This is one horrific story – so senseless, so tragic. It recounts the death of a devoted servant of God who played a vital role in salvation history. His death is no martyrdom. This is not Stephen, who after testifying to God’s faithfulness lifts his eyes to the heavens and beholds Jesus, as the stones batter his body and end his life. No, this death is brought about by a drunken, lustful ruler who allows himself to be seduced by the sensuous dancing of his teenage daughter and tricked by his cunning wife into making a foolish promise that he must then carry out just to save face in the company of his equally-besotted guests. This is a silent beheading, without witnesses or testimony, of a man of God who had been imprisoned for his bold witness to the truth.
The “king” was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who had married a Nabataean princess but then discarded her in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. The dishonored princess fled in humiliation back to her father, which led to a military conflict in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed by the Nabataean king and his forces. Nevertheless, Herod married Herodias, and no one except John the Baptist had the courage and moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was. No one except John made any attempt to hold this king accountable for his lies and deceptions, and for his evil actions. No one else had the courage to speak the truth to him. They were all afraid.
Herod was a despicable character. He was lustful and immoral and corrupt. He was given to self-aggrandizement, dishonesty and deceit, and to luxurious living in the face of his people’s poverty and oppression. He eliminated his opponents and silenced his critics, and did all that he could to ingratiate himself to the Romans, by whose permission he held power.
John, on the other hand, was a man of outstanding reputation – a little odd by most people’s standards, (then and now), but indisputably a man of God, consecrated to God before he was born, living simply on the land, boldly calling attention to injustice and corruption, urging people to repent of their sins and return to God, and finally paying the ultimate price for his testimony to the truth. Even Herod had to respect him. “He came as a witness to the light,” the Evangelist John tells us; “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:7-9)
Did John realize that testifying to the light could cost him his life? Did he understand that there is a price to be paid for telling the truth? Perhaps if John had been content to limit his criticisms to the religious leaders and not go after Herod, things would have been alright. Perhaps if he had held his tongue or looked for ways to ignore or rationalize or defend Herod’s immoral actions, he could have remained in the king’s favor and enjoyed a longer life. Perhaps if he had looked the other way and not risked his reputation and his life by speaking the truth to power, he could have gotten by. But he didn’t.
Do you understand that faithfulness to God can bring you into conflict with the world and its powers? Do you know that discipleship can be costly? that witnessing to the truth is dangerous?
The strong and the powerful will look away as long as they are convinced that religion is just a “hobby” that some of us enjoy. But if Truth takes hold of you, if you see corruption and deceit and injustice and evil and decide to do something about it, you’ll find that you’ve got their attention. The strong and powerful will have to take notice if you take a stand. They will take note if you are bold enough to tell the truth, if you are courageous enough to stand for what is true and right.
It has become clear that our country is currently led by a President who has little or no regard for the truth. He is cavalier with the facts, ignoring the evidence that contradicts his positions. He has shown himself to be unwilling to admit error even in the face of overwhelming evidence. He will not listen to others, even experts in the fields of international politics or economics or science. He stubbornly persists in his views, pushing aside the truth to achieve his ends. He shows little concern for the consequences of his words or actions. The problem is so severe that several news agencies have taken to tallying up his lies, printing “fact checks” about his claims, and exposing his most misleading statements.
But the lies have taken a toll, and whether or not he is to blame for it, we are now living in a culture of lies, half-truths and disinformation. Truth has been sacrificed. Deception and open, unapologetic lying are the order of the day – whatever it takes to advance our cause or to maintain our power is acceptable. We have been told, for example, that 9/11 and the horrific events associated with it was in reality orchestrated by the American government, that Barack Obama was born in Africa and therefore was ineligible to serve as president, that the massacre of children at the Sandy Hook School in Connecticut never happened and that it was fabricated to discredit the gun industry and gun ownership. We have been told that climate change is not a threat, that drilling and mining have little effect on the environment, that our allies are not to be trusted and that the world’s most notorious dictators are good people who can be trusted to do what is right. We have been told that we should put our own interests first and foremost, and that how we treat others does not matter.
Of course, we don’t believe these lies, but their persistence and perversity wear us down. We hear people say, “I can’t take the news anymore. I can’t trust what anyone says.” Truth has been sacrificed to power and greed, and there are few who have the courage to stand up and say ‘No’ to it.
Which is why we need so desperately the witness of John the Baptist today.
It’s not that Jesus is a Democrat or a Republican; he was neither. But he did have a coherent platform. He was clear about what his mission was. It’s been written down for us in the Sermon on the Mount. It is captured in the Beatitudes. And it doesn’t begin with power and self-aggrandizement and becoming the greatest of all. It begins with loving service. It speaks of sacrificial love. It teaches us that the poor are to be lifted up, that the stranger is to be welcomed, that the sick and the poor are to be cared for and protected, that we are to forgive our enemies and do good to those who hate us, that we are to forego violence as a solution to our problems, that we are to love God and serve God above all else and glorify God in everything that we do.
Jesus’ kingdom is unlike any kingdom the world has ever seen or known. Those who want to follow Jesus are told they need to lose their lives for his sake in order to find true and lasting life. “What profit is there to gain the whole world,” Jesus asks us, “and yet forfeit your lives?” What gain is there if you “make America great again” at the cost of your souls? In this upside-down kingdom, the first are last and the last are first, repentant sinners and tax collectors enter in before righteous do-gooders, and the greatest in the kingdom of God is the servant of all. Those who pledge themselves to follow Jesus promise to respect the dignity of every human being, to rid themselves of prejudice and hatred, to welcome outsiders with the same generous spirit with which Jesus welcomed them, and to live in harmony with the created order. They see themselves as stewards of God’s creation, care-takers of the earth and its resources rather than exploiters and consumers of it.
I’m not trying to make a political statement here. I’m saying that these things are the core of our identity as followers of Christ. This is who we are! This is the Jesus we follow – the One who says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of the sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). These things are not just options – they are part of our core identity. How dare we call ourselves Christians when we ignore the needs of the poor or look away while the ‘outsiders’ among us are ridiculed and marginalized? How can we hold this name when we seek to promote our own welfare above all others, when we push to the front of the line, forcing others to conform to our will? How can we bear the name of Christ and ignore both his teaching and his example?
How, then, shall we live? “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” the prophet Micah tells us (Micah 6:8). “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” St Paul tells us, “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, hehumbled himself and became obedient to the point of death…” (Phil 2:5-8) “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus tells us (John 13:34,35). “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:35-36, 40). “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:14-17)
We are ambassadors of this message. This is our truth. This is our identity. It far outweighs our commitment to any political party. And we need the courage of John the Baptist, of Martin Luther King, Jr., of Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela and Oscar Romero and every other prophet who spoke out against injustice and witnessed to the truth to live it faithfully. We need their courage to do what is right.
As you make your way forward to receive the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood today, pledge yourself to live in the way of Jesus. Commit yourself to speaking and upholding the truth. Overcome fear and do what is good and right. Never forget the lives of the poor. Take your inspiration from John the Baptist, or from any other figure – including Jesus himself – who dared to speak the truth and suffer the consequences. Beloved, “let us love, not [only] in word or speech, but in truth and action…by this we will know that we are from the truth…” (I John 3:18-19a)
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