Christ and John the Baptist

A Sermon on Luke 7:19-30 by Kaj Munk (Abridged)

Note: Kaj Munk, poet, dramatist, and, above all, priest in the Church of Denmark has had a tremendous impact upon me. In the early ’50s, serving my first parish, I came across By the Rivers of Babylon, a slim volume containing 15 of his sermons and a moving introduction by the translator, John M. Jenson. Later, while serving the Princeton, Illinois Church, Dr. K.M. Nelson (Professor F. Burton Nelson’s father) gave me two volumes of sermons by Munk translated from Danish to Swedish: Med Ordets Svärd (With the Sword of the Word) and Hoppet Förbliver (Hope Remains). These are the most cherished books in my library.

Several years later Four Sermons, the source of the sermon that follows, came into my hands. These are the famous "underground sermons" which were published in January of 1943, a year before Munk’s martyrdom. According to the translator, John M. Jenson, the sermons were confiscated by the Nazis but a copy got to England via the underground and later to the United States where they were published by the Lutheran Publishing House of Blair, Nebraska—less than a month after his death!

The sermons of Kaj Munk bring the church struggle home to me both as a brave, courageous story of faithfulness under trial and also as a model and shaping force for preaching.

"Christ and John the Baptist" is a fine example of the power of Munk’s preaching. Most of his sermons could be described as "narrative preaching." In other words, you will not find a three-point sermon. The story of the text itself provides the sermon’s structure, pulse, rhythm, and resolution. But the story is told in an engaging way with powerful and imaginative metaphors and the social and political significance of the story is inescapable. Could there be a stronger metaphor than "the Prophet’s head on a platter"—a foreshadowing of Munk being shot in the head and martyred?

Kaj Munk’s sermons have given me respect for language—words matter in service of the Word. The preaching task, then and now, turns not on lofty, abstract sentiments, but on trusting words to mean what they say. No cheap grace is offered in Munk’s sermons but Truth soaked in blood! — Glen V. Wiberg]

"The truth cannot be pickled."

John was not a very cautious man. He believed in the truth. King Herod was committing adultery. The Baptist called on him and told him to stop it. He risked his life by doing so. And, more than that, he was in danger of provoking rebellion and civil war. It might even stir up the Romans, who could use this as a pretext to mix in the internal affairs of the country. This could have bloody consequences for the whole Jewish people.

Why did John not keep silent? That would have been far more sensible and considerate. John was possessed of a burning faith—the faith that truth is to be preached. There are people who believe that truth can be salted down, that it can be pickled and be taken from the jar and used when convenient. They are mistaken. Truth cannot be pickled. It is found only in living form, and it must be used the moment it ap-pears. If not used, it dies and decays, and it soon be-comes destructive. The most dangerous of all lies is dead truth.

…John was a man of spirit, the Spirit of God, of Truth. Therefore, he had not the slightest faith in the idea that truth can exist hermeti-cally sealed. The day came when he was convinced that the time for action was at hand. He said to himself: "Now the truth de-mands that I put it into action." His heart beat fast within his hairy chest. His tongue seemed paralyzed. But within that jittery heart there was a great peace: "Now I speak as I ought to speak; now I am acting in accordance with my call as befits a man." In his troubled heart there was a great calm. It gave him strength to utter the few but sufficient words: "It is not lawful for thee to have her."

"Peace be with you" is the greeting of the Church. We sing of the peace that is "more than angel watch." And every Sunday we pastors stand before the altar, hands extended upon the congregation saying: "The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace." It is a great error to think that this "peace" means fare you well, live well, sleep well, and have a good time; that God will see to it that you always have rubbers to wear in the slush. No, the peace of God means that the soul is at rest. It has found a place of rest in its relationship to the truth. Rest is a difficult word, for truth is ever on the march. Rest in this connection means to march together with truth.

That is the peace which protected John when he appeared before Herod. It could not protect his body, but it gave him poise and dignity for all time. The Bible speaks of John’s time in such a way that his time becomes our time. This event in the life of John the Baptist took place in ancient times and in a distant land. But it also takes place in Denmark today.

Among us, too, there are good men who possess this burning faith in the truth to be proclaimed. They do not believe in truth as a stored substance. They cannot go about pretending, and looking away from the truth. They are of flesh and blood and they know fear—fear of their own fate, fear of the tragedy that truth may bring down upon our people. The tragedy which hypo-crisy, silence, and lying brings upon a people will, in the course of time, be a thousand fold more fateful.

…In our nation, too, there is a Herod who flirts with the idols—the spirit of compromise which, for the sake of per-sonal well-being permits itself unseemly conduct.

John wields the ax of righteousness. Herod was but a tiny branch on the great tree of evil. But, great or small, judgment had been pronounced. The sprout (the Danish word is "Kvistling" obviously a word play on the Norwegian traitor Quisling) must be cut off. His Majesty, naturally, did not argue with John. He ordered handcuffs. Thus it has always been. Truth has the word at its command; error has sword and chains. And error continues to delude itself, even to believe it is the stronger of the two.

Now John was in prison. He had delivered his message. In the darkness of his dungeon he sensed the sword hanging over his head. But in his heart was the peace of God, the approval of a good conscience.

What an uncomfortable book the Bible is! Does it not tell us that a good conscience is insufficient, and that even the peace of God may vanish from our hearts? Could not the Bible have dressed up the naked facts a bit? The incident of John’s doubt been passed over in silence? The Baptist might then have died a spotless champion. Alas! The Bible is such a primitive book. It is quite out of place in diplomatic circles, too uncouth for the propaganda ministry. But we have to take it as it is; there is nothing you can do about it. The Bible too is saturated with that dangerous, uncompromising regard for the truth. It tells us the Baptist fell into doubt—as something that it is well for us to know.

…Well, folks who never risk anything are always disappointed when those who do fail to endure. See how manfully and whole-heartedly Jesus defends His friend. He throws Himself into the breach for John with all His untried authority: Though he be weak now, do not forget what he was and what he did in his strength. He was not a reed shaken in the wind. He did not straddle the issue. Go to the Rigsdag if you would see that sort of men.

Now Salome is dancing in the king’s house. There is great merriment. And this man, who was to have been guardian of the law and dispenser of justice, must finish the course he has set—under the silly pretext, perhaps, to prevent someone worse from taking over. That is to say: To keep out a rogue you must be one. Then, between dances, and to the accompaniment of orchestral strains, they bring in the Prophet’s head on a platter.

Herod, Herod, are you so great an idiot as to think you serve the good powers of life with this evil game—that it can lead to anything but corruption of soul, and to ruin and damnation for yourself and your misguided people?

And you, my countrymen, who have been cast into prison because you found yourself compelled by the voice of truth, I pray that you may be strong, and faithful to that inner conviction of having done the right. If there be those among you who are doubtful and uncertain, I absolve you from that sin on behalf of my Lord, as He forgave John. I assure you that He will judge you by your efforts in the cause of truth. You have helped create the spirit out of which alone a sound future can grow. Let it be said to you: The Lord of truth has let His face shine upon you. May He grant you His peace! Amen