We have come to know and to believe
the love that God has for us.
1 John 4:16

The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptizer

O almighty and everlasting God, through Your only-begotten and beloved Son, Jesus Christ, You will sanctify all Your elect and beloved: Give us grace to follow their faith, hope, and love, that we together with all Your saints may obtain eternal life; through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. [ELH 138]

God’s grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Today the Church remembers the death of John the Baptist. John was a prophet of God in the same league as Elijah, but since he lived into the time of Christ, John has been overshadowed. But there was one who had respect and even fear concerning John: a king, the tetrarch Herod Antipas. He reigned over Galilee, and his half-brother Philip reigned over another part of their father’s kingdom. Their father had been Herod the Great, that jealous king who had met with the wise men and tried to kill baby Jesus. The wife of Herod Antipas, Herodias, had been married to Philip, and also happened to be their niece! But these had each divorced their former spouses to be together. That says a lot about this family.

The story of John’s death teaches much, but we may also learn much from Herod’s part. John did his job and said what was needed: that’s rare courage. Herod shows us a lifestyle that could fit right into our own culture, and a conscience that suffered terribly because of it.

Mark 6:14–29

14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17 For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

These are Your words, heavenly Father. Sanctify us by your truth. Your Word is truth. Amen.

Dear fellow redeemed:

Consider John. The name didn’t exist yet, but we might think of him as the first Christian. John was called by God to prepare for Jesus. Prophecies about Jesus also foretold the coming of John. He was the transition between the Old Testament and its fulfillment in the Messiah.

John had gathered disciples and taught them. Living in the wilderness, he had preached the coming of Jesus and baptized a great number of people for the remission of sins. We’re told by Mark that John’s freedom was cut short by Herod. It wasn’t the first time that a true prophet was thrown into prison, and it wasn’t the last time for a Christian. This mistreatment did not cause John to waver in his teaching. In fact, it seems Herod listened to him. Matthew tells us that John in prison sent his disciples to Jesus with a question— not for John’s information, but so that those disciples might see for themselves that Jesus is their true teacher. Jesus sent them back to John with encouragement.

For John would not enjoy his freedom again on Earth. Though it was Herod who gave the order for shameful reasons, it was God who called His prophet home. Herodias may have rejoiced that this man who had publicly pointed out her sins and hypocrisy was finally silenced. But the greater joy belonged to John, whose soul was transported to the eternal, glorious presence of His Lord. On the Last Day, his body will rise whole and perfect.

For success from a heavenly perspective in our own lives, we may imitate John’s faith. Perhaps in an earthly sense we might suffer and lose, but through Jesus, faith always wins.

That heavenly perspective is hard to keep. Life interferes. Plans backfire. Even those who seem to be surrounded by success might be living in a kind of torture chamber. Consider Herod. Yes, he had a lavish birthday with important guests. Yes, he was married to the one person in the world he had chosen, who shared an attraction (or ambition) with him that knew no limits. Yes, he was powerful enough to choose life or death for others.

But Herod’s pride and his guests combined to force him into doing what he didn’t want to do. Herod’s marriage — pleasant or advantageous as it may have been — troubled him when John pointed out his sins. Herod’s power was not enough to correct his wrongs or bring back the dead.

Herod had a bad conscience. He deserved it, but no more than you or me. He listened to John, and his sins troubled him. After he killed John, Herod’s troubled conscience allowed John’s disciples access to bury his body. But it didn’t help Herod. Later, when he heard about the miracles of Jesus and his disciples, Herod feared that it was John back from the dead.

A bad conscience lives in terror of God, like when Adam and Eve hid from God at the sound of His walking in the garden. Sometimes a bad conscience will tell itself, “I’ll be okay,” and give reasons: “I have plenty of wealth,” or “I’m young and there’s time,” or “The weekend is around the corner.” Those are all hollow reasons. Herod had them too, but none of those things solves the problem for good. So people drink, smoke, swallow, or inject things to feel better and dull the pain and fear of a bad conscience. These are temporary fixes, often harmful, and sometimes deadly. They were available to Herod, too. But he was trapped between his past and his pride.

There’s another kind of bad conscience: the kind that takes an imperfect life and boldly calls it good enough, expecting God to approve. Herod and Herodias might have wanted this kind of conscience, but John’s preaching of God’s commandment prevented it. You can’t keep up the charade of being righteous when God speaks the truth.

That’s one of the chief reasons why we don’t like to come to church. Not just your neighbors who aren’t here, but you, too. We’d like to protect our troubled consciences with the illusion that everything is okay. And at our worst, we want God to pretend along with us.

He won’t do it, and neither will His best prophets and preachers. So a lot of people avoid church. We would too, if there wasn’t something else to bring us here.

For a while, Herod had John in his prison, maybe even to protect him from Herodias. But in the end, it was Herod’s own pride and his command that killed John and he had to live with that.

Who had the better fate: Herod, or John? There’s no question. John is in heaven. Herod was spiritually miserable on earth, and probably died in unbelief. How can you avoid such guilt and shame? How can you have a death that brings you into the eternal, glorious presence of the Lord? Use John as your model instead of Herod.

John understood that the purpose of true religion is not to make us guilty, but to make us righteous. All religions may try to make us righteous, but most just pin their hopes on something that’s not good enough. Only one thing is good enough. It’s you or me. It’s not John or Herod. It’s the Savior that John was sent to introduce. He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, raised the dead, and now lifts the weight of all sin from burdened consciences.

You can tell your neighbors that we don’t come here to commiserate about our guilt. We come to have it removed, effectively and permanently. That’s what Jesus does for us. It’s the point of having a church and belonging to it. It’s the point of having a pastor and being under his care. It’s the point of the Divine Service, where we meet Jesus personally and He treats us not as our sins deserve, but as the perfect life of Jesus deserves, credited to us.

We’re all going to die. It might be COVID. It might be anything. Are you ready? John was ready, and so his death brought him freedom and joy everlasting. Let us not sin against our consciences, for even when they are wrong, it’s still sin. Let us not force others to do what their consciences may tell them is wrong. Instead, let us look into the perfect mirror of God’s commandments and recognize our guilt. Let us then prepare for death by confessing our guilt and giving it all to our Redeemer. In His name, you are forgiven:

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria