The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist 2021
August 29, 2021
Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID
Today we commemorate the death of the greatest man born of woman. Standing with one foot in the Old and one in the New, John the Baptist is the last of the Old Testament and first of the New Testament martyrs. From his mother’s womb to his camel’s hair clothing and diet of locusts and honey to the time he baptized Jesus and heard the Father’s voice and saw the Spirit descend, John proclaimed that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He knew that he must decrease and Jesus must increase (John 3:30), since he was the one who was to prepare the way of the Lord.
Now, John had only been preaching publicly for about a year and half before he was jailed for speaking against the King. It was while he was in prison that Jesus said of him, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Sitting in prison, John knew it wouldn’t end well for him, and in needing the reassurance of faith, Jesus sent him the comfort, “God and tell John… the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:4-5). In other words, the Kingdom of God had arrived in Jesus.
It was this good news of repentance and faith, the resurrection, and the casting out of demons and the healing of many by the apostles sent out and commissioned by Jesus that Herod had heard. He had heard more and more about this Jesus, it brought to mind how he had executed John. Maybe his fear and guilt over John’s death caused his suspicion that the Baptizer had returned from the dead. Regardless, when Herod hears more about Jesus, we get this sort of flashback as he remembers what he did to John.
John had spoken up against the sin of Herod, over his adultery and lust. The plane fact of the matter is that John is martyred because he says that adultery is wrong, that Herod should stop fooling around with his brother’s wife. Herod divorced his first wife to marry Herodias, even though this was unlawful according to the Levitical law, and Herodias had divorced her husband, Phillip. To make it even more scandalous, Herodias was the granddaughter of Herod the Great. This Herod mentioned here is Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, and the half-brother of Phillip. In other words, both of Herodias’ husbands were also her uncles. And if that wasn’t enough, the daughter of Herodias “pleases” Herod and others with her dancing. There are certainly some sexual undertones here. This is all gross, inappropriate to say the least, and there isn’t a decent person in the room.
And Herodias takes advantage of this to ask for John the Baptist’s head. During the feast she wants to gorge her sinfulness, with the head of John served up to them on a platter. Now Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man. He kept John safe, imprisoned more like an interesting pet, but his conscience caved to his sinful pride. He worried more about keeping his word to Herodias’ daughter that doing the righteous and holy thing and he had John beheaded.
When news reached John’s disciples, they came and took the body away and buried it, not treating it as a piece of trash to burned and scattered around, but in faithful hope of the coming resurrection of the dead. Then they went to Jesus. Which is exactly what John taught them to do: Go to Jesus.
That’s what his death teaches us today. All martyrs testify and direct us to Jesus. We may tell stories of great heroes and tragic ends to inspire us to certain virtues and a way of life, but that isn’t the ultimate point. This isn’t about John’s courage or character. This is about John’s faith, or rather, who John had faith in. John’s own expectation and belief that Jesus is the Messiah gave him the courage of his convictions because he had the Holy Spirit, and he knew Jesus, and he held on the certainty of the resurrection and being delivered through death and into life.
Would it be for us as well. That’s what we prayed for today. Look at the Collect of the Day for today. It begins, “Almighty God, You gave Your servant John the Baptist to be the forerunner of Your Son, Jesus Christ, in both his preaching of repentance and his innocent death.” It’s an adoration of God for sending John to point us to Jesus. Then it continues, “Grant that we, who have died and risen with Christ in Holy Baptism, may daily repent of our sins.” It’s very Sacramental, isn’t it, and connects with the Epistle from Romans 6. A recognition that in your Baptism you are already united to Jesus’ death and resurrection which then leads you to repentance over sin and faith in Jesus.
Then, “patiently suffer for the sake of the truth, and fearlessly bear witness to His victory over death.” How appropriate for so much of our current situations. How can we not think of the Church in Afghanistan experiencing this very thing. is saying, “we will gather and likely die” and give witness to the hope we have in Jesus, many in the church in America say, we will gather, “unless there’s a football game on, or a birthday, or it’s a nice day, or my friends are doing something else, or church might go too long.” While we argue over mask and vaccine mandates, they are faced with probable death.
If this hits a little too close to home, give it some thought. Rather than defensively blowing it off, think about the reasons you give or justifications you make for skipping church. We've all missed church before. Sometimes with good reasons. Sometimes with less than good reasons. Examine your heart and then, rather than attempting to justify yourself, repent! Repent and receive the forgiveness Jesus won for you on the cross. Receive the forgiveness proclaimed to you in the words of absolution and that Christ gives to you in His very Body and Blood. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor 11:26).
Join your voices and hope with those whose faith soon turns to sight and look to Jesus. With the Christians in Afghanistan and scattered throughout the world, even with the heavenly saints, who we heard crying out in our First Reading today, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Given a white robe, which is the righteousness of Christ washed white in the blood of the Lamb, and told to rest a while until the time of Christ has come. By the grace of Christ, you join the ranks of those heavenly saints, awaiting the final and complete deliverance out of the great tribulation. You who are “in Christ” live the life of Christ—a life of suffering, but also of victory. St. Peter writes in his first letter, “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13). Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.