In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
No one wants to hear about wrath at Christmastime. No one’s singing “It’s the Most Wrathful Time of the Year,” or “I’m Dreaming of a Wroth Christmas,” or watching movies called It’s a Wrathful Life. And yet, there it is, in the Advent Proper Preface, which we have been thinking about these three weeks: “John the Baptist…calling sinners to repentance that they might escape from the wrath to be revealed when He comes again in glory.”
But as much as we might not want to hear about it or think about it or talk about it, there is no question that the Day of the Lord will be a day of wrath against sin, death, and the devil. All sin—and all sinners—will be destroyed and this creation purified. “[B]y means of [water and the Word of God] the world that then existed was deluged and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Peter 3:6-7). “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). “On account of [sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry] the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:6). “Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of [Yahweh] of hosts in the day of his fierce anger” (Isaiah 13:13). And on that day all those who are opposed to God and His Christ will say “to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Revelation 6:16-17). And, as Paul writes to the Ephesians, we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (2:3).
So let us be done with any foolishness denying the wrath of God. God hates sin, and He will make an end of it on the great and glorious Day of the Lord. So the question is not whether the wrath of God is coming, or is going to be revealed. The question is how and against whom? Because John was sure the wrath of God was imminent. To the crowds by the Jordan, John said, “You brood of vipers! [That is, children of snakes!] Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” and don’t trust in your history or your genealogy or your pedigree, that you have Abraham as your father. God can make children of Abraham from rocks, if He chooses (Luke 3:7-9).
Who warned them to flee? Well, in fact, John did: Repent; the Reign of God has come near. And He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Luke 3:16-17).
But what John, perhaps, could not see was how the Reign of God was going to break into history. When the King comes in the flesh, He does not come in wrath and glory and vengeance. He comes in humility, helplessness, and forgiveness. What John, perhaps, could not see was that when Jesus appears in this creation, He is not the revelation of God’s wrath, but the revelation of salvation from God’s wrath. “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9).
Frankly, I don’t think the wrath of God is all that surprising. We can try to convince ourselves that it’s not fair, that God shouldn’t do this or that, that He shouldn’t punish sinners, or that we don’t really deserve that. But the only ones we’re fooling are ourselves. Wrath isn’t surprising. That God’s wrath is being revealed against wickedness and sin and the disobedient isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that Jesus has appeared to save precisely those against whom the wrath of God is being revealed. God’s enemies, the sinners, the ungodly—those are the ones for whom Christ enters flesh to die. After all, whose sin does the Lamb of God take away, if it’s not from those sinners whom John warns to flee from the wrath to come?
And what’s more, we discover that we had it backwards all along. The wrath of God is not something that we are waiting for, something in the future, something that we are trying to avoid by doing the right things instead of the wrong things. John the Evangelist—not John the Baptist—shows us that the wrath is something past and present, rather than future. It is precisely the wrath of God that rests on sinners because of their sin—all the wreckage we leave in our wake, all the brokenness and death and guilt and violence and lovelessness—all that is evidence not only of our sin, but of the wrath of God that lets us go our own chosen ways. And it is exactly that that Christ has come to take away. So John the Evangelist records Jesus’ own words: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).
The wrath of God remains, meaning it was there the whole time. And that wrath means death. But the Son, who is the Life, gives Himself to those who are under that wrath. He places Himself between the wrath and us, and it falls on Him. So He dies. He suffers. He takes the wrath of God—all of it—on Himself and is forsaken in death. All the more, then, is His life in the resurrection. What death does, His life does even more. What His sinless life in the flesh accomplishes, even more does His resurrection flesh accomplish.
And as long as the Day of the Lord waits, we know this: The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Peter 3:8-9). For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him (1 Thessalonians 5:9). Even now, while we wait for the revealing of that salvation, the Lord is gathering His own. He calls all to repentance so that they, too, might escape from the wrath. And that way of escape is Him who is the Way. To flee from wrath is to flee to Him who is our rock, our shelter, our fortress, our help. Whoever believes the Son has eternal life, and wrath no longer remains on him.
And this is what Christmas has to do with wrath: that the Lord was born for those falling under the heavy weight of the wrath of God that lay on us. He felt its weight from the moment He was conceived to the moment of His death; from the moment He took His first breath until He took His last; from His first, infant cry to the last cry on the cross. And thus we find ourselves under His wings, under His roof, under the cover of His intercession before the Father. And in Him there is no more wrath, no more condemnation, no more punishment, until there is no more sin and no more sinners. In Him, now and forever, there is only life, and life eternal.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/18/18