A few weeks ago, I gave a sermon about a name named John. About John the Baptist, his ministry, his birth and his close connection to Jesus. About how John is Johannes in Danish – and fondly shortened to Hans, which explains Skt. Hans: the Danish midsummer celebration on June 23 named after this man called John who was born exactly ½ before Jesus.
In that sermon about a man named John, I asked if you knew anyone named John, and if there were anyone named John in the pews, - and I mentioned a few famous men named John.
Today the Gospel once again is about this man named John. Not the sweet story of his miracle birth to very old and barren parents, but the terrible story about his death and beheading.
John the Baptist is one of the famous heroes of the Christian faith. More of the churches that bear the name Saint John, do so in honor of the man named John – and to honor John the Baptist and not John the evangelist. Maybe because John the Baptist is so closely related to the birth of Jesus as mary and Elisabeth share their pregnancies and joy in miracles. Maybe because John is the one, who baptized Jesus and thus is part of the defining beginning of the ministry of Jesus.
Yet, very few people would live after the question WWJBD( what would John the Baptist do?). We are not too sure, that we would want to be quite as weird as John with this strange diet and his strange clothing and living habitat. Going out in the wilderness to preach, does not really excite too many pastors.
Most of us would probably rather find themselves in a growing comfortable prosperous congregation with AC, soft pews and delicious lunch. And we really do not want to follow the example of John the Baptist, when it comes to the way in which he died.
Fortunately, it is not a common practice in this country to be beheaded or crucified. Almost any form of religious expression, no matter how bizarre, no matter how weird, is tolerated in US. You can be about as weird as you care to be, and people may think you are crazy, but they wont bother trying to divert you from your craziness. In US and in most modern democracies, freedom of religion is a constitutionally protected right provided and secured in the religion clauses of the First Amendment.
I am sure we have all had our share of weird encounters with weird people and their weird thoughts and religious conceptions or misconceptions. Our son, Kristian, who is currently working as a server in a restaurant to earn much needed funds during summer break from college, recently shared with us his encounter with Eve. At the register, Eve, introduced herself as the first woman on earth and that she had just been spending time with God traveling through space, but was back on earth again, eager to spread the word and apparently get something good to eat on her way. She even tipped the students and reminded them of the importance of a good education!
John the Baptist was weird, but not crazy. He was strange, but not out of his mind. He was not intoxicated on drugs or drinks. He was fueled by his faith, by his passion and by his hope. And he was not beheaded, because of his strangeness or his diet or his choice of clothing. He as killed because he took on the ranks of power. Because he spoke the truth. Because he dared to speak out against the mighty King Herod and the royal household and their sins and decadence.
It is dangerous to dare to speak out against hypocrisy, sin and decadence. It is dangerous to confront powerful people with their lies and misconceptions. It was then, and it still is.
The life and the daring honesty of John the Baptist is a dramatic demonstration of faith. John was arrested, because he kept on reminding king Herod that even a king is not above the law. He said: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
So, when we read the Gospel, we know that that was the King’s greatest sin. He had stolen his brother’s wife, Herodias. Now it would be understandable if this were where the story ended. The king didn’t like this weird desert preacher calling him out and calling him a sinner, so he arrested him and beheaded him. But the story was not that simple or cruel. Life is not always simple. There are often more to a story than meets the eye or the ears.
And is this case we learn that King Herod liked to listen to John: that he respected John as a holy man and protected him. Perhaps, in Herod’s equally weird mind, he thought that throwing him under lock and key was a way to remove him from harm’s way.
The King listened to the words of the prophet and he dared not to harm him. But put him away, tried to silence him and keep him hidden. But life is not always as simple, is it? Life has a funny way of pressuring us to do things we would not normally do.
Puzzling problems and unexpected challenges often pressure us to make wrong, hasty decisions. We might have promised something in a bright moment of joy, desire, intoxication or hybris, only to realize the implications and complications, when reality hits. Pressure and pleasure in life sure can affect our good judgment and easy promises made in haste can create great waste.
We learn that from the deplorable moment in the life of the mighty King Herod, who was caught in the moment by his promises of vanity and desire and couldn’t find any easy way out. Sounds familiar?
The story about John the Baptist and Herod the King, is the story about sin.
Most people like Herod loathe to admit that we are sinners. We might reluctantly accept that we are potentially sinners, but have a hard time acknowledging that we are indeed existentially sinners.
As Lutheran’s we know better!
Other religious traditions and denominations distinguish between saints, who obey God’s will, and sinners, who disobey. Black and white. Either or. Others set apart saints as super-holy people. Regular Christians like you and me aren’t particularly bad, they would say, but we haven’t done anything extraordinary enough to be called saints.
“Being a saint isn’t about what I do or don’t do, but about who I am in relationship with God. That’s also true of being a sinner. “ as Kathryn Kleinhans wrote in an article in Living Lutheran. “ Saints and sinners - sin & forgiveness.”
Our Lutheran confessions define sin as the self-centered failure to trust God: Adam and Eve’s problem wasn’t just, that they ate a piece of fruit or broke one of God’s rules. Their real sin was their desire to be “like God,” relying on their judgment rather than trusting God’s word. For us, too, our specific sinful behaviors are only symptoms of this self-centered condition that theologians call “original sin.”
As Lutherans we know the quote: “simultaneously saint and sinner.” This both/and approach is a distinctly Lutheran understanding of who we are in God’s eyes. It is not either or/ black or white. It is a far more nuanced and precise take on human nature.
As a young daughter said to her mother, when she was trying her mother’s patience and was sent to her room to think about how God wanted her to be a good Christian. Soon the young lady appeared again, crying and declaring: “ I just don’t know how you expect me to be a Christian. Mom. I am a Lutheran!”
Luther calls Christians “simultaneously saint and sinner”, because he redefines “saint” as a forgiven sinner. We are called saints, not because we change into something different, but because our relationship with God changes as a result of God’s grace. Luther said: “The saints are sinners, too, but they are forgiven and absolved.”
A wise pastor once said to me, when we were talking about difficult decisions, challenging choices and He said, “Remember that even if you make the right choice, you’re forgiven.”
Wow! It’s easy to rely on ourselves, with forgiveness as an insurance policy in case we mess up. But this wise pastor reminds us, that even on our best days, in our best choices and success, what matters most is not what I do or decide, but what Jesus did for me: that Jesus promised me forgiveness and grace.
The Lutheran “ Saint and Sinner” is a reflection on human and divine judgment: When we look at ourselves in the mirror, we will always see the reflection of a sinner, if we are honest.
But when God looks at us, he sees us through the reflection of Jesus.
Emil Brunner, a Swiss theologian, pastor and professor in the Reformed tradition, who lived (1889-1966) also reflected on the Lutheran teachings.
He once noted that we can, in principle, avoid any particular sin. And we often do. Few if any people give in to every dark impulse or desire. The average person, whether or not she or he is particular religious, resist many temptations that come their way every single day. He does not slip the Snickers bar into his pocket instead of paying for it, she does not exceed the speed limit, he does not shove the person in front of him in line or she does not grab and grope at the co worker in the attractive dress.
In principle, the sinner can, and often does, avoid any particular sin, Brunner noted. But what we cannot do is avoid every sin. We cannot not be sinners. We cannot claim that we have never done anything wrong. We cannot promise that we will never do another wrong thing speak another cross word think another angry thought I the future. And we can not throw the first sinless stone at our neighbor.
Evil is everywhere. Sin is everywhere. As it is said in Genesis when Kain gets jealous of Abel: Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why are you looking so sad? Do what is right and then you will be accepted. If you don’t do what is right, sin is waiting at your door to grab you. It desires to control you. But you must rule over it.”
Evil and sin often comes in the most banal, ordinary trappings as we are pressured to make decisions and choices. Todays Gospel reminds us of this too. No less than John the Baptist ended up being killed, not because of the big monster of evil or the satanic doings of horrifying figures. No, John was killed because somebody said something silly in a light intoxicated moment.
We are indeed Saints and Sinners. We are potentially existentially sinners, who are also potentially religious forgiven sinners = Saints.
As a small boy said about her grandmother who used to be Roman Catholic and was now a Lutheran: “My grandma used to be a saint, but now she is a Lutheran!”
Thanks be to God! Amen