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It was just two fast months ago that we celebrated the “Nativity of John the Baptist” on June 24th. Now today we celebrate his death.
One of the things that we said at that time was that the only other person besides Jesus whose birthday recorded in the gospels is John the Baptist. Like his Savior, John was one of those 'miracle babies.' A real surprise to his parents. And like Joseph and Mary, John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are instructed by an angel what they are to name their child. “And you shall name him John.” (Luke 1:13)
Now today we note that John the Baptist is also the only person besides Jesus Christ whose birth AND DEATH is recorded in the gospels.
And like his Savior, John's death is also an injustice and a bloody death, carried out in envy and anger and bitter resentment.
Like his Savior, John's death comes at the hands of a civil ruler who is pressured into executing an innocent man against his will.
All of this of course is ordered by God. John pointed to Jesus Christ, not just by the sermons that he preached, but also by his life. His preaching testified to Jesus and his death testified to Jesus. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
But in John the Baptist, we can also see how sinful man twists God's good intentions and turns them around in such a way that they work for bad instead of good. Maybe it’s just because John's life looked so much like what the prophets had warned we should expect to see when the Messiah comes, but the people think that John the Baptist is the Messiah.
So sadly, you get the idea from a careful reading of the gospels that John had to spend a lot of his time and energy preaching against the false rumors that he was the Christ.
Luke writes, “As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all… (which doesn't mean that he answered them all at once and put the question to bed. It was like when a politician wants to put a rumor or episode behind him, it kept coming up and wouldn't go away, and over and over again, JOHN ANSWERED THEM ALL) “I am not the Christ.” “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Yet for all of his efforts to ‘decrease himself and increase Jesus,” people still didn’t get it. Sometime later, as Jesus walked with His disciples to Caesarea Philippi, He asks them this question, “Who do the people say I am?” And they answer, “John the Baptist.”
Here is what sin has done to us all. In Adam’s fall into sin, it’s like all of the internal wiring that connects us to God and God to us has been rerouted. All the connections that God set when He made us so that we would hear His Word and believe it and understand it, without confusion or misunderstanding, have been scrambled, so that nothing comes out the way it should. The truth is taken for a lie. A lie is taken for the truth. The messenger is thought to be the Christ and the Christ is thought to be just another prophet.
Only the Holy Spirit can undo this mess. And He does, through His Holy Word and His Holy Baptism. He resets the connections between us and God, between God’s Word and our mind, between His Holy Baptism and our heart, so that we may hear His Word and understand it rightly, and in both the words that we speak AND the way that we live, confess that “Jesus is Lord,” and there is no other, and call upon Him in prayer, in complete confidence that He hears us and in His steadfast love, answers us.
The curtain on our gospel for this morning opens on Herod Antipas. There’s a bit of ‘back-story’ here that’s helpful to know. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who was the ruler at the time of John’s and Jesus' birth and who slaughtered the infants in Bethlehem. And as usual, ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’
Herod Antipas took a series of wives as his father was famous for doing. One in particular is singled in the Gospels for being particularly repulsive to the Jews. Her name was 'Herodius.' She was his brother’s wife.
If you’re listening carefully, and you noticed that “Herodius” sounds a lot like “Herod,” that’s because she is also one of the family. Not only was she married to Herod’s brother Philip, but she was also his niece.
But I'm sure that they really, really loved each other. And that’s all that matters, right? Besides, what's a king's private life got to do with his public service?
And so, in a day when the holy institution of marriage was being blatantly mocked, (can you imagine that!) John the Baptist spoke out against Herod, “it is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.” Which doesn’t mean that he just spoke out against it once and then spoke out against other sins that nobody really had. He kept speaking out against it over and over and over.
And the only way to shut him up was to lock him up in prison, which is what Herod did. (We're not quite there yet but we may get there someday..)
Mark makes it clear that it was Herodius who pressured Herod into arresting John. “Herod sent and seized John and bound him in prison FOR THE SAKE OF HERODIUS.”
John was imprisoned in a 'minimum security' prison. His disciples could visit freely. At one point it does seem as though even John has his doubts about Jesus. John sent some of his disciples to Jesus with the question, “are you the one or should we expect another?” None of us should think that our faith is so secure that it can’t be shaken.
Mark writes, “Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted him put to death. But she could not, because 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…” The devil is always creating these OPPORTUNITIES to either convert or kill Gods’ faithful people. It was Herod’s birthday and he gave himself a party and invited “his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.”
Quite an impressive group. Herodias, knowing her husband, being a servant of the devil, seized the opportunity. She sent their daughter into the banquet to dance for everyone. “And she pleased Herod and his guests.” And Herod plays the big shot in front of his guests and says to his daughter, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you…”
And the girl went out and said to her mother, “what shall I ask.” And without hesitation, Herodias told her to ask for “The head of John the Baptist.” And not just a private little beheading done quietly. But, “the head of John the Baptist ON A PLATTER.” She wants this to be a public spectacle and she knows that she's got her husband caught in a trap that he himself has set.
“And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests and he did not want to break his word to her, he IMMEDIATLEY sent an executioner to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.”
And if you think that's about as sick as it gets, just wait until you see what the king of Judea is pressured into doing to the One whom John the Baptist pointed to.
All of this is just the 'back-story' to the opening of our gospel this morning. After John was imprisoned, Jesus begun his ministry and performed many miracles. He has just sent the twelve apostles out two by two and they are performing miracles in His Name. And our gospel opens with these words, “King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known… When Herod heard of it, he said, 'John, whom I have beheaded has been raised.” He thinks that Jesus is John.
Sometime later, the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, will send Jesus to Herod Antipas in Galilee. And Herod would have his chance to interview Jesus. Does Herod still think that he is talking to John the Baptist come back from the dead?
“Herod questioned Him at some length.” “But Jesus made no answer.” I can't help but wonder what emotions must have filled Jesus as He stands before the man who murdered John. “But Jesus made no answer.”
Does His silence bother you? John spoke up against Herod in defense of the truth at the cost of his life. Why doesn’t Jesus speak up and defend the truth? Why doesn’t Jesus at least speak up and defend John?
This is the question that Luther addresses in a sermon on Titus 2. We’ll close by quoting a small portion of it.
“Christ is risen from the dead, has ascended to heaven, and sits at the right hand of God in divine power and honor. Nevertheless, He is hiding His greatness, glory, majesty, and power. He allows His prophets and apostles to be expelled and murdered… He His holy martyrs to be flung into bonds and prison, to be scourged, stoned, hacked and stabbed to pieces and miserably done away with.
He allows His Christians to suffer want, trouble, and misfortune in the world. He acts as He did in the days of His flesh, when John the Baptist had to lose his head for the sake of a desperate harlot, while He, the Savior and Helper, said nothing about it, departed in a ship and withdrew to the solitude of a wilderness.
Is He not a petty, childish God, w ho does not save Himself and allows His children to suffer as if he did not see how badly they were faring?
Them, as the writings of the prophets and the psalms state, the godless boast; they mock the Christians and their God, saying, ‘Where is their God now?’ If He is God, let Him contend for His rights and the rights of His people so that His name may not be rooted out and His people may not suffer.
If He does not see what is going on, then He has no eyes to see and no reason to understand. On the other hand, if He does see and know but allows these things to happen, then He is no good, faithful God and has no heart for His people. Likewise, if He sees and knows but cannot help, then He has no hands that are able to do anything, nor does He have power to enable Him to save.
So the prophet Isaiah correctly says of God: “Truly, You are a God who hides Himself.” (Is.45:14). For He hides His omnipotence, wisdom, power, and might and acts so childishly as though He could do nothing, knew nothing, understood nothing or did not want to do anything… He lets us call and cry and says nothing, as though He were deep in thought or were busy or were out in the field or asleep and heard nothing, as Elijah says of Baal. (1 Kings 18:27)
Meanwhile, Christians baptized in His name, must hold still, must permit people to walk over them and must have patience. For in the [present] KINGDOM OF FAITH, God wants to be small. But in the [future] KINGDOM OF SIGHT, He will not be small but great. Then He will show that He saw the misery of His people and heard their crying and had a will inclined to help them, and also the power to help them… For this appearance of the glory of the great God, we must wait.” (“What Luther Says” #830).
Titus, chapter 2: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…” (Titus 2:11-13)