Listen to it:
“Near and Far”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you had your choice, would you choose a God who was nearby, or a God far away? Perhaps most of us would be inclined to choose a God nearby. We want a God who knows what we’re going through and cares; who isn’t off in some distant heaven, stone-faced, who simply wound up the universe and let it go, like a giant watchmaker. On the other hand, maybe we wouldn’t mind a God far away, who would simply let us live our lives; who doesn’t interfere, except when we’re in trouble; who sort of minds His own business. Or as Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson puts it in the movie Hoodlum, “Me and the Lord have an agreement. I don’t come into His house, and He doesn’t come into mine.” Well, for those of you who would choose a God nearby, that’s what the false prophets in Jeremiah’s Judah think they have: a God nearby. A local deity, confined to the Temple, who simply puts His stamp of approval on the whims and desires of the people. A God who is “near in their mouth but far from their heart” (Jeremiah 12:2). A God whom they can control and manipulate, whose purposes match theirs. So to those who despise the Word of Yahweh, the false prophets say, “Don’t worry. It will be peace to you” (Jeremiah 23:17). And to those who stubbornly persist in their sin, they say, “Don’t worry. No disaster will come upon you” (ibid.). Even though that’s exactly what Jeremiah says is going to happen. That’s what most of Jeremiah’s prophecy consists of: a warning to the people and to the priests and to the prophets that disaster is indeed coming, in the form of Babylonian armies, who will burn Jerusalem and her Temple. Jeremiah calls on them to confess their sin and cry out to Yahweh for mercy, but they say, “No, that is all in vain. We will follow our own plans and each man will act according to the stubbornness of his own evil heart” (Jeremiah 18:12). They have forgotten that the God of Israel is the God of all creation, and the Lord of all nations. But they’re about to find out what it means to have a God nearby, hiding behind the mask of the Babylonians. When God comes near to sinners, in all His glory and majesty, it means the end of sinners. If God comes to you and me unwrapped or uncovered—what Luther called the “naked God”—then we’re in trouble. We would end up on our faces next to Isaiah, crying out, “Woe is me! I am dead. For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of the heavenly armies!” (Isaiah 6:5). Maybe we don’t want a God nearby after all.
Maybe a God far away, then? A God who doesn’t get too involved; a God who doesn’t care what you do, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone; a God who won’t come into your house, unless you ask Him, because every other thing you can think of has failed. Unfortunately, there is no God like that. The far-away God who speaks through Jeremiah is the God who fills heaven and earth (Jeremiah 23:24). He is the God who sees and hears all things (23:24, 25). He is the God from whom no one can hide (23:24). He is the God of whom St. Augustine said, “He is all eye, because He sees all things. He is all ear, because He hears all things. He is all hand, because He does all things. He is all foot, because He is present everywhere” (quoted by Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces: On the Nature of God and the Trinity [St. Louis: Concordia, 2007], 185). He knows what you do in the privacy of your own home, He knows what you do on the internet, He knows what music you listen to, He knows every thought you think. It reminds me of that terrifying children’s song, “Be careful little eyes what you see.” Do you know it? “Be careful little eyes what you see, be careful little ears what you hear, be careful little hands what you do, be careful little feet where you go, for the Father up above is looking down in love, so be careful little eyes what you see.” If you ever want to scare little children, sing that song to them. I’m not sure I want that God either, not knowing my own black heart.
He is the God who says only Moses can come near to Him on Sinai; the God whose Ark of the Covenant is so holy that no one may touch it without immediately dropping dead. “’Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,’ says Yahweh, ‘and I will heal him’” (Isaiah 57:19). But “’there is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked’” (Isaiah 57:21). It is the wrath of this God, Yahweh, that will not turn back until He has executed and accomplished the purposes of His heart (Jeremiah 23:20). And if that far-away God, who fills heaven and earth, were to come near us in His glory and majesty, then there is no hope for sinners. But though the destruction of sin and, indeed, of sinners, is part of the purposes of His heart, the destruction of His creation is not. God does come near, but not in His naked majesty. He comes near wrapped up tight in flesh, huddled in the womb of the Mary, the Mother of God in the flesh. And in these latter days, the ones who have been given eyes to see and ears to hear understand clearly how Yahweh has executed and accomplished the purposes of His heart. He has done it in our flesh, in this creation, by the fire of wrath that goes forth like a storm from heaven. The fire that Jesus came to cast on the earth, to kindle on the cross, as He was baptized with that unique baptism (Luke 12:49-50). It is literally impossible for sinners to draw near to the living God except through His crucified Son. It is through Him that Yahweh makes sinners draw near to Him; “’for who would dare of himself to approach Me?’ declares Yahweh” (Jeremiah 30:21). It is Jesus who declares that the Kingdom of God has come near to you (Luke 10:9, 11). It is Jesus to whom sinners draw near, to hear His Word. But Jesus doesn’t just declare peace; He doesn’t just bring it; He is the Peace of God. “In Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace…when He came, He proclaimed peace to you, the far off ones and peace to the near ones, because through Him we both have access in the Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:13-14, 17-18). That is why people divide over Him, because those who have Him have peace; those who don’t have Him don’t have peace and are divided from those who do (Luke 12:51-53). In Him alone is peace with the Father whose wrath would otherwise consume sinners like straw. Instead, He has spread out His arms between you and the wrath, giving Himself as the eternal sacrifice for everything the Father sees and hears and knows about you. At the intersection of the cross, and there only, can God draw near to sinners in mercy. He comes wrapped up in a bloody, dirty, physical, human package, and He does it for you.
And there is no more wrath for those who are in Christ. To the one whom the Father draws, the Son gives Himself, Life itself. Jesus says, “Everyone whom the Father has given to Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will surely never cast outside” (John 6:37). And “if someone has Him who fills all things,”—if someone has the very Word of God by which He created all things; if someone has the Word by which He makes water more powerful than sin; if someone has the Word by which He makes bread and wine carry the eternal weight of Christ’s Body and Blood—“he has more than the whole world…What could such a heart ever lack?” (Luther, AE 13:405-406). “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!” (Romans 11:33, ESV) That He would draw near to us covered in our own flesh, born of a Virgin. A God who fills heaven and earth, coming near to sinners in mercy. Who could imagine or dream such a thing?
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/14/10