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Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

Matthew 14:1f

Rev. Andrew Eckert

Wed. after 13th Sun. after Trinity
Our Savior Lutheran Church  
Stevensville, MT

Wed, Aug 29, 2018 

Today we commemorate the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist.  The word, ďmartyrĒ did not originally mean a personís death.  It referred to the witness a person gives.  When Christians bear witness to Christ, they back it up with their lives.  Faithfulness to Him is more important than this life.  After all, He has conquered sin and the grave.  Why should we not risk everything for Him who gave all for us?  The Gospel is worth it.

But John the Baptizer did not exactly die for speaking the Gospel, did he?  He condemned Herod and Herodias for marrying unlawfully.  Herodias had been the wife of Philip, Herodís brother. John said, ďIt is not lawful for you to have her.Ē Saint Matthewís account does not state whether Herod forced Herodias and Philip to divorce.  Either way, Herodias should have remained with Philip.  It was also not permitted under the law of Moses to take your brotherís wife.

But Herod was the king and could get away with pretty much anything his lustful heart desired.

John spoke up, and was put in prison for it.  Herodias held a grudge for Johnís words, and through her daughter got her petty, wicked vengeance.

If only John had known what we know.  Do not preach politics from the pulpit! - which was essentially what he was doing.  If John had kept himself to spiritual matters and not involved himself in politics, he would have kept his head.  So we modern, enlightened people know that the pulpit should not criticize the government.

Of course, everyone in this day and age decides for themselves what constitutes preaching politics. Mention abortion, and some people will never set foot in this building again.  Talk about whether God approves of same sex marriage or not, and many will walk away. Others imagine politics in even more obscure topics.  So we had better avoid any appearance of divisive, earthly matters, and keep our heads on spiritual matters where they belong, right?

But John dared to speak such things, and Christ praised him as a great prophet.  Perhaps our modern sensibilities are actually ways that we learn to minimize our witness of the Law of God, which is higher than kings and emperors.  But we can comfort ourselves with the thought that if we sweep offensive talk under the carpet then we will avoid certain dangers in this world.

Or we could say that John was simply too brash.  If he softened his words and used more tact, he could perhaps have won over Herod.  We need to speak more lovingly than John did.

But what that really means is that if we minimize the seriousness of Godís Law, then we will win over more people to be our friends.  But then we will not win them over to the Word of God.  We will, in fact, teach them that it is okay to ignore the Law (heaven forbid!).

We are hesitant to condemn common sins.  No-fault divorce is accepted by our culture, so we do not want to be offensive by calling out this sin.  We would step on far too many toes with that one.  Yet John called out Herod for that, and was willing to die for it.

But here, as we grope for excuses for ourselves, we may decide that the whole problem with John, and with many preachers nowadays, is that they preach too much Law. Law AND Gospel is what is needed.  If only John had read more of Walther or Luther, then he would understand better, and would have surely won over both Herod, Herodias, her daughter, and as a bonus, kept his neck intact.

See how cowardly our flesh can be, that it can use the distinction of Law and Gospel as an excuse to minimize Godís Law.

Preaching the Law does not mean softening it so that it does not condemn the wicked.  Preaching the Gospel is not allowing the Gospel to forgive the unrepentant who still live in their sin, thereby giving them the impression that the Gospel makes their sin okay.  Heaven forbid!

John did exactly the right thing.  He condemned a man who should have known better.  He also would have declared Godís forgiveness to Herod if he had repented.  John did not compromise the Law in order to appear more loving, nor did he use tact in order to avoid the danger that he knew he was facing.  He simply let the Law be the Law, and left the results in Godís hands.  So John was beheaded.  Such a violent fate!  Yet he knowingly faced the danger and his own death.

We may flinch at the slightest danger.  We fear that someone may feel offended at us. Horrors!  We fear losing friends or reputation, or {gasp!} members of the church.  With less members, there will be less money to go around, and we donít want that!

We are so pathetic and weak, often because we have idols in our hearts that create fear in us.  We deserve for God to lose patience with us in disgust.  But He has not.  For the sake of His Son, He has shown us great patience.

Do not use His patience as permission to continue in sin!  Do not let yourself be ashamed of Christ and His Word!  Do not be afraid to confess Him before men. Do not respect men more than the Word, nor think too highly of some because of their relationship to you.  Christ must always be first.

John and Christ were able to face the prospect of a gruesome death.  John, a sinner, surely had some fear and weakness in him, as we all do.  Yet he put the truth first and ignored his fear. 

Christ, who had no sinful weakness, put you first.  He had very intense sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane as He contemplated the suffering He would face.  Although Christís sorrow was not sinful, it showed that He also is human like you.

Likewise, on the Cross He truly suffered.  It was no sham suffering.  Christ also was a witness.  He spoke the truth and died for it.  By His death, He became the greatest martyr.  His Blood speaks a testimony of life to all who believe.

So you are safe.  There is a resurrection from the dead, which even Herod admitted.  The death we suffer is not the end.  We can confidently and courageously bear witness to Christ because whatever we lose for our witness will be restored a hundredfold.  We can put our lives on the line to speak the truth knowing that our life will be given back to us, although not in this present weak state.  We will have bodies that cannot die.  We will have heads that cannot be removed.  We will be raised as Christ is, never to die again.

So we can face death without acting as if death were the ultimate power.  It is not.  Christ has promised us eternal life.  Let us not act as if death is stronger than the Lord of life.  Let us fear Him with godly fear, and love Him as the Savior who has purchased us back from the grave.

In His Name and to His eternal glory.  Amen.

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