People have developed and adopted all sorts of coping strategies: machinations, orchestrations, negotiations, and countless different stories to spin to their own advantage and benefit. Perhaps you’ve also tried to lay your own foundation, to build your own house, and to establish your own kingdom, in the hopes of securing your place and purpose in the world, your safety and security.
The problem is, though, that none of those strategies work. Not really, and not for long in any case. None of the numerous ways that you attempt to protect yourself and preserve your life is able to secure what you’ve got or achieve what you actually need. Your self-made building will not last. Sin and death will bring it down, and it will crash and crumble into dust, as easily as your brother smashes your sand castle, and as swiftly as your sister destroys your Lego masterpiece.
Your “covenant with death” is a deceit of the devil, which has become your own self-deception. The joke’s on you, but it’s not the least bit funny. Your “pact with Sheol” will not secure your survival; it actually seals your doom. And your “deal with God,” as many people imagine their own conceit to be, is nothing else than arrogant self-idolatry. So, too, the “understanding” that you think you’ve got with “the Man upstairs” is surely not the fear of the Lord or faith in His Word.
So there comes the preaching of destruction and judgment. The wrath of God is visited upon all disobedience and unbelief, including yours. It is why there are consequences for sin. And do not kid yourself in this regard, as though you could live recklessly and not get burned. For the Lord God sets Himself and the cleansing fire of His Word against all unrighteousness, which is sin, and against all the pompous self-righteousness of man, which leads only to death.
Not only with fire, in anticipation of the final judgment, but also with water, in continuation of the Flood that once destroyed almost everything in the days of Noah, God disciplines the children of man for the sake of His mercy, in order to bring them to repentance and save them by His grace.
I know it doesn’t feel like mercy or grace, but it is, lest you be caught unawares and die forever.
His waters sweep over all things and into all the secret places of your heart, mind, and life, into all the nooks and crannies of your innermost thoughts and private time — behind your closed doors, into the back of your dark closet, and underneath your messy bed. They seek out and wash away all of your deceptions, your every pretense, and your subterfuge. They scourge and they cleanse from the inside-out, like a dentist cleaning out your teeth with jets of water that cut like knives, or a doctor cleaning out your ears with a roaring rush of water that blows away all the wax.
It is like the farmer who plows up his field in order to remove the stones and break up the hard soil, in preparation for the planting of the seed. And again, it is similar to the way he later threshes the grain and grinds it into wheat, in order to bake it into bread.
But the Lord does not keep plowing when the Seed has been planted. He does not continue threshing forever, lest the grain be destroyed along with the chaff. Nor does He grind the wheat into oblivion. But, in due season, the Seed that was sown in humility, which died and was buried in the dust of the earth, He brings forth again as the Bread of Life for the eater.
The deadly and devastating work of His Law, which crushes and purges and threatens to destroy you forever, that is God’s strange and alien work, His unusual and extraordinary task. To be sure, it is a divine and necessary work. Indeed, for those who are perishing in their sinful unbelief it is the first exercise of His mercy toward them. But it is not the best or last Word of the Lord.
It rather goes like this: The Forerunner, as a wise and well-catechized farmer, goes before the face of the Lord to prepare His Way, first with the Word of the Law, but then also with the preaching of the Gospel. The one who threatens fruitless trees with poised and ready axes, and vipers with wrath, and chaff with unquenchable fire, will baptize the Lamb of God, and point to Him, and say, “There is the Mighty One whose power is made perfect in mercy, who takes away all your sins.”
This is another strange and alien work, but of an altogether different sort and in a totally different way. Whereas wrath and condemnation are strange and alien to God’s innermost nature, the Cross of Christ, by which He saves you, is utterly strange and alien to your own self-righteousness.
Learn, then, by His Word and Spirit of the Gospel, to perceive and trust the Cross for what it is, although it cuts against the grain of every other wisdom and every instinct you have known. It is so different from and contrary to your own strategies of safety and security, so different from and contrary to all your striving for self-preservation and survival, that it really makes no sense at all. And yet, it is by the Cross, by the Lord’s own sacrificial death, that He lays the Cornerstone, preserves a strong Foundation, establishes His Throne, and rules His Kingdom in righteousness. Not only for a little while, nor even for a long, long time, but forever and ever.
That is why, already, at the sounding of His Word and promise, the barren old woman and the blessed young Virgin both conceive and bear sons, as surely as the Lord creates all things out of nothing, and as He brings forth Life out of death. These two little boys, these two babies in the womb, anticipate the Resurrection of the Crucified One, of Mary’s Son, from death and the grave. Their very lives confess that all things are possible with God, and that His speaking makes it so.
The infant St. John, in utero, rejoices in the great Salvation of his God. He has heard and believes the promise of the Gospel, even in the greeting of his Savior’s Mother. He already knows by grace through faith, and he confesses with his leaping little feet, what he will preach and profess in due season on the bank of the Jordan River: Here is Mary’s little Lamb who takes all our sins away.
He takes them all upon Himself, this little Lamb of God, the incarnate Lord Jesus, and He bears them in the same Body that He has received from His Mother’s flesh and blood. That is why, when He is finally crucified under Pontius Pilate, when He suffers and dies and is buried, then all the sins of the world — all the sins of all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve — are done away with and forgiven. And because they are not any sins of His own, but He has borne them all in faith and love and innocence, death has no just claim on Him; nor can death lord it over Him or keep Him, but it must relinquish this Lord Jesus Christ to His own God and Father.
So, then, the One who has become like you — your Brother in the flesh, who has borne your sins and griefs and sorrows, who has died your death and suffered the judgment of God in your stead — He has also risen from the dead in the same human flesh and blood that He shares with you.
Which means that, not only have your sins been forgiven, once and forever, but death itself has also been defeated in Him. It no longer has any legitimate claim on you, as you are in Christ. The Lord Himself has cancelled your contract with death; He has renegotiated your pact with Sheol. Hence, even though you die from this mortal coil, yet shall you live forever in both body and soul.
The sign and seal of this precious Holy Gospel is given to you in the son of the “barren” old woman Elizabeth, and in the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is the Sign of the Cross, with which you also have been signed and sealed in your Holy Baptism. And it is given as the surety of your salvation in the Resurrection of your dear Lord Jesus from the dead. For as the Father raised Him up — which is your Justification and your Righteousness — so, by faith in Him, in the Word that He has spoken (which He preaches even now), you are safe and secure forevermore.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.