"Faithful unto Death"
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
St. Mark 6:14-29
July 16, 2006
IN NOMINE JESU
In the rite of Confirmation, the confirmands are reminded of what they have undergone, as the pastor states:
You have been baptized and you have been taught the faith according to our Lord's bidding. The fulfillment of His bidding we now celebrate with thankful hearts, rejoicing to confess the faith into which you were baptized and which you yourselves will now confess before the Church.
Jesus said: "Whoever confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father in heaven. But he that denies Me before men, I will deny him before My Father in heaven."
Lift up your hearts therefore to the God of all grace and joyfully give answer to what, in the Name of the Lord, as a minister of His Church, I now shall ask you.
The pastor then asks the confirmands: "Do you this day in the presence of God and of this congregation acknowledge the gifts which God gave you in your Baptism?" The confirmands respond, saying, "I do." The pastor asks, "Do you renounce the devil in all his works and all his ways?" Again, the confirmands respond, saying, "I do." The pastor then asks them three separate questions, "Do you believe in God the Father Almighty...Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son...Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?" The confirmands express their belief in the Triune God by answering each question with the words of the respective articles of the Apostles' Creed as they pertain to that particular Person in the Holy Trinity. The pastor then asks, "Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?" (emphases added), to which the confirmands, to a person, all say, "I do so intend with the help of God." Later the pastor asks them, "Do you intend faithfully to conform all your life to the divine Word, to be faithful in the use of God's Word and Sacraments, which are His means of grace, and in faith, word, and action to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?" (emphasis added), to which all the confirmand respond and say, "I do so intend by the grace of God." The confirmands then, in turn, give the pastor their hands as pledges of their promise and kneel to receive the blessing.
What does the confirmation rite have to do with our text for today? Today we look at the faithfulness of John the Baptizer, the forerunner of Christ. He was a bold witness for the coming Christ, faithful in his preaching repentance to all who heard him. John was a fiery preacher of Law and Gospel, especially of the Law, imploring his hearers to repent of their sins and to believe in the Christ who was to come. We remember his calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers. We also recall his announcing the Christ: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." We hear his announcing that Jesus is the greater and John the less. John was a faithful witness, pointing his hearers to the Christ. Today we hear of another instance of his preaching the Law, pointing the Law right at Herod Antipas and his alleged wife, Herodias. Theirs was a marriage one might find in a soap opera. One Lutheran commentator summed up this so-called marriage quite well, saying:
All that seems to be left us is to assume that the flagrant sin of Herod was castigated by John in the course of his preaching repentance and thus came to the ears of Herod and his illegal wife. It was evidently the latter [Herodias] who instigated John's arrest.
Herod's crime was a public outrage. The woman had first married her own father's brother [Philip] and then ran away and lived with the half-brother of her husband, who was also her half-uncle and already had a legal wife. Two marriages were disrupted, and the new union was not a marriage. It was plain adultery.... [Lenski]
It has been said that the most effective way of dealing with one's critics is to silence them permanently, which is what Herodias sought to do. John had said of Herod: "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife" (v. 18b). John had been exposing the public sin of Herod Antipas and Herodias. She wanted John the Baptizer killed, but Herod was fearful, recognizing that John was a righteous and holy man. Herodias saw to it that John was arrested, but Herod kept him safe in prison. But John's safety would not last because of Herod's inability to think clearly. The daughter of Herodias, the daughter of Herod's half-niece, danced a sultry, sensual, sexual dance for her great-half-uncle at Herod's birthday banquet. Herod was aroused by what he saw, and, moved by alcohol and testosterone, promised Salome, Herodias' daughter, anything she wanted, up to half the kingdom which was not properly Herod's but belonged to the Roman governor. She went to her mother, who wanted the head of John the Baptizer on a platter. Herod, as St. Mark notes, was sorry, not out of repentance but out of guilt, for he made a wild oath to Salome. Herod was not interested in doing the right thing; he cared more about doing the politically-expedient thing. So Herod had John, this righteous and holy man, beheaded. This was not a family whose lives were lived around the Word of God. Salome was seductive. Herodias was evil. Herod was spineless. Herod and Herodias were both adulterers. Contrast their lives with the life of John. Not living in a palace and wearing fine clothes, John roamed the wilderness, wearing a garment of camel's hair and a belt of leather, eating locusts and wild honey. John was faithful to God and preached faithfully in accordance with his calling. Herod, Herodias, and Salome were faithful only to themselves individually; they were not even faithful to the rest of their family, as noted by their adultery. Yet it was John who met the tragic end, being beheaded because he dared to preach the Law of God to unrepentant, secure sinners.
When John was arrested and while he was in prison, he did not ask for a second chance. He did not seek to water down what he said. He did not recant his statement regarding Herod Antipas and Herodias. Why should he have done that? He had no need to because he was right, not because he himself had said these things but because the Lord called him to preach the Word. John remained faithful, even unto death. He was the greatest of the prophets, for he was the Christ's immediate forerunner, and John's faithfulness serves as an example for us today. This is what our text has to do with the confirmation rite: We are to be faithful unto death even as John was faithful, paying for his faith in the coming Christ with his very life. We too are to be faithful to Christ and His teachings, even if this faith costs us our very lives. We have made this promise to be faithful unto death. We vowed in the presence of God to remain steadfast in this confession and faith, conforming our lives to God's Word and being faithful in our use of His Means of Grace, being faithful to Him, to His teaching, and to the confession He has given His Church, the confession which this Lutheran church believes, teaches, confesses, and practices.
Yet today pews are empty and members are missing. Young men and women who have over the years vowed before the Lord that they would be faithful have proven themselves to be liars. They have lied to God and to their brothers and sisters in Christ. They have abandoned their confession. They have placed their lifestyles above the One who has given them all that they need to support their bodies and lives. Before you say, "Yeah, Pastor! Those people really need to be hearing this," take a look in the mirror of God's Law and see how you appear. We are all guilty of breaking our vows before the Lord. We have over time sought to excuse ourselves from coming to the Lord's house. There are so many things that we want to do, and we neglect the one thing that truly is needful: to be fed on the Word of the Lord. We often would rather take vacations or trips that would take us away from here and claim that we could not find another congregation that shares our confession. We sometimes find ourselves exhausted, and we say we are too tired to come here. At those times we would rather worship at the Chapel of Saint Mattress rather than at Shepherd of the Hills Evangelical Lutheran Church. We look at other congregations that boast higher memberships and have implemented a number of programs, even at congregations that are of a different confession, have recanted their confession, or are even of no confession whatsoever. Yet we think that these congregations must be doing something right if they have all these people and programs. If you think this way, remember what you learned during your days of formal instruction: the true marks of the Church are not found in the number of programs offered, but the true marks of the Church are the faithful proclamation of the Word and the equally faithful administration of the Sacraments. Word and Sacrament...this is what the Church is about, not about which congregation has the better building, bigger parking lot (or even blacktopped parking lot), or the most programs. We have vowed to make use of the Word and Sacraments, not of the ribbons and bows in which a congregation may be wrapped. Too often we have lost members who relish the trappings that a congregation of a different confession offers, and we have not been diligent in encouraging them to remain here or to seek a sister congregation, one who is of our confession, the true confession of Christendom.
Regarding our confession, that is, the Lutheran Confessions, to which we have subscribed as a faithful exposition of the Holy Scriptures, we outwardly profess our adherence to the Confessions, but inwardly we are uncomfortable with some teachings handed down to us through the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. We have pledged to be faithful to the teachings. The pastor asks: "Do you hold all the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God and confess the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, drawn from them, as you have learned to know it from the Small Catechism, to be faithful and true?" The confirmand says, "I do." Yet we employ a buffet-style theology in which we pick and choose what we want to believe, even if what we believe is rejected by Scripture. The Ten Commandments are not multiple choice, and neither are any of our Lord's teachings. Like those who have chosen to not be here today, we too have not been faithful in our vows to the Lord. We have not been faithful even unto death, and we risk facing eternal death, denying our Lord before men.
Yet we still have John as a faithful witness, although he, like us, did have his doubts. Saint Matthew notes, "Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, 'Are You the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?'" (Mt. 11:2-3). John began to have some doubts while in prison, but the Lord assured him that the Christ had indeed come. "And Jesus answered them, 'Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me'" (Mt. 11:4-6).
Even in the midst of John's doubts, the Lord did not defrock John of his standing as the greatest of all the prophets. This conversation also took place to show that John had indeed pointed the way to the Christ. The Lord announced to the crowd: "This is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send My messenger before your face, who will prepare Your way before You.' Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Mt. 11:10-11). Those who hear the message of repentance and, by the Holy Spirit, come to faith in Jesus Christ have a place in heaven higher than even John the Baptizer. John was the last prophet under the old covenant. Jesus ushered in the new covenant by giving His body and shedding His blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Circumcision was the sign of the old covenant. Baptism is the sign of the new covenant. In both covenants the believer is marked, but in Baptism we are marked with the sign of the cross both upon our foreheads and upon our hearts to mark us as those redeemed by Christ the crucified. Remember that in the confirmation rite the pastor does not say "You have been circumcised" but "You have been baptized." Under this new covenant, following thorough catechesis and its public confirmation, we are invited to eat of His meal, the new testament in Christ's blood. Those under the old covenant of circumcision were commanded to eat the Passover meal as a memorial meal of His delivering the Israelites out of Egypt. Our Lord invites us of the new covenant to eat and drink at His table, to feast on His body and blood in His holy Supper. In this eucharistic meal, we not only remember our Lord's Passion, but we also receive His gifts of forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. Our Lord through Word and Sacraments gives us the strength and the means to remain faithful to our Lord and His teachings, even unto death.
Our Lord gives us the means to be faithful unto death because He Himself was faithful unto death. The way to our salvation and perseverance in the faith has come by our Lord's way of the cross. At any time He could have easily turned His back on the cross. But it was God's will that He become one of us and come to Calvary's holy mountain. "For surely it is not angels that He helps, but He helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore He had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because He Himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted" (Heb. 2:16-18). He helps us during our times of weakness, during those times when it is difficult for us to be faithful to Him by sending us His Holy Spirit, who strengthens our faith. Our Lord has given us hope in remaining faithful by His rising from the dead. By His resurrection our dear Lord has conquered all things. He has destroyed the power of sin, death, and the devil. We need not fear what will befall us, for even when it is difficult for us to remain faithful, the Lord has been faithful and will remain faithful, even to the Last Day, when He will gather us and all believers in Christ to Himself. "The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful—for He cannot deny Himself" (2 Tim. 2:11-13). By the grace of God, may we keep in mind and put into practice the words of the writer to the Hebrews:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:19-25).
God grant this in Jesus' Name and for His sake.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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