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God Changed a Name: Abraham November 30, 2011

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Genesis 17:1-16

 Advent

November 30, 2011

Focus: God blesses His people through His covenant.

Function: That the hearers find the gospel in the Old Testament.

Structure: Working the text.

 

God Changed a Name: Abraham

            As most of you have already noticed, the church is decorated for Christmas.  And as Pastor talked about this weekend, we’ve begun a new church year.  The first season of the church year is Advent, the season in which we prepare for the coming Messiah.  And that’s why we’re here in worship today.  As we prepare for the coming of the Christ, we’ll look at the Old Testament just as the people would have done two thousand years ago.  And a little more specifically, we’ll be looking at names.

What makes a name?  Names are important in our culture, our world.  Everyone has a name; it’s the way others identify who you are.  Knowing someone’s name shows in some way that you have a relationship with them.  Your own name becomes a mark of identification for official documents and the government.  But how many of you actually know what your name means?  Don’t be afraid: raise your hand if you know.

My name, Steve, comes from the Greek name Stephanos, which means “crown.”  If you’re willing to do the research, you can find out what your name means.  In fact, if I were really curious, I could find out what all of my name means: Steven Paul Andrews Junior.  But I haven’t.  It’s not really important to us.  It’s just a neat, little factoid to know about yourself.  But names used to mean a whole lot more.  In Biblical days, you had just a first name, like Adam and Eve.  And in the case of Hebrew, names spelled out a whole sentence or phrase of meaning.

I figured it wouldn’t be a good use of my time for me to sit in the office this week and count how many names are in the Bible.  You probably wouldn’t like to know that that’s how I was spending our church’s resources.  But I would guess there are over a thousand names in Scripture, each with its own meaning.  That’s why it’s important for us to note the number of times names changed.  Nebuchadnezzar renamed Daniel and his men.  Naomi renames herself Mara.  Moses renamed Joshua.  You can track the changes in the meaning in a study Bible or on the internet.  But out of the less than twenty name changes, only eight of them come from God.  Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, a priest named Passhur, Hosea’s three children, and lastly Peter in the New Testament.  When God changed a name, He had good reason for doing it.

One mistake that we often make today is looking at the Old Testament as law and the New Testament as gospel.  There is plenty of gospel in the Old Testament.  Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward, and other times we have to dig a little.  But it’s really interesting that each time God changes a name, it tells us a little about who God is and what He’s done for us.  That is, it shows us the gospel.  We’ll look at some of these name changes and their meanings in the weeks ahead.  And we’ll start today by looking at Abraham and his wife Sarah.

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.

 

So we start with Abraham’s original name.  Abram breaks down into two words, ab and ram.  Ab means father.  And ram in this usage means exalted.  So Abram meant “exalted father.”  But we’ll get back to that.  Yahweh appears to Abraham when he’s already 99 and tells him to be righteous.

2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

This isn’t the first time Abram had dealt with Yahweh.  Yahweh called him to go to Egypt, had promised him land and that he would become a great nation.  He promised him a son through his wife Sarai.  But here, Yahweh proceeds with these promises.  He makes them into a covenant, an unbreakable vow punishable by death.

3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations.

 

Whether Abram fell down out of fear that he would not be able to keep up his end of the covenant, or just out of respect we don’t know.  But it’s interesting how God turns this.  “As for Me, this is My covenant with you.”  So regardless of what Abram does, Yahweh is going to do His side of the deal.  Yahweh will make Abram the father of many nations.

5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham,for I have made you a father of many nations.

And here we get the name change.  Abram goes from “exalted father,” to something harder for us to figure out.  We know what God meant, as God even explains the new name “for I have made you a father of many nations.”  But it’s still tricky.  Ab, father, is still in the name.  But the new ending, raham, is not a Hebrew word that we know today.  Maybe it was then, so Abraham knew it.  But if not, we can see a lot of interesting pieces in the name.  The b and the r make up the word in Hebrew for a covenant.  They also make a verb that means to cut a covenant.  The other interesting piece is that the Hebrew explanation from God, father of many nations, pronounced ab hamon goyim, has most of the name.  Ab hamon.  The syllables that begin and end of Abraham’s new name are the first two syllables of the explanation.  Father of a multitude comes from those syllables.  And the very ending, am, is also a word that means “a people” or “nations.”  So we see, as God explained, the name to mean “father of many nations” and also with a little reminder of the covenant.  Abraham certainly saw the meaning.

So why go as far as to change Abram’s name?  It was to serve as a constant reminder to Abraham of who he is, and also of what Yahweh has promised to him.  It’s like God using water in baptism.  Water is such a common element we see it all the time.  Luther and others told us that whenever we see water, we should think of our baptism.  It’s that constant reminder in our life.  It was a constant reminder for Abraham of the covenant.

6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The wholeland ofCanaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

 

Here Yahweh spells out what the covenant is.  Abraham will become the father of many nations, his offspring too numerous to be counted.  That’s saying something for a man who had his first child in old age.  God promises the covenant will be for all of Abraham’s descendants.  This is also where the idea of the Promised Land comes from; the land that Moses leads the people of Israel to.  God gives them the land.

9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner–those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

 

I’ve heard people try to attach hygiene to circumcision.  Sometimes we do this with things that don’t make sense in the Old Testament.  The command to not eat unclean animals is explained away because they didn’t have the proper preservation and cooking techniques then to eat something like a pig.  They would have gotten sick from it.  Okay, maybe.  But I don’t think proper hygiene is why males had to be circumcised.  Yahweh identifies circumcision as a sign for the people.  So, like Abraham’s name was a constant reminder for him, or water for our baptisms, it’s a reminder.  Every time a man used the restroom he’d remember; every time a husband and wife slept together or were intimate together, they’d remember the covenant; every time a mother took care of her young child, every time a new boy was born and the circumcision was done, they’d remember.  Circumcision was a sign of the covenant.  So while circumcision does mark the people’s pledge to the covenant, it will also constantly be a reminder.

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

 

And Yahweh goes ahead and gives Abraham’s wife the same blessing of a reminder.  I focus on the reminder aspect for her, because scholars today debate the change in meaning.  Yahweh changes her name from Sarai, meaning “my princess” to Sarah, but that’s the tough name.  Some see it as still meaning “princess,” but others say a “lady,” or “gentlewoman,” and others still try to connect it to an Arabic word that would make her name mean “mother of multitudes.”  Yahweh, Abraham, and Sarah all would know the significance, and which interpretation is correct.  But regardless of which way it went, it served the purpose of being a reminder for her of her role in the covenant.

The mentioning of kings is interesting as well.  It showed up for both Abraham and Sarah.  But it’s a blessing and a curse.  Any of you who have read much of the Old Testament may remember that kings were a bad thing.  It was a very dark day in Israel’s history when they replaced Yahweh with Saul, their first king, which we have in the book of Samuel.  Thankfully, it’s also a blessing because the coming Messiah will be referred to as a king.

So we see in our text today law and gospel.  God gives them things to do in order to be part of the covenant.  But it’s also gospel, because God says that the covenant is His, and He’ll take care of everything.  It doesn’t depend on us.  We see law with circumcision, and yet at that same time, it’s a blessed reminder of the covenant, which is God’s faithfulness to us, thus a gospel message.  And all the while, Yahweh gives Abraham and Sarah new ways to look at life and to live out the covenant.  He promises to make them great, with vastly abundant offspring.  And we know He kept that promise, just as He kept the promises of the whole covenant.  And we also know, the King comes indeed.

 

 

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Yahweh Provides November 24, 2011

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Deuteronomy 8:1-10
Day of Thanksgiving
November 23-24, 2011

Focus: God provides for His children.
Function: That the hearers give thanks to God for His gifts.
Structure: Here is a prevailing view…but here is the claim of the gospel.

Yahweh Provides

Thanksgiving. Who doesn’t like Thanksgiving? When else do you get to gather with family and friends? When else do you get to eat such great home cooking? When else do we get to watch football on a Thursday? And of course, when else do we get to prepare to camp out all night for the big deals on Black Friday?
Thanksgiving. It’s a great national holiday. But have we lost the true meaning of Thanksgiving? The Pilgrims or Separatists settled Plymouth colony in December 1620. After suffering through a hard first winter in America, where half their population died, they received some unexpected help from the local tribe known as the Wampanoag. Led by Samoset and his fellow tribesman Squanto, the natives taught the settlers how to grow corn and beans, which plants were good for medicine, how to get sap from maple trees and many more things. That first fall, the settlers of the Plymouth Colony found all of their needs met. They had food, shelter, friends, and the skills needed to really call America home.
This sets the stage for the first Thanksgiving as we know it today. The people of Plymouth invited the Wampanoag tribe for a feast of thanksgiving, and they ate and celebrated together for three days.
We can only imagine how much more peaceful and relaxed their feast was than ours is today. The hustle and bustle of getting the meal prepared. The quarrels that sometimes come up when you see a relative you only see once a year, if that. The stress of finances and the burden of shopping that the season brings as we’ve all turned our eyes towards Christmas already.
And many of us don’t even get a holiday. As an example, my dad works on computers, and with the office closed, his bosses see that as the best time to work on their systems. So his whole team will work round the clock this Thanksgiving. And with stores opening earlier and earlier, this trend may grow in the near future. And some of us here may suffer from loneliness this year as families move away and loved ones die. For some, the holiday simply becomes a reminder of the things they don’t have.
Looking at the negatives, seeing the glass as half empty, is definitely a slippery slope. It’s all too easy to forget the purpose for this holiday. It’s all too easy to forget the things we have to be thankful for. The people of Plymouth didn’t curse God because of their losses, but praised Him for what they had.
Thanksgiving is an opportunity to count the blessings and provisions that Yahweh has given to us. In our Old Testament lesson, Moses reminded the Israelites of just that. He reminded them of the promised land God had given them. He reminded them of their being humbled by God, of the gift of manna which they had never seen before. He reminded them that they always had clothing and sandals for their feet during their forty years of wandering. He reminded them that Yahweh indeed brought them into the promised land, with its streams, valleys, and hills, with wheat, barley, vines, fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey. He reminded them that they didn’t lack anything they needed. Indeed the life of the nation of Israel was better than it had been before. Moses made sure the Israelites remembered that God was the One providing for them.
And that’s where Thanksgiving should be in our hearts today. It should be a reminder to count our blessings, not our shortcomings; to give thanks for what we have been given by God, not to weep about what is lacking.
When we count our blessings, it is easier to see and give thanks for the things of this world than for the spiritual blessings we have. It is easier to see the roof over our heads, the jobs, the friendships, the clothes, and the many comforts of this life. Those are all definitely things to be thankful for. But, we’re at church, so I’ll focus on the spiritual blessings we have, and leave the rest to you and your family to give thanks for.
How often do we count this congregation as a gift from God? How often do we think about the relationships, the friendships, that we have here? This church, this place where you come to worship Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, this is a gift from God Himself to you. Each and every member here is a blessing from God. So we take the time today to give thanks for our church.
“Yahweh, heavenly Father, we come before You this day to give thanks for all the blessings that You have given to us as Your children. We give You thanks that this year alone, we had 11 baptisms. We rejoice in having received 22 new members via transfer from other churches. And we thank You that through our new member classes, we added another 36 members to our congregation. In one year, that’s 69 new men, women, and children, all of whom are Your children, our brothers and sisters. And if that weren’t a blessing enough, every weekend, You provide multiple visitors who walk through the doors and join us in the pews to hear Your beloved gospel. Yet another blessing. We most certainly give You thanks and praise for Your continued work in growing Your kingdom among us.
Lord, we also thank you for all the things that go on around this church. We give thanks to You for all the various ministries here. We are thankful for the volunteers that make up the various boards and councils, as well as all the other volunteers who work behind the scenes to keep this church moving. We praise You for our Pastor, organist, and our entire staff for all they do for Your church. We give thanks for our choirs, both vocal and bells, and our contemporary worship team. We rejoice for all the little children that You have put in this place. We give thanks for the various ministry groups, who develop friendships and do service and outreach efforts to further Your kingdom.
We give praise to you for the vast number of Bible study opportunities throughout the week. We give thanks for the Sunday School program and our Youth group. We rejoice in the gift of our school, where kids can come and learn about You. We give thanks for the teachers who teach, and the whole staff for all they do to keep the school functioning.
Yahweh, Lord God, heavenly Father, sometimes we forget that all of these things, all of our ministries are a gift from You, a provision for Your kingdom. Thank You for making us Your people. Thank You for blessing us, and for working in us to continue to bless the rest of Your creation. Thank You for the whole Christian Church. Thank You for being our God. Amen.
Before anyone accuses me of forgetting, there is one final blessing for which we give thanks on this day. That is the gift of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son. Sometimes we do forget this blessing. As Lutherans, we’re typically so good at talking about Jesus, about making sure everything is centered in the cross, that our senses have actually become dull to just how strange this gift really is.
As a people, a nation, a community, as individuals, however you choose to look at yourself, we are so far from what God made us to be. Sin corrupted us so much, that God had to resort to a very drastic measure to fix us. Yahweh is so holy, that one little sin is enough to ruin man, creation, everything. Sin is so intoxicating and has spread so thoroughly throughout us, that Yahweh had to make the ultimate of sacrifices to atone for us.
It’s easy to overlook how serious the death of Jesus really is. For anyone who has lost a child, maybe you have the opportunity to know that feeling just a little better. But imagine, sacrificing your beloved child to save some no good, wretched, worthless, cheating scumbag. Well, insert Jesus as that child, and we’re the scumbag. It’s a strange, twisted reality. And that shows us all the more just how much Yahweh, our Father and Creator, truly loves us. He gave up His Son when we were worthless. That also shows us how much Jesus cares for us. We are family, now and forever.
So on this, Thanksgiving Day, we take the time to remember. We take the time to give thanks for all of the blessings that God has provided for us. We rejoice in His provisions and gifts, both earthly, and spiritually. And nothing says it better this day, than our brother Moses when he said: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise Yahweh your God for the good land He has given you.” Amen.

The Stewardship of Our Talents November 13, 2011

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Matthew 25:14-30

 Proper 28

November 12-13, 2011

Focus: God created us and gives us everything that we have and are and ever will be.

Function: That the hearers more faithfully use the resources God has given to them.

Structure: A revolving trifecta.

The Stewardship of Our Talents

            Next weekend is Commitment Sunday, Stewardship Sunday.  But you certainly wouldn’t know it from our gospel reading this morning.  When we were preparing for this three week stretch of stewardship that started last week, Pastor said we would put just a sprinkle of stewardship in the sermon the first two weeks, and then really drive it home on the 20th.  We didn’t look at the texts we had to work with.  It’s a big challenge to find a section of Scripture that is more about stewardship than this one.  So, here comes more than just a sprinkle.

We have today a parable, and in this parable the master entrusts his servants with his money, which they are responsible for until he comes back.  And when he returns, two of them have taken the money and made more.  The third, however, did nothing with it, hiding it away out of fear.  Now we’ll be breaking this down a little more in depth, but first I wanted to mention what stewardship is not.

Stewardship is not purely talking about money.  As a young child growing up in a Lutheran church, I can remember one lady saying, “Pastor, just tell me when Stewardship Sunday is so I know when not to come to church.”  Now, I was too little to remember if she really meant that, or if she was just joking with him.  But, either way, she didn’t want to have Pastor telling her what she should be doing with her money.  She earned it, so it was hers to do with as she pleased.

But let’s take a look at that attitude.  I earned it, it’s mine.  That’s my house, my car, my dreams, my food, my pew.  It’s mine.  Look, the deed to this vehicle even has my name on it.  It’s really mine.  I’ve got proof.  So where does this attitude go wrong?

Psalm 24 says “The earth is Yahweh’s, and all it contains.”  Psalm 50, “For every beast of the forest is Mine, The cattle on a thousand hills.  I know every bird of the mountains, and everything that moves in the field is Mine…The world is Mine and all it contains.”  From the prophet Haggai, “‘The silver is Mine and the gold is Mine,’ declares Yahweh of hosts.”  And from Deuteronomy, “Behold, to Yahweh your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth and all that is in it.”

The Bible is crystal clear, everything is God’s.  But what about our role in all of this?  We are the ones who get up each morning and trudge off to a hard day’s work.  Well, who gave you life?  Who created the world you live in? Who blessed you with the ability to walk and to live?  Who makes the sun rise every morning?  We hear from Paul to the church in Corinth “For who regards you as superior?  What do you have that you did not receive?  And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”

Everything that we have is a gift from God.  Our life, the very breath we breathe.  The world we live in, the friendships and relationships we have.  The skills, talents, uniqueness that makes us all individuals.  Every possession.  Every second of every day.  Every dime, all the time.

That’s part of what makes God so awesome.  Despite sin, the world goes on.  God continues to create life and to bless His creation, and to love us as His children.  The ultimate gift and blessing, Jesus, God’s own Son is another amazement.  God continues to bless us.  He gave up His Son to take away our sins.  We didn’t deserve it, but we got it.  We don’t deserve to keep living, but we get to.  We don’t deserve to have relationships with others, but God continues to create life.  We don’t deserve to have a home, or a job, or a car, or anything like it, but God continues to love and bless His people.

And if Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t an awesome enough blessing from God, try this next one.  Despite our sin, God chooses to use us to spread His kingdom.  At one point in His ministry, Jesus tells the Pharisees that if His disciples didn’t proclaim the gospel, the rocks would.  Now, I don’t know about you, but when I look in the mirror, I often think: go for it God; use the rocks.  What good am I?  If You can use whatever You want to share the Word, to spread Your love, do it!  Why me?

But that’s what stewardship is.  Stewardship isn’t just that one Sunday a year when you show up at church and get the law dumped on you about giving money to church.  Is that part of it?  You bet.  But it doesn’t even begin to crack the surface.  Stewardship is how we manage all of God’s gifts, all of the resources He has given to us.  Stewardship includes money, time, talents, relationships, and the various opportunities God provides at random moments in your life.  Believe it or not, the relationship you have with your boss is a gift from God.  Stewardship asks the question: what are you going to do with it?

We take a brief look back to our gospel lesson.  The first two servants are the same.  The master gives according to their ability, giving one 5 and the other 2.  Both of them go out, use what he gave them to make more, and then report back to him.  To each he says: “Well done good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of your master.”  They are faithful to him, and use the resources he entrusted to them.

The other guy, not so much.  He’s given 1 talent.  The master knew his ability level was low, but still provided for him, still entrusted something to him and gave him a chance.  But he was full of excuses.  “I knew you to be a hard man…I was afraid…hid your talent in the ground.  Here’s what is yours.”  The master would have been better off giving that talent to someone else.  Even to the rocks.  The servant wasn’t faithful.

It’s similar to the idea that good trees bear good fruit.  It’s an apple tree because it grows apples.  We are Christians, and we know that by our fruit.  The way we live, act, and love.  How we use the resources God has blessed us with will be used to determine whether or not we believed.  We are saved by grace, but judged nonetheless.  Ephesians 2 says it well:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:8 ESV)

Works don’t make you a Christian, but as a Christian, God uses you to do good works.  As His children, many of the routine tasks of our days are good works.  Smiling and greeting someone on the sidewalk.  Taking a minute to listen to someone else’s problems.  Saying thank you.  Helping a friend.  Praying for others.  The list of ways to use our relationships that God gives us is endless.

So what isn’t good stewardship?  Well, we’re not here to live the American dream.  Being rich isn’t quite the goal of a Christian life.  But what if that’s a blessing you happen to have?  Share it.  Give to charity, help people.  Most of us will never be “American dream” kind of rich.  But what about the new “American dream.”  Debt up to your eyeballs.  Maxed out credit cards, car payments, medical bills, payments on the TV you had to have but couldn’t pay for.  That’s what’s become of the American dream.  Aren’t there better things to do with the money God has entrusted to us than paying interest?  20% interest on your credit card?  If we didn’t have debt, think of the ways that money could be put to good use.

Just as a quick side-note.  Dave Ramsey is a good, Christian resource to look up if you have financial problems.  The man knows his stuff.  It’s a gift he’s been entrusted with.  And he loves teaching it to others.  But he gives a great example of what debt does.  It stops you from giving.  A friend of his went out for breakfast to a Waffle House on Thanksgiving.  Anyone working at a diner on Thanksgiving really needs a job.  In this case, it was single mother trying to get by.  As a Christian, he took the opportunity to ask her about her life.  He heard her story.  And being moved, he decided to leave a $500 tip.  He sat out in the parking lot and watched her do the Snoopy dance when she found the money.  Being out of debt, he had the money to give, to change her life, to help someone in need.  That’s not to say that you can’t help if you’re in debt.  Listening, talking, encouraging, comforting, praying for that woman are all examples of other ways to help.

Let’s reinforce this, money isn’t the only thing.  It doesn’t solve every problem.  If Bill Gates lost his wife, would money help?  There are ways to help someone grieve, but giving them money doesn’t do it.  I was listening to the Christian radio station KLOVE the other day and they told a story submitted by a college girl.  She had been walking back from lunch to campus when she came upon a homeless man.  Moved with compassion, she went up to him, opened her wallet, took out all the cash she had, a whopping $3, and handed it to him.  He was thankful, but struck up a conversation.  They talked for nearly an hour before she realized she really needed to head to class.  As she was leaving, he said something that rocked her world.  “I’ll be praying for you.”  Money, time, talent, relationships, prayer.  How many of God’s gifts were in this one little example?  Who helped who more?

Bonus trivia: did you know the English word “talent” actually comes from the Greek word used in this parable?  Quiz time:  What’s a better use of your money: a carton of cigarettes, or groceries so you can feed your kids?  What’s a better use of a God-given talent: screaming at your spouse in an argument, or singing praise to God in a choir?  What’s a better use of your time: sleeping ten hours every day, or spending some extra time getting to know the widow living next door?

Through the resources God has given us, we are blessed with the opportunity to build up the church, both those who have faith, and those who don’t.  We are blessed with the opportunities within this congregation to support the nourishment of faith of over a thousand Christians.  Young and old.  And we are blessed with the opportunities outside of this congregation, be it in our families, work places, play places, where we shop, eat, or live, we are blessed with opportunities to share God’s resources, the very love and gift of grace through His Son Jesus Christ with thousands more who don’t know Him.

God loves each and every one of us.  And He has exceedingly blessed each of us with time, talent, relationships, and in some cases, money.  God has entrusted all of us, all of His people, with His resources.  And He asks us to be good stewards of what He has given us.  For whatever reason, God chose to use us.  That’s how the church works, through means.  We are His means.