There are all sorts of strategies for survival: machinations, orchestrations, negotiations, and as many different stories to tell as there are people to tell them. Perhaps you’ve also tried to lay your own foundation, and to build your own house, to establish your own kingdom, in the hopes of securing your place and purpose in the world, your safety and security.
The trouble is, that none of those strategies work. Not really. Not for long. None of the countless ways that you or anyone else attempts to protect yourself and preserve your life, is able to secure what you’ve got, nor to achieve what you want. Your 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; as swiftly as your sister destroys your Lego masterpiece.
Your covenant with death is a lie of the devil, which has become your own self-deception. The joke’s on you, but it isn’t funny. Your pact with Sheol will not secure your survival, but actually seals your doom. Your “deal with God,” as many people fancy their conceit, is nothing else than arrogant self-idolatry. So, too, the “understanding” that you think you’ve got worked out “with the Man upstairs,” is surely not according to His holy 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 fool yourself in this regard, as though you could live recklessly and not get burned. For the Lord God sets Himself and the 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 men in mercy, in order to bring them to repentance and save them by His grace.
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, in the back of your dark closet, or hidden under your messy bed. They seek out and sweep away your deceptions and 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, afterwards, he threshes the grain, and then he grinds it into wheat, so as 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. It is necessary. For those who are perishing in sinful unbelief, it is the first work of His mercy. But it is not the best or last Word of the Lord.
So, the Forerunner, like a wise and well-catechized farmer, goes before the face of the Lord to prepare His Way: first with the Law, but then also with the preaching of the Holy Gospel. The one who will threaten 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 your sin.”
This, too, is a strange and alien work, but of a 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 man’s 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, and 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 Self-sacrifice, that He lays the Cornerstone, and preserves a strong Foundation, and establishes His Throne, and rules His Kingdom in righteousness. Not only for a little while, nor even 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 out of nothing the Lord creates, and from death He brings forth Life. 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, with God, all things are possible; that His Word 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 knows 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 the sins away.
He takes it all upon Himself, this little Lamb of God, the incarnate Lord Jesus, and He bears it in the Body that He has received from His Mother’s flesh and blood. Which is why, when He is finally crucified under Pontius Pilate, and He suffers and dies and is buried, then all the sins of the world, 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, therefore, death has no just claim on Him; nor can death master Him or keep Him, but must relinquish this Lord Jesus to His own God and Father.
So, 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 your God — 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 has also been defeated: It no longer has any legitimate claim on you, either. 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 always live in both body and soul.
The sign that it is so, 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.