The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begins with the ministry of St. John the Baptist, which is the preaching and Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. For it is in repentance that you are prepared for the coming of the Lord, and in repentance that you wait upon Him. Not only to remember His coming in the ChristMass, but to receive Him as He comes to you in the Gospel of His Word and Sacrament, and to be ready for His coming in glory for the final Judgment.
But your preparation and your repentance are not a work that you can do for yourself. They are a work of God, which He must work in you by His Word and Holy Spirit. That is why the Gospel begins with the preaching of repentance. And likewise in His Resurrection from the dead, the Lord Jesus sends His Apostles, first of all — as He now also sends His pastors to the ends of the world and the close of the age — to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in His Name.
It is by this preaching that you are brought to repentance. And it is by this preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of your sins that you are prepared for the coming of Christ: Prepared to receive Him by faith here and now in the Gospel, and prepared to receive Him with joy in the judgment.
This work of the Forerunner, this ministry and preaching of repentance, happens in the desert wilderness, which is a place of death. While it is always true that the grass withers and the flower fades, it happens that much faster in the desert, where the hot winds blow and the rains do not fall. That death of the grass and flowers proclaims your own mortality and coming death. The desert preaches that all of your works will be burned up; they will melt in the heat of God’s judgment.
St. John the Baptist fits just right in that context, in that climate, because John himself is a rough and hardy man. He is a desert man, wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts. He is clothed and fed by God, but he is not dressed in soft clothing, and he does not feast in abundance. He lives a rough and meager life, an austere life, as though he were always mourning and fasting. And in a sense, he is. He mourns sin and death, and he fasts as he waits upon the coming of the Lord his God.
Within this desert wilderness, day after day, there is suffering, there is pain, and there is death. All of this belongs to the consequences of sin. It is part of God’s punishment of sin. But it is also part of His discipline, the loving discipline of His children, unto repentance and faith in Christ Jesus.
So these things that you suffer, the pains that you feel of heart and mind and body and soul, the death that you face in yourself and in your loved ones, it is not all pointless and meaningless. Although it is an intrusion upon God’s good creation, an affront to His gift of life, God has taken sin and death in hand, He has taken suffering and pain, and He has constrained all of this to serve His good and gracious will. By His grace, it belongs to the crucifixion of the old Adam in you, the very thing that your Baptism has accomplished and still signifies throughout your life on earth.
You are crucified, put to death, and buried in this way — God puts you to death, the One who kills and makes alive, who wounds in order to heal. He slays you by the preaching of repentance, as in your Holy Baptism, in order to raise you up from death to life, so that you might live for real.
But how long must this go on? How many years must you live and die wandering in the desert?
As it was for ancient Israel, so also for you. It is hard to wait. It is hard to be patient. So your life is punctuated with periodic grumbling and complaining. Doesn’t God care? And if so, why doesn’t He do something? Or maybe you don’t grumble and complain against the Lord your God directly, but you grumble and complain against the neighbors He has given you. You grumble and complain about the people who serve you in His Name, and against those whom you are called to serve. Just as Israel grumbled and complained against Moses, not realizing that their grumbling and complaining were really against the Lord God who had called and sent Moses to them.
And then there are your own futile attempts to overcome the desert wilderness. If God isn’t going to make things better, and if the people around you aren’t going to do anything about it, then, like Chicken Little, you’ll just do it yourself. You’ll make a life for yourself. You’ll take care of yourself. And you can do it, you can make things better, right? Or, so you tell yourself. It seems that way in this day and age, with all of the advances in technology, productivity, and efficiency.
We’ve got A/C. We’ve got fridges and freezers. We can pump water wherever we want it, and if it’s dirty or salty, we filter and clean it. Who needs God? There are all these ways in which you can and do trick yourself into thinking that the desert wilderness will not have its way with you.
And yet, for all of that, your modern iPod and your old-world craftsmanship, your high tech and your low tech alike, it will all be consumed in the fire of the final Judgment, if not sooner. Your artificial, virtual paradise will perish along with this whole world and all its prideful boasting.
It’s worse than futile, however, to rely on any of these things for life. Trying to escape and avoid the desert wilderness by crafting a civilization and a comfortable existence of your own design, is to resist God’s call to repentance. And resisting repentance is to resist the coming of Christ.
So there is this hard struggle in you — a struggle in you as a Christian that those outside of the church don’t have. A struggle between your impatience, on the one hand, and your faith and hope in Christ on the other; between your grumbling and complaining and your prayer and confession.
On the one side there is your impatience to be done with the difficulties of life; to be done with the pain and suffering; to be done with the aggravating people you have to deal with. To be done with the fear of death, with your sins, and with the sins of others against you. To be done with it all.
And yet, by the grace of God, there is also the bearing of the Cross of Christ in the sure and certain hope of His Resurrection. There is that forbearance, that perseverance of faith. Not because you have girded your own loins, nor because you have sucked it up and gotten the job done, but because the Lord has done His work in you by His Word and Holy Spirit, because He loves you.
In fact, that very struggle that rages within you, within your heart, mind, body, and soul, is at the heart of the repentance that is being worked in you by the Word and Spirit of God, even now, by the ministry of the Forerunner. For that ministry continues even to the close of the age.
As difficult and painful as this struggle of repentance is, it is not a lost or hopeless cause, because it is the Lord’s work, not yours, and because He is patient in accomplishing your salvation.
The Lord’s patience belongs to His faithfulness. It belongs to His love. It belongs to His utter freedom and His holiness as God. He does not become anxious. He doesn’t toss and turn with worry. He doesn’t agonize and wring His hands in despair because nothing is happening, that nothing is getting any better. He patiently works in love to call you to Himself.
He is not slow about keeping His promises. He is patient with you. He doesn’t lose His temper. He doesn’t blow His top or fly off the handle. He doesn’t storm off and give up on you. He is long-suffering, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love for you — and for your neighbor, as well. Not only passively, but actively, by taking up the Cross and bearing it in your place.
The Lord Himself comes and enters the desert wilderness, and He submits to St. John’s Baptism of repentance. Along with all those other people who were coming to John, confessing their sins, Jesus also gets in line and submits to that same Baptism. He thereby takes upon Himself the Cross of your sin and death for the forgiveness of all your sins and the sins of the whole world.
It is especially in this way that St. John’s ministry is the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is precisely in this way that the Lord enters upon His work of redemption. Voluntarily receiving the Cross in His Baptism, He bears that Cross in patient endurance, suffering all the curse and consequences of sin, even unto death, and yet proceeding and persevering in the fear, love, and trust of His Father above all things.
He lives by faith as the true and perfect Man, as your Savior and Redeemer in flesh and blood like yours, by clinging to the same Word and promise of His Baptism that you have also been given in your Baptism. He knows what His Father has spoken and said: “You are My Son; I love You; I am pleased with You.” Therefore, Jesus knows and trusts that, even when He is out in the desert, and it is hot, and He is hungry, His Father still loves Him, and is pleased with Him, and will in due time open His hand to feed Him. Jesus trusts that.
And because it is a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to which He has submitted Himself, He trusts that it has laid upon Him, not only the work of repentance, but also the promise of the Resurrection, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Life everlasting of Paradise. Having taken upon Himself the sins of the world, and bearing those sins in His own Body to the Cross, He trusts that His God and Father in heaven will remove those sins from Him and raise Him from the dead.
And so it is that, in the place of ancient Israel, and in your place, too, He makes His way from the waters of the Red Sea, as it were, through the desert wilderness, finally to the Jordan River. And God the Father brings Him through, out of death into life, into His Resurrection from the dead.
That is why your Baptism into Christ is not only death but life. Your Baptism not only drowns you and puts you to death, but the waters of your Baptism are living and life-giving waters in the midst of a desert wilderness. They are refreshing springs and cleansing streams. Indeed, the waters of your Baptism are a river of life, and wherever those waters flow there is a real oasis of Paradise.
Your Baptism is also your resurrection from the dead through the forgiveness of Christ Jesus. And it is the pledge that your body shall be raised, all-glorious like the Body of Jesus, on the last day.
All of this significance and benefit of your Baptism is God’s own work of repentance. It is the work that He has done for you, first of all, in Christ Jesus, by His vicarious Cross and Resurrection. And it is now also His work in you through His Word, His preaching of the Law and the Gospel.
Not only are you brought down from the high mountains of your self-righteous pride, but you are raised up from the deep dark valleys of death and despair through His forgiveness of your sins.
It is for this reason that He sends His preachers to you, to preach a Baptism of repentance unto faith in His forgiveness. He does call you to contrition. He calls you to do what those people of Judea and Jerusalem did when John came preaching. He calls you to confess your sins and to seek His Word of forgiveness. To be crucified, dead, and buried with Christ. But so also to be absolved by Him, to be freely forgiven all of your sins by the Word that He speaks to you by His servants.
By these ways and means He raises you up from death to life, and He clothes you, and He feeds you, even in the wilderness, so that your clothing will not wear out, and your food will not run out.
It is not with camel’s hair and leather that you are clothed and girded, but with Christ Himself, with His flesh and blood, and with His own righteousness. For you are baptized, not with simple water only, but with water and His Word and Spirit, yes, with the water and His Blood.
And not with locusts and wild honey are you fed, but with His Body and His Blood, which are your Manna in the wilderness, the true and living Bread from your dear Father in heaven. And already these Gifts, this Food and this Meal, are a foretaste of the Milk and Honey of the Promised Land.
By these means of grace — by this ongoing continuation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God — He comes to you now. He is with you, and He shall never leave you nor forsake you.
And just as surely as He comes and is with you here and now, so by these means of His Gospel He will finally bring you to Himself in heaven: Out of the desert wilderness into the New Creation of His crucified and risen Body. To your true Home with Him. To the true Paradise of God in Christ, where righteousness dwells forever and ever, and perfect peace, and the comfort of His Love.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.