Pastor Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church – Dyer, Indiana
29. August 2010
The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist
“Martyrdom: The Life of the Christian”
+ IN NOMINE JESU +
The world holds feasts in honor of their birthday, for the new year, and for the victory of their favorite athletic teams. With St. John, we celebrate his death day, the end of his years, and his defeat by the cunning Herodias. We’ve got it completely backwards. We should be mourning. We should be cursing God for taking our beloved John from us. We should grieve his decapitation that gruesome scene on the cover of our service folder.
Dear Christians, today is a feast. It is a reason to celebrate, to rejoice, and to give thanks. Today we praise the Lord at the beheading of St. John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas. We thank God that St. John called out Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, the harlot who was also his niece. We thank God for all the prophets and especially the Baptizer who faithfully called the world to repentance, suffering even their own martyr deaths. We give thanks for all who have continued this proclamation in Christ’s holy prophetic office, especially those who have died for the Word.
Beloved of God, we rightly remember St. John’s death with rejoicing. We celebrate his victorious death. We give thanks for his life and testimony. Why? St. John died the death of faith. St. John died trusting in the promise of the Savior. The unborn John beheld the glory of God when he leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. He boldly called the Pharisees a brood of vipers for their lack of the repentance. He heard confession though from the multitudes who came to the Jordan. There, he baptized them for repentance, to prepare them for the Christ’s Holy Spirit, Christ’s baptism, the fire that would burn away the chaff, leaving only a new man, absolved and forgiven. The Baptizer point to the Christ, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When his time came to fade, he sent his disciples to Jesus; the greatest with sandals no one is fit to untie. John died in prison for boldly proclaiming Christ’s Law and Gospel, his Word of repentance and forgiveness.
Many can’t handle St. John’s ugly head, presented on a platter. So too, what of the horrible torture of St. Stephen’s being stoned to death? Or St. Bartholemew’s skin being flayed off his flesh? What of all the saints who have died terrible and hideous deaths for the sake of confessing the truth? These sights are too ugly to consider, to horrible to imagine, not fitting for good company, or children. How much more the gruesome death of the Son of God and the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. He was beaten, flogged, bloodied and bruised on the cross. His side was pierced with the spear, his hands and feet with nails. They too may be too sorrowful to imagine. Dear Christians, you should meditate on our Lord’s cross and passion. Even children should be reminded of the penalty for our trespasses and how they were laid upon our savior. The imagine of the suffering and death of our Lord ought to be etched in our minds.
We have all been baptized into Christ’s death. Many will suffer a death just like his, dying at the hands of sinful men for the sake of their witness. Dearly Beloved, we too are no different. We suffer the life of the martyr every day. We are like lambs being led to the slaughter. We are mocked when we share Christ’s Word, an offense to the Jew and Gentile alike. We are wounded for our call for repentance in family, church, and world. The world curses and reviles us for having the gall to call people to turn back from their wickedness, immorality, and unbelief. The world will try to convict us in the court of public opinion. They will murder us with words of hatred or shame. They will torture us as they revoke civil and just law. We will suffer under the evil of homosexuality, idolatry of government handouts, deification of celebrity and athlete, dishonor of our Lord’s day, and the killing of the innocent child via abortion. We will be abused and violated in our own fellowship by other Christians when the evil intents of men and Satan seek to destroy right believing and right worship.
Yet, Christians, we are loved by God. We suffer, and we rejoice. We look straight into the eyes of the world, the evil one, and even the grave, and laugh. We laugh with joy at our misfortune, our pain, and our misery. We cry out in thanksgiving for the deep wounds inflicted upon our flesh and souls. We smile and sing a hymn when we are tormented and tortured.
This is insanity, at least to our flesh. But, our hearts of faith see St. John’s head on a platter and rejoice in forgiveness. Our hearts of faith see Christ on His cross and rejoice at the new life and salvation he won for us by his suffering and death. Our hearts of faith consider the death of all the saints as a cause for rejoicing. While we have been been baptized into Christ’s death, we also have the promise of a resurrection like His.
So also, each day when we suffer for our faith, we rejoice. We rejoice because we have been given faith to trust our Lord and in His unfailing love. Such faith was the cause for Georg Neumark to write the hymn we just sang: “If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee.” Upon graduation from gymnasium, Neumark left his home to enroll in the university. But along the way, he and his friends were robbed of all their possessions, apart from a prayer book and little money sewed in his clothes. Hereafter, he tried to find employment to regain enough wealth for school but could not for months. On this occasion, Neumark wrote the hymn “If Thou But Trust” to describe the time he suffered, the time where His life appeared to be leading to death.
The twenty-something Neumark encourages us to trust that God will give us strength to persevere through all our days. Christ is the rock that is unchanging and always loving. Our anxiety and ceaseless moaning do us no good, only adding bitterness to our cross and trial. But, faith tells us to be patient, with cheerful hope, and heart content with whatever the Father’s love sends us. God knows when we need gladness or when we need sadness, both given to us in his loving care. We need not despair when we suffer fiery trial, when our hopes are not fulfilled, because the good that God intends will be worked in us. Instead, we sing, pray, and keep His ways, performing our duties. We believe in His Word, knowing that God never forsakes those in need, nor the soul that trusts in Him.
What a wonderful Gospel proclamation in the face of tragedy and despair! While our instinct is to mourn for St. John, in faith we rejoice that the Word was proclaimed. St. John’s very life is a testimony to the conviction on the Holy Spirit can give. Neumark’s life and hymn bears witness to the hope of the baptized.
For this reason we sang “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying.” Its composer Philipp Nicolai suffered persecution during a time of religious wars. He had to meet secretly with his congregations, while his opponents sought to kill him. He suffered for the sake of the Gospel. While he was the pastor in Westphalia, Germany, the plague took 1300 of his parishioners, mostly in the latter half of one year, 1597, and 170 in one week. To comfort his parishioners he wrote two hymns, “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star” and “Wake, Awake,” often called the King and Queen of Chorales. These two hymns encapsulate the ability of Christian to rejoice by faith in the face of martyrdom.
Consider again the hymn: We rejoiced with Pr. Nicolai that on the last day the watchmen will call us to arise from our sleep. Our voices will again rejoice and sing alleluia, taking with us the lamps of gladness to meet the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Zion will hear the watchmen singing. All our hearts with joy will be singing. We will rise from our gloom, to meet our victorious and all glorious Lord. We will enter the wedding hall to eat the supper with the Blessed One, God’s own son. The heavens will ring out with harps and cymbals in clearest tone. We will all join in the choir immortal around the throne. And there we will behold our Lord’s glory face to face, eternally singing hymns of praise and joy to Him. This is the joy that St. John looked forward to. This is the hope that led St. John to confess boldly without fear of his death. This is the hope that has defeated death of John the Baptist and all the saints.
Our recessional hymn today may be new to you. We may need to sing it a few times before it becomes comfortable. We may have to sing it for years before you can rejoice in it. But dear Christians, trust me, your patience will be rewarded.
The Lutheran talk radio program Issues Etc. recently polled its listeners as to their favorite hymns and “God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It” was their top pick. This is amazing since the first time we had the opportunity to sing it in English was the Worship Supplement of 1998. Yet, even with such a short history, this contemporary hymn has become an important part of the piety of English-speaking Lutherans, as it was for German-speaking Lutherans before.
The composer Erdmann Neumeister was one the chief authors of texts for Johann Sebastian Bach, the great Lutheran composer. Neumeister’s hymn is a song of joy that proclaims the great work of Christ in our lives. It offers the cornerstone for our ability to suffer trial, temptation, and even death like St. John the Baptist. We can suffer steadfastly in the faith because we are baptized. Baptism is the one needful thing; the only treasure needed for eternal salvation. Sin no longer disturbs us. A guilty conscience cannot seize us because Christ’s blood has released us. Satan can no longer accuse us. He has no power over us because we have been joined to Christ in baptism. Death will not end our gladness. The faith given in baptism trusts in the life to come, the bright flashes of the future paradise. We can live in the face of suffering, even staring into the open-eyed grave, knowing that we are God’s children, children of paradise, and have nothing to fear.
Thus, today, we, the baptized rejoice with St. John and all the martyrs of heaven. We rejoice with all those who have seen the grave for the sake of the Gospel. They suffered for their proclaiming repentance from sin and forgiveness in Christ. They were martyred for the truth of their witness. But, dear Christians, even the headless St. John the Baptist will be raised on the last day. He is one of God’s children, sleeping in grave, waiting for the resurrection of the dead. So also, our lives as baptized into Christ’s death may be full of suffering and anguish. We may die the death of the martyr, for the sake of the proclamation of the Gospel. But, we have been washed by Christ’s blood. We have passed through the Jordan waters. We have heard the clarion call of Christ through his prophet St. John to repent and be baptized into the kingdom of God. We are his children and need not fear. We also will receive a resurrection like His. Rejoice, oh pilgrim throng. You are God’s child eternally.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your heart and mind steadfast in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
+ SOLI DEO GLORIA +