The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist: Freed from Slavery

Lessons: Revelation 6:9-11, Romans 6:1-5, Mark 6:14-29
Hymns: LSB 346, 750, 716, 619, 731

Listen to the entire service here (the sermon alone is above).

      The news concerning Jesus had reached King Herod. Jesus is performing miracles and preaching the Word in great power. People are gathering to listen to Jesus.

      But who is this Jesus? Some suggested He’s Elijah. Others thought John the Baptist was raised from the dead. Others figured Jesus is yet another prophet among the great line of prophets whom God raised up in the Old Testament times.

      While they were trying to figure out who Jesus is, we know. He is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity; true Man, born of the Virgin Mary; our Lord. Jesus is the One who became our sin and shed His innocent Blood on our behalf as the ransom payment for our sin.

      But at this point in Mark’s Gospel, not all knew this. Jesus had just sent out the Twelve Apostles. He had preached the Word, driven out demons, and healed people. Reports of His preaching and miracles are spreading. Even King Herod has heard about Jesus.

      This king appeared to have it all. Herod could host banquets for the leading men of Galilee. He could have whomever he wanted as his wife. He could live as he wanted to live.

      Now for those who do not desire to be godly in Christ—to those who do not have the mind of Christ—they will be quite jealous of King Herod. He isn’t bound to a moral code. He seemed to have total freedom. No one could tell him what to.

      Except one man. John the Baptist. He was no respecter of persons. It didn’t matter a person’s standing in society. If that person transgressed God’s Law, that person transgressed God’s Law. So, John the Baptist informed King Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18).

      Now if I went up to you and told you that you can’t marry your sibling’s spouse, it would have no bearing on you, for that is obvious to you. But why did this make Herod so upset? Well, Herod had a brother named Philip. Philip was married to Herodias. Herod wanted to marry Herodias. And she wanted to leave her marriage and be married to her brother-in-law, the King. What Herod wanted, that Herod got. Are any of you envious of such a life of privilege? The freedom to have all that you want?

      Be careful. For Satan is always knocking at the door. He is trying to tempt you to covet your neighbor’s house or your neighbor’s wife, manservant, maidservant, ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:17).

      Instead of listening to the Word of God as proclaimed by John the Baptist, the great King Herod thought he had a better idea: lock up John. Yet, at the same time, Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man.

      You see, Herod wasn’t free at all. When Herod knowingly and willingly transgressed God’s law, he also got himself entangled in a much bigger mess. Because Herod had thrown out God’s Word on marriage and even divorce, he was now bound to a woman who wanted John the Baptist dead. Herodias hated John for telling the truth.

      Oh, how common that is today! The anger so many express when confronted with the Word of God! Instead of listening to the way of life and true freedom, they will replace it with lies so that they can continue doing what they want. For they figure it is freedom. And ironically, they have placed themselves into bondage—enslaved to their wrong choices and bound to their sin. That is what happens when people engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage, pretend boys are girls, or divorce without seeking pastoral care and Christian counsel. Many will plow forward, doing whatever pleases their sensual desires, rather than listen to what God has to say. They figure God will ruin their freedom and He will be nothing but a killjoy.

      In doing so, they ironically enslave themselves to their sin and reject the true way of freedom found in Jesus who takes away our sin, reconciles us to God our Father, and opens the gate of Heaven to us.

      One day, when Herod was throwing a birthday party, Herodias’s daughter, probably a teenager, came in a danced before the men. Arousing their lustful passions, she pleased Herod and his guests. Without taking counsel in God’s Word or what would be fitting for someone who desires to be godly in Christ, Herod vows that he will give his niece (who is now his step-daughter) whatever she wants, up to half of his kingdom. She asks her mom for ideas. Herodias requests the head of John the Baptist. This makes Herod sorry, but since he made an oath and did not want to renege before his guests, he sent the executioner to fulfill her horrible request. He’s now a murderer, for there was no just cause to execute John the Baptist. He’s an adulterer. He’s a coveter. He’s without a Savior.

      And the freedom he seemed to have? It was nothing but a charade. He was enslaved to his sinful lifestyle, and he was without the love and peace that only our Triune God could provide.

      From a worldly standpoint, John the Baptist appeared enslaved, having nothing. Sure, people came out to see him as he preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:1-2). Yes, he had followers who came to see him when he was in prison. He had the great privilege of serving as the forerunner to Christ, announcing our Lord’s coming. He baptized many. But his clothing was simple, made of camel’s skin. His diet was simple, eating locusts and honey. He was imprisoned for upsetting the King and his new wife. His death would make many conclude that his life was a life wasted and a life gone.

      But despite John’s simple life and imprisonment—even despite his beheading—John was loved by Christ, redeemed by Him, and was blessed to be a child of God. He was forgiven of all sin. He is numbered among those who died while confessing the faith. We will see him at the resurrection. John fulfilled his vocation. His ministry was prophesied in the Old Testament. He leapt in his mother’s womb at the voice of Mary. He prepared the way of the Lord. And then he needed to get out of the way. His work was fulfilled, for John said, “[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). John knew he was unworthy to untie our Lord’s sandals. Many would look down at John for being a religious type, a man of the cloth. But he wasn’t a weak minister, afraid of his audience and unwilling to confess. He spoke the truth even to the king, and he was not ashamed (Ps 119:46). He died protecting the true freedoms that we are granted in Christ—freedom that comes from sins forgiven and eternal life secured.

      Many would follow in John’s footsteps, including Stephen and James, as Acts reports. Paul, prior to his conversion, consented to the murder of Christians. And many since have died confessing the faith.

      I must admit that I cannot stop thinking about the events in Afghanistan. On both sides of the political aisle, it appears most Americans were ready to end the conflict there. But seeing how many people are being trapped there and their right to safety stripped by fundamental Islam, it troubles me to consider how many of our native friends there will be murdered, how many women and children abused, and how many Christians slaughtered. We must pray for them. And we must pray for the family and friends of those troops who lost their lives or suffer in any way (such as PTSD) from their service there.

      In fact, we must spend less time throwing parties like Herod and more time in God’s Word, in prayer, and especially in the Divine Service. After all, Jesus invites us to cast our burdens on Him for His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matt. 11:30). Jesus reminds us, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

      Despite the luxuries King Herod enjoyed and the ways he seemed to be above restriction and regulation, there was something that loomed heavily over him. He suffered from a guilty conscience. He knew it was wrong to kill John the Baptist. When Herod heard about the ministry of Jesus and the speculation offered by those around him concerning our Lord’s identity, Herod thought he knew the answer. Herod figured that this man who wandered in Galilee is John the Baptist raised from the dead. For Herod, upon hearing about Jesus said with great fear, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Many, supposing they are free as they engage in whatever pleases them, are vexed by their guilty consciences. They may be trying to prove to the world how they’re free as they do whatever vice pleases them, but in reality, they’re not much different than Herod. Herod knew his act of murder was wrong. He couldn’t shake it from his mind.

      Such is the way when people are bound by their sin. They have not only lost the true freedom they receive when forgiven by Christ and added into His family by Baptism, but they are bound to a guilty conscience, even as they are convincing themselves otherwise.

      John the Baptist baptized sinners and proclaimed repentance, Christ, and His kingdom. He freed them from their sin as the Holy Spirit worked in them faith in Christ. The Scriptures teach us that Baptism saves us, “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). You see, in Christ, we are truly free. We are even freed from bad consciences, for Christ has truly taken our sin away and replaced our sin with His very righteousness. And if the Son makes us free, we shall be free indeed (John 8:36). Amen.        

     The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen