The Martyrdom of John the Baptist
The Rev. Dr. Ross McGowan Wright
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 15, 2018
Text: Mark 6:14-29
Martyrs play a special role in the church’s witness to Jesus Christ. We are a church that includes prophets, patriarchs, and martyrs. By dying for their faith in the risen Lord, martyrs reveal what is true for all of us: if we try to save our lives by holding on to the fleeting things of this world, we lose our lives. But if we lose our lives by giving up ourselves to Christ’s service, we discover what it means to truly live.
This morning, we hear the testimony of John the Baptist, prophet and martyr. John was the first to recognize Jesus as God’s Anointed One. When he saw Jesus, shortly after Jesus’ baptism, he pointed to him and said: “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Later, though, John seems to have had doubts about Jesus. Shortly before John’s execution, when he was imprisoned in Herod’s palace, he sent messengers to Jesus with this haunting question: Are you the promised one who we’ve been waiting for – or should we wait for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3)
We tend to associate martyrdom with heroic faith. But John’s questions about Jesus reveal that what makes a martyr is not heroic faith but circumstances over which the martyr has no control. Martyrs are men and women, young people who, in a decisive moment, must choose between personal safety and confessing the Lord Jesus Christ. God or safety. Herod is a striking contrast to John. At Herod’s decisive moment, he has a choice: will he save face before his friends at this birthday party, or will he save John’s head? You know how that turned out.
The word “martyr” means witness. Martyrs bear witness to the risen Christ by dying for their faith. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Seminary defines martyr in the broadest terms as “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.”The Center estimates that from 2000 to 2010, one million believers were martyred: an average of approximately 100,000 Christians each year.
All of us are called to be witnesses to Jesus Christ – by confessing Jesus as Lord; by affiliating with the Christian community; by being regular at the Lord’s table; by letting friends, colleagues, neighbors, and family members know of our allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ. A martyr is a witness in the special sense that going public about their allegiance to the Lord has cost them their lives.
Which brings us to the martyrdom of John the Baptist.
When our story opens, John has already been beheaded. Herod ordered his execution some months earlier. But now, Herod is hearing about a new religious movement, the Jesus movement. He is getting reports of miraculous healings and powerful preaching about repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Herod is troubled by these reports, and as he tries to make sense of this new movement, he concludes that John, the man he beheaded, has risen from the dead.
Herod’s conclusion is based on superstition and paranoia. Nevertheless, the connection between John’s martyrdom and the Jesus movement is truer than Herod knows. John’s death has meaning because it anticipates Jesus’ death – and because his death is redeemed by Jesus’ victorious resurrection from the dead. Like John, Jesus is rejected and executed. Jesus is the cornerstone who was rejected and has become the building block of a whole new world. This new temple is the Christian community that exists throughout time and includes prophets, martyrs, and our little congregation of the Good Shepherd. The big story – the meta-narrative – that includes both John and Jesus is the victory of God. Out of the sorrow of John’s execution comes new life. With death comes resurrection life.
One way to follow the events of John’s martyrdom is to notice the various relationships in the narrative: Herod’s relationship with John; Herod’s relationship with his wife, Herodias, and with their daughter, Salome.
Herod had John arrested because Herodias had it out for the prophet. John had the audacity to tell Herod that he was not allowed to marry Herodias, because she had been previously married to Herod’s brother. Consequently, she wanted him dead – and was waiting for the right moment.
In the meantime, Herod began to be intrigued by John. Mark tells us that Herod “listened to him eagerly.” At the same time, he feared John, because he knew that he was a righteous man. Even when evil has the judicial power over a righteous person, evil fears righteousness. Herod reminds us of Pilate interrogating Jesus: the worldly man standing in the presence of ultimate goodness.
Finally, the opportune moment Herodias has been waiting for arrives. Herod throws a birthday celebration for himself and invites all of the leading citizens and military leaders. While they are eating and drinking, he invites his daughter Salome to dance. You can picture Herod’s fellow lounge lizards, leering at the daughter, laughing at Herod’s doting on her. Then he makes a ridiculous promise: Ask me for whatever you want. The girl asks her mother what to request, and without batting an eyelash, she says: “John’s head.”
Herod is caught in forces he is powerless to control. He is played by Herodias. He is hamstrung by his oath. He is overcome by his lust and by his craving for the approval of his guests. He is probably drunk.
We do not need to follow all of the grisly details. It is a kind of macabre inverse of the Eucharist: it is a meal that includes a sacrifice and the ritual passing around of the platter. Immediately following this narrative, Mark’s Gospel records Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000 – we pass from darkness into the light.
So what does it all mean? This beautiful world that God has created also includes evil – radical evil; evil men and women doing evil deeds. We would be naïve to deny it. But scripture encloses evil within a framework of hope. Evil appears to triumph. But our faith teaches us that God, not evil, has the last word. The death of John ushers in the fullness of Jesus’ ministry. More important, John’s death participates in the larger sacrifice of Jesus Christ – and is caught up in his victorious resurrection. I cannot prove this to you. I can only point to Good Friday and Easter. In some ways, the ultimate proof will be when Jesus Christ returns at the end of time.
In the meantime, we can do three things.
First, we can listen to the witness of the martyrs and have our faith strengthened by their testimony.
Second, we can pray for those who suffer for the sake of the Christian faith. We can become informed about their situation through organizations like The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Seminary. Where possible, we can use our influence to advocate on their behalf.
Third, we can pray for the grace to be faithful witnesses to our Lord Jesus Christ. As the old hymn puts it:
I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.
They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still,
the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.