As I read the difficult gospel text assigned for this Sunday, I was reminded of the ordination and installation vows I had taken regarding my call to preach the Word faithfully to God's people in Portville. So, with that challenge and the encouragement of prayer, I have finished my sermon for tomorrow, on the beheading of John the Baptist. The text is Mark 6:14-29 and my sermon is below.
God you have to be kidding! Where is the good news in today’s gospel? You want me to preach about the beheading of John the Baptist? Believe me, I tried to avoid it. After all, there are the other readings. I like the book of Ephesians—adoption, redemption, blessings—yes that’s the stuff I like to preach about and people like to hear. It makes you feel good. Isn’t that what coming to church is about? Besides Lord, it is my first Sunday preaching as pastor.
The Tues. night Bible study group challenged me to stick with the gospel text, to wrestle with it, and to discern what God is saying to us at Bethel. What is God doing in the text? What is God saying to us individually? What is God saying to us as a community of faith at Bethel? If Tuesday’s Bible study could wrestle with this text, how could I wimp out and preach on anything else?
The beheading of John the Baptist raises many questions. Why does Mark include this story in this place in his gospel? It occurs like a flashback in a movie. What comes before and after this lesson is like the bread of a sandwich, with the death of John the Baptist right in the middle. Right before today’s gospel, we have the story of the mission of Jesus’ twelve disciples. All kinds of great things were happening. The disciples were casting out demons and healing the sick. It was heady stuff. After the Herod story, we return to Jesus’ disciples reporting to him about all the great things that happened. Then there is that horror story about John’s death in the middle.
Mark is the gospel writer who normally has the shortest version of the events in the gospels. However, here we have a lengthy and detailed account filled with intrigue and politics. Word had gotten out about all that Jesus has done. There were all kinds of speculations as to who Jesus was and why he could do such miracles. Herod’s response was fear. Mark goes on to explain the reason for Herod’s fear.
Herod liked John, but John had been a thorn in his side for a long time because he spoke an uncomfortable truth to Herod. John kept telling Herod that it was unlawful for him to marry Herodias, his brother’s wife. Is that the way to make friends with those in power? That is what got John arrested in the first place. The issue is that after having an affair, Herod and Herodias divorced their spouses in order to marry each other. How’s that for family dynamics? Besides that, Herod was half-Jewish. He wanted the Jewish people he ruled to see him as Jewish, but he did not want to live according to the Jewish law.
Do you see similarities to today's political world? Politicians have affairs; they lie, and become paranoid. One need only think back to the news of recent months. Some people in power think they can do whatever they want to in order to satisfy any desire they have and get away with it.
Herod’s wife had a grudge against John for speaking out against their marriage. She wanted him killed, but Herod feared John and wouldn’t allow it. When Herod threw a party for the powerful—the nobles, the army officers, and the Galilean big wigs, this provided the opportunity for Herodias to get John killed. To entertain his guests, Herod had his daughter Herodias dance. It is easy to imagine this scene as a sensuous dance being done by a desirable young woman, the way it has been portrayed by Hollywood. Mark however, uses a word for “girl” which may mean “little girl” or “maiden” (Friberg, Analytical Greek Lexicon). This same word was used for the 12 year old girl Jesus raised from the dead later in Mark’s gospel. This dance may not have been seductive at all.
It is interesting to note the promise Herod makes to the girl—even half of his kingdom. Not knowing what to ask for, his daughter sought the advice of her mother who set her evil plot in motion. This put Herod between a rock and a hard place. Mark tells us that Herod respected and protected John. He enjoyed listening to John, even though he found John’s words puzzling. Now he’s being asked to kill the man he’s protecting. Should we let Herod off the hook regarding John’s gruesome death? After all, wasn’t Herod basically a good guy who just made a bad choice when he did a little too much partying? When the pressure was on, Herod caved into the demands of his wife and the need to save face in the presence of his guests. He did not want to. It made him sad. Herod liked John! However, a promise is a promise, isn’t it?
Herod is a character who makes us scratch our heads. He heard the Word of God through John. Herod wanted to hear what John said even though it made him uncomfortable. He admired and feared John, yet he did not act on the Word of God that he had heard. One writer comments, "Willingness to sacrifice others to maintain honor, prestige, and power remains one of the great temptations of persons in positions of authority" (Perkins, Mark, New Interpreter’s Bible, 599). God is challenging us as Christians to act when we see an injustice or a wrong being done. The kingdoms of God and of this world clash in this story.
John challenged the authority of his day with God’s truth and they killed him. Jesus’ ministry and the words of the gospel fly in the face of the desire to preserve the status quo and the assumption that might, wealth, or fame makes right. The counter-cultural life and preaching of Jesus got him killed. The cross leads to death—death to self interests-- and for some physical death.
Brian Stoffregen relates a story about two brothers and their understanding of how to follow Jesus. They lived in Georgia in the 1950’s.
One decided that in opposition to the dominant culture of the day, he was going to support and participate in the formation of a multi-ethnic community. The other worked as an attorney for a prominent law firm. Both were Christians and attended church regularly. As the multi-ethnic community formed and social pressure forced them into court proceedings, the one brother asked his attorney brother to help them with the legal work. The brother refused, saying that he could lose his job. The pressure increased to help with a reminder that he was a Christian. The lawyer responded, "I will follow Jesus to his cross, but it is his cross. I have no need to be crucified." To this his brother replied, "Then you are an admirer of Jesus, but not his disciple." (Brian Stoffregen)
Are we admirers of Jesus who just watch from afar or are we disciples who get down and dirty and take action? Have we at one time or another caved in to pressure in front of others, like Herod? Have we ever found someone in our lives to be so problematic, we wish they were dead, like Herodias? As children have we found ourselves caught between the competing desires of our parents? Do we identify with Herod’s birthday guests, who enjoying the entertainment seemed powerless to prevent awful cruelty such as the death of John the Baptist?
In looking at today’s gospel, we could ask, “What gave John the Baptist the courage to speak the truth and remain faithful to God’s call?” The first few verses give us some clues. People are wondering who Jesus is. John knew that Jesus was the messiah and the son of the living God.
Later in the gospels, Jesus asks his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?” [There was confusion in their answer.] “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:27-29).
Now listen again to the beginning of today’s gospel text-- 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.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old” (vv. 14-15).
Jesus is asking us this same question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 6:15; Mark 8:20). Many believe Jesus was a good man, a great moral teacher and example, but it is not enough to change their lives. Who Jesus is equals who we are. Our answer determines how we live our lives.
How many of you went to the Portville Heritage Days celebration? There were all kinds of activities, food, and fun. The weather was perfect! Perhaps you made your way over to where pies were being sold by members of our church. Maybe you even baked some of them. Do you know that the profits from the sale go—not into our treasury, but to Portville’s food pantry? This is but one way we show the world what it looks like to live as Christians. The way we respond to others in the face of adversity or in our daily living to honor God and not ourselves is the challenge before us.