✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Before John the Baptizer was born, the angel said that he would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah. Elijah was one who confronted kings and called them to repentance. That’s how it was also with John the Baptist. He was jailed for daring to criticize King Herod Antipas and telling him that it was not lawful for him to take his brother’s wife as his own.
This King Herod Antipas was the son of the infamous Herod the Great, who murdered not only several of his own sons to preserve his throne, but who also tried to assassinate the very Son of God Himself in His infancy in the massacre of the Holy Innocents at Bethlehem. Herod Antipas would carry on his father’s murderous ways. Though he was already married, he had taken up with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip. To add to the royal sleaze, Herodias was also his niece, the daughter of another sibling. King Herod was imprisoned to his desires–his desire for power and prestige and dominance over his brother, his sexual desire for this woman.
And so John the Baptist preached the truth to Herod, telling him that he was committing adultery by doing this. Herodias’ hated John for this, and she wanted him dead. But interestingly, it seems that King Herod himself knew that John was a just and holy man. He feared John and didn’t wish to harm him. Today’s Gospel reading says that, surprisingly, Herod heard John gladly. It’s not unlike those today who know that Christian teaching is good, that Christian morality is right, who may even be willing to talk with a pastor about religion. But they just can’t bring themselves to actually embrace the faith and leave behind worldly ways. They resist repentance and refuse to let go of their favorite sins. God save us from such a hypocritical hearing of His Word, where we listen to it willingly but then refuse to repent and believe it and live by it.
Herod had put John the Baptist in prison–in part to protect John from his wife Herodias. Jesus was well aware of what was happening to His forerunner. Soon after John was imprisoned, Jesus said about him, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” John no doubt knew what awaited him. After all, from the time he baptized Jesus, he had proclaimed that Jesus was the Lamb of God, the Lamb destined for sacrifice. If John was the forerunner who prepared the way for Jesus, that meant that he would go ahead on the way the Lord Himself would travel, the way of suffering and death. John knew it wouldn’t end well for him in this world. He said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John had now decreased to the point of living in a dungeon, soon to perish. But even in prison, remember how Jesus sent John’s disciples to him with this comforting message, “Go and tell John that the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them.” Even behind bars John is not forgotten or forsaken by the Lord.
King Herod knows that John is a man of God. But Herod gets himself ensnared by the salacious dancing of Herodias’ daughter from her previous marriage. The lust of his eyes and his groin draw him to do something truly foolish, to offer the young dancing woman anything she wants, up to half the kingdom. We may mock the silliness of what he says and does here. But don’t our sinful desires also lead us to do ridiculous and foolish things? Haven’t you ever looked back on something in your life after the fact and said to yourself, “What was I thinking? What have I done?” And regarding Herod’s particular sin here, how many today have threatened their marriages and their families and gotten themselves ensnared by the salaciousness of pornography with all the corruptions it brings? How many who know better still indulge themselves with adulterous flirtations and even affairs with co-workers and friends? All such things are the way of death.
And then, when Herodias finally has the chance to get her revenge on John, when her daughter comes back with the request for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, why did King Herod go through with it? He didn’t want to do it; he was exceedingly sorry he made the offer. He realized how stupid he had been. But, it is written, “because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her.” In other words, he preferred pretending like he was a man of his word instead of honoring the Word of God. He cared more about looking good in front of his friends than he did about doing what was good in the sight of God.
Is that not often our problem? We want everyone to think we’re better than we really are. Too often we’re so much more concerned about pleasing others than we are about pleasing God. What God thinks takes second place to what people think. And so we end up compromising and acting against our consciences and what we know to be right.
Let us, then, listen to the preaching of John and repent. For the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. The hour of salvation is now. For despite your self-justifying and posturing, the truth is that the Lord still desires to save you and to have you with Himself. The truth is that He kept the Law in your place and died the death of the unrighteous in order to make you a righteous person. The truth is that in Him your conscience is cleansed, your soul is spotless and pure as new-fallen snow–all of it accomplished by His steadfast and unfailing love for you.
Herod tried to use John’s death to make himself look good and cover up his foolishness. But the death of Jesus actually does cover your foolishness and your sin; the shedding of the blood of Christ actually does declare you to be good and holy in the sight of God. That’s who you are now by faith in Him.
Remember that Jesus, too, stood before this same King Herod. Herod was in town for the Passover during Holy Week. Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to Herod for questioning. The king had gladly received John, but Jesus doesn’t get the same treatment. When Jesus wouldn’t perform any miracles for Herod or answer any of his questions, Herod and his men mock Jesus and dress Him up in a gorgeous robe as some sort of fake royalty and send Him back to Pilate.
So Herod had a hand in the deaths of the two greatest men who ever lived. Again Jesus had said, “Among those born of women there has not arisen any greater than John the Baptist.” “Nevertheless,” Jesus continued, “He who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Our Lord Jesus made Himself dead last and utterly least in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus became the lowest of the low and the Servant of all in order to save us. John’s death was quick and relatively painless, but the death of Jesus dragged on for hours under torture–torture that He bore in order to redeem His torturers, people like Herod and Pilate, like you and me, and the entire fallen world. John’s disciples manfully came forward to collect his decapitated body and bury it in a tomb. But Jesus’ disciples fled, and it was left to Joseph of Arimathea to bury the Savior in a borrowed tomb. Truly, Jesus went to the lowest depths for us and for our salvation. That is why He is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, with the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow. He alone is King of kings.
Let us, then, learn to live and die as John did, always with Christ in view. When you face death, whether from ordinary causes or at the hands of an enemy enslaved to his passions, let the words which Jesus spoke to John ring in your ears, “The dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” In the end our enemies can only do us good. For John was mercifully removed from the shallow world of lies and vanity. He was brought early to the perfect gladness that Christ won for him. John, who leaped for joy in his mother’s womb in the presence of Jesus, now is born into eternal life and leaps joyfully in heaven where the Lord is present forever before his face. Though sometimes our cry is “How long, O Lord?” still we are able smile at an enemy like death. For the Lord brings good out of that evil so that we are drawn into his nearer presence, where we wait for the day of vindication and the resurrection of the body.
So let us be like John, full of courage and zeal, willing to decrease all the way unto death so that Christ might increase and be all in all for us. For that is your calling in baptism. The Epistle said it: “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” Dying to our passions and to our love of the approval of others, we are raised with Christ to live a new life, a life that bears witness to Him who is our life. That is what many Afghani Christians are doing right now. Reports have come out of Afghanistan that they are requesting prayers not primarily to be rescued–since that’s unlikely for most–but especially that they may remain faithful to Christ in the face of the threat of death for themselves and their children. As it was for John, and for our Lord Jesus, so it also remains for the church today. We pray that we may take Christ’s words to heart, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
One last thing: what do you think John’s disciples did after he was buried? They did what John had taught them to do; they went to Jesus and followed Him. And that’s what we do, too. If John was the forerunner, then we are the afterrunners, following after the One John pointed to as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We go the altar of our Lord, where a very different sort of dinner party is prepared, a true Kingly feast where He bestows upon us not just half but the fullness of His kingdom, where He lavishes His mercy and forgiveness upon us with His sacrificial body and blood, where He gives us to reign with Him as kings and priests. In the confidence and assurance of what Christ gives to us here, we say “Let the world hate us, mock us, even kill us if the Lord wills it. It harms us none. Baptized into Jesus, we are sons of God in whom He is well-pleased and whom He will never forsake. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠