we celebrated (a few days early) the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. Here's the homily:
Two, maybe two and a half years. That’s it. That’s how long the ministry of St. John the Baptist was. Have you ever thought of that? A man who had been prepared by the Holy Spirit to get Israel ready to receive her Savior. The great Fore-runner, who would go before the Lord in the spirit of Elijah. The man whom Jesus called “the greatest born of woman.” He worked no miracles (that we know of). He lived an ascetical life, eating locusts and wild honey. He did not seek the company of others, but lived alone in the desert, until the time of his revealing to Israel. He never drank wine or strong drink. The Holy Spirit was upon him from before his birth. He never married, had no children. His whole life before his ministry was but a preparation for those two, two and a half years. And then they were over. He was jailed for speaking the truth, the truth of God’s Law that Herod did not want to hear, and he was martyred, as the Church celebrates on this day. Beheaded at the request of a conniving dancing girl and with the permission of a besotted king. His head shamefully paraded around on a platter. Thus did the greatest of those born of women meet his end.
Here was a life devoid of everything that we tend to think makes life worth living. Would any of you have wished to trade places with the “greatest born of woman”? Me either. St. Theresa once said: “O God, if this is how you treat you friends, I can see why you have so few of them.” And yet we would be totally mistaken to think of St. John’s life as a failure.
St. John was sent to be the fore-runner. He went ahead of the Lord. So he was born six months before our Lord was born. He began preaching and calling Israel to repentance and to a new life in Baptism before our Lord began His ministry, doing the same. In fact, our Lord began to preach and teach only after St. John had baptized him. And so are we surprised when the end of John’s life is unjust imprisonment and then shameful death? How could it be otherwise? He is, after all, the fore-runner. It was his unique calling to go ahead of where the Lord Himself would come. For our Lord too would be arrested unjustly for speaking the truth and He also would shamefully be put to death.
So St. John’s earthly pilgrimage ended and he was gathered together with the faithful of the Old Testament era. Did his task as Fore-runner then continue? Did he announce: “He’s here! He’s alive in our flesh and blood! The One promised to You, Father Adam and Mother Eve. The Seed promised to crush the Serpents’ dead. The One promised to you, Father Abraham. Your Off-spring come to bring blessing to all the families of the earth. Your descendent, King David, born to sit upon the throne of a kingdom that never ends with a life that never ends. I’ve seen Him! I’ve baptized Him! He is working his miracles now. And soon, oh, soon, He too will suffer and die and He will come to us and His coming will be the destruction of this death we share now and He will bring us out into LIFE! I’m the fore-runner. I’m telling you, He’s almost here.”
Our Lord met the same fate as St. John, His faithful fore-runner. But unlike St. John, death wasn’t imposed upon our Lord. No. He purposefully and willingly gave Himself into it. He freely chose to die in order that He might forever destroy the power of death itself. You see, death had a claim on St. John – greatest though he was. He was still a sinner, born of sinful parents, and had to do battle every day against his sinful flesh. Oh, he conquered by God’s grace in a mighty way! But he knew the truth. Do you remember what happened the day our Lord came to him to be baptized with a sinner’s baptism? How St. John protested and cried out: “No, but I need to be baptized by you!” John knew well that he needed the forgiveness and the life that only Jesus could give. So when death came, John knew that in a very real sense it was just his due, as it is your due and mine. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” says the Lord.
But then there is our Lord Jesus. And in Him there is no stain of sin, no blemish of impure desire. In Him there is only complete holiness and unbroken obedience to His heavenly Father. And so when He chooses to die, when He gives Himself into death, death has no claim upon him. “It was not possible that death should hold Him” is how St. Peter preached it. So on the third day the tomb is broken open and He is raised in a body incorruptible, never again to be touched by death.
And this victory over death He wins not for Himself. He didn’t need it. He wins it for us! He wins it for all and He delivers it to those who are baptized into Him! He delivers it to all who trust in His promises and receive His gifts! He seals it to us in His body and blood! And that is an immense comfort when one is struggling under the burdens of this life – burdens St. John was only too familiar with: injustice, sorrow, impending death.
Two and a half years is not a very long time for a man’s ministry. But, of course, St. John’s ministry did not come to an end merely because he died. Oh, no. His ministry has gone on for thousands of years now. His call of repentance continues to sound out in the Church, warning us to flee from the wrath to be revealed when Christ comes in glory. Advent each year the great Fore-runner steps before us and his voice trumpets a call to lives of radical repentance. And constantly in the Church, St. John’s finger ceaselessly points to the Lamb of God. Why, each time you come to the Lord’s table and your Crucified and Risen Lord places into your mouth the Body that destroyed your death and the Blood that answered for all your sin, you join St. John in his song: “O Christ, thou Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us, grant us peace.”
Death, you see, could not end the witness of St. John the Baptist because he witnesses forever to Him whom death could not destroy: Jesus Christ, our Lord, to whose Kingdom may God grant us all to attain through His grace and love toward mankind. Amen.