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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Lord is Near!
December 13, 2012

God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth tells us that God’s response to our need for a Savior is not to withdraw from us when we mess up, but to draw nearer to us. Martin Luther had a saying in Latin that captures this well: O felix culpa! It means literally, “O blessed sin!” He had a long history of being inconsolably vexed over his sinfulness. No matter how hard he tried to live an upright life – and he gave it everything he had, adopting the life of a monk who dedicated his entire life to the Lord’s service – he felt that he continued to mess up his life, and that God would surely condemn him for doing so. Then one day the light bulb flashed on for him – the righteous are justified before God by faith in Christ, rather than by their personal worthiness. He was transformed from constant torture over his sin to the blessedness of gratitude for Jesus’ gift of salvation.

Luther came to think of his sin not as that which separated him from God, but as that which brought near to him the Savior who would take away his sin. If we had no sin, we’d need no Savior. What the coming of Jesus teaches us is that our sin brings God near to us to grant us wholeness in place of our brokenness, and justification in place of our judgment. God responds to the way we have trashed our lives and world by sending in heaven’s Salvager to transform our wasteland into something beautiful. I’ve long thought that one of the best ways to think of “salvation” is as a contraction for God’s great “salvage operation.”

In a well-known Scripture passage, the apostle Paul offers to the Philippians a brief catalog of practices that mark spiritual wholeness: Rejoice always. Be gentle to everyone. Worry about nothing. Pray always. Practice gratitude. If we do all this, he says, “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7) Each of these practices could itself be the subject of a dissertation. Rather than dig into them individually here, let’s simply note two things about them collectively: 1. Taken together, these practices yield the blessed harvest of God’s surpassing peace; 2. These practices are conjoined with a simple assertion that seems at first oddly out of place: “The Lord is near.” What has that got to do with rejoicing, being gentle, avoiding worry, and so on?

Well, as it turns out, it is the linchpin in the chain. Because the Lord is near, we can rejoice in all circumstances, knowing that God will complete the work of salvation in us, no matter how great our current distress. (See Philippians 1:7) Because the Lord is near, we can be gentle with everyone, even when they mess up, knowing that God will complete the work of salvation in them, too. Praying always makes sense only if the Lord is near to hear and answer. Because the Lord is near, we can offer up our concerns to God with sure thanksgiving that our Lord hears us and will deliver us.

Advent is the season in which we acknowledge that the Lord is drawing ever nearer to us. This can be terrifying news, if all we see is who we are, with all our shortcomings. Why would we welcome someone who shines heaven’s spotlight on us, if we are doing shameful things? But wait – something very different happens in us once we begin to see the Lord’s nearness in the way Paul sees it. It is a nearness that discloses not only the depth of our sin, but the even greater depth of God’s mercy revealed to us in Jesus Christ! The nearness of God is precisely what makes it possible for us to rejoice, give thanks, be gentle, and overcome anxiety, whatever our circumstance.

The Lord is near indeed - rejoice!

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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