Preparing the Lord's Way in Life and Death
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is the feast day called "The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist." On June 24 was the festival of St. John the Baptist's Nativity. In that day's Gospel reading we hear the prophecy about John uttered by his father Zechariah, who had been filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied of John, "You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways." In other words, John would be the forerunner of Jesus, both life and in death. Like Jesus, John was born to die a martyr, which St. Mark records for us in today's Gospel reading. I will read it again, for maximum effect.
King Herod heard of [the wonderful works of Jesus], for His name had become known. Some said, "John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him." But others said, "He is Elijah." And others said, "He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." or it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias's daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you." And he vowed to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom." And she went out and said to her mother, "For what should I ask?" And she said, "The head of John the Baptist." And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
What a timely reading, full of sex, drugs, rock n' roll, violence and gore; a veritable catalog of sins against the Ten Commandments. We find that 30 A.D. wasn't all that different from the 1960s and 2021. God has given us sex, alcohol, and dancing as gifts to enjoy according to His Word, but sinners have always abused and misused them, as we see in this reading. The despot Herod lusted after and coveted Herodius, his brother Philip's wife, so he took her as his own wife. And then at Herod's drunken birthday party, Herodius herself offers up her middle-school-aged daughter as entertainment for the "gentlemen" at the party. She danced for them, and it was no polka. Do you think child exploitation and pornography are new problems? Think again. There is nothing new under the sun.
It is a miracle of grace that God does not just end the world right now for all of our wickedness and send us straight to hell. It is hard to believe that He can put up with the gross immorality of this world, but what is even harder to believe that He brings about salvation for us right in the midst of this gross immorality, and even through it. Note well that He doesn't cause it, but He does use it.
Just consider the death of St. John the Baptist. How could God allow the great prophet and preacher, the chosen forerunner of Jesus, to be chopped down in the prime of life by the vindictiveness of Herodius and the careless, piggish King Herod? Where is the justice in all of that? This great and faithful man's life is ended in a moment on account of the passions and whims of wicked sinners. He didn't deserve such mistreatment. John had done the right thing. He had called on Herod to repent of his adulterous marriage to Herodius, and he had told them both to believe in Jesus. Yet for that, he lost his head. Jesus had said, "Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11), and look what happened to this great man.
But the burning question is: where was God in all of that? How could He let such a thing happen to His chosen instrument? And if that is what happened to the greatest of men, then what will happen to us?
We can only answer these questions if we are standing in the shadow of the cross. John had exclaimed while pointing at Jesus, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" John was the forerunner of Jesus in both life and in death. He prepared the way for Jesus' ministry, and then he prepared the way for the conclusion of Jesus' ministry: he also was persecuted for doing and saying what is right, followed by a gruesome and unjust death.
We celebrate St. Stephen as the first Christian martyr, but perhaps we should go back a bit further to the Baptist. He lived out that saying of Jesus, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:35). Where was God in the death of St. John? He was there all along, saving John for eternal life, because Mark tells us that John "was a righteous and holy man" (Mark 6:20). John was not righteous because of anything he did, because no one living is righteous before God. John was a sinner too, but he was righteous and holy by God's grace through faith, saved by the righteousness of the Lamb of God whom John proclaimed.
But Christ accomplished this righteousness for John and all of us by becoming unrighteous. The Psalm had to be fulfilled, "no one living is righteous before" God. That had to apply to Jesus, too. He came truly as a man, born without sin, and never committing sin, but He became the biggest sinner of all in the Jordan River when He was baptized by St. John. This is how St. Matthew describes it: "Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then [John] consented" (Matthew 3:13-15).
To fulfill all righteousness—that means to accomplish everything necessary to save us from eternal damnation in hell—to fulfill all righteousness happened by Jesus stepping into our place as sinners, undergoing a baptism of repentance, going all the way to the cross, and dying for our sin, so that in exchange for our sins Jesus could grant St. John and all of us righteousness and salvation. As St. Paul said, "For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in [Christ] we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). He did all of that for John, and for all of us, too.
So listen to what that means for you now. What Jesus has done for you means that all the sins and failures of your past are forgiven and forgotten by God. He doesn't keep track and exact punishment from you; He doesn't bear a grudge against you; no, He gives you a clean slate, and works repentance in you and promises a new life for all who believe and are baptized.
In your Baptism, your sins have been washed away so that now each day you can fight against the old sinner and walk in newness of life. Are you ashamed of your own involvement with sins related to sex, drugs, and rock n' roll? Drown that shame in your Baptism. Are you plagued by guilt over such trespasses? Dunk that guilt in the blood of Jesus Christ in the font, and at this altar, where Jesus gives you His true body and blood for the forgiveness of all of your sins. Are you plagued by continued temptations, and have you once again fallen? Then let the absolution sink deeply into your ears, as Jesus says, "I forgive you all of your sins."
But also don't forget that it is only in the future that all of our sins and struggles and sorrows finally be completely put to rest. Suffering always comes before resurrection and glory, as we see in St. John and in Jesus. St. John was the forerunner of Christ in life and in death. After John was persecuted and murdered, his disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. Later, the disciples of Jesus would take His lifeless body from the cross and place it in a tomb.
Burying a Christian like John is the most hopeful thing you can ever do, because we all know what happened on the third day after Jesus was buried. He rose again, and all who believe and are baptized have a share in that resurrection. St. John, too. His bones rest peacefully somewhere in the Holy Land; perhaps they have been reduced to dust. But because John was righteous and holy by faith in Christ, his body will rise just as Jesus' did. That's for you, too. That's what we're all looking forward to. We confess, "I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting," and "I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.