Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Today we celebrate the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, which, admittedly, might seem like a strange thing to celebrate. But it has been the church’s practice for nearly 2,000 years to celebrate the day of death of saints. Why? The day of a saint’s death has always been viewed by the church as their birthday into eternity. But still, this is a foreign concept to many of us. After all, in twenty-first century American culture, we view anything relating to self-denial, suffering, or death as to be avoided. But this is why it is important that we Christians celebrate days like today. The life, and consequently the death, of St. John the Baptist remind us of the importance of humility, submitting to the will of the Lord, and, to use a more modern phrase, canceling ourselves.
2. What do I mean by “canceling ourselves”? I’m making a parallel to the ever-increasing “Cancel Culture” around us. If you’re not sure what “Cancel Culture” is, don’t feel bad. The phrase started gaining popularity in late 2019, and it seems to be more and more widely used. I’ve heard the phrase “Cancel Culture” off and on for at least the last year, but it wasn’t until the last few months that I bothered to do some research and figure out exactly what the phrase means. “Cancel Culture” is all around us and is most clearly exemplified when a group of people ostracise or shun someone who is deemed to have acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner. Frankly, “Cancel Culture” is plan nasty. It delights in getting someone fired or ruining their reputation. For an example of this, look no further than the ongoing “Jeopardy!” saga. Earlier this month, replacements were named for the late Alex Trebek, who hosted the show for so many years. The replacements were Mike Richards and Mayim Bialik. Just recently, however, some depraved human beings who wanted to see Richards removed dug up some skeletons from his closet in the form of old lawsuits, which had been settled in court, as well as a number of inappropriate comments made in various settings. As a response to this, just over a week ago, Richards stepped down from the hosting role. Richards had been canceled. But now, another group is trying to do the same sort of thing to Bialik. If these people have their way, it will be only a matter of time before Bialik, too, is canceled. In these situations, it’s easy to focus on the victims (Richards and Bialik) and make a pronouncement of their guilt or innocence, but let’s focus on the accusers for a second. What horrible, depraved human beings would deliberately seek to ruin another person’s life like this? How could these people take such delight in ruining the reputation of others, speaking with such a nasty agenda, and not treating others as they wish to be treated? Even if you’re not a fan of Richards or Bialik, I have to imagine that if and when this kind of thing happens to someone you care deeply about, you would wouldn’t exactly be happy about it. This eruption of judgmentalism is all around us, and dare I say, it has invaded the church, even you and me. Our sinful nature is licking its chops at the prospects which this judgmental “Cancel Culture” has created in and around us. And Satan is on the prowl, too, tempting us to fall into his trap. We must resist him, lest we fall further into the trap than we already are. The truth is, we Christians loath this “Cancel Culture” because it represents the very worst of attitudes that we recognize deep within ourselves. It’s easy to point the finger at other depraved human beings, it’s much more difficult to recognize that same depravity within ourselves. But the truth is, we are by nature self-centered and judgmental and think that we matter more than other people, even if we would never admit that out loud.
3. This is precisely why we need to learn from St. John the Baptist. In our Gospel Reading for today, we heard the story of his martyrdom, which happened as a result of Herod’s mistress, Herodias, deciding that, in a very real sense, she was going to “Cancel” John. John’s death, after all, really was Herodias’ fault. Yes, Herod was responsible for imprisoning John, but that was really only because he wanted to stop John from talking. John’s open condemnation of Herod & Herodias’ relationship was probably somewhat damaging to Herod, but he still had this strange fascination with John. Herod didn’t want John killed, he just wanted to stop his mouth. Herodias, on the other hand, did want John killed. And a prime opportunity arose at Herod’s birthday party. Herod had a bunch of people over and was not in the soundest state of mind, thanks, I’m sure, to a few too many drinks. So, Herodias’ daughter went into the party and danced for Herod. Herod was so pleased by the dance that he promised in front of all his guests that he would give her anything she asked for as a reward. Before deciding what to ask for, she consulted with her mother, who was waiting for this opportunity. There was only ever going to be one answer to the question, “For what should I ask?” And that answer was, “The head of John the Baptist.” And so, that’s what she asked for. Herod, at this point, was backed into a corner. He didn’t exactly want to kill John, but at the same time, he felt like he didn’t have a choice—breaking an oath before dinner guests would have been beyond embarrassing in a culture that so highly valued honor. So, the order was given and Herodias got her way. John had been canceled in the strongest possible sense. And so, in this story of the martyrdom of John the Baptist, we’re presented with a strong picture of life outside of God’s kingdom, which judgmentalism, self-centeredness, and “Cancel Culture” reign supreme.
4. But that is not the end of the story. There was another man who came after John, a man whose life, in a lot of ways, paralleled John’s. This man was also put to death by a ruler who was backed into a corner. Pilate didn’t exactly want to kill Jesus either, but at the same time, he felt like he didn’t have a choice. But there is one significant difference between the deaths of John the Baptist and Jesus. John was put to death against his will, but Jesus was put to death willingly. John died a martyr’s death, but Jesus died a sacrificial death so that your sins of judgmentalism and self-centeredness might be forgiven. Jesus canceled himself so that we might be forgiven.
5. And so, as we celebrate the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, I want to leave you with this. At the beginning of this sermon, I said that John the Baptist reminds us of the importance of humility and submitting to the will of the Lord. It’s quite clear through this story of John’s martyrdom that he exemplified what it means to submit to the will of the Lord. But there’s a moment in John’s life which exemplifies the importance of humility too, which I would like to leave you with. This is recorded at the end of the Gospel of John, chapter 3. Some of John the Baptist’s disciples came to him concerned that Jesus and his disciples were baptizing, and thus were taking over John’s ministry. As a response to this, John basically says, “Good!” Then, John speaks these famous words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). It is my prayer that these words of John the Baptist would become your life motto and mine. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” That’s not an easy thing to live out. To truly live this out means to live a life characterized by humility. It means to recognize that what I want doesn’t matter—Jesus, his word, and the needs of others are the only thing that matter at all. Living this kind of life means canceling ourselves and submitting to the Lord’s will rather than our own. May our heavenly Father by the power of his Spirit grant us grace to cancel ourselves so that Jesus might increase.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.