Text: Matthew 3.1-12
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
John the Baptizer comes as a bridge. He was the last of the OT prophets, but so closely connected to the New Testament that the Gospel writers couldn't help but include him. And this because He is so closely connected with Jesus.
St John the Baptist is the cousin of our Lord, their mothers being relatives not far removed in the blood-line of the Savior. Perhaps they played together as kids; perhaps they took a liking to common interests. Perhaps John and Jesus would play 'temple' when they were together, perhaps not. Perhaps John was with Jesus when Jesus stayed back in the Temple when he was twelve years to “be about His Father's business.” And perhaps John knew what that meant when Jesus spoke those words to His parents. And then again; perhaps not.
But what we do know is what this great prophet and baptizer taught. And it was curiously similar to what The Great Prophet and Baptizer and Savior taught: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is brought near.
I'll save you the suspense, and I'm hoping you already get it by now, namely, the Kingdom of heaven is Jesus, whom John will point to and make the good confession: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”.
I'll save you the suspense, because the rest of the sermon, like John's fire and brimstone preaching, won't be too comfortable for you. And I hope the sermons never are.
For what good is a sermon if it's not a death sentence? What good is it for you to be here if all you come here and receive is a pep-talk, a useless and painless slap to the wrist and then get sent on your way with the idea that you just have to keep at it, that you just have to keep trying, perhaps you need to try harder in one area of your life or perhaps you need simply adjust your attitude or some silly nonsense like that.
No, to hear preaching, true preaching, good preaching, preaching that is faithful to Christ and His preaching, that kind of preaching is a crucifixion. For if you want to truly live, or rather if you want the life of Christ, an eternal life, a life of peace in connection with the Prince of Peace, a godly life in connection with Emmanuel, God with us, a righteous and innocent and holy life in connection with the unblemished Lamb of God, if this is what you have come to receive, a life with Christ, then you must first die with Christ.
One theologian put it like this: “Preaching is an all-out assault on everything [you] are by virtue of [your] sinful nature. Preaching attacks man's pride / and his despair. It is a grinding up of his golden calves, forcing him to drink his [false gods] so that he might hunger and thirst for the real God and find true consolation. Preaching is a mugging that results in death.”1
John was just this sort of mugger; just this sort of preacher. He had 4,000 years of Israelite history to look back on; to see what sin did to God's people and their relationship with God. As a summary, sin rejects God and the Christ whom God has sent. The Isrealites lived out what St Paul would so plainly explain, the wages of sin is death. Sin is bad company; it may appear fun, at first, but if you let it hang around, it will eventually lead you to the same place it is destined to be forever: hell. Sin is only a friend of Satan. The history of sinful Israel, the history of sinful humanity, the history of your sinful nature, is just one pact with the devil after another.
And so when John saw many of the Jewish religious leaders coming toward his baptism, He killed them, saying, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the impending wrath?” The Greek is literally, “You generations of vipers”, in other words, “you generations of Satan's offspring.” In other words, “I love you guys.”
Seriously; for what can be more loving than to warn someone about danger? John is a prophet, remember. He foresaw the wrath to come, God had made known to Him what was going to be the worst display of wrath that God would ever inflict on earth, for all time. You think it was bad for the Israelites in the past. Well, you ain't seen nothin' yet. The wrath that is impending, that is coming, soon, will be beyond human understanding. In fact, it will be so far beyond human comprehension that it will appear to be sort of common, by all human measurement.
You see, a Man who will appear to be an insurrectionist and criminal. He will be beaten, like other criminals. Then He will be led to the usual place where the criminals are given their due reward for their evil deeds. It will look like any other crucifixion, but the difference is that this crucified One is not like any other of crucified one. This One is Himself, completely innocent, yet He will suffer the ultimate wrath, not of man, but of God: being forsaken by God to hell.
So, Jewish religious leaders, people of Israel, Gentiles, all, who told you to flee from this impending show of wrath? It'll be bad, and now you know it's going to be bad because I've told you about it. But it's not going to be bad for you, just the opposite. You see, if you flee from the cross of the Messiah, you will be running away from your salvation. Did someone tell you to flee? Ignore that person. Rather, go, no, what's more, run to Christ's cross and die there. Die with Christ. You cannot live if you try to live your life. Your life, your Satanic, sin-loving and sin-infested life must die. You must live Christ's life. His death means your death. In order that His life means your life. That's the way it is, that's the way God has made it to be. That is mercy, that is love, and John was loving them by warning them, by killing them, by baptizing them.
John was the agent of many deaths in those days. His weapon? The waters of repentance. The result was a baptism into the confession of sins. Those who were once dying in the ignorance of their sin where now living in the confession of their sin. They were forgiven, free. Dead to themselves, alive to God in Christ Jesus of Nazareth.
This is exactly what fire and brimstone preaching is all about. It is about dying. But not just any dying, it is dying with Christ.
And what can be expected as a result of this sort of preaching, this sort of mugging, this sort of weekly or daily crucifixion and dying? Your flesh will hate it; it will scream out in rebellion. But I've got news for your flesh: God doesn't listen to the flesh. God's desire is not to pamper or even correct the flesh, but to kill it, and in this dying, only through dying, you live.
Repent. You are not who Satan, the world, or your flesh want you to think you are. You are sinful and unholy and you need to die, or rather your sinful self needs to die, continually, not just every once in a while, not even just every week. You feed your sinful nature by sinning, daily, your sinful nature must be confessed and killed, daily.
But what's the point. The sinful nature makes things comfortable, doesn't it? Your sinful nature works to put those blinders up for you, so you don't notice the sin, and so you don't notice God's judgment on your sin. But why does your enemy within do this to you? Because if you really knew what your sin was doing to you, and if you really knew God's wrath on sin, you wouldn't stand keepin' your sin around another minute, / and that / would mean death to that enemy, your sinful nature. That's repentance: a righteous anger and hatred for your sin. It's a confession, it's agreeing with God, that your sin is eternal death for you.
Repentance; Confession, these are matters of faith. Do you believe that God is true and that what He speaks is truth? Yes? That's faith. Your sin and sinfulness warrants for you hell, God says that, and He has given you the faith to believe it. Sin, the thing that, by all fleshly appearances, seems to give you so much life and excitement, now, through preaching, you see that it only brings death and destruction. And that death and destruction is only swallowed up and defeated in the cross of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. By preaching and the Sacrament, God continues to kill and make alive. Christ's Blood streams out of His crucified veins, into the chalice, into your mouth and flows through your veins. You are dead and alive in Christ. Never one without the other, but both at the same time. In other words, God's continues to give you this dying and rising baptismal faith.
The faith which is in Christ, all of Christ, all His teaching; faith finds it's completed fulfillment in Jesus. And Jesus wasn't only crucified, He rose and now lives. Likewise, Jesus didn't only preach the Law, He preached the Gospel, He is the Gospel.
You see, it is true, that when John preaches Christ, He shows you who you must be. “That is Christ, the spotless Lamb of God.” What? You don't add up? John continues, “This is He who comes to take away the sin of the world.” So in one motion, by the pointing of one finger, John preached you crucified and risen, dead and alive, and all this, in Christ.
In next week's Gospel Jesus asks you the question: what did you come out into the wilderness to see? In other words, why are you here, why do you come to church? Answer: That you may die with Christ, so you also may live in Him. But more on that next week, let this be enough for today.
In +Jesus' name. Amen.
[Artwork by Ed Riojas]
1Berg, Peter M. (2010). The Art of Preaching; Part 1, Gottesdienst; The Journal of Lutheran Liturgy. 18, (4), 8-10.