July 15, 2018 – The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Being on His Side
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text is from the Gospel reading. Immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. Here ends our text.
Sometimes it seems that we Christians are on the losing side. The 20th century, under the persecution of Nazi and Communist states, saw more martyrs for the Christian faith than all the previous centuries combined. Unfortunately, that persecution wasn’t a one century anomaly. In the 21st century, Christianity Today reports that modern persecution of Christians worldwide has hit another high, this time primarily because of Islamic extremism but also again because of ethnic nationalism. In Central Asia, there are government raids of Christian households, certain Christian books are banned, and some churches are declared illegal. India reports an average of 40 incidents of persecution per month, including pastors beaten, churches burned, and Christians harassed. In North Korea, which forces worship of the Kim Jung-un family, there are more than 50,000 in prison or labor camps because of their Christian faith. Christians throughout the world continue to risk imprisonment, loss of home and assets, torture, beheadings, rape and even death as a result of their faith. Approximately 215 million Christians experience high, very high, and extreme levels of persecution. That means one in twelve Christians live where Christianity is illegal, forbidden, or punished. The top fifty countries where it is hardest to be a Christian are mostly in Asia and Africa, with only two being in our Western hemisphere. In recent years, though, 23 Christian leaders in Mexico and four in Columbia were killed specifically for their faith. And while the United States didn’t make the top 50, persecution of Christians in our county is increasing. When pastors preach God’s Law against sexual perversion, it’s labeled as hate speech. Christian business owners are sued for not providing services for events which are against their faith. What’s happened to Christians in Europe and Asia and Africa is coming here. It’s times like these when you might question the benefits of being a Christian. You may ask, “Do I really want to be on this side?”
Anyone who hears our Gospel reading today about King Herod and John the Baptist might ask the same thing. On one side we have a Jewish king with great wealth and power. He throws his own birthday party and invites the nobles, military commanders, and leading men of his kingdom to a great banquet. Even as a politician, he seems untouchable of any allegations of immorality. He openly commits adultery by taking Herodias from his brother Philip to be his wife. With his drunken guests, he enjoys some erotic dancing from his young stepdaughter, Salome. Herod’s on the side of wine, women, wealth, and impunity. But on the other side we have John the Baptist. He’s the long foretold herald of Christ, but he lives in the wilderness, wear’s the rough clothing of camel’s hair, and eats locust and wild honey for breakfast, lunch, and supper. John boldly calls out Herod and preaches against his sexual immorality and incestuous relationship which is clearly against God’s Law. What does John get for his faithfulness? He’s seized, bound with chains, and imprisoned in a dungeon. He’s persecuted as a prophet of God. Worse yet, he’s beheaded because of the whim of a begrudging wife and the senseless request of her foolish daughter. To the world, it would seem to be better and more pleasurable to be on the side of King Herod than on the side of a persecuted prophet.
But John had one thing going for him. He was on the side of Jesus. In many respects, the persecution of John mimicked the persecution of Jesus. Both John and Jesus were seized and bound even though they were innocent of any evil activity. Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man. Likewise, Pilate repeatedly asked the Jews of Jesus, “What evil has he done?” The reason for their danger was simply because of what they said. John was imprisoned for speaking the Law against Herod. Jesus was condemned for speaking the Gospel that he was the Christ, the Son of God. Both John and Jesus are hated by a begrudging foe: John by the wicked Herodias and Jesus by the envious chief priests. In both cases the ruler yields to pressure to execute the prophet. Herod yields to a girl because of his reputation with his dinner guests, and Pilate yields to the threats of his Jewish subjects to save his position. Both the persecution of John and Jesus results in their execution, followed by their burial by their own disciples. Jesus called John the greatest born of women. Jesus himself was the greatest begotten of God the Father. And yet both died a martyr’s death for their witness. Is this the side you want to be on? The side of humiliation, weakness, persecution, and death? Or would you rather be on the side of exaltation, power, pleasure, and living it up? Would you like the side of the cross or the side of glory?
Before you compare and choose just yet, though, let’s draw another comparison or rather let’s contrast the two sides between powerful Herod and weak Jesus. Herod associates himself with the powerful, nobles and military commanders. Jesus associates himself with the weak, sinners and outcasts. But just because one associates with powerful people doesn’t make one powerful. Herod was actually weak, unable to deal with his own difficulties caused by his adultery and flippant oaths. But Jesus shows his power in healing the sick and his strength in overcoming temptation in Gethsemane. Herod is cowed by others to do what he doesn’t want to do in executing John. He’s not in control. But Jesus willingly does what he doesn’t want to do in taking the cup of his Father’s wrath for the sins of the world. All through his trial and passion, Jesus shows himself to be in control of his destiny. Herod presides over the death of another for his own gain. But Jesus offers himself to death for others. How ironic that the one who seems important and powerful is weak but the one who seems weak and unimportant is strong. Which one would you like to associate with? Which side would you like to be on?
Well, your old sinful man always wants to be on the side of worldly wealth, power, and pleasure. The old man is selfish. He takes what he wants. He indulges his sinful cravings. When the old man is rebuked, he acts like a bully and oppresses the just. He feeds his own ego by hanging with the snobs. The old man holds grudges. He makes foolish boasts that he can’t backup. He glories in his position, accomplishments, and trickery. But the old man is also a sniveling coward. He buckles under pressure and concedes to any wrongdoing to save his own skin. The old man battles within you to keep you on the side of the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh. That side is against God and his Son, Jesus Christ.
But that side will face God’s judgement. Even wicked Herod believed in the resurrection of the dead. His conscience pricked him when he thought Jesus was the resurrected John whom he beheaded. But the fact is – though Jesus was persecuted by his tormentors, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried – he rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven, from thence he will come to judge the living and the dead. God has given this same Jesus the authority to execute judgment. “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out – those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” Jesus will come “with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.” All those who persecuted Christ’s body, his Church, will cower with fear. Jesus will say to all those who rejected him, who rejected those he sent to speak his Word, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And they will go away to eternal punishment. There will finally be justice and judgment for that side.
But thanks be to God, you’re not on that side. Jesus has raised a new spirit within you to be on his side. He’s used the Christian martyrs and saints before you to pass on his Word of salvation to you. Your new man wants to be on his side. The new man is selfless. He gives instead of takes. He pursues righteousness and purity. When the new man is rebuked, he repents and acts justly. He feeds his soul with the Word of God and hangs out with the lowly. He forgives wrongs against himself, even his tormentors, but stands up against the bully and protects the innocent. The new man disciplines his tongue and speaks godly wisdom. He glorifies God in his charity, meekness, and suffering. The new man is courageous. He doesn’t yield to pressure from peers but confesses the truth, even when it means sacrificing his own skin. The new man battles against the old man and stays on the side of God and his Son, Jesus Christ.
Of course, being on the side of Jesus Christ means that we too can expect to be persecuted for our faith in him. Jesus tells us, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” God choose you out of the world so as a Christian, you can expect persecution from the world. But as a Christian, you’re on the side of God, and so you can also expect his deliverance. Remember, you’re in good company on God’s side. You’re in the company of John the Baptist, the prophets and apostles, and all the saints who were persecuted in the past and who are now in heaven. You’re in the company of our brothers and sisters throughout the world who are persecuted now. You’re in the company of Jesus Christ who suffered himself and who knows your suffering. But also remember Jesus’ promise that this persecution and suffering is only for a short while here on earth. Because of his suffering and death, Jesus promises us an eternity in heaven. Jesus comforts us, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” On that same day of judgment, when the other side is weeping and mourning their condemnation, we will hear Jesus say to us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” We rejoice today and for all eternity that Jesus chose us to be on his side. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.