2021-07-11 Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
The prophet’s road. This was not an easy path. Our Old Testament and Gospel lessons are ripe with lessons of God’s prophets. Amos in the Old. John the Baptizer in the Gospel. We hear the word prophet and think a guy who sees the future and makes predictions. And there was that component to the job. But more often, prophets were messengers, like an earthly angel of sorts. God gave them a message to proclaim. They were His mouthpiece to get His word out into the world that people may hear it and respond. But what happens if the prophet is charged with proclaiming a message that nobody wants to hear? An unpopular message. A politically-incorrect message? A message that makes people irate, like chewing on tin foil or nails on a chalkboard?? What happens then? Well there are two options really. Either the people respond to the message in repentance and change their ways, like they did for Jonah at Nineveh. Or, they say to hell with God’s Word and prophet and go down in a blazing inferno of desperation, like they did for Jeremiah. An unpopular message with the populace is one thing, but what happens if you have to deliver such a message to a king? A person who could just as easily order your death than hear you out? This became the predicament for John the Baptizer in the face of Herod.
Herod in our Gospel lesson for today was the son of Herod the Great - you remember him. He shows up at Christmas time. He was the guy who ordered that all the kids in Bethlehem should be slaughtered when Jesus was born. One of those children might have been the Messiah to usurp Herod’s throne. They called Herod a King but he was more of a “mini-ruler,” a tetrarch with authority over 1/4 of Roman occupied Palestine. Regardless, he was a big cheese in government. If he didn’t like you or what you said, it was off with your head! This guy was the guy that the prophet John the Baptizer had clearly in his cross hairs. Ol’ creepy John. Wearing camel hair and eating a steady diet of locusts and wild honey in the wilderness. Do you really think a guy like that gives a rip about your feelings??? Absolutely not! He was sent to be the voice crying in the wilderness! And what did he cry? Messages of raising your kids without raising your blood pressure? Recycling and climate change? Hardly. His is a one word message: Repent! Repent of your sins, for the axe is already at the root of the rotten tree. And so our bold desert preacher goes to the height of power with a personalized message of repentance: ““It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (MK 6:18). Such a relationship was forbidden by God’s law (Lev.18:16).
But Herod had no intention of listening to John’s rebuke. Instead, he had him locked away in prison. This is what all dictators do to those who oppose them even in our day. It’s nice to know some things never change. So there is John the Baptizer, rotting away in a dungeon because Herod’s wife Herodias had a grudge against him. She wanted that God-guy dead for his unpopular word of Law spoken to her sin. Herod could have given the order. But he was reluctant. There was some little nugget in Herod’s heart or mind such that he “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” (MK 6:20).
But then it happened. Herod’s birthday rolled around and he threw a huge banquet. We think nothing of this. Who doesn’t like birthdays, right? Balloons, cake, candles. It’s fun! But celebrating birthdays was a pagan custom, not a Jewish one. It further shows us the character of the guy that we are dealing with. He’s got all his buddies there. All the important peeps. Big wigs, generals and the leading men of Galilee. All the white collar elites are all present for drinks and hobnobbing. It was pretty fun until the entertainment arrived. Then it got really interesting. Herodias’ daughter, the princess came in to dance for the A-list crowd. This was no ballet recital. This was no jazz hands and tap combo folks. We need to think Las Vegas, sin-city, erotic prostitute prostrations! And its a sensation and all the guests love it.
So then, Herod, red-flushed-faced and hammered from drink and merriment gets up and makes a pronouncement for everyone to hear: “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom” (MK 6:22-23). Wow, that’s no small promise! Herod is probably thinking this girl, probably a mid to late teenager will pick gold or garments or maybe some nice property down by the beach with David Hasselhoff! Who knows! But she’s not your run of the mill dancing girl. She instantly runs to her mother for a consultation. And Herodias’ moment of sinful triumph and revenge for God’s prophet had come: “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (6:25).
What an absolute buzz kill this was! Like the punchline to a terrible joke, the words hit Herod like a phone booth! They cut him to the heart and bring instant clarity to his booze-infused haze. He no doubt stumbles a bit at the request, speechless and stuttering like a backsliding politician. “And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her” (6:26). Herod is terribly vexed but because of his big blow-hard promise in front of all the swells, he couldn’t back down now. It was like a drunken object lesson to display his power. He couldn’t afford to be seen publicly going back on his promise. And so, the order is given. “And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother” (6:27-28).
What a tragic ending for God’s final prophet. An inglorious end through the scheming of an adulterous wife and her lascivious daughter and the weakness of a drunken King. It truly illustrated well the fate of holiness and righteousness. John’s disciples come and bury him in a tomb. No doubt this paints a future picture of John’s cousin, Christ Jesus our Lord too. Sentenced to death at the hands of evil schemers and likewise placed in a tomb. It all wreaks of worldly failure. Why would God allow such things to happen to His messengers?? It doesn’t seem right that they should die as martyrs.
But the blood of John the Baptizer and that of Christ our Lord proclaims an eternal message that no drunken mini-king or politician can ever erase. For even the worst sinners in the universe, God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness is extended. Heed the prophet’s message: Repent. Lay aside those sins that weigh you down and drag you into a world of darkness and despair. For Christ the crucified is risen and His promise to us who bear His word is sure. “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12) and “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). The crown of life, eternal salvation, a heavenly home for those who lose their heads for Christ. That is what awaits us who trust and believe.
So the implications for us are, we are free in Christ our Lord. This freedom can’t be taken away by any earthly dictator and lasts beyond the grave. So preach the prophet’s word. Proclaim the message of Christ and repentance for sin no matter what. Don’t get sucked into a politically-correct cesspool of bowing the knee to earthly philosophies that go against God’s word. Country-club Christianity that stands for nothing falls for everything. So don’t do that. Live in the freedom of the Gospel. Keep the words of Psalm 56:11 ever before your eyes: “in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Now and always. Amen!