Sermon for the Feast of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, AD 2021

Mark 6:14-29

Our gospel reading for the Martyrdom of John the Baptist is one of the few passages in the gospels that does not feature Jesus. Even though today we remember the death of John the Baptist, and this is about that event, it isn’t really a story about John either. John doesn’t really do anything here. The passage is really about Herod, and if we read closely, Herod’s reaction to miracles done by Jesus’ disciples. “So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known….he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” The coming of Jesus and his disciples which strikes fear into King Herod. Mark here compares for us the powerful yet cowardly Herod with the humble Jesus. In contrast to this false king, we see the true king more truly.

Who is Herod? If you have only heard of him, it was probably during a telling of the Christmas story, the king who wanted the wise men to come back and tell him where the newborn king was so he could “worship” him. This is not that Herod. That was Herod the Great, this is his son, one of many sons, Herod Antipas. Antipas had a smaller kingdom than his father, and ruled alongside his brother, Philip, and a Roman Governor (the most famous being Pontius Pilate). Herod Antipas had married an Arabian princess, but upon staying with his brother Philip, decided he loved Philip’s wife, Herodias, more. Both Herod and Herodias divorced their respective spouses and married each other. It’s worth mentioning that Herodias was also Herod’s half-sister. You can see that celebrity scandals are not limited to our day of TMZ and People magazine.

This scandal did not go unnoticed. Not only did it start a war with the king of Arabia, Herod’s former father-in-law, but it got the attention of the popular prophet John the Baptist. John bravely and rightly called Herod to repent of this sin, saying it was not lawful for Herod to do this. As king, Herod was supposed to set the best example for the people, yet was engaging in terrible public sin.

Here we can learn many things about sin from the example of Herod. The breaking of the ninth and tenth commandments lead to the breaking of the other commandment. For the sinful desire, coveting what is someone else’s, leads to action if that person does not confess and repent. Herod first sinned by desiring to take away his brother’s wife, and then he did so, committing adultery and breaking the sixth commandment. The sin did not start at the adultery, but the desire. Herod acts much in a way like King David, who saw Uriah’s wife on a roof and knew he wanted her. The sin began in entertaining that desire.

Yet the next step of coveting is also doing things in a way that appears right to everyone else. Herod still wanted to be respected and known as an honorable man. John the Baptist was a threat to this, and Herodias knew John had to be silenced. So Herod compounds his sin by then arresting John for no reason than to protect his own pride, even knowing that John was a “righteous and holy man.” Again, David also had to compound and cover up his sin by killing Uriah when he found he had impregnated Uriah’s wife.

Every private sin finds its way out if we don’t deal with it and confess it. We know this with lies, where one lie must cover another – so too with all sin. And the lie of the devil is that continuing to hide the sin, continuing to cover up, will bring freedom. Yet it does not. It brings more sin, more bondage, as everything piles even higher. When Nathan came to David and accused him of his sin, David repented. He confessed what he had done was wrong and sought forgiveness. Herod continually met with John the Baptist in prison, but never changed. The words went in to his ears, but his heart was hard to them.

We see then that hearing the Word and refusing it, Herod’s predicament compounded even more. He has his niece dance for him and his powerful friends, another shameful act, and makes a rash vow. Then caught in his words and not wanting to lose face before his friends, he must submit to this spiteful girl and in cowardice commands John to be beheaded. Not only does his sin increase, but this king with all his riches and influence is caught in the web of his own sin. He is bound and powerless before the world, the devil, and his sinful flesh.

If only Herod had listened to the Word spoken by John! Let us learn from Herod’s example of what NOT to do. Why did Herod continue to compound his sin, to cover up, to get himself more and more tangled in that web? He cared more about himself than God. He would rather please himself by having Herodias than help his brother. He would rather look good before others than do the right thing. You cannot act in this way continually sinning when you know it is wrong and expect to be a Christian. This is not the way of the baptized, it is falling back into the slavery of the old sinful flesh.

Freedom comes from our true king, the one John pointed to, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Unlike the false king Herod, Jesus did not seek fame or power for himself. He did not even have a place to lay his head. He came in humility out of compassion to serve us. He came to heal us, forgive our sin, to die for us. Because He bound himself to God’s will, He was truly free. Herod asserted his freedom to serve himself and then was trapped making choices he knew was wrong. Jesus did nothing for himself, but followed God’s desire that He serve and die for us. And pleasing God in His sacrificial death for our sins, Jesus was raised from the dead. Now Jesus, who went the way of the cross, has come to full authority over heaven and earth at the right hand of God, more than Herod could ever dream of.

This is good news for you, for Christ has sent his Holy Spirit to free you, forgive you, and renew you. The Holy Spirit brings the forgiveness, life, and salvation won on the cross to you in your baptism and strengthens you by the gospel and the Supper. You do not have to pull yourself out of your web of sin by continuing to cover it up. His desire is to free you from that sin.

The difference between Herod and David was not that one was sinful and the other wasn’t. The difference was Herod only heard the Word, but David, upon hearing the Word, confessed his sin. God forgave him, for God always desires to forgive, as we know from the Lord’s Prayer. Do not think your sin is too much for him to forgive or you are too far gone. Even David who stole a man’s wife and murdered him could repent. That this pricks your heart, that you desire to do something about it, shows that the Spirit is working on you. Do not just receive this urging of conscience, but receive the healing of confession as well.

When David confessed his sin, he also repented. He changed his mind and did not continue in that sin. That’s what the forgiveness of Christ also does – it makes us new so we may repent and turn from the old ways. We are not just forgiven, but the Word of God does what it says. The Holy Spirit makes us new as forgiven people. We see that here in the work of the Holy Spirit in John the Baptist. Without the Holy Spirit, John would never have called out Herod to repentance. He would not literally risk his own neck. Yet in Christ, he becomes like Christ. He thinks not of himself, but what pleases God and serves the neighbor. And like Christ, his choice to follow his Father’s will led to his death.

Yet in Christ death is only temporary, only sleep. For our King Jesus is all powerful, and has defeated those enemies which held us in slavery, even death. As we repent and trust Him now, we have true freedom that only forgiveness of sin can bring. We do not need to be caught in the web. And this is also true for the life to come. For if following Christ and living humbly, seeking the best of others leads to suffering and persecution, we are still free. And we have that promise of eternal freedom and rule with Christ in the new creation forever. Christ, not Herod, is the reigning and resurrected King. We have been adopted into his family by faith in him, and trust that we too shall reign as kings, no longer in subject to the world and forces of darkness, but in judgment of them.

As David wrote in Psalm 2: The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take council together saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord holds them in derision. He will speak to them in his wrath and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion my holy hill. I will tell of the decree: the Lord said to me, you are my Son, today I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and shatter them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Now, therefore, O kings, be wise. Be warned O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord in fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way. Blessed are all who take refuge in Him.

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