I AM: The God Who Kills and Makes Alive
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The text for today is our Old Testament lesson, Deuteronomy 32:36-39, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Moses is speaking to the Israelites. They are about to enter the Promised Land, while it is time for him to climb Mount Nebo and die. These are his last words to the people that he has led as a called servant of the Lord for these many years. It has been a long, hard journey. No sooner were the Israelites safe from Egypt than they built a golden calf and elected to call it their god. The Lord mercifully spared them that day, but other apostasy would follow. For their disobedience, they were rewarded with forty extra years in the desert.
Now they are finally to enter the Promised Land, and Moses preaches the Word of the Lord one last time and sings his final song. He prophesies, in part, a terrible future. Eventually, the people of Israel will completely forsake the Lord and His Word. They will reject the Lord who has brought them out of Egypt, the God who promises a Savior, and they will turn to worshiping other gods instead.
The identities of these gods may not be known to them yet, but they will become household names. There will be Baal, the Canaanite god of nature, a pillar of stone set on the tops of hills. There will be his consort, Ashteroth, the mother goddess of nature—a tall wooden pole planted into the ground. There will be Molech, that abominable metal sculpture whose worship involves human sacrifice of the firstborn into fire. There will be Dagon, golden calves, and many more. The people will be faithless, turning from the One and Only I AM, the God of Life and Healing, to idols of stone, wood, and metal, of death, doom, and destruction.
What will the Lord do? Moses declares: “For the Lord will vindicate His people and have compassion on His servants, when He sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free. Then He will say: ‘Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge, who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offering? Let them rise and help you; let them be your protection.’”
If the people wish to call upon these other gods for their help and deliverance, the Lord will obligingly step aside. If they wish to offer their sacrifices to hunks of rock, curry the favor of chunks of wood, or bow down to images of metal, the Lord will allow them to go about their foolishness. The Lord is a loving Father. He offers all of His benefits to His people. But He does not force His salvation upon them. That is not His style.
So the Lord will step aside—but not forever, for He is faithful. If the people trust in chiseled rocks for protection, they will be victimized when the rocks do not protect them. If they rely on carved wood for help, they will be made helpless. If they seek life and salvation from molded metal, it is only a matter of time until they are face-to-face with death and destruction. Rocks, wood, and metal can’t save—they have no life, and therefore cannot give life.
So God will step aside—but only until the people see how worthless their false gods are. And when they see that they—both gods and the people—are powerless, the Lord will be there. When their power is gone, the Lord will declare: “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand.”
When the people are finally convinced that their false gods are dead and helpless the Lord will be there. He will remind them that He is alive and powerful—that He is able to heal and give life. And He will declare that He is faithful. Although they have forsaken Him, He remains and promises salvation to all who repent and trust in Him. Thus the Lord God declares: “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand.”
This is God’s effective Word that carries across the centuries. There is an inescapable price to be paid for sin, and those wages are death. God utters the promise, and therefore the vindication will take place. But whom will He wound and whom will He heal? Whom will He kill so that His people might be alive?
At the start of Holy Week, the perfect Sacrifice rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. He knows better than anyone the sins of the people and the deservedness of God’s judgment. He knows better than anyone else the false gods which they’ve chased and bowed down. He knows better than anyone the anger and grief of the Lord over sin. He knows because He has been there from the beginning to witness the sin and experience the grief. He knows because He is bearing the awful load of sin and grief to the cross. This is the Lord God in human flesh.
In truth, as the donkey plods forward, it is not just Israel in trouble. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All are helpless in their sin, their power gone, and none remaining. Therefore, Jesus arrives to be the perfect sacrifice for sin. The sinless Lamb of God enters Jerusalem on the first day of Holy Week to bear the burden of man’s iniquity and to die with it on the cross. He rides into Jerusalem, and He rides on in majesty, and He rides on in lowly pomp to die.
You have heard this day of the Passion of our Lord. You have heard of the trials before Herod and Pilate, the conspiracy of the Pharisees and the shouts of the hateful crowd. You have heard of the crown of thorns jammed upon His head, the beatings by Herod’s soldiers, the scourging of Pilate’s. You have witnessed in words the staggering journey to Calvary as the cross is shouldered and borne. You have heard of the crucifixion and the ridicule by those in attendance. Standing around are clergy, soldiers, and citizens, Jews and Gentiles—a sampling of sinful mankind. And certainly—beyond the shadow of a doubt—sinful man shows how much he deserves God’s judgment on Calvary. Not only has he turned to false gods and doctrines, but he puts the true Son of God to death.
On Calvary that day, God’s declaration still echoes from Deuteronomy: “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal, and there is none that can deliver out of My hand.” God warns of the danger of rejecting Him, but His warning falls on deaf ears. Except for the ears of One. The Son of God knows the score, and that is why He submits to this degrading treatment and death. The judgment of God is inescapable—it must fall on someone, and therefore the Son of God wills that it falls upon Him. The Lord’s killing and making alive, His wounding and healing, crisscross at Calvary. God’s effective words of wounding and death strike His own Son. Christ is wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement for our peace is upon Him. And by His stripes we are healed.
Behold the compassion of God at the cross. For us and for our salvation, He wounds and kills His own Son for our sin. He wounds and kills Him, so that He might heal us and make us alive. This is the Great Exchange. This is why even as the Son is wounded and dying He speaks words of healing and life: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The words are spoken, but fall on deaf ears in Jerusalem this Holy Week. Except for the ears of one—an outsider, at that. The Roman centurion recognizes the Christ and declares, “Certainly this was a righteous Man!” It is not Jesus who should have died for sin; there are plenty of unrighteous people around that day who should have. And the same could be said for the one standing at this pulpit and those sitting in the pews here today. But the Son of God who knew no sin, made Himself to be sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
God’s effective, powerful Word resounds throughout the ages, and it remains true and at work even now: “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand.” For the sake of Christ, God heals and makes alive. He has wounded and killed His Son for you. He does not desire your death, but gives to you life and healing for the sake of Jesus.
Of course, for those who reject His Law and the Gospel of Christ’s sacrifice, death and judgment await. But God is merciful and steadfast. He does not desire the death of anyone. He has given His Son for everyone! So, as with the Israelites of old, the Lord is faithful and seeks to get their attention. His modus operandi is the same as with those Israelites in the Old Testament. He allows them to worship their false gods until those gods are exposed as false. And when they are wounded and powerless, He stands ready to deliver them from their sin.
A god is whatever we place our trust in. As primitive as it seems, there are still many gods of stone, wood, and metal. We’ve just given them a modern spin. Looking for contentment and satisfaction, people worship homes, cars, and things. Searching for security, gods are made of careers, 401k plans, and investments. Looking for happiness (or at least a brief diversion from pain and suffering) people turn to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or pornography. People even make other people into idols, believing that the meaning of their life depends on another person. How unfair to take another mere mortal and expect him or her to be a god or goddess!
The greatest—and the original—false god is self—the great I, the one and only ME. It is really our narcissistic worship of self that leads us back to the worship of other false gods rather than the one true God. In our arrogance, we determine that we know what and how to worship better than God does.
It is the philosophy of the day to live for self, make up one’s own religion, pursue pleasure, and avoid suffering. These are popular idols; but they cannot save. No matter how nice the house, car, or thing, it has no life and can’t give life. No matter how great the job or the portfolio, it can’t avert death or hear prayers. No matter how much momentary happiness that substance or activity promises, it only leads to depression and self-loathing. No matter how wonderful the person, they have sinful, mortal flesh. As for the self, you are already well aware that you cannot save you. Otherwise, you would not be here this day.
Such false gods persist and constantly tempt. And, afflicted by your own sinful nature, you will be constantly tempted. But such false gods have a way of falling apart, of self-destructing, of disappointing. Should you lean on such a god, it is quite likely that you will be brought low. If you are brought low, there is one thing to do: Repent and give thanks to God for His enduring mercy.
The Lord has compassion upon you, as He always has upon His people. To save you from eternal death, He trips up the false gods now before you die believing in them. He brings you low now so that He might show to you the folly of your sin, the weakness of your false gods. God allows some wounding now so that you might see the path to destruction, be turned from it; all so that He can heal you and make you alive for the sake of Christ.
God has wounded and killed His Son on the cross for you. Worship of false gods is to throw that Sacrifice in the Lord’s face. It’s to say, “Thanks, but no thanks for Jesus. I want to follow something else instead.” The sin is grave, but God is faithful; therefore, in His mercy, He exposes the powerlessness of what is false so that He might save you with what is true—Christ crucified for your sins.
Therefore, when crashes occur, when you are brought low, it is a time for self-examination. It may well be that you have begun to lean on a false god, and the true God has pulled it out from under you to set your sight back on His Son. This is true for you, and this is true for others.
You will, at times, encounter people who have placed their faith in what cannot save. It may be obvious to all, except them, that what they are doing is destructive to themselves and perhaps others. It is painful to witness, and that pain is a cross that you are left to bear. What shall you do? Certainly, tell them. It would be quite unloving if you saw someone ready to walk out blindfolded onto a street full of speeding cars and you didn’t warn them, wouldn’t it? By all means, try to warn them. Perhaps they will listen and you will have saved a brother.
But even as you warn them, there is something more important that you can do: Pray for them, and trust that the Lord is faithfully at work, contending for their souls. Realize that such a one may need to be brought very low, to lose nearly everything before they turn around. Why? Because when their power is gone and their gods have disappointed them, they will see their powerlessness and the treachery of their idols. It is then, when robbed of all false comfort, they may well be ready to be showered with the true comfort of the forgiveness of sins.
That comfort and that forgiveness is true. True for them and true for you. The Lord has compassion upon you, killing and wounding His Son in your place. He is now your refuge. He is now your rock. By grace, He heals you and makes you alive. And there is no one who can snatch you out of His hand.
You have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Through daily contrition and repentance, you put to death your sinful old Adam that the new man might rise to live in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever. In the Lord’s Supper, you receive Christ’s very body and blood to strengthen and preserve you in body and soul unto eternal life. Through His called servant, you hear the Word of God—the Law that kills and wounds, the Gospel that heals and brings life. In each of each of these means of grace, the Lord God delivers forgiveness, life, and salvation. Indeed, for the sake of Christ’s perfect, life, suffering, and death, “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.