Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sermon: the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

29 Aug 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Mark 6:14-29 (Rev. 6:9-11, Rom 6:1-5)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

The world looks up to men and women who defy the authorities, who stand up courageously against the power structure. History books lionize Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and the founding fathers of America. Lutherans venerate the memory of Martin Luther who refused to yield to the pope. Around the world, monuments honor heroes who died fighting for political independence, such as King Leonidas, William Wallace, and Stonewall Jackson.

Perhaps the greatest such hero apart from our Lord Jesus Christ goes largely unnoticed by the world. On this date, the Christian Church honors the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.

We Lutherans perhaps don’t honor John as much as we should. For didn’t our Lord Himself say that there is no greater man born of women? Every Eastern Orthodox church in the world has an icon of John near the altar. On that count, we can certainly learn from our Eastern brothers and sisters.

For John is a pivotal figure in the history of God’s people. John stands between the Old and New Testament, ushers in Christ, and serves as an end-time figure all at once.

John is the last of the Old Testament prophets, the son of a priest, the product of a miraculous birth announced by the angel Gabriel. Like Israel’s ancient prophets, John speaks boldly of the Messiah. And yet John doesn’t have to die before seeing the Promised One like his fellow prophets. For John is the forerunner. Our Lord links him to the mighty prophet Elijah. But John isn’t only a prophetic messenger, he is flesh and blood of our Lord, being the cousin of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of our Lord Himself. And not only is John the last Old Testament prophet, he is the first New Testament preacher. He is not only a proclaimer of the Word, but he is the first minister of the sacraments! John is the Baptist, the one who connects water with God’s grace and salvation, the one and only one who will baptize our blessed Lord Himself.

As Paul tells us in our epistle, we are united to Christ through baptism, to Him whose baptism was administered by John. In a very real way, we are all linked to John through our own baptisms into Christ.

John’s faithful preaching of the Kingdom of God, of repentance, of baptismal grace didn’t make everyone happy. John the Baptist is certainly the patron saint of every pastor whose preaching of the law made someone mad at him. For John was to become a martyr for the sake of his preaching of the Kingdom and of the need to repent.

The red to see on our altar is symbolic of the very real red blood that flowed from John’s Body, which to this day awaits the resurrection to be reunited with his sprit that cries out for vengeance under the heavenly altar, according to our reading from Revelation.

In a very real way, John represents the entire history of God’s people. He straddles BC and AD, he binds the prophets and priests of the Old Testament to the bishops and pastors of the New. He connects us in the temporal world to the angelic hosts of eternity. He is a continuation of the preaching of the Gospel from before the coming of our Lord to the time after Jesus’ incarnation. He shares family ties of flesh and blood to the Virgin Mary and our Lord. He is the symbol of Holy Baptism, and his martyrdom is a symbol of the Christian life.

For didn’t our Lord say “take up your cross and follow me?” Didn’t he tell us that what is done to the master will be done to the disciple? Doesn’t he warn all of us that we will be dragged before the enemies of God’s Kingdom, interrogated, harassed, tortured, and put to death?

John was decapitated for the sake of the Lord, who is his true head. The Lord Jesus Christ is also our head, the Church’s head. We, the body of Christ, submit to Him – even if it means it will cost us our lives. Hearers of the Word are to take John’s sermon of repentance to heart, and preachers of the Word are to expect martyrdom for the sake of Him to whom they are yoked. Submission and suffering are the common experience of lay people and clergy alike.

Though St. John was never a hymn-writer as far as we know, we sing His hymn, his confession, his words which are the Holy Spirit’s words every time we gather for the Lord’s Supper, the Agnus Dei: “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world….” Even the liturgy of the Christian Church is dripping with John’s blood and sings out John’s preaching of our Lord Jesus Christ!

And yet, in John’s lifetime, no-one could have appeared to be more of a failure. John was seized by the authorities, silenced, put into a dark dungeon, where he would be beheaded alone, apart from friends and family. On this side of the grave he did not see the fruits of his preaching or witness the miraculous works of his Cousin who is God.

At the end of our Gospel text, John’s disciples laid his body in a tomb. They would later become our Lord’s disciples who would live to see John’s divine Cousin similarly laid in a tomb – only Jesus would burst the bonds of the grave and would sanctify the graves of all Christians – including the grave of faithful John the Baptist.

What appears to be John’s abysmal failure in this life is his ultimate glorious triumph in eternity. What seems to be the hopeless end is really only the hopeful beginning. John’s purpose in life, his reason for being born, was fulfilled. John carried out his mission faithfully and courageously – pointing the world to the One who would crush the serpent’s head once and for all.

On the last day, John’s body will be pulled from the grave, his flesh and bones reconstituted gloriously by grace of the One he proclaimed in his short life in the fallen world. And we will join him, our faithful brother, joyfully celebrating our baptismal victory in the water of life in the new creation, not only singing the Agnus Dei, but truly beholding the Lamb of God for all eternity. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 comment:

Doorman-Priest said...

Theology! I like that in a blog! Thanks

Check out my new Lutheran blog: