It’s Hard Being the Forerunner
Text: Mark 6:14-29
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s not easy being the forerunner of the Messiah. When the Lord said that He would send His messenger to prepare the way of the Promised One, He said that there would be hills and mountains to be lowered and valleys to be raised. That’s hard work. But that was appropriate for the forerunner. After all, being the forerunner means being the one who goes on the same path that the Messiah would walk, just ahead of Him. Everyone knew the Messiah would have hard work saving the world, so it was no surprise that the messenger running that path ahead of him would have hard work too.
But that wasn’t the only thing that was hard about being the forerunner. John the Baptizer was ready for the work. He had trained for it, fasting in the desert, living a hard life to train his body and mind for the hard work. It was the other things that came with being the forerunner that were just as difficult. He was rejected, just as his Lord would be rejected. Jesus recognized this when He said, “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’” He was left on the fringes of society—granted, partly because he chose to live in the wilderness around the Jordan River, but also because the respectable members of society liked him at arms’ length. It was fine if he stayed away from all the good people of Jerusalem. That is, until he started making powerful enemies.
When Herod (not the one who tried to murder the infant Jesus, but his son, also named Herod) took his brother Philip’s wife Herodias and began to live with her in the palace as if she were his own wife, John the Baptist knew that this would be poison for Herod’s soul, the souls of his family, and the people of Judea. So John called Herod to repent, saying that it wasn’t right to do this. But as we all know, no one likes being told what they’re doing isn’t right, especially when it comes to matters like this. So the Baptizer made powerful enemies in Herod and Herodias, and it ended with him dying a martyr’s death.
But from his unusual conception to his death at the hands of a vindictive queen and cowardly ruler, John blazed the path of the Messiah. Every step that Jesus would take, John would take in front of Him. This was his destiny. This was his purpose as the forerunner. For Jesus Himself would be rejected, living on the fringes of society as a wandering preacher, without a place to lay His sacred head. He would come eating and drinking and ministering to those who had been left out in the cold and for that He would be slandered by the cultural elite. In the same lesson when He called out those who had said John had a demon because he fasted, Jesus continued, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” Jesus and John would always be criticized and condemned by the so-called cultural heroes. And like John, Jesus also would make powerful enemies in the Pharisees and ruling council of the Sanhedrin, in Pontius Pilate and Herod (the same one who killed John the Baptist). Jesus also would be killed by the bloodthirsty demands of a vindictive and jealous group. He would be handed over to death by a cowardly ruler, Pontius Pilate.
And if we follow our Lord, we will find ourselves on that same path. Much like Jesus, and John the Baptist ahead of Him, we too will find that the world, in all its self-righteousness, will not like to hear that we know a better way—the way of Christ. The world will turn its back on us. It’s already begun in our own culture, where Christians are mocked and turned into caricatures in nearly every TV show and movie; where the things we hold sacred and important are trampled by those trying to make ever more shocking entertainment and pack our schedules. We too will find ourselves on the outside looking in, as Christianity continues to lose influence in the halls of power in this world’s western hemisphere. We too will make powerful enemies, as we’ve seen in the violently anti-Christian regimes of Soviet socialism, Chinese communism, American consumerism, and countless other isms sprinkled across the globe.
That can be daunting. We can be afraid to do it, to walk that hard road that Jesus walked. We’ll look for other ways out, other easier paths. We may try to compromise. We may be tempted to believe that we can win earthly power back, or rely on allies to sit on Herod’s or Pilate’s throne. We all do it. We’re human. It’s part of our weakened human nature to not want to do the hard thing, even if it’s right, especially if we’ll be the odd ones out.
But today, on the remembrance of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptizer, we see something that gives us hope in the midst of all that trouble and challenge. We don’t observe this day in the church year out of morbidity or to just wring our hands over how tough it can be out there for believers. Rather, today is about something important that happens—for John, for Jesus, and for us.
It’s here, at the martyrdom of John the Baptist, that he ceases to be the forerunner of Jesus. With his death, John is no longer ahead of Jesus. Today is the last time that he’ll do or experience anything before his Messiah does. From this point on, Jesus is going on ahead of John. Jesus goes on from this moment, no longer as the One coming after someone, but the One going on ahead. From this day, Jesus goes out ahead of the Baptizer, ahead of us, ahead of all believers, to show us what is to come.
And what is it that’s to come? Of course, His sacrifice on the cross for the salvation of the entire world. But that will be a lonely path for Jesus, as none of us are able to die for the sins of mankind. He alone can do that, so He does it alone. But where will Jesus’ path go where we do follow? Where will He lead us as our firstfruits, as the One going before us to prepare our Way?
Jesus goes on to resurrection. He goes on to life, victorious and undefeatable by something so small and powerless as death is, now that He’s beaten it. He goes on to be in the presence of God the Father. He goes on into eternity, to prepare a place for us in His Father’s house, so that we can follow Him there.
Jesus doesn’t teach us to pin our hopes on any kings, governors, presidents, or politicians. He doesn’t teach us to hide our faith and be embarrassed that others might think it strange. The fallen world has its own obsessions—money, power, ease—and whenever it hears about things beyond this—things like forgiveness, sacrifice, joy over something the world can’t offer—it simply refuses to understand. Jesus shows us a better way, a better path to follow. It’s a path walked by John the Baptist. It’s a path walked by Jesus Himself. It’s a path walked by the Apostles, martyrs, prophets, and saints before us. It’s a path walked by all who follow their Lord in faith.
Jesus shows us where we’re headed. And when we see where He’s going on ahead—into resurrection and the life of the world to come—it helps us with these momentary fears and pains. It shows us that what we have ahead is so much more wonderful than what we could have imagined. It is faith, hope, and love. It is life. In the name of Jesus, who leads us through it all. Amen.