"We walk by faith, not by sight." That is 2 Corinthians 5:7. It is not a choice we make. It is a necessity. We live in a world that has hidden the things of God, and He chooses to remain hidden, invisible. Theologians have referred to this reality as "the hidden-ness of God." Try as you might, you cannot see God, except in the broadest terms, as Paul mentions in Romans, "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." But the world around us is busy trying to hide that and make even that bit appear to have other explanations. Even that which can be seen does not reveal God so much as the truth that there is a God. It cannot tell us who He is or what He is like, or what He wants from us or for us. By the will of God, He is invisible.
The Church is invisible. Again, there has been a lot of debate about this. How we do church, and how we deal with ecumenism, and what we do with open or closed communion depends a great deal on how we approach the doctrine of the Invisible Church. If you do not believe that the Church is invisible, you must assume that "what you see is what you get." That is, in part, why so many are so desperate to off-load every doctrinal distinctive in pursuit of a public expression of the Christian faith that makes us all look united.
But the Church is invisible. It is not invisible in the sense that you cannot see it, but in the sense that you cannot see where it is true and where is it false, where it actually is and where, in truth, it is not. You can see the church, but you cannot see who belongs and who does not, or if the "church" in front of you is actually part of the true church or a fraudulent imitation designed by Satan to deceive the unwary.
There are signs of the presence of the Church. They are the Word of God proclaimed in its truth and purity, and the Sacraments being administered according to Christ's institution of them. What that means is where the Word is preached according to its clear meaning - not mixed with false doctrine or twisted to say things it does not say, like turning the Gospel into something of a law, and turning the law into something that saves you by your obedience to it - there the true Church is. Not every person you see is necessarily a member of the true Church, but where God is causing His Word to be proclaimed honestly, there the Holy Spirit is at work, creating faith and gathering the Church to Himself.
The same goes for the Sacraments. If they baptize and celebrate the Lord's Supper, without first trying to change the supper into a memorial meal and explicitly denying the presence of the true body and blood of the Lord in the meal, or proclaiming Baptism as a work we do with no sacramental power, that means it does not work the forgiveness of sins and create new spiritual life and make one a member of the body of Christ and the household of God, then we have the Holy Spirit at work, calling the Church into being through the means of grace. You find the church where you find the signs, the means of grace, in use.
It is possible that an assembly can use the Bible, but not be proclaiming the Word of God. Joel Osteen and his ilk seem to do that. A congregation might be using the outward form of either sacrament, but denying their nature and power. Many modern protestant groups do that. There you would not have the Church, just a pagan religious assembly. They probably use the name "church", but we cannot allow ourselves to be deceived by mere words. After all, there are many who call themselves "Lutheran" who deliberately and explicitly deny the very teachings that define one and mark one as a Lutheran.
So, when you see the marks of the Church, as they are called, you know that the Church is there, even though you cannot point to this person or that one and say, "There goes a true Christian." We don't spend any time denying that any single person is a Christian because we cannot see that truth. Judgement belongs to God and to God alone. We can listen to what the teachers say, however, and mark this or that assembly as unfaithful or even false, but we cannot look into the hearts of people, particularly where the marks of the Church are present, and say, "This one is and that one is not a Christian." The Church is, in that regard, invisible to us.
The Church is one Church, as well. We can see the divisions within the visible portion of the church, but what we cannot see outwardly is the absolute, true unity of all those that believe in Christ. They may have certain errors causing them weakness of faith or confusion in their confession, but those errors are what Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 3:12 as "wood, hay, and straw." What unites the Church into one body is Christ, the Holy Spirit being present in us, and our hope resting solely on Christ and not our works, prayers, decisions, or whatever. We are also one Church with those who have gone before. They are the "company of heaven" of which we speak in the liturgy when we say, "with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious name. . ."
Once again, we don't see the unity, which drives some people into ecumenical excess and confessing a 'lowest-common-denominator' kind of faith. The unity is an article of faith, which we confess and rejoice in, while we hold fast to the truth and contend for a clear confession of Christ for the sake of those who are tripping over the wood and hay and straw of a heterodox confession, or who do not know Christ and need to hear the Gospel clearly. An erring church body is an erring church body, but a member of a congregation of such an erring church body may well be a true Christian and a brother or sister in Christ. They may be hindered in some way by the errors of their denomination, but they can still be a Christian, and we want to encourage them and, where possible, help them to see the truth more clearly. Watering down our confession, supposedly for their sakes, will not help with either encouraging them or helping them see the truth more clearly, so we stand firm and confess our faith clearly, fully, and boldly.
Another aspect of this invisibility is the invisible hand of God in our lives. He promises to be there, and to hear and answer every prayer, but we rarely see it as clearly as we can see the troubles and needs of our lives. A great deal of heterodox preaching and teaching flies about in our society so many people are predisposed to expect that the working of God is going to be evident, and positive in our lives. As with the Church, the work of God in our lives requires faith to be seen, and the world around us will work hard to convince us that what we interpret as God's hand in our lives is simple chance or serendipity.
I have even heard Missouri Synod preachers try to dismiss the notion that God is active in our daily lives. It is like in the doctrine of election: some teach that believers have been elected as a group. I believe that God has elected each one of us personally, and knows each of us personally. I take those passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah and such that speak about God knowing us beforehand, from the foundation of the world, as applying to me, and to you, of course. I am confident that God is aware of my circumstances, and has me in His sight for blessings and, particularly, for salvation. The course of my life, while not taking the shape I would have chosen for it - or the one I expected - is so full of blessings at every turn that I cannot help but see the hand of God in it.
Jesus promised those that follow Him would bear the cross. His invitation is for anyone who would come after Him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him. He guaranteed us that the world would not love us, but hate us on His behalf. The calling to be His follower and servant is a calling to places and conditions that we would often rather avoid. Some are called to difficult health as part of their path. Some face economic challenges. Some face violence and persecution of the most painful sort. The nature of the cross that Christ has planned for each of His servants to carry is in His hands, not our own.
In the midst of my life, whatever troubles and sorrows and what-not that I face, I can see the provision of God for me and my family that we might bear it. I would prefer not to bear the particular cross that has been laid on me, but when I look at others, I don't want to carry theirs either. I would rather carry the one appointed for me. God has provided the strength to carry on, the resources to continue, even if they are not as abundant as I would dream, and the help to make carrying the burden possible. The blessing of my wife, alone, is beyond describing. When my courage fails, she is there with me, encouraging me. Then there are all the things that she does. God is good to me!
The world around us can, and does, try to make all the good and the blessing seem like the normal order of things. My own flesh magnifies my troubles in my mind, and tries to take the good for granted. That is sin at work in me. But God is my Refuge and Strength, to quote a famous guy. He has a plan for my life, and a plan to bring me to His eternal glory. So, I will expect Him to be my Guide and my Shield and my Supply, just as He is my Hope and My Righteousness and my Redeemer. I really only need one thing, His help in keeping me faithful to the end. I need it because the hand of God in our lives is invisible, except, perhaps, in hindsight.
Another factor of invisibility is how the values and morality taught in the Word of God is invisible. The Word of God is not invisible, but the truth of the values and morality it teaches is denied and rejected all around us every day. Honesty does not seem to be the best policy in every situation. Loving your neighbor in the same way and to the same extent as you love yourself does not even seem sane at times. Being decent and moral seems to be square, old-fashioned, and foolish at times. The world around you will reward decency and honesty with attempts to take advantage of it to abuse and rob you, and will mock and ridicule you for it. Look how the media dealt with the Duck Dynasty family.
While it may not always seem to be the best path to follow, the morality of the Bible is God's will for our lives. People may say that it is out of date, that it was for those people back then in that oh-so-different world, but God doesn't change. His will for His people doesn't change. Twisting the meaning of words to accommodate the agenda of our society is pure dishonesty. We cannot be saved by living a decent life or keeping the rules, but right is still right, and sin is still sin. The devil wants us to think it doesn't matter, but the price of sin was the death of the very Son of God in our place. We have been saved from sin, but not saved to sin.
People call some sins good business, or a good business practice. Greed is good, according to some movies, and the people they try to represent. Adultery is considered only natural. I remember Country Music songs in my youth singing the praise of lust and adultery; "If it's so wrong to want to be with you my darling, then, I guess I'll go on breaking rules." The truth is the rejection of God's morality is nothing new, not since Adam and Eve. There have been times in our world that society more closely paralleled Biblical morality, but it has never been popular or the majority opinion. But the morality, the ethics, and the values are from God, and so they are right, whether it appears so or not.
Being a Christian means to believe in someone you have not seen with your own eyes, to believe in the Church as something beyond personal observation, believe in truth and the permanency of the truth, to take your values and morals from God, and believe His love for you is demonstrated on the cross of Jesus Christ, and that for His sake you are redeemed, forgiven, and rescued for eternal life, and to believe all of that because the Bible says so.
The Church is invisible, God has hidden Himself from our view, and the obvious nature of the truth and of His will is not apparent to our sight. It is simply taught - clearly taught - in the Word of God. God has not left Himself without a witness. He has given us His Word. He has spoken clearly to us through the Prophets and the Apostles, and through faithful teachers and preachers of His Word. And He calls us to believe: to know what He says, to take Him at His Word, and to trust Him in the face of a world that contradicts Him at every turn.
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
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