It’s not as though there are no joys along the way, no pleasant perks or satisfactions. Indeed, there are many good things, by the grace of God, for which to give Him thanks and praise. He both leads and follows after you, your Vanguard and your rear Guard both, your right hand and left. And He feeds you on the way; He opens up His hand to provide you with everything you need.
But life in the wilderness is hard. You work hard, and it’s a struggle to keep your head above water, to make ends meet, and to get ahead. No matter how secure your investments, and no matter how safe your neighborhood, there are threats and dangers that may still lay hands on you. And all around you, near and far, your neighbors in the world are falling prey to foul play and disaster.
Some of what you read and hear about, and some of what you know firsthand, may seem like the natural consequences of poor decisions, reckless behavior, or a lack of any foresight and planning. If it befalls someone you don’t know, or someone you don’t like, you’re likely to wag your finger and your tongue; and if it happens to a friend, you may commiserate and shake your head in that sad and knowing way you have. But such things won’t happen to you, right?
Be careful. If you think that you are standing tall and fast, take heed, lest you fall down hard.
There are those calamities, of course, where no amount of planning ahead or being careful make any difference at all. Like a sinkhole opening up beneath your home and swallowing you alive while you sleep in your own bed. Or minding your own business, going about your day, doing what you’re supposed to be doing, and yet, ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time when someone you don’t even know finally snaps and goes postal.
There, indeed, but for the grace of God, go you.
But what is the point or purpose of it all, and what’s your plan? Is it a matter of being savvy and working hard? Or is it chance? A game of luck, be it good or bad, but not of strategy or skill?
As a Christian, you know better. The Word and Spirit of God have taught you so: He has made you and all creatures, and He still takes care of you. Even in the wilderness. Bad stuff happens, but He remains faithful. All of creation is under the curse of sin and death, but there is still hope.
For the Lord your God has entered His creation and become flesh; He has taken your sins upon Himself and lived in the wilderness; He has suffered your death, and He has risen from the dead.
As the Lord Himself lives — not only from eternity, in Himself, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but also in His Resurrection from the dead, in the Person of the incarnate Son, in His own Body of flesh and blood — so surely does He love you and give you His own Life. That is divine grace.
He calls you to live by faith in Him, which is to fear, love, and trust in Him above all other gods. And He calls you to that life, not by force or constraint — not by twisting your arm, not with bribes or threats, and not by violating your will — but by His Word and Spirit. He preaches and teaches, and He pours out His life and His good gifts freely upon you; that you might learn to love Him.
Your life on earth, here in the wilderness, is not a game; it’s not a meaningless exercise; nor is it a scientific experiment, as though you were a rat being run through a maze in some cosmic lab.
But this wilderness is a training ground — as well as a battle zone between God and the devil. The outcome of that contest is already safe and secure in Christ, but He wages the war in such a way that you may share in His victory. So there is this boot camp, as it were, which is your earthly life. It is an apprenticeship, which we normally describe as discipleship; that is to say, you take up the cross and follow after Christ, in order to learn from Him: how to think, and how to speak, and how to live, and how to die. The world is your classroom, and mortal life is a learning experience.
What the Lord is teaching, and what you are here learning, is a daily, ongoing call to repentance; which is painful and hard, to be sure, but it is for your own eternal good. For this is how you learn to live in the faith and love of God, in the neverending divine glory of His grace and goodness.
Sin and its consequences, including death, both within your mortal flesh and all around you in the fallen world, are a preaching of the Law of God; which not only exposes and accuses your efforts to live without the Lord (for that is what you do with all your sins), but it also brings to bear the utter futility of any and all such attempts to make a life for yourself.
Dead men tell no tales.
You do not (and cannot) live by your own self-righteousness, which is really no true righteousness at all, but rather an idolatry of your self.
So, too, even when you are prospering (for a little while in this fading and fast-fleeting world), yet, when others around you suffer, whether as criminals being punished or as victims exploited, in them you are confronted with your own mortality, with your own culpability and vulnerability.
And thus you are reminded of where, and where not, you are called to look for and find your life.
Do not become complacent and lazy, resting on your laurels, or supposing that everything will simply continue as it always has. Nor become haughty and brazen, presumptuous and pushy, as though you had any rightful claims upon life. The truth is that you live by the charity of God, and that you cannot extend your life by so much as a single day beyond what He bestows upon you.
But do not despair of hope, either, and don’t suppose that you will gain control by ending your life. Despair and the death that it brings are neither mastery nor liberation, but a dark enslavement.
Despair of yourself and your righteousness, yes; but then also hope and trust in Christ, your Lord.
Repent of your sin. That is what I mean, and that is what I must preach, if I am to be a faithful watchman of the Lord’s people. Repent of your sin: in all of its breadth, and height, and depth. That is to say, in all of your thoughts, words, and deeds, cease from doing evil, and begin to do what is good and right.
Remember and return to the Lord your God. He is the beginning of your faith and righteousness.
Remember that He brought you out of Egypt through the Red Sea waters of your Holy Baptism, and so now enter into Canaan, with Joshua, by returning to the significance of your Baptism.
That does not mean relying on your Baptism as a presumptuous excuse to sin, as though it didn’t matter; as though it made no difference; as though you could go on sinning with impunity. No, the history of Israel in the wilderness is proof against that, and a warning to you against that lie.
But, rather, leave your sin and every evil, Pharaoh and his chariots and horsemen, drowned in the depths of the sea behind you. Do not dredge them up again in your life and conduct. Instead, live now by the Word of God, by the Food and Drink that He provides, and by His Righteousness.
The wilderness is not only hard but precarious; the time is short, and the Lord’s call to repentance is urgent. Therefore, do not crave evil, but hunger and thirst for the Lord and His good gifts.
Evil does not wear a name tag, but it masquerades as a golden god. It offers enticing promises, stroking your ego, stimulating your mind, warming your heart, and arousing your flesh. It teases your tongue and fills up your belly with tasty morsels and sweet wine. It tells you what you want to hear. It makes you feel good. It looks and sounds like the answer you’ve been searching for.
Do not be deceived. Do not be an idolater; and do not kid yourself that idolatry is easily spotted and avoided. Your gluttony of food and drink is idolatry. Your lust and fornication are idolatry, even if your false gods are only on the internet or in a magazine. Your addiction to gossip, or to shopping, or to anything at all, is idolatry: With your time and energy, with your mind and body, and with your wasted talents and squandered treasures, you worship and serve your addictions.
Beloved, do not try and tempt the Lord your God. Hear and heed His warning, and repent.
In particular, cease and desist from your grumbling and complaining, lest you be destroyed by the devil with his wicked deceits. In this, too, Satan would lead you into complacency, and have you suppose that there is no danger or harm in your muttering and whining. But you are a Christian! Do you not realize that words are powerful? That what you speak, as well as what you listen to, shapes and gives substance to your thoughts and feelings? Even your whispers give voice to the meditations of your heart, and, in turn, they inform and determine the imaginations of your heart. Thus, with your grumbling complaints, the devil hardens your heart against the Lord your God.
But, now, repent of that, and live by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord:
Hold His Word and preaching to be sacred, and, therefore, gladly hear and learn it. And, as you have heard, so also speak. Armor and shield yourself with His Word, and bear it as your Sword against the crafts and accusations of the devil. Let your heart and mind be taught by Christ, that is, by confessing, and praying, and singing His Word. That is where your life is truly to be found.
Then also live your life in Christ, by His Word, by practicing justice and righteousness. That is to say, what you have heard and received from Him, by His grace, put into practice in the way that you speak to your neighbor and deal with your neighbor. Practice charity with all people. Have mercy and compassion on those who are in need; not only with kind words, but with good deeds and generous gifts. Freely forgive, and gladly do good to those who trespass against you. And, where you have done wrong, or failed to do right, now make amends and reparations, as you can.
Such righteous living derives from the righteousness of faith in Christ. It cannot be purchased, nor is it manufactured by human ingenuity. But the good works of which I preach — the practice of justice and righteousness, to which the Lord calls you — these are the fruits of repentance; the fruits of faith; the fruits of the Spirit of Christ Jesus, which are borne by the Tree of His Cross.
This is the repentance to which He calls you, that is, the repentance of His own Cross, and of His Resurrection from the dead. Indeed, His Body and His Blood, crucified and risen, are the First Fruits of repentance, which bear fruits after their own kind in you. And this is the way of escape that He has provided, in order that you may endure the temptations of the devil, the world, and your flesh, and survive the wilderness journey, and finally enter into Canaan, into eternal Life.
The Lord is a tender Teacher, and a patient Pastor. He is merciful, kind and good; long-suffering, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. As surely as He lives — crucified and risen from the dead, never to die again — so surely does He love you; and so does He desire to give you life.
Thus has He given His own life for you, and shed His own blood, by His crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, as the Sacrifice of Atonement for all your sins, and for the sins of the whole world, without exception; and so to conquer death and the devil for you, treading them to dust beneath His feet.
The Tree of His Cross bears the Fruits, the ripe and luscious Figs, by which you live; as much as His death and resurrection are your repentance, your righteousness, your salvation, and your life. For so has He rebuilt the fallen walls and crumbled towers of Jerusalem in Himself, in His Body, that He might be a sure refuge and a mighty fortress for the people of God, in heaven and on earth. This is the New Life to which you are called: here in time, and hereafter in eternity. And this is the House where you now live, in safety and in peace, by the grace of God, through faith in Christ.
As you are daily called to repentance, so surely are you daily and richly forgiven all of your sins. And in this Spiritual Food and Drink, which is Christ — even here in the wilderness, in the midst of sin and death — you are given a Life that is forever, in body and in soul. So that, whether you live or die, you are the Lord’s. And, in Him, you shall never perish, but have everlasting life.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A sword in the hat is better than a foot in your mouth. All the better if it is that double-bladed sword that slices and dices between bone and marrow. But I have always liked to sort things out by thinking out loud with friends and colleagues. And since my opportunities to do so are limited, I figure I can multiply my thinking and sorting here.
Married 31 years, my wife and I have had ten children born to us (six boys, four girls); we have another son and daughter by marriage (and will soon have another daughter by marriage), a son who went ahead of us to heaven from the womb, six grandchildren and counting. I was ordained in 1996, and have been the pastor of Emmaus since then. I have a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies from the University of Notre Dame (2003), and an S.T.M. from Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana