Home > Occasions > Witnesses of Divine Love. The Martyrdom of John the Baptist–Altar Guild Service.

Witnesses of Divine Love. The Martyrdom of John the Baptist–Altar Guild Service.

The Martyrdom of John the Baptist (observed)—Altar Guild Service

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. Mark 6:14-29

August 27, 2015

“Witnesses of Divine Love”

Iesu Iuva

“For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’” (Mark 6:18) Well, isn’t that what you get when you tell people they can’t be married? You don’t make friends that way. If it was today, Herod and Herodias would say, “We love each other,” and that would end the discussion. But God’s Law doesn’t simply ask if you love each other. It says, “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:6) So-called love and passion do not make a marriage lawful.

Who loves Herod? Is it Herodias, who loves him so much she will kill anyone who gets between them? Or is it John, who speaks unpleasant words to Herod, tells him his life’s choices, his choice of a soul-mate, is wrong? John loves Herod. He loves Herod so much he goes to prison for the good of Herod’s soul. He loves him so much that they cut off John’s head and serve it to Herod on a platter.

John loved Herod. He was a witness of the Lord’s love for the sinful. He loved Herod so much that he risked his life calling him to repentance. He could have easily kept his mouth shut and said nothing to Herod about his unlawful marriage, but then he would have been unfaithful to God’s call on him to be a preacher and prophet. But instead he loved Herod and sought his soul’s salvation. In doing this he witnessed to the Lord’s love of the sinful. Despite the Lord’s anger against sinners for their disobedience, He eagerly seeks their salvation. He desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he turn from his iniquity and live (Ezekiel 18). He prophesied through Ezekiel: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so I will seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Ezekiel 34:11-12) The Lord seeks sinners to reclaim them, even though it costs the lives of His saints.

John the Baptist is an example to us. We remember the saints because in them we see examples of a holy life. They encourage us to walk in the paths they have already walked—in the footsteps of Christ. God also has called us to be witnesses of His love for sinners. We are also to show by our lives, and, if God wills, by our deaths, how God loves and seeks lost sinners. We are not to be concerned about how much it will cost us. We are obligated to love them as our own selves and to seek their good as if it were our own.

How would you fare if you were called upon to preach repentance to Herod and Herodias? Would you be afraid? Would you look for excuses not to do it? We are called to proclaim God’s law and His Gospel to our neighbors as our calling permits. If you are not a preacher it is not through public preaching but through private counsel and admonishment. But often we fail to do it not because we are afraid for our lives but simply because we are afraid to offend people! Even in the obligation to bear witness to the love of God for sinners we see our sin.

Thanks be to God, then, for the Divine Service that we celebrate each Lord’s Day! Because in the Divine Service the Lord bears witness to His divine love for the sinful, even sinners like us who fail to reflect that love. The Lord bears witness in the Divine Service to His own love, and we also remember and proclaim His love.

The love of God for sinners is not sentimental. When John loved Herod, it didn’t take the form of syrupy-sweet talk or pats on the back. It took the form of a rebuke. It took the form of sticking to that rebuke even when Herod imprisoned him and cut off his head. And the love God proclaims for sinners is also not sentimental. It also takes the form of a death. “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.” (John 3:16) That means not just that God loved the world so much that He gave His Son, but that He loved the world in this way, by giving His Son to us to be rejected, falsely accused, torn with whips, mocked, spit on, and then pierced with nails driven into the wood of the cross. God so loved the world that His Son, through whom all things were made, was crucified and hung dead on the tree.

It is because God loved the world in that way that we have peace with God, though we do not love in that way, to that degree. God so loved the world and the sinners of the world that He sent His Son not only to call us to repentance for our lawlessness but to shed His blood to make atonement for our lawlessness.

It is not a sweet and sentimental love that God has for us. It is a love that is keenly aware of what human beings are after the fall of Adam—the extent of our rebellion and hatred against God. His love has sounded that out and taken it in and atoned for it. God doesn’t love us because we are sweet and good and somehow deserving of His love. He loves us despite the fact that we deserve nothing but His anger. He has taken that anger upon Himself for us on the cross.

In the Divine Service God publishes this love with which He has loved sinners. He makes it public through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacrament of the Altar. The whole Divine Service is a public proclamation of God’s love for sinners which He showed in the death of His Son. God proclaims it through the reading of the Word, the preaching, and the Sacrament. We also remember and proclaim God’s love in Christ’s death as we hear and confess the Word, as we eat Christ’s body and drink His blood. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians, “you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” (1 Cor. 11:26)


What does the Altar Guild do? Not just clean and iron and adorn. Not just that. The Altar Guild is helping in the public proclamation of Christ’s death. That is holy, isn’t it? That is sacred. People think the public proclamation of God’s love is the pastor’s job, and it is—I preach and administer the sacraments. Through those things God gives the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life to sinners. But the Altar Guild assists in proclaiming Christ. You set out the elements that become Christ’s body and blood. You help to reverently dispose of those elements that remain after the Supper is over. You clean the vessels that have held Jesus’ body and blood—the chalice, the paten, the individual cups, the purificators. You adorn the house in which Christ’s death is proclaimed. In all these things you are helping to bear witness to Christ’s death.

This is a sacred and holy responsibility. And how you carry it out matters. In the Divine Service Jesus testifies to His love for sinners which was shown in His death on the cross for us. But we also remember and proclaim His death and the shedding of His blood. It’s easy for the focus of the service to drift from that central proclamation of Christ crucified. Sermons can easily become moral lectures or a thousand other things besides proclaiming Christ dead on the cross for our sins. And the people’s focus in the service can shift. People can easily turn their attention from God’s unsentimental love for us in the death of Jesus to any number of other distractions, from patriotism and love of God and country, to family and the love of hearth and home.

The Altar Guild helps bear witness to Christ crucified. When you do inconvenient things like cleaning the individual cups and pouring out the water that is mixed with the sacred elements reverently on the earth, you bear witness that Jesus’ body and blood really are in the elements of the Lord’s Supper and that we really do commune in His flesh and blood. When you go around the chancel and altar with special reverence, you bear witness that Christ really is in this place, and that He is here to distribute the salvation won by His death. When you put special care into the arrangement of the robes and the paraments and the cleaning of the chancel, you testify to Jesus’ death. Because Jesus came to earth because we had transgressed God’s law and were under His wrath. He didn’t come to earth to do away with God’s holiness, but to atone for our unholiness. Therefore in the Divine Service the tone should be that we are in the presence of a holy God. We are there safely because He has so loved us as to give His Son into death for us. When the Altar Guild carries out their work in such a spirit, both of fear and reverence and also thankfulness for the great love shown us, you help your brothers and sisters in the congregation to hear and recognize His love.

God’s love is not the love of an uncle, who smiles indulgently at the indiscretions of his nieces and nephews. It is Divine love. God gave up none of His holiness in being reconciled to sinners like us. He perfectly upheld His holiness and righteousness in punishing sin. But in Divine mercy and love He punished our sins in Jesus. Now there is no more wrath for us, but we are accepted in Christ and may draw near to God through Him. This is what we remember and proclaim in the Divine Service—God’s love in the death of Christ. May God help us to show and witness that love by our reverence in handling the sacred linens and vessels. May He grant that our congregation may be established in the love of God shown in the death of Christ and follow the example of John the Baptist in fearlessly seeking the salvation of lost sinners!


Soli Deo Gloria

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