep it pretty well hidden. The webs that Satan wove like a spider did trap me but often I willingly walked right in. Of course it was the devil, but I held his hand.
But when Handel’s Messiah washes over me every Christmas, I find myself gripped again by a beauty beyond my reason. When I was seventeen, I remember, there was a rose on mother’s kitchen table, so inexplicably delicate and beautiful that the awesome moment lives on in my memory still. I have climbed some of Colorado’s fourteeners and all alone on the peaks found God in my soul.
That is not to say that it has all been glorious. Have you never been betrayed by someone you trusted? That happened to me the year my mother and father both died and my best friend moved to California. One by one my lights went out. In that desert time I turned my face every morning to the leaden sky and wondered about God’s reality. I clutched at hope in that valley of the shadow.
Then one Sunday in February it turned around. I was preparing to preach to students at Calvin College and I was slammed against a wall of despair. I knew I could not mount that podium and smile and send us all on our way rejoicing. From somewhere my only comfort in life and death filled that kitchen where I was strung out in my wretchedness. I began to breathe again. Hope became my lodestar and it still is.
This first answer ends with our being “wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” That’s a great line, but sometimes in life’s narrow streets I’m less passionate about the “whole-heartedly” part. Often I just coast. Do you suppose that’s the tyranny of the devil? His most insidious tool is to make me less than I am, to dull my love, to make my day have no meaning. He would squash my hope, make me bored with grace and a sunset over the lake. He succeeds often, until I remember again who I am and to whom I belong “body and soul, in life and in death,” and even beyond.