Today is Rejoice! Sunday. The Introit begins & ends with “Rejoice in the Lord Always! Again I will say Rejoice!” The color of the candle is rose today (it isn’t actually pink, it’s rose.) A little bit lighter, a little bit more joyful. We have two season of the church year where the theme is Repent. Advent, and Holy Lent. Both of them have a Sunday where things lighten up a bit. In Lent, it’s the feeding the of the 5,000. Jesus most famous miracle.
Today, it’s John the Baptist – and he’s in prison. This doesn’t exactly sound like a joyful day. The prophet who called his hearers a brood of vipers, now languishes in prison. Rejoice? Couldn’t have been the annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. Had to be John the Baptist. In prison.
And he wasn’t in prison for committing a crime. He was in prison for speaking the truth. He spoke against Herod’s marriage to his sister in law. She was originally married to Herod’s half-brother. They divorced, and she married Herod. Her name was Herodias – The name is not a coincidence. She was also half-niece to both of her husbands.
There is so much wrong with this, that one hardly knows where to begin. John just called it sinful. You have a marriage that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Then divorce, and another marriage – to the brother of the first husband. And this was the ruler of the land. John the Baptist actually calls out Herod for his sin. This did not make Herod happy. John ends up in prison. And of course he will end up beheaded by Herodias’ daughter Salome, who dances for her stepfather in such a way that he promises her up to half his kingdom. It’s not exactly a Hallmark movie of the week. Except “Divorcee who marries ex-brother in law” is a Hallmark movie of the week. It’s a sweet love story – if you leave out the niece bit and the beheading. Are you saying two people who love each other shouldn’t be together? Are you standing in the way of true love? The old match was not good. So many problem. So, so many. But the new one – well, it was meant to be.
We live in just such an era of immorality. And those who speak against it are run out of town on a rail. Yes, even in our little corner of the world such things happen.
We see inappropriate conduct at all levels in Washington, and in Hollywood, in hundreds of places in between. We act against God’s word in all our dealings. John comes, he speaks clearly. Repent. Repent of your sins. Turn away from them. Return to the Word of God.
This is the time of year when we have lots of opportunities to hear that word. And lots of opportunities to ignore it. Guests come, and they aren’t really into the whole going to church thing. Temptation to stay home. So much to do, so many blessings, just not enough time for God and His Holy Word. He gets shoved off to the side, we set the example for our unchurched friends and relatives that the whole Jesus thing isn’t really that important to us. Repent says John.
Of course, that sort of message is why he is in prison. Saying repent is one thing – we hear it a dozen times a day, and think nothing of it. Repent for not recycling, repent for using too much water, repent for not affirming someone else’s life choices. As long as they are made up sins, it doesn’t really matter. But say repent for something someone enjoys that is a real sin? That’s not safe. It wasn’t in John’s day. It isn’t in ours.
John ends up in prison for it. He will end up dead for it. But the thing he won’t do is yield. He won’t bend. Not because he thinks that success is found in annoying people. Not because he believes really hard what he is saying. But because he has the clear and certain word of God on his side. Repent for committing adultery. That’s why he’s in prison. The sixth commandment. He actually expected Herod to live by it. Well, he didn’t expect Herod to live by it. He called Herod to repent when he did NOT live by it. John will pay the penalty for daring to point out the sin.
That’s how it is today. The one who recognizes the sin pays. It’s as if in the story of the emperors new clothes, the little girl is made to pay the scammers for their work, and then pay for a real outfit herself. No one wants to hear about their own pride, their own folly, their own sin. With Herod and Herodias setting such an example of good conduct in marriage, the people see this, and their own conduct will be less than honorable. So also today. We see the results of sin. We ignore them, accuse those who point out the sin of being unloving. Unkind. Penalties must be paid for that sort of rudeness.
John wasn’t really the sort you invited over to Christmas dinner. He was uncouth, strangely dressed. He didn’t fit in. But then, he was not called to fit in. He was called to be faithful. Called to bring the good news of great joy to all the people. The king is coming. The one who will take away your sins. And so repent of those sins. And John didn’t just leave it at some generic feeling of sadness over some missteps. He called out the sins individually. To the leaders of the people – he accused them of ignoring the Word of God for their own benefit. The businessmen for cheating, the soldiers for extortion, the leaders for adultery.
Which is to say, he spoke the truth. He didn’t candy coat it to make it pretty. He actually spoke the word of God. THAT – says Jesus – is why the people went into the desert to see him. Because he didn’t give them what they wanted, he gave them what they so desperately needed. The clear word of God that leads to life.
That’s why we rejoice this day. Yes, even as we remember the cost of faithfulness. Even as we hear of the downfall of John. Because he was focused on Jesus. He faithfully prepared the people to receive and hear Jesus. He called sinners to repent of their sin. No, the people who had wealth and power didn’t like him. They had a lot to lose. And John was just the sort to point out how little they deserved any of those things. John was not a reed blown by the wind, he didn’t bend to the opinions of the times. He brought the Word of God to people. Just as the prophets before him did. As the apostles would do. God sends faithful pastors to his church to preach the Word of God, not to be popular and hobnob, but to bring life to a dead and dying world. The temptation is always to soften that word, to make it less clear, so that people can do the things they want and have others pat them on the back and tell them everything is ok. This last year we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, where we remembered that even the church is not immune to these attacks of Satan. The wealthy and powerful didn’t like that little monk messing up their finances, and their corruption. And yet God used him to preach the Gospel clearly, to bring the Word of God back to center.
These days, we are tempted to ignore the Word of God, to live according to the pattern of the world. To soften the word of God, so that it does not offend. But the Law of God offends. And the Law is necessary. It is the diagnoses of death. An oncologist that refuses to ruin someone’s day by telling them of the deadly cancer is useless. A preacher who refuses to identify sin is worse. We must heed that word of God. Jesus is coming. We rejoice because God loves us enough to send prophets to speak his word. He loves us enough to send even his own Son, knowing that Jesus will be killed by those he seeks to save.
Today we rejoice that Jesus brings light into our darkness. John points to him – the cry of Repent is not just a cry of law and death. It is a cry that you would cling to the one who can save, who has already given his life in exchange for yours. And who even this day, comes to your with the promise of forgiveness for your sins. Do not listen to the lies of Satan that would justify your sin. But neither can you listen to the lie of Satan that would condemn you for them. Jesus has paid the price. He has won the victory for you. That is why we rejoice, even in the midst of our repentance, our grief in this world. Because our Lord comes to save you.
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say Rejoice! Amen.