When John the Baptist first came preaching, he preached the need for repentance and to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. It was a simple message, really, when you read the New Testament.
However, what John the Baptist seems most famous for is not the simple preaching but his execution at the hand of Herod. Yet what happened to move him from a wilderness preacher to the enemy of Herod? Why did he rate the enmity of the state like this?
He crossed a line. A line that, to this day, many Baptist preachers that have followed him shy away from. His preaching became not just one of general "Repent!" messages, but rather he began to call out specific sins. You see it when he preaches in Luke 3 that he begins giving specific evidences of repentance that should be seen, he tells the wealthy to care for the poor, the soldiers to do their duty but not abuse the public, and the tax collectors to stop extorting money. (Sidebar: some of that counsel remains good.) This is not the line he crosses.
The line he crosses is in Matthew 14, when he calls out a public figure for his sinfulness. Herod had, essentially, stolen his brother's wife, and married her. John the Baptist pointed out this sinful behavior.
And it got it him thrown in prison.
Here's where I'm caught on this: what areas have I deemed 'off-limits' for my preaching? Am I afraid to highlight the specific sins of celebrities or of politicians? What about of people within the church I pastor? Am I backing away from being direct so I don't go to unemployment or prison? The anecdotes from others and personal experience shows that this happens: preach about the other people's sins and you're ok. Preach on the sins evident in the body, and you've got to go.
And how have we drawn those lines in general in American churches? Are we backing away from preaching what we should?
If John the Baptist were preparing his message today, would someone point out that if he'd be a little more culturally relevant, a little less offensive, he'd get to preach longer? That if he would at least balance his attack on Herod's sin with a kind word, that he'd get more air time?
Or maybe the more direct approach: If John wants to correct Herod, before he preaches it, he's got to go privately to Herod first. And John had better make sure he acknowledges that John is a sinner too, rather than pointing anything out with a 'holier-than-thou' attitude.
Instead, John the Baptist looks at Scripture (the Old Testament to us), looks at Herod, listens to the Spirit of God and then speaks. He does what he is able to do: denounces the sinfulness as an affront to God. Calls publicly for Herod to repent.
True, John dies before Herod. And yet, "of those born of women there is no one greater than John." (Luke 7:28).
May I be more willing to lose my head in preaching. May we all.