There's so much I'd like to share today with you. What I have enjoyed most about St. John is perhaps your passion for education, for children and adults. Cheering on the Illini, perhaps sometimes even from here, your orange and blue ties. The Mary Martha luncheons, especially when someone brings a cherry pie. Youth trips with the kids and the deaconess. Our love of music and for the hymns of the Lutheran faith. You let me into your homes and into your hearts. You have become my family.
Above everything else, I have enjoyed preaching to you. Not that I am the best at it. But there is nothing else in life that is more fulfilling that delivering the Word.
Today's Gospel reading is about John the Baptist's death. I'm not comparing myself to him. I would never match up to that great preacher. Far from it. Besides, John went to prison and death. I'm going to serve as pastor of another congregation. The only thing John and I have in common is our message. I hope that over the past decade you have heard that same message.
The message is this: To the secure sinner, such as Herod, the message is "Repent, for the kingdom of God is near." I believe it does no good to preach as if there's nothing wrong with the way we live. Ours is a sinful and decadent generation, self serving. Herod married his brother's wife. We live in a lewd and promiscuous society. The Bible says, "Flee sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside his body. But the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. (1 Cor. 6:18)
Herod lived in wealth and splendor. Jesus said the Word of God is like seed. Some was sown among the thorns. These are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word and it proves unfruitful (Matt 13:22).
Herod cared more about what his friends thought about him than doing the right thing. When the young lady danced before him and asked for him to have John killed, he was afraid of what his guests would think if he did not comply. That's a problem for us today. Ever wonder why you are afraid to tell someone about the good that God has done for you in Jesus? Know why that is? It's because you are afraid of what they might think of you.
If there's one thing we can learn from the life of John the Baptizer, it's boldness. He was unflinching in his proclamation and unafraid of any consequences of speaking for God.
Yes, the message is, in part, bad news for the old sinner in us. It tells us to repent and turn from our sinful ways, for judgment is coming.
That's half of the message. When we come to understand that we have transgressed God's eternal law and are guilty as charged, there is another message from God. It is to be preached as loud and clear as the call to repentance. What is this message? John preached it the day he baptized Jesus in the Jordan river. He said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
It's not enough to condemn the evil in the world and warn it of the coming wrath. There are many religions that are very good at laying down the rules and making people conform. Most of their rules are very good for society, emphasizing decency, charity, and modesty. But we Christians are not put here to remake society in our own image. We cannot force people to be righteous. Besides, there is no man-made righteousness that comes out of our own obedience. Only God can make a person truly righteous.
We are to point to Jesus as the savior of the world. That's the other part of the message we proclaim. Everyone needs to know again and again how God's love for all people in the world was so great that He came into the world personally. He came to give himself in our place. Now, when we repent of our sins and ask for his forgiveness, we can know that it is complete. Jesus took our sins upon himself, and now declares the believer to be without sin. That is what we call the Gospel, the good news of Christianity.
This was John's message. But there came an end to his ministry. He was taken away. But that really began earlier. Jesus came on the scene, most of the people began to follow Him instead of John. It is true that at times he questioned it, for he once sent friends to ask Jesus if he was the messiah, or if there would be someone else. In the end John realized this and accepted it.
John recognized that his personal comfort was not what was ultimately important. We learn from him about the cost of being a disciple. The word disciple is used around 260 times in the New Testament. It means more than just hearing what the preacher says. Disciple comes from the world "discipline", which means someone who is a student or adherent to the doctrines of another.
What is the cost of being a disciple? The forgiveness of sins and salvation costs us nothing. It is the free gift of God to all who trust not in themselves, but in what Jesus did for them on the cross. It costs us nothing to enter the kingdom of heaven when we die. Jesus did it all for us.
It does cost us to follow Jesus. For John it cost him everything. His very life. He was killed for entertainment. It was the reward for a girl who danced a provocative dance. Following God's will and preparing the way for Jesus meant more to him than saving his own life.
What will following Jesus cost you? I know that some of you have paid dearly for your Christian faith. You have taken an unpopular stance with family and with employers. There are some things you will not do, will not give your approval to, and you have suffered the consequences. God says that He will comfort and sustain you.
I do not mean to say that there are two kind of Christians, simple believers, and level two disciples. All believers are called to be disciples. Jesus preached to the multitude in Luke 14 that unless one is willing to forsake father, mother, or child, he cannot be a disciple. Everyone is called to put Jesus first. But even John had struggles with that. But he knew God had called him to prepare the way for Jesus.
I wish for you to know that the only reason for my leaving you is the call of God. You are a loving congregation. No one has urged me to do this other than the God who called me to come to you many years ago. All of us must answer the call.
This is my last sermon to you. I thank all of you for your love, support, your patience with me over the years, your kindness to my family. But above all I ask you to remember the message of God's mercy. We are poor examples of disciples, but God is merciful. He loves and forgives us and promises that He will always do so as we call to him. Since He is so good to us, there is no reason for us not to continue to following Him.
To you, disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, my friends: Farewell, and keep following Jesus.
Copyright © 1998-2011 James F. Wright. All rights reserved.
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