(Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Pleasant Dale, Nebraska)
IN NOMINE JESU
"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" These are some of the sweetest Gospel words ever proclaimed, words spoken by John the Baptist. His task was to bring his hearers to repentance and to lead them to Christ. And once brought to Christ, John would step out of the picture, for Christ must increase, and John must decrease. With John's preaching style, that would be quite the decrease. If he was in this pulpit today, you might consider him to be a "hellfire and brimstone" type of preacher—the kind of preacher, as one of my professors would say, that would preach the Gospel and then say, "Now stick that in your pipe and smoke it!" John was not someone we would consider the "ideal" pastor, because he was not a respecter of persons; he didn't care whom he offended with his preaching. That's what happens with the preaching of the Law: it offends people, it rattles their cages, it shakes people out of their comfort zones, it exposes people for who they really are: sinners in the hands of an angry God. John took on the Pharisees, calling them a brood of vipers. Today he might call them snakes in the grass. He even took on the ruler, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and his immorally-gained wife, Herodias. John exposed their sin of adultery. Herod divorced his wife in favor of the wife of his brother, Herod Philip, whom Herodias divorced. Worse than that, both of these men were her uncles. This has all the makings of a soap opera set in some backwoods area, but this is most certainly true, as the Holy Spirit inspired the blessed Evangelist St. Mark to write of these events.
What Mark writes here is tragic. It is tragic because a righteous man was killed—martyred—for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of Jesus Christ. John was a preacher of the Gospel, but in good Lutheran fashion, he didn't preach the Gospel to secure, impenitent sinners. But when they did come to repentance, he gave them the Gospel: he baptized them. John baptized his repentant hearers into the coming Messiah, into His impending death and resurrection. John's was a valid baptism, for he was sent by God to preach and to baptize. John's baptism was truly sacramental, for it was instituted by God, who joined His Word to the visible element of water, and gave the forgiveness of sins. Thanks be to God that John was faithful in his service—and in his preaching. Here is where the tragedy lies. John was killed on account of his faithful preaching, a drunk ruler, a seductively-dancing stepdaughter, and a vindictive wife. All of this led to John's being beheaded. John shed blood for the sake of Christ, and for this reason, the liturgical color for this festal day is red, as it is for most of the apostles and evangelists who were martyred for the faith. The word martyr comes from a Greek word meaning "witness." John was a witness to Christ. He was the greatest witness of them all, for he was the immediate forerunner to the Lamb of God. John witnessed for Christ, and for Him John was killed. It matters not who killed him or what their motivations were. What matters is that he was killed and that he was killed for the sake of Jesus Christ. He who in his mother's womb leapt for joy at the presence of his Lord would lay in a headless heap for this same Lord. I am holding a print of an icon, a picture that teaches the faith. This icon depicts John the Baptist holding his own head in his arm, the head that he lost in exchange for the crown of life that was his in the Messiah whom he foretold.
There lay John's lifeless—headless—body, vindicated in his faithfulness. There were Herod, his friends, his stepdaughter, and his wife, condemned in their transgressions. There was a cover-up of the adultery John exposed by having righteous John killed. King David sought to cover up his adultery with, and his impregnating, Bathsheba by having her innocent husband Uriah killed in battle. There was Uriah, in a heap. There was John, dead and no head. Both paid for their innocence with their very lives. David and Herodias could not handle the truth. They did not want their sinful deeds exposed; so they sought to cancel out one sin by committing another. The Law of God was written on their hearts, and they did not like what was written there. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad. So it was with David. So it was with Herodias. So it is with us. We are no better than they were, no better than those Pharisees whom John called a brood of vipers. They didn't like their dirty laundry being aired. They didn't want their sins exposed. We don't want our sins brought to light, either. In fact, we don't like being told that we are sinners. The Old Adam in us hates to admit—to confess—that we are unworthy, that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and that we cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition, just as we did this morning, perhaps even grudgingly. We prayed with the Psalmist, "If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?" We certainly could not. We would tremble before His throne, meeting a far more tragic end than either Uriah or John saw—more tragic because we in our sins deserve eternal death. This is why the preaching of the Law offends people. It offends us. It scandalizes us. We would rather shoot the messenger than hear the message that we deserve to go to hell. Such is the life of the faithful preacher—and perhaps the death of him.
But the preaching of God's Law in all its fullness serves to bring our sins to light so that we would repent of them. Why is it important that we repent of our sins? The word repent literally means "to turn around." We are to repent of our sins so that we would receive the Gospel, that we would receive God's forgiveness. Why is that so important? It means that, having received His forgiveness, we no longer receive His condemnation but His promise of eternal life in heaven. Through Confession and Absolution we are no longer sinners in the hands of an angry God but sinner-saints in the arms of a loving and gracious God. Our heavenly Father has taken us into His arms because His Son stretched out His arms on the cross and shed His holy, precious blood in His innocent suffering and death. John shed his blood for Christ's sake. Christ shed His blood for yours. Christ shed His blood on the cross so that you would drink of His blood at His Table. He gave His body over to death, that you would eat it unto life. The One who is truly innocent and without sin, Jesus Christ, became your sin and died your death, so that in the living waters of Holy Baptism His resurrected life would be yours as well. He robes you in His righteousness, robes washed in the blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, has mercy upon us, and grants us His peace, that peace which the world cannot give, the peace which surpasses all understanding. We no longer dwell in the darkness of the shadow of death, but we now get to bask in the Son of God. Through Him, we will see heaven. We will see John the Baptist. We will see our Lord face to face in all His glory. What a most beautiful day that will be. Amen! Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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