The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
September 3, 2017
“John the Baptist: Preacher of Repentance”
King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Others said, “He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
Jesus said of John the Baptist,
John was Jesus’ cousin. He was born six months before Jesus was born. He was appointed by God to be the forerunner of Christ, the man appointed to prepare the people for the appearance of their Savior. Isaiah the prophet spoke of John hundreds of years before he was born. He called him “a voice” sent by God to “prepare the way for the Lord.” As God’s voice, he preached a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. That’s how to meet your Lord. Repent of your sins. Believe the gospel that tells you that God, for Christ’s sake, forgives you your sins.
Forgiveness without repentance is not really forgiveness. It is license. The popular religious culture says people must not be made to feel bad about themselves. This closes the door to repentance. Closing the door to repentance closes the door to faith.
John preached repentance. He preached the forgiveness of sins. He preached what Jesus later told his apostles to preach, as recorded by St. Luke, chapter 24, “But that repentance and the forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name, beginning in Jerusalem.”
The popular religion of niceness is not nice. It is mean. It is cruel. When King Herod took his brother’s wife as his own, he did wrong. It was unlawful. The law is good. Obeying it is for the good. Disobeying it is bad. It does harm.
God’s law is not a collection of arbitrary rules. God’s law was made for us where we live and it applies to what we do in the lives God has given us to live. The reason God has set down commandments governing marriage and the family is because he loves us. Whether we are married or not; whether we have children or not; we are all better off when God’s commandments – honor your father and your mother, and you shall not commit adultery – are publicly affirmed. By publicly embracing a perversion of marriage, Herod taught the people under his rule that marriage was not worth protecting. This has happened in America. The United States, state by state, abandoned God’s moral law as a foundation for its marriage laws and adopted no fault divorce wherein adultery is no longer unlawful. The result is utter godlessness and confusion. It is no longer shocking that a reputed conservative justice by the name of Anthony Kennedy, who is regularly identified in the press as a devout Roman Catholic, would author an opinion for the Supreme Court of the United States that presumes to invalidate every state law that defines marriage as a union that can only exist between a man and a woman. Where are the preachers? Isaiah described blind and ignorant watchmen as dumb dogs who cannot bark. They are useless.
The preachers watched as divorce became no fault. They watched as openly impenitent fornication became the norm for couples who may or may not want to marry each other someday. They watched as homosexual sodomy was transformed from a crime into a civil right. They watched. Perhaps they disapproved, but to do so clearly and publicly might have cost them something. If you want to know why our country is descending into a sewer of immorality and licentiousness, look at the preaching of the preachers. They preach against sin as a condition, but say little about specific sins that their parishioners engage in. They portray sinners, not as perpetrators who deserve divine punishment for their sins, but as victims of a condition. They replace the word sinful with the word broken.
Meanwhile, preachers who have disgraced the preaching office by committing adultery with other men’s wives or engaging in homosexual activities, when their sins are exposed, rather than humbly withdrawing from the public eye and living a life of repentance, they embrace the spotlight, seeking out opportunities to publicize their sin as some sort of badge of authenticity proving that they really know what sin is all about. Their betrayal of the trust entrusted to them is perversely displayed as proof of some kind of validating spiritual experience.
What can you expect from a generation that has no shame?
Herod actually had a sense of shame. That’s why he beheaded John. He didn’t want to be shamed in front of his fellows as an insincere liar whose word was worthless. Herod cared about what men thought of him. He didn’t want to kill John. But he had to please. He had to please his wife who hated John for preaching the truth about her sin. That’s why he put John in jail. He had to please his company who heard him make a foolish oath to a beautiful girl. That’s why he cut off John’s head. But, while he didn’t fear God with the filial fear of one of God’s children, he did fear God. That is, he feared God’s anger. So when Jesus demonstrated by wonderful miracles that God was with him, Herod was afraid that Jesus was John back from the dead. Herod knew he had done wrong.
John told him so. Herod believed John’s word. He imprisoned him and beheaded him. But he trusted him to be an honest preacher. He found him puzzling. Why would John preach against people who could have him killed? Did John think that Herod would pay politically for killing him and so figured that he wouldn’t actually do it? If so, he figured wrong. Is that what puzzled Herod?
But John didn’t make political calculations. The preacher of repentance doesn’t consider political repercussions because he isn’t a politician. He’s a preacher. John is the preacher that preachers should imitate because of what he preached and because of how he preached.
He preached law and gospel. St. Mark records that he came baptizing and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance is not how forgiveness is gained. Only the obedience and suffering of Jesus can gain forgiveness. His vicarious satisfaction, that is, his obedience and suffering offered up to God as the offering for all sinners, is the reason God forgives sinners. It was John who identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John could not have preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins if he didn’t preach the blood and righteousness of Jesus. It is what Jesus does – not repentance or the fruits of repentance – that brings us God’s forgiveness.
But faith in the gospel is the only way forgiveness can be received and there is no faith without repentance. The gospel is the truth that God freely forgives sinners for the sake of Christ’s obedience, suffering, and death. Faith is born in sorrow over sin. It is not simply sorrow for our predicament. Nobody likes to suffer for his sins. Repentance is expressed by the Psalmist, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done this evil in your sight.” It is expressed by the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” Repentance says “Amen” to the law that accuses and condemns. Repentance says “Amen” to the gospel that justifies. John preached repentance. He preached law and gospel. For his preaching, he died.
What a way to go! Lusting after a sexy girl, making a stupid promise, and keeping face with your friends who really weren’t friends at all. This keeping face requires the murder of a good, decent, godly, and faithful preacher.
But that’s the way it must be. For the world to keep face with itself, it must silence the faithful preaching of Christ’s ministers. They are required to expose what the world most highly values. All of the money, the power, the prestige, the honor, and the comforts of life – they are but a mist floating on the water. As the sun comes up higher on the horizon, the mist dissipates. Where did it go? It’s gone.
But when your sins are forgiven by the Lamb of God who bore them in his body; when this preaching has been preached to you and by the grace of God you believe it, hold onto it, and treasure it in your heart; then let the world’s idols be smashed. What do you care? You are at peace with the God who created you. The forgiveness of all your sins shelters you from the destruction those sins brought upon you. You have nothing to fear from those who can kill the body, but not the soul. You have a life worth living.
Herod, Herodias, and her dancing daughter gained nothing for themselves by killing John. The law and the gospel he preached did not come from him. Their truth remained after he died. In fact, his death remains until the end of time divine testimony that the word of God the preacher preaches is more powerful than the church’s greatest enemies. God will continue to provide his church with preachers who preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins. God’s word will not be bound. It will have free course. It will bring God’s people and the angels in heaven joy. It will endure after every scheme of man or woman to silence it has been foiled.
Rolf D. Preus