Is God Really With Us?
Think back to your confirmation instruction. You can probably remember the pastor going over the 5th, 6th, or 7th Commandment. You might even remember the 3rd, but I'll bet you have few recollections of being instructed in the 1st. That's probably because little time was spent on it compared to the big ones. We did you a disservice in teaching you this way. The 1st Commandment is the fountainhead of all the Commandments. It's the most important. Jesus said so Himself.
I can summarize what you came away from your catechizing on the 1st Commandment with. I know because not only was I taught this way, but I have taught this way. You came away from Catechism instruction with the understanding that the 1st Commandment is broken when we don't toe the line before the all powerful, holy, judging God. God is Triune you were told, and anytime you worship a god who isn't Triune you commit idolatry. God is to have st place in your heart you were told. Whatever has 1st place is really your god. You may not bow down before money, or loved ones, or enemies but whatever you fear, love, or trust in most, that is your god.
All of this is true. But none of these very real sins are the chief sin that the 1st Commandment exposes. The 1st Commandment is broken primarily when we despair of God really being with us. When we think are sins are so repugnant that the holy God wouldn't dare be with us, when we think of Him as too far away to be with us, when we think our problems and concerns are too small to be of concern to Him, then we are breaking the 1st Commandment is a most heinous way.
You don't believe me, do you? Check out Luther's Large Catechism then. There you'll read that in the 1st Commandment God tells us, "'Whatever good things you lack, look to Me for it and seek it from Me, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, come and cling to Me.'" Idolatry is defined in the Large Catechism as being "primarily in the heart, which pursues other things and seeks help and consolation from creatures, saints, or devils." The Large Catechism says we commit idolatry when we fail to expect "only good things" from God "especially in distress and want"
And don't get the idea this is just some peculiar quirk that shows up in Luther's Large Catechism. In Luther's Personal Prayer book we read under the section "What It Means to Break the Commandments" that we break the 1st when we do not trust and rely upon God's mercy at all times and in everything we do. He closes the section on the 1st Commandment by saying that it forbids every kind of despair. Again in his lectures on Genesis Luther says, "Those who despair also sin against the 1st Commandment and blaspheme God; for they maintain that He is not compassionate, and they deprive Him of the foremost glory of His divinity."
Yes, more than God wants to be known as powerful, holy, or even jealous He wants to be known as compassionate. When Moses begs God to show him His glory, what does God do? He passes before Him proclaiming , "The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the 3rd and 4th generations."
Our sinfulness is shown by the fact we only regard God according to the part that says He punishes the guilty and not according to the part where He says He's slow to anger and abounds in lovingkindness. Yes, we're like Elijah; we think that God must be in the wind, or in the fire, or in the earthquake rather than in the Still Small Voice.
Our wickedness is shown not primarily in the fact that we think, do, and say filthy things, but in the fact that we have what a seminary professor of mine called "baseball bat theology." We picture God in heaven holding a large bat just waiting for us to step the least bit out of line so He can whack us. Our sinfulness is shown by the fact that we expect evil from God. Don't think so? Sure we do. That's why we think things like, "Things are going to good for me; something bad has got to happen to me soon."
But it's difficult to detect our sins against the 1st Commandment because we hide them in a pious heart. Ahaz did this in our text. He was too pious to ask God for a sign to strengthen his faltering faith. Who was he to think God should stoop so low as to give him a sign? But Ahaz's response which he thought so pious only tried God's patience. That's what we're doing when we dare not hope that God would be merciful to us, dare not ask God for anything for ourselves, dare not go to Him in time of need. We think we're being pious and Christian when we think this way, but in reality, we're being the worst kind of idolaters. We are reshaping the true God into one whose mercies don't endure forever, into a god who doesn't want to help sinners, into a god who helps, saves and comforts only the deserving.
Christmas, however, reveals just the opposite kind of God, doesn't it? A God who is Immanuel, which means God with us. Yes, Christmas shows us just how much the true God is really with undeserving, ungodly sinners like us. Christmas shows us a God who is with us not merely from maturity, but in adolescence, in childhood, in infancy, all the way down to our very conception. Chemnitz, a 16th century Lutheran, said that God went so far down to get us "so that we might know that Christ's salvation applies even to man's fetus in conception, gestation, and birth."
The true God isn't like the gods of Olympus who stayed on that mountain far away from mankind enjoying a painfree life while mortals suffered below. The true God descended from on high coming all the way into our flesh and blood. He came so far down that He went under our sins and under the judgement they deserve.
But here is where we lose our God. We see Him in the Virgin's womb; we seem Him in the cattle's feeding trough; we even see Him on the sinner's cross. But we don't see Him with us in our sinfulness, with us in our temptations, with us in our failures, our fears, our doubts and our despairs. But dear friends, does that make any sense? To be born of a virgin for the sake of sinners He didn't despise, but to bear with sinners He just can't do? To lay in manger without making a sound Jesus did for sinners, but He can't be picked up by the hands of sinners without screaming? He can willingly go to the hell of the cross for you, but He can't face your sins with you?
Friends, everything about Christ testifies that He is primarily with sinners. It's not as your conscience and the devil tell you that if only you were a better Christian than God would be with you. Or, if only you didn't sin so much than you could be sure of God's help. Wrong! God in Christ is primarily with sinners. To whom was the Gospel first promised? A sinful Adam and Eve were told the Seed of the Woman wold crush the serpent's head for them. Look at our text. King Ahaz was guilty of idolatry and human sacrifice. He was guilty of trusting in the political powers of his day rather than in the true God. Yet, to this miserable, filthy sinner God promises He will be him.
Our hearts have this all wrong. We think God is with holy people, clean people, people who don't have the problems with sins that we do. But the Christmas story corrects our hearts. The holy people were located in Jerusalem in the temple. But God announced that He is with sinners in their flesh and blood to whom? To shepherds who were considered religiously unclean, to shepherds who weren't allowed in the Temple because they were considered too sinful.
Friends, whom do you find God in flesh and blood with when He walked this earth? I find Him consistently with the distressed, the diseased, the depressed, the demented, the tax collectors and the prostitutes. It's not as your conscience tells you. God isn't just with the healthy. God isn't mainly with the rich. God isn't mostly with the powerful. O God can be with all these groups, but the one place you can say He always is, is with sinners. That's where God wishes you to find Him.
Powerful testimony to just this fact is right before your eyes. Ever since His ascension into heaven where does the One who dwelled in the virgin's womb, laid in the manger, and hung on the cross for sinners tell you to find Him? In Baptism, poured over a sinner's head. In the Absolution spoken into a sinner's ears. In Holy Communion which is for eating and drinking by sinful mouths. He doesn't tell you, as your frail conscience or the proud devil might lead you to expect, that you are to find Him where people are most holy, most devoted, or mostly given to good works. No, He promises to be where Baptism is poured on sinners, where forgiveness is spoken to sinners, where His body and blood is given to sinners.
I know what your problem is. There is a little voice inside of you saying, "Wait a minute! If this is true, then I never have to worry or wonder if God is really with me. Then I can just live by life day by day as if God is my dear father who just can't wait to do things for me. But then won't my flesh just run wild with this? Won't I just become secure in my sins? Don't I need just the tiniest little doubt hanging over my head to keep me in line?"
Such demonic thoughts are reinforced by the Christmas specials. Even the Christian ones that I have seen, teach that God is with sinners for the purpose of making them better. That is His ultimate goal. He came down from heaven to make us better. The reindeer have to learn to accept Ruldoph. Scrooge must become kinder. And the Christ-child came to teach us what giving is all about.
Friends, it is the purpose of the Lodge to make men better, not the purpose of God in flesh and blood. His purpose in taking on your flesh was to keep the Law in your place and pay for your not keeping it. He did this to save you for eternity. He didn't do this to make you better. I know, I know that is what happens. The fruit of being saved for eternity is being different in time, but that's the fruit, not the plant! Focus on the plant, and the fruit comes. Focus on the fact God is with sinners, freely, graciously; focus on Him being with us sinners even when we can't stand to be around ourselves, and the fruits of that in will grow. But if you focus on the fruit, if you focus on being better, you will be right back to wondering, "Am I really good enough for God to be with me?"
But that's the wrong question. It's not a question of your being good enough for God to be with you, but a question of God being gracious enough to be with sinners. The sinful virgin's womb testifies yes. The sinful shepherds' hands who held God in flesh and blood say yes. The diseased, the depressed, the demented, and the down and out all shout to your timid heart, "Yes God is with sinners!" Baptism, Absolution, and Communion add to your certainty by bringing Christ to where sinners are. What more could God do convince us that He is really with sinners? Sweat blood? Oops, He did that too, didn't He? Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent Midweek, Ist Commandment, Isaiah 7:7-20