It is not unlike it was in the case of the Prophet Jonah: You know that story, right? He did not want to go, when God first sent him to Nineveh; but then, after three days and nights in the belly of the great fish, when God sent him again, the Prophet Jonah went and preached the wrath to be revealed against that wicked city.
And then, something surprising happened. The people listened to the preaching! And, from the king on his throne down to the lowliest peasant, they repented in sackcloth and ashes. That was the first surprise. The second surprise, to Jonah at least, was that God had mercy and spared the people of Nineveh. His wrath was not yet revealed or vented against them.
And that made Jonah pout. In fact, he was angry and upset with God. He resented the grace and compassion of the Lord, His mercy and forgiveness, His slowness to anger, and His abundant loving-kindness. The Prophet himself still needed to be catechized in the way of repentance; that he might learn to know and love the Lord within the Wisdom of the Cross.
It is a similar scenario in the case of John the Baptist. Not that he has been reluctant in his preaching; not at all! But that his expectations have also been redefined and turned about, in a way that he is still processing and learning to understand within the walls of his prison.
He has boldly spoken of the Coming One, the One mightier than he, who will thoroughly cleanse the threshing floor and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. He has warned of divine wrath & vengeance against all unrighteousness, and of dire consequences for sin. He has called out the self-righteous and commanded them to bear the fruits of repentance.
And all of this is exactly right. It is the Word and Will of God. It is the proclamation of the messenger who goes before the face of the Lord, to prepare His Way. It is the preaching of the Elijah who was to come, by which the Lord God almighty accomplishes His purposes.
But what is the purpose of God? That is the question. That is, I believe, what St. John is wondering and wrestling with. While imprisoned for his own faithfulness in preaching, he has been hearing of the works of Christ, and it doesn’t sound like what he was expecting.
Instead of calamity and consequences on the heads of sinners, there is compassion for the dregs of society. Jesus has a growing reputation for eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. It is true that, like St. John, He does call sinners to repentance, and He teaches them to live a new life within their calling. And yet, something sure seems different.
It’s not that John the Baptist was wrong in what he has preached and practiced, but he hasn’t known the rest of the story. The Kingdom of heaven is at hand, and there will be judgment, but righteousness itself is in the process of being redefined and fulfilled in Christ Jesus. So it is that sinners are being rescued, whereas the righteous are suffering violence and hurt.
The great reversal is begun in the coming of the Christ, as His miracles of life and healing attest: The blind see; the lame walk; lepers are cleansed; the deaf begin to hear; and even the dead are raised up to newness of life; because the Gospel is preached, even to the poor.
This reversal of fortunes — such as we sing with the Blessed Virgin Mary in her Magnificat all year — is accomplished in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. He was rich, but He made Himself poor, in order that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. He has come, not to condemn the world with the wrath of God against sin, but to bear that wrath in His own Body; to suffer death, so that we might live through Him.
Even now, the suffering of the righteous Forerunner at the hands of a violent and vacillating man, anticipates the Cross and Passion of the Mighty One who comes after him. The very judgment that St. John proclaimed, the fire and brimstone that we heard from him last week, is voluntarily borne by the Son of Man — in whom the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!
He suffers violence against Himself, willingly, in order to save sinners: Not by condoning their sin, but by the way of repentance, that is, the dying and rising of contrition, confession, and faith in His forgiveness of sins. His forgiveness is not license, but rescue from sin, and reconciliation with God. It is righteousness and life, through His atonement and cleansing.
Beloved, His own Cross and Resurrection are your repentance and your righteousness, as you believe and are baptized into Him. It is already anticipated and begun in His Baptism by St. John in the Jordan River. There and then, much to St. John’s surprise, the Lord Jesus took upon Himself the repentance of sinners, and so entered upon the Way of His Cross.
His Repentance — His death upon the Cross, and then His Resurrection from the dead — that is “the Way” in the wilderness; which is the only Way into the Kingdom of heaven, but it passes through the midst of the desert, and through the valley of the shadow of death.
This difficult, narrow, and perilous Way of the Cross is the Highway of Holiness. It is the Way of faith toward God, and of love for God and your neighbor. It is the Way of Life that you now live, in and with Christ Jesus, as you follow after Him into His glorious Kingdom.
The irony and challenge is, that this Highway of Holiness appears to be sorrow and sighing. For the Glory of the Kingdom is not yet by sight, but only by faith in the Word of Christ. What you see with your eyes for the time being, and what you feel and experience, both within yourself and in the world around you, is still the Cross of suffering, sin, and death.
But the Truth remains in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus; and in His Baptism, which has become your Baptism — your water in the wilderness, your spring in the desert.
There’s no denying the harshness of your surroundings, nor the roughness of your own body and life. But, even here, there is Life in the Cross and Resurrection of the Christ. Indeed, there is Life to be found nowhere else, but only here, in this dying and rising of His, by which you are born, not of woman, but of God, into the Kingdom of heaven.
Repent, therefore, and return every day to the Way of the Cross. Repent, and return to the Cross, by remembering and returning to your Baptism into Christ; that is, by hearing and heeding His Word, His preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Listen to Him, and learn from Him.
Do not despair of God’s promises to you, which are “Yes!” and “Amen!” in Christ Jesus. And do not grow weary of doing good, but take courage. Persevere in your calling, and on your pilgrimage, by faith in the Word that God has spoken to you by His Son. Be patient.
Consider the examples you have been given: The familiar story of Job in the Old Testament. The ministry of St. John the Baptist, and of the Prophets and Apostles before and after him, who were persecuted and put to death for their faithfulness, and yet God accomplished His purposes through their words and their works. So too, the example of your dear Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered quietly and patiently in the confidence of His God and Father. In His Resurrection from the dead, you hear the outcome of all His dealings with you.
What, then? Do not become impatient, and don’t give yourself over to evil words and works of sin. Do not grumble and complain. Such words of anger and bitterness are powerful, and they lead, not to repentance, but to hardness of heart. Instead of muttering against God and your neighbor, and about the place in life that God has given you, cleanse your heart and mind, your body, soul and spirit, your words and actions, by rehearsing the Word of Christ.
Pray and confess what you have heard from Him. His Word is powerful, and it gives and does what it says: forgiveness and life in His Name, and faith and love by His Holy Spirit. So, then, speak as He has spoken, and discipline yourself to live according to His Word; not as though to justify yourself, but as a disciple of Him who is your Justification.
Arm yourself, and armor yourself, with His Word; so that, by His Word and Spirit, you are not offended by Him or His Cross, but cling to His Cross in the hope of His Resurrection.
It is not likely that you, a Christian, would take offense at the Gospel story of His Cross, as you confess in the Creeds. Neither take offense at the Cross that you are given to bear and to suffer in repentance. Rather, persevere with patience in the promise of the Resurrection. How so? Again, by hearing and heeding His Word, and by rehearsing it daily in yourself.
For the Word of Christ is not simply true; it is living and active. As you hear it preached, and as you pray and confess it (for yourself and for your neighbor), His Word bestows the Life that He has accomplished and obtained for you in His own Body of flesh and blood.
It is the Word of Christ that works His works for you, and in you, even unto faith and life in Him. His Word puts you to death by His Cross, in order to raise you up to life eternal in His own Resurrection. Thus, by His Word to you, He opens your ears to hear, your heart to believe, and your mind to comprehend His coming, even now, hidden under the Cross.
So it is that He heals you, strengthens and preserves you, in the midst of sin and death, and when you find yourself “imprisoned,” as it were, or seemingly trapped by circumstances.
And just as He has borne the Cross for you, and risen from the dead for you, so shall He also bring you safely through the sorrow and sighing of this present time, into the gladness and joy of the Resurrection and the Life everlasting. Your body also, He shall raise, so that you will then see with your own eyes, what your ears now hear in His Word: The great Majesty and beautiful Glory of the Lord your God in the crucified and risen Body of Christ Jesus.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.