It’s damned if you and damned if you don’t. That’s our Lord’s lament for today. God had sent John the Baptizer to prepare the way for Jesus. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John came, singing a funeral dirge: “Die to yourself. It’s in the water where you find life to live!”
Who would have thought that? Not only did John prepare the way for Jesus, but he also prepared the way for the baptism that Jesus would put into place in the New Covenant, which fulfilled circumcision in God’s Old-Covenant (Colossians 2:11-14).
John came, not eating and drinking. And, yet the religious leadership said that a demon had taken over him. And then - when the Fulfillment to whom John pointed, Jesus, came along - He came eating and drinking. And the religious leadership said that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard. It’s damned if you and damned if you don’t.
John the Baptizer was the season of Lent walking in the flesh. He showed people their sin, in all its ugliness. No wonder people hated him. Who wants to hear that? If I were to choose my “God,” I’d choose one that would make me feel good. I’d choose one that, if he did make any demands of me, they would all be doable. After all, who wants something that’s impossible to do? Oh, and while this god is at it, how can I earn more money, be happier, and feel his blessing now in my life?
John would scratch his head at this. His message wasn’t self-affirmation but “Repent!” Turn from yourself and what’s within you—if you want salvation. For salvation isn’t in you; it’s in the water, where the Word of God made flesh, Jesus, has placed himself for sinners. It’s as John cried out before he baptized Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
John came, not eating and drinking. We eat and drink because we need food and water to live. So, what was the point of John not eating and drinking? He was preaching the Law. He was showing that death lurks inside us all; that was the point of him not eating and drinking.
John had called the religious of his day a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7) because the poison of death is in us all. John’s words were the poison venom of God’s Law to that “brood of vipers.” And guess what? We don’t like the painful sting of that word, either. If the pastor ever says that we shouldn’t eat or drink, because we’re dead in sins, we’ll say, “He’s crazy! I want a different God; I want the God that I want!”
In all your reading of Scripture, did you ever see God giving us a choice to choose the God we want? You won’t find it. God’s way is his way. It’s his way or the highway, for “narrow is the road that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14).
Let’s face it: We don’t like John the Baptizer’s preaching any more than anyone else. There’s a reason he was in prison and killed by being beheaded. Sinners never want the Law to be the Law! We want God’s Law to be our lapdog. We want to put a collar on its neck and lead it around by a leash. For no one wants the Law to kill him! No one wants the Law to make him stop eating and drinking, laughing and breathing!
We’re no different from anyone else. And the truth of the Reformation recognizes that! Reformation Sunday is not a reason to boast. On October 31, 1517, Luther posted 95 theses, doctrinal statements, on the church door at Wittenberg. He wanted to debate others in the Church about purgatory.
The first thesis Luther posted said this: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17), He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Reformation Sunday is not a reason to boast; it’s a call to repent!
John was a freak, back then and even today. People thought that he was a demon-possessed preacher. That’s because He told spiritually dead people that their only hope of being saved was in the water, where Jesus - the Lamb of God - was coming.
You can’t take that rough-hewn preacher seriously and then deny that we’re not born in a sinful state of death. If we weren’t born in sin, no babies would ever die. They would only die after they did something wrong. And yet, “innocent” infants also die, just like everyone else. No wonder Scripture says that we’re all born dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). John the Baptizer knew that! That’s why he pointed everybody to the water.
John came, not eating or drinking, for dead men don’t eat and drink. But John also preached that someone else was coming, someone who would eat and drink. “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
John said that Jesus must increase, and he must decrease (John 3:30). John, with his not eating and not drinking, must decrease. Why? It’s because God wants to bring the dead to life. So, Jesus came eating and drinking to give the food of eternal life!
Now, that can get the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t crowd acting like a brood of vipers! “Jesus teaches us to eat and drink in salvation?” Why not? Didn’t he eat and drink with sinners? Didn’t he turn water into wine for that? Doesn’t he give us his body in bread to eat and his blood in wine to drink, so we sinners will be saved?
And so, Jesus’ enemies called him a glutton and a drunkard. For salvation for them had become all about what they were doing for God. “How can God use eating and drinking to bring salvation to us? That sounds ridiculous.” Of course, it does—if salvation depended on you what you do!
The damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t crowd didn’t get John the Baptizer—or Jesus. They didn’t like the Law that John preached. John unleashed full-strength, 200-proof Law, the kind that burned all way down. “We’re not that bad. Babies aren’t sinful. Sinners have free will.” They won’t let the Law be the Law. They will shape the Law in their image and mold it into something they can handle.
But that keeps the Gospel from being the Gospel. Only real sinners need a real Savior! A weakened Law produces a weakened Gospel. If salvation depends fully on Jesus - in what he did, says, and goes on giving us—then it doesn’t depend on you.
When we look at ourselves, apart from Christ, we don’t see ourselves as dead as dead can be. We’re not that sinful. And so, the Gospel that saves us doesn’t need to make the dead alive; it only needs to kick us in the butt. The Gospel only needs to give us a boost, the right information, so we can decide what we want to do with it. A powerless Law only leaves you with a powerless Gospel.
But Dr. Luther calls us to repent on this Reformation Sunday. For we don’t like - deep down, or maybe not so deep down - the sting of the Law. We don’t want to believe that we’re more helpless than a helpless baby when it comes to contributing to our salvation. But thanks be to God! He has still preserved a place where we can hear that truth, which people scorn and despise, for our life and salvation!
In your sin, when it comes to God, you are powerless and pathetic. Admit it. Own it. That’s why Jesus took your sins and made them his own. That’s why he died your death. That’s why he got buried underneath God’s wrath for you on the cross. He did that because you couldn’t. Then, on the third day, he walked out of the tomb—alive!
What does that mean? In means that Jesus now pours out heaven freely. He gives it out to sinners, even babies. It is by grace alone, not because of anything we do!
Today isn’t about boasting. It’s about God delivering us, once more, out of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t disposition. God’s Law says you’re a sinner, destined for destruction. You’re dead and can’t do anything about that. It’s what you’ve inherited by being born in a fallen state.
But the Gospel says that heaven is already yours. Heaven has come to earth in Jesus. Heaven is poured out on you in holy baptism, forgiving your sins, bringing you into God’s New Covenant.
You’re now alive! Because of that, you get to eat and drink with the angels, the saints in heaven, and all the Lord’s disciples who know how to eat in the presence of the bridegroom. Even John the Baptizer, who abstained from eating and drinking for a time, now gathers in the eating and the drinking with all the saints of God! He does that in heaven; you do that here on earth.
That’s how alive the Gospel makes you. You were born an enemy of God; but now, God the Holy Spirit has brought you into the Wedding Banquet of God’s Son! For a time, John the Baptizer didn’t come eating and drinking, but you do! For you are baptized into Jesus, not John. John’s baptism pointed to Jesus’ baptism. And it’s Jesus’ baptism that makes you alive! You are now under the Gospel!
The damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t crowd will always be with us. But they, too, need the life that Jesus must give. So, tell what it is. Tell them that they are dead in sin. But also tell them that Jesus takes their spiritual corpse and breathes life into it, giving them birth from their state of death. “Unless someone is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
You were dead in your trespasses and sins. But now, you’re alive in Jesus. Before, you couldn’t eat or drink, or even hope for heaven. But now, in Jesus, everything has changed. Now, it’s time to eat and drink. Amen.