Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 10)
July 15, 2018
Text: Mark 6:14-29
St. John the Baptist was beheaded by the government for preaching traditional marriage. Let’s not mince words on this. Herodias was offended by John’s preaching, because he declared it unlawful, ungodly, for Herod to have his brother Philip’s wife while Philip was still alive. As we all know, hell hath no fury… and Herodias was furious at the scorn and shame brought upon her by John’s preaching. How dare he make her feel bad about her domestic situation! How dare he question the sanctity of her love. How dare he suggest, nay, proclaim, that her marriage to Herod is sinful before God. And so John finds himself in the dungeon. Herodias wants him executed, but Herod protects him, if you can call the dungeon protection, because he fears John and knows that he is a righteous and holy man. Herod even appreciates a good John the Baptist sermon now and then, although he finds John’s message perplexing. You know how it is when a sermon hits a little too close to home. The Law of God tears you apart at the seams. And it hurts. It’s the crucifixion of the old man, the old sinful nature. That always hurts. But it must be done, so that your God can raise you up to new life, a new creation in Christ Jesus. That preaching hurts, but you love it, because you know it’s true, and you hear in it the voice of the living God.
But the enemies of the Gospel are always watching for an opportune time to rob you of such preaching, and Herodias and the demons identified the opportunity to silence John on the occasion of Herod’s birthday. There was a big bash, a serious feast, a wining and dining of the elite of the elite. These included Herod’s nobles and his generals and the leading citizens of Galilee. Such feasts always serve a political purpose. They offer an occasion for the ruler to show off his wealth and his power. He shows the leading men a good time and shores up their loyalty. The free-flow of alcohol looses up the tongues. Stories are told. Boasts are made. And hearts are merry. And they’re all the merrier if Herod’s pretty step-daughter gives us a dance. It’s not in the text, but we assume the dance was lewd. Whether that’s true or not, it was certainly a crowd pleaser, and it exceedingly pleased Herod. Caught up in the spirit of the moment and the spirits in his cup, Herod makes a rash vow. “Ask me whatever you wish, and I will give it to you… up to half of my kingdom” (Mark 6:22-23; ESV). It has been suggested Herod was offering to trade in the mother for a newer model, make Herodias’ daughter his wife. It’s hard to say. But this had been a set-up by Herodias the whole time. Daughter asks mother, “For what should I ask,” and mother advises daughter, “The head of John the Baptist” (v. 24). She wouldn’t be the last mother to demand a preacher’s head on a platter. But she meant this quite literally. She had trapped the king in his words. Herod didn’t want to execute John. But he also didn’t want to be embarrassed in the presence of his prestigious guests. So rather than do what he knew to be right, he sold his soul for a dance. Isn’t that the way of the world? Herod promises to give up to half his kingdom, as if he were a powerful god, but in the end, we see he is nothing but a weak and insecure slave of his subjects.
Well, John is beheaded. So it goes. But there would have been an easier way, you know. If he had just tolerated the illegitimate marriage, this never would have happened. He could have done so much more good if he’d just kept his trap shut this one time. But that wasn’t his office, was it? He was sent to be “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:3). He was sent to proclaim “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4). To everyone. Even to sinful kings. He doesn’t stay out of politics when the Word of the Lord is at stake. He is not ashamed to proclaim the Lord’s testimony before kings (Psalm 119:46), even if it costs him his life. Divine truth is worth dying for. We forget that, living in a culture where the very existence of objective truth is denied. But John knew it. So did the prophets and the apostles and the martyrs of all ages who loved not their lives even unto death (Rev. 12:11). What about you? Are you afraid to bear witness to Christ? Do you fear to speak His truth because your friends and family might rebuke you, or think mean thoughts about you, or defriend you on Facebook? Repent. It’s getting harder, isn’t it? The Lord knows your weakness, and has taken your failure into Himself and put it to death in His flesh. And He gives you His Spirit, to make you bold, that you confess His Name and His Word, even if it means your death. For you know that whoever lives and believes in Jesus, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Jesus shall never die (John 11:25-26). And you know that whoever confesses Jesus before men, He will also confess before His Father in heaven; but whoever denies Jesus before men, He will also deny before His Father in heaven (Matt. 10:32-33).
But with John there is even more at play. John is sent to prepare the way of the Lord quite literally. John’s life, and his death, parallels that of Jesus on every level, except that what happens to Jesus is greater, what happens to John is lesser, just as he said it would be: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). So John’s birth is foretold by the angel Gabriel, who promises he will be great before the Lord (Luke 1:15), and Jesus’ birth is foretold by the angel Gabriel, who promises the Child to be born is the Son of God (v. 35). John’s birth is miraculous, born to elderly parents. Jesus’ birth is even more miraculous, born of a virgin. John baptizes for repentance, but Jesus offers a greater Baptism that not only washes away sin, but makes you God’s own child. John has disciples, but he sends them to follow Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). And John prepares the way in suffering and death. He is arrested and beheaded. His disciples put his headless body into a tomb (Mark 6:29). Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified. Joseph and Nicodemus put His pierced Body into a tomb. And now it is Jesus’ turn to blaze the trail. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! Herod worries that Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead, and his fear is not completely unfounded. Because the risen Jesus will raise up John on the Last Day. And He will raise you. You’ll see John and Jesus with your very own eyes. And you’ll praise God for the blood John shed, preparing the way for the Blood of the Savior, shed for you for the forgiveness of all of your sins.
So you need not fear the enemies of the Gospel: Not Satan, nor the demons, nor sin, nor death; not Al Qaeda, nor ISIS, nor the abortionists, nor the homosexual marriage crowd. You need not fear the unfaithful who claim the Name of Christ, nor your own sinful flesh. Jesus Christ is the end of fear. The enemies of the Gospel are always watching for an opportune time to get you. But they can never get to you when you are in Christ Jesus, in His Word, in Your Baptism, in His Supper. The Lord also gives a Feast, and He outdoes Herod. He, too, gives Food and Drink. But He invites the weak of the weak, dying and dead sinners. His Feast is the medicine that brings the dead to life. His wine also looses tongues, not for boasting, but for confessing and singing songs of praise. His wine makes our hearts merry, so that we rejoice, and we’re caught up in the Spirit, His Holy Spirit, who opens our lips to speak His Word with joy. He makes no rash vow, but He does make a vow: “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). It is the promise that He hears our prayers and answers them. And unlike Herod, He delivers. He is not trapped in His Words. He holds Himself to them. He is a powerful God, the only true God, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Though it is true that His Words result in a death: His own on the cross, for the life of the world. For sinners. For you.
Jesus Christ is crucified by the government that He might form for Himself a Bride, the holy Christian Church. He sleeps the deep sleep of death, that from His side the Church be formed. Water and Blood, Font and Chalice, filled with Jesus Christ crucified for you. You are His beloved. You are His spotless Bride. As with any marriage, what is yours is His, and what is His is yours. What is yours He has taken away: sin and death and condemnation. What is His He has freely bestowed upon you: righteousness and life and resurrection. In the Church, we preach traditional marriage, not because we’re ignorant, or prudes, or haters. We preach it because it is God’s gift for our good: for companionship, and procreation, and holy sexuality. And we preach it because it is an icon of Christ and the Church, a living picture of the Gospel. The husband gives himself for his bride. The bride receives the sacrifice of the husband for her good. And in this pattern of giving and receiving, husband and wife live together in love and fidelity and so provide a safe haven for the nurture of children. We all fall short of this in our marriages. But this is what marriage is designed by God to be. Until the Day the Lord Jesus comes again and bids us join Him at the wedding Feast of the Lamb that has no end. Then St. John will have His head again. And all will be made whole and right and good. Indeed, come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
July 22, 2018
Text: Mark 6:30-44; Ps. 23
“When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34; ESV). The feeding of the 5,000 is our Lord’s fulfillment of the 23rd Psalm. Christ Jesus is the Good Shepherd who satisfies the wants and needs of His precious lambs. The shepherding, the pastoring, had been busy for Jesus and the Apostles, and He had called them away for a time, to a desolate place across the Sea, to rest and to eat and to be refreshed by their Lord. Even pastors need a vacation now and then, and we’re very thankful when our congregations allow us that luxury. In His compassion, the Lord Jesus reminds His ministers in this text that quiet time away from the demands of ministry is important.
But then again, it doesn’t always work that way. Vacations are made to be interrupted. If it’s true that there is no rest for the weary, there is certainly no rest for the Savior. The people see where Jesus and the disciples are going in the boat. And they beat them there! They run around the shore! If only every congregation were so eager to hear a sermon! And as Jesus disembarks, there is probably that moment of disappointment as He realizes there will be no solitude. But at that same moment His pastoral heart is moved. He has compassion on them. The Greek word for “compassion” literally means He feels it in His gut. Even the English word “compassion” literally means “with suffering.” What causes Jesus to be moved with compassion, to suffer in His guts for these people? They are like sheep without a shepherd. They are like a congregation without a pastor. The word “pastor” means “shepherd.” The chief priests, the scribes, the Pharisees, they had failed to shepherd these people. They were starved for the Gospel. They were hungry for the preaching. They had been torn to pieces by wolves in sheep’s clothing. They were very much in want. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Good Pastor, cannot let that stand. So from that moment, until late into the night, He gathers them together into His fold and He opens His mouth and teaches them many things.
Remember, this is a desolate place, and the disciples have a very practical concern. The people haven’t eaten. It’s way past supper time. The shops in the villages are closing. Time to send them away while they can still catch a morsel. But Jesus has other plans. “You give them something to eat” (v. 37). You see, the Divine Service isn’t over yet. We’ve had the Service of the Word: Jesus teaching His people His Word of life. But now it’s time to gather round the Lord so Jesus can feed us by the hand of His called and ordained servants. Jesus is teaching us how it works when He gathers His flock together, when He congregates them.
Now, the disciples are confused, as pastors often are. They doubt the Lord’s ability to provide for the needs of these people. Granted, we have here five loaves of bread and two fish. But what are these among so many? Jesus commands them to sit down in groups on the green grass. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures” (Ps. 23:2; all quotes of Ps. 23 from KJV). The word for “groups” in Greek is “symposia,” that is, drinking parties. It indicates this will be a feast! Five loaves, two fish, and you know what happens next. Everyone eats. Everyone is satisfied. The disciples take up twelve baskets full of leftovers, a basket for each man. And then we find out that the number 5,000 only includes the men. Counting women and children, there may have been ten, twenty thousand people there. The disciples are amazed. Pastors always are when the Lord’s gifts actually work. Remember, one of the Lord’s favorite pet names for the Twelve (and I imagine for the pastors who follow after them) is “O ye of little faith.”
The Lord Jesus teaches His people, His sheep, and He feeds them. “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake… Thou preparest a table before me” (vv. 3, 5). That’s how He does it: Words and Food, Preaching and Supper (and the still waters [v. 2] of Holy Baptism, of course). And it works! The people are fed, spiritually and physically. And as it turns out, there is no better rest or renewal for the Lord’s undershepherds than to feed His sheep the Means of Grace the Lord commands, and watch Him do miraculous things with what doesn’t look like much: words and water, bread and wine… five loaves and two fish.
Jesus has gathered us together here this morning because of His compassion for us. He hurts in His guts for us. We are like sheep without a shepherd. There is, of course, no lack of would-be shepherds calling us to follow them here, there, and everywhere. Politicians, professors, entertainers, preachers of false gospels. What happens in the chaos of competing voices is the division of the flock. You’ve heard a lot about how stupid sheep are. That’s not a veiled insult… It’s simply what the Lord calls us. We just don’t know how to keep ourselves out of danger, and we’re always wandering off on our own, away from the flock, away from the Shepherd and the safety of the sheepfold. The Good Shepherd constantly has to come find us, save us, wash us, heal our wounds from the dirty, dangerous, deadly places where we’re trapped. It is no wonder when He sees us He is moved with compassion, He suffers in His guts for us. That same compassion will lead Him to His Passion and death for us on the cross. His whole body will suffer. His entire soul will be in agony. For us. For our salvation. His hands and feet pierced. His sacred head crowned with thorns. The insults and mockery and spit. The scattered sheep. The Blood outpoured. The Spirit given up. The water and blood of His riven side. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). This Shepherd is also the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opens not His mouth (Is. 53:7). He dies. For you. For me. For the world.
The greatest peril for sheep who go their own way is the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23:4). If a sheep gets lost alone in that valley, there is no hope. Notice what the Good Shepherd does. He goes after the sheep. He goes into the valley. That is what He is doing on the cross. He is dying our death. He is paying for our sins. He goes right down into it to bring us out again. He knows the way. He is the way. He leads us out of the tomb and into life eternal. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. And with His rod and His staff, He comforts us (v. 4) and leads us out. You need not fear this valley full of death’s dark shadow. You need fear no evil. Because on the Last Day you’ll emerge from it into the light of day. Jesus Christ will raise you from the dead. And you will dwell in the house of the LORD forever (v. 6).
In the meantime, Jesus gathers you here into the sheepfold of His Church to pour out His compassion upon you. He teaches you many things: His Word, Law and Gospel, convicting you of your sins, bringing you to repentance, forgiving you, enlivening you by His Spirit spoken into you, speaking Himself into your ears, and showing you what it means that you are a child of His heavenly Father. And then it’s time to eat. He commands His minister to give you something to eat. It doesn’t look like much. Bread and wine, a wafer and a sip. But do not doubt. This bread, and this wine, are in the hands of the Lord who fed 5,000 men plus women and children from five loaves and two fish. These are the hands of the God who spoke the universe into existence, who made something, everything, out of nothing. So you come, group by group, symposia by symposia, drinking party by drinking party, for the joyous Feast. And your Good Shepherd gives you to eat, not just bread, but bread that is His Body, given for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins. Wine to drink, yet not just wine, but wine that is His Blood, shed for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins. That’s what He does. The Lord Jesus teaches His people, His sheep, and He feeds them. And your soul is restored. The Lord gives Sabbath rest to pastor and people in the green grass of His pasture. He does it out of His compassion.
We all too often take the feeding of the 5,000 as a neat little story about how we don’t have to worry, because God will provide us with daily bread for our bodies. That is true, of course, but we miss the greater gift for all our fascination of the lesser. If, in His compassion, He feeds us His Body and Blood and gives us eternal life, He will also feed our bodies with bread. If He gives the greater gift, He will not fail to give the lesser. This feeding is about so much more than bread. This is about the Divine Service. This is about Jesus Christ present for you here and now, in the flesh, and in great compassion. This is about Jesus teaching you with His own Word. This is about Jesus feeding you with His own Body and His own Blood. This is about Jesus, your Good Shepherd. With the Lord as your Shepherd, you have no want. He has prepared the Table before you. Time to Feast. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.