By every measure, John the Baptist was a magnificent man. The extraordinary circumstances surrounding his birth point to John becoming a great person. His parents gave him a strong heritage, the heritage of the Jews, God’s chosen people. It was a heritage whose very essence was hope - a promised peace between heaven and earth worked out by God himself. Inspired by his heritage, John made God his ultimate concern. Responding to God’s call, he preached a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to all who would come to hear him. He challenged folks to affirm what was godly in their heritage and summoned them to be good people, regardless of vocation.
Everyone who knew John loved him. Everyone saw in John what they could potentially become: someone with a life committed to righteousness. And strangely, it seems no one loved John more than Herod. True, to please his lover’s demand, Herod had thrown John into prison for calling him out on his incestuous, adulterous marriage to his brother’s wife. But perhaps for the oddest of reasons, Herod loved being near John. Even while John was in prison, by Herod’s command, John was kept safe, and Herod would visit John in prison to gladly hear his wisdom - a testimony to the power of the proclaimed word of God.
But what a contrast. Herod: the hedonist, the politician, driven by expediency, compromising himself for power, prestige, and wealth. A marginal man. A man of no commitments beyond his own appetites. Rome’s puppet king who was, in fact, hardly a king and not really Jewish at all, but a man of dubious heritage who was hated by almost everyone. Nothing about him was great.
They gathered the remains of John and buried him. And then they went to tell Jesus.
And John. Righteous and holy, devout. Penniless John, fully satisfied and at peace with himself in contrast with rich, politically connected Herod, always runs on empty and wanting.
Sadly, even though Herod knew John was righteous and holy, Herod had John beheaded (Matthew 14:6-12). Why? It’s a sordid story. It was most probably fueled by over-indulging on rich food, excessive amounts of alcohol, and an erotic underaged lap dance by the daughter of his new wife. For a great man like John to die, such an undignified death seems so futile. Why did John have to die like this? It defies justice. For Herod, a voluptuous dance meant more than the life of a prophet of God. John gave so much of himself in service to God‘s kingdom. Why did he have to die so terribly? Why did he have to die at all? Perhaps these questions weighed on the hearts of John’s disciples as they pondered John’s horrible death. So they gathered the remains of John and buried him. And then they went to tell Jesus.
What do they tell Jesus? Probably the same things you would tell Jesus. They were in shock. It all seemed so surreal. Everything went blank, numb. The shock of it all pushed all the other concerns of life out of the way. It’s like John’s death took on a life of its own. And then the shock gave way to anger: anger at Herod, angry at the system, anger at John for risking his life by criticizing Herod’s crazy love-interest - John should have known - never go head-to-head with crazy. Sometimes you can do something about anger, and sometimes you can’t, and this was one of those times where they could do nothing. They were nobodies, and when they realized that, depressing sadness set in. And their sadness was debilitating.
Maybe these last few months, you’ve been experiencing something on the order of what John’s disciples felt. Anger, fear, disgust, helplessness, perhaps even hopelessness.
First, there was COVID. All the authorities, Ph.D. scientists, and peer-reviewed experts are saying so many opposite things and leaving us unsure of what to believe.
Then the stock market crashed (after not a few politicians cashed their fortunes out days before), and retirement funds saved up for decades lost their value.
While a quarter of the country lost their jobs, throughout the whole thing the politician’s squabble - lacking a good classroom teacher who could put them all on time out or suspend them, detention would be good.
Is there anything abiding, anything long-lasting that can inspire us to hope again?
And then a bad cop senselessly killed George Floyd on video: taking 8 minutes and 46 seconds to do it. It’s happened before - way too many times - but this time, well, something was different, and it’s caused the entire world to go into a state of shock. And I know you’ve been going through all these emotions this whole week because I sure have.
Underneath it all, I’ve been around long enough to know there’s a bunch of other personal crap that nobody else knows about going on in your life that keeps you up at night.
What do we do? What does our Christian heritage have to say about the emotional roller coaster that we have been on this entire year? Is there anything abiding, anything long-lasting that can inspire us to hope again?
I could probably give you a list, but I hate lists. So I’ll give you just one thing. Like the disciples of John, bury the remains of all of it and go tell Jesus. It’s Jesus, Christ crucified, the Gospel incarnate, who formed the foundation of our heritage. It was the Gospel that Luther recovered from the ash heap of church tradition. Everything else in our heritage pales in comparison to this foundation.
As terrible as the death of George Floyd was, his death represents the old dispensation, for “in Adam, we all die.” George’s death is a looking back at what haunts all of us in this tragically dying world. Facing death squarely in the face either causes you to despair, or it drives you to Jesus, who is the life that stands on the other side of death. It’s the life that George Floyd now has. Death is conquered by the cross and the empty tomb of our Lord. We all share in that victory. George shares in that victory. The cross and the empty tomb negate the negatives of this tragic world. Our death as Christians, no matter how tragic, no matter how gruesome, no matter how horrible, has meaning in Jesus. Death is a seed waiting to germinate and sprout to newness. As Robert Capon often said, “there has to be a death for there to be a resurrection.” It shouldn’t be at the hands of other people who wield authority that wasn’t given to them. But for there to be a resurrection, there has to be a death. Given all of this, bury the remains and go tell Jesus. Jesus will tell you, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning in the end.” Everything that occurs between those two points finds its meaning and fulfillment in Jesus, who is the fulfillment of all history, political or personal.
So what do I have for you today?
Troubled by COVID? Bury the remains and go tell Jesus. Worried about finances? Bury the remains and go tell Jesus. Bothered by talk of defunding the police or terrified by police abuse of power? Bury the remains and go tell Jesus. Perturbed by apathy, unemployment, or government over-reach? Bury the remains and go tell Jesus.
Go tell Jesus because Jesus is a good one to go and tell. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Him. Remember that everyone else’s authority is provisional at best. And with all authority in heaven and earth, knowing all my sins, he lovingly absolves me and makes you and me a promise: “I will be with you to the end of the age. So if anything ever gets you down, bury it and come and tell me.”