Some have asked what we did for Lent. This year we learned the text of an ancient prayer, called the Anima Christi, and talked about what we pray in the petitions of this prayer. You are welcome to join us in these Lenten devotions.
The chronic complaint of our age is boredom. Close behind is loneliness. We feel isolated in our jobs, in our homes, and in our lives. Though we have ample technological resources to connect, these have replaced the community we crave most of all, personal touch. This is true also of the Church.
Remember the tag line of the old TV program, “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name. More than anything else we long for such a church in which everything is personal, in the best sense of that term. At the same time we also fear such intimacy. There is safety in anonymity, security in keeping commitments at bay and remaining on the fringes. Within this tension we find the burden of our age. How to be personal and connected without becoming dependent? For more than anything else we value our independence.
When it comes to God, these tensions continue. How do we relate to God? On the one hand we want Him near – near when we need Him or desire to call on Him. On the other hand, we want Him distant – not the God who interferes but the God who knows His place. It always seems that God is near when we want Him distant, and distant when we seek Him near.
In the midst of this we pray, “Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.” Such a prayer comes only from the Holy Spirit. For none of us on our own wants God so close. Only the Spirit can break down our fears, rescue us from our quest for independence, and teach us the joy of dependence upon the God who is near, who is always with us. Tonight we come to be instructed by that Spirit so that the words spoken by our lips may reflect the desire of our hearts, prompted and shaped by the working of God in us.
God refuses every box except the ones He has chosen for Himself. God refuses to be distant even when we desire Him so and He is always near. That is the God whom we know in Christ. He comes among us not with judgment or condemnation but with mercy and grace. He comes to bear the burden of our sin, to die the death that has claimed us all, and to pay the debt that has enslaved us and stolen our freedom. His nearness is His mercy at work. From Isaiah to this moment, we speak Emmanuel, God with us.
The means of His presence have become as nebulous as a feeling that comes and goes or an idea here and there. This is the God who comes when bidden and who remains but a thought or a feeling captive to a mind or a heart. But this is not the God we know in Christ. Bidden or not, this God comes to us. Not as dream or warm feeling but as flesh and blood. Conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary we confess in the creed. This is how we confess God’s nearness. He has come through His Son.
God is where Christ is and Christ is where His name is and His name is where His Word and Sacraments are. Let me say that again. God is where Christ is and Christ is where His name is and His name is where His Word and Sacraments are. Here in the means of grace we meet the Lord face to face. Here He comes in concrete and real form to dwell among us and to live in us and to work through us.
Our piety flow from the means of grace and not from feelings or ideas. In the words of the hymn, “God Himself is present, let us now adore Him.” Those words point us to the water that gives new life, to the voice of the Gospel that speaks forgiveness, life and salvation, and to the bread of heaven that is Christ’s body and blood. God is not an idea, not even a holy idea or feeling. God is real as the splash of water, the sound of a voice, the taste of bread and wine.
God is also present among us in the faces of our brothers and sisters in Christ, the “little Christs,” as Luther put it, who are the faces and hands of Christ in the world. Good works are not optional because they are payment to God for love or forgiveness. They are not optional because they are the mark of Christ living in us and working through us.
We live in a dangerous world. This is not because of terrorism or a fragile economy. It is because the world is filled with our enemies and the evil one who has become our greatest enemy simply because we belong to Christ by baptism and faith. We do not seek God near for aesthetic purpose but because we live in danger. Every day we face the assaults of the evil one who seeks to steal our hope, rob our joy, destabilize our lives, and hold us captive to desire, guilt, and despair. He is neither obvious nor easy to resist. Without God’s presence we would be but victims suffering even more.
Because of Christ’s presence, we endure, we have the rescue of forgiveness to restore us when we fall and the hope of eternal life when this life becomes burden and pain. God defends us by holding us close to Him and this happens through the means of grace, through the Word and Sacraments. That is why He beckons us to His house, because He is here, safety and refuge are here, forgiveness and peace are here. We come because we know that on our own we cannot stand.
In this little prayer we pray the Lord to keep us in His hand. It is the prayer that flows from Jesus own promise, “I am the Good Shepherd’ I know My sheep and My sheep know Me, and no one is able to snatch us from My hand...” This is not magic but the power of the Word, written, spoken, and visible in the Sacraments. Here is Christ come to us, dwelling in us, sustaining us, delivering us against our enemies, and keeping us to eternal life.
We are not alone. Christ is here and God in Christ. To hold us in the grasp of grace, to defend us from our enemy, and to restore us when our hearts and lives wander from the fold. How do we know this? Because Christ has promised. “Lo, I am with you always.” His visible person ascended so that His sacramental presence might remain. He cannot be stretched thin or distracted by the burdens of so many who need and depend on Him. We are His and He is ours. Here we pray that we may abide in Him and He in us, defended from the assaults of the enemy so that we might be free to bear the good fruit that lasts, the good works that show forth the Christ who lives in us.
Only the Spirit can lead us to want God this close and only the means of grace keep the promise of His nearness. Suffer me not to be separated from Thee. From the assault of my enemy, defend me. Amen