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Great in the World and Great in the Kingdom of God


Martyrdom of John the Baptist (observed)/ Altar Guild Opening Service

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. Mark 6:14-29

August 30, 2012

 

Dear sisters in Christ, fellow servants of our Lord who was crucified for us:

 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.

 

Yesterday, August 29th, was the festival day of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  As I’ve said before, originally Lutherans kept the saints’ days for the purpose of teaching how people in the past lived the life of faith in Christ.  What they got rid of was the invocation of the saints, the prayer to the saints.  In those days the idea was that the saints were spiritual giants that we could never hope to be.  So you went to them so that they would pray for you and ask God to give you grace. 

 

But as Lutherans, we don’t get off that easy.  We don’t get to have other people be saints for us.  We must become saints ourselves.  That’s why John’s martyrdom is such a useful story and example for us.  It shows us exactly what we are signing up for when we are baptized and confess faith in Jesus.  It shows what it means for us to receive Jesus’ body and blood.  To be a Christian is to receive salvation as a free gift through the death of Jesus, apart from our works.

 

And to be a Christian is also to die with Jesus Christ, to share in his rejection, as John did.

 

We have a clear picture of this in the gospel.  Consider the contrast between

 

            The great men and women of the world and

            Those who are great in the kingdom of God, men and women.

 

And also

            The feast of the world contrasted with

            The feast of Jesus. 

 

Who does Herod spend his life with?  Not with John the Baptist, a man of God who comes out of the wilderness and says, “Repent.”  He comes into contact with John, and for awhile he listens to John.  But that is not who his life is spent with. 

 

Herod’s life is among the powerful, among the beautiful, and among the wealthy.  The rich, leading men of Galilee—the foremost citizens.  Men who have operahouses named after them.  Among generals and officers.  Men who carry swords.  Killers.  Among lesser lords whom Herod has to control but also keep happy.

 

Herod lives among celebrities, but the world is also treacherous.  Powerful people, wealthy people, violent people—they have to be tough, clever, or smooth, or some combination of all of them.  It is a tough world in which to be honest.  It’s hard to be rich, powerful, or a successful warrior without knowing how to get what you want and forcefully pursuing it.  People trying to get power or wealth, men aiming at being successful fighters or soldiers—they don’t usually understand or respect the meek.  Meekness makes you a victim.

 

But in secret, Herod’s life in this world is thrown into an uproar by John the Baptist, who fearlessly says, “You are damned because you have married the woman who was one flesh with your brother.  Repent.”

 

He speaks with that kind of boldness to Herod, and calls Herod to kneel.  But not before him—before God.  Who speaks this way to a king?  Only someone crazy; or someone who really seeks nothing else than to speak the truth in the sight of God.

 

What about the great women of the world?  Like Herodias, they know how to get what they want.  This man, that man; but it’s not necessarily the man she wants but the man’s status and power.  And when a crazy, fundamentalist, bumpkin man of God comes and tells her husband, “You should not have married your wife.  You have incurred God’s wrath.  Repent”—Herodias’ eyes narrow.  This man must die because he interfered with her pursuit of happiness. 

 

And her daughter is growing up to be just like mom.  She’s learned to use her sexuality to control men and get what she wants.

 

And isn’t this how our daughters are being taught that they should live today?  And aren’t are sons taught to be Herods?  And if you’re not powerful, rich, violent, sexy, what good is your life?  If you don’t know how to get what you want, you’re a chump.  A lamb to the slaughter.

Small Passion: 16. Christ before Herod

Small Passion: 16. Christ before Herod (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

But those who are great in the Kingdom of God are different.  In opposition to Herod, and his generals, and the rich men and nobles of Galilee, you have John the Baptist, John’s disciples, and the disciples of Jesus.

 

John does not seek glory in this world.  And he doesn’t get it.  He gets crowds of miserable, poor, wretched sinners who come to be baptized.  He gets the hatred of Herod’s wife. He gets prison, and in the end he gets neither love nor honor.  His wild man, hairy head is cut off and put on a plate and given to a teenage harlot.  He is hated and written off as demon-possessed by respectable, orthodox religious leaders as well as powerful, wealthy, ungodly rulers. 

 

And what about John’s disciples?  All these poor ragtag nobodies can do is take the headless body of John and bury it.  And mourn that once again the sheep are torn apart and the wolves are fat and sleek. 

 

Jesus’ disciples have it no better.  John’s story is recounted because Herod, addled and tormented with a guilty conscience that is unwilling to part with sin, hears about the miracles that Jesus’ disciples are doing and begins to think that God has raised John the Baptist from the dead.  You can see the terror with which John’s preaching burned Herod’s conscience. 

 

The disciples would like to think that their miracles, done by Jesus through them, mean that they will have a different outcome to their discipleship than John the Baptist did.  They do not want to listen to Jesus that He will be killed in shame, brutally humiliated and broken; they do not want to hear that the same fate awaits Jesus’ disciples. 

 

We don’t want to hear it either.  We are not able to accept it.

 

And what about the great women in the kingdom of God?  They were not loud and brash.  They did not use sex to manipulate men.  They served—Jesus and the disciples while they taught God’s Word.  They submitted.  They did not presume to teach and dominate men, as Eve had done.  They did not perfume themselves and make themselves up to own male attention and get their way.  They poured perfume on Jesus; they used their hair and their beauty in service to Jesus.  Even when Jesus was crucified, they tried to honor Jesus and in some way to show the great honor that was due to Him.  They loaded his body with expensive spices and ointments.  They were back early to do more to care for His body.  They were lowly; they served Christ and his disciples.  They put themselves in subjection.  Just as the world despises men who don’t know how to take what they want, and how to manipulate power, the world despises women who submit themselves to their husbands and who do not usurp authority over men.

 

Yet these women were great in the kingdom of God. 

 

What they did is also what you do.

 

Just as they cared for Jesus’ body even though no efforts of theirs could properly reveal His glory, so you prepare this earthly building so that it will in some way proclaim in our poor, weak way, something of the glory of Jesus.

 

Jesus was dead and laid in the tomb, yet they still lavished rich, expensive spices and perfumes on him to try to say, “Even as a dead man, this is the King and the Son of God.” 

 

Even though Jesus’ body and blood come to us in such a scorned and despised way, nevertheless your work proclaims—Jesus the Son of God is here in our midst in this church giving us salvation!

 

Let us compare briefly the feasts of the great people of this world, and the feast of Jesus Christ, the world’s true king.

 

People want church to be more like Herod’s party, with more people willing to come, especially more of the lords and great men of Galilee.  So even if we don’t put out caviar and fine wine and have the daughters of successful harlots shake it at the church’s feast, we do come up with things along the same lines.  Music that people like.  Sermons that are appealing to our world, which tend to be Americanized versions of the old rationalistic preaching in the Lutheran church in Germany that caused the true Lutherans to move to the US.  Then the pastors would come out and preach that God was the Father of us all and was willing to forgive everyone who tried to do what he knew was right; God didn’t really  need the bloody death of His Son to forgive us.  And they preached “useful” sermons, like modern farming techniques, or 5 steps to controlling your temper, or 3 to drinking less beer. 

 

That’s what church is, far too often, and it’s what we’ve come to expect out of church—it will be, like everything else, from the mall to fast food restaurants—a sensory experience designed in every way to appeal to your desires.  Like Herod’s feast, except with a religious spin, and the sex, drunkenness, and gluttony toned down. 

 

Herod’s feast is a display of earthly delights.  But you know that those delights often turn bitter in our mouths.  Neither wine, nor rich food, nor a much-sought after wife, nor the beauty of a young woman, can take away the horror and pain of a conscience that feels the weight of sin.  Herod is sorrowful about killing John because he knows he is committing grave sin—murdering the man who comes with God’s Word.

 

Earthly pleasures have their time and place.  But the feast of earthly pleasures that the great ones of this world struggle for—their pleasures last only for a time.

 

Christ’s feast is different.  Jesus is also a king, but His feast is not simply rich food and well refined wine.  He feeds us a different meal that also gives us joy.  But not the joy of wine, women, and song.  His joy is spiritual joy.  It is a sober joy, a joy that remembers that all of the pleasures of this world perish; Food for the stomach and the stomach for food; but God will destroy them both (1 Corinthians). 

 

At the feast of Herod the powerful come because they want something from Herod.  Herod needs to share the spoils of power and wealth with them.  But Herod needs their cooperation.  Everybody is at the earthly feast to get something.

At the feast of Jesus, we receive, but Jesus only gives.  In order to spread this feast for us He got only suffering from us; He took our sins and the fury of God’s wrath against them. 

 

Our participation in Jesus’ supper is a participation in His death, a communion in His death, in His pierced, crucified body, and His blood streaming down the tree to the earth. 

 

He participated in the righteous wrath of God against us—He bore it in our place.  He became a communicant in our sin, even though he did no sin and no deceit was found in His mouth.

 

We are communicants in His death—in His martyrdom.  That means we are responsible for it.  We are also redeemed by it. 

 

Now if on this earth we have constant sorrow and cross—and we are despised, and people walk away from the church, and they cast out my name or your name as evil, if even sometimes members of the church despise me or you—we are only receiving a little bit of what Jesus received, and His disciples received.  It is not success, beauty, power that makes you great in the kingdom of God—that is what makes you great at Herod’s feast. 

 

In Jesus’ kingdom, you are great when you believe in Jesus and you share in His suffering–in being despised, laughed at, or cast out as evil. 

 

But none of this comes from us.  John didn’t do it on his own.  It comes from eating the food at Jesus’ table—the Word of God.

 

Jesus alone by His suffering and death has saved you and brought you through the red sea of sin and death.  In Your Baptism all of that was poured out on You.  And as you eat and drink His body and blood the life that He gave for You strengthens the life of Christ within you, so that you do not faint and falter and lose the victory given to you in Baptism. 

 

Yes, when you, me, and this whole congregation come and receive Christ’s body and blood—we are participating in the eternal feast of Jesus’ wedding, that will go on forever—the feast of salvation.  The glory of that feast will completely put to shame the Herod-feasts that the world throws for itself. 

 

But when we come to this altar, we sit at this feast already, because Jesus gives all of himself to us now.  That is why it is a beautiful thing that like the women who anointed Jesus for burial, you show love and honor to His body and blood by caring for the altar. 

 

But the body of Jesus, for the women who buried Him, as also for us, does not really need us to care for it.  Jesus allows us to do so.  He accepts our service.  But it is really Him who has saved us by His death in the body.  It is really Him who works in us through His body and blood so that, with John the Baptist, we cling steadfastly to Jesus with a good conscience, and do not let the hatred of the world or its contempt make us lose heart, or forget that the feast of everlasting life is made open to us now.

 

May the Lord bless you as you work to keep the house in which that feast is celebrated among us beautiful.  But even more, may the Lord work in us through His body and blood, so that we are and remain His house, His temple, now by faith and forever in eternity.

 

Amen.

 

The peace of God, that surpasses understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

 

 

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