Sermon for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, AD 2020

Mark 6:14-29

In Holy scripture, Christ and the Christian are often difficult to distinguish, as they are inextricably linked. Just look at the Good Samaritan – yes, Jesus is the good Samaritan for all of us, but his command to “go and do likewise” forces us to see ourselves in his work as well, living out the works he has prepared for us to do. There is no work prepared for Christians with more promise of spiritual reward than that of martyrdom, which is no doubt why martyrs have always been treated with special dignity and reverence in the Church, from St. Stephen to the rest of the Apostles and, of course, John the Baptist. Their faith in Christ grew into fruits of courage and selflessness that stand the test of time as examples for all the baptized, and especially the ordained.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Herod confused Jesus for a resurrected John. Though he got type and antitype backwards, the confessing martyred prophet was indistinguishable to him from Jesus. Unlike Simon Peter, Herod would never confess Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, but he could tell Jesus and John the Baptist were cut from the same cloth. That camel’s hair was nothing like the soft clothing Herod was used to.
Herod was the typical character who saw himself as the star of his own story. This is common for all of us in our sinful flesh, especially kings, pastors, and others in authority who really do have a community centered around them. The problem for Herod was that God was in charge of the casting. In St. Matthew’s gospel, Herod’s father was cast as Pharaoh in the slaughter of the infants of Jerusalem. In St. Mark’s gospel, this Herod Antipas appears to see himself as Xerxes in a twisted retelling of Esther, drunkenly granting any request to his wife and her dancing-girl daughter.
Herodias, far from the courageous and virtuous Esther, decides to take on the role of Jezebel and takes out her murderous revenge on the new Elijah, John. Herod, the new cowardly Ahab, meekly grants the request against his better judgment and John is beheaded. As star of his story, he was trapped by keeping up his own reputation. First, he could not let John call him out for seducing his brother’s wife. Second, he could not face the embarrassment of going back on his rash oath. Concerned with power and the opinions of men, he was powerless to their perception.
Yet John was free. John knew better than anyone he was not the star, but only a forerunner. No man’s position mattered to him when preaching God’s law. He knew he had to call Israel to repentance. While we think of John as stern and demanding, this really was a work of love. John wanted Herod to repent and believe. John wanted the lost sheep of Israel to be free from this public scandal. He would continue to be God’s prophet, His instrument to call sinners to repentance, until God took John to be with Him.
What John knew dimly we who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection now know fully. As it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer, be killed, and in three days be raised from the dead for our redemption, so it is necessary for us to take up our own crosses and follow Him.

Let us learn from Herod and John. Herod’s way, the way of pleasing men, of preserving reputation without repentance, is a way of cowardice. The pride of thinking we are the center and star will make us into the true villains who oppose God’s work. Rather, following John, we realize we are called by God for his purpose to preach the condemning law and resurrecting gospel even when it may not be well received. This is the way of courage, the way of true manliness, free of bluster and machismo. It is the way of discipleship.

We pray that our paths of taking up the cross do not lead to a sudden and evil death like John’s. We are not promised martyrdom or freedom from it. Yet Christ says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Death and hell are already defeated. There is nothing we can face worse than martyrdom. Christ has faced the worst already so we may, like John, call on him for courage that His will be done on earth as in heaven. Amen.  
Preached for the Matins service of Northern Illinois Confessional Lutherans group.

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