“John the Baptist and the Armor of God”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
8th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 10B) - July 15, 2018
King Herod heard of Jesus and his disciples, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Last week, St. Matthew’s hosted Vacation Bible School for about 35 children and 15 adults, plus teachers, cooks, and other volunteers. Our theme for the week was “Super God! Super Me! Super Possibility!” We learned about God’s super strength and the superpower that God gives to us through the Holy Spirit: love.
Throughout the week, we meditated on the famous “armor of God” passage from Ephesians 6:10-17, and each day we highlighted a different piece of armor. Most of the other stories we heard were about people who stood up for what was right (using God’s super strength and love), and did well because of it. In today’s Gospel lesson, however, John the Baptist does what is right but is not rewarded. John speaks the truth to power and gets killed for it!
John the Baptist tells Herod Antipas and the people of Galilee that it wasn’t lawful for him to marry Herodias because she had been married to his half-brother. This is not simply about sexual norms (i.e. the law of God given in the Bible), but also about politics. Marrying his brother’s ex-wife was part of a scheme to consolidate more of the kingdom for himself.
For background, Herod Antipas is the son of King Herod the Great (Herod I), who was alive when Jesus was born and murdered the Holy Innocents in an attempt to kill Jesus as a baby. Herod I had been a king who served Caesar. Upon his death, his little “kingdom” was split up into four pieces and divided between his living sons, including Herod Antipas (from Mark 6).
When Antipas marries his brother’s ex-wife, he is attempting to win political points from people in his brother’s mini-kingdom. He wants to takeover the neighboring kingdom and gain more power, prestige, and wealth. For all we know they might have really loved each other too, but however they felt, there were concrete, political benefits to this marriage.
John the Baptist didn’t have to speak up about this. There were plenty of things wrong in society. He could have focused his preaching on criticizing religious leaders and priests or criticized the Temple like Jesus did. But instead, he thought it was important to hold political leaders accountable. He resisted the tide of the propaganda machine that Herod Antipas was spreading about how great it was that Herodias was the new queen. Instead he spoke the truth loudly enough that it reached the palace courts.
The truth is that Herod Antipas wasn’t a really kind or popular king, so he was using his new wife as a tool to gain the people’s support without actually changing oppressive and discriminatory policies against the Jewish people. And Herodias herself was complicit in this. She agreed to the divorce and new marriage and raged against John when he questioned their legitimacy.
John could not have done this on his own. Our kids from VBS will know the answer to this question: Who gave John the Baptist courage and strength? OUR SUPER GOD!
That’s right! God gave John the Baptist super strength and super bravery to do and say what was right even when it was unpopular. So John spoke up and spoke out against the evil in Herod’s personal life and how that affected the general public.
John was tempted to go a different way, to follow the crowd. But instead he stood firm for what was right. For this criticism of the king, John was arrested and unjustly executed. He committed no crime except arming himself with the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. Our VBS participants will know that in order to stand firm, John needed to equip the whole armor of God.
Ephesians 6:10-17 tells us that we get our strength from the Lord. It says that we need the armor of God to resist the tricks of the devil. And it tells us that our true enemies are the spiritual forces of wickedness, “not flesh and blood.” That means that God won’t ask us to commit acts of violence for the sake of the Gospel. God’s message is peaceful through and through. You wear armor to protect yourself against others, and (as we’ll see) five out of the six pieces of armor are defensive. Starting with Ephesians 6:13:
13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these,[c] take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
The first defense is the belt of truth because the ability to know and speak the truth clearly is your first defense against Satan, whom Jesus calls “the father of lies” (John 8:44). While the Enemy lies and twists the truth, Jesus tells us “the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). John the Baptist knew the truth about Herod and Herodias and saw through the lies they spread to cover up their misdeeds.
Next you wear the breastplate of righteousness (or “justice” in some translations). Right, just, fair living is a way of protecting ourselves from attacks. Like a breastplate, it covers our hearts and other vital organs. John was a public figure, a prophet and a very popular preacher. People trusted him because he lived rightly and told the truth. He earned his reputation for righteousness and justice long before he ever said a word against Herod.
Next, as “shoes” or greaves, we must put on “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” In order to share the Good News of God’s Love and Peace, we need to pay attention to who we’re talking to. To remember to live peacefully, we need to be as clever as our enemies. This means being flexible and speaking and engaging differently in different situations. It says to wear “whatever” you need to be ready. There isn’t just one way to do it. John chose to speak the truth about Herod and Herodias publicly, which probably didn’t sound like Good News to them, but it was. The truth is always better than a lie. And it really was Good News to the people of Judea to know what was going on in their government.
Next, St. Paul tells us to carry the shield of faith. Again, this is a defensive tool for when one is attacked by the lies and schemes of the Enemy. Faith is our trust in God and our belief that God is faithful to us despite our sin. We trust and believe that God is good, and like a shield, that belief can protect us from evil.John trusted in God’s goodness when he was arrested for doing right, for fulfilling his calling as a prophet. He continued to trust in God even when he questioned Jesus about his identity through his disciples. And he trusted the God’s goodness would reign supreme even his obedience to God would cost him his life at Herod and Herodias’ hands.
Next comes the helmet of salvation. Salvation is the “mystery” that Paul speaks about in Ephesians 1:9-10 (from today’s New Testament lesson). God desires to unite and save all of us through Christ. With that assurance from God, we can be as confident as we are when our head is protected by a helmet. This piece of armor is a bit ironic to talk about when it comes to John the Baptist. He fulfilled his God-given purpose in the plan of salvation by sadly losing his head with no helmet to protect him. But as St. Augustine says, “[The martyrs] vanquished the wicked at the very moment when the wicked appeared to be victorious” (Sermon 32, quoted in Wright, 302). Like all martyrs, John witnessed to the Gospel of peace and to our salvation even in his death.
Finally, the only offensive weapon in God’s armor is the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:17). Knowing the sayings of God in the Bible and Church tradition can make all the difference in resisting the temptations of the devil. And we have to do more than simply memorize parts of Scripture; we need to understand them. Remember that when Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, Satan quoted the Bible at Jesus three times. Jesus understood that Satan was twisting God’s words into lies, and so he resisted. John the Baptist was so closely armed with the word of God that Jesus Christ was confused for John incarnate. Herod heard what Jesus said and did and that it was John come back from the dead. So you know John’s way of doing things was infused with godliness if he sounded just like Jesus, who was really God in the flesh.
In the end, John’s death wasn’t the final word. He wore his armor of God, and he suffered imprisonment and death. But he is also a saint who shares in Jesus’ victory over death. God raised Jesus Christ from the dead so that we can have confidence that we will also be raised. Because of our hope in God’s resurrection power, God’s super strength over death, we can obey God and do what is right no matter what the consequences are. Amen.
Wright, J. Robert, editor. Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church. New York: Church Publishing, 1991.