Friday, August 24, 2007

A God at Hand: One God, near and Far

Dear people of God,

I come to you with a confession this morning.

I have no special vison for you, this congregation, or our LC-MS.

I do not come to you with a message from my heart.

I do not come to tell you that now that you believe and are baptized that your life is going to be filled with nothing but peace, and joy, and success.

No, dear baptized, I come to you today with the prophecy given to Jeremiah. I come to you with a message of warning from the mouth of God to the people He dearly loves and wants to protect. I come to tell you that any one -- whether pastor, high church official, friend or family member – who comes to you with such special visions seen in, or messages spoken from, their own hearts; anyone who comes to tell you "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me," or "don’t worry, be happy, the Lord would never let anything bad happen to you and wants to do nothing but grant you success in your every endeavor."

Anyone who come with such messages does not speak for God, but for the Father of lies. This does not mean that they necessarily do so purposefully, or maliciously. But remember, even if they do so unknowingly, or with all good intent, accidents kill people just as certain, and just as dead, as do wanton acts of terror.

Therefore, in our Old Testament lesson, the prophet Jeremiah is inspired to write without error:
Thus says the LORD of hosts: "Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They make you worthless; they speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the LORD. They continually say to those who despise Me, 'The LORD has said, "You shall have peace" ';and to everyone who walks according to the dictates of his own heart, they say, 'No evil shall come upon you.'" For who has stood in the counsel of the LORD, and has perceived and heard His word? Who has marked His word and heard it? Behold, a whirlwind of the LORD has gone forth in fury__ a violent whirlwind! It will fall violently on the head of the wicked. The anger of the LORD will not turn back until He has executed and performed the thoughts of His heart. In the latter days you will understand it perfectly.

"I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran. I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in My counsel, and had caused My people to hear My words, then they would have turned them from their evil way and from the evil of their doings.

"Am I a God near at hand," says the LORD, "And not a God afar off? Can anyone hide himself in secret places, so I shall not see him?" says the LORD; "Do I not fill heaven and earth?" says the LORD.

"I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in My name, saying, 'I have dreamed, I have dreamed!' How long will this be in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies? Indeed they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart, who try to make My people forget My name by their dreams which everyone tells his neighbor, as their fathers forgot My name for Baal. The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat?" says the LORD. Is not My word like a fire?" says the LORD, "And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?" Jeremiah 23:16-29

Now lest you think this is a message for those people of the Old Testament that no longer applies, hear again the Word of our Lord & Savior, Jesus the Christ, from our Gospel lesson:
"I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother_in_law against her daughter_in_law and daughter_in_law against her mother_in_law." Luke 12:49-53

This another one of those passages that causes us to say, this is the Gospel, the Good News, of our Lord?

But we must remember that ...

"... the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two_edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." Hebrews 4:12

"The LORD kills and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and brings up." 1 Samuel 2:6

In other words, the Law of God’s Word condemns and kills the sinner, while the Gospel of that same Word, forgives and gives life to the righteous. That is what happened once for all in Christ, and what happens once for each individual at the font of Baptism.

Our God is a god of opposites, things that seem incompatible to us, but that are nevertheless both true at the same time, as we have just heard.

Let me use an example from our Old Testament lesson to help you understand:
"Am I a God near at hand," says the LORD, "And not a God afar off? Can anyone hide himself in secret places, so I shall not see him?" says the LORD; "Do I not fill heaven and earth?" says the LORD. Jeremiah 23:23-24

Now here God is not saying that He is one or the other, but both and – He is near and far at the same time.

I am reminded here of the Sesame Street character, Grover. He would introduce himself and say he was here to tell you about the difference between "near" and "far." He would stick his Muppet face up to the camera and say with his silly, simple voice rising, "Now I am near." Leaving his voice hanging, he would then run "clop, clop, clop" away to a spot maybe a whole three or four feet from the camera, act as if he had traveled a great distance, and in a descendo say, "now I am far." He would repeat this several times. Step, step, step, "Now I am near. Step, step, step,"Nnow I am far." it was quite cute and a quite funny. Children would learn the difference between the two words and concepts. They would also learn that Grover could not be in two places at the same time, yet, no matter near or far, in either place Grover is still Grover.
But God is different isn’t He? We say He is omnipresent, which is a fancy way of saying He is both near and far at the same time. The God who is at a distance from sin and in control of the universe, is at the same time near to hand to forgive sin and give His kingdom to those who believe.
This also helps us understand what God means by idolatry – we are to worship Him where and how He tells us to worship Him, not where and how our hearts desire to worship Him.

That is how the pagans worship, according to where they think God is, where they want Him to be, or where they build a structure for Him to occupy when they call upon Him. Now witness the golden calf as imitating the idolatry of the world – putting God in a box in which He has not put Himself.

Oddly enough, this in turn helps us understand such goodly worship aids as a crucifix that are visual presentations of the Word, and sacraments that are means in which God presents Himself to His people. It is not given to us to put God anywhere of our choosing, but God has chosen to put Himself in certain places according to His command. And that we might know where these places are, He gives us His Word, which promises He will be in those places.

Another Old Testament example is helpful here:
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live." Numbers 21:8

So it is true that we are not to fashion graven images according to our own imagination and worship them, but God does condescend to use earthly images and means that He designates in order to deliver His blessings to His people. And only His people of faith know the difference, because they believe His Word that speaks of those things.

Now that Jesus, the Christ has suffered, died, risen, and ascended to fulfill the Scriptures, God’s people of faith are to know, with the apostle Paul, nothing but Christ and Him crucified for our sins and raised for our justification before the Father. [1 Corinthians 2:2]
Yet, like the prophets against whom Jeremiah was sent by God to speak a dire warning, the false prophets speak a tempting message from their own hearts and dreams, rather than from the mouth of God.

The water of Baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion, the ones with special vision and messages from their own hearts say, are just symbolic representations. They would offer what God gave privately to them in the place of what God publicly offered for all. They explain away the greater gifts of God with human wisdom that explains logically: "The finite, created things of this world cannot possibly contain the infinite, spiritual things of God." But all the while what they forget is that

  • the infinite One is also infinitely powerful,
  • that infinity does not only stretch out into the vastness of space and in numbers too large to count, but that same infinity penetrates into the minuteness of sub atomic particles and in fractions for which there is always a smaller fraction

...therefore, if the infinite and all powerful God wills and causes it to be so, He most certainly can allow Himself to be contained in those things he has designated.

That we might know and believe in Him by those very things He has designated, He gives us the Word of the prophets and apostles who speak with one voice of these things and the grace they deliver. The infinite One, who is God the Lord, is at the same time both near and far; both Creator of and larger than the universe, and the Savior who enfleshed His Son in the atoms of a fetus 2000 years ago, and in the molecules of bread and wine today.

Yes, our God is a God of opposites, all of which are reconciled and only make sense to us in Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. Hebrews 12:2-3

The Baptism that seems so far away in time, is still at work today. The water lasted but a moment in time, but the Word that comes with it is for a lifetime. So we have a God that is ever far away unto the ends of the earth. Yet from His place far away at the right hand of the Father He wields His power to work ALL things everywhere for the good of His baptized children. And for His baptized children of faith, He is always a God near at hand to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth even as He forgives us all of our sins – in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

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