Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on the Martyrdom of John the Baptist 8/29/2021. The service was broadcast live on Facebook at 9:30am, and is now available on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: StJohnBaptist Bulletin
The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the Martyrdom of John the Baptist, click here.
In Numbers 24, we have the record of Balaam’s Oracle – a beautiful prophecy concerning Christ’s birth, and the arrival of the Messianic Kingdom. Balaam was a false prophet, who God chose to use according to His purpose.
In John 11, Caiaphas, who was the high priest at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, proclaimed that it was better for one Man to die for the people than a whole nation perish.
In 1 Samuel, when the Ark of God entered into the camp of the Israelites, the Philistines trembled, crying out:
A god has come into the camp… Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness.
They didn’t get the point, really. Balaam was right and even virtuous to refuse to speak against God’s people. There was some risk in it. But he didn’t believe, and as far as we know, he never repented.
Caiaphas, too, was right. It was not just better, but it was best, that Christ should die in the place of sinners. He sat in Moses’ seat, and spoke rightly, but he didn’t seem to understand why.
As for the Philistines, we wish that more people were like them. We wish that more people feared God’s awesome power. But maybe that says more about us. The Philistines didn’t repent. And if that’s exactly what we’re hoping will happen to the church’s enemies, we’re doing it wrong.
From these examples, and there are plenty more, God has used wicked people to show us good things, even great things. And this morning, we have one more.
Consider Herod. He’s an imposter Jew and a puppet King. More than that, he’s an adulterer and a persecutor of God’s Word.
That’s kind of a perplexing thing. Like those beginning examples of Balaam, Caiaphas, and the Philistines, Herod had learned something true. He knew John was a righteous and holy man. He was put off by what John had to say; and you can bet he was especially put off when John called him out on his sin. And yet, he heard John gladly. Though it hurt him to hear, he had some sense that John was right about everything.
On his birthday, however, Herod was gladder to see Herodias’ daughter dance than he was to hear John preach. And he made a hasty promise to her: “I’ll give you whatever you want, up to half of my kingdom.”
When she comes back and says that she wants John the Baptist’s head, Herod was exceedingly sorry.
But because of his oaths and because of his guests he did not want to break his word to her. verse 26
You confirmands are about to make some promises, too. You’re going to tell me and the church, and Jesus that… You’re baptized – and so Christ has made you His own; that you reject all the devil, and all his works and ways; that God the Father has made you; that Jesus has saved you; and that the Holy Spirit is daily sanctifying you, and making you holy.
You’re going to say that the Scriptures are God’s Word, His own speech to us; that the doctrine taught in Scripture and echoed in the Small Catechism are true; that you’ll hear the Word of God gladly, receive the Lord’s Supper here faithfully, live according to God’s Word in full recognition of the claims it makes on you and your life; and that you will suffer anything, even martyrdom, rather than fall way from it.
Like Herod, you’ll have some of the same reasons to keep your promise. There is still some worldly shame attached to breaking your word. And there ought to be some sense of accountability to your friends here, not to mention your family.
These godly encouragements will exist for you, even though they won’t likely weigh as much as they did in previous generations.
By God’s grace and providence, your situation will be more like St. John’s. You will be pressured to go back on what you say today. This will happen directly in the classroom, in the public square, at work, on social media, etc. You will be relentlessly pressured to confess that God’s Word is false. You will be mocked, ridiculed, belittled, shamed, and rejected.
You might lose your job. You might lose your place in school. One day, as they’re trying to do to the Lutheran Bishop in Finland, you might go to jail. And we wouldn’t mention the possibility of dying for your confession if it wasn’t a possibility.
In short, some of your experience as a Christian will, to some degree, look like St. John’s. But you will not only have similar sufferings, persecutions, and calls to repent of God. You also have the same Holy Spirit.
The same Holy Spirit who John saw descend on Jesus in the Jordan, Who gave force and form to John’s proclamation of Christ and His Kingdom, that same Holy Spirit has come upon you. From font, pulpit, and altar, the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, sanctified and kept you in the true faith.
Anybody can wear weird clothes, eat strange foods, and live day-to-day on the edge town. John was nothing special on his own. But the Holy Spirit kept him faithful unto death.
That same Holy Spirit that strengthened John the Baptist, and kept him firm in the true faith unto death did the same thing for the apostles, and or the church’s martyrs throughout the ages: men, women, and children.
That same Holy Spirit sustains the church as it suffers and dies now, today, this morning, in Afghanistan and throughout the world. Do you think God the Holy Spirit is less powerful or less capable because He resides in you?
Jesus has given Himself to death in your place. He has forgiven you all your sins. He has won heaven for you and promises you life forever with Him. As for the time between now and forever, He promises to preserve you in the true faith.
That’s not an invitation to double-dog-dare the Holy Spirit to depart from you. Jesus isn’t going to make you do anything. You need to be here, and you need to be here all the time. You need to be in Bible Study. You need to be at the Lord’s Supper. You need to maintain Christian disciplines now, in college, when you’re married, and beyond.
Dear Christians, Christ hasn’t promised you half of His kingdom because you impressed Him. He has given you His death, His life, His resurrection, and His Kingdom. It is yours. If only you would have it.