Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist
The Gonzaga basketball team entered into the National Championship game of this past spring’s NCAA tournament with a record of 31 and 0. It had been an incredible year, and they were on the verge of doing what no team had done since the 1976 Indiana team – complete an undefeated season.
Winning leads you to expect that you will win, and in great teams it becomes part of their mentality that no matter what happens in a game, they are going to win. Pair that confidence with a talented team and you have a recipe for tremendous success.
As Gonzaga headed into the championship game, the experience of the semi-final game could only have confirmed their expectation of victory. A Gonzaga player hit a thirty seven foot shot at the buzzer to beat UCLA in overtime. But in the championship game, Baylor beat Gonzaga 86 to 70 – and the game didn’t even feel that close. Baylor destroyed Gonzaga, and the team and its fans were left with the feeling that it wasn’t supposed to end this way.
As we listen to the Gospel lesson for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, it is understandable if we are left with the same feeling. After all, this is John the Baptist. His conception and birth was the miraculous gift of God to the faithful and aged couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth. His birth was announced by the angel Gabriel who told Zechariah, “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
This is the one who bore witness to Jesus Christ before he was even born, as he leapt in the womb of Elizabeth for joy when the pregnant Mary and Elizabeth met. This is the one of whom Zechariah prophesied by the Holy Spirit, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.”
John was the “prophesied prophet” the one of whom Isaiah wrote: “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” After all those expectations created by his birth, John did not disappoint. He showed up in the wilderness of Judea looking like the prophet Elijah as he was dressed in camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist. Mark tells us, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
John did something that no one had ever done before. Ritual washings were common in first century Judaism. However, these were all self-administered. John was given the name “the baptizer” because he applied this washing to others. He announced, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John said that God’s end time reign was about to arrive, and that people needed to repent in preparation for this. By submitting to John’s baptism, people demonstrated their repentance as they looked for God’s reign to arrive, and they received forgiveness. And John was clear about how this reign would arrive. He said, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John made a very great impression. People flocked from all around to the Jordan river to hear him preach and to receive his baptism. And it’s not just the New Testament that tells us about the impact John had. Writing almost sixty years later, the Jewish historian Josephus considered John the Baptist to have been so significant that he included a report about John in the account of Jewish history that he wrote.
At this time, King Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea as a vassal king of the Roman Empire. Herod ruled these lands, but he answered to Rome and was under their control. Herod was married to the daughter of Aretas IV, the King of Nabatea, the kingdom that bordered his lands. Herod’s brother Philip, who also ruled portions of Palestine, was married to a woman named Herodias. However, Herod divorced his wife, Herodias divorced Philip, and then Herod and Herodias were married.
John called people to repentance. John was a prophet, and just like the prophets of the Old Testament he wasn’t afraid to call all people to repentance – including those who were powerful. So John declared to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.” Herod’s action of marrying his brother’s wife was forbidden by the Book of Leviticus.
Yet Herod showed John who had the power, as he had John imprisoned. We learn in our text that Herod was fascinated with John the Baptist. He knew that he was a righteous and holy man. Herod enjoyed listening to John, even though he didn’t know what to make of what John said. On the other hand, Herodias was vindictive against John and wanted him dead. Herod’s fascination with John prevented this, but Herodias was clearly looking for an opportunity to have John killed.
That chance presented itself when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles, military commanders, and the leading men of Galilee. Herodias’ daughter from her previous marriage, whom Josephus tells us was named Salome, came and danced for Herod and his entourage. Our text says that “she pleased Herod and his guests.” There is no real doubt that the dance was intended to sexually arouse the men, and she succeeded. Undoubtedly feeling the wine and caught up in the moment, Herod promised the girl whatever she wanted.
Salome asked Herodias what she should request. Herodias finally had her opportunity and so she said: “The head of John the Baptist.” Salome dutifully returned immediately to the king and said, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Herod was truly grieved. He didn’t want John dead, but he was trapped by his own words. He had John beheaded, and then Mark tells us about the macabre scene, how he “brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.” The vengeful Herodias used her daughter and received her prize: the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
We hear our text this morning, and we are left feeling: It wasn’t supposed to end this way. John the Baptist, the mighty prophet is killed for speaking the truth. And the end time prophet dies in this way – he ends up with his head on a platter as the result of a salacious dance and the vengeful will of an evil woman.
We don’t think it should end this way. And that’s because we don’t want to admit that God works in the way of the cross. John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus Christ. John came to prepare the way and to point to Jesus. He did this in his life and ministry. And he did this in his death. John the Baptist’s death – his martyrdom – points forward to what Jesus will experience.
Matthew tells us that after the Transfiguration, as Jesus and the three disciples went down the mountain, the disciples asked Jesus about the prophecy that Elijah would come. Next he reports: “Jesus said, ‘But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.”
Before the Transfiguration, Peter had confessed Jesus as the Christ. Mark reports after this: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Peter didn’t want to hear about Jesus’ suffering and death. He didn’t want to hear about the way of the cross. Yet immediately after this, Jesus made it clear that the way of the cross is something that would be true of all who believe in him. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.”
Jesus came to walk the way of the cross for us. He said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The incarnate Son of God entered into our world to suffer and die for us. He came to offer himself as the ransom for us – as the One who received God’s punishment against our sins, so that we might be forgiven.
Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we live as the forgiven people of God. But this forgiveness does not mean that we escape the cross. After all, Jesus said that those who follow him must take up the cross. Our Lord has told us that following him will involve suffering. In our day this means that our witness about Jesus Christ will be assaulted because it speaks of sin, and how Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. It means that our witness about life lived according the Sixth Commandment will receive rejection and will be attacked.
Yet the way of the cross is not simply the fact that we receive opposition and difficulty because we are Christians. It is also the fact that we are God’s children and yet we experience suffering and hardship. God says he loves us, yet we, our family, and friends are diagnosed with cancer and other diseases. God says he loves us, yet we face struggles at school and at our job. God says he loves us, yet we face tension and challenges in the relationships of our family.
In our text, we see that the death of John the Baptist pointed forward to the death of Jesus Christ. Our Lord told the disciples that he must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed. But he also said that after three days he would rise again. It is in the resurrection of Jesus that we find the strength to take up the cross and follow Jesus. It is in the resurrection of Jesus that we find the hope to trust in God in midst of the circumstances that seem to contradict his love.
Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Lord. God worked through the cross to give us forgiveness, and Jesus received the judgment for sin in our place. But when he raised Jesus from the dead, he defeated death and showed us that the cross was not the absence of God. Instead, the cross of Good Friday was God’s most powerful action to win forgiveness as he gave his own Son as the sacrifice in our place. Because we have seen him do this in order give us salvation, we know that we can also trust that God still loves us and is at work in our lives even when circumstances seem to contradict this. The resurrection of Jesus gives us this hope – it allows us to see these situations in a completely different way. It enables us to trust and believe in God’s love and care for us no matter what things may look like.
Today is the Feast of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. John, the forerunner of Christ, died a death that pointed forward to what Christ would experience as he died on the cross for our sins. But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead. And because he rose from the dead, there have been other martyrs – other witnesses, for that is what the word martyr means. Every man pictured on the east wall of the nave died as a martyr for Jesus Christ. Peter did. Paul did. James did. Stephen did. Peter, Paul, and James were willing to die because they had seen the risen Lord. We don’t know how early Stephen became a disciple – whether he saw Jesus before his ascension. But we know he believed because of the witness of the apostles, and as he died he saw the risen Lord standing at the right hand of God. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and by the work of the Spirit we believe in our risen Lord for the forgiveness of sins, and receive the comfort of God’s love and care in all situations.