The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist
August 29, 2021 A+D
St. Mark 6: 14-29
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The account of John’s beheading is framed with references to the resurrection of the dead. It begins with Herod’s confusion about who Jesus is. The son of Herod the Great is afraid that John the Baptist has risen from the dead and has come for vengeance. After the chaos and violence fueled by Herod’s lust, refusal to hear the Law, and succumbing to peer pressure, the account ends with John’s disciples reverently and quietly placing his body into a tomb to await the resurrection.
Herod is right to fear vengeance. He rightly understood that John was a messenger of God, but when John preached the Law and told Herod the truth about the danger to his soul if he continued to live in sin, Herod had him arrested. That was unjust. Herod likely thought that he could intimidate John and others who might want to tell the king what he was allowed to do. He should have heeded God’s Word. He should have made amends. He should have repented. And even if he didn’t respond in a personal way for the good of his own soul, he should have at least been a just ruler and not arrested and then killed a man for telling the truth. For this, along with his sexual immorality, Herod will face judgment.
This is a warning to us. It is particularly pointed for us because Herod’s dispute with John was over sexual immorality and we live in an age and society of sexual immorality. It is not simply obsessed with sex but which endorses and promotes myriad forms of indulgence and deviancy, much of it violent, unnatural, and degrading. Marriage is denigrated. Families are in ruins. Society is coming unraveled. But we aren’t supposed to notice. Repent. Notice.
If Herod is a warning, John is a model. He is a model of doing your job and trusting in God to use it for good even when the immediate result is evil. We all have work to do. We have work to do in our homes and schools, at our places of employment and at church. We are to do our work, what God has called us to do, to the best of our ability for the sake of the command and not for the reward. I don’t mean that your employer doesn’t have to honor the contract and pay you at the end of the week, rather I mean that you are to carry out your duties in a virtuous manner, in accord with the 10 commandments, as a good work offered to God in love whether it results in a promotion and honor at work or not. If it is rewarded here on earth, God be praised, but if it isn’t, or even if it is punished, do it anyway.
John carries out his duties. He preaches the Law and warns Herod of what is coming. Humanly speaking, it is a failure. Herod doesn’t repent. Nothing in Galilee changes. John is killed. The vengeance of the Lord will come eventually, but only after Herod enjoys a couple more decades of luxury. But John’s work is valid and important. He is a sinner like us, and it seems that he had his dark night in prison, that he suffered doubts. He might well have gotten angry or favored some of his disciples over others or struggled with his own lusts, but John trusted in Christ. He lived in the forgiveness of sins that he preached. And even if his preaching failed and was rejected, it is good that it was spoken. John didn’t work for the approval of men or earthly gain. He was ready to die for the truth, for love. For John loved his neighbor for than his own life. He loved him too much to ignore his neighbor’s self-inflicted pain and delusions for the sake of a life free of conflict.
John’s disciples are also models. They treat his body with reverence. They gently lay him into a tomb. They believe and trust that John will rise from the dead because the Lamb of God who made that body took away John’s sins and He Himself leads His people through death and out of the grave. They expect to see John again in his body. They expect to rise in glory, redeemed by Christ, and they expect John to join them. They are right.
This is how we must behave. We must all preach. We must preach to our children and neighbors, to our rulers and our friends. We must be ready to give a defense of what we believe. We must tell the truth, even if it is unpopular or dangerous. We must carry our duties, in our various vocations, according to the 10 commandments, that is to say, in love, and not for our own sake or reputation or earthly gain. This might be rewarded, like Joseph rising to the top of Pharoah’s government, or it might be punished, like Joseph being thrown into prison after protecting Potipher’s marriage, but either way we do it. Sometimes, in the history of the world, this very thing has gotten men killed, as it did John. That is OK. In fact, it is glorious. Our purpose is not to avoid death at all costs. Our purpose is to walk in the way of the Lord by His grace wherever that path leads. Those who are killed for the faith follow Jesus as lambs to the slaughter. We rejoice in their witness and courage. For our part, we trust in God. We wait on His mercy. We believe that He works all things together for good, martyrdom as well as cancer, as well as military failures and tyrannical governments and Baptism. We know there are things more evil than physical death. We believe in the resurrection of the dead.
We strive to not fear those who can kill the body, but not the soul. We strive to live according to God’s Law, as those with planks in our eyes and with compassion in our hearts for those who are enduring specks in their eyes. We confess the faith, the love of God in Christ that reconciles us to the Father through death out of death. Death is the last enemy but his sting is already removed. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. This is our confidence.
So it is that we are being united together in the image of Christ’s death. We are suffering and we are dying. Lily is already dying. There is nothing we can do to stop it. Baring the return of Jesus Christ in glory, we shall all suffer the separation of body and soul, whether Herod kills us or we get hit by a car or we die of old age. It is not a matter of if only of when. But we know that it is God who is calling us home. We will be united together in the image of Christ’s resurrection, even as we unite now around His risen Body in the Sacrament. We believe in the resurrection of the dead. We believe this because Jesus, our Lord, is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and He lives.
God be praised for John. May we all follow in that train.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.