Whenever the topic of a person’s life work comes up, or the good that each of us hopes to accomplish before we leave this world, inevitably someone says, “Oh, if only I can help one person — just reach one person! If only I tell one person about Jesus and that person is saved, or my sufferings and my sacrifices can benefit just one person, then my life will have been worthwhile! Then everything I’ve gone through will not be in vain!”
Being the contrarian that I am, whenever I heard those sorts of statements, my first thought immediately is: “What if you don’t help one person?”
What if you go through your entire lifetime, and not one single other person ever benefits from your experiences, your kindness, your compassion, your witness or testimony? It’s unlikely, but given how often I’ve heard people say similar things to the above, it bears asking: What if nobody at all listens or believes what you say? Will it have been a waste then?
Today the Christian Church commemorates the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. By all appearances, his life was worthlessly given. He was the foremost of the prophets, occupying a unique place in salvation history: summing up the Old Testament prophets, while inaugurating the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which the apostles were soon to take out into the world. He was the Forerunnner. Jesus said that there was no one born of women that was greater than John the Baptist — and this is how he dies?
He didn’t die making a great heroic stand. He didn’t die in the arena, torn by the lions, or run through by the sword of a frustrated, angry pagan soldier. He didn’t give his life saving anyone from a burning building, or jumping on a grenade to save his buddies in battle.
John the Baptist was beheaded because he rebuked the wrong, powerful, person, and he incurred the anger of wicked, conniving people. You can read about it in St. Mark 6:14-29. Herod the king had married his brother’s wife — stolen her, in fact. John had rebuked him, and Salome, the brother’s wife (now Herod’s wife) in question, plus her mother, wanted revenge. So when Salome danced for Herod’s birthday party, and he being in an expansive move, he promised her anything, up to half his kingdom. Bad idea. She asked for John the Baptist’s head, and Herod, though he enjoyed listening to John and was afraid to do anything against him, was afraid of looking like a fool in front of the high rollers and power brokers — so he had John beheaded in prison. As one professor I heard years ago put it, John the Baptist died because of a bimbo. Put that together with a weak and scared ruler, and John looks like he was in the wrong place at the wrong time — and his head ends up on a platter.
Someone might well say, “Why did you speak up, John? It wasn’t your business! It didn’t bother or hurt you at all that Herod married his brother’s wife! Why provoke powerful people and make them not like you? Just let it go — it’s not your problem anyway.” That’s the voice of fear. That cowardice manages to silence Christians all over the world every day, because at the least hint of trouble — even before anything actually happens! — we’re running up the white flag in our minds. What if someone gets mad at me! — what if I lose my job! — what if I lose my friends! — what if my family member won’t speak to me! — what if, what if, what if! And we are intimidated and shamed into silence by our ungodly fear and cowardice.
John the Baptist spoke up because he didn’t care what happened to himself. All he cared about was God’s Word. His death was one that had no honor in the eyes of the world, but it was an honorable death and a good death in the eyes of God, for he died rebuking sin and speaking God’s truth. That reckless consistency of conviction, that fearless confession, unheeding of what may happen to one’s own life or livelihood, is part and parcel of bearing the cross. Without sin being rebuked, how will anyone know or care that they are wrong? How will they be moved to search anxiously for a solution, for a Savior, if they don’t know they’ve done wrong, or they’re accustomed to silencing or placating their conscience? How will they find peace and salvation, if they don’t encounter the Word from us that gives life?
More importantly — how will a sinner be saved if God’s Word is never brought to bear on his or her heart? Maybe the person we’re rebuking or correcting will hear and take it to heart; maybe they won’t. But whatever happens after we confess and proclaim God’s Word is His business, not ours. He doesn’t ask us for results. He asks us to be faithful. Let me repeat that again, loud and clear, so you can hear it over our “leadership”-saturated, overly pragmatic, manager culture: God doesn’t ask us for results. He asks us to be faithful. Once you grasp the difference, John the Baptist’s death becomes more glorious, a death full of honor. We could all use a dose of John the Baptist’s don’t-give-a-hoot, unfailingly upfront confession of God’s Word. Speak God’s Word the way John the Baptist did — with a bracing, straightedge moxie, but also never without love for the other person. Regardless of the consequences. Never backing down from God’s truth. It scares the enemies of the gospel and it encourages the fainthearted, and it glorifies the Lord, to whom be all power, glory, honor, and strength, for ever and ever. Amen.
Preached at the nursing home in Morgan, MN, for the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 2014.
But when Herod heard thereof, he said, It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.
17 For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife: for he had married her.
18 For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.
19 Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not:
20 For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.
21 And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee;
22 And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.
23 And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.
24 And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist.
25 And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.
26 And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.
27 And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison,
28 And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.
29 And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.
— St. Mark 6:16-29