Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 32:50 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
All it takes is a birthday party. All it takes is a birthday party for John to lose his head. It’s not that Herod wants John dead. It’s Herodias who has a grudge against John. She didn’t like some of his sermons, preaching that Herod should not be married to her, because she was married—is married, as far as John and Mark and God are concerned—to Herod’s half-brother Philip. Instead of hearing that word and command of God from John’s mouth and repenting and confessing her sin, she doubles down on getting rid of John. She’s just waiting for the right opportunity.
But Herod has been protecting John. I even wonder if that’s part of the reason he had John arrested and put in prison, so that he could both protect John and more easily listen to him. Because Herod likes listening to John, even when John is preaching against him. He hears him gladly. Even if he doesn’t understand everything John says, he hears him gladly. He’s a fan of John.
But all it takes is a birthday party, the pressure of his own pride, the presence of prominent people, and maybe a little lust thrown in for good measure, and that’s the end of John. Herod is a fan of John, but at the first sign of a threat to Herod that’s all gone, and Herod gives the command to give the dancing girl what she wants.
But let’s not get lost in the details of this story and forget what it’s doing here, at this point. Why is Mark giving us this account here in the Gospel? This is a flash-back, telling us what happened to John, because Herod thinks that the man walking around doing miraculous and supernatural things is John come back from the dead. Because if you die and come back from the dead, apparently you will be able to do impressive things. And there may be some guilt at work on Herod as well. He is still thinking about the fact that he caused John’s death. It’s like what Luther said about a guilty conscience: if you have a bad conscience, even a dry leaf skittering across the road in the wind will be enough to terrify you; terrified at judgment and punishment, at the coming wrath of God. Jesus’ teaching and actions, and that of His disciples, is Herod’s dry leaf.
Herod thinks Jesus is John risen from the dead, but Jesus is Jesus who will rise from the dead. Herod is right, however, to connect Jesus with John, even if he’s wrong about how they are connected. The same things that happen to John happen to Jesus. Like John, Jesus is “seized” and “bound.” Like John, Jesus is arrested and faces accusers who will stop at nothing to have Him killed. Like John, Jesus stands before an authority that can free Him or cause His death (even if he has that authority only because God has given it to him). Like John with Herod, Pilate tries to protect and release Jesus. But like Herod, Pilate gives in to other people’s demands in order to protect himself. Like John, Jesus dies, and like John, Jesus’ disciples bury His body.
And it’s not just that the same things happen to Jesus as happen to John. The responses to John indicate and reflect the responses to Jesus. Those who hear and receive John as someone who has come from God with the words of God, and repent and look to the greater One coming after him are the same ones who hear and receive Jesus as the Son of God sent into the world to bring God’s reign and rule upon the earth. Those who reject John are also those who reject Jesus, as Jesus proves when He asks whether John’s authority came from God or from people, and the scribes and Pharisees refuse to answer.
Even more than John, Jesus has His fans. Fans who are with Him when things are good, who listen to Him when He says the things they want Him to say and like to hear. They’re fans of Jesus because He tells such nice and entertaining stories. They’re fans as long as He doesn’t threaten their pride, or the reputations they’ve constructed for themselves, or the self-images they’ve cultivated. But at the end of the Gospel, where are they? At the cross, there are no cheering crowds, no shouted hosannas, no rejoicing in the salvation of God, or in the coming of the Son of David.
I have some Seahawks jerseys that I wear throughout the season. And if or when the Seahawks lose in the playoffs, I put them back into the closet. I’m still a fan, but I’ll wait until the sting of losing wears off before I wear them again. And I’ll wear my Mariners shirt until they fail to make the playoffs for another year. I’m still a fan—I’m not going to cheer for some other team—but I’m going to wait to put on that shirt again. That’s what most fans do. They wear the colors until the success or the winning goes away. And then we take them off and put paper bags over our heads at the games.
All it took for Herod was a birthday party. What about for us? If we only hear Jesus and gather to receive His gifts when it’s convenient, or easy, or fits nicely into our schedule—as long as we’re not doing anything else—what will happen when it’s not only inconvenient but dangerous? Fans don’t last long in persecution. And this world will drive fans of Jesus into hiding, especially when we’re not “winning” or “successful” or when it threatens to embarrass or shame us. Fans talk up the good stuff and cover up the stuff that might be difficult or hard. And the hardest thing is that Jesus dies, and we can’t prove that Jesus is risen from the dead or coming back or giving us eternal life.
But Jesus didn’t come into this world to gain legions of adoring fans. And we’re not here because we’re Jesus’ biggest fans, and we’re proving it by being here and making the best cheering section we can. Jesus came because under every fan is hiding an enemy of God, and if left to ourselves, we will never let God be God. We prefer our own ways and we will even use God to get what we want, making God simply a means to an end, a piece of our own lives, but one we can discard if He stops fitting in where we put Him. Jesus died, and joins us to His death, because there is no other way to kill off the fair-weather fan in each of us. He was not ashamed to suffer for people like us. He was not ashamed to die for people like us. He was and is not ashamed to call even people like us His dear, beloved children, even when we are ashamed to confess Him.
So again He comes here to forgive, renew, restore and put us back where we belong with Him. He comes to strengthen us to go out and live in a world that will eat mere fans of Jesus for breakfast. He comes to imprint His holy Name on our head and on our hearts, to confess boldly even to the point of death. Because we could get all the comfort, all the convenience, all the pleasures and benefits of this world, and we’re still going to lose it all when we die. In the end, what or who will be left? Herod is gone. Herodias is gone. The dancing girl is gone. All the prominent and important people are gone. Only Jesus is living, and those with Him. Even though John went ahead of Jesus into death, he was actually following Jesus, into death in order to follow Him into the resurrection. Herod thought Jesus was John raised from the dead, but Jesus died so that John would indeed be raised.
And so we are here, not as fans but as followers; as branches in a vine, drawing the only life there is from the only Life there is. Here we are, knowing that in spite of everything, we do not choose Jesus like people choose sports teams; He has chosen us, and still keeps us with Him in the true faith, until we, with John and all the saints, see Jesus in the resurrection, forever unashamed in our Lord.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/9/21