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Our theme during this Advent season is “when the Lord comes near”. What does that mean? When and how does the Lord come near?
We get that he came near at Christmas. He was born. He took on flesh and blood. He became our brother. And we get that he will come near again, not to win salvation, he already did that, but to bring judgment on the world and take those who believe in him to be near to him, to live in his presence forever. When Jesus came near in Bethlehem and when he comes near on the last day there was and will be something for our eyes to see. But the other way that the Lord comes near is a little more difficult for us to grasp because we don’t see him.
We know that Jesus promised that he would be with the disciples and all disciples, all believers of all time, to the very end of the age. We often quote the words we just heard – Jesus’ promise that wherever two or three are gathered in his name there he is among us. That means Jesus is here with us right now, just as he is with a husband and wife who read a devotion together, or roommates who read some Bible passages together, or two or three Christians who get together to study the Scriptures in secret to avoid persecution, or a gathering of 100’s at a Youth Rally, or LWMS convention, or joint Reformation service—Whether there are few or many who gather in Jesus’ name, around God’s word, wherever they are out in the open for everyone to see, in a home, or in a prison cell, Jesus is there. That’s his promise.
But our sinful nature always wants to see something, some evidence of his presence. This desire moves some to claim that they have seen a sculpture of Jesus on the cross actually shedding tears, or dripping blood from his side. Like Thomas we want to see evidence. We want to be able to put our fingers in the nail prints in his hands and touch the mark left by the spear in his side. Jesus’ response to Thomas still applies to us today – blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.
So, we know that we should not have to see Jesus to believe that he is present with us. But our sinful nature still isn’t satisfied. It temps us to think, “it’s ok if I don’t see Jesus, I get that. But maybe one of my other senses can work to assure me that he really is present as he says he is. Maybe I should be able to feel his presence.”
I’ve met a lot of people who judge things by their feelings. They say, “when I go to that church, or to that place in nature to meditate, I can feel God’s presence.” To which we have to say, how do you know it’s God’s presence. How do you know it’s not the presence of a demon? How do you know it’s not what you ate, or the medication you took? You ought to know from experience that your feelings are very unreliable. The Bible never says that if you feel a certain way it must be because Jesus is present and if you don’t feel a certain way, he must not be present. Jesus simply expects us to believe his promise that he is with us always and that wherever even just two gather around his word to worship him he is right there with them.
We might think, in the Old Testament, God gave his people some fantastic evidence of his presence with them. He showed himself a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When the tabernacle was dedicated, he showed his presence in a bright cloud that descended and filled the building. But once they were in the promised land those theophanies did not continue. One of the reasons would be that he had provided other means to assure his people of his presence. They had the Ark of the Covenant and the Most Holy place which were indications of his promise to always be present among his people.
God knows what we are like. He knows how prone we are to desire some visible assurance of his presence. So what does he provide for us today? He gives us the Sacraments, sometimes called the visible gospel. He has given us baptism, the washing with water and the word. He attaches water to the word so that we might see and touch something that assures us that he is present with the two, or three, or more at a baptism and doing what the water symbolizes, washing away our sins and then putting his name on us to claim us as his own.
How sad it is that we would rather trust our feelings as an indication of whether or not Jesus is present than trust his own word and promise.
Jesus has also given us the Lord’s Supper. He lets us see, touch and taste bread and wine as he lets us hear his wonderful promise – this is my body, this is my blood. Whether we feel his presence or not, he is telling us that he is present, and that he is speaking directly to us, one on one, as we receive with our own mouths his body with the bread and his blood with the wine for the forgiveness of our sins.
How sad it is that so many consider communion to be only a symbol, an old fashioned ceremony, instead of a wonderful way in which the Lord comes near to us.
What a wonderful gift Jesus has given us in the Sacraments! His word would be enough. Yet he has chosen to attach his word to water and bread and wine so that, like the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant, we have a visual reminder that he is present with us as he says he is.
Did you notice the context in which Jesus promises that where two or three have gathered together in my name there I am among them? The context is what we call church discipline, dealing with a fellow Christian who has sinned against you. He says that when we gather in his name and ask for his presence and guidance in a matter of someone being caught in a sin, if that fellow Christian is led to confess their sin, to acknowledge that Scripture is right and they have been wrong, and those two or three who are gathered in Jesus’ name say, “You are forgiven by Jesus,” they are forgiven. And if that fellow Christian refuses to confess their sin, if they insist they are right and Scripture is wrong and they will continue to do as they please despite what God says in his word, and those two or three who are gathered in Jesus’ name say, “then the guilt of your sin remains on you until you come to repentance,” their sins are not forgiven. As Jesus says, Amen I tell you: Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Amen I tell you again: If two of you on earth agree to ask for anything, it will be done for them by my Father who is in heaven. As Luther puts it, this is as valid and certain in heaven also as if Christ our Lord dealt with us himself.
We see and hear a very practical application of these words of Jesus every time we receive the absolution in worship. Two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus. We gather confessing that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, our Savior. We confess to each other and to God that we have sinned, and we ask him to have mercy on us and to forgive us for Jesus’ sake. When we then hear the Pastor proclaim, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit since Jesus is present with us and we have asked for what is in accordance with his will, we can be absolutely certain that our sins are really forgiven. We are to hear those words of absolution as if Jesus himself were speaking them to us.
Resist the temptation to want to see a bright cloud or some other miraculous, fantastic evidence of the fact that Jesus is present. Resist the temptation to think that he is only near if you feel his presence. Rejoice that, even though the promise of his presence would be enough because he always keeps his word, he still gives us something visible. He has connected water, wine, and bread to his words of promise. Trust his promise that even though you can’t see him or feel him he is present every time we gather in his name around his word and sacrament. Wherever he causes his name to be honored, he is there to bless us. And what better blessing could there be than the assurance that he has adopted us as his own dear children and that in his body given for us and his blood shed for us every one of our sins has been forgiven.
Praise the Lord! He comes near to us through the means of grace, the gospel in word and sacrament.