Monday, August 30, 2010

Sermon - Mark 6:14-29 - Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

Mark 6:14-29
August 29th, 2010
“The Forerunner”

Today, August 29th, the Christian church observes a rather gruesome event in the New Testament accounts – the martyrdom of St. John. King Herod, more particularly his wife Herodias, had just about enough of John's pointing out her sin. So she sent her daughter Salome to dance for the king, and got what she wanted. To save face, the king would giver her John's head on a platter.

What's the point of focusing on this grizzly event, and observing it in our readings and hymns and prayers today? We may not want to think about something that's so – well – not nice. It's not a pretty picture. Even the artists who have depicted this event over the years usually try to make it neater and cleaner than it was.

But Holy Scripture is not about making nice. God's Word doesn't sugar coat things for us. Life is full of messy, bloody, even gruesome events and experiences. We are sinners, after all, in a sinful world. And sometimes we need to be reminded of that.

That's what got John in trouble – it was pointing out sin. Today Herodias would say to him, “don't judge me unless you know me” or “walk a mile in my shoes”. But John, the prophet of God, said only, “repent”. “Repent, Herodias. You're married to your uncle. Repent, for you divorced your former husband.” Just like John called on the Pharisees to repent, that “brood of vipers” and all others as well. “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins”. That was his message. And what a powerful one it was.

What if someone pointed out your sins? How would you react? It happens from time to time with us. But we have lots of ways to avoid repenting – not as drastic as beheading someone. We can argue the point – come up with rationalizations and reasons that we had to sin, or that the sin isn't really that bad. We can say that everyone else is doing it, so it must not be a big deal. We can cop out to our sinful nature, or try and blame some other sinner. But the problem is our sins don't just go away when we do these things. They stick to us. And it takes a lot of work to deaden a conscience to the point we don't know our sins anymore. Call it a hardened heart.

So I'm going to assume that you, Christian, know your sin. You know not just your sins in general – but you know those pet sins with which you struggle day to day. It's probably nothing as scandalous as incest and murder. But in the darkeness of your heart, it's probably much the same. The wicked thoughts and selfish ideas you have can't be much different from mine. You may not have cut off anyone's head, but you've probably done much worse in your mind. And then there are the words and deeds that somehow slip through... you can't take them back – they're there for all to see.

What I'm suggesting here as that we read this account of John's martyrdom and ask ourselves, with whom do we identify? I think most of us want to be John in the story – the noble victim, the faithful martyr. But it would be better for us to think of ourselves as Herod or Herodias. The one who doesn't like the pointing finger of law. The one who would do anything to squelch that voice of accusation, and get out from under our own guilt and shame.

But don't do that. Don't react to the law like Herod and Herodias did. Instead, dear Christians, repent. Turn from your sin. Admit and confess it. Resolve to do better. Turn around. About face. Change.

And believe. Believe in Jesus Christ for the salvation of your souls. Remember your baptism, which washed and sealed you for eternity. Remember God's promises that in that baptism, you are dead and buried and raised with Christ!

Yes, remember the cross, and the one who suffered for you there – to win all blessings, to fulfill all righteousness, and to bear the brunt, no, the totality of God's wrath over sin. The pointing finger – all pointing fingers – were turned toward Jesus on the cross. And he took the punishment, we so richly deserve.

In many ways, John was the forerunner of Christ. He came to prepare the way, make the paths straight. He came to preach and baptize in the name of one who was greater to come. He pointed not only to sin, but also to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And even in his death, John points us to Christ.

For Jesus too would meet a martyr's death at the hands of powerful enemies who could not stand to hear the truth. John, like his Lord, suffered the injustice of it all, and was put to death without crime, but precisely because he did what was right, and said what was true.
But the difference is important too. While Herod feared John had returned from the dead, Jesus really did rise from the dead. While John was a prophet, perhaps the greatest – Jesus was an even greater prophet of whom all the prophets foretold.

In fact, the great mystery is that in Christ, John will rise from the dead. For Jesus is the forerunner of us all – all who believe in him will rise and live, in our bodies – at the resurrection of the dead, and in the life of the world to come. It is for this day that the martyrs cry out and it is for this day that we too pray.

Life is hard and messy and sometimes cruel. That's the way it is for us sinners in a sinful world. Even for believers, and particularly for us, there is trouble and persecution. We may not have to shed our blood, but the world hates us because it hates Christ.

We are no better. Were it not for the Spirit making us Christians by the Gospel and in the Watery Word, we'd be more Herod than John. And our old nature still wants us to go that way. But John says, and Jesus says “Repent. Repent and believe and live” For there is a promise of hope in Jesus, even for sinners like us. In his blood, we are forgiven, and we live.

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