You’re fascinated by St. John the Baptist. Who’s to wonder? He’s a fascinating guy. But you’re also scared to death of him and of his preaching.
Oh, to be sure, you like to hear his fiery preaching well enough, especially when he’s pointing the finger at others. But you don’t like it at all when he really turns the Law on you and on your sins, when he calls you to repent in heart and life, and to set aside your vices and change your behavior.
The fact is, that St. John does call you to repent, and he’s deadly serious about it. Not only that, but your life depends on it. Because it is not lawful for you to think the things you think, to say the things you say, to do the things you do. Your sins and your sinfulness are not lawful.
It is not lawful for you to compete with your brothers and sisters, nor to take away their stuff.
It is not lawful for you to lust after your neighbor’s wife, to crave her for yourself, to devise ways of enticing her away from your neighbor to yourself. Nor his children, his friends, his workers.
Likewise, it is not lawful for you to covet the bodies and affections of young dancing girls, or any of the other provocative allurements of this world, which reign as idols in your heart and life.
All of your selfish, prideful kingdom building is wrong, presuming yourself a god and not a man. Yet, fearing the opinions of man more than the one true God, you commit what amounts to murder in His eyes and in His judgment: By the hatred and enmity in your heart toward those beyond your reach, and by your hurt and hostility against those who are unable to protect or defend themselves.
It is not lawful for you to do any of these things, nor a thousand other similar sins that you commit.
But you add sin upon sin, and you make things far worse, when you shut up the preaching of the Law and presume to keep it on a leash, at arm’s length, or locked up in a cage, demanding that it speak only when spoken to, and only to the limit you permit. Meanwhile, you suppose yourself to be the master of your own domain, the king of your own castle. But you are not in control.
Repent! Or you will lose more than half of your kingdom, and more than your head or your body.
In your confrontation with St. John the Baptist, it’s kill or be killed, at least for the time being. There’s no two ways around it. Neither of you can live while the other one survives in this life.
But here is the profound irony and paradox of the Cross: Those who save their life in this world will lose it forever in the dungeon prepared for the devil and his wicked angels, while those who lose their life for the sake of Christ and His Word of the Gospel will save it for eternal life.
To repent and to be baptized is to put your own head on the chopping block, and to bare your neck to the sword — the Sword of the Spirit and, as needs may be, the temporal sword of the king.
This isn’t fun and games. It is a fearful and deadly encounter. No one gets out alive. One way or the other, you are called upon to die, whether for life in Christ, or for the second death forever.
But, now then, see and hear, not only St. John’s fearful preaching of the Law. By all means, do hear and heed that preaching, and repent. But, in repentance, see him point and give way to Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away your sins, who submits Himself to death and the grave on your behalf, and who raises you up with Himself, in body and soul, unto newness of life.
St. John’s entire life and ministry, his preaching and baptism of repentance, his suffering, and finally his death are a witness and a proclamation of this one Lord Jesus Christ, of His Cross and Passion, and of His Resurrection from the dead.
Everything about St. John — from his miraculous conception and birth, from the waters of the Jordan River to the depths of Herod’s dungeon and, finally, to the tomb in which he is buried — everything about St. John is wrapped up in Jesus and points to the Lord Jesus. For he is called by God to be the Forerunner of the Christ, to go before the face of the Lord to prepare His Way.
And, because the Way of the Lord is the way of the Cross, the way of suffering and death, that is where St. John the Baptist goes.
That is also the case for anyone else who preaches and baptizes in the Name of the Lord Jesus.
And it is no less so for those who are baptized into Him, who are given the Cross to bear and are called to follow after Him, even to the point of death and the grave.
The Lord’s people, His saints, are so wrapped up in Him, so identified with Him, and so also named by Him as Christians, that the world sees Christ Jesus in them.
So it is that Herod could not shake the impression that Jesus the Christ was St. John the Baptist risen from the dead. And in a way, Herod was exactly right!
In the Word and works of Jesus are the first fruits of His Cross and Resurrection. For His gracious miracles of healing and new life are a blessed foretaste of the neverending Feast that has come to fruition in the Resurrection of His Body, which is manifest around the world in His Holy Gospel.
And for those who die with Christ Jesus, like St. John and all the baptized, His Resurrection is their resurrection and their imperishable life. His Resurrection is your resurrection and your life.
So, likewise, it is in Christ that St. John and all the baptized are righteous and holy. It is in Him that you are righteous and holy, blameless, innocent, and pure before God the Father in heaven.
It is in that sure and certain hope, in that confidence of Christ and His Gospel, that the disciples of St. John lay his body to rest in the grave, to await the resurrection of his body on the last day.
And already, the souls of those, including St. John the Baptist, who have been slain for the sake of the Word of God — and all those who have departed from this mortal life in the faith of Christ — now find their Peace and Sabbath Rest in Him, under His Altar in heaven.
But what does this mean?
It means that, baptized into Christ, you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
In life and death, in body and soul, as you carry the Cross in your vocations and stations in life, and as your body shall be laid to rest in the dust of the earth, you are safe and secure in the Body and Blood of your crucified and risen Lord Jesus.
This true and everlasting King, who is both God and Man, prepares a Table before you in the presence of your enemies, each and all of whom He has defeated for you by His own Cross. It is a Banquet, not for His own benefit — not that He be served, but that He serves you — to forgive you all your sins, to give you His own life, and to save both your body and soul forever and ever.
As your mortal body is here fed with His life-giving Body and Blood, it is enlivened, honored, and glorified by Christ, in preparation for and anticipation of the resurrection of your body at the last, when it shall be no longer mortal and perishable, but immortal, imperishable, and glorious.
Your soul, as well, both now and forever, has Peace and Sabbath Rest in Christ, who has given Himself for you, and who pours out His holy and precious Blood for you in this Holy Communion. Whether for the first time, or for the millionth time, it is forever. For with this Feast He gives you, not simply half His Kingdom, but Himself with all His gifts and benefits, in whom the Kingdom of God is at hand. Therefore, you are His, and He is yours, forever and ever, world without end.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.