7th Sunday after Pentecost – Vicar Stoppenhagen
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Mark 6:14-29
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh
July 11, 2021
“One Last Sermon on Death…”
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.
God has a sense of humor. When pastor and I sorted out when my last Sunday would be, we didn’t look at the texts appointed. We probably just saw “John the Baptist” and thought “The prophet journeying in the wilderness, preaching, baptizing, and preparing the way for Jesus! What else could an outgoing vicar want to preach about?” Then it got even better this week we realized the Gospel reading is the death of John the Baptist. God laughed and said, “I’ll make this prophet-in-training preach about the death of the prophet.” But this is a deluxe Gospel text in front of us—much more than a little death in this one. We get sex, money, and politics here, too! It’s like Thanksgiving 2016 all over again. So here’s one last sermon not only on death, but on those other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite company. And maybe Jesus will join us along the way.
First up is sex, which is what gets us into this disaster of a Gospel reading. On a visit to Rome, Herod fell in love with his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias (who in a weird, incestuous twist was also his niece). So what do they do? Herod divorced his wife, Herodias divorced Philip, and they got married. Easy enough, right? Wrong, John the Baptist told them. “It’s not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife, Herod.” Now under normal circumstances, John’s head would have been swiftly cut off, as Herodias insisted. But Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, so he kept him safe, much to Herodias’s chagrin. I guess, Herod would rather have an unhappy wife than a riot on his hands.
This leads us to the politics. King Herod, you might remember, wasn’t actually a king. He was a tetrarch, a client king, whose little quarter of the kingdom was really ruled by the Roman emperor. Thus, Herod’s success depended on how well he kept the emperor happy. And the emperor was happy when there was peace, and for there to be peace, the people had to be happy. Remember that John had become a rather influential personality among the lower class—with all that preaching and baptizing and preparing the way—so Herod knew that killing him could provoke the crowds. Instead of doing that, he imprisoned him, so that the people would keep living, working, and paying their taxes.
Which finally brings us to the money. Herod had inherited a nice chunk of change from his father, but it was taxing his citizens that provided him the cash he needed to live his lavish lifestyle. He lived comfortably in his new palace in his newly built capital city on the Sea of Galilee. But his fancy parties weren’t just to show off his wealth. He used them to keep the wealthy nobles, the Roman military commanders, and the Jewish leaders of Galilee all happy, too. To maintain his riches and power, Herod had to be a people-please par excellence. But in the end, the sex, money, and politics—all Herod’s efforts to make himself and everybody else happy would lead to death. But not his own death; it’s John who takes the fall.
“That’s completely unfair!” we think. Herod’s people-pleasing backed him into a corner, and it’s John who had to pay the price. John was essentially the anti-Herod. Instead of marrying, he remained celibate, because he knew how short his ministry would be. He wasn’t out to build up riches here on earth, even though he could have easily collected the tithes of his listeners. He lived on the edge of existence instead, clad in camel’s hair and subsisting on locusts and honey. And he certainly wasn’t out to gain political power or start a revolution, even though he held sway over thousands who would have quickly joined his movement. There couldn’t have been two people who were more different than Herod and John.
So why does John have to suffer for Herod’s mistake? Because the prophet suffers for preaching God’s message. His message for Herod and the people of his day was “Repent.” It wasn’t new, by any means. The prophets and judges and psalmists of old had said the same thing generations before. And Jesus would carry the same tune. And they all suffered for preaching the truth. It’s a deceptively simple message, but it’s what stands at the heart of all good preaching: Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
Too many preachers of today look and sound more like Herod than John the Baptist. They’re always preoccupied with “building the kingdom” over which they themselves can rule. They preach in such a way to make everybody happy, with carefully crafted anecdotes, gentle moralisms, and watered-down words of love. They are not, as John the Baptist was, living in the wilderness, preaching the tough message of repentance, and preparing the way for Christ. Oddly enough, the tough topics of sex, money, and politics are what they preach about the most. They decry society’s sexual deviancy while ignoring their own marital dysfunction. They preach a fine stewardship sermon so that you know exactly how to spend your money. And of course they tell you who to vote for so that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are maintained in our “Christian” nation.
These preachers certainly won’t get beheaded for preaching these topics. In fact, they’ll be praised, promoted, maybe even elected synod president for addressing these “important” issues. But in taking on the issues of the day, the Word of God is quickly lost. And where the Word is lost, Christ and his gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation are all lost, too. The very simple message, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand,” is not one that will earn health and wealth, power and popularity. But it is a necessary message to bring about faith in Christ. And for that Word to take root, it must cause death—both a death for the preacher, as John the Baptist discovered, and a death for the hearer’s sinful self.
For the word “repent” calls us to recognize how we all, like Herod, have violated God’s Law by seeking to bring ourselves pleasure, without recognizing how it can draw us away from God. We’ve looked for ways to build up our wealth and power without seeing how useless they are for our salvation. We’ve idolized our political convictions and lost sight of God’s omnipotent hand working in the kingdoms of this world. These things—the things that place us at the center of the universe instead of Christ—are all things that the preaching of repentance calls us to put to death.
But once God puts to death those corrupted desires for sex, money, and power that block Christ from view—then what glory and blessing it is. Then we see that he is not, as Herod thought, just another prophet like John. Instead, we see that he truly is God, the King crowned with thorns and enthroned on the cross. For it’s by his death and crucifixion that he establishes his kingdom. But it’s no earthly kingdom; you won’t find any politics, money, sex, or death there. Instead, in his kingdom we enjoy the bliss of sins forgiven and the promise of life eternal in his presence.
And that’s the beauty and power of preaching God’s Word—that despite the bumbling fool standing in the pulpit, those things are still given to you. God’s Word doesn’t return to him empty but accomplishes what it’s sent to do. The voice crying out in the wilderness isn’t important. It’s the Word he preaches, as it takes root in your hearts, brings you to repentance, creates faith, forgives your sin, revives your soul, points you to Christ, and gives you that peace, which surpasses all understanding.
In the holy name of Jesus. Amen.