Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Opportune Time

God willing, I will preach this sermon tomorrow at an LCMS church in St. Louis City. The text is Mark 6:14-29, the Gospel for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. As usual I also make references to the other lessons (Revelation 6:9-11; Romans 6:1-5), the Introit (Rev. 7:14; Psalm 31:1, 3, 5), and the Gradual (Psalm 34:9, 19). The ESV (mentioned in the first paragraph) is the Bible translation used in the Lutheran Service Book lectionary. Sorry, kids, I decided not to go with the theme I joked about with Pastor: "Heads Will Roll!"
Herodias wanted John dead, but her husband preferred him alive. After setting this scene, Mark says, “An opportunity came” (Mark 6:21). This translation in the ESV isn’t very accurate. The original Greek literally calls it “a timely day.” What’s so “timely” about the day John the Baptist died? The NASB reads, “A strategic day.” Is it strategic because Herod’s military commanders are gathered together? The New King James comes a little closer with “an opportune day.” But for once, I like the NIV translation best. It says: “Finally the opportune time came.” I wouldn’t call it a timely day, because what happened was bad. I wouldn’t call it a strategic day, because the army officers were only relevant as they witnessed Herod’s vow to his stepdaughter Salome, so he could not back out of his promise to give her whatever she asked. But it was an opportune day, or rather the opportune time, for Herodias to carry out her evil plan.

Now suppose you were one of John’s disciples. Suppose you had to collect your teacher’s headless corpse and bury it that day. What kind of thoughts would be running through your head? Maybe you would ask yourself, “Where was God?” Maybe you would wonder whether you had backed the right horse. Maybe you would have trouble gathering one clear thought out of the swirl of painful feelings: doubt, anger, sorrow, and fear. This doesn’t seem like the way John’s story should end. But for too many of God’s faithful prophets, that’s more or less how it did end. As Hebrews 11 says, they were tortured, mocked and scourged, chained and imprisoned; “they were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.” And they died without seeing fulfilled the promises God had sent them to proclaim.

Where is the justice in this? Where is the power of God’s living and active Word? Where is the love by which He is said to protect His children? Was God sleeping when this happened? Was He on vacation? Was He looking the other way? Was He punishing John for some minor fault, by letting a monster like Herodias have her way? Or is God perhaps not so good after all? These thoughts might have pricked the souls of John’s disciples that evening. These thoughts might torment you, too, as you watch dear ones suffer and die, or as faithfulness to God’s Word costs you more and more while the ungodly party on.

Suppose you were one of John’s disciples. And suppose some well-meaning person approached you, laid a kindly had on your shoulder, and said, “It was God’s will.” Where would you tell that person to stick God’s will? Don’t answer that; it’s a rhetorical question. For let’s get this straight right now. Evil people doing evil things, and good people suffering for it, are not God’s will. Pain, destruction, and death are not God’s will. These are symptoms of the disease that infected the world when Adam and Eve fell into sin. These are perversions of God’s will, carried out by the ruler of this world, who is Satan. “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” writes the other John (1 John 5:19). But Jesus says, “The ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:11). God may seem to tolerate the evil done by Satan and the people who belong to him. God may even sometimes use these evils for our good. But let’s be clear: sin, death, and injustice are contrary to the will of God. They have already been judged. God’s will is to save us from all these evils which the devil and our own sinfulness have set loose.

God’s mission in our world is to carry out this will to save us. Jesus came as God in the flesh. He brought God’s perfect goodness, holiness, and righteousness to humanity. John the Baptist bore witness to this: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world…This is the One who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John was right. Jesus was anointed with the Spirit when John baptized Him. Jesus referred to His death on the cross as a baptism by fire (Luke 12:49–50). He made satisfaction for all our sins by offering Himself as a sacrificial victim. He wiped out all sin and the curse of death by His own death and resurrection. He fulfilled His promise to baptize us with Spirit and fire, starting in Jerusalem where His disciples were gathered ten days after His ascension. The rushing wind signified the breath of the Spirit, which creates new life in us. The tongues of fire signified the Spirit’s cleansing power, which is God’s forgiveness.

In His Word and Sacraments, Jesus still pours out upon us the same breath and fire. He sets us free from the power of sin, death, and the devil. By preaching and absolution, baptism and communion, the Holy Spirit washes away our sins. He causes us to be born again. This is not just an upgrade of the Old Adam, whose powers and desires are totally corrupted. You are a new creature, born from above, in the image of Christ. This does not mean we can now take sin lightly, as if we had entirely gotten rid of it. The Old Adam is still in us and needs to be put to death again every day. We remain sinners and so must live lives of constant repentance. Thus, Paul writes in Romans 6: “Are we to continue in sin? Perish the thought! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into His death? So we are buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the Father’s glory, we ourselves shall likewise walk in newness of life. For if we are united with Him in the likeness of His death, surely we shall also be united in the likeness of His resurrection.”

All this hope, this future promise, this present help, would not be ours had Christ not suffered and died in the most evil and unjust way. We would not now possess these good things by faith, were it not for the testimony of countless believers who “confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12), and who served the Gospel of Christ to the last full measure of devotion. This is why we call saints like John the Baptist, who died for the sake of Jesus’ name, martyrs. The word “martyr” means “witness.” Martyrdom means “testimony.” Though their voices are now silent, the memory of what they believed, taught, and confessed survives. They speak even louder because of how they died. Because they loved the name of Christ more than their own lives, they have inherited a crown. And this crown’s loveliness is far greater than the ugliness that drove them from this life. Their witness encourages us to rest our hope in God’s love, even when our experiences in this world look ugly, taste bitter, and feel endlessly cruel. Their testimony encourages us to trust that God’s will for us is rich in grace, and that His will is being done, even though it remains hidden for a while. For their faithfulness unto death, Christ has rewarded them with a crown of life. This too will be yours, if you endure to the end. God will be faithful to you; have faith in Him.

But how can I ask you to have faith in Him when the world you live in is ruled by the devil, and when the powers of unfaithfulness are so immediately present? I will tell you how. For this is the opportune time. The opportune time, yes, for evil to hold sway and to do all that it can around you, and even in you, to thwart God’s will and to cheat you of your crown. But it is also the opportune time for God to deliver you. At this point, some preachers would tell you to go and stand at the foot of Jesus’ cross. But science has not yet produced a safe, affordable, and fuel-efficient time machine. So how can we go there? The past is no help to the present. Another preacher might say, “keep your eyes on what is to come.” But while there may be some help there, especially at the far end of history, so much is going on right now, and so many evils may yet pass between now and that end-time glory, this might be asking an awful lot of us.

But I say again: “Now is the opportune time; now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:4). Now, because we need it right now. Now, because God is not only all-powerful but also rich in mercy. Now, because Christ has promised us speedy help through His Word. When an imaginary trip to a long-ago crucifixion scene doesn’t have the power we need; when a promise of comfort after we die isn’t a strong enough medicine to relieve our present pain; when God’s wonderful, gracious will is so deeply hidden behind the perverse and perverted forms of this world, what a relief it is to hold Christ in your hand, to take His body into your mouth, to taste His blood becoming one with yours! What a comfort it is to hear His forgiveness, accomplished on His cross and pledged to the ministry of His Word, and to have it applied directly to you. How refreshing it is to repeat the Apostles’ Creed, to pray the Lord’s Prayer, to make the sign of the cross, and to invoke the name of the Triune God! All these became yours when Baptism united you to Christ. For now when you say that Creed, pray that prayer, make that sign, or invoke that name, you are using the Baptism by which God wrote your name in His Book of Life.

So Christ applies his once-for-all death on the cross to you right now. So you take part in your eternal inheritance with the saints right now. So God forgives your sins. So the Holy Spirit renews your life. So you receive the strength to confess the good confession, to fight the good fight, and to bear the cross by faith. And so that cross becomes something better than a thorn in your flesh, or messenger of Satan. Your cross is now a form of fellowship with Christ and with all the saints, in this world and in heaven, who cry out: “O Lord, how long?” For a while longer, God’s people must still suffer. Some of us may be counted worthy to suffer or even die for our Lord’s sake. But you now wear a white robe of righteousness, a robe washed clean in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 6:11; 7:14). You now possess a rest, a reward in heaven. These goods await us in the future; but in hope, they are already ours. For if Christ can rise from the dead, surely He can keep all His promises. We do not need to go to Him; He comes to us here and now. We need not cross centuries of time or light-years of space to find Him. He finds us. He makes use of this opportune time to bless us, forgive us, strengthen our faith, and give us life.

In Matthew 11, Jesus says no man greater than John the Baptist was ever born of woman. Yet John will not be as great as the least of you in God’s kingdom. Remember the example of John, who held to his faithful testimony to the very end, even when it seemed God’s justice was being perverted. Wait patiently for the day when those who turn many to righteousness will shine like the stars in heaven (Daniel 12:3).

Meanwhile, consider this the opportune time to receive God’s help and to live by Jesus’ promises. Make use of this opportunity to live as a repentant and forgiven sinner. Bear witness to Christ as the opportunity arises, and remember to seize that opportunity even if it comes in the form of pain, sickness, disappointment, even persecution. Do good to one another while you have the opportunity. Though the afflictions of the righteous are many, let nothing move you from the Rock that is Christ. He provides you with all the strength, protection, and comfort you need. He does not delay in bringing it to you. He does not linger in the distance. He is here now; so this is a blessed time, a holy moment—an opportunity.

God will not let you down. Even if it looks as if He did—and to some, it looked that way when John was beheaded—He will not let you be ashamed. Fear not; He is with you with healing medicine and saving grace. Fear not; He will turn your present pain or sorrow into an opportunity to grow in Him. Fear not; though the wicked are thrown into such confusion that they cannot avoid doing wicked things, the worst they can do to you is to send you to heaven with Jesus. Some of them, like Herod, do evils they did not mean to do. But God has good things planned for you. He will do good things through you. When your final crisis comes He will enable you to fall sleep in peace. Take courage; do not be afraid to bear witness. Even if you’re not sure you have the words, the Holy Spirit will deliver the message He intends. Let the time you fear the most become God’s best opportunity to work through you. Let today, and every day, be a precious opportunity to prepare for whatever testimony God may call you to give.

When the time comes for your loved ones to lay your body in the ground, you will receive the same reward John now shares with all Christ’s holy ones. Until then, every day is the opportune time to grow together, and to grow in the knowledge and fear of God. It is the opportune time to repent and be forgiven. It is the opportune time to live for Christ and love your neighbor. It is an opportune time for Christ to share His life with you. Like Herod, Jesus swears: “Whatever you ask in my Name, I will do it” (John 14:13–14). Therefore, little children, watch and pray as this world’s day darkens toward night. Pray for the coming day of light. Trust that God will only give you good things, and He will not go back on His Word. And so this truly is an opportune time!

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