+ Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist +
August 29, 30(?) A.D.
The world looks up to men and women who defy the authorities, who stand up courageously against the power structure. History books lionize Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and the founding fathers of America. Around the world, monuments honor heroes who died fighting for political independence, such as King Leonidas, William Wallace, and Stonewall Jackson.
Perhaps the greatest such hero apart from our Lord Jesus Christ goes largely unnoticed by the world. On this date, the Christian Church honors the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.
We Lutherans perhaps don’t honor John as much as we should. For didn’t our Lord Himself say that there is no greater man born of women? Every Eastern Orthodox church in the world has an icon of John near the altar. On that count, we can certainly learn from our Eastern brothers and sisters.
For John is a pivotal figure in the history of God’s people. John stands between the Old and New Testament, ushers in Christ, and serves as an end-time figure all at once.
John is the last of the Old Testament prophets, the son of a priest, the product of a miraculous birth announced by the angel Gabriel. Like Israel’s ancient prophets, John speaks boldly of the Messiah. And yet John doesn’t have to die before seeing the Promised One like his fellow prophets. For John is the forerunner. Our Lord links him to the mighty prophet Elijah. But John isn’t only a prophetic messenger, he is flesh and blood of our Lord, being the cousin of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of our Lord Himself. And not only is John the last Old Testament prophet, he is the first New Testament preacher. He is not only a proclaimer of the Word, but he is the first minister of the sacraments! John is the Baptist, the one who connects water with God’s grace and salvation, the one and only one who will baptize our blessed Lord Himself.
John’s faithful preaching of the Kingdom of God, of repentance, of baptismal grace didn’t make everyone happy. John the Baptist is certainly the patron saint of every pastor whose preaching of the law made someone mad at him. For John was to become a martyr for the sake of his preaching of the Kingdom and of the need to repent.
John was decapitated for the sake of the Lord, who is his true head. The Lord Jesus Christ is also our head, the Church’s head. We, the body of Christ, submit to Him – even if it means it will cost us our lives. Hearers of the Word are to take John’s sermon of repentance to heart, and preachers of the Word are to expect martyrdom for the sake of Him to whom they are yoked. Submission and suffering are the common experience of lay people and clergy alike.
What appears to be John’s abysmal failure in this life is his ultimate glorious triumph in eternity. What seems to be the hopeless end is really only the hopeful beginning. John’s purpose in life, his reason for being born, was fulfilled. John carried out his mission faithfully and courageously – pointing the world to the One who would crush the serpent’s head once and for all.
On the last day, John’s body will be pulled from the grave, his flesh and bones reconstituted gloriously by grace of the One he proclaimed in his short life in the fallen world. And we will join him, our faithful brother, joyfully celebrating our baptismal victory in the water of life in the new creation, not only singing the Agnus Dei, but truly beholding the Lamb of God for all eternity. Amen.
Heavenly Father, today we remember Your faithful servant John whom you have called the greatest of Your prophets. Saint John was zealous in his preaching about the need to repent because he wanted all the world to be reconciled with You. So strong was his conviction that he could not keep silent, even when he knew his honesty came with a cost. May we be, as him, faithful to the preaching Your holy law, ever be ready to call to the unbelieving world around us, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” For we ask this through Christ Jesus Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.