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Celebrating Martyrdom(?)

Mark 6:14-29; Revelation 6:9-11; Romans 6:1-5

Pastor Jason Zirbel

Martyrdom of John the Baptist
Grace Lutheran Church  
Greenwood, AR

Play MP3 of this sermon

Sun, Aug 29, 2021 

The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.

Today we celebrate the martyrdom of John the Baptist.  That doesn’t sound right, does it?  Maybe “observe” is a better term.  After all, we don’t celebrate a day like September 11th, do we?  We observe the day, but we certainly don’t celebrate it.  To say that we celebrate the martyrdom of John the Baptist just seems so wrong.  We all know how John the Baptist died.  We’re celebrating murder?  I totally understand celebrating the death/murder of Jesus.  That’s an entirely different thing.  John’s death doesn’t make atonement for even one single sin, let alone all of humanity’s sin.  Jesus’ death does.  Still… we don’t exactly celebrate Good Friday, do we?  It ain’t like Easter!

Well… maybe we’re missing the point because we’re only looking at martyrdom through the lens of death/murder.  Remember: “Martyr” is Greek for “witness.” In a simple, proper Scriptural sense, a martyr is one who bears witness to Christ.  Yes, this witness, more often than not, also involves suffering… maybe even death, but the word itself centers on being a witness, not being a victim.  That’s what makes marturia (bearing witness) so different from other forms of evangelism and mission efforts.  Martyrs suffer for their witness.  Martyrs suffer (and even die) as they bear witness.  Their suffering and death are part of the witness; part of the evangelism of Christ crucified.  Their very suffering and death point to Christ.  Their very suffering and death are proclamations of Christ.  They don’t just talk the talk.  They walk the walk… even unto death.

This was John’s story, and we know it well.  John dared to speak the Truth regarding King Herod’s elicit marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias (who was also his niece).  John spoke very plainly, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Again, with these words John isn’t citing civil statutes and laws, but is pointing to Christ; to the Bridegroom.  All marriages on earth are to be living examples of the marriage between Christ and His bride, the Church.  So even in something like this—calling out Herod’s infidelity and adultery—John is being faithful in pointing to Christ.  “This isn’t lawful!  This isn’t in keeping with Christ’s definition of marriage!”

Not surprisingly, the Herods—particularly Mrs. Herod—were greatly offended.  So what do they do?  They seek to have John “cancelled.” They throw him in prison.  Herod wanted to put him to death (not because he was so offended by John, but rather to keep the wife happy/quiet).  After, we are told very plainly that Herod actually liked listening to John.  Mark tells us very plainly that Herod observed John and gladly heard him.  More than that, Herod feared John, not because he was afraid of a military fight with John, but rather because he knew that he was a just and holy man.  Basically, Herod wasn’t too big on religion, but he did believe in karma, and he knew that if he put John to death, bad things would happen to him.

Herod wasn’t dumb.  If he put John to death, not only could he possibly bring the wrath of John’s God (bad karma) down upon him, but he would also have a riot on his hands.  None of the Jews—even the ones John had called broods of vipers and whitewashed tombs—liked Herod.  They hated Herod more than they disliked John, and killing John would give them more than enough reason to revolt.  No… Herod wasn’t dumb.  John would remain in prison, safe from the murderous rage of Herodias, hopefully out of sight and out of mind. 

However… a short while later Herod throws himself a birthday party, and at this party he gets a little tipsy and starts ogling his own step-daughter as she dances rather seductively before her own stepdad.  Yeah… even people in DC and Hollywood would be grossed out by this!  Hormones raging and fueled up on liquor, Herod starts making bold promises to the beautiful young lass.  “Ask whatever you want, up to half my kingdom, and it’s yours!” This is all part of Mrs. Herod’s sinister plot, mind you.  Mrs. Herod knew full-well how all this would go.  So when her daughter comes to her and asks, “What should I ask for, mommy?” Mrs. Herod has the immediate answer: “You want John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter.” Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  John may have been out of sight, but he certainly wasn’t out of mind.  Checkmate.  Herod now has to make good on his word.  After all, he made that promise in front of all his guests.  He can’t renege now.  What would the guests think?  His reputation is at stake.  The great and mighty Herod… nothing more than a coward who was more concerned about peoples’ opinions and his own reputation than murder. 

And I know at this point, the discussion would normally turn to the excellent example of faith that John exhibited, right up to the very end of his life.  John spoke the Truth, regardless of the audience, always pointing to Christ, always preparing the way for repentance and the Good News of God’s forgiveness in Christ and because of Christ, even as his head was being chopped off and put on a platter.  And all this is absolutely true.  And yet… what other examples do we see in this text?

What about the examples set forth by Herod and Herodias?  It sounds weird, but their examples are every bit a part of John’s martyrdom.  We can learn a lot from them too.  Let’s start with Herodias; aka “Mrs. Herod.” She gives us quite an example, doesn’t she?  She heard John preach about her illicit marriage… and that Word of Truth made her angry.  She hated hearing the Word of Truth; that Word that confronted her in her sin and called her to repentance and life.  She’d rather murder than acknowledge her sinful ways.  Now, are any of us that drastic?  No… I would hope not.  Still, how often does the Truth of God’s Word upset you or anger you, especially when that Word dares to tell you that you are sinfully in the wrong?  Anger makes us do many things, but admitting our fault and changing our ways isn’t one of them.  Many a congregation is split and put to death simply because some folks don’t like the Truth they hear, and they’d rather burn it all to the ground than change their sinful ways.  On a more personal note, how often would we rather kill the Truth than let that Truth change us?  Out of sight, out of mind, right? 

What about the mighty King Herod?  He gladly heard John and observed him, right?  But simply hearing John and observing him isn't enough.  The Word had no effect on him.  He heard, but he didn’t listen.  He didn’t repent.  He didn’t turn and change.  That very deadly cocktail of fear and pride compelled him to keep on doing what he was doing, and when his wife and step-daughter asked him for John's head, the great and mighty King Herod caved like a house of cards.  He delivered it to them on the silver platter, just like he was told to do.  His wife, his step-daughter, his reputation in the presence of his “dignified guests” all won the day. 

What about you?  We hear and observe.  We know it all so well.  But does any of this go beyond mere historical knowledge?  Does any of this have any effect in our own daily lives?  Does it change us?  Does it turn us in repentance?  Admit it: We often ignore God's Law, as Herod did.  “What will people think?” What does God think!?  We indulge in selfishness, as Herod did.  We are guilty of yielding to the lusts of the flesh, as Herod did.  The cares and pressures of this world press upon us, just as they did Herod.  Others compete for our attention and devotion, and just like Herod, we too turn from the Word of God.  We cave.  We capitulate.  We talk a bold martyr game… until it comes time to actually walk the walk.  It’s not a matter of if you’ve caved, but how have you caved when faced with fearing God or fearing the things of men? 

So—yeah—merely hearing and observing isn't enough.  Going through the motions, doffing your hat to God, and simply identifying as a Christian isn’t enough.  Anybody can talk the talk.  This “Christian Nation” of ours is proof.  Walking the walk of faith is a whole different thing.  We must also hear and observe and listen to and follow the one whose way John prepared—Jesus Christ, our Lord.  This is what it’s all about!  This is what it’s always been all about, from the very beginning with Abel—the first martyr—to the very end, when our Lord Christ Himself returns—the perfect and holy martyr and witness of God’s just wrath against sin and His unconditional love for the sinner.  Even on a day like today, when we take a little time to meditate on the martyrdom of John the Baptist, it’s still all about Jesus.  Jesus is Almighty God’s justice and holiness in the flesh.  Jesus is the Word of God incarnate for our salvation.  Jesus is our Savior from the sin that enslaves us, and he is our God.  By his preaching, St. John the Baptist calls us to follow in his footsteps and put our faith in Christ and in no other, in good times as well as in bad times, richer, poorer, in sickness (or even if there’s just a threat of sickness) and in health.  “I am with you always.” Look right here to the font and the altar.  Your Lord Christ walks the walk… for you.

One final point to make before calling it a day: Boldly walking the walk of faith in Christ may cost us our reputation in eyes of the world—as it did John.  Such faith in Christ may bring division and opposition and suffering in this life—as it did John.  Do not be deceived.  Such faith in Christ may even cost you your life—as it did John, maybe not by an executioner’s axe, but by something as inglorious as microbial germs that you get by daring to be in the presence of the Almighty in His holy house.  A martyr’s death, nonetheless, for it would be a death that points to and bears witness to the real presence of the Lord of Life in our midst. 

Folks: I know the world we find ourselves in today.  It’s scary… but you have been baptized into Christ!  What do you have to fear?  In Holy Baptism we’ve already received our white robe of righteousness; the same robes that we hear about in Revelation 6.  It’s all very funerary, isn’t it?  We’re completely covered over in the white pall of Christ’s perfect righteousness, and this is our reality right here, right now.  This is how God sees us/thinks about us, now and for the rest of eternity: Covered over in Christ.  This is certainly reason to rejoice, isn’t it?  By faith and through faith we can rejoice and celebrate even as we walk through this shadowy valley of death because we already know how all this ends: Heavenly rest with Christ our Lord, and with all the saints who’ve fallen asleep in the faith and who now peacefully wait with Christ for the end of all this tribulation and for the resurrection unto everlasting life.  Folks: It’s only going to get better!  That is certainly reason to celebrate and rejoice! 

May the fruits you daily bear—your words and deeds, your talking and walking—all be bold witnesses to your life and salvation in Christ.  Like John, may your entire life be faithful marturia to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, who sits at the right hand of God, who is with you now, and who will come again in all glory on the day of the resurrection.

To Him be all the praise, glory, and honor...  AMEN.



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